Sideboarding with Esper Control in Frontier

Jesse is back with part two in his series on his favorite deck, Esper Control. This week he tackles proper sideboarding.

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.

We can divide sideboarding into two main segments: constructing a sideboard and sideboarding against the meta matchups. In this article, I will cover both of these. I will start by going through relevant sideboard cards for constructing your Esper Control sideboard — keeping in mind that to correctly build control you need to account for the shifts and particularities of any given meta. Then, I will show you how I’ve been sideboarding with one of my Esper lists.

Constructing a Sideboard

For Aggro

Gifted Aetherborn and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet together actually generate a solid backup plan for Esper Control in Frontier, as it allows us to adjust our gameplan in game two and game three. Lifelink on these allows us to stay at a reasonable lifetotal against aggressive decks. Either can be recurred with Liliana, the Last Hope, which actually is a good transformational sideboard plan for games two and three: lifelink beats.

We can pressure lifetotals, while keeping our lifetotal high, and both of our lifelinkers also have unique benefits. Deathtouch on Gifted Aetherborn and three toughness are relevant, since both of those combined with the lifelink make this card a headache for aggressive decks. Kalitas, on the other hand, can just win the game if left unanswered as he turns our removal spells into miniature Flametongue Kavus. Getting more value from our removal is good. The exile clause can be relevant as well with recursive threats such as Earthshaker Khenra and Scrapheap Scrounger in the format.

Arashin Cleric also synergizes with Liliana, the Last Hope, and the lifegain is immediate, so having it eat a removal spell isn’t that bad. On the other hand, it can’t keep grinding that much value outside chump blocking. Even so, it is still a A+ card against aggro decks.

Relevant matchups: Any aggressive decks (Atarka Red, Abzan Aggro and Mardu Vehicles for example)

A great three mana wipe against annoying aggressive decks, while not as good as some options in Grixis Control, Flaying Tendrils still does what we need it to. Getting rid of Scrapheap Scrounger for good is something I really value, as that card can be a headache for control decks. I recommend running some copies of this in an aggressive meta, but this does little to nothing against combo or midrange or control, so don’t go overboard here.

Relevant matchups: Atarka Red, Mardu Vehicles, Elves.

Threats

Dragonlord Silumgar, The Scarab God and Sphinx of the Final Word are the cards I would consider against control. I think Kefnet, the Mindful has become pretty unplayable as a control hoser with the introduction of Vraska’s Contempt, as his major draw was his immunity to removal.

Sphinx of the Final Word is something I’d reserve a spot for in the current meta, since, while the meta is pretty aggressive, control has become more and more important. If you feel like Sphinx of the Final Word is too narrow answer in the current meta, you could go for The Scarab God instead, because it works well with our Kalitas and Aetherborn transformational sideboard plan. A five drop is a lot cheaper than a seven drop, since you can deploy it with interaction up sooner. It also has some other relevant matchups. Just watch out, Scarab God can be risky against Vraska’s Contempt!

Dragonlord Silumgar can really swing the game in your favor and is also excellent against Abzan and other decks running Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.  I still consider it pretty risky option, and I’d personally prefer The Scarab God over it, but they’re both worth considering.

Relevant matchups for Sphinx of the Final Word: Grixis Control, UB Control and Esper Control

Relevant matchups for The Scarab God and Dragonlord Silumgar: Control and midrange.

Arguel’s Blood Fast and Search for Azcanta are filled with value, and can draw you a ton of cards, but in the current meta, they might not be ideal. First, I want to make it clear that both of these shouldn’t be boarded in against aggressive matchups, as they need some time to start generating you some value.

Against Combo these help you find answers for their combo, but the combo decks in Frontier do not give you the time to find your answers, so I see boarding in a card that isn’t an answer problematic, and I’d prefer to use these slots for cards which actually answer the combo. Against midrange, Search can do some work and let you get ahead in card advantage, but Blood Fast is not ideal as your lifetotal is relevant against midrange. And for the matchup against control they help, but may not be as impactful as other options.

