I have been playing control decks almost exclusively for as long as I can remember. I play Miracles in Legacy, UW control in Modern, and, generally, a UW variant in Standard whenever possible, unless a “best deck” shows up.
Last season, before Shadows over Innistrad (SOI), I had brewed a UWb deck that ran Secure the Wastes and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as an end game, but gave up on it to play Rally the Ancestors as I couldn’t figure out how to beat it, and as the season wore on it became obvious that it was the best deck, so I switched to it. After SOI came out, a few of the biggest problem cards for my previous strategy rotated (Temur Battle Rage and Rally the Ancestors, mainly), and the set provided a few cards that fit right in.
I put together my deck and have been putting up solid results consistently since then.
On April 10th, I won the first PPTQ I played with the deck at Gamer’s Spot St. Hyacinthe. The following week (April 16th) I played it in the SCG Open in Columbus to finish 33rd. Two weeks later, at GP Toronto, I lost my last round to finish 134th. The following week at GP New York, I finished 46th. Then I lost in the finals of a PPTQs on May 14, and again on May 21.
This past weekend (May 28th), after I won the PPTQ at La Place Du Collectionneur on Saturday, I told my friend, William Blondon, who had been judging that day that he should run my list on Sunday because I thought it was well positioned and very strong… so he did and he won the event. And so Kar asked me to write a primer on it to share.
So here is the list you’re actually here for:
Esper Control by David Schnayer
This deck is designed to buy time. Everything in it helps you get to the late game: After starting 3-0 in the PPTQ with a control deck that he had never played before, Mr. Blondon sent me the following message:
“I’m probably not side boarding optimally but there were two games against control were I was very much behind and I still came back and won. Deck is oddly good at getting back into games.”
There are games where the mana base may be a little clunky. Like any three color deck, the possibility of running into issues due to it does exist. However, as the deck is built in such a way to overcome these issues, this is mitigated the longer the game goes. And the long game is what this deck wants. Like any control deck, making it out of the early turns in decent shape is key. Your first land drop will almost always come-into-play tapped (CitP), and ordering your land drops in the first few turns is a bit tricky. For example, if you have a Sunken Hallow and a Shambling Vent in your opening hand, with a basic that isn’t an Island, it is tempting to play the Vent first as the Sunken Hallow may be able to come in untapped at a later point – however the correct play is likely the Sunken Hallow as it will enable many more turn 2 plays than the Vent.
The most obvious path to victory with the deck is through a large end of turn Secure the Wastes, into flipping Westvale Abbey. However, there are many other lines at play, and figuring out what to do with the cards you draw can be tricky. Games can be won quickly with a Gideon attacking or a Narset hitting ultimate, if needed. Sometimes grinding with Westvale Abbey tokens and Shambling Vent gets there, and other times Sorin will be able to kill your opponent by reveling a few high costed cards. While Jace emblem is possible, generally you want to be getting value from your Jace by using its minus ability.
While Esper Dragons is the only known Esper deck in the format, this deck is closer in style to the BW control deck than Dragons. I feel like I have a strong edge in both of those matchups, and my results with the deck reflect it. We are a bigger control deck that both of them; Dragons is weak to your threats and theirs are generally easy to deal with, and against BW we have better card advantage and counterspells.
The hardest matches for this deck are decks that feature a fast clock and their own counters to back them up and keep us from clearing the board. The biggest single problem card for us is Gideon; if they play it on turn 4 and we can’t answer quickly or counter it, then we are probably going to lose to it.
Key Card Choices and Discussion:
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy // Telepath Unbound
Jace, Vyrn’s Prodigy is the only creature in the main deck. Many people quickly point it that it must die to removal often, and that is true. The thing that people don’t think about is that I don’t mind my turn 2 Jace dying to removal. If my opponent spends his turn 2 or 3 killing my Jace, then he doesn’t spend it play a threat, which means more time to make land drops and move towards the late game. There are also many times that he often doesn’t die to removal, and then the card advantage he creates and the time he buys by nerfing attackers is huge.
Painful Truths over Read the Bones
Painful Truths is much stronger than Read the Bones in most situations. You always want the extra card, and the life lost is more than offset by that fact. Playing a turn 3, Painful Truths for 3, and having to discard a card at end of turn is not necessarily bad. Discarding will help flip Jace, possibly turn on delirium sooner, and improves your overall hand at very little cost. Also, don’t be afraid to play Painful Truths for 2 if you have no other turn 3 play and a colourless source in play; it’s still fine.
