Esper Control is the deck all the cool kids are playing in Standard right now. It has game against nearly every deck, has won tournaments recently, and perhaps what makes it most attractive is the amount of play it offers its pilot. If you're looking for a deck with lots of decisions, most of which count, Esper is a great choice! If you suspect a skill gap in your favor between you and most of your opponents, Esper has the tools to convert that skill gap into a win. If I were playing FNM this weekend, I would definitely want to play Esper Control. It may also be the best choice for an Open or Grand Prix.Introduction
Today I am going to compare several different Esper builds from many of the top players in the game, shedding light on the pros and cons of each build and individual card choices between builds. In the end, I'll suggest the 75 I think is best for this weekend – a sort of median build that incorporates the best of the best. Even if you're not looking to play Esper, the process for breaking down a popular deck with an eye for fine tuning can be carried out for any deck. Simply click on a deck and open up an Excel spreadsheet and start breaking things down as I will do in this article, comparing all the successful lists to see what is common and therefore crucial and what parts are more flexible and why.
Let's start with a handy chart that allows us to easily visualize the similarities and differences across builds. In order we have:
1. Brian Braun-Duin's most recent list that he has been streaming with and writing about2. Stephen Barrios' list from the Top 4 of the TCGplayer Diamond Open in Chicago3. Sam Pardee's list that he has been using to make videos4. William (Huey) Jensen's list that he won an MTGO Premier Event with5. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's list that he made Top 4 at GP Buenos Aires with6. Todd Anderson's most recent list he has been 4-0'ing MTGO Daily Events with7. Josh McClain's Azorius list he made 2nd place with at the TCGplayer Diamond Open in Chicago8. Ray Perez' list from the Top 16 of the TCGplayer Diamond Open in Chicago, which he said he got from Shaheen Soorani, whose most recent list is nearly identical and posted alongside Ray's
As we can see from the spells, the following are nearly ubiquitous across all lists:
4 Detention Sphere4 Supreme Verdict4 Jace, Architect of Thought4 Sphinx's Revelation3 Elspeth, Sun's Champion1 AEtherling
Shaheen cut the one AEtherling (though Ray didn't), which makes senses given the amount of alternate win conditions his list runs (Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Obzedat, Ghost Council). Unless you choose to play these other alternate win conditions, the one AEtherling is a necessary compliment to the 3 Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Speaking of which, they were also the only ones to shave an Elspeth. Again, this makes sense given their inclusion of the Orzhov five-drops but would not otherwise.
They were also the only ones to cut a Sphinx's Revelation. This decision probably has something to do with their increased threat density and hence higher overall mana cost of cards in the deck but more importantly it likely has to do with the complete absence of counter-magic in the deck. Shaheen's build looks to tap out with powerful threats or answers to opposing threats each turn. He wants his draw steps to be all action and he doesn't want to be left with a Counterspell in hand while getting beaten down by an opposing threat. Once you commit to this game plan, leaving open mana for Sphinx's Revelation becomes less powerful. Without counters, you lose the play of sitting there with Counterspell mana up and then casting Sphinx's Revelation on their end step if they don't cast a spell you want to counter.
The three spells that were unanimous adds were:
4 Detention Sphere4 Supreme Verdict4 Jace, Architect of Thought
Supreme Verdict is the primary reason to play Azorius (or Esper) control decks right now. It's great against the aggressive decks and also against the midrange monster decks running Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid. It is also good in game one against Monoblue Devotion.
Detention Sphere is an all-purpose answer to creatures, Planeswalkers, and whatever else is giving you trouble. Most of the removal spells in Standard are narrow and conditional whereas Detention Sphere is one of the most versatile. Four Supreme Verdicts and Detention Spheres are the beginning of the removal. Beyond those the removal options are varied considerably between builds.
Jace, Architect of Thought is one of the best cards draw engines in Standard and also doubles as a way to prevent damage against creature decks. I'm a little surprised it is a four-of in every single build, but the fact that it is great in the mirror and also good against midrange and aggro decks, it likely falls into the Detention Sphere category of being just good enough to merit running the fourth copy over a more narrow card draw spell ( Divination) or removal spell.
