Fulfilling Your PPTQ Needs: Esper Control Pt. 2

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With Modern PPTQ season on the horizon, players round the world are turning their attention to our beloved format. Standard fanboys and Limited snobs alike will force themselves into our happy place, challenging our dominance and superior format knowledge as they attempt to wrest Regional PTQ invites from our deserving arms. In their ignorance, they will turn to format mainstays like Jund, Affinity, and Infect, or new spice like Jeskai Nahiri, in the hopes that they can stand on the shoulders of giants before them (us) on their journey to success. But if us Modern enthusiasts and experts have any say, what they will soon discover is they are hopelessly outmatched.

Secure the Wastes-banner-cropped

Last week, I wrote an introduction piece on Guillaume Wafo-Tapa’s rogue Esper Control deck he’s been using to crush the virtual tables. The resulting discussion in response to that article, as well as the crowds it has drawn to my Twitch stream, has been overwhelming, and shown me that that I am not alone in thinking Esper Control might truly be the Next Big Thing. So, today I’ll be taking a more detailed look at Esper Control, going over some finer points, specific matchups and sideboard strategies. This article is intended as a sequel to last week’s introduction, so if you missed it, read up before proceeding! Good? Let’s get to it!


Balancing the Cantrip/Card Draw Package

Think_TwiceAs the list has evolved, I've transitioned from a full set of Think Twice to a three-two split with Serum Visions, in favor of the latter. To understand why I've made this switch, let's take a further look at what each spell does for an archetype in the abstract.

Think Twice is at its best when card quantity is desired over quality, and works to help us find our third/fourth land when land-light. It plays seamlessly alongside counterspells, and in the right archetype can sit in the graveyard as a “backup” option to invest mana in, when we have nothing else to do. While Think Twice plays well with counterspells, it surprisingly feels a little awkward when our opponents are playing at instant speed as well (blue matchup notwithstanding). Against Jund and Affinity, we have no trouble casting Think Twice on their end step, as their decks operate almost exclusively in the main phase (as far as threats are concerned). On the other hand, against Living End, Collected Company, or Ad Nauseam, Think Twice becomes a liability as our opponent can threaten landing a big spell while we’re busy trying to draw cards.

While we all probably have much more experience with Serum Visions, it is still important to reiterate exactly why it sees play and holds the title of “best cantrip” in Modern. In a format of high-powered threats, answers, sideboard spells and mana efficiency, looking at three cards for one mana is unparalleled. When opponents are capable of dropping five power for two mana onto the board (Tarmogoyf) or can threaten victory with one card (Cranial Plating), the ability to dig for specific answers quickly and efficiently can often be the difference between victory and defeat.

Against linear opponents, Serum Visions benefits us by its ability to be played on the first turn, before most of our counterspells and interaction come online. In Esper Control, if we aren’t casting Path to Exile on turn one (and we usually aren’t as most turn one creatures are mana dorks) that mana is often wasted, so Serum Visions is essentially “free” in the sense that casting it has no opportunity cost. For those of you without an economics background, opportunity cost is defined as “the loss of potential gain from one alternative when other alternatives are chosen.” Basically, if you spend $100 on a pair of Bieber shoes, you can no longer spend that $100 to fix your car, you bum.

On Secure vs. Zenith

secure the wastes

Secure the Wastes for X=2 happens more for me than Secure the Wastes for X=9. White Sun's Zenith cannot do that. Inevitability isn’t important. When is the last time you were decked in a match of Magic? 2/2's aren’t that much better than 1/1’s, at least as far as this archetype is concerned. When we’re winning, its often by car lengths, not inches. Opponent has nothing, we cast Secure the Wastes for a bunch or Sphinx's Revelation into a new hand. Corner cases happen, sure, but rarely are we hitting our opponent for lethal where we’re dead on the swing back.

Now, I would understand the argument if the math worked out that White Sun's Zenith killed quicker, but it doesn’t. Most of the time I’m casting Secure for X=7ish (seven power worth of creatures), where with White Sun's Zenith I’d be getting four tokens and eight power. In neither scenario are we killing our opponent in one turn, so the difference doesn’t matter. Even if we had a ton of mana (say, eleven 1/1’s or eight 2/2’s) we are still probably killing in two turns either way.

If Izzet Staticaster or Night of Soul's Betrayal becomes rampant in the format, I might consider a switch. Until then, I’ll gladly continue to cast Secure for three and chump my opponent’s Tarmogoyf for three turns, thank you very much!