Big walkers that grind out value like Jace, Unraveler of Secrets and Liliana, Death’s Majesty which help you take control of the game are always something you can consider. They tend to be powerful against both control and midrange.

Unfortunately, I feel like they are not that great against the decks in current meta. Aggressive decks can just ignore five-drop planeswalkers, combo loves a turn where the control player is tapped out, and control will just have a counter ready.

I see slotting in one or two Liliana, Death’s Majesty if the meta turns away from combo and turns into a midrange dominant meta, as Liliana can really grind games out. As much as I love Jace, Unraveler of Secrets, I think Search does what Jace does but is two-drop.

Relevant matchups for big walkers: control and midrange decks (but there’s not a lot of midrange in the current meta).

For Combo

In the current meta, Sorcerous Spyglass and Infinite Obliteration serve as the answers to the two infamous combo decks of Frontier: Saheeli Combo and Marvel.

As long as Saheeli is in the meta, Spyglass will have a spot in my sideboard, but it is not something you should rely on too much, since Abrade is a card that will wreck if you are careless. From my experience, Spyglass can destroy Marvel, as artifact hate is not something they usually have too much of.

Infinite Obliteration also does work in these matchups: getting rid of Felidar Guardian or Emrakul, the Promised End can win us the game. I also want to note that Infinite Obliteration can be relevant in the Control mirror too, as we can remove difficult threats from our opponents deck before they have the chance to cast those.

Dispossess is something I could see in a meta where Marvel is king, as Marvel without Marvel is just a bad Temur Energy deck, and will struggle to find a way to win. For the current meta, I feel like Dispossess is a little ambitious, as it doesn’t do much against other tier one matchups.

Relevant matchups for Sorcerous Spyglass: Saheeli Combo and Marvel

Relevant matchups for Infinite Obliteration: Saheeli Combo and Marvel and Control

Relevant matchups for Disposses: Marvel

Counterspells

Dispel, Negate and Disdainful Stroke are good counters to keep in the board, as counters will usually work even if your opponent is playing something surprising. For that reason, you should always have at least some of these in the sideboard.

Dispel does wonders in the control mirror and also has relevant usage against Saheeli Combo and Atarka Red. Negate does something against pretty much every deck, and while Disdainful Stroke is more narrow than Dispel and Negate, it deals with some of the big powerhouses like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Siege Rhino.

Relevant matchups for Dispel: Control, Atarka Red, Saheeli Combo and Bant Coco

Relevant matchups for Negate: Almost everything played in Frontier

Relevant matchups for Disdainful Stroke: Abzan Aggro, Ramunap Red (Hazoret and Chandra) and Control.

Spell Queller is also a card you could consider for sideboard, as it is surprising in the games two and three, it counters something, it pressures planeswalkers, and gives us a clock. Alongside cheap counters like Dispel and Negate, which help to protect your Spell Queller, Spell Queller can be a menace to deal with. I think it does fairly well in the current meta, as it is relevant against a lot of the decks.

Relevant matchups for Spell Queller: Combo, Control, Midrange, Aggro

Hand Disruption

Duress, Collective Brutality, Transgress the Mind, and even Doomfall are spells I’d consider when I want to bring in hand disruption from sideboard.

Duress has the upside of being the cheapest one of the bunch, but I feel like a lot of the time I’d just rather bring in Negate over Duress, since the ideal turn one for Esper Control in Frontier would be Fatal Pushing something or using Opt, and Duress directly conflicts with that plan.

Amongst the two mana counters, I like Collective Brutality for it’s adaptability, and it’s flexibility as it’s good against aggressive decks, Collective Company decks and has some utility against other control and combo decks. Transgress the Mind can be backbreaking against the mainstay combo decks of Frontier: Saheeli Combo and Marvel, but Sorcerous Spyglass is usually better card to board in against those decks. Doomfall is the sideboard Hand Disruption I’d consider if control was the most popular deck in the meta, as it can kill Sphinx of the Final Word (and also notably Carnage Tyrant), but at this point of the meta, I’d probably save the slots for something else

