Spread the Sickness – Esper Control in Standard by Grant Hislop

Analysing the Modern Ban List – Spread the Sickness with Grant Hislop

Spread the Sickness – Esper Control in Standard by Grant Hislop


I got my Standard season off to a semi respectable start at the weekend. I managed a Top 8 at the Scottish WMCQ, followed by a Quarterfinals exit to bumfluff elemental, Bradley Barclay in a mirror match.

Nephalia DrownyardAs I alluded to in my last article, I played Esper, as I’d been unable to sufficiently familiarise myself with anything that I thought was better, and didn’t have an equally miserable mirror matchup.

The room was full of Junk and other midrange strategies, and I saw barely any aggro at the top tables throughout the day, which was unexpected. The Top 8 ended up being four Junk Reanimator decks, three Esper decks and a single UWR control deck, which is a promising sign for the second qualifier in a fortnight, as it gives us a meta to target.

As I’d said to a few people on either side of this tournament, in an environment like this, a smaller country’s WMCQ, where the average standard of player is quite low, it’s far better to play a deck you’re familiar with, rather than audibling to the saucy new tech that you’ve not tested, as deck familiarity will advantage you far more than having the perfect seventy-five with no prior experience, in nine out of ten cases.

I’d built and refined my deck on Magic Online over the weeks precluding the tournament, and I’d expected a lot of aggro and midrange decks, as Scots are typically lazy and will just net-deck the last GP winning decklist and, for some reason, would find vomiting creatures out thanks to [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card] fun.

I was half right.

Going in, I expected Reanimator and Blitz to be the strategies to beat, and think that, in the Magic playing world at large, that still to be the case, so I wanted my deck to at least have a chance against those decks in game one, and to improve post-board.

As is usual for me, and due to my distaste of tournament reports in which I don’t get drunk and belligerent, I’ll focus on the deck more than the 7 rounds of Magic I played over the day.

Saucy Esper:-

Azorius Charm3 [card]Augur of Bolas[/card]
3 [card]Restoration Angel[/card]
2 [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]

4 [card]Azorius Charm[/card]
2 [card]Detention Sphere[/card]
2 [card]Devour Flesh[/card]
2 [card]Dissipate[/card]
4 [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card]
4 [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]
2 [card]Syncopate[/card]
3 [card]Terminus[/card]
3 [card]Think Twice[/card]

4 [card]Drowned Catacomb[/card]
4 [card]Glacial Fortress[/card]
3 [card]Godless Shrine[/card]
4 [card]Hallowed Fountain[/card]
1 [card]Island[/card]
2 [card]Isolated Chapel[/card]
3 [card]Nephalia Drownyard[/card]Terminus
1 [card]Plains[/card]
4 [card]Watery Grave[/card]


2 [card]Blind Obedience[/card]
1 [card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card]
2 [card]Devour Flesh[/card]
1 [card]Dissipate[/card]
1 [card]Duress[/card]
2 [card]Evil Twin[/card]
2 [card]Negate[/card]
2 [card]Purify the Grave[/card]
1 [card]Rest in Peace[/card]
1 [card]Witchbane Orb[/card]

As per usual when I write this sort of article, I’ll cover the card choices, why they’re there over the alternatives, and make terrible jokes alluding to my sexual prowess along with other non-sequiturs, to attempt to mask that I’m not really all that good at Magic, and what I have to say about it is seldom correct or interesting.

Kill your stuff:-

Devour Flesh2 Detention Sphere
2 Devour Flesh
4 Supreme Verdict
3 Terminus

Devour Flesh is an interesting choice. The mana base is unable to reliably support alternatives like [card]Victim of Night[/card], which may be superior, but the real debate is between this and [card]Tribute to Hunger[/card]. In my experience, the aggressive decks, against which both are excellent, don’t tend to hit you for small amounts over the course of several turns; they start swinging for three or more on turn two onwards. Here – the cheaper Devour Flesh is key, as it’s unlikely that the life-gain from Tribute to Hunger would buy a turn to get to Verdict mana. Basically, Devour Flesh is the best kill-spell we have access to that can stunt aggressive decks development while not being terrible against other must-kill creatures like [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card] or [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card].

Detention Sphere is here as both an additional creature removal spell, and as a way to combat Planeswalkers in game one, outside of permission. Basically, the only Walkers I care about are [card]Jace, Memory Adept[/card] and [card]Domri Rade[/card]. Jace is a one or two of in the mirror, and basically no real decks are playing Domri at the moment, but Scotland’s full of random decks, and I’d prefer to have an answer to troublesome permanents than not, and this is the best tool for that job.