Matchups at a Glance

With Esper Control, we’re ecstatic to play against any other midrange/reactive deck: Jeskai Control, Jund Midrange, Grixis, Abzan Midrange. Abzan Company is a great matchup, Tron and Affinity I consider solid matchups, and Burn and Infect are probably slightly favorable, with Burn being closer to a coin flip. Living End and Ad Nauseam are uphill battles but winnable, while Merfolk is actively bad and Dredge is hopeless without dedicated hate. Suicide Zoo can invalidate a lot of our cards, but Dispel (if we’re playing it) is excellent against them and makes Lingering Souls a smooth path to victory.

Ad NauseamIf we’re expecting reactive decks, Esper Control is a great option. Our natural card advantage and bigger endgame inherently positions us in a favorable spot against most of the other decks looking to play fair, and both Esper Charm and Lingering Souls continue to pound on a format weak to both. Against creature decks like Abzan Company, Affinity, Kiki Chord, and Infect we are favorable as well. There our sweepers, plentiful removal, strong sideboard spells, and smooth manabase allow us an easy game, assuming no catastrophes like mana screw or double-Revelation draws.

Against weird spell-based combo like Living End and Ad Nauseam (I’ll lump Burn in here too as that’s the part of their deck we care about) we struggle, but room exists in the list to shift to fight these archetypes in exchange for reduced action against the reactive decks. There’s that opportunity cost coming up again! I’ve found myself wanting Inquisition of Kozilek in a few spots, but I’m sure an on-color, on-plan option exists that has a higher impact and doesn’t require us trading resources one-for-one like the rest of the plebs in Modern like to do. It’s possible we just want some Leyline of Sanctity against Burn and Ad Nauseam, and Rest in Peace against Dredge and Living End.


This archetype has turned me around as far as Engineered Explosives is concerned. Normally, I malign the card for its inefficiency, weakness to Kolaghan's Command, and general all-around unsexiness, but in Esper Control its easily a necessity and possibly not entirely embarrassing. Casting one against Affinity always feels great, but having extra outs to Blood Moon is nice as well. Without it, our Suicide Zoo and Infect matchups would be way worse and probably switch to negative. Against an onboard Explosives, opponents will often pace spells, which buys us time to draw into a Supreme Verdict or other option to help put the game away. In recent lists Wafo-Tapa has trimmed to one, mainly to make room for graveyard hate, but I’m still playing two and will continue until a major shift forces me to re-evaluate.

Elspeth, Sun's ChampionElspeth, Sun's Champion is big, expensive, and powerful, but I never want to cast her. I can understand Modern being weak to splashy effects, as most blue decks don’t have many hard counterspells and Mana Leak often gets cut in post-board games. Against Dreadbore and Maelstrom Pulse we still get three tokens, sure, but six mana is a lot and doesn’t line up with our draw-go strategy. There is synergy in end-of-turn Sphinx's Revelation, untap into Elspeth + counterspell, but if I’m sitting across from a blue deck I should be fine anyways. It's possible we might want something big like this to draw to in the Jund matchups where they pick apart our hand and sneak in an early Liliana, but beyond that I’ve never found myself wanting Elspeth except for in matchups that I already feel happy to play. I’m sure others will feel differently, but this is the first card I cut from the board and haven’t regretted it since.

Geist of Saint TraftGeist of Saint Traft is off-plan and at odds with our core strategy, but the suggestion still has merit. I’m not interested in the applications against blue mirrors (see the above paragraph on Elspeth) but I am interested in what it can do for our matchup against Burn and Ad Nauseam.

We’re often tapping out on turn three against Burn, be it for a Lingering Souls or Timely Reinforcements, so why don’t we play a spell that kills them in three turns? With a good draw and a well-placed Mind Rot it's possible we can win the race---and that's a much more believable path to victory than turn six Secure the Wastes into swinging for three more turns. Against Ad Nauseam I’ll take anything that doesn’t run headfirst into their seemingly endless stream of Pact of Negations. I was already playing Ambush Viper, so this is on plan.

Still, I’m not sure the board has room and against both matchups Leyline of Sanctity is just better. Worth keeping in mind, if the format polarizes in the right direction then its possible Geist of Saint Traft makes an appearance as a sideboard strategy or---gasp---legitimate maindeck archetype itself.

My Updated List

Without further ado...

