I'm noticing a growing trend of people on social media saying that Esper is no longer playable in Standard. I'd like to offer an alternative opinion. Esper is not only alive, but alive and well. It's been said that what is dead may never die, but the only thing dead here is folks being dead wrong when they say you shouldn't play Esper.
It's been said that when a new set comes out, you should look to play new cards from that new set. I'm here to inform you that while you certainly may play new cards, and may thoroughly enjoy doing so, it's perfectly legitimate to play Esper Hero with no new cards and call it a day. And not just any day. A good day. I said good day!
No new cards. No new friends. No new problems.
I'd like to offer a quick retraction. There are new cards in my Esper Hero list, just not many of them. For example, Noxious Grasp has made the cut in the sideboard as a result of the growing presence of Shifting Ceratops, which can otherwise be difficult to deal with. No new cards is less an ultimatum, and more a way of life. It's not a requirement to follow with strict accuracy, just a general trend.
Let's start with the list.
I've spent a good bit playing with Temple of Silence and for now, I consider it not quite worth it. Scry lands are powerful and will see lots of play in Standard. I just don't think this is a deck that wants to use them. Esper Hero is built on a healthy foundation of checks and balances. The checks in this case are the actual check lands: Isolated Chapel, Drowned Catacomb and Glacial Fortress. The balances are the shock lands that enable them: Watery Grave, Godless Shrine and Hallowed Fountain. When you take away shock lands, your check lands start to come into play tapped too often. When you cut down on check lands, you have to start shocking yourself too often to play untapped lands on key turns, and that damage can cost you in aggressive matchups. Cutting basic lands for temples is a consideration, although that too makes check lands worse and makes you suddenly vulnerable to Assassin's Trophy-as-Stone Rain or Field of Ruin-as-Wasteland.
The other issue with Temple of Silence is that Esper Hero is a deck that, at least in game one, always plays from behind. Esper Hero doesn't make plays on the first turn of the game, and its common second turn plays are either a 2/2 for two—weak board presence—or playing a hand disruption spell in Thought Erasure. You allow your opponent to get out in front of you, and then you eventually catch up and bury them with your superior card quality. After doing nothing on turn one, Esper Hero needs to curve out properly the rest of the game to make sure this plan goes off without a hitch, and while a Temple of Silence is not bad on turn one, having lands come into play tapped later on can ruin the curve. One of the beautiful things about Esper Hero is that it can use all of its mana every turn of the game. Something simple like Hero of Precinct One → Oath of Kaya → Elite Guardmage → Teferi, Hero of Dominaria → Teferi, Time Raveler + Oath of Kaya is a simple curve that uses all mana on turns two through six.
Missing a land drop along the way, or having one of your lands be a Temple of Silence can disrupt the flow of a hand like that and make it more difficult to win. Esper Hero's ability to use lots of its mana, even late in the game, is also a reason why I tend to lean toward playing higher land counts over lower ones. 27 land, for instance, is more correct than 25 in a deck like this.
There are a number of reasons why I still recommend playing Esper Hero in this format. The first is that the deck is incredibly adaptable. Esper Hero is a strategy that fundamentally relies on card power as its core attribute. The card power in Esper is high enough that there are plenty of great cards in Esper colors that aren't seeing play, but given a different format, could very easily be in the deck. That means you can easily tune the deck to take on whatever the format is throwing at you.
The list I have above is tuned to be good against aggressive strategies and synergy decks with low amounts of removal—like ramp or Elemental decks where Hostage Taker is good—but it's going to be bad against a deck like Esper Control. I have all these Tyrant's Scorns and Hostage Takers that don't do anything in that matchup. If, instead, the format was all Grixis and Esper Control decks, I would cut Hostage Takers, trim on Tyrant's Scorn, and have a lot of Elite Guardmage, Basilica Bell-Haunt, The Elderspell, Dovin's Veto and so forth. In fact, my list did look like that at the end of the last format before M20 came out.
It's possible that Esper Hero may not be the single most powerful strategy in terms of card quality, but it is not far behind. It's for that reason that I think Esper Hero will be a dominant strategy in Standard until rotation, almost regardless of what the format looks like. It simply takes keeping up with trends and changing decklists to adapt to them.
I'll be honest. While I think I nailed the format last week, things progress quickly and I've been predominantly testing Modern and Modern Horizons limited recently to prepare for the upcoming Mythic Championship. My current list might not be so current in a few day's time. It may not even be current now. Rather than throw the Hero out with the bathwater, however, my first inclination upon finding out that my Esper Hero list wasn't working would be to change the cards that are failing, rather than give up on the deck. I think that may be why I have succeeded with this strategy where others have failed. I have kept up with altering my list to attack changing metagames.
Another big reason why I think Esper Hero is great right now is Teferi, Time Raveler. There is a huge boost in decks like Mono-Blue or U/G Flash, two strategies designed to play predominantly at instant speed. Those decks prey hard on strategies like Nexus of Fate, Ramp Decks, or other slow ungainly strategies with limited interaction. For the same reason that I have identified Hostage Taker as being good in the format right now, Mono-Blue and U/G Flash are also good.
