Esper Has Emerged as the Answer to Sultai Midrange

While the first weekend was dominated by Hydroid Krasis and a makeover of the traditional Golgari Midrange deck, Esper Control and Midrange look to be the answer. Still, we’re going be stuck with Sultai for a long time. It’s a solid deck and can be modified for most metagames, but it isn’t Temur Energy where it has better cards than the opposition all along the curve.

Out of the established decks, Izzet Drakes had a favorable matchup against Sultai due to its overabundance of expensive removal, rather than Cast Down or Assassin’s Trophy—and even those can be beat with Dive Down and Pteramander. Mono-Blue exemplified the kind of strategy that Sultai dislikes, one that can punish its slow sorcery speed plays with countermagic. Entrancing Melody post-board can also steal their two best threats.


In fact, Andrea Mengucci made a bold claim last week about Drakes possibly being the best deck in Standard. We then see four copies of Drakes in the Top 8 of the Magic Online Mythic Qualifier. All of them are practically the same now, so I’m not going to feature any. Rather, I just want to point out that Pteramander is a big game in the format right now and does a lot of work in the deck.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Gates deck simply goes way beyond what most Sultai builds are equipped to deal with. They may be able to answer a 6/6 Gatebreaker Ram or an 8/8 Gate Colossus, but they probably aren’t beating Guild Summit drawing 4 or a Mass Manipulation targeting your best threats. The Nexus versions care even less and have Root Snare to buy time as well, though arguably they have a harder time post-board.

Simply put, it’s the stereotypical midrange deck, but doesn’t have the same ways to cheaply disrupt opponents that G/B/x decks of old have had. It turns out that lacking Thoughtseize or discard spells will do that. Meanwhile, the modern-day version in Thought Erasure makes Esper a much stronger iteration against a metagame adapting to Sultai Midrange. Here are two Esper Control decks that Top 8’d their SCG Team Open/Classic, respectively.

First, the Team Open list piloted by Edgar Magalhaes:

Esper Control

And the Classic list by Abraham Stein:

Esper Control

Esper is in a unique position right now where it benefits from the metagame slowing down, which allows it to take time off to surgically remove key cards. It also enables a slower engine like Disinformation Campaign, Thief of Sanity, or The Eldest Reborn to build up momentum and effectively lock players in topdeck mode in the late game. Even the midrange builds benefit from Thought Erasure clearing the way and providing key information for how to develop their board. This is even more important when you have cards like Deputy of Detention (The Dude-o-sphere) and Hostage Taker that can be undone if played at the wrong moment.

Rhythm of the Wild

So if Esper decks are teeing off on the other established midrange decks and by extension the go-big decks via discard and countermagic, where do we go next? Well, Esper struggles when the format slides back toward fast decks and threat-dense decks that are resilient to discard. Mono-Red, Mono-Blue, and Gruul Aggro all put them on the back foot and force them to play their removal on time. Cards like Rhythm of the Wild also get a boost because giving creatures haste plays around the typical issues of trying to get around a Kaya’s Wrath/Disinformation Campaign soft lock.

Thief of Sanity

The other way to go is simply to play the same type of strategy but with cheaper threats instead of just loading up on even more discard. There’s a reason why Thief of Sanity is following in Nightveil Specter’s footsteps in terms of power in a proper blue mirror. If it isn’t dealt with, you can just run away with the game, and there aren’t any cheap planeswalkers to otherwise gain card advantage from.

Mono-Blue performed well this weekend in the Magic Online Mythic Qualifier simply by going under most of these decks and abusing cheap countermagic. This goes back to people wanting to play safe midrange strategies and taking an angle that punishes them for sticking with slower strategies with setup time. You don’t even need Curious Obsession to lock up the game anymore. Chaining Essence Capture, Dive Down and Wizard’s Retort often buys enough time that it becomes very hard for a Sultai or Esper Midrange player to come back.

Just look at the list Max_9 took to the Top 8:

Mono-Blue Aggro

Chart a Course

Chart a Course isn’t even in the list anymore, and Pteramander gives the deck a bit more punch if the game goes longer. There’s no agreed-upon base and I’ve seen versions with the full four Capture, Pierce, and Retort main deck! That’s a whole lot of ways to protect your creatures and punish 4-6 mana spells.

The Gates deck can also be tweaked for this matchup by adopting more anti-control cards. If it isn’t being clocked it can easily leverage the ridiculous land base to jam whatever threats you prefer. It also benefits from a wider array of sideboard cards (Cindervines, Rhythm of the Wild, Banefire, Niv-Mizzet, Carnage Tyrant, Treasure Map, etc.), along with Guild Summit as a constant threat to give the Gates player a full refill. While the deck can’t easily shrug off discard, only Disinformation Campaign recursion is a long-term threat to the deck. Otherwise, the post-board games are much closer.

Hydroid Krasis

The key takeaway is that the metagame has already shifted back toward beating the traditional midrange strategies and Hydroid Krasis decks. This leaves us with a format that involves a lot of players trying to either add minor tech for mirror matches or playing a deck they believe lets them go bigger. At some point soon, that means small-ball aggro plans are going to come back into prominence.

The boogeyman now has moved away from red and is focused on Nexus of Fate decks with Wilderness Reclamation. If people ever stop treating them as serious threats, then expect them to run amok in the metagame. Bant Nexus won the Magic Online Mythic Qualifier and has continued to perform respectably in paper. If you can’t interact well or don’t have a shot at racing game 1, then you’re putting a real burden on yourself post-board. If Thought Erasure and countermagic remain the weapons of choice, then it won’t be nearly as big of an issue.

Right now we’re seeing an interesting spread of decks perform well and while some strategies are more obnoxious than others, none of them have stood out as the for-sure endgame of the format. Let’s see how long that lasts.


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