I guess you can call me the Esper "Professor," since this piece is just me professing my love for Esper. A true BWx midrange deck, an archetype that so rarely exists, is my favorite style of deck in all Magic, but this kind of typically mediocre removal/drain/discard based game plan hasn't been good in quite a while, quite to my chagrin. Not since Abzan with Siege Rhino or B/W and Esper Midrange during the last Ravnica block, featuring fan favorite Obzedat, Ghost Council, has this style of strategy been a reasonable contender in Standard.
And I'll be honest, I didn't expect it to make a resurgence this year. The untimely eradication of the Obzedat served to both devastate and desecrate the Orzhov guild, which will go down as one of the worst atrocities in modern MTG history. I've written off Orzhov decks as being dead to me since it felt like there was such a steep drop in power level without the Obzedeezy there to carry the weight of the typically underpowered Orzhov cards.
So instead, it's time to turn to the Esper shard. Esper is the black/white/blue shard, originally named during the Shards of Alara block, a full ten years ago. When Ravnica sets are Standard-legal, Esper means some amalgamation of Orzhov, Dimir, and Azorius. Esper tends to work really well, because unlike other three-color combinations, the holy trinity of Orzhov, Dimir, and Azorius are all usually looking to play the same kind of grindy, control-oriented game plan. Shards like Jund often don't pan out as smoothly as Esper because Rakdos, Gruul, and Golgari rarely align closely in intended game plans. Rakdos skews aggressive while Golgari skews grindy, and Gruul just...well...is generally askew. There's something not right with that lot. Esper was great as both as a midrange and control strategy the last time Ravnica was in Standard back in 2012–2013, and there's no reason to believe it won't be great again this time around.
As someone who loves control, but hates playing countermagic, it's rare that we see a deck that fits my style. As someone who loves midrange, but doesn't like the typical Jund/Golgari style of midrange, it's rare that we see a deck that fits my style. This is an exciting time in Magic, because I may finally get to play the kinds of decks I like playing—and more importantly, they may finally be good again.
Last time these decks were good was during one of my winningest periods as a Magic player, and a time when I designed a lot of powerful Esper decks that won tournaments, like Esper Deathblade in Legacy or Esper Control for GP Cincinnati. I guess you could say that after years of doing poorly during Kaladesh's reign of terror in Standard, I am so, so unbelievably ready to get back to a fully powered Ravnica with all ten guilds active. It's a world where I can sleeve up Esper again, and not get embarrassed doing so. Esper is the true Shard-onnay of decks. Sophisticated. Now that we've got Ravnica to (e)spur me on, I'm happy to dedicate this article as a love letter of sorts to tap-out control and BWu midrange. I hope you enjoy my Esper Shardicle. It's a labor of love.
This is the deck I am most excited about. One of my favorite brews of all time was an Esper midrange/control deck with zero counterspells that played Nightveil Specter and here we are once again with an Esper midrange deck that plays zero counterspells and plays Thief of Sanity, which is basically the same thing. I got made fun of for that deck back in the day, but I'll be honest when I say that I lose sleep at night dreaming about these kinds of shenanigans. When I think about Esper, I don't think about countering all my opponents spells and then eventually playing Chromium, the Mutable—I think about taking my opponents to Basilicon Valley and ringing their bell with the hauntingly beautiful Basilica Bell-Haunt. That's my kind of game. Gain and Pain. Drain and Brain. A spirited style.
Wyatt Darby took this Esper beaut to a Top 8 finish at the first Standard event of the new set, the SCG Open in Indianapolis last weekend. SCG Open? More like SCG Closed, because we can go ahead and shut it down after this deck debuted. Think I'm overreacting? Think again. Then realize that you're probably right and this deck isn't nearly as good as I want it to be, but let me have this moment, damnit.
I've personally been playing a slightly different version of the deck to great success on MTG Arena.
The sideboard for this list is entirely speculative, as I've been playing exclusively in the Best of One queues, but this has been by far my best-performing deck. I had an 80% win rate with it the other day, to provide perspective, which is pretty exceptional for any deck in Magic.