Descend upon the Sinful and Languish Split
When I first started with this list, I had 3 Languish and 1 Descend upon the Sinful (DutS) in the main deck with the fourth languish in the board. I quickly realized that DutS is actually much better against the field. I never wanted 4 Languish, even against the most aggressive decks like Mono White Humans. Once I shifted to two in the main, 1 in the board of each, I have been much happier with the balance.
Descend upon the Sinful is like two of my favorite magic cards in one – Terminus and Entreat the Angels. Getting delirum with this deck is not automatic, but it happens most games by the time you want to cast Descend. The angel token also provides another kill condition and blocks creature lands that could attack back through your sorcery speed removal. DutS is also very relevant to exile things against decks that run Zulaport Cutthroat or Hangarback Walker.
(I did consider Planar Outburst, but it’s blanked by Avacyn too often, and awakening it is harder than getting delirium.)
Declaration in Stone over Other Removal
I have heard many people say that Declaration in Stone (DiS) is not good in control because the opponent will always have time to crack their clues. While it’s very true that they will have time to crack their clues, it’s always better that they draw a random card over a threat that could win them the game (there is no wrong threat, only wrong answers). The fact that it only costs 2 mana, hits everything, and exiles is also very important against many decks. I originally had four in the main and went down to 3 but I’m still unsure if the change was right.
Secure the Wastes
This card is what makes this deck win so many games. It can be used both defensively and offensively. And to understand when to use it is key to setting up many victories. It can act as a pseudo removal or help you defend a planeswalker close to ultimate. It can be used to put a clock on your opponent who has no clear cut ways to answer 4 1/1 tokens. It can “gain” you life by blunting an attack to help you setup a board wipe. Figuring out how to use your best weapon will at times pull you out of a game you thought you were about to lose. There have been a few times that games have gotten to a point that I played secure for 5 main phase and then immediately used the tokens to flip my Abbey and kill my opponent.
Battle for Zendikar Lands vs Shadows over Innistrad Lands
I’ve seen many a three color mana base lean on the SOI lands heavily, but I only run 1 (Port Town). The reasoning behind this is that I don’t mind my lands coming into play tapped on turns 1 or 3 at all, and 4 most of the time, but I really want to have untapped land drops later when I want to play multiple spells or play a large Secure the Wastes. Having to keep another land in my hand to play out the SoI lands is not a good thing.
The sideboard of this deck is a ton of one-ofs of cards that already have copies in the main deck. Sideboarding is a bit of an art form. It’s not always clear what you should bring in or what you should leave out. Too often, players tend to over board and that is worse than under boarding. Even after playing the deck for almost 2 months, I still need to think hard or look at my list as I’m un-boarding to figure out what I put in or took out.
Some of the numbers don’t line up, that is because I’m not sure what the best next thing to cut is.
Pick the brain is in the board due to mana curve issues – the fact that it can hit any non-land and gives you info about your opponent’s deck is great, but not generally needed in game 1.
The biggest problems from GW you need to deal with are Gideon and Evolutionary Leap – if they don’t have either of these cards, and/or you can deal with them quickly, then you win.
Maybe: +1 Declaration in Stone
Countering their acceleration is a gamble, but you want to make sure that you can get rid of their Ulamog/Kozilek from their hands before they are able to cast them. World Breaker can only ever hit your lands, which isn’t ideal, but Declaration in Stone is fine at dealing with it once it’s in play.
GB Aurora Ramp
Maybe: +1 Anguished Unmaking
Maybe: +1 Languish
They can win games where they have multiple Zulaport Cutthoarts and a Nantuko Husk before you can Descend upon the Sinful – without those you can board wipe them more times that they can recover from.
Maybe: +1 Anguished Unmaking, +1 Dispel
Be careful of Rites going over the top, them being able to flip Abbey quickly, and Reality Smashers post board.
Secure the Wastes is at its best here – use it as a removal spell and/or to buy turns until you play a board wipe and win.
You are both playing control and you have better card draw and counter spells.
Grixis Control (Like the one in top 8 of GP Manchester)
Maybe: +1 Anguished Unmaking
Maybe: +1 Declaration in Stone
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them here or message me directly – I’ll do my best to answer them.