Hallowed Burial has been trimmed completely in favor of stronger sideboard options to fight the more difficult matchups. I only found myself really wanting Hallowed Burial in matches I was already happy to be playing anyways, like Jund Midrange or Abzan Company. While it did give me some more game against Living End, freeing up room for Rest in Peace does so much more in that matchup. The singleton Hallowed Burial doesn't influence our Abzan Company matchup too much, which was already strong due to our maindeck positioning. Also, if our plan is to bring in Dispel to fight Chord of Calling/Collected Company we are already short on room, so cutting the Hallowed Burial seems like an easy play here. In other metagames I could easily see bringing it back, but until the Abzan and Jund decks start packing multiple copies of Thrun, the Last Troll I'm happy gaining percentage in other areas.

leyline of sanctityLeyline of Sanctity is probably the worst remaining card in the sideboard, and if you're looking to change up the board a bit to fit your local metagame, I would look to them first for cuts. They're there almost exclusively for the Burn and Ad Nauseam matchups, and might not be enough to even swing them. However, those matchups have been close without it, so in theory having access to Leyline should help push them closer to positive.

I know Ad Nauseam can Cyclonic Rift the Leyline, or draw their deck with Laboratory Maniac, but we have Dispel for the former and Path to Exile for the latter if we want it. It might seem weird keeping a couple Paths in, but with Supreme Verdict coming out along with a copy each of Secure the Wastes and Sphinx's Revelation, we are already bringing out more cards than we want to bring in.


Esper Control has a strong core, but definitely still lags behind Jeskai based primarily on the power of Lightning Bolt. When we sleeve up Esper Charm instead, we do so with the knowledge that we are making a statement regarding where we feel the metagame is at. Unfortunately, this archetype doesn’t contain the raw power that would allow it to be “forced” into hostile metagames, but given the right shifts and the right matchups on gameday, Esper Control in the hands of a skilled pilot can put up some strong results. I believe that time is now, and Esper Control is a great choice for anyone looking to take down a local event. In all your PPTQ endeavors, I wish you good luck!

Thanks for reading,

Trevor Holmes

The_Architect on MTGO


19 thoughts on “Fulfilling Your PPTQ Needs: Esper Control Pt. 2

    1. Cryptic doesnt really stay in hand. Esper charm, visions and think twice all dig deep for land, and esper can prolong the game to a point where 4 mana is easy to cast. Adding removal might make its matchup against ad naseum even worse. Taking out cryptic is bad also because it is great in any matchup (almost). It can counter a spell, cantrip, fog, or just bounce a huge permanent, and then do another mode as well. It’s versatility makes up for its high cost.

      1. very valid, i just think that the four paths and the three snap caster, to flash pack path might be too little. Supreme verdict can get some massive 2-1’s but it can be too slow against aggressive decks. so i guess the real question i should be asking is how to make this deck even better against aggressive decks.

  1. Trevor have you considered a 4th supreme verdict in sideboard against merfolk? Seems like it could work, dont know if that would make it just too high curved, but supreme verdict is a 1 card counter to merfolk.

    1. William,

      We had two Hallowed Burial as extra sweepers, obviously Supreme Verdict is better in the matchup due to being cheaper and uncounterable, but eventually they were cut to fit in other things and I felt my matchup against creature decks were solid. I think my matchup against Merfolk is already a little poor, and the 4th Supreme Verdict won’t sway things enough to be worth the spot. I’ve beaten Merfolk the few times I’ve played it, but in theory I should be behind in the matchup.

  2. Hm… this list looks significantly spicier than last week’s. Good job of doing testing (and maybe listening to feedback) regarding the deck. A couple of questions, though:

    1. What do you think of a card like Tribute to Hunger? It’s a bit off the beaten path, but I’ve seen Grixis employ it to good effect in the “big stuff” matchups to surge ahead.

    2. Would Creeping Tar Pit ever be a possibility? I can see the downsides (soft to Bolt, yet another tapped land), but I feel like the ability to put some pressure on in the midgame (when you have 6-7 lands) might be worth your while.

    3. Would you consider Timely Reinforcements to be a suitable replacement for Leyline of Sanctity if you’re mostly worried about Burn? I would think that with Dispels added to your counter suite that Ad Naus is only a problem if they rip a T4 combo attempt and you happened to not have the counterspell ready.

    1. I can answer you 1&2 😉

      1) Blessed Alliance is better, since it is more flexible and cheaper. Against hyper Aggro, the +4 life is most often a time walk, against Fish like decks, the edict effect is the important factor and most often not the life.

      2) Instead of Tar Pit, Shambling Vents is a petter pick, since Burn has a more difficult time vs it (it trades positive vs close to all their spells).


      1. 1) I agree with, although the card is admittedly mostly untested. Blessed Alliance does seem good. It is certainly better than Tribute to Hunger.

        2) is just wrong. The mana base does not want to support Shambling Vents and Creeping Tar Pit has wider applications. See my other comment.

