Esper Vehicles has been a popular archetype online for some time now, but hasn’t yet broken through at a major event. This is a tempo deck in its purest form, utilizing powerful and cheap creatures (and vehicles) as well as efficient cards like Fatal Push, Spell Queller, and Metallic Rebuke to punish the opponent for any stumbling that may occur.
The archetype is similar to it’s Mardu Vehicles counterpart in standard, or the Abzan Vehicles list that won North American Champs. The key difference is the addition of counterspells. Because of this, Esper Vehicles has an excellent combo matchup, often running decks like 4 Color Saheeli or Aetherworks Marvel right out of town.
Without unconditional removal like Unlicensed Disintegration, the deck struggles against larger creature decks. It also struggles with decks that can take advantage of the fact that Scrapheap Scrounger and Toolcraft Exemplar aren’t very impressive on defense. Decks like Mono-White Aggro and Atarka Red can put creatures on board at a faster rate than our deck, and in these matchups you’re likely to just get run over with a mediocre draw. Abzan is another troublesome matchup as their creatures are generally larger than yours, which makes racing not a great idea either. Still, this deck doesn’t have any unwinnable matchups and with the right draw should be competitive with anything else you throw against it.
Esper Vehicles, like most tempo decks, rewards the skilled players due to the amount of decisions being made each turn. I’ve personally gotten a lot of reps in with the deck and still feel that I struggle to play optimally sometimes. Many losses can be narrowed down to subtle mistakes that can be hard to pinpoint until after the fact. Stuff like: which creature to crew Copter with?, sequencing land drops, looting, what to delve away with Tasigur, do I hold up Spell Queller?, emblem Gideon or make a 2/2, and so on. While one of these decisions might not lose the game, it’s hard to win if you make too many too many of them. Every deck requires practice to play optimally, but this deck in particular feels like it has a higher learning curve than usual.
Esper Vehicles, by Rasmus Enegren
4 Toolcraft Exemplar
4 Thraben Inspector
4 Scrapheap Scrounger
4 Spell Queller
4 Reflector Mage
2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
4 Smuggler's Copter
3 Fatal Push
3 Metallic Rebuke
4 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
4 Concealed Courtyard
4 Flooded Strand
3 Polluted Delta
2 Windswept Heath
3 Prairie Stream
1 Sunken Hollow
1 Fatal Push
2 Anguished Unmaking
3 Arashin Cleric
2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
1 Wingmate Roc
1 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
1 Painful Truths
2 Disdainful Stroke
Smuggler’s Copter is the namesake vehicle of the Esper Vehicles archetype and is probably the most powerful card in the deck. Absolutely nothing has changed about this card from when it was in Standard – applies pressure, gives your creatures haste, smoothes out draws, solves world hunger, etc. Anything less than four copies is a mistake.
Spell Queller is a fantastic tempo card and one of the main reasons for choosing Esper over Mardu. Queller allows the deck to leverage its faster starts and often close the door by pseudo-countering spells like Languish, Aetherworks Marvel or either piece of the Cat Combo. Even when you’re behind, Queller can be good. It can play the role of a surprise blocker, vehicle pilot, or it just, you know, steals your opponent’s third or fourth turn.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is the best planeswalker in Frontier and an all out powerhouse. Gideon lets the deck either go wide by making tokens, give the team a permanent +1/+1 anthem, or just smash some face for 5 damage at a time. Gideon is also notoriously hard for control decks to deal with, as good planeswalker removal is still lacking. He’s the perfect compliment to this deck and often snowballs a game to victory all by himself. I recommend 3-4 copies in your deck depending on the meta. More control means more Gideon.
Tasigur, the Golden Fang is the delve payoff card for this archetype, thanks to Copter’s looting, in addition to fetchlands, he can often come down for as little as one mana on the third turn. Tasigur is also always relevant on the board, as few creatures can profitably block Tasigur. The activated ability of Tasigur gives us a little bit of reach when we need to go long against Torrential Gearhulks and the like. The fact that he lines up so well against removal spells like Languish, Fatal Push, Abrade, and Grasp of Darkness make him a better choice than other delve cards like Dig Through Time or Treasure Cruise. I recommend playing between 2-3 tasigurs in this deck, as the deck is not flush with ways to fill up the graveyard as consistently as other decks, so getting doubled up Tasigurs in your hand can be backbreaking.
Metallic Rebuke is an all-star in this deck because it allows us to both deploy our threats and also leave mana open to be disruptive. Thanks to the high amount of artifacts we tend to have in play, Rebuke is often a one mana Mana Leak which is an extremely good rate. Along with Spell Queller Metallic, Rebuke allows us to really utilize our fast starts and tempo we generate in the early turns. Play between 2-3 copies of this card.
