Welcome back to another installment of Strictly Standard with our Deck Tech series. This time around I want to feature what is widely regarded as the best deck of this format: Esper Hero.
The basis of the Esper Hero deck is the very powerful shell of Esper Control that came out of Ravnica Allegiance Standard and also surfaced early in the WAR format. It’s hard to argue with an early game plan of Thought Erasure, Tyrant’s Scorn and Mortify. What glues these powerful answers together is the fact they are all multi-colored. What card cares about casting multi-colored spells? Our friend Hero of Precinct One, of course!
The namesake card of the deck, Hero of Precinct One gives the slower control shell a little more sticking power against the hyper aggro mono-White and mono-Red decks while allowing your non-stop barrage of multi-colored answers to clean up and lock down the game.
3 Elite Guardmage
4 Hero of Precinct One
2 Basilica Bell-haunt
1 Dovin’s Veto
3 Tyrant’s Scorn
1 Command the Dreadhorde
4 Thought Erasure
3 Oath of Kaya
1 Search for Azcanta
3 Narset, Parter of Veils
3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
4 Teferi, Time Raveler
4 Drowned Catacomb
3 Glacial Fortress
4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
3 Isolated Chapel
1 Memorial to Genius
4 Watery Grave
2 Deputy of Detention
1 Sorcerous Spyglass
1 Narset’s Reversal
1 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord
1 Command the Dreadhorde
2 Cry of the Carnarium
1 Dovin’s Veto
2 Enter the God-Eternals
1 The Elderspell
1 Lyra Dawnbringer
How the deck works
The ideal opening hand has 3 lands, but would be happy with 4. You want all 3 colors by turn 3 as well, considering you might need to cast a Blue-Black spell on turn 2 into a Blue-White or White-Black spell on turn 3. Your gameplan will 100% depend on how your opponent starts their game. Ideally your turn 2 play would be Hero of Precinct One so that you can snowball the “cast multi-color spell” effect straight away. However, if you get Mountain into Ghitu Lavarunner on turn 1 from your opponent, you’re probably going to want to fire off that Tyrant’s Scorn early to preserve your life total and prevent the early chip damage, which also keeps them off the Spectacle cost of Light up the Stage. On the other hand, if the opponent plays a tapped Watery Grave on turn 1, you’re probably going to want to hit them with your Thought Erasure before they can get you with theirs! Sequencing is the name of the game with this deck, but with the amount of extra card draw effects, you always have a fighting chance going into the late game. The winning strategy here is to out-resource your opponent by landing your Teferi’s (both the 3-mana tempo play of Teferi, Time Raveler and the 5-mana house Teferi, Hero of Dominaria) and managing a board-state to the point where you can blink Oath of Kaya to get in that last bit of damage or to clear the way to swing with Hero of Precinct One and his army of token friends. Once you’ve established a soft-lock on the board with Teferi and friends, it’s just a matter of inevitability for the win.
Matchup and Sideboarding Strategy
Esper Hero (The Mirror)
Esper is very much the largest share of the meta in this format, so you’ll want to have a solid game plan against this deck as you can expect to see it at least 4 times during the course of a 16-round Grand Prix main event. Assuming you’ve kept a hand with 3 lands, a Hero of Precinct One and something to do on turn 3, your strategy will differ greatly depending on play vs draw. On the play is almost always correct to Thought Erasure on turn 2 if you have it. The only time I will lead with my Hero on 2 is if I see a turn 1 basic Swamp or Isolated Chapel. It’s worth the tempo advantage to me to gamble that they don’t have the untapped Blue source to get you with their own turn 2 Thought Erasure. This is an attrition matchup and comes down to tight and proper gameplay. If you stick Teferi, Time Raveler on turn 3 and immediately minus against an empty board to draw a card, you could lose the ability to bounce their blocker the next turn out, leaving him vulnerable to getting removed by an Oath of Kaya on your opponent’s turn 3, so it’s usually right to plus him to no avail and see what you’re left with when your turn rolls back around. However on the draw your turn 3 Teferi will almost always be minusing to bounce the opposing Hero and slow them down a bit. This puts you up in terms of card advantage, but does leave you vulnerable.
When Sideboarding, the most important cards to bring in are the 2nd copy of Dovin’s Veto and the 2nd copy of Command the Dreadhorde. I also like to bring in the 2 copies of Duress for more early hand disruption and The Elderspell for the mid-to-late game release valve. I like to take out the 2 Basilica Bell-haunts because it really proves too little too late and the incidental life-gain isn’t relevant. I also tend to cut the 4x namesake cards of the deck Hero of Precinct One in this matchup because it packs too little punch late game and tends to eat a Tyrant’s Scorn or Oath of Kaya and proves quite ineffective early as well. Leaning heavier on the lockout control strategy of your planeswalkers is the name of this game.
