A Guide to Esper Control in Ixalan

New author, Jesse Vuoti, discusses his favorite archetype in Frontier: Esper Control!

Hello everyone, my name is Jesse and I am a Frontier enthusiast and a control player. I’ll be working on Frontier content for MTG.one and I hope you enjoy my take on the format.

Today, I’m going to take an in-depth look at Esper Control. A lot of competitive players, like our own Rasmus Enegren, think Blue-Black Control is a better choice. Well, I think otherwise. I feel like with proper support and good deckbuilding, the white splash for Fumigate takes traditional Blue-Black Control from a good deck to a great one.

Fumigate is just a bomb, truly an A+ card in the current meta. Languish, the boardwipe of choice in Blue-Black and some of Simon Tubello’s Grixis lists is more of a B. It does a good job against Atarka Red just by being a four cmc wrath, but is often underwhelming in other matchups. Fumigate is too slow alone against the fast aggressive decks in the format, but when used as a followup to early interaction, it does something other board wipes cannot: it gains you life. This will be something of a theme with our white splash.

The best thing in Fumigate is that it’s relevant in every matchup! It helps to deal with Emrakul, the Promised End against Marvel, where Languish or Crux of Fate are largely blanks. Fumigate also does work against decks that go tall instead of going wide, like BG scales. It’s also the best boardwipe against the bane from Khans standard, Siege Rhino (which is is left alive by Languish.) Even against control, it can still destroy Dragonlord Ojutai, Silumgar the Drifting Death, Torrential Gearhulk, or slow down The Scarab God. It may seem funny to splash a double white card, but it’s the first of a few opportunities to add incidental lifegain and additional tools to our Blue-Black control shell.

The white splash also allows us to play Ojutai’s Command, which is an underrated card in the format. It’s often the difference from being able to reliably flip Jace, Vryn’s Prodigies and not. It also does a good Cryptic Command impersonation (counter, draw), while giving us another piece of lifegain against Atarka Red.

Similarly, Shambling Vent is another source of lifegain and almost worth splashing on its own. Vent is a land which taps for relevant mana while doubling as a threat, emergency blocker and a renewable source of lifegain. It’s very good and something the Blue-Black list and Grixis lists are missing. Wandering Fumarole is nice, but just not in the same league as Shambling Vent.

All of these changes probably seem small, or marginal, until you take a step back and realize we’ve added seven cards with incidental life gain and three threats to the list essentially for free. Depending on how high you are on Vraska’s Contempt, that gives us nine or ten extra Healing Salves in our deck. I don’t understand playing Blue-Black when the Esper mana is this good and the splash cards are this impactful.

Now, I am going to take a more philosophical look at control in Frontier, before presenting you with the list I started to test with. From there I’ll discuss some of the possible cards you can run in Esper Control, and then I’m going to wrap this article up with the list I ended up with. In my next article I’ll discuss sideboarding in control, generally, before continuing this article series on different variants of Esper Control: from Superfriends, to Dragons, to tempo variants, I’ll run through all of the competitive variants of this archetype in the coming weeks!

Control in Frontier

Players like Matthew Murday (host of Magic, the Final Frontier) say that control is dead in the face of decks like Cat combo. I’ve heard this tired refrain before and I just don’t believe it. When control isn’t the dominant deck, we hear this again and again — be it in Frontier, in Modern, or beyond. Control is dead, or the format is too diverse to answer everything, they say. It’s rarely the truth.

In Frontier especially, these arguments strike me as absurd. We have access to Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise and Torrential Gearhulk. The first three are all Vintage staples. Gearhulk too has shown it has what it takes, on occasion, in eternal formats. As I’ll cover in this article, we’re not lacking in counterspells and answers to go along with this raw power. So, why are people afraid of sleeving up Control?

I think the honest truth is that Control is hard to build. It’s a grind. You can’t just run back the same seventy-five week after week: as the meta shifts, you have to be willing to shift with it.  I think that a good example of this is Matsuda Yukio’s winning list. It predicted the Atarka Red heavy meta, and managed to succeed there. His list was critiqued for two maindeck Essence Extraction’s, but the results speak for themselves.

I aspire to build lists like he did. I aspire to predict the meta successfully tournament after tournament. What do I mean? A good analogy was Pro Tour Kaladesh where Shota Yasooka took a Grixis list with, you guessed it, main deck Essence Extraction, to the finals and beat Carlos Romão in a battle for the ages. If you want to learn how to play a control mirror, you could start with worse matches of Magic .. but I digress. What makes Yukio’s list brilliant is what made Shota’s list brilliant: it was set up to win in a specific environment. If I had been playing in the 9th God’s Challenge, I hope I would have came to two maindeck Essence Extraction because it was the right call.