I've been calling this deck "I Need A Hero" and I believe that if you're going to design your deck around one hero, Hero of Precinct One, you'd be doing yourself a great disservice by not including the greatest of all heroes, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Flavor aside, I strongly believe that it is a mistake to play this strategy without Teferi.
Even though Teferi, Hero of Dominaria fits best in a control or combo strategy that abuses his ability to untap two lands, Teferi is still quite exceptional in a proactive midrange deck. In fact, I think that Teferi, Hero of Dominaria might be at his strongest in these kinds of decks that can use Teferi to play both offense and defense effectively. One interaction that has come up time and time again is using Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to shuffle in a problematic permanent, connecting with Thief of Sanity, taking that card, and then using that same problem child to destroy your opponent. While that interaction may seem cute, it has come up a lot of times, and I'm quite pleased with how many games I've won with Hydroid Krasis in my Esper strategy.
Thief of Sanity is one of the most powerful cards in this strategy, and should not be cut. While Thief seems weak in games where it simply dies or is forced to immediately trade defensively, it takes over and wins a large amount of games in this deck, thanks to cards like Hero of Precinct One and Basilica Bell-Haunt doing a great job of keeping this deck in the game long enough to eventually turn the corner.
I've been really impressed with Hostage Taker in this deck. One aspect of this deck that I want to talk about that also applies to why Thief of Sanity is so good is that this deck is packed with creatures that your opponent wants to kill. They want to kill your Hero of Precinct One, they want to kill Thief of Sanity, and Deputy of Detention. They want Seraph of the Scales and Lyra Dawnbringer out of here. Basilica Bell-Haunt...well that one they'll let live, but you get the gist. Thief of Sanity and Hostage Taker are way stronger in a deck like this because when your opponent doesn't kill them, they take over a game, and when your opponent has already blown their removal on other creatures...well, then they take over a game.
On that note, however, Seraph of the Scales and Lyra Dawnbringer have both unimpressed me thus far. I think Lyra Dawnbringer is worse than Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, for one, if you're in the market for a game-breaking five drop, and Seraph of the Scales has simply felt underwhelming.
Another card that has not impressed me is Deputy of Detention. I believe having two copies for posterity's sake and to deal with random problem permanents is valuable, but in general I don't think Deputy of Detention is a good fit for the deck. The problem is that this deck doesn't have the closing speed that is necessary to maximize the value of a card like Deputy of Detention. Any time you exile something with Deputy of Detention, especially something scary like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, you're at the risk of your opponent slaying your Deputy of Detention and getting the offending permanent back. In a deck that closes the game quickly, this is not a problem, as the tempo you gain can be enough to make it worthwhile, even if you lose on the exchange. In this deck, however, the closing power is generally not there, which means you often have to fade a large number of turns in hopes your opponent can't kill the Deputy of Detention, or at the very least shoot the sheriff. That time your opponent gets is scary, and adds a huge layer of variance to the deck that I'm not keen on.
One interaction I am interested in testing in the deck—in fact I shoehorned it into the sideboard—is Disinformation Campaign and Doom Whisperer as another angle to the strategy. This idea was suggested to me on my stream the other day, and in fact is an idea that Magic Online grinder VTCLA has had success with.
For reference, VTCLA's list looks like this:
Disinformation Campaign was never successful as a control strategy because the strategy itself was a bit too slow and flawed in a number of ways. It relied too heavily on cards like Disinformation Campaign itself to function properly. However, in a midrange shell, especially one where multicolor cards matter, it may finally have a time to shine. Midrange decks are designed to grind through your opponent's resources, and this card is the IRS knocking on your door with a surprise audit. It can be taxing to slog through. Should have kept those receipts.
Disinformation Campaign seems like a better fit as a complimentary piece that can help push through the midgame in a midrange strategy than as a necessary engine piece in a control strategy. It can help grind through stalls or draw a few extra cards that can find you the missing piece you need, but it isn't something that you need to start looping quickly in order to strip your opponent's resources, unlike how it was in the control decks where you needed to play it early and often to get full value from your otherwise-underwhelming control cards.