The Grixis Control matchup is one of pure attrition where the play vs draw status really matters. The Grixis deck wants to shred your resources as fast and hard as possible using a combination of discard effects on turns 1, 2, 3, and 4! If they are on the play, battling against Duress into Thought Erasure into Disinformation Campaign into Nicol Bolas, the Ravager is nigh on impossible, but luckily we have some disruption of our own to stay the early battery of resource denial. And if their mix of spells happen to not line up with our game-plan, we have a pretty solid early game that can get underneath their top end quick.
When sideboarding, I like to think of this matchup in terms of lining up a one-for-one slogfest. If you let their resources denial strategy snowball you’ve got no chance. I bring in the extra Dovin’s Veto and both copies of Duress to try to match their early disruption. I’m also bringing in Sorcerous Spyglass, and The Elderspell to deal with their Planeswalkers, and the second Command the Dreadhorde to take advantage of their powerful creatures and Planeswalkers. The other card I like to bring in for this matchup is both copies of Enter the God-Eternals. The 4 damage lines up perfectly to pick off a Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, while also leaving behind a body to attack with. The cuts are pretty straight forward too. I’m definitely taking out all 4 of the Hero of Precinct One‘s to minimize the effectiveness of their sweepers. Both Basilica Bell-haunt‘s also get cut because the discard is trivial once turn 4 rolls around and the incidental life-gain isn’t imperative. My other cut is 2 of the 3 copies of Tyrant’s Scorn. They typically don’t run any 3CMC or less creatures and the last thing you want to be doing is making them pick Bolas back up. This is one of the tougher matchups for Esper Hero but not unwinnable if you can sequence your plays right and keep your play tight.
Dreadhorde is one of those decks that slowly gains incremental edges, never getting too far ahead or behind until it’s time to go off. Once they do though, it’s usually lights out. With their main early game plan to clog up the board with Wildgrowth Walkers, and Jadelight Rangers, we aren’t going to be getting through with our Hero and his army without some help from our other support cards. Using Oath of Kaya to pick off a Wildgrowth Walker before he gets counters is always a good idea. Thought Erasure can be a great way to slow down their early game, but beware you’re just feeding their long term gameplan. I always take the Command the Dreadhorde or Tamiyo, Collector of Tales over an explore creature, even when there’s a Wildgrowth Walker on the battlefield. Tamiyo is their best card by far, so you should do anything necessary to get rid of it.
Sideboarding for this matchup is pretty straight forward. My secret weapon is Narset’s Reversal. Being able to “counter” their big dreadhorde play but also getting access to a copy of it yourself for 2 Mana is the kind of backbreaking tempo play you need to pull away. I also bring in my 2nd copy of Command the Dreadhorde to take advantage of them filling their graveyard with juicy targets. I also bring in the 2nd copy of Dovin’s Veto to answer their Planeswalkers or Dreadhordes and The Elderspell to clean things up if they get out of hand. I also like to bring in my 2 copies of Duress to give me more access to slowing down their mid-game engines. I am definitely siding out the 2 copies of Basilica Bell-haunt because you don’t want to be fueling their massive Dreadhorde turn. I also like to side out 2 copies of Hero of Precinct One because a 2/2 won’t be able to get through their wall of ground creatures and 2 copies of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria because tapping out on turn 5 and leaving them an opening to cast Dreadhorde is never correct. If you can keep the pressure on, this should be a winnable matchup.
The Simic Ramp deck is a very polarizing matchup. Either you have the answers on time or you lose. And this is true whether they are playing the Nexus of Fate version or the Mass Manipulation version. Nissa, Who Shakes the World is the best card in the deck with Tamiyo, Collector of Tales and Narset, Parter of Veils very close behind. With Planeswalkers being so vital to this strategy, it’s important to either get out of the gates with a fast start and keep them on the back foot so they aren’t able to proactively progress their gameplan, or to play a hard resource denial strategy.
I usually keep sideboarding pretty light in this matchup. I definitely want my Sorcerous Spyglass to shut off Tamiyo, Collector of Tales. I’m also bringing in the 2nd copy of Dovin’s Veto for a clean answer to Wilderness Reclamation, Tamiyo or Nexus of Fate. Beyond those two cards, you might consider bringing in The Elderspell to clean up messy board-states, and the two copies of Duress to add add to your early disruption gameplan. For cuts, you definitely want to take out the 3 copies of Tyrant’s Scorn because you most likely won’t see any good targets on the other side of the board. Depending how far you go with the sideboarding the next cuts I would make are the 2 copies of Basilica Bell-haunt because the life-gain isn’t important to this matchup and the discard won’t have much of an impact with the amount of cards they can draw. Landing your own early Narset, Parter of Veils can be what wins you the game here as the Simic Ramp deck relies very heavily on drawing so many extra cards per game that they can out-resource their opponents. Tight play is greatly rewarded in this matchup.
Gruul Stompy is another negative matchup for Esper Hero. Their creatures are too big and come down too fast for you to effectively keep up. Whether it is a turn two or three 4/4 Gruul Spellbreaker, or a turn four Skarrgan Hellkite thanks to ramping off Domri, Anarch of Bolas, the Riot mechanic gives the Gruul player the freedom to choose the best path of victory (but let’s be honest, it’s usually “Haste” that they’re choosing).