For, as I believe, Control is one of the best archetypes in Frontier, Modern, or any format in which the pilots are willing to put in work. It’s just not easy predicting the meta and always having the right answers. But, for those dedicate to this craft, it’s some of the funnest Magic you’ll ever play. Just remember, if you’re on last week’s list, you’re doing it wrong; try a different list, like Atarka Red, or try an easier format, like Standard.

Esper Control in Frontier

Esper Control Test List by Jesse Vuoti

Lands (25)
Polluted Delta
Flooded Strand
Drowned Catacomb
Glacial Fortress
Shambling Vent
Prairie Stream
Sunken Hollow
Island
Plains
Swamp
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Instants (20)
Fatal Push
Opt
Censor
Negate
Disallow
Ojutai's Command
Vraska's Contempt
Dig Through Time

Sorcery (4)
Fumigate
Never//Return

Creature (7)
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
Torrential Gearhulk
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Enchantments (2)
Search for Azcanta

Planeswalkers (2)
Liliana the Last Hope

Sideboard (15)
Gifted Aetherborn
Flaying Tendrils
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Kefnet the Mindful
Sorcerous Spyglass
Infinite Obliteration
Dispel
Negate
Disdainful Stroke

This is the list I started testing on as soon as Ixalan spoilers were released.

Card Selection & Early Plays

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is card selection early and one of our most critical threats late. It’s also a card which has kept me playing Esper Control in Frontier since the beginning of the format.  I will gladly continue to play it, as the card is just that powerful.

The looting effect is good, and Jace, Telepath Unbound is broken good. Some Blue-Black lists have actually decided to cut JVP, as it will often eat a Fatal Push, but in Esper we have Ojutai’s Command, which will make flipping the Jace from a if into a when.

Looking at the new Ixalan cards, Search for Azcanta reminds me of Jace, and it has benefits compared to JVP. It dodges creature removal, but on the other hand, I would argue that the payoff isn’t as immediate, or quite as great as Jace (the mana investment is relevant here). I think Search of Azcanta is fine 5th Jace, or even 6th Jace. If you decide to go down the “cut Jaces route,” then Search can work as a substitute, but one of the advantages to Esper is we’re the best Jace deck, so try to run him!

Baral, Chief of Compliance is a card that doesn’t fit into every deck, and might actually be worse now that Search for Azcanta was added. The cost reduction allows you to run cards like Anticipate and Supreme Will, and keep counters up at all times. It is pretty awkward with boardwipes though, and I’m not entirely sure if playing Baral is even worth it anymore.

Dig Through Time is really strong refill and card advantage and selection for control decks, but remember to control yourself (haha, ok, sorry) when building your deck. I don’t want to see any four Dig, four Torrential Gearhulk lists! I think it would have to be really specific deck for you to want Treasure Cruise over Dig, and running both seems way too greedy, even with Opt now legal. Still, Cruise is a very good card and rare lists can support it as a fifth Dig.

Opt is a easy 4-of. It’s an instant speed cantrip which allows our control decks to run consistently. I just don’t really see any reason to not run Opt. We need cantrips to smooth out our draws and it’s by far the best one in the format.

Now, here comes the slightly more difficult part: Anticipate and Strategic Planning. Planning puts cards into your graveyard, allowing our flip-able two-drops to flip, and filling our grave with delve fodder, but it is a greedy choice, as sorcery speed is really painful here. Anticipate on the other hand, doesn’t put stuff into your grave, but is instant so it can be used more safely, allowing you to keep counters up. I think running Anticipate over Planning is generally better, but with Opt, you don’t even need Anticipate that much. Anticipate is good for lists running Baral though, but with Baral largely pushed out by Search, I don’t expect to see many lists using Anticipate.

Hieroglyphic Illumination is solid with the cheap cycling, but on the other hand, hardcasting it isn’t really that impressive compared to Glimmer of Genius. Here I think I still favor Illumination a bit more, but Glimmer is really solid, especially if you are going for Esper Draw Go type of list.

