Updated: Jun 20, 2022
Welcome to MTG Meta Breakers! This series is devoted to helping you take on some of the most common decks in Standard (aka “the meta”).
Whether you’re looking to climb the competitive ladder on Arena, want to win your local Friday Night Magic (FNM), or are just sick of getting beat, you’re in the right place.
For the purposes of this series, we’ll assume that all games are in best-of-three format. This allows you to sideboard against your opponent. When hoping to take down the metagame, sideboarding is your best friend.
Without further delay, let’s dive in!
Updated June 2022
Note: This deck has changed a lot over the past few months. With that in mind, we're updating this guide to give you better insight into the meta and the deck's current version.
Standard is in an incredibly diverse place right now. No one deck has pulled away from the rest of the meta to establish itself as a true top performer. That said, there are several lists in the top tier.
A noteworthy performer from recent tournament and MTGO Challenge results is Esper Midrange. It's not quite control (although it can lean that way). It isn't true midrange as it relies mostly on planeswalkers and creature lands as win-cons. However, it can both grind out long games and develop an overwhelming board in a hurry.
It's certainly an interesting build that has a lot of flexibility. With some fine-tuning, it can easily adapt to fit whatever the meta throws at it. Expect this list to stay around for a while.
Of course, this means you need to know how to beat it. Let's start by taking a closer look at what makes the deck tick.
Understanding Esper Midrange Decks
The most popular Esper Midrange uses a variety of threats to control and close out the game. Beating it requires plenty of interaction to keep the board clean and your life total high.
Given the strength of Esper colors right now, this deck has access to a wide range of options. Keep in mind that there are several variations of the deck out there right now. Although they share the majority of their card pool, there are plenty of flex spots.
Update: This has changed a lot over the past few months. We've seen the Esper deck pivot away from a planeswalker-heavy build to one focused on good midrange threats and removal. That said, both Kaito and The Wandering Emperor are still stock in the deck. Some players are running a copy or two of Sorin and/or Lolth, but their popularity has dropped off significantly.
Esper Midrange has access to a powerful quartet of planeswalkers that provide incredible value and flexibility. In the early game, Kaito Shizuki offers a source of card draw that rewards you for staying aggressive and attacking. His phase-out ability makes it difficult for opponents to remove.
Meanwhile, The Wandering Emperor and Sorin, the Mirthless occupy the four-drop slot. They act as a powerful follow-up to clog the board or clear it.
The Wandering Emperor flashing into play in response to an attacker is often a blowout. It then generates tokens with vigilance or buffs other creatures on the board. Getting rid of The Emperor can be very difficult and often forces opponents into unfavorable combats.
Sorin can also be difficult to remove, albeit without the element of surprise. The 2/3 flier with lifelink he makes often has a big impact on the board. Then, digging through the top of the library for the cost of a little life is a big source of card advantage. If left unchecked, Sorin can snowball the game out of control in just a few turns.
Finally, the five-drop spot is home to Lolth, Spider Queen. This card has been around for a while now, so most players are familiar. For those that aren't, Lolth is one of the most resilient planeswalkers in Standard. The spiders she makes are notoriously hard to beat efficiently in combat, while her passive ability increases her loyalty with frightening ease.
Update: The most popular Esper Midrange builds have also moved towards an approach more focused on spot removal. Its new emphasis on midrange creatures like Raffine, Scheming Seer and aggressive threats like Tenacious Underdog and Luminarch Aspirant make board wipes less appealing. That said, this deck can sideboard into a much stronger control build with plenty of removal to keep the board clear.
Backing up the Esper Midrange deck's suite of walkers is lots of board control. This includes both spot removal and wipes.
In the main deck, this list typically runs a combination of both The Meathook Massacre and Doomskar. With five to seven copies in most builds, this is a nightmare for creature-based decks to fight through.
The deck also has an extra copy of Doomskar in the sideboard as well as the new exile-based Farewell. In matchups that are dictated by creatures, it can take a very reactive stance and clear the board multiple times.
Meanwhile, other premium removal comes in the form of March of Otherworldly Light, Infernal Grasp, Vanishing Verse, and Portable Hole. Some lists go even further and run Soul Shatter for forced sacrificing.
Lands are also getting in on the fun thanks to Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire and its channel ability. This is plenty of spot removal to deal with other top-tier lists like Naya Runes, Mono-White Aggro, and Temur Midrange.
Card Advantage and Disruption
Update: Once again, leaning towards a midrange plan has altered the spells this deck is running. Check for Traps is gone in favor of two-drop creatures. It does still run a few counterspells out of the sideboard. However, its sideboard approach is more varied now given the lack of hard control in the format. You'll now see cards like Ray of Enfeeblement, Go Blank, and Legion Angel.
While this deck's disruption plan gets much stronger post-board, it can certainly get the job done in game one. Main deck copies of Check for Traps are a common find. Being able to take a peek at your opponent's hand is never a bad thing. Exiling their best card is even better.
