If you want to play control in Modern this week, Grixis is not the answer. Corey Burkhart has an excellent list that he’s been using to great success, and if you’ve read my articles over the past couple weeks by now you're familiar with my thoughts on the archetype. Unfortunately the word is out, and MTGO is no longer the welcoming field it once was for the Black, Red, and Blue Crew. Archetypes that were once soft to Grixis have since tightened up, and our favorable matchups have waned, only to be replaced by our worst enemies.
So, given all this information, what’s a control mage to do? You could just plant your head in the sand and try and push through the bad, but I wouldn’t suggest it. After close to ten Modern leagues in a row with nothing but 3-2 results, all with various flavors and builds of Grixis, I’ve done the dirty work. Grixis isn’t great right now. Luckily, hope has arrived, the form of an old ally. Please give a warm welcome (back) to… Esper Control.
Haven’t We Been Here Before?
Look, I get it. I’m control guy, and nobody likes control guy. Control guy sits in a corner, taking forever on his turns, mulling over every decision while mumbling darkly to himself about Mono-Red and the days before Wizards hated blue. Control guy will try and make control work regardless of odds. Control guy should be avoided at all costs.
Hopefully, I’ve done my part to try and explain away my biases, and the information I present can be taken with a significantly smaller grain of salt. Yes, I love Grixis Control and will pick it up every couple of weeks, but I’m not against putting it down if I see the writing on the wall. Control is my favorite macro-archetype to play, but my range extends across all archetypes in Modern. Still, I can see you sitting there, silently scoffing at my words. When will this guy wise up, and just play Tron?
Were a number of factors not present in Modern today, I would be inclined to agree with you. We’ve picked up Esper Control before, and it unfortunately fell short of the mark. Wafo-Tapa can do it, but for mere mortals, Draw-Go is a trap we should avoid at all costs. However, I am of the opinion that conditions for Esper in Modern have changed for the better, at least for the short term. The door might already be closing. Guess we should get to it then!
Fatal Push has helped a ton of decks without access to Lightning Bolt and/or Terminate deal with creatures cheaply and effectively, but I would argue that it has helped Esper the most. Without red for Bolt/Terminate, or green for Abrupt Decay, Esper had to resort to weird things like Go for the Throat when it wanted more than four removal spells. Path to Exile was great, but not perfect—giving our opponents extra lands always felt awkward alongside Mana Leak. It even made our Logic Knot and Remand a little worse as it was easier for them to pay or double-spell faster.
Even if we looked past all that, four one-mana removal spells often just weren’t enough to slow down our opponent. In an archetype designed around living to Supreme Verdict and beyond, our spells on turns 1-3 were critical. One slip-up is all it takes to lose, and the inefficiencies that came from not having a spell to play on turn one just set us too far behind. Games on the draw played drastically different compared to games on the play, especially when we factor in the comparative value of two-mana counterspells. There was a time when we were just begging for our Spell Snare to line up with their two-drop.
Enter Fatal Push. You might not notice, but this card is slowly warping Modern around it. Death's Shadow decks are weak to it, while Grixis Shadow flavors are adapting to combat it with stuff like Bloodghast to stretch opposing removal thin. Delver decks are taking advantage of the four-CMC-or-less restriction by packing extra copies of Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler. The card is still great, but unless you have a foolproof backup plan behind it, relying on it entirely will only get you killed.
Even with Ancestral Vision and a lower land count, Grixis was falling behind too easily. I found that I was leaning on Cryptic Command to hold things together a lot of the time, and Cryptic Command can easily become a liability in post-board games. Card advantage fueling endless removal is a solid strategy, but our cards still need to be high-impact. Lightning Bolt, Serum Visions and Countersquall just don’t get us there.
Esper Control is doing a lot of what the 4x Ancestral Vision Grixis list attempts, just better. Card advantage into removal? Esper Charm and Think Twice offer much higher impact compared to Ancestral Vision and Thought Scour. Swap Lightning Bolt for Supreme Verdict? So far, so good. The big upgrade here, of course, is Secure the Wastes and Sphinx's Revelation as our endgame. Those let us truly bury the hatchet and pull way far ahead, as opposed to grinding constant two-for-ones with the Kolaghan's Command-Snapcaster Mage-Tasigur chain.