Chart a Course is an improved Tormenting Voices in many builds of Esper, but some more tempo oriented lists will be able to play it as a two cmc Divination, or a painless Night’s Whisper but that isn’t necessarily what we want, as we aren’t focusing on the tempo aspect today. Most of the time I’d run Anticipate in control oriented versions, but fear not, I will talk about more tempo oriented Esper in future articles, as this card has a lot of potential in those types of lists.

Counterspells

I like three mana counters a lot, but my opinion could be in the wrong here. I easily understand if your opinions differ and you prefer lower converted mana cost interaction. With that being said, I think Disallow is really reliable and our best option. It can deal with nasty triggers like the Emrakul mindslaver cast trigger or Ulamog’s double Vindicate.

Void Shatter, on the other hand, deals well with recurring threats, and is good against Marvel and Jund decks which try to rush Emrakul onto the board. Here I am favoring Disallow, but if you feel like you need Void Shatter in your meta, it’s okay.

Supreme Will is a slightly different type of card, as it is not an unconditional counterspell. It works as a 3-mana Impulse, which isn’t a terrible mode. I think running some Supreme Wills is good, especially if you feel like your deck isn’t running smoothly and you don’t like the non-Opt cantrips.

Censor is a card that has created some debate, but it pretty clearly has some good points, and you should definitely at least consider it. If you want to run it, it’s completely fine, just don’t get fooled: Censor is mainly cycled.

Now here comes another conditional counter, but I think Spell Pierce will be alright to run in tempo based strategies, and I really like the fact that it has the same mana cost as Opt, so you can keep your Pierce up and Opt if Pierce is not needed. Pierce allows you to fight battles you otherwise couldn’t, like Spell Piercing a Fatal Push to protect your babyjace.

Negate is pretty good card in Frontier, and every deck is running non-creatures, so it will always have targets. It also hits some of the most problematic threats in planeswalkers, in addition to all interactive spells. Don’t get too carried away in the main, as it is conditional.  Just do like control decks in modern do, run some number in the main and the rest in the sideboard.

Disdainful Stroke, on the other hand, is a card I’m not really fond of, as its targets are really limited.  When it’s good it’s great, but I like it as a sideboard card.  Obviously, adjust for your meta, but I can’t see running more than one main (beyond extreme situations.) At the point where we’re countering high cmc cards, I prefer my three mana counters.

Essence Scatter is playable, but I generally prefer to stop creatures with removal spell. Just to be a completionist, I’ll mention that you shouldn’t play Revolutionary Rebuff: the converted mana cost is right, but Mana Leak this is not.

Answers

Fatal Push is strong, and I strongly recommend running it as a four of. We still have some limits to the amount of fetches we can run, so in lists heavy in other removal spells, you can leave a copy or two in your sideboard. Always run the four in your seventy-five.

I think Walk the Plank is fine, especially if you are facing a lot of Abzan Aggro, but I also value Grasp of Darkness‘ instant speed. Grasp can also interact with otherwise problematic cards like Gideon of the Trials, or Hazoret the Fervent. Here the exact split should be determined by your local meta.

Never//Return is a card I usually try to play. Never is a solid catch all which importantly allows you to hit planeswalkers.  Return has real value, as the 2/2 blocker can be relevant and it’s often useful to stop a recursive threat, limit delirium, or stop other blue decks from flashing back key instant spells.  The casting cost is high, which limits the numbers we can play, but the bonus of Return makes it worth considering in our seventy-five.

I can’t really recommend other spells like Essence Extraction for mainboard unless all three of your frontier playing friends are only playing Atarka Red, as the card can be lackluster against many other decks. Similarly, Murder just doesn’t pack enough punch for its cost to reliably play in Esper, unless your metagame is very heavy in midrange and Scales.

Vraska’s Contempt is a card I want to bring up, as there has been a lot of debate about this card. Matt Murday and others have said that they doesn’t think Vraska’s Contempt is good, or that it’s a “trap,” but that’s simply misguided. A lot of these players haven’t even tested the card, so it’s worth taking their sensationalist points with a grain of salt: it’s not only in there for Gideon, as has been claimed, nor is it equivalent in power level to Utter End. What these people miss is that the incidental lifegain matters, the exile clause matter, the mana cost matters.

All of that aside, here is what I think about Contempt: I think it is good, and it does everything I expect it to do. My friend Rasmus described it as a catch all answer, and I agree with him. Contempt deals with nasty threats, gives you some life, and is easily flashed back with Gearhulk. It’s a card I am happy to run in my lists!