Matchups and Sideboard Guide
4 Color Saheeli
In this matchup you want to remove the expensive and situational cards from your deck. Fatal Push might seem tempting to keep in as you play lots of fetches, which can trigger revolt and help to kill Felidar Guardian, but most often it forces you to play sub-optimally. Instead, extending the board and getting the cat player dead as quickly as possible should be the preferred plan. If you see that your opponent is on the creature heavy version of Saheeli that plays Whirler Virtuoso and Rogue Refiner, you can keep most or all Fatal Push in, and instead only bring in 1 Negate and 1 Painful Truths. However, against the traditional build of Saheeli you want to maximize on the answers to (obviously) Saheeli Rai, Dig Through Time and sweepers.
VS Controlling Variant
In: +2 Anguished Unmaking, +2 Negate, +1 Painful Truths, +2 Disdainful Stroke
Out: -2 Fatal Push, -4 Reflector Mage, -1 Metallic Rebuke
VS Creature Variant
In: +1 Negate, +2 Anguished Unmaking, +2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, +1 Fatal Push,
Out: -4 Toolcraf Exemplar, -2 Reflector Mage
Because your creatures are worse than Abzan’s, you are the control deck in this matchup. Try to kill everything they play and take advantage of your tempo creatures like Reflector Mage and Spell Queller. Don’t use Reflector Mage on Siege Rhino! You can bring in Anguished Unmaking or Disdainful Stroke against bigger builds of Abzan.
In: +1 Fatal Push, +2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, +1 Wingmate Roc, +1 Sorin, Solemn Visitor, +2 Disdainful Stroke (vs bigger versions of Abzan)
Out: -4 Toolcraft Exemplar, -1 Scrapheap Scrounger
The Atarka Red matchup is one of the toughest for our deck, as our creatures are not very good at blocking, and the fact that Atarka Red is slightly faster than us. Because of this, we want to be the control deck again in this matchup, both on the play and the draw. Board into more defensive creatures like Arashin Cleric, Kalitas, and Wingmate Roc which can block and hit back for massive damage. We need more removal so Fatal Push also comes in. Negate is also good as it hits most of the key spells our opponents will have, like Atarka’s Command, Stoke the Flames, Temur Battle Rage, or Become Immense.
In: +3 Arashin Cleric, +2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, +1 Fatal Push, +2 Negate, +1 Wingmate Roc, +1 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
Out: -4 Scrapheap Scrounger, -2 Toolcraft Exemplar, -3 Metallic Rebuke, -1 Smuggler’s Copter
The control matchup is a fairly interesting one to play. Based on the structure of our decklist it may look like we’d be at a disadvantage due to the limited answers we have for Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and our weakness to Fatal Push. Despite that, the control matchup is most often favorable, or at least even for game 1 and becomes even more favorable post-board. The reason for that comes down to the same reason why Mardu Vehicles was a control crusher for a long time in Standard: most control decks have a hard time beating Scrapheap Scrounger and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
If you account for the fact that most control decks rely on heavy hitters like Dragonlord Ojutai, Fumigate, Languish, or Torrential Gearhulk to stabilize the board, we can totally blow them out with cards like Metallic Rebuke or Spell Queller (not as reliable against Control, though). This all changes if our control opponent has a high number of Magma Spray or Kolaghan’s Command, which can 2 for 1 us early and permanently deal with Scrounger, which can be enough of an edge sometimes.
We want to board out our Metallic Rebukes after sideboard because our opponent is likely to bring in cheap and efficient answers, and Rebuke is much easier to play around post-board. If our opponent is on a more draw/go style control deck we also want to cut Reflector Mage. I would leave the Mages in if my opponent is on a heavier creature control plan, as it is a very good tempo play against cards like Kalitas and Thunderbreak Regent.
Shave some copies of Fatal Push, though I would leave at least one in as hedge against Jace, and we should be able to loot it away with Copter if necessary. Cut some number of Toolcraft Exemplars, especially if you expect the opponent to have plenty of artifact removal like Abrade or Kommand. Finally, cutting a Smuggler’s Copter is reasonable because we expect far fewer of our creatures to survive long enough to pilot it.
In: +2 Negate, +2 Disdainful Stroke, +1 Painful Truths, +2 Anguished Unmaking
Out: -3 Metallic Rebuke, -2 Reflector mage, -2 Fatal Push
Esper Vehicles is a very powerful deck and a solid choice to play if you think you can pilot the deck well. It can be a difficult deck to play for inexperienced pilots, but the basics of the deck are easy to wrap your head around as the deck in its purest form still is an aggressive deck that plays on curve. If you know the meta you are expecting to face is dominated by Saheeli Rai, Aetherworks Marvel or any other combo deck, I would play this deck in a heartbeat, as this archetype preys on those strategies. The reverse is true if you know that a lot of people will be on Rhinos or Swiftspears.