Relevant matchups for Duress: almost every deck has targets for Duress

Relevant matchups for Collective Brutality: Aggressive decks like Atarka Red and Ramunap Red primarily

Relevant matchups for Transgress the Mind: Combo decks

Relevant matchups for Doomfall: Control decks that run Sphinx of the Final Word

Color Hosers

Encase in Ice, Self-Inflicted Wound and Surge of Righteousness all have their uses against certain colors, but do nothing against other colors. I don’t see much use for these in the current meta, as a lot of different decks are played, and having too narrow sideboard cards is problematic. Out of all these color hosing cards, I could see Surge having the biggest chance of these to be playable, as gaining two life is decent benefit. Still, they are powerful cards to keep in mind as the meta shifts.

Graveyard Hate

Tormod’s Crypt is perfectly fine and does everything you need your graveyard hate to do, and is always castable, which is nice. It’s my go to option.

Sentinel Totem and Crook of Condemnation aren’t really good options, generally, as those exile both graveyards and we are looking to use our graveyard to our benefit. I don’t think the additional scry on totem is worth the extra mana when compared with Crypt, so you would need a reason to want to exile both graveyards to play it. Crook would be useful in a situation where it’s first ability was relevant. Otherwise, it’s a more expensive Totem.

In the current meta, you don’t really need graveyard hate in your sideboard, but it is good to know that you have some options here if meta shifts and a list like Jund Delirium comes back.

Artifact and Enchantment Hate

Forsake the Worldly and Fragmentize are good cards to consider if you feel like you need to have answers for troublesome artifacts and/or enchantments. While Fragmentize is cheaper, cycling, instant speed, and the ability to exile Darksteel Citadel that has been enchanted with Ensoul Artifact makes Forsake the Worldly worthy contender despite the higher cmc. In the current meta, these answer vehicles and Marvel, but we can already fight vehicles with cheap removal like Fatal Push and Sorcerous Spyglass is better answer for Marvel, so these aren’t really necessary in the current meta, but like with graveyard hate, it is good to know that we have options here

Consulate Crackdown is too slow and specific to see play at the moment, but it’s worth noting that this sort of option is around for the future. If cards like Creeping Corrosion in modern have taught us anything, it’s that mass removal spells for artifacts are worth tracking as a format develops.

Applying Your Sideboard

And now to the second part of this article: how to use your Esper Control sideboard game to game. This section should help you understand your matchups better, and help you find out what you want out of your sideboard. Esper Control can have a lot of different types of sideboards, but in this meta Kalitas and Gifted Aetherborn plan has overperformed for me, and that is why I am playing them in this version of Esper Control.

Esper Control by Jesse Vuoti

Lands (26)
Drowned Catacomb
Glacial Fortress
Shambling Vent
Prairie Stream
Sunken Hollow
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Negate
Polluted Delta
Flooded Strand
Island
Plains
Swamp

Enchantment (2)
Search for Azcanta

Planeswalkers (2)
Liliana, the Last Hope

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

Instants (19)
Disallow
Fatal Push
Grasp of Darkness
Opt
Vraska’s Contempt
Dig Through Time
Ojutai’s Command

Sorceries (4)
Never//Return
Fumigate
Sideboard (15)
Gifted Aetherborn
Sphinx of the Final Word
Sorcerous Spyglass
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Infinite Obliteration
Flaying Tendrils
Dispel
Negate
Disdainful Stroke

Atarka Red

This matchup is a stress test for the deck. If you sideboard incorrectly, you can make your chances of winning low.

We are cutting our greedier and more expensive wincons, for win conditions better suited for this matchup: Kalitas, Trator of Ghet and, to a lesser extent, Gifted Aetherborn. Bringing in big dudes with lifelink and a solid three mana boardwipe makes us extremely well positioned to win the games post sideboard. While it’s clunky, we keep in Vraska’s Contempt because of the incidental lifegain, which is very important in this matchup and as an answer to Hazoret, the Fervent, which is a commonly played sideboard card.