Traditionally, Esper has been the slower, plodding, card advantage engine to Grixis’s streamlined, efficient, skin-of-the-teeth machine. Fatal Push changes things, at least slightly, in favor of Esper by giving the archetype a bit more in what it was lacking: efficiency. The basic rules of Magic haven’t changed, and for the most part, if we’re living past turn five, we should be in solid shape. It’s almost impossible to out-value the Esper Charm/Think Twice deck, and Cryptic Command/Supreme Verdict handles just about everything the format can throw at us. Fatal Push is the plug we needed to fill the gap at our low end.
I spoke in the intro about metagame characteristics shifting in favor of Esper. What did I mean by that? For starters, Grixis just can’t claim the number of favorable matchups that Esper can. Most archetypes are shifting to fight reactive strategies, and Grixis (while not the main target) is starting to feel the hate. Fighting off Lingering Souls, Liliana of the Veil, fast combo, Dredge, and Tron is a tall order, to say nothing of the "normal" tough matchups like Burn, Bant Eldrazi and Jund/Abzan. If the field was more aggro or more control, Grixis could thrive, but for now, it seems like basically every matchup is an uphill battle.
Contrast that with Esper Control, where in almost every matchup the onus is on our opponent to do something to take us down before we hit the midgame. Once Cryptic Command or Supreme Verdict comes online, winning through those spells becomes much more difficult. Tron is much more manageable with tons of counterspells at our disposal, to say nothing of Esper Charm’s discard ability. Death’s Shadow Jund's value spells, while worrisome from Grixis’s point of view, are laughable in the face of Esper’s higher-impact spells. Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Tarmogoyf and Death's Shadow all die the same to Verdict.
My main addition to this list is the use of Rest in Peace in the board, which doesn’t hurt us as much as it hurts our opponents when we want it. We can board out Snapcaster Mage and only take a slight hit in the value department, and crippling Dredge or Death’s Shadow Jund's value engine is well worth the price. Death's Shadow and Liliana of the Veil are still threats, but knocking out Lingering Souls, Tarmogoyf, Traverse the Ulvenwald, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, and Kolaghan's Command in one card is beyond excellent.
Esper Charm is excellent against, well, pretty much everyone. Worst case, it’s an instant-speed Divination with the option to be much more. Mind Rotting our opponent’s last two cards in the midgame is a great way to force our opponent into topdeck mode, which, barring horrible luck, we should easily be able to outdraw with Snapcaster Mage, Cryptic Command, and Think Twice. Grixis’s matchup against Jund is a flip, and Abzan is middling to poor, but Esper licks its chops every time it sits down across the table from midrange. This is thanks, in large part, to Esper Charm.
Secure the Wastes should be a two-of if we’re not playing Lingering Souls in the maindeck (which is an option, but definitely at odds with the rest of our draw-go strategy. Playing two lets us fire one off at the earliest opportunity for a few chump blockers in the early turns. Remember, all we’re looking to do is run our opponent out of cards and get to our midrange spells to stabilize us into the later turns. A three-mana Raise the Alarm is perfectly serviceable if it blocks a Death's Shadow for even one turn, or makes our opponent spend mana on removal to clear them away.
Playing 25 land can still go poorly for us, and after a few League events I’ve definitely found my fair share of poor opening sevens. Luckily, the rest of our deck works incredibly well at pulling things together out of seemingly thin air. An opening seven of four land, Think Twice, Esper Charm, Fatal Push can feel unbeatable against an aggressive opponent. Remember that at the right time, Esper Charm can basically force our opponent to be on a mull to five. Still, we can also just draw into more air sometimes. Cast anything you possibly can on every turn before turn four, even if that means flashing in a Snapcaster Mage to save a couple life.
Right now, Esper Control feels to me like what Death's Shadow felt like the week it first came out. Exchange, exchange, clean up, pull ahead is a potent strategy when you can pull it off consistently, and Fatal Push helps those hands come about much more often. Most aggro decks in the format are slowing down to fight through midrange, which plays right into our hands. Midrange decks are picking back up in popularity, and most flavors of combo are still fairly susceptible to discard plus multiple counterspells. When we lose, we lose to ourselves, but beyond that, most matches are relatively formulaic. If you ever wanted to feel what it was like to make your opponent sick from over-exposure to value, now is the time. Jump on it while you can!
Thanks for reading,
The_Architect on MTGO