Remember back when you first started playing Magic?
Your “Forest” deck started when you got handed a stack of bulk and your eyes fell upon the mighty Pelakka Wurm. You opened up Bloodline Keeper in a booster, and after you got over the shock of a card with two sides, you immediately started sifting through your collection to build a Vampire deck. After hours of searching through Gatherer, you found Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth - the card that transforms Spreading Algae from niche sideboard option into the way you lose all your friends. Esper Midrange’s genesis was no different. It started from the bottom up by jamming a playset of my two favorite planeswalkers in the format in one deck - Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Liliana of the Veil.
I love nothing more than decks like these which transcend the typical, “this deck seems good/bad” banter. From spike to casual, everyone knows the feeling of glossing over a decklist and thinking “okay now this is sweet”. That’s what the series, Good ◻ Bad ◻ Sweet ☑, is all about. Its building tournament viable decks by tuning dismissed strategies, and finding a home for powerful and underutilized cards.
First off, what exactly is midrange?
You hear the term a lot in regards to the current Standard. Simply put, it’s a Jack-of-All-Trades approach. If you look on a linear scale with aggressive decks at one end and more controlling strategies at the other, Midrange falls in the middle. It varies its role between the beatdown deck and the control deck more than most.
But why Esper?
Jund (BRG) and Junk (WBG) are traditionally king in Modern for a reason, and we could certainly build a Grixis (UBR) list like this too. However, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no objective-based best approach. Different builds have different merits.
This started as more of a challenge than anything, but I’ve come to appreciate what white and blue offer. Blue gives us a great planeswalker, a cantrip that ties everything together, and versatile sideboard cards like counterspells and cheap land hate give us game against a wide field. White grants us the best spot removal spell, the sideboard option that keeps Affinity players up at night, and the real reason Junk has white. But, at the end of the day, do I really need to say more than, “on your end step, Esper Charm you, untap, Jace minus, Esper Charm you.”
So Let’s Take a Look
This is where I’m presently at with my decklist. My testing so far has been against the current pillars of the format. Eldrazi has been utterly dominating the field along with a slew of other aggressive strategies like Affinity, Burn, and Infect. Esper Midrange manages to stay roughly even against these decks in a match; a common characteristic with Midrange decks. Here’s the list.
This is the way you grind out the opponent and take over the game. Midrange is known for playing better cards than the opponent at every spot on the curve. These cards are all home runs and aim to generate card advantage.
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy: A hallmark of the current Standard, flip Jace has gone from bulk Mythic that’s a far cry from Kytheon, Hero of Akros, to the second best planeswalker in Modern. What makes him great?
He fuels Delve, casts your discard and removal a second time, flips after blocking to Fog an attacker, and acts as a win condition. The true power though, really comes from the minus ability. If we’ve prioritized casting a spell once already, it’s going to be just as great the second time.
Snapcaster Mage may look like a two drop, but in reality, he costs between three to five mana total. He isn’t much of a card if you’re not flashing something back. While you can’t pay for the flashback spell in two installments like with flip Jace, you do gain instant speed and a solid, 2/1 body by paying up front.
Liliana of the Veil: Remember how I said flip Jace is the second best planeswalker in the format? Well, you’re looking at the gold standard in Liliana of the Veil. The most common line is casting her and immediately going down to one loyalty to seal up a two-for-one and clear the board. Since this deck is more reactive, you tend to have more cards in the hand than Jund. As a result Liliana may look worse in this deck, but you have Lingering Souls to pitch, and Esper Charm to send the opponent to topdeck mode before yourself.
Esper Charm: How often is it that you look at a Charm or Command and are immediately impressed? When you start to think through all the possible lines, it’s pretty easy that it’s a card with great options. Think for a second of how you can’t Thoughtseize the top of the opponent’s deck after their draw step. Other discard spells are a dead draw during topdeck mode, but you do a great Counterspell impression in casting this in the opponent’s draw step. Esper Charm can also fill our hand back up, and it’s hidden tech against anything from Leylines to Blood Moons to Bogles.
Lingering Souls: Back in Innistrad Block constructed, this card had to be banned. Taking a look at Affinity, Arcbound Ravager was banned during its time in Standard. It turns out, any time you can play with banned cards, you probably should. Lingering Souls is a four-for-one that synergizes with everything from flip Jace, Liliana, and Thought Scour. It even makes opposing Kolaghan’s Commands and Reality Smashers not seem so bad when you’re discarding it. Four power in the air over four bodies, races other midrange decks, stabilizes the board, and makes control players cry with its efficiency.
Discard allows us to interact starting on turn one. It punches a hole in the opponent’s hand by breaking up synergy and answering their best card. There’s the added benefit of free wins with taking an opponent’s only Slippery Bogle, Glistener Elf, and sideboard card.
An often overlooked power of discard comes from information. Knowing what other cards are in the opponent’s hand allows you to find the best gameplan for how to achieve victory.
Inquisition of Kozilek: Inquisition is a great discard spell for a format like Modern because most cards tend to cost three or less. It’s usually played as four-of before the first Thoughtseize, but it’s often correct to go with an even split when you expect a lot of threats that Inquisition can’t touch.
Thoughtseize: It hits any nonland for a price. If the opponent is packing cards with converted mana cost four or greater, chances are you really do not want to see them hit the stack. This nabs game ending spells like Karn Liberated, Scapeshift, or Through the Breach that Inquisition can’t. With Eldrazi taking up a significant part of the metagame, you want to be playing an extra Thoughtseize in the main over the fourth Inquisition to handle Thought-Knot Seers and Reality Smashers until
R&D bans something from that deck already the metagame adapts.
A big draw to Esper Midrange is the abundance of hard removal. In addition to Liliana’s minus ability, your suite of removal keeps the board clear of nearly every creature that sees play in Modern.
Path to Exile: Many of your friends with Jund are increasing their count of Terminate to help deal with the beefy Eldrazi menace, but your removal spell of choice doesn’t face the same issues Lightning Bolt does. Path gets rid of everything from Tarmogoyf to Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger but at the cost of giving the opponent a free Rampant Growth. Fortunately, your discard and three other kill spells can handle small creatures early on, so it’s best to wait if possible to cast Path to mitigate the drawback. It’s also worth mentioning that it can be correct to Path your own creatures if you’re light on lands.
Murderous Cut: After playing with plenty of Delve over the past year, I’ve found in this deck you have room for about five Delve spells. Murderous Cut is a great addition. With Thought Scours, Liliana, and Jace, you can fill up the graveyard quickly so that Cut typically costs only one or two mana.
Doom Blade: It’s not Terminate, but it does the job surprisingly well. With the lack of powerful black creatures running around, Doom Blade has gained some popularity with the need for additional hard removal. It can’t hit Dark Confidant, Vault Skirge, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, or the occasional Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. However, you can at least laugh at Jund players when they’re staring down a Master of Waves with Terminate in hand.
Slaughter Pact: Doom Blade may look somewhat attractive now. How about a free one? It’s often better to be able to cast multiple spells in one turn, even if it means you have to take a turn off after. Slaughter Pact leads to random blowouts and pairs nicely with Jace and Snapcaster Mage.
Threats are just beefy, efficiently costed creatures. They help you close out the game, or just sit back and block until you stabilize. Without green you lose out on the best threat in format without, but Fate Reforged was kind to us and printed some beaters in Esper Midrange’s base color.
Gurmag Angler: A big ole’ 5/5 for as little as one black mana. With a Thought Scour and two fetches Gurmag Angler can be cast as early as turn two. It easily outclasses most creatures that see play in Modern. This Zombie Fish is able to end the game in as few as four swings.
Tasigur, the Golden Fang: Tasigur shares a lot in common with Gurmag. While Tasigur loses a point of power in the trade, he is a relevant source of card advantage in the late game. It’s also a little easier to cast requiring only a single fetch land and Thought Scour to power out on turn two.
A last thought on this is to pay close attention to how you’re Delving. Fully consider what’s available for Tasigur’s ability. Think about Lingering Souls’ flashback, future Delve cards, and Jace/Snapcaster.
Thought Scour: This should be seen as a utility spell more than anything in this deck. It does everything from helping cast Delve cards earlier, flips Jace faster, and gives Jace and Snapcaster more targets to flashback. Also, who can forget the pseudo Ancestral Recall dream of flipping two Lingering Souls?
You have to cast your spells somehow. The Esper colors have access to pain free Scars of Mirrodin fast lands and some of the best creature lands in the format.
Creeping Tar Pit: Tar Pit is one of the more powerful creature lands because of its efficiency and evasion. Stirring Wildwood and Creepy are the only two creature lands that activate for three mana and beat down with three power. But, unblockable wins the race. Creeping Tar Pit also generates this deck’s core color, black, which is important for fixing your mana.
Celestial Colonnade: Colonnade is widely regarded as the best creature land in the format, and for good reason. It dodges Bolt, swings for four in the air, and can hold up Path or Thought Scour due to it’s Vigilance. The downside is that Colonnade only taps for your splash colors.
Ghost Quarter: It may not look necessary, but Ghost Quarter does have some impressive utility in the current metagame. It most notably helps slow down Eldrazi and Tron, but it also does have a few other key interactions. It blows up rival creature lands, screws up greedy mana bases (looking at you, Burn), and fixes your colors when you have an awkward set of lands or the opponent tries to Blood Moon you.