Supreme VerdictI’ve opted for seven Maindeck [card]Wrath of God[/card] effects. Is this too many? Probably in a random field, yes, it’s too many, but, as I said, I wasn’t expecting much control. I expected to have to fight random creature decks and reanimator decks. Basically, seven wraths meant that I was seldom drawing dead vs Reanimator, and in fact, outside of the obnoxious [card]Craterhoof Behemoth[/card] draws, which I was hoping my permission would help me avoid, they actually are good in that matchup as well. Plus, Terminus is one of the best cards at tilting aggro opponents.

As an aside, my friend, Gabor Kovacs tilts pretty hard almost every time anyone miracles Terminus against him. It’s absolutely hilarious to watch, as he goes from perfectly normal to full on life-tilt with the flip of one card. It’s so funny, it makes me want to miracle it even more against him, just to watch the fireworks behind the eyes. I’m hopeful that in the next WMCQ or PTQ we’re at, it comes down to he and I in the finals, and I win by miracling Terminus on the last possible turn, and he goes insane, flips the table. It’s good to have dreams.

Terminus also gives you outs to the stupid Blitz draws that just beat the format, and that cannot be overstated enough. You can’t draw them if they’re not in your deck, and other clichés like ‘I get luckier the more I practice’ and so on.

Gonnae no dae that:-

Dissipate2 Dissipate
2 Syncopate

Who says counterspells are bad? Most decks have one or two spells that you’d want to counter. Some of them even have ones that aren’t creatures forced through by [card]Cavern of Souls[/card]. Some of them have the gall to be on turn two or so, and you’ll want to have an answer to them too. This is where Syncopate comes in.

In my experience though, I’d set up the maindeck well enough against these types of threats that Syncopate often just sat in my hand. I try, as all good control players do, to use the narrowest answer first, and in cases like people casting obnoxious permanents when I had enough mana to Detention Sphere them or Verdict them away, I would do that, provided that I could continue to hold up permission, leaving the Syncopate often in my hand, waiting for opportunities that never came. Whether this is a testament to the rest of the deck, or indicative that Syncopate should be something else is, at this stage, unclear, but it’s worth considering.

Just Gonnae no:-

2 Snapcaster Mage

Rebuy all of your aforementioned spells that do things that you might conceivably want to do again, and a decent surprise blocker against decks that would prefer not to see such things. Solid, and frequently spectacular; I want more.

Dig, Draw, and Quasi-removal:-

sphinx's revelation4 Azorius Charm
3 Augur of Bolas
3 Think Twice
3 Restoration Angel
4 Sphinx’s Revelation

These cards are all pretty standard.

I made a mistake when I cut the Augur, as I should have cut an Angel first, or as well as. As I’m reducing the creature count, I get less and less value out of the Angel, and really, I’d rather reduce the additional than the initial utility, if I’m reducing utility at all.

Think Twice was cut too, probably erroneously. In my testing, I found I lost far more games to failure to hit early land drops than anything else, and Think Twice was the card that best helped me hit them. Going to less than 4 was probably a mistake. It should have been four of these and only two Angels.

Azorius Charm and Sphinx’s Revelation are pretty much sacrosanct four of’s, and with good reason. They help you make it to the late game, and dominate when there, respectively. I’m typically pretty greedy with my Revelations, trying to cast the first one for as big a number as possible, as that’s usually the one you have to get luckiest with. The rest are just gravy, and anything will do. The dream with this deck is to alternate turns casting Sphinx’s Revelation and then mopping up what’s on the board. You only need to do that once or twice before the game is effectively over. I’ve never gotten to the stage of considering cutting either of these cards, or even trimming the numbers.

The kill:-

3 Nephalia Drownyard

Sometimes you win with damage. Ninety-five percent of the time (to pluck a made up number out of my arse), you win by milling the opponent. I only run five cards that either interact or do something in my graveyard, so assuming I’m not helping my opponent, I’m milling them at the first opportunity I get to do so. The ‘Drown you’ on turn four play is this deck’s version of getting aggressive, but is often ‘correct’ to do so, rather than dig, if you’re not under any pressure. As a reminder, it’s generally good practice to play any spells you might have before Drowning, as you don’t want to leave yourself open to a Syncopate for one or two, or whatever your obnoxious opponent might be trying to do.

Stuff that lets you do stuff:-

watery grave4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Glacial Fortress
3 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain

1 Island
2 Isolated Chapel
1 Plains
4 Watery Grave

I liked the mana-base, as it stands. This deck really wants more than twenty-six lands. I think it wants less than twenty-seven though. It’s possible that this is one of those rare decks that wants you to run sixty one cards, to get your ratios perfect, but I have neither the time, the ability nor the inclination to work out if that is the case or not. I’ve chosen to run twenty-six, because I like to live dangerously. Sometimes, I like to turn off my alarm and close my eyes when I know I should get up. That is what passes for living dangerously at my age. Also, ‘they’ (wizards) won’t let me play with [card]Creeping Tar Pit[/card] anymore in Standard, so I have to actually choose between lands and spells.


