Merciless Esper in Standard – Spread the Sickness with Grant Hislop

How I got into playing Magic: The Gathering by Josh Bloomfield

Merciless Esper in Standard – Spread the Sickness

I had a bit of a disaster a few weeks back.

I was working late, as per usual, and right before I left the office, I thought to myself, ‘I could do with a bathroom visit before I head home’. I went in to the toilet, only to find it occupied, so decided ‘oh well.’

I commenced the 30 minute walk from office to house with gusto, only to be met by the all too familiar gut grumble about 5 minutes into the journey. ‘Shall I go back to the office?’, I considered. I should have.

I quickened my pace, and carried on.

I reached the half way point, and found myself considering nipping off the path, secreting myself in the trees and taking care of business. ‘Nah, I’m like 10 minutes from home, I can make it’, I naively pondered.

Pure Gym

When I reached the Pure Gym (n’that), 5 minutes from home, I contemplated popping in and asking to use their facilities. ‘By the time I do that, I’d be home anyway, just press on and crap in your own toilet. You’ll be fine, you idiot’.

Half way up the path approaching my house, my insides gave out. I stopped suddenly. My stomach made unpleasant noises. I had two options. Either I stay as I am, and with 100% certainty defecate into my trousers, or drop keks and dominate on the path. I chose option two.

I hiked down my jeans and boxers with utmost haste, and immediately painted the plants brown, as my arse exploded in a most unpleasant fashion, with absolutely zero margin for error. As I squatted, I was furtively glancing in both directions while clasping at my trousers, hoping that this could remain a moment of purely personal failure, rather than being shared by some poor dog walker or cyclist, who surely wouldn’t be happy to see my spotty, tattooed backside spraying shite all over the place, willy-nilly.

Fortunately, I was graced with some amount of good luck, and noone witnessed my shame, I resumed the remaining 2 minutes of the walk home without further incident, and jumped into the shower when I got home.

Unpleasantly, the council came out to trim the grass back the day after this ‘incident’, and I imagine some poor gardener looking at the remains of my ‘indiscretion’ and positing ‘that jobbie looks human’, or worse, accidentally running over it with the strimmer, causing faeces to fly all over the place.

I hope everyone had a good festive period.

Supreme Verdict MTG Banner

I’ve been taking advantage of the time off to play a decent amount of Magic. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been playing Esper. Surprisingly, though, I’ve actually been winning a decent amount. I’m going to spend the remainder of today’s article covering the deck itself, so if you’re just here for my stories of failure and embarrassment, you can leave, as beyond the odd joke or two, and probably some insults towards Coldplay, there’s going to be very little remaining for you.

First of all, the deck initially started out as Jun’ya Iyanaga’s deck from the last Grand Prix of the year, which seemed like as good a place as any to start on the deck. Long time readers (do I have any?) will remember, I played a tonne with Esper last year, to close to what could be deemed success, so it was always going to be my starting point. I find it foolish to move away from the work that I’d already put into the deck, given that it’s not really all that different from its previous iteration, and while the format and the core pieces of the deck have significantly changed, the basic strategy remains the same. Personal preference leads me to want to play reactive decks, often to my detriment, but it is what it is.

In its current iteration, the Esper deck I am working with is as follows:-

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
3 Island
3 Plains
1 Swamp
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of Silence
4 Watery Grave

1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
4 Jace, Architect of Thought

4 Detention Sphere
3 Devour Flesh
3 Dimir Charm
4 Dissolve
2 Divination
1 Elixir of Immortality
2 Hero’s Downfall
Dissolve1 Merciless Eviction
4 Sphinx’s Revelation
4 Supreme Verdict


2 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
3 Fiendslayer Paladin
3 Gainsay
1 Last Breath
2 Pithing Needle
2 Sin Collector
2 Thoughtseize

The Kill Spells

4 Detention Sphere
3 Devour Flesh
3 Dimir Charm
2 Hero’s Downfall
1 Merciless Eviction
4 Supreme Verdict

This is a lot of removal. As stated before, the core strategy of Esper remains rooted in one-for-one removal, with multiple Wrath of God effects as a backup, until such time as one can convince a Sphinx to reveal five or six things, and the game usually becomes locked up at that point.

Dimir Charm 233The list I started with ran a split of Last Breath, Dimir Charm and Warp Flesh in the slots that have now become Dimir Charms. Dimir Charm has been amazing for me from the off. It just does so much that we want it to do.

Given that one of the Esper deck’s main weaknesses to the Mono-Black deck is to multiple Thoughtseize into big, dumb idiot draws, having a spell that can counter those, while also being able to kill Nightveil Specter, Gary and friends if the game has progressed beyond the discard stage has been huge.

While you do lose some percentage points against the Xathrid Necromancer decks, it’s still not appalling. Generally, against those decks, you’re going to be saving a kill spell for that guy, and hopefully following it up with a Wrath to mop up.

The latest change I’ve made is to cut the final Last Breath that was lingering around for a Merciless Eviction. I’m a fan of Wrath effects in general, and having access to one that gets everything, and isn’t as toilety as Supreme Verdict in the mirror is pretty nice.

Detention Spheres are solid catch-alls, as is Devour Flesh, which answers pretty much everything, and Hero’s Downfall, which kills anything that ails you.

One of the best things about this deck is its resilience to Thoughtseize and Mutavault, the two best cards in the format. Most of these cards do the same thing, which is to say kill small creatures, which makes a single Thoughtseize frequently uninspiring, and attempts to mitigate damage from what is, admittedly, the best card against the Esper deck in Mutavault.

As an aside against the Mono-Black deck: Don’t be afraid to keep two landers without any draw or dig, assuming you’ve got a couple of removal spells that you can actually cast, especially post-sideboard.