I’m personally a fan of Cast Out and start each of my lists with one in the main, as the cycling allows us to redraw when Cast Out is not needed. It’s worse now with Vraska’s Contempt, but especially in more white heavy builds, it’s a powerful option and a good answer to Emrakul.

Anguished Unmaking gets pretty painful, but it can be flashed back with JVP and Torrential Gearhulk (which gets more painful). I think if you feel like you need something like Anguished Unmaking, you are usually fine to run Vraska’s Contempt, as for 1 mana more, instead of lightning bolting your own face, you actually gain life! It can’t hit artifacts or enchantments, though, so it’s reasonable to occasionally play Unmaking in the sideboard.

Ixalan’s Binding is really hurt by the sorcery speed, and Cast Out is usually better. Cast Out, again, deals with Emmy at instant speed, whereas Binding ends up enchanting one of our own creatures. It would take a very particular metagame for me to want to playing Binding, but it’s a part of my toolbox when I build Esper in Ixalan because of the secondary text.

Here are the utility cards, which do a lot of cool things. Realistically, Blessed Alliance has two relevant modes for us (untapping is only good in pretty specific cases, though, it can come up to flip a Jace). I think it is pretty solid, but not something I want too many copies of.

Collective Brutality also has multiple options, but I think the escalate cost might be slightly more difficult for us to pay in most matchups. It can really be a game winner against Atarka Red, though, getting Atarka’s Command out of their hand, killing a dude and draining for two. I think Collective Brutality is a solid inclusion, but I wouldn’t go overboard with how much copies I run, and I tend to favor it more in UB lists instead of Esper.

Ojutai’s Command is the most expensive card of the bunch, but is criminally underrated. I want at least one copy of Ojutai’s Command in any deck with Jace, as it allows us to flip him at instant speed, which is an incredibly powerful mode. Looking at the other modes, they’re all great: countering a creature, four life and drawing a card make this a mini-Cryptic Command in Esper. It’s also one of the most powerful cards you want to be flashing back with Jace and Torrential Gearhulk (after Dig Through Time, of course.)

Yahenni’s Expertise helps you build board presence after the wipe with freecasting one of your flippable 2-drops or maybe Liliana, the Last Hope, but -3/-3 doesn’t do enough in a lot of the cases, so unless your meta is really aggressive, I don’t recommend running it.

Languish on the other hand, is a four mana boardwipe that deals with more things. It doesn’t help develop a board presence, so is more costly than expertise, but is a better choice against Abzan. If you are facing a lot of aggressive decks, one of these four mana wipes can help you win those matchups.

As discussed earlier, Fumigate is a five mana boardwipe, and compared to four mana boardwipes that is a disadvantage that cannot be ignored, but Fumigate destroys everything that isn’t indestructible, and unlike the 2 previous wipes, it kills the infamous Siege Rhino. Fumigate also gains you some life so you have more time to take the control of the game, but due to Fumigates cost, you need to play removal. You can’t just rely on Fumigate. If you think “I have Fumigate, I can win this game easily, I just have to do nothing until turn five, jam Fumigate and win,” well, you are wrong. You will also just be dead before Fumigate is cast.

Threats

I personally play 1-2 Kalitas, Trator of Ghet in the maindeck just because it helps me stabilize against aggressive decks and is a powerful finisher in his own right. Kalitas also pretty much wins the game against Mardu Vehicles, which is a tier two deck, but one which I think is underrated. Exiling dudes and getting blockers with removal becomes harder to deal with for the aggressive deck for every second they allow that Kalitas to stay on board. Kalitas is pretty similar with Fumigate in a way, as it also needs cheap removal to support it. Having some copies in the sideboard is also solid.

Tasigur, the Golden Fang creates a lot of value, but we want to avoid running too much delve cards. Still, some copies of Tasigur are okay. I guess my biggest problem with Tasigur is the fact that it doesn’t always generate immediate value, and gets pretty easily removed.

The Scarab God, on the other hand, doesn’t have a lot of targets to eternalize in our deck, but getting Torrential Gearhulk or Jace is pretty good. I think I prefer Scarab God more in Jeskai Black type of strategies, which run Soulfire Grandmaster, but it shows up in Blue-Black, so is a consideration in Esper.

Liliana, the Last Hope does wonders against Mono-White weenies and kills goblin tokens against Atarka Red. She also gets back our Jaces and Torrential Gearhulk in more grindy matches. She is solid, and is worth few slots. She also supports our sideboard plan against aggressive decks, which is using Gifted Aetherborn alongside Kalitas to gain some life and stop the aggression. Lili allows us to recur those lifelinking dudes and milk them for the maximum value.