4 Dissolve2 Syncopate
Aside from Shaheen's list (and subsequently Ray's), everyone ran four Dissolve and two Syncopate. The only person to run a single other Counterspell is Paulo who ran one Negate. This is also a bit surprising and likely has to do more with Hive Mind than with everyone just happening to agree that this is the exact configuration that is optimal. Nevertheless I see no reason to deviate. Dissolve is the all-purpose counter with upside and Syncopate is more narrow but has specific upsides of exiling the spell and being able to be cast for two mana (which makes it an all-star early). Given that Esper runs 26-27 lands, Syncopate is often a card to scry to the top even in the later turns of the game.
Azorius CharmDoom BladeLast BreathThoughtseize
The numbers vary the most when it comes to the inexpensive point removal spells beyond four Detention Sphere. Everyone ran at least one copy of Last Breath except Shaheen's list, and Paulo ran two. BBD was running one copy earlier in the week but has since agreed with Paulo and added the second copy. This decision makes sense in response to the rise of Chandra's Phoenix. Outside of Thoughtseize, none of these cards are very good against control decks, so once you've decided to play a removal spell that is bad against control, you might as well play the one that solves the biggest problem from the non-control decks. This hits Master of Waves, Pack Rat, and Nightveil Specter too. Neither Doom Blade nor Azorius Charm can kill all three of those creatures.
The upside of Azorius Charm is that you can cycle it in the control matchups, so it's a sort of hedge. Doom Blade is the most versatile outside of the control and Monoblack matchups, but is terrible to the point of almost being a completely dead draw in those two matchups. Last Breath is fairly narrow but is good against Monoblack and aggro decks, albeit not as good as Doom Blade against non-black decks.
Thoughtseize is the most versatile across all matchups but is also universally narrower in the sense that you must play it prior to the threat that is being answered. Esper is already the type of deck that plays off the top of its library, so drawing a Thoughtseize in games that have become a topdeck war (which are very common for Esper) can be bad. The life loss is also relevant in aggro and burn matchups, especially with so many shocklands and temples entering tapped and/or costing more life.
Devour FleshHero's DownfallGild
Hero's Downfall is great against control and really against everything. The problem is that it is slow against aggro decks. The other problem is that it costs double black, thus making it not the most reliable spell to cast. Devour Flesh is another way to gain life in Shaheen's list and also gives you more game against Hexproof, but we are already a four Supreme Verdict deck, so the latter is likely not a huge bonus. Gild is also versatile, deals with Chandra's Phoenix and black creatures, and has a bonus of making your Sphinx's Revelation one card bigger.
Josh McClain ran Divination over Thoughtseize in order to stick to two colors. Both are good in the control matchups, Divination is a better midgame topdeck, and Thoughtseize is better at actually solving a problem instead of just putting you up a land or a card.
NegateRevoke ExistenceUltimate PriceFated Retribution
These were the lone stragglers with only a single advocate. Paulo ran a Negate and a Revoke Existence while Sam ran an Ultimate Price and Josh ran a Fated Retribution. Ultimate Price is as about as bad as Doom Blade against Esper but is much better against Monoblack (hitting Desecration Demon and Pack Rat instead of Mutavault).
As you can see from this second chart, nearly everyone chose to run the full 12 temples and a pair of Mutavaults. Shaheen's list runs 26 lands but everyone else wants the 27th, mostly because of Sphinx's Revelation.
Too many basics makes it difficult to find black mana in time for Thoughtseize, Doom Blade, or whatever other black cards you run. Too many shocklands help you find black more reliably but also cause you to take more damage and/or have too many lands enter the battlefield tapped. Aside from Josh who did not run black, everyone ran between five and eight basics. The optimal number I think is seven, or at least the number the hedges the most since that is the approximate average if we exclude Josh.
Also worth noting is that it seems everyone kind of stuck with Huey's mana base except Paulo, BBD, and Shaheen, which is one of the oddest disparities in my eyes. Shaheen's list is different enough to merit significant differences in the mana, but the first six lists are very similar yet do not seem to be in any sort of agreement about the mana. If we count up how many blue and white sources each deck runs in addition to the four Hallowed Fountains and 12 Temples, we find the following:
6 4 4 4 7 4 = Blue (Average 4.833)3 5 5 5 2 5 = White (Average 4.166)3 1 1 1 2 1 = Black (Average 1.5)6 8 8 8 7 8 = Total Basics (Average 7.5)
Given the above distributions, if our goal is to hedge and to play the median build, we would want the following:
5 blue sources4 white sources1.5 black sources7.5 basic lands
If we decide to add the second black source, our three options are as follows:
5 Island2 Plains2 Godless Shrine
3 Island4 Plains2 Watery Grave
4 Island3 Plains1 Watery Grave1 Godless Shrine
I like the third option the best as it gives us slightly more options in hands where we draw both shock lands.