    2. #1 3 mana is too much. Blessed Alliance is new and mostly untested (admittedly it looks good) but edict effects have never been the greatest. I’d prefer Devour Flesh, To the Slaughter, or Far // Away if I was looking for an edict and nothing else, as the decks I want an edict, I don’t care about life as much (Thrun, albeit fringe, and Infect decks come to mind).

      #2 Tar Pit is a possibility. Colonnade number 4 is the best manland that the above list is not running (which I disagree with, but that’s another story entirely). 5 taplands is probably too many. I used to run a 5th, which was the Tar Pit. It is the next best option. This is for 2 reasons: 1) The mana. The deck is very color intensive with Logic Knot, Esper Charm and Cryptic Command. You need as many blue sources as you can get. 2) The 3 power and unblockability is far more relevant than the lifegain on Shambling Vent. You can sneak kills on planeswalkers or race better with Tar Pit than you can with Vent.

      #3 Timely Reinforcements is definitely a possibility in lieu of Leyline. Leyline is at it’s best vs. Burn, Jund, Grixis, Ad Naus, and Scapeshift. The Grixis, Scapeshift, and Jund match ups are already fine enough that it doesn’t seem necessary. If you do stand by the Leyline plan, 2 is too few. It’s a 3-4 of or none kind of card in my opinion. 2 is just too inconsistent. But I digress. Timely is fine vs. Burn and aggro decks. I’ve been meaning to try it again. The biggest reason people don’t run it is that the card is perhaps most relevant vs. Burn, but you often find yourself at risk of tapping out at sorcery speed into an Atarka’s Command or Skullcrack, which is enough to lose the game. Timely is definitely the best anti-Burn card against other aggro decks. Blessed Alliance may replace it though, due to it’s ability to be strong vs. those style of decks, in addition to being better against stuff like Infect and t3 decks like Bogles.

  3. I’ve been working on developing competitive Esper Draw-Go lists for almost two years now. It gets so little respect, but I’ve found I can beat just about anything with it once I’ve tuned it for the expected metagame–it’s more of a comfort deck. My list is a little different than normal because it runs both two copies of Elspeth and three of Jace, Architect of Thought. While this does go against the strict draw-go pattern of the rest of the deck, Elspeth closes out a lot of games in my local meta because she requires answers not only for herself but for all the tokens as well. So many times she eats all the opponent’s removal and still wins the game. As for AoT, he’s definitely a personal preference and metagame call, but he does well against aggro strategies and, most importantly, digs Really well with his -2. Mostly I’m just finally glad to see this deck get the respect it deserves, as it’s so near to my heart.

    1. Thoughtseize hasn’t been super effective for me, mostly because it’s dead in the late game, doesn’t protect you as much as another counter or removal spell, and feels inferior (as far as discard is concerned) to Esper Charm. I could see it being good at stripping problematic Planeswalkers or other permanents like Cranial Plating out of the side, but if you board in Lingering Souls and are careful with your counterspells you can usually get the job done anyway. I’m probably missing something important about it, though. What do you think about its merits?

  4. Turn one is gain 2 life by playing a tapped shock or not lose tempo by playing a colonade. You’re down to one spell snare where I usually do 3 but that is also a turn one play. Which is to say visions does habe opportunity cost even on t1. Once past turn one it’s also probably stranded until turn five as you need to present open mana and the threat of interacting.

    Visions does not follow the draw go gameplan. Draw go has mana sinks for lands and universal answers – raw card count is usually more valuable than card selection (you do want to have counters up when you start colonnading) and instant speed is crucial to optimizing your mana and making land drops.

    So yeah – disagree with visions here. Charm think remand cryptic revelation and snapcaster are plenty enough card draw – you need higher answer density (eg spell snare, runed halo, hallowed moonlight). Singleton lingering souls isn’t bad though.

  5. When I saw the last article, I quickly dismissed the list because it didn’t seem proactive enough for modern. However, it also got me thinking about a way to change that, and bringing back Gifts Ungiven seemed like a great way to give the deck a way to close the game fast or lock out opponents outright, in exchange for less control elements. I also added a few more aggro hosers, namely Spell Snare and Disfigure, as well as a Timely Reinforcements. These help us delay the game long enough to combo off and lock them out, and tokens from Secure the Wastes, Timely Reinforcements, and Lingering Souls notably work very well with Elesh Norn to close out the game. Any thoughts on this list?