They’re likely going to be casting a couple of one mana discard spells against you in the early turns, and so long as you can stop yourself dying to an early Pack Rat or Nightveil Specter, you should be fine. You can hit the land drops as and when you find them, and your late game is significantly better than theirs.

Do be very careful about keeping hands with Elixir of Immortality though, as getting that stripped is disastrous, because you usually need to go through the deck two times before they’re exhausted.

The Permission

Dissolve4 Dissolve

Nice and simple here. No hedging here, just four of the best Cancel we’ve had in a while, and one that helps us hit our land drops to boot. I experimented with a 2/2 and then a 3/1 split between this and Syncopate, but really, Dissolve over-performed while Syncopate was found wanting.

Your mileage may vary, but the way I play Esper, I favour hard counters over the ability to counter something on turn two. There’s very little that resolves that early that can’t be mopped up on the latter turns, with the possible exception of Domri Rade in Gruul Monsters, but that’s something I’m unwilling to change the deck to combat.

The Dig and Draw

2 Divination
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
4 Sphinx’s Revelation

Divination started life as Thoughtseize, but I was siding it out against everything that wasn’t the mirror, so I felt fine adding Divination in its place. It’s solid yet unspectacular, which can probably be said about half the non-land cards in the deck, but it does fill its role, of hitting land drops and keeping the removal flowing better than any other card I can find.

Pilfered Plans is a possibility, but it’s a little harder on the mana, and at the point we want to be using it, difficult is something to avoid. I’d be interested in experimenting with it, but for now, Divination gets the nod.

Jace, Architect of Thought 233Jace is almost always good, and remains one of the best things in the deck to follow up a Supreme Verdict. These cards in tandem force the opponent to operate on an unpleasant axis. Jace’s +1 encourages more creatures on the board, to speed up the kill before the Esper player can stabilise, while Verdict punishes them for doing so.

We’re running the full complement of both, to maximise the efficiency of this ‘combo’, and you’d be remiss to cut any of either of these cards, as they’re just so good, both individually and in concert. Doing so, on a scale of one to people who complain about Hobbit movie spoilers, would come in at around Michael Gove levels of stupidity.

An interesting line to be aware of with Jace is that his +1 can render 3-power creatures Dimir Charm-able. Corner case, sure, but sometimes you have to kill that Boros Reckoner….

Sphinx’s Revelation continues to be the best card in the format to punish misplays, with every missed point of damage equating to around one card and one life in the later game, making the work around that much more insurmountable. It’s the glue that holds all the one-for-ones together, and makes the deck work at maximum efficiency.

With Jund all but gone from the format, Slaughter Games is at an all time low, as are other control decks, so the vast majority of Revelations resolve and remain in the deck, which can only be good for us.

Win Conditions

Elixir of Immortality1 Elixir of Immortality
1 Elspeth, Knight Errant

Elixir was a card that I experimented with as a kill card in Azorius decks last year, but it just took too long to kill with. For whatever reason, turns in the current Standard tend to go a bit quicker, allowing Elixir to behave as a viable win condition.

One of the best sequences is to get this going in concert with huge Sphinx’s Revelations, chaining them together. My record with this deck is milling out an opponent while sitting at 641 life before he died due to having gone through his deck. I had ten minutes left on the clock, while he had thirty seconds…

Elspeth is our single concession to speed, and is our primary kill condition, due to most people realising the futility of playing into the mill plan. She’s given the nod over Aetherling due to Aetherlings weaknesses against the ever prevalent aggro decks, where she can actually do something on the turn she comes in that stems the bleeding, and while the clock that she provides is typically slower, by the time she’s in play, speed isn’t usually the issue at hand.

The Sideboard

2 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
3 Fiendslayer Paladin
3 Gainsay
1 Last Breath
2 Pithing Needle
2 Sin Collector
2 Thoughtseize

These cards should all be relatively self-explanatory in their role. Part of why I enjoy control decks so much is that sideboarding is just so much easier with them than aggro decks – Everything has a purpose, and the cards that are weak are generally obvious.

AshiokNightmareWeaverThe only card that could potentially raise some eyebrows is Ashiok. I was impressed with Ashiok when s/he first appeared, but unsurprised that s/he never found a home, due to being a very strange card indeed.

I sideboard Ashiok in against most decks, as most decks don’t have a realistic way to kill him/her other than attacking, and I’m very much in favour of overloading Hero’s Downfall from the decks that play it, as always, they only have four at maximum, and post board, we’re presenting seven targets on the first lap through the deck.

Best case scenario, Ashiok gains us 5+ life while our opponent scrambles to get the Planeswalker that they’re unfamiliar playing against off the board, while we hit land drops and snipe away at creatures, enabling a larger first Revelation than we would have been able to otherwise. Worst case scenario, they kill or ignore it, and we’re forced to find some other way to stem the bleeding.

I’ve been continually impressed with Ashiok. I don’t think it quite fits in the maindeck yet, but I could see a version of Esper that packed the full four being playable, should the format break right. Thoughtseize continues to be a hell of a card, and would be excellent support to the hypothetical Ashiok deck.

Beyond that, I don’t feel the need to discuss sideboarding any more, everything else should be obvious. The card I cut most often is the Dissolves, against most aggro decks, and the non pin-point removal in the mirror, where appropriate. No card is completely necessary for the deck to operate, so feel free to experiment – you might play the same 75 differently to me (better), leading to certain cards having higher or lower values assigned to them in different matchups.


I’ve got a PTQ at the end of the month, and unless things change significantly, I’ll be playing Esper. Hopefully I’ll have some good news on how I do, because, quite frankly, it’s been far too long.

Stay classy mtgUK,


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