I think, all things considered, this list has a favorable matchup with Atarka Red. Playing nine permanents with lifelink in our seventy-five, as well as six other cards with incidental lifegain means twenty-five percent of our cards gain us life in games two and three!

In: +3 Gifted Aetherborn, +2 Flaying Tendrils, +2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

Out: -2 Disallow, -2 Search for Azcanta, -1 Never//Return, -2 Torrential Gearhulk

4c Copycat

Here Fatal Push is just a card that doesn’t do enough, so we are taking it out. Tapping out for Kalitas is bad. Like, really bad. To combat the combo we bring in both Infinite Obliteration, which deals with combo for good, and Sorcerous Spyglass. With Spyglass, beware of Abrade!

Counterspells are also relevant in this matchup as many contemporary lists run both Dig Through Time and planeswalkers like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, or Chandra, Torch of Defiance.

I think this matchup depends on the build of copycat. Against more controlling lists heavy on cards like Fumigate, I actually think we have a slightly favorable matchup, but some of the more grindy lists can cause us problems.

In: +2 Sorcerous Spyglass, +1 Infinite Obliteration, +1 Negate, +1 Disdainful Stroke

Out: -4 Fatal Push, -1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

Marvel

Fatal Push doesn’t do anything here. Their threats are ten and thirteen drops, which is well beyond the scope of Push. Similarly, Kalitas can’t help when 13/13 trampling flyer pays you a visit.

Sorcerous Spyglass is better against marvel than it is against Saheeli, as Abrade isn’t quite as common in Marvel lists as it is in Saheeli lists. Infinite Obliteration is also very important, as our list otherwise struggles to beat Emrakul. We bring in relevant counters, to be sure to disrupt their early marvel plays, but even with all of these sideboard cards this is a bad matchup. To have a real chance against marvel as Esper, you probably need to run multiple Spell Quellers, Dispossess and Summary Dismissal.

In: +2 Sorcerous Spyglass, +1 Infinite Obliteration, +1 Negate, +1 Disdainful Stroke

Out: -4 Fatal Push, -1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

Abzan

We don’t have much in the side against Abzan Aggro, but it’s already a positive matchup. We are switching our 5th and 6th “Jace”s for relevant counters to answer Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as that card is really hard for us to beat. As powerful as Search for Azcanta is, we already have enough grindy cards for this matchup and just need to be able to survive to the late game.

In: +1 Disdainful Stroke, +1 Negate

Out: -2 Search for Azcanta

UBx Control

The control mirror, here you can do wonders by being a good player, but our sideboard guide will help you too haha. We are bringing in Sphinx, since it is almost-impossible-to-deal-with 5/5 beater, and will close the game fast if the other Control player isn’t prepared. We are bringing in our counters so we can reliably fight counter battles, but remember, the other Control player is bringing in dispels too. We are taking out Kalitas, because our life total will be irrelevant here for a long time, and most of the time Kalitas will just eat a removal spell. Fatal Push only kills Jace and some lists have been shaving or entirely removing him from the seventy-five, so it is too narrow card for the matchup, which is why we are taking it out.

In: +1 Sphinx of the Final Word, +2 Dispel, +1 Negate, +1 Disdainful Stroke

Out: -4 Fatal Push, -1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

Conclusion

So, Esper Control has answers to many of the decks in the current meta, since white, blue and black give us powerful sideboard options. As a control player, it’s important to be aware of things like what the good graveyard hate and enchantment/artifact removal is.  Even if certain answers are not needed at a given point in the meta, it’s our job to always have the right answers week in and week out. Proactive decks just need to enact a streamlined plan as efficiently as possible. Sideboarding is important for any strategy, but they’re less punished for a misused sideboard slot.

So, the control player really must be aware of the meta matchups, and know how to sideboard against those. The correct use of our fifteen sideboard slots and sideboarding correctly can be the difference between winning and losing for our strategy

I hope my article on sideboarding with Esper Control was enlightening. You can ask me any questions in the comments or tweet me those @dat_glasseschan. In my next article I will talk about Esper Superfriends, a different take on Esper Control, so please stay tuned for that!

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.

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