When sideboarding, I try to bring in anything that will deal with their big beefy threats, so I’m definitely bringing in Lyra Dawnbringer and her 5/5 First-Striking body. Also in are the two copies of Enter the God-Eternals to level up the damage-based removal to 4 points while also leaving behind a 4 power blocker that can kill most of their threats. An argument for bringing in the two copies of Deputy of Detention can also be made as it acts as a speed bump for Gruul, buying you a turn or 2. I typically don’t bring them in because they are to easily removed and the Gruul threats will hit the ground running. I am definitely bringing out the Command the Dreadhorde because the damage it represents is too dangerous when Gruul had nothing but hasty threats ready to alpha strike. I’m also cutting two of the Narset, Parter of Veils because we need our multi-color spell density up enough to reliably trigger Hero and she doesn’t impact the board in a meaningful way to slow down the Gruul onslaught. Depending if you also decided to bring in the Deputy’s, you’ll want to take out the 3rd Narset and the Search for Azcanta so as to keep all of your spells as high-impact as possible the turn you okay then. While not an impossible feat, it definitely takes some great play and a little bit of luck for Esper Hero to stand a fighting chance against Gruul.
The mono red matchup can be quite easy for some Esper builds, especially the ones that are loaded up on incidental life-gain. However if they get of to one of their blistering starts, no deck can keep up. It comes down to drawing a timely Oath of Kaya to both remove an attacker and gain you back some precious life points and give you another turn to draw your outs.
The mono-red deck will be sideboarding in life-gain hate in the form of Tibalt, Rakish Instigator. For Esper Hero, the name of the game is to slow down their turbo starts with early removal. I compliment the main deck Tyrant’s Scorns and Oath of Kaya‘s with the 2 copies of Cry of the Carnarium out of the side. This will stall the game long enough for you to land your other sideboard life-gaining bombs in Lyra Dawnbringer and the 2 copies of Enter the God-Eternals. I also bring in the Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord to add the extra life-gain source with an option to recur whichever creature you need at the moment. You definitely want to take out the one Main deck copy of Command the Dreadhorde because any amount of extra unnecessary damage should be avoided. I also take out the high cost spells that might end up stranded in your hand as you reel to answer the barrage of damage, so all 3 copies of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria get cut. I also cut 2 copies of Narset, Parter of Veils because the “can’t draw” effect is useless in this matchup and a “do-nothing” turn 3 play will most certainly cost you the game. It all comes down to whether you can draw the right answers, and in the right quantities.
The mono-white matchup is a very tough one. Their ability to swarm the board with tons of creatures and make them huge gives this version of Esper that lacks main deck sweepers some serious trouble. Our only hope is that they don’t land a turn two Adanto Vanguard AND we can land a turn two Hero of Precinct One with several multi-colored spells to follow it up to build up an army of chump blockers.
For sideboarding, I am bringing in both copies of Deputy of Detention and both copies of Cry of the Carnarium to help stall the early swarm of x/1 creatures. I am also bringing in both copies of Enter the God-Eternals to have a way to deal with the high toughness creatures like Venerated Loxodon or Snubhorn Sentry while also leaving behind a sizeable blocker. First thing I am bringing out is the Command the Dreadhorde because there probably won’t be much life left in the tank on turn 6 to get much use out of it. I am also taking out the copy of Dovin’s Veto because their main strategy is to swarm the board with creatures and we can’t take a turn off hoping they fall into the trap with History of Benalia. I’m also taking out 2 copies of Narset, Parter of Veils because the “can’t draw” effect is useless in this matchup and a turn 3 play that doesn’t do something to disrupt their swarm will most certainly cost you the game. The final 2 cuts for me are usually Teferi, Hero of Dominaria because it won’t come down early enough to impact the game, but an argument for cutting Search for Azcanta can also be made as it is most effective as a turn 2 or 3 play, and the tempo loss for not impacting the board is too much to overcome. Making it to turn 7 is pretty much your ticket to victory here as the mono-white deck will have probably played it all of their spells and will be in top-deck mode. If you are able to stabilize at this point, Esper should have no problem out-resourcing them for the rest of the game.
With Esper Hero marrying the early game pressure of an aggro deck with an ability able to play the control role, it’s easy to see why it emerged as the tier-1 deck to beat this Standard season. I have enjoyed playing the deck, and even rode this horse to Mythic on Arena. I have no doubt that Hero of Precinct One and company will continue to be a major force until rotation in September.
Eric has been an avid Magic fan and player since re-discovering the game in 2012. He is a Red mage at heart but likes to confuse himself with the varying decision trees presented by mid-range and control decks from time to time.
Eric plays mostly casually with his 9-year-old daughter, but manages to get out for every prerelease and a few FNM’s and GP’s every year.
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