    1 Unburial Rites
    1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
    1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
    2 Snapcaster Mage
    1 Supreme Verdict
    1 Wrath of God
    1 Cryptic Command
    2 Disfigure
    4 Gifts Ungiven
    3 Serum Visions
    4 Esper Charm
    1 Lingering Souls
    2 Secure the Wastes
    2 Spell Snare
    4 Path to Exile
    3 Mana Leak
    2 Remand
    3 Celestial Colonnade
    4 Polluted Delta
    4 Flooded Strand
    3 Drowned Catacomb
    1 Glacial Fortress
    2 Island
    1 Plains
    1 Swamp
    2 Hallowed Fountain
    1 Godless Shrine
    1 Watery Grave
    1 Breeding Pool
    1 Ghost Quarter

    2 Dispel
    1 Countersquall
    1 Raven’s Crime
    3 Stony Silence
    1 Life from the Loam
    1 Detention Sphere
    1 Lingering Souls
    1 Celestial Purge
    1 Mystical Teachings
    2 Thoughtseize
    1 Sphinx’s Revelation

    1. It’s just weaker. Gifts has never been a bad deck, but it’s never put up *any* results, whereas the pure draw-go style has put up at least a handful. You open yourself up to too many dead draws. Losing raw numbers on board wipes, Cryptics, and Think Twice isn’t worth the extra 4 mana+ cards. You do get the very rare auto win on t5 with Elesh Norn or Iona, but even those bombs don’t seem to be what they used to be. You’ll lose too many games to spending all your resources on getting one out and watching it be Path’d or your opponent just not caring.

  6. Admittedly, I haven’t done much (if any) playtesting with Serum Visions, and only some with Secure, so I can’t comment on those aspects of the list. I do find the sideboard to be rather suboptimal; however, it can be said that there are a million cards that could go in the board in this style of deck (my binder has 4 pages front and back of SB options). That being said, here are my thoughts on it:

    2 Engineered Explosives, 2 Dispel, and some number of spot removal I definitely agree with. Those card are the most efficient at what they do. They are broad, simultaneously niche enough to be SB while being broad enough that you would bring them in vs. a huge % of the format.

    2 Leyline and 2 Thoughtseize I absoultely disagree with. These are the kinds of cards that you put in your SB because you want to see them in your opening hand. They are both much weaker as the game goes on. With only 2 copies of each, you won’t see them consistently enough when they are strong. True, you do mitigate your chance to draw them later somewhat, but it seems like you’re on the wrong end of a trade-off. I’d really like to see these cards at 3 of’s or none at all. Vendilion Clique is also an alternative to Thoughtseize in the match ups where you really want it (Tron and Combo), while also being more live against aggro.

    I don’t understand why Rest in Peace is here either. Dredge is not a real deck. Tier 3 decks aren’t worth worrying about when you play an entirely reactive deck. The few enough that hit on axes (axises?) that higher tier decks don’t can get there, but you just don’t have the slots to prepare for them alone (looking at Dredge, Lantern Control, and U-Tron when I make this comment). Beyond Dredge, you bring in RiP vs. what? Grixis? Leyline shuts Grixis down harder than RiP if you’re on that plan. Beyond that, Grixis is favorable (though your Spell Snare number likely needs to be higher). I don’t know of any other match up where I’d want the enchantment. Your deck is hurt more by RiP than the vast majority of high tier decks. (losing Logic Knot, Think Twice, and Snapcaster shenanigans may not be much individually, but together, it adds up).

    Finally, I don’t understand why only 1 Spell Snare is here. It’s the cleanest answer in the format to Snapcaster, Thalia, Eidolon of the Great Revel, and Cranial Plating. It also hits Bob, Goyf, Remand, the list goes on. The only decks in tier 1/2 that I don’t want to see it against are Eldrazi/Tron. Vs. everything else, it’s live if not great.


    1. Mathew, you should probably also mention your list and your GP record with the deck–you are in fact one of the “good results” the shell has put up.

      We’ll still have to continue to agree to disagree about leyline–I’m of the opinion that it’s an excellent card for the archetype, but NOT IN THE SIDEBOARD; I’ve run it as a 2-of mainboard for about 8 months now, and I have to say anybody who hasn’t played over a good period of time with them as a part of your long-term game one plan is missing out. At two copies, you find one in most matchups that go long enough for it to be relevant, and you get a decent number of “free win” game one’s with it in the opener, with very few “auto loss” games from drawing too many, since there’s only at most one redundant copy.

      1. Oh, and I’ll also add–Blessed Alliance is not something that needs to be checked out. It just needs to be sleeved up. By the end of the weekend I should be at over 100 MATCHES with it in the 75, and I have to say it’s excellent at covering some holes in the sideboarding plans for esper that have plagued us, particularly when dealing with the MODO metagame. I’m trying to decide if I want to go in for Japanese foils, or just stick with English ones.

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