Spell Queller is a big draw towards Esper. While controlling versions play it out of the sideboard, it’s good in the mirror and great against the combo decks. The more combo you expect, especially Marvel, the more Quellers I would play.

I personally am a fan of Torrential Gearhulk, but it doesn’t have a place in every kind of Esper Control list in Frontier.  For example, Esper Control lists utilizing a lot of planeswalkers are  more of a tapout control decks. Generally, I like to run two or three Gearhulks. One is too few and four is way too much!

My Current List

I tested this particular list recently as part of the Untap Open League’s second season of online Frontier play. I built my deck thinking that Atarka Red was THE deck to beat, so I ended up focusing on the aggro matchup, which can be seen from the fact that I have six boardwipes in seventy-five, and a lot of lifelinkers too. I also ended up cutting censors all together, as with four censors and four opt my deck felt like it had too much “air” and not enough “gas”. Without further ado, this is the deck I’m currently running:

Tuned Esper Control by Jesse Vuoti

Creature (7)
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Torrential Gearhulk
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

Instant (20)
Opt
Disallow
Negate
Fatal Push
Grasp of Darkness
Vraska’s Contempt
Ojutai’s Command
Dig Through Time

Enchantment (2)
Search for Azcanta

Sorcery (4)
Fumigate
Never//Return

Planeswalkers (2)
Liliana, the Last Hope
Lands (25)
Drowned Catacomb
Glacial Fortress
Shambling Vent
Prairie Stream
Sunken Hollow
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Polluted Delta
Flooded Strand
Island
Plains
Swamp

Sideboard (15)
Gifted Aetherborn
Languish
Sorcerous Spyglass
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Infinite Obliteration
Flaying Tendrils
Dispel
Negate
Disdainful Stroke

Conclusion

Building a control deck is always about reading the meta, and sometimes that can be tricky, but it is important to keep in mind that control decks can be adjusted to many different metas, as long as you keep your eyes open when building your list. Your options are limitless. The meta we are currently in is a one that keeps control decks honest: we have to able to reliably interact during the early turns against decks like Atarka Red and Abzan Aggro, and we have to limit our greedy plays which require tapping out at sorcery speed due to combo decks like Marvel and Saheeli Combo.

I am going to continue talking about traditional Esper Control in my next article, focused on sideboarding, before turning to themed builds like Esper Dragons. So, please stay tuned for more! I’m new to Twitter, but feel free to give me a follow @dat_Glasseschan. You can also follow the rest of the team @mtgdotone. We’re happy to discuss anything Magic related in the comments or on social media.

Jesse Vuoti
Seventeen year old Finn who enjoys playing control. I am active Frontier Grinder, but I also play Modern a decent amount. Lame sense of humor warning.
more content from MTG.one

2 Responses to “A Guide to Esper Control in Ixalan”

  • […] Hello everyone, my name is Jesse, and today I am talking about sideboarding with Esper Control in Frontier. If you missed it, you can find part one of this series here. […]

  • Hey Jessie,
    Nice to see a super in depth guide as I agree that control is definitely an underrated deck in most formats. I’m wondering how you would tackle a control deck that is almost 100% different than this list: Seasons Past. This card ever since John Finkle masterfully played this deck has been my pet card and frontier has given the deck a lot to work with. I believe that this style of deck is a good choice, but building an optimal deck is near impossible. While I can’t say these past six months trying to build this pile has been super successful, I have learned a lot on what not to do and I believe I’m on a turning point – this is where I want to see how you approach a deck like this. If you would be interested in making a deck like this and then doing an article about it, I would be super excited to see your viewpoint.
    Thanks,
    -Michael

    P.S.
    Just for some helpful hints to get started if you do choose to give this a go are:
    1) Always make this a three color deck – This means Junk, Jund, or BUG. I feel like Jund and BUG are stronger than Junk, but I could easily be proven wrong as I agree with this article that white adds a lot of strong incidental life gain
    2) After taking a bit too long to realize his standard meta is nothing like frontier’s meta, you need to disregard his list as a starting point. So what I’ve learned is that the building blocks for this deck is to approach this deck as if you are building a 54 card B/Gx with a 14 card sb (this means 4 petition 1 seasons mainboard and 1 seasons sideboard a.k.a. the optimal ratio)

    From there it’s a whole bunch of guessing on how this actually will unfold to see if it works.
    Good Luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *