One of the best aspects of Modern is seeing someone achieve fantastic success with their brew or take on a fringe archetype. We see players week in week out play with their beloved decks, and it’s easy to forget the broadness of Modern with how many different decks that are available. Modern can be an underdogs format especially you are well versed in what you are playing and are familiar with the Modern metagame. Zach Allen did precisely this, posting an undefeated day one and finishing as the runner up at the SCG Cleveland Modern Open a few weeks ago with his take on Esper Control.

Zach Allen’s build of Esper Control was an excellent metagame call for the weekend due to favorable matchups against the top decks, in particular, Izzet Phoenix. I mentioned in a previous article about how valuable it is to exile the threats that Izzet Phoenix presents, and Esper Control provides this in abundance. Cards such as Kaya, Orzhov Usurper and Nihil Spellbomb allow you to exile threats from the graveyard.

I caught up with Zach to discuss Esper Control, the experiences of playing a fringe strategy in a format full of Izzet Phoenix and what Zach would like to see in Modern Horizons.

The Interview

EP: Tell us a bit about yourself.

ZA: Hello! My name is Zach Allen, and I play Magic the Gathering for RIW Hobbies and Games in Livonia, Michigan. I have now successfully Top 8 two SCG Opens and achieved a Grand Prix Top 8 at GP Pittsburgh last year. As a result of the GP Pittsburgh finish, I received a Pro Tour invite where I achieved a Top 16 finish at Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica. In my day job, I work as an insurance underwriter and went to college at Michigan State University.

EP:  Esper Control has not been seen for quite some time, what was your thought process on reviving the archetype in Modern? What archetypes does it prey on in the current metagame?

ZA: It was built to beat Izzet Phoenix specifically. Before I came to this conclusion, I took other archetypes into account, but the defining characteristic of Esper Control is the favorable Izzet Phoenix matchup, which is popular on the SCG circuit. Esper Control adopts similar features to Azorius Control, however, Esper Control runs Fatal Push for cheap removal and cards such as Esper Charm as a means to gain card advantage.

Esper Control, by Zach Allen

Creatures (4)
Snapcaster Mage

Spells (32)
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Kaya, Orzhov Usurper
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
Nihil Spellbomb
Cast Down
Cryptic Command
Esper Charm
Fatal Push
Logic Knot
Path to Exile
Supreme Verdict
Lands (24)
Creeping Tar Pit
Field of Ruin
Flooded Strand
Glacial Fortress
Godless Shrine
Hallowed Fountain
Polluted Delta
Watery Grave

Sideboard (15)
Detention Sphere
Celestial Purge
Surgical Extraction
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Collective Brutality
Supreme Verdict
Unmoored Ego

EP:  What are the strengths and weaknesses of Esper Control in the current metagame?

ZA: The creature aggressive matchups (such as Humans) are highly favorable. However, it can struggle against big mana strategies such as Tron and Amulet Titan as well as combo decks.

EP: Did you have any collaborators on the Esper Control list, and who are they?

Yes, there were some collaborations. I based my list from a Magic Online user known as Kuroro, as well as the MTGGoldfish Podcast Co-Host, Crim (AsianAvenger). In regards to building it, I want to give a shoutout to my friend Robert Stanley who helped me in playtesting as well as Stephen Dykman, who helped me figure out the best build despite not choosing to play the deck over the weekend.

EP: You are known to be an avid caster of Cryptic Command, but what made you want to play Esper over established variants such as Azorius or Jeskai Control?

ZA: I always thought Jeskai and Azorius Control were better due to life resource management. Azorius ran more basics and Jeskai had insurance for the loss by running Lightning Helix. Esper Control always struggled with life-gain options, until Kaya, Orzhov Ursurper was printed.

EP: Plenty of people were surprised to see the inclusion of Kaya, Orzhov Usurper, what was the thought process for adding this underlooked Planeswalker to your list?

ZA: I listened to the Pro Points Podcast, and Sam Black talked about it in his Lantern Control list which achieved a Top 8 finish at Grand Prix Tampa Bay. The synergy with exiling cards was interesting and wanted to try it out in Esper Control.

EP: How has Esper Charm performed for you in testing and at SCG Cleveland? What is the purpose of it is inclusion?

ZA: Esper Charm is specifically there as a better and cheaper Hieroglyphic Illumination that has the benefit of removing Blood Moon, or Pyromancer Ascension which is now cropping up in Izzet Phoenix lists. There were some nice plays over the weekend where I Esper Charmed my Humans opponent in response to an Aether Vial activation making them discard two cards—that was a huge tempo swing.

EP: You have known to be a bit of a brewer if our last interview about U/W Taking Turns was anything to go by. Do you feel there is potential with Esper Control going forward?

ZA: Absolutely. Taking Turns is a gimmick, it’s an entertaining deck to play, but I don’t think it’s winning any tournaments. Despite this, I feel differently about Esper Control. The shell of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Snapcaster Mage with a suite of counters and removal spells is proven in Modern to this point. The questions are just what the best accompanying spells are at any of point in the metagame, which has made me more proactive in deckbuilding.

EP: Have there been any cards which surprised you or did more work than you originally predicted during testing of at SCG Cleveland?

ZA: Esper Charm. I like the card but it performed better than I thought and the surprise was how terrible my sideboard was at the Open, it needs work. I’d love to share out my revised list but it’s in testing with my team in preparation for the Mythic Championship in London.

EP: How did it feel to achieve Top 8 (and become the runner-up) with a unique take on a Modern Control deck?

ZA: It’s easily one of the best feelings of my life! It’s satisfying to put a bunch of work into something, have people tell you the answer you came to was terrible, then to prove them all wrong and achieve success with it! I highly recommend trying it out, and it’s important to play what you enjoy, too!

EP: What have you learned from playing off-the-wall brews in competitive events instead of playing something already established?

ZA: I think it makes you better at identifying issues for yourself. If you are playing a net deck and come across an issue, you can read an article a pro wrote that will solve the problem. However, that’s giving the man a fish. Identifying your matchups and card issues is much harder; however it’s teaching you how to fish, which makes you a better player and deck builder long-term.

EP: Do you have any advice for players who are looking to pick up Esper Control following your success?

ZA: Yeah, my advice is that if you’re looking to pick up the deck you’re going to lose a bunch to begin with. It takes a lot of learning but once you’re comfortable it becomes a very powerful deck, so don’t be discouraged to begin with and keep playing.

EP: Not forgetting that Modern Horizons is on the er, horizon, is there anything you would like to see become Modern legal from the set?

ZA: I would like to see Force of Will although most people think it’s a crazy idea. I think it will be good for the format due to fast mana such as Simian Spirit Guide, Tron Lands and Bouncelands being viable in the format. Force of Will has always been a great fair answer to unfair strategies in Legacy, and I’d welcome its inclusion in Modern.

EP: Lastly, what are your thoughts on the current Modern metagame, and do you have any predictions for the future of the format?

ZA: Although everyone is talking about Izzet Phoenix and Faithless Looting, Amulet Titan is better in my opinion as it’s so resilient against the top decks. I do think Modern Horizons will change Modern quite a bit, but it’s difficult to predict currently.

The Takeaway

Zach proved the theory that you don’t need to play the best deck to achieve the best results. It’s important to acknowledge fringe strategies which you can be successful with if you put the effort in. Esper Control looks to play an interesting role in Modern and could become another tool in the Control archetype arsenal going forward. I’d recommend trying out Esper Control if you have Jeskai or Azorius Control pieces already, and if your local metagame is filled with Izzet Phoenix and aggressive strategies.

Zach’s success provides an important message that playing what you enjoy is one of the highlights of playing Magic, especially if it’s a fringe or rogue brew. Azorius Control has been unfavored currently, but Magic is all about adapting and looking at the answers from a different angle. Discovering what works and what doesn’t is all a part of the process. The question you have to ask yourself is, do you wait for the fish to come to you or do you learn how to fish?

You can follow Zach over on Twitter @A22en if you want to follow more Modern content focusing around Cryptic Commands and his latest foil pickups. Additionally, his team also has a Twitter @RIWHobbies if you want to see how his team performs at the Mythic Championships in London at the end of the month.

Emma is a writer and Modern enthusiast based in Suffolk, England. She has been involved in Magic since Khans of Tarkir’s release back in 2014, but won’t shy away from Cube and MTG Arena. Follow her on Twitter @emmmzyne to join in on the conversation!

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