This is how you shore up weaknesses after game one. Esper Midrange is a little weak to ultra-fast linear decks and Ramp. However, it’s nothing you can’t shore up after sideboard.
Disfigure: It does the job, but it’s too narrow for the maindeck. It comes in against anything with lots of small creatures that try to blitz us.
Spell Pierce: This is one of the most powerful counterspells ever printed and rises up in stock with the ever increasing speed of the Modern format. This can come in against decks like Burn, Infect, Affinity (if you’re on the play), or any spell based combo deck.
Damnation: Sweepers are a great answer the boogieman of the metagame, Eldrazi. It’s also great in any deck that goes wide with creatures like Affinity, Jund, Abzan Company, or Merfolk. Sorry about your wallet, but you need to side with Damnation over Wrath of God because black is the core color.
Timely Reinforcements: Timely is a way to stabilize against the various aggro and midrange decks of the format. Blockers and life gain buys us time to bring the game to top decks. Timely can be thought of as a more defensive Lingering Souls.
Spreading Seas: A way to hate on powerful lands for just two mana, and it even cantrips. This is useful against anything from opposing midrange decks, Infect, Tron, and Eldrazi. You could try Fulminator Mage to Gray Ogre people or Rain of Tears which plays nicely with Jace, but it’s more important to interact with lands as early as possible. On top of that, the cantrip makes Seas more reasonable to bring in for the midrange mirror match.
Stony Silence: In the midst of all the pitchforks surrounding Eye of Ugin, Affinity is quietly dominating the field along with it. Stony Silence is the most dreaded card for an army of robots to see. A good question is what doesn’t it shut off? When Affinity players are taking out their copies of their Modern legal True-Name Nemesis, Stony hits basically everything besides Master of Etherium (which dies to all of your removal spells anyway). Do note that Stony is also potent against other artifact heavy decks like Eggs and RG Tron.
Ob Nixilis Reignited: Drawing cards and killing creatures defines what many postboard games are all about. Ob Nix is as grindy as it gets for five mana and will help against anything you expect to go long against.
Ghost Quarter: Oh, the sideboard land. This unassuming Ghost Quarter ends up playing a lot of different roles. On the surface, it slows down Eldrazi and Tron and nukes creature lands like Raging Ravines, Mutavaults, and Inkmoth Nexus. Beyond that it’s often correct to add in an additional land when you need to hit your lands drops against aggressive decks, or when you just don’t have anything else to bring in.
Here’s where I hope to preemptively answer a few scratching heads. These are a few cards that didn’t make the cut.
Serum Visions: This is one of the few decks in the format that prefers Thought Scour over Serum Visions. The main reason is that spending a mana for a redraw and some filtering isn’t what the deck wants to do in the first place. Thought Scour gets the spot because it forces your threats into play early and fuels your hungry graveyard.
Monastery Mentor: As a Young Pyromancer lover, you’d expect me to be building around this card, right? I know a version of this deck exists, but the reason for Esper’s success was never Mentor. My experience playing anything that looks remotely close to a tempo deck in the format has taught me that threats do not cost over two mana, and Mentor as a win condition is just a little too easy to answer.
Painful Truths: Draw three, take three versus an instant speed split card with Divination on one half and Mind Rot on the other. Okay, Demystify is a little more than flavor text, but I really see this one coming down to the life loss on Painful Truths. Maybe in a slower metagame I can see a split, but now is just not the time.
Any double Blue or White card: The mana base is already stretched to support Esper Charm and Liliana of the Veil. Kitchen Finks, Vendilion Clique, or Supreme Verdict would be nice to have, but not necessary. By passing them up you keep the mana base operating smoothly and your life total high.
Maindeck Counterspells: Aggro-Control strategies love generic answers and that tends to be either counterspells or discard. In blue black, you have a choice between the two, but you’re going with only discard in the maindeck. Why? The simplest explanation is that counterspells are awful with Jace and Liliana. Jace’s minus ability can only be activated at Sorcery speed, the opponent can just cast their instant in response. When you’re in top decks with a Liliana on board, seeing a counterspell in your draw step means you have to discard it, -2 her and hope it’s good in this situation, or spend a turn doing nothing with her.
Victim of Night, Go for the Throat, Smother, Dismember: Doom Blade, Murderous Cut, and Slaughter Pact were chosen to match the expected metagame. Switching these around should not have a dramatic effect, if you feel differently, make the change.
That’s A Wrap
Every decklist I put together should always be thought of as a living document, numbers will move around and cards will come in and out as the metagame shifts and new cards see print. If you feel I missed something or have a question, I encourage you to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading everyone.