This decklist is entirely designed for Best of One play. Mastermind's Acquisition is a fairly ineffective win condition, but felt necessary to make sure the deck could adequately answer problematic cards on the opposing side of the table, since this deck effectively lacked a real win condition, and thus opponents would draw most of their decks each game.
Dovin's Acuity, otherwise known as Information Campaign, is the Azorius version of Disinformation Campaign, and much like how I think Disinformation Campaign could see a resurgence in Esper Midrange, I think that Dovin's Acuity is an absurdly powerful engine in this deck. The gaining of two life is not irrelevant, and when you can start chaining Dovin's Acuity with cheap instant-speed removal spells, it isn't hard to quickly power through the deck and gain enough life to stay alive against creature strategies.
Where this deck struggles is not against creature decks, but rather against control and Nexus of Fate strategies, as it is poorly equipped to win long games against countermagic and cards like Expansion // Explosion. Mastermind's Acquisition is a nod to those decks that isn't also horrifically unplayable in other matchups, but the ultimate solution would be to simply design this deck for traditional Best of Three gameplay instead. In matches with sideboarding, this deck can simply give up opposing control and Nexus of Fate matchups in game one and instead focus on winning post-board games in those matchups.
While this deck would still likely be unfavored in a control matchup, since it will lose game 1 quite often and is likely only marginally favored, if at all, in games 2 and 3, having access to a sideboard still allows this strategy to have to hedge less and be able to overload in game 1 against various creature strategies, ensuring victory most of the time.
Ultimately, I realize that this deck is likely just a worse version of traditional Esper Control, however, I find this kind of strategy significantly more enjoyable to play, and I believe this deck beats up on aggressive or creature-oriented decks way more than a traditional Esper Control deck would, even if it is less versatile. Plus, there's really nothing like beating your opponent by casting Sanguine Sacrament twice a turn to keep yourself from milling out with The Immortal Sun in play. I know what I'm playing at GP "Sanguine" Sacramento.
This last section is a nod to more traditionalists out there. Regular old Esper Control, Shaheen Soorani style, is probably the best "normal" control deck in Standard, thanks to Mortify being a powerhouse in this format and Kaya's Wrath being a massive upgrade on a card like Ritual of Soot or Cleansing Nova.
While these decks are fairly similar in design, with slight exception to Raja Sulaiman's two copies of Karn, Scion of Urza, one thing that's really important to note is that they all focus on a sideboard plan that involves creatures, namely Thief of Sanity. Thief of Sanity will completely take over a game if unchecked, and a lot of decks are going to be caught with their pants down after sideboard when they take out all of their removal and then lose to Thief of Sanity on turn 3.
Transitional sideboard plans like this are one of the most effective things you can do in Magic. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these kinds of transitions are the backbone of competitive play in the last few years. Be prepared to design sideboard plans that transition away from your game 1 game plan, and be prepared to beat your opponents' transitional sideboard plans if you want to be successful in Standard.
Sideboarding is the area where the most edges remain in Magic. By that, I mean that sideboarding is where you can still gain the most advantages over your peers if you master those dark arts. People these days are generally good at playing solid decks and piloting them effectively, but players still don't know how to sideboard effectively. Learning how to play around transitional sideboards and utilize them effectively yourself is one of the most important ways to separate yourself as a Magic player. It's no surprise to me that all three of these Esper control decks use that to good effect. These three players came prepared, and they were rewarded for it.
Now, this kinda-general Esper Control type of gameplay isn't really my thing. I'm much more partial to Esper Midrange—I like to say that I "dove-in" on Dovin's Acuity—but I can respect the power level of this strategy, and if you want to win matches of Magic, you could do way worse than playing one of these lists. And you probably couldn't do much better either.
And es-per our agreement, I hope this Esper Shardicle was indeed the love-letter that Esper decks deserve. All Esper, all the time. At least until the next strategy catches my attention and I then tell stories about how it's my favorite style of gameplay in Magic. You know how it goes.
That's all I got for today. In the meantime you can find me demonstrating my range on MTG Arena. My Esper Midrange.