Visual Sideboarding Primer: Standard Esper Control

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Editor's Note: Since it's legal to use pre-prepared notes between matches at sanctioned events, we strongly encourage our readers to print off these visual sideboarding guides and bring them to FNM, PTQs and any other events. Every advantage counts!

I’d like to start off today by thanking QuietSpeculation readers for their support last week. My primer on sideboarding with Mono Black Devotion drew lots of great comments and showed that there was clear interest on the subject, even from players who weren’t interested in playing the deck themselves. The comments generated the excellent discussion I’ve come to expect from this site since joining the forums last year, and I look forward to more in the weeks to come.

Last Week's "You Make The Play"

Last week my article wrapped up with a “You Make the Play” section. I shared a sample Mono Black hand, and I asked what people would do with it. The question here was whether or not to keep or mulligan the hand, but more importantly why?  Here's the hand.  For the full details on the state of the game and match, refer to the article.

How likely are we to win if we do keep? Does the hand secure a win 100% of the time, or merely just let us play ball? Realistically it’s somewhere in between.  The hand contains two discard spells and all of the best action spells up the curve, though we do lack removal. Assuming two of the next three draws are land, this hand is quite solid.

With 25 more land in our 53 card deck, and being on the draw, some hypergeometric calculations show that we are 72.57% favorites to hit our second land drop, but that’s rather meaningless. It is clear that we need to hit our third land, which was echoed in the comments. Calculations show we are only 45.68% likely to make both our second and third land drops.

A keep would put us into a clearly disadvantageous situation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a mulligan. We must also weigh what a mulligan accomplishes. If we mulligan, are we likely to win more than 45.68% of games?

Assuming we win if we make our hand, and if a mulligan in this spot costs us more than 4.32% win percentage, then this hand is a keep, otherwise it is a mulligan. The value of that initial card in the context of a given game situation is impossible to quantify completely, so I believe in this case there really is no right or wrong answer because the margin is so thin. If there was hard Magic Online mulligan data available I would be interested in seeing it and forming a more scientific answer as to the cost of a mulligan in the mirror. I’d enjoy hearing others’ thoughts on the matters.

One final note: the hand contains no removal.  That means it would fold to an opponent who led with Duress or Thoughtseize and followed it up with Pack Rat. This does not necessarily exclude it from being keepable, but it must be noted. This was mentioned in the comments and it’s the sort of analysis that needs to go into each and every opening hand in every matchup.  (Kudos to commenter “Alex” for his well-explained answer)

Sideboarding with Esper Control

The star of the GP last weekend was Esper control, which took both of the finals slots. The maindecks of finalists Kyle Boggemes and Brad Nelson were nearly identical, with Kyle playing a second Syncopate while Brad chose to play a second Knight of the Last Breath. The sideboards were quite different but it was Kyle who took the trophy, and it is his sideboard I will be using for my primer today.

Black Devotion



Your post-board strategy increases your threat count and your creatures allow you to apply pressure by attacking them in ways they are not prepared to deal with. Pithing Needle stops Erebos, God of the Dead or Underworld Connections, but in the latter case be sure to name the land they enchanted.  Be aware they'll still be able to tap it for mana.

Doom Blade is an auto-cut, Supreme Verdict goes because it’s functionally a 1-for-1 against savvy players. Azorius Charm is the weakest card. Thoughtseize goes because you are not interested in trading 1-for-1 against their strategy.




The creatures help you gain the initiative, and possibly catch opponents with their pants down. You also bring in the typical control-killer cards: more discard and counterspells. Nearly all of the removal comes out, but do not hesitate to bring some in for game 3 in if the opponent chose to bring in extra creatures in game 2 in response to your lack of removal.

Monoblue Devotion



Nightveil Specter is fully powered in this matchup because you'll be able to cast anything you hit and it blocks well. Archangel of Thune is capable of blowing them out by acting like a Baneslayer Angel. Revoke Existence removes Thassa, God of the Sea and Bident of Thassa. Elspeth, Sun's Champion is slow and cannot kill any of their threats and the tokens match up poorly against Thassa, God of the Sea.Dissolve is too clunky and slow in this match. Keeping in some of the 6-drops over utility spells is also a reasonable choice.




Bring in threats to pressure their burn, as anything thrown at creatures keeps it away from your face. Creatures also help close out the game faster in racing situations. Most of the removal comes out against their nearly creaturless deck, and Elspeth is too slow to do much.

GRx Monsters



Pithing Needle is great against planeswalkers, so do not hesitate to use it pre-emptively. Jace, Architect of Thought plays poorly against their high-powered attackers, but it’s still excellent for generating card advantage.

There was quite a lot of discussion and disagreement about the Mono Black sideboarding tactics last week.  I encourage this to continue.  There is no one "right way" to sideboard, so if you disagree or have questions, be sure to voice your opinion in a comment.  Use the Facebook and Twitter share buttons at the top of the article to send this article to your friends and get their opinions as well.

This Week's "You Make The Play"

You Make the Play

Would you keep this hand?  Why or why not?


9 thoughts on “Visual Sideboarding Primer: Standard Esper Control

  1. Regarding last week’s “You Make The Play”… Hitting those land drops doesn’t auto-win the game. If your opponent kept something like Duress, Pack Rat, 3 x Swamp, 2 x -Blank-, you probably still lose. Missing land drops doesn’t auto-lose either. Your opponent could be in the same spot. That means that your actual win percentage is 45.68% * the odds of you winning if you hit those land drops (let’s say, 80%) + the odds of you winning if you don’t (say, 5%). That puts you at roughly 42%, slightly more in favor of a mulligan than the initial projection.

  2. in regards to to this weeks “you make the play” the hand should not be kept in a game 1 as it has no interaction in the first 4 turns execpt for a turn 2 counter on the play.

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