Most of the counterspells in this deck are found in the sideboard. However, some builds run a main deck copy of Disdainful Stroke, Negate, or Spell Pierce. You shouldn't inherently play around these cards in game one, but you should be well aware of them after sideboarding.
Meanwhile, Esper Midrange makes a living on card advantage. Aside from the planeswalkers we've discussed, Reckoner Bankbuster is another solid pickup for the archetype.
The ability to draw three extra cards while holding up mana for removal or a counter is huge for this deck. The big body it provides after three activations can help close out the game and turns your small tokens into a serious threat.
Somewhere in Esper colors is an answer to just about everything in the meta. That gives this deck incredible flexibility out of the sideboard. It can adjust to any type of matchup with both silver bullet answers and tweaks to its general game plan.
For instance, it can take on a much harder control look with additions like Disdainful Stroke, Duress, extra board wipes, and more spot removal.
It can shut down Naya Runes with Archon of Emeria and extra removal.
Many builds pivot to a more aggressive strategy by adding Graveyard Trespasser, Henrika Domnathi, and Edgar, Charmed Groom. That said, this list can also be aggressive game one with the right half of the deck (namely multiple copies of Wedding Announcement followed by a planeswalker).
Ultimately, a deck like this is positioned to succeed in almost any meta. It can alter its sideboard accordingly in reaction to impactful shifts as they occur. So, it will be important to stay in tune with what those changes are week in and week out.
High Priority Targets
Unlike some meta decks that can be boiled down to a few key pieces, this Esper build is dynamic. It can attack from a variety of different angles. This makes zeroing in on its main components difficult.
In terms of stopping the deck from winning, an emphasis should be put on value rather than specific cards. Your goal is to limit the deck's value as much as possible while maximizing your own. This means getting that little bit extra out of a creature before it inevitably dies to removal. It means timing your plays to dodge instant-speed threats like The Wandering Emperor and spot removal.
On the proactive side of things, you should be looking for ways to stop your opponent's planeswalkers. Shutting down planeswalkers before they generate card advantage can make or break the game. It may mean trading unfavorably in combat or taking a turn off to cast a burn spell. However, once you shut these threats down, the Esper deck becomes far less threatening.
As for keeping yourself alive, managing the swarm of tokens your opponent will generate is priority number one. Unless you have chunky creatures that excel in combat, you'll likely need a board wipe of your own. Of course, you could also directly remove the source of the token. This likely means packing cards that can deal with enchantments and artifacts to take out Wedding Announcement and Edgar Markov's Coffin respectively. Likewise, direct damage and planeswalker-targeting destruction spells will also be helpful.
Finally, you can always just kill your opponent before they have time to set up. This way, you don't need to worry about interacting later in the game.
Update: With the new version of this deck, having a good sense of gameflow and role assessment is essential. You'll need to determine which threats are most important and which ones you can live with. This is VERY dependent on the game and board state. To beat this deck, you'll need to adapt with every turn.
Cards that Beat Esper Midrange in Standard
As always, there are key cards capable of turning the matchup in your favor. Against Esper Midrange, this is definitely true.
As mentioned, however, this deck can attack from a variety of angles. You'll need to focus on the key concepts above to get ahead. Likewise, timing is everything in this matchup. Deploying your responses properly in response to or ahead of their big threats is critical to winning the matchup.
Interestingly, one of the best ways to counteract this deck is to give it a taste of its own medicine. Dropping a planeswalker of your own can be a major swing. The Esper Midrange build doesn't have many ways to deal with opposing walkers. In addition, it's difficult for them to win the value game if you've got a planeswalker adding incremental value on your side every turn.
If your plan is to be responsive, then big swings are key.
Rarely will you out-grind this deck by going toe-to-toe. Instead, you'll need a major blow that turns the tide in your favor. Cards like Blood on the Snow and Burn Down the House are at a premium in this category. They can deal with both your opponent's creature-filled board and their planewalkers to hit where it hurts most. They also tend to leave you with an advantage on the board once they resolve.
Invoke Despair is another swingy play in this matchup. Not only does it extort your opponent's board, it can also refill your hand and lower their life total.
Meanwhile, decks looking to go aggressive need to focus on dodging big threats and closing out the game efficiently. This can be accomplished with difficult-to-answer threats like Esika's Chariot. The cat cart almost always requires two cards to cleanly answer. If a board wipe answers the cat tokens, the chariot remains and can turn your next creature into an instant threat. If they deal with the chariot, you're left with four power on the field.
Decks interested in fleshing out their battlefield should prioritize protecting it. Once again, answering individual threats is a losing mindset in this matchup. Instead, go for the swingy play.
Cards like Guardian of Faith and the new March of Swirling Mist are great ways to get around a board wipe or spot removal on your most important creature to keep your board intact. Yes, these are sideboard cards for most decks in most other matchups. However, they can absolutely win the game if played at the right time.
Common Mistakes Against Esper Midrange
You won't always have a perfect answer for Esper Midrange. Few decks do. Others have an inherently bad matchup.