The problem with those two decks is simple, however. They struggle to beat a little number called Teferi, Time Raveler. Once resolved, Teferi's static ability invalides lots of the cards in their deck and renders even more cards ineffective. Winning with a Teferi, Time Raveler in play is often trivial, and a reason that those decks are even seeing play is that not that many people are playing Teferi, Time Raveler anymore. But I still am. I'll never stop.
The final reason I favor Esper Hero right now is that aggressive strategies are performing quite well, and Esper Hero is a natural predator against aggressive decks. Hero of Precinct One punishes those decks for not having creature removal. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria punishes them if they have too much removal. Aggressive decks need to strike the correct balance between pressure and interaction and they need to do it fast enough to get the job done before you grind them out with card advantage and they need to do it well enough to survive having their hand torn apart with Thought Erasure. It's a tough balancing act, and few aggressive decks are capable of walking that tightrope. Granted, W/R Feather decks and W/B Vampire decks are both capable of doing it, but I would still take Esper Hero against both of them.
Benjamin Tario made Top 8 of the last SCG Open with an Esper Hero list that looks nothing like my version. I'll admit, I was skeptical of many of the card choices. Tomebound Lich? Disfigures galore? As it turns out though, the rest of the Top 8 was littered with aggressive strategies. Mono-Red beat Mono-Blue in the finals, and W/B Vampires was sprinkled throughout. Much like I noted above as a way to succeed with Hero, Benjamin hit the right note for that tournament and had cards like Disfigure that line up very well against those decks.
I dismissed Tomebound Lich on stream when people suggested I play with it, perhaps foolishly, but I felt obligated to do so after seeing it be successful here. Tomebound Lich has been way better than I originally gave it credit for. I find looting (draw a card, then discard a card) to be a fairly weak ability in general when you're playing a deck like this with a really high power level. When your hand is all generically good cards it can be tough to improve your hand by looting, at least significantly enough to warrant dedicating a card to it. Looting effects are way better when you either use the graveyard as a resource or have a disparate power level between cards in your deck. When you have a few 10/10 cards and the rest of your deck are 4/10 cards to facilitate the 10/10s, then looting is a great effect to turn 4s into 10s. Esper Hero is just a bunch of 7s and 8s across the board. Looting is less impactful there.
However, Esper Hero does occasionally struggle with flooding out, which Tomebound Lich helps with, and it can provide repeated advantage over a longer game. The deathtouch also means it will trade in combat, rendering it not worthless there. The full package means that, at the very least, it's a card worth considering—although the verdict is still out on whether it should make the deck.
Here is an example of a list using Tomebound Lich. I think a card like Tomebound Lich makes Command the Dreadhorde a lot better, as you can actually use the Lich to fuel an early Command the Dreadhorde for value and the lifelink becomes not-irrelevant in that scenario as well. Tomebound Lich then takes on the role of coming down early, making sure your mana is smooth to hit turn six, digging you toward Command the Dreadhorde and ultimately trading in combat to further enable it.
One huge flaw with Tomebound Lich is that it is incredibly bad against Narset, Parter of Veils. Drawing and discarding a card is not optional with Tomebound Lich, which means that if your opponent has a Narset in play, you are required to discard a card whenever you play Tomebound Lich or deal combat damage to them. You don't get to draw that extra card, but you do have to resolve the ability, meaning discard. A 1/3 for three mana that makes you discard a card when you play it is below rate. I would not have this card in my deck in a field where Narset is a heavily played card.
One of the big keys to success with Esper Hero is mastering the sideboard. I'm going to run through how I board with the deck, using the first list I posted. How I board isn't set in stone, it changes based on cards I see or the way my opponent sideboards against me. It is purely a guide. It's a tool. You may use my plans card for card, or make small adjustments how you see fit, but at the very least I tend to find these kinds of guides great resources to help think through how to approach matchups.
On the play, and when your opponent sides out too much removal, consider keeping four Hero of Precinct One and not having one Kaya's Wrath, one Hostage Taker and two Narset, Parter of Veils.
Hero of Precinct One almost never succeeds at racing them in games you didn't otherwise stabilize in.
There are so many different versions of this deck that past these four cards it's hard to say how one should board. If your opponent is Hydroid Krasis-ing, then you can keep Narset, Parter of Veils. If they have tons of 'walkers, have The Elderspell. Lots of small-ball elemental creatures? Have Enter the God-Eternals. Teferi, Time Raveler isn't great against them as you don't want to bounce their Elementals and Elite Guardmage can be too slow and ineffective sometimes when you need to interact early and often.
If they have lots of 'walkers and no Sanctum Seeker, then cut the other Despark for another The Elderspell. If they have a bunch of Gideons, Ajanis and white creatures, then Noxious Grasp is a consideration.
Duress if they have tons of spells. Dovin's Veto if they have tons of spells and not Teferis. Third Despark if they have Shalai, Voice of Plenty, The Immortal Sun, etc.
Not sure about cutting a Hero of Precinct One or cutting a, Elite Guardmage. This may actually be a matchup where trimming on Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is correct.
This plan should shift depending on what their deck looks like and their configuration. I would not, for instance, cut Despark against Bolas's Citadel.
I may be a zealot when it comes to the mantra of #NoNewCards, but don't take that to mean that I'm against all new things. In fact, I tend to love new experiences, and each and every time you slowly crush the life and joy from an opponent with the oppressive power of Esper Hero's overbearing card quality feels like a new and wonderful experience. I cherish them all.
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