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.
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
As 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 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.
If 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 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 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 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,
The_Architect on MTGO