Blind Obedience2 Blind Obedience
1 Curse of Death’s Hold
2 Devour Flesh
1 Dissipate
1 Duress
2 Evil Twin
2 Negate
2 Purify the Grave
1 Rest in Peace
1 Witchbane Orb

Broadly speaking, it should be obvious what these cards are for. One advantage of playing control is that you’ll typically have an easier job sideboarding than aggressive decks, as you’ll just cut the chaff, and bring in the better stuff. Esper is a three game deck, meaning that while finding the correct balance for the maindeck is important, proper metagame reading, and identifying areas which need shoring up are far, far more important.

As a rough guide, I was planning on SB’ing as follows:-

vs Reanimator:-

Purify the Grave+2 Purify the Grave, +1 Rest in Peace, +2 Evil Twin
-3 Restoration Angel, -2 Devour Flesh

Restoration Angel doesn’t do much of anything here, and they run more than enough [card]Lingering Souls[/card] and mana bugs to effectively blank the Devour Fleshes. In return, we get trumps and Graveyard hate. While the jury on the best anti-reanimator tech is out, I’m a fan of mixing it up. I like having a combination of both, as it makes it far harder to play around. Say they kill a Rest in Peace with an [card]Abrupt Decay[/card]? Purify the Grave makes it still risky to reanimate, and Evil Twin makes sure that the more important second Angel of Serenity is ours. It’s not perfect, and sometimes they just get you, but it’s the best that we can do. I actually enjoy playing against reanimator with this configuration, for what it’s worth.

vs Blitz:-

-4 counterspells, -1 Restoration Angel
+2 Devour Flesh, +2 Blind Obedience, +1 Curse of Death’s Hold

Curse of Death’s HoldThey’ll sneak under the permission, either down to curve or Cavern of Souls, so we want to mop up what they drop, ergo more Devour Flesh. They have a really hard time beating a resolved Curse, if you’re not already just dead, so this acts as a quasi eighth Wrath.

Blind Obedience, in theory, stops the stupid [card]Lightning Mauler[/card] draws, though sadly, doesn’t do much about the multiple [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card] ones, which is a shame. Gaining a couple of life here and there is excellent too, and frequently against Blitz, your kill can be Blind Obedience plus casting spells, as they do a lot of damage to themselves in the early game (correctly), putting you under as much pressure as possible from turn one onwards.

vs ‘mirror’ Esper/UWR, etc

-3 Terminus, -2 Devour Flesh, -2 Supreme Verdict
+2 Purify the Grave, +2 Negate, +1 Duress, +1 Dissipate, +1 Witchbane Orb (if Esper, if UWR, leave in 3 Verdicts)

This should be self explanatory. I’ve found that these matchups boil down to either Drownyard advantage or [card]Psychic Spiral[/card]. As I’m eschewing Psychic Spiral myself, due to only being good in the mirror, and me not really having enough space to devote to the (as I thought) underrepresented Esper matchup, I really, really need to get Drownyard advantage. Witchbane Orb is at least good against Jund, and Duress is a decent catch-all, but I think I’d change these for another Drownyard and another hard counter, probably Dispel going forwards.


The rest of the decks should be fairly intuitive, and, as always, this should only be taken as suggestions rather than gospel. I’m terrible at this game, and you really shouldn’t be listening to me anyway.

As far as the tournament went, I 4-0’d the first four rounds pretty easily, despite punting a game where I forgot [card]Lotleth Troll[/card] trampled, and ID’d into fourth or fifth place for the last two rounds, before losing to one of the other two Esper decks in a pretty miserable matchup due to me being more configured to beat non-control decks.

I enjoyed playing the deck, as I’m sure most people would. It’s a fun deck, involves milling, and really isn’t all that difficult to play. At present, I see very little reason not to run it again in Glasgow in a fortnight, though given what I know now, I’d gear it more towards the mirror, as I’d expect to face that a lot more, given the stupidly lopsided breakdown of the top 8 in Dundee.

Anyway, it was nice to get my season off to a solid start, especially with a deck I like playing, and I’d have no issues recommending it to anyone looking for a deck. Sphinx’s Revelation is absurd in a room where people will be missing points of damage all over the place due to poor sequencing, and unfamiliarity with their decks.

small thumbs upHopefully, in a couple of weeks, I’ll have an uplifting tale of tournament victory for you, but I’ll probably just get drunk instead.

Stay classy mtgUK,



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