As regular readers are probably aware, I am rarely found playing blue-based control decks. This Standard season has been an exception. So far I have mostly been playing UW, but the last couple of weeks have seen me wielding Esper instead. The Standard meta has remained surprisingly unchanged since PT Theros, with Mono-Blue and Mono-Black still putting up results. As I’ve played extensively with both variants of the UW shell, I want to talk about the pros and cons of the decks and how they play out in different matchups.
There may be fewer differences between the two main decks than you might suspect, depending on which lists you look at. Here are mine:
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Azorius Guildgate
2 Temple of Triumph
4 Detention Sphere
4 Supreme Verdict
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
2 Essence Scatter
4 Last Breath
4 Sphinx’s Revelation
4 Azorius Charm[/deck]
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of Silence
4 Godless Shrine
4 Watery Grave
3 Detention Sphere
4 Supreme Verdict
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
4 Sphinx’s Revelation
3 Azorius Charm
2 Doom Blade
1 Devour Flesh
1 Far Away
2 Blood Baron of Vizkopa
2 Hero’s Downfall[/deck]
As you can see UW runs more counter magic whereas Esper can drop some in favor of the spot removal spells and hand disruption offered by black. You sometimes don’t even see any maindeck [ccProd]Blood Baron[/ccProd]s, and instead they run only [ccProd]Aetherling[/ccProd]s and [ccProd]Elspeth, Sun’s Champion[/ccProd]s as win conditions.
[draft]temple of deceit
temple of silence[/draft]
The obvious difference is that Esper runs three colors. But the implications of this are not so obvious. You play more tapped lands as you play all 8 copies of the scry lands for the colors ([ccProd]Temple of Silence[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Temple of Deceit[/ccProd]). The scry lands are phenomenal for control decks. The ability to filter through your deck for relevant spells or simply ensure you continue to hit land drops is invaluable. Having this ability on a land is particularly sweet as you don’t have to tap valuable counter magic mana to do it and you always want to be playing lands, so essentially its a free spell. The downside of these awesome lands is that, unlike the shocks, you can’t optionally have them come in untapped if you really need the mana that turn, which can kill you if it’s your 4th land for that all important [ccProd]Supreme Verdict[/ccProd].
Esper cannot, however, afford to run [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd]. [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] is another example of a land doubling as a spell for the purposes of the control deck. UW can use [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] as a win condition when [ccProd]Aetherling[/ccProd] is not forthcoming. [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] can also be used to trade off with troublesome small creatures, or simply as a chump blocker in an emergency. I especially like Mutavault as an answer to opposing [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd]s, which are troublesome for control. Esper, of course, gets spot removal spells instead.
Though it is a two-color deck, UW can still only afford to run two copies of this colorless land. In recent versions, I have taken to running two copies of [ccProd]Temple of Triumph[/ccProd] over two Plains—this allow you to occasional get bonus value with [ccProd]Wear // Tear[/ccProd] and gives you access to some of the powerful scry effect.
Let’s talk first about Esper vs UW. Originally I believed Esper to have the edge, but I think this was back when Esper ran [ccProd]Ashiok[/ccProd] and more copies of [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd]. [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd] allows Esper to pick apart UW in the early game and Ashiok is a complete ace if unanswered, as the ultimate is obscene, plus this matchup often ends with one of the parties milling out, so helping that process along is great. However, now Esper normally only runs two [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd]s in the main deck with a third in the board and no Ashiok. This allows UW to pretty much dominate the matchup.
UW has more counterspells and often more copies of [ccProd]Aetherling[/ccProd]. [ccProd]Aetherling[/ccProd] is unbeatable in this matchup once resolved, and will be responsible for winning the game in a fashion that doesn’t involve milling. UW is more likely to be able to stop an opposing [ccProd]Aetherling[/ccProd] resolving and be able to ensure its own copy resolves. The entire point of the matchup is to resolve [ccProd]Aetherling[/ccProd] and have two blue mana open after the counter war is complete. If you can achieve this then you win the game. [ccProd]Blood Baron[/ccProd] is not a big issue, while it has protection from [ccProd]Detention Sphere[/ccProd] it can be dealt with by [ccProd]Supreme Verdict[/ccProd] (which is uncounterable), Elspeth’s -3 ability, and can itself be countered. All in all, UW is just better set up for the control mirror. In sideboarding both decks gain multiple (normally 4) copies of [ccProd]Gainsay[/ccProd]. Esper can get access to some more hand disruption and more Aetherlings, but honestly UW’s counterspells are just going to dominate.
Against green decks Esper has a better time than UW. Esper has spot removal to take out individual, large threats, rather than having to tap out for a [ccProd]Supreme Verdict[/ccProd] which often lets them resolve a planeswalker. Additionally, Esper has more ways to deal with resolved planeswalkers thanks to [ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd]. I like Esper’s matchup against the green (with a little bit of red) ramp decks, whereas UW has a harder time.