However, tight gameplay can help swing this matchup in your favor. That's especially true if your opponent hasn't mastered the many play lines of their deck.
Making mistakes will almost always have the opposite effect. Given the slow-rolling snowball of value Esper Midrange offers, making a mistake can leave you buried without a chance to recover.
Although this is technically a midrange deck, you should approach it with caution. Don't flood your board into a wipe unless you have a way to protect it. If your opponent has four untapped mana with two white sources, be wary of attacking with your best creatures. A Wandering Emperor is likely on the way.
Once your opponent starts building a board of their own, it's important to trade creatures in your favor. Since your opponent is getting creatures from their other pieces, they start ahead in the value game. If possible, don't send your creatures to die in a poor matchup. Be patient.
The Esper deck doesn't usually win quickly and needs time to set up. Wait for something in your deck to clear the way or draw into a better threat.
Update: With recent upgrades, this is no longer true. Although some games will take longer to play out, this deck can close out quickly. A few aggressive threats to start the game backed up by potent removal can leave you stranded without an answer. While you should be patient to avoid playing into their answers, you also can't wait around forever.
As we've discussed, interaction is important. Splashy plays that take out a key planeswalker or deal with several tokens are back-breaking. Go for the blowout when you can. This deck will present some juicy opportunities if your opponent is greedy or impatient.
A final note about the current meta regards the Jeskai Hinata / Opus build. Although this deck feels like it would be a good matchup for Esper Midrange, it is a trap.
Largely, it relies on sticking a Hinata or Goldspan Dragon and riding it to victory. That will be hard to do against the amount of removal Esper Midrange is bringing. Likewise, the Hinata deck lacks enough efficient interaction to deal with the Esper's early threats and big planeswalkers. This can lead to a game that's out of control before they have time to set up.
Of course, the matchup gets better after sideboarding if the Hinata player brings in lots of counterspells and wipes. Still, starting down a game is never a good place to be. That's where this list often finds itself against Esper Midrange.
Best Matchups Against Esper Midrange
Update: Given the new look of Esper Midrange, the best matchups against it look different. Likewise, as the meta has shifted, decks that perform well against it in a vacuum aren't the strongest choice against the field.
By now, we know that Esper Midrange can hang with the majority of the meta. While it's always going to be a difficult matchup post-board, some decks can take advantage of the matchup.
Boros aggro is surging back to the top of the meta with a vengeance. Its tight, aggressive curve lets it put pressure on the Esper deck while getting under it. Meanwhile, Brutal Cathar and Roil Eruption help keep the board clear. Hasty threats that come with extra value like Sunrise Cavalier and Thundering Raiju top the curve. They apply pressure directly and make your other creatures better, demanding more interaction than your opponent has.
Another deck that can grind the long game is Rakdos Anvil. Some believe this is one of the best decks in the format. Like Esper Midrange, it can attack from many different angles. From draining life to running you over with tokens, this Rakdos list is never far from a win. Although it gets punished by discard effects and artifact removal, it is resilient to board wipes and can quickly rebuild. Since the Esper list lacks lifegain outside of Sorin's vampires and Meathook, the drain plan is in full effect here.
A darkhorse in the format, Mono-Blue Tempo has some legs against Esper Midrange. Its many fliers have the ability to push damage over Esper's ground-based creatures. Meanwhile, cards like Dreamshackle Geist and Spectral Adversary let you slow down your opponent's best creatures, buying enough time for the win. A handful of disruption also helps keep your creatures safe and stop the Esper player from sticking their big threats.
Grixis Vampires had its moment to shine in the New Capenna Championship. Since then, it has enjoyed a significant share of the meta. Much like the Esper deck, it focuses on value with every play. Whether its getting an extra card off Corpse Appraiser or digging for your best threats with Fable of the Mirror Breaker, there's no such thing as a bad spell in this deck. Unlike some other builds that can exploit Esper's weaknesses, this one can go toe-to-toe with it and grind out the long game.
Finally, those looking for a different angle, Izzet Mill is surprisingly strong here. Since you don't need much of a board (if any aside from crabs), most of Esper's removal is useless. As we've discussed, it usually takes time for this deck to win. This gives you plenty of time to find your key mill cards like Maddening Cacophany and Tasha's Hideous Laughter. Copying them with Galvanic Iteration nets even more value. Playing them for free from the graveyard with Invoke Calamity is even better. Dodging counters and discard is crucial, but otherwise, mill is well-positioned. It just isn't particularly strong against the rest of the meta.
Esper Midrange has proven itself to be a strong contender in our current Standard. Expect this deck to change as time passes and the meta evolves. This means it will likely be a staple for the foreseeable future unless a better variant comes along.
If you're playing in a tournament, you can't go wrong registering this list. That also means you should be prepared and expect to face it.
By applying the principles found here and making tight gameplay choices, you can get a leg up on Esper mages and nab the W.
How do you feel about the Esper Midrange matchup? Got a way to take down this flexible meta beater? Let us know in the comments below or on social media!
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