Constructing a median sideboard required me to make a few key decisions. First off, I gave primary emphasis to the first six lists since they were very close to each other. Josh and Shaheen/Ray lists had the most deviation mainly because, likewise, their main decks deviated the most.
Among the first six decks, we see the following in nearly all the lists:
2 Doom Blade (four total in 75)2 Gainsay2 Thoughtseize (four total in 75)1 Revoke Existence1 Negate
In addition, I saw the following trends despite the card choices not being identical:
3-5 life gain spells between:
1 Blood Baron of Vizkopa1 Archangel of Thune1 Blind ObedienceFiendslayer Paladin
Todd was the only one to run zero, though he still claims a 75% record against heavy burn decks. The average is slightly over three, so these things lead me to believe three is sufficient. I hedged here again with one of each of the first three, leaving out the Paladin since Paulo was the only person to run him while each of the other three options were in multiple lists.
1 Ultimate Price1 Dark Betrayal1 Last Breath1 Fated Retribution
There were a lot of alternate removal options in sideboards as well, as indicated by the above four spells. Josh runs two Glare of Heresy which is interesting in the mirror.
I chose not to include any additional counter-magic besides the two Gainsay, though Dispel was played in two lists. Sin Collector continued with Shaheen's tapout plan and served a similar role.
Aside from removal, counters, and life gain, we see:
Pithing NeedleNightveil SpecterAEtherling
Needles were in half the sideboards while Fated Retribution was essentially in the other half. As a miser board card it seems Fated Retribution has the bigger upside. Both will sit in hand for a while usually and both have the capacity to hit walkers. Shaheen and Ray ran multiple Needles because they lacked counters. Decks running Sphinx's Revelation, 27 lands, and counters seem to be able to make better use of the seven mana instant wrath than the Needle.
AEtherling was an interesting option that could come in against Slaughter Games, but we already have some varied threats with one Archangel of Thune and one Blood Baron of Vizkopa, so I decided that was not worth an inclusion. Our board space is also tighter since we have black cards as options, which Josh did not.
Lastly, BBD jammed four copies of Nightveil Specter into his board. He made some valid points about them being good in control mirrors and solid in other places, especially after opponents board out their creature removal, but given that my goal is to build a median version of Esper, not going on this plan seems safer and more representative of what would be seen in the tournament.
So here is the final list I would recommend, based on analyzing the most popular builds of Esper:
Todd Anderson's list is more geared to beat Monoblack (three Dark Betrayal) and the mirror (Dispel, Negate, Gainsay) while BBD's is better against Boros Burn (Last Breath, Archangel of Thune, Blind Obedience). Paulo and BBD hedge the least with their main deck removal spells, running zero Azorius Charms and instead choose better removal that is worse against control decks. Berrios' life gain options out of the board (four Blood Baron) are worse against Monoblue but better in the mirror and against Monoblack. Sam has better main deck removal against Monoblack, running an Ultimate Price over the second Doom Blade.
The median list suggested does a lot of hedging which in my opinion is a smart move for a control deck to make. Aggressive decks tend to get rewarded for taking large yet narrow risks whereas control decks get rewarded for versatility and flexibility. With that said, the three closest decisions when creating the median list were as follows:
1. The lifegain sideboard package. I feel like three Blood Baron of Vizkopa or three Archangels of Thune may be overall better than playing one of each, but I'm not sure which is better.2. Running one or two fewer removal spells in the board in favor of another counter (likely Dispel) may be correct.3. I'm also not 100% sold on Azorius Charm in the main over a second Last Breath and a third Thoughtseize or a first Ultimate Price. This would free up a sideboard slot or two as well.
I could see going either way on these three points but pretty much everything else about the list I like and seems to generally be a consensus among the top players piloting Esper right now, with the exception of Shaheen's tapout build.
If you're planning on playing Esper this weekend, hopefully this analysis has helped you to gain a clear picture of the different ways to build the deck and the reasoning for the differences in card choices. If you're not planning to play Esper, hopefully this was at least a good learning exercise for how to break down and analyze a popular deck with an eye for fine tuning.
Craig Wescoe@Nactals4Life on twitter