Often the green deck can sneak some sort of early threat underneath counterspell mana (especially when they ramp on the play). This then requires the UW deck to tap out for either [ccProd]Detention Sphere[/ccProd] or a Verdict allowing yet more threats to be resolved. In this way the UW deck can easily lose their grip on the game. On the other hand, Esper gets to leave up counter mana for future threats, then remove something already in play end of turn if nothing is cast. The other major problem UW has is [ccProd]Mistcutter Hydra[/ccProd] post-board, which is just so good against anything that UW has apart from a resolved Elspeth, whereas Esper can just strike it down with a [ccProd]Doom Blade[/ccProd].
Against small aggro decks like mono-white, but also decks like mostly-red burn, both Esper and UW really struggle. Esper is slightly more likely to recover via [ccProd]Blood Baron[/ccProd]’s lifelink, but it’s still a very, very difficult matchup, and generally you are overwhelmed and mercilessly killed. I don’t have anything to add here—if you want to pick which control deck to play based on your aggro matchup, I recommend Mono-Black.
In a complete contrast to aggro decks this matchup is basically an auto-win. They are even cutting [ccProd]Whip of Erebos[/ccProd] from many lists which was one of the few spells that could win them the game if they could get it into play against us. An early [ccProd]Nightveil Specter[/ccProd] under counter magic with only [ccProd]Doom Blade[/ccProd] in hand has been one of my few notable game losses—I still won the match, though. Both UW and Esper are great here. [ccProd]Blood Baron[/ccProd] is obviously obscene but you really don’t need it. Your card quality is just much higher throughout and you have relevant answers to any play they make; the only dead cards are any [ccProd]Doom Blade[/ccProd]s you might be running in Esper.
Lastly we come to Mono-Blue. I left this for last because it’s the matchup I am least certain about. After arguing with myself (yes, I actually do this) I theorized that it depends a lot on the draws of the mono-blue player, and less on mine. If they have an aggressive draw with multiple [ccProd]Cloudfin Raptor[/ccProd]s, then they naturally over-extend into the [ccProd]Supreme Verdict[/ccProd]. After you squash the initial aggression then you can take the reins. This is one time that Esper’s tapped lands can really hurt, as the blue deck is consistent enough that you really want to put the Verdict down on turn 4—normally you can work around this, but sometimes you just have to topdeck that 4th land and hope it doesn’t come into play tapped and/or provides your second white source.
In the other games against Mono-Blue, they instead put out enough early game to force the Verdict but transform into a slower game revolving around [ccProd]Thassa, God of the Sea[/ccProd], [ccProd]Bident[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd]. As good as scry lands are, just imagine getting to do it every upkeep—I would love to run Thassa in UW or Esper. However good Thassa is, it’s nothing compared to the dream team that is [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Bident[/ccProd]. [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] is a pain for UW to deal with, as it relies heavily on counter magic and sorcery-speed removal, both of which [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] is blissfully immune to most of the time—so it only has the four maindeck answers in [ccProd]Last Breath[/ccProd] and a temporary reprieve in [ccProd]Azorius Charm[/ccProd] to stem the bleeding and card advantage.
Esper is slightly better off, as it has the spot removal spells in [ccProd]Doom Blade[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd] to deal with it. As an aside I’m pretty sure [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] is the reason that Esper leans toward [ccProd]Doom Blade[/ccProd] over [ccProd]Ultimate Price[/ccProd]. While it’s worse against Mono-Black, you don’t need more help with your best matchup, and [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] is a real pain. If Mono-Blue gets [ccProd]Bident[/ccProd] + [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] going then they will bury you under card advantage.
You need your [ccProd]Detention Sphere[/ccProd]s to handle [ccProd]Thassa, God of the Sea[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Bident[/ccProd] which can be a bit of a strain on Esper, especially lists which only run 3 copies. I feel like UW is slightly better off, as it can counter the Thassas and Bidents more reliably, but it is weaker to [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd]. All in all, this matchup is about 50-50, and I feel more heavily dependent on the blue player’s draws than my own.
For sideboarding, I absolutely want [ccProd]Pithing Needle[/ccProd] to name [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd] as that really shuts down one of their main strategies. You also get [ccProd]Gainsay[/ccProd], which acts as a strictly better [ccProd]Counterspell[/ccProd] against mono-blue, and, while they also pack 4 in their sideboard, it won’t deal with some of your win conditions such as [ccProd]Elspeth, Sun’s Champion[/ccProd].
I hope this has been a useful insight into the differences and pros/cons of the two blue-based control decks currently in Standard. I actually really like both, and I can’t definitively say which one to play and which to avoid. If you expect green decks, I would lean toward Esper, but if you expect Esper sleeve up UW. That is, in short, the main decision-making process if you want to play one of these decks. I hope you have found this useful if, like me, you have a Standard PTQ to attend this weekend. I will see you next week.