Esper Control has been on the rise in Modern over the past year. The pieces have all slowly been coming together and the most recent addition of Fatal Push may have finally, well, pushed it over the top!
MrCafouillette was destroying Magic Online, racking up trophy after trophy with Esper Control. Then after Aether Revolt was released, Ryan Hovis took a nearly identical list, added Fatal Push and took it to a Top 16 finish at the SCG Columbus Classic last month. This past weekend, four different copies of Esper Control finished in the Top 8 of the TCGplayer Modern State Championships, including first place in the hands of Veasana Sok.
I took Ryan Hovis' version for a spin to showcase the deck in action against some of the top strategies in Modern. Be sure to pay particularly close attention to the Deck Tech portion at the beginning of the video for tips on some key interactions with the deck as well as advice on how to sideboard.
The basic plan is to control the game, trading resources one-for-one, and then pull ahead with card advantage spells in the mid-to-late game. Actually killing the opponent is incidental once an insurmountable board position has been established, and so the deck's only win conditions are four copies of Snapcaster Mage, four Celestial Colonnades, and two copies of Secure the Wastes.
Celestial Colonnade is great in the deck just as a dual land since the deck is hungry for both blue and white mana, especially for Cryptic Command. Being able to turn a land into a five-turn clock is sufficient when your actual win condition is a Sphinx's Revelation for seven and you're sitting behind a hand full of counters against an opposing empty hand. Secure the Wastes is also good since it can be used defensively to creature chump blockers to maintain a high life total or to trade with multiple attackers mid-combat. Then it can be flashed back with Snapcaster Mage at a later time whenever needed.
I go into more detail in the Deck Tech portion of the video about some of the individual card synergies in the deck, but I wanted to mention a few key lines of play here. First is Esper Charm. First off, as a safety tip, never say "Esper Charm targeting myself" since only the discard mode targets. If you do this, you could have a bad time. Now, here's the part where you're going to have a good time. Esper Charm targeting the opponent on their end step when they have four cards in hand. Then untap and cast Snapcaster Mage targeting Esper Charm to have them discard their final two cards. Or, if the opponent is down to their last card in hand, wait until they draw their card for the turn and then target them with Esper Charm on their draw step to have them lose the card they just drew and the final card in their hand. This will clear the way for you to resolve your Sphinx's Revelation on your ensuing turn.
Another trick involves Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command. Let's say you Cryptic Command to counter the opponent's spall and draw a card, which is usually the pair of modes you want to use unless it is necessary to choose a different set of modes. Then on a later turn you use Snapcaster Mage to flashback Cryptic Command to counter their next spell. This time instead of drawing a card as the second mode, you may want to bounce Snapcaster Mage to your hand. This way you will have Snapcaster Mage back in your hand ready to flashback yet another Cryptic Command or whatever other spell you want from your graveyard. Just be careful not to do this when the opponent has mana untapped and cards in hand because usually those last remaining cards in hand are stranded removal spells since our deck offers basically no good targets for point removal spells. Giving the opponent a good target in this way could be a poor choice, but as long as the coast is clear it is a way to generate more value.
The deck mostly wants to play at instant speed since we are a true control deck with counters. The exceptions are when we tap out for Supreme Verdict or when casting Esper Charm on our own turn empties the opponent's hand. Sometimes you'll be in a spot where it's correct to take these kinds of risks, but in general you want to err on the side of leaving mana up in case the opponent does something you need to counter. Esper Charm and Think Twice are great ways to draw cards on the opponent's end step, increasing our advantage whenever the opponent doesn't do something we need to stop, and eventually building us up to a very large Sphinx's Revelation or Secure the Wastes.
Logic Knot is about as close as it gets to actual Counterspell in Modern. When paying its delve cost, keep Snapcaster Mage in mind. First exile your excess lands and Snapcaster Mages. Then exile redundant copies of spells or spells you are least likely to flashback with Snapcaster Mage, which varies depending on the matchup. You almost never want to delve away Think Twice, but sometimes you just can't let a spell resolve and there is no other choice, or you plan to flashback the other remaining card in the graveyard with the Snapcaster Mage that is already in your hand. These are the corner case scenarios, and most of the time the rule of thumb to exile lands and creatures first will be correct.
Esper Control is certainly competitive in Modern. The verdict is still out as to whether it has what it takes to be a tier one strategy, but my inclination is that yes, it is the real deal and will continue to increase in popularity until it solidly establishes itself amongst the ranks of the most tried and true strategies in the format. Either way, if you're a control player, you no longer have any excuse for hating Modern. You now have Grixis and Esper Control to choose from!