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Esper Dragons and Playing against Esper Dragons


In preparation for Grand Prix Toronto, I’ve been playing a lot with the Esper Dragons deck that many people have popularized to this point for a number of reasons:

  • I’m heavily considering playing it in the Grand Prix.
  • I’m trying to figure out how to best attack its weak points.

I was able to watch the evolution of this deck from week one, given a local Maryland player named James Buckingham who believed that Dragonlord Ojutai and Narset Transcendent were very strong cards (as of March 31, 2015):

He managed a 7–1 performance in the Standard portion of the StarCityGames Invitational in Richmond, and he basically paved the way for the ChannelFireball Dragons list which debuted at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. Josh Utter-Leyton went 9-1 in the Standard portion there:

Alexander Hayne also won the Grand Prix last weekend with a list very close to this one (since I believe teams ChannelFireball and Face to Face Games are still collaborating).

Haven of the Spirit Dragon
This list is a clear descendent of the one that James chose to play in Richmond, with a notable change: the slimming down of white as a splash in order to make way for Haven of the Spirit Dragon, which serves as redundant copies of Dragons or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon in the late game.

Silumgar's Scorn is a very interesting card that makes the entire deck work. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a generic 2-mana answer (Mana Leak was the last one, and that was years ago in Magic 2012).

Going forward, I’d like to present some tips and tricks playing as and against this type of deck.

The worst thing you can possibly do while playing against a mana-screwed opponent playing this deck is to deploy your threats one by one. Against a mana-screwed control opponent, that opponent will only draw lands about (twenty-seven lands in sixty cards) 45% of the time. In addition, every card-draw spell he or she draws is completely awful when he or she is mana-screwed. That means you can afford to wait and make the opponent discard a bunch of reactive cards and then deploy two threats in one turn to try to sneak by the counterspells. This is especially important in the Abzan-Control-versus-Esper matchup.

Save your scry lands, and try to avoid playing them until you know what your opponent is playing. That is because cards like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon line up extremely poorly against fast, aggressive decks. Scrying correctly is among the most important things that currently set the great players apart from the good players.

Dig Through Time
Game 1 in the mirror between two competent players often comes down to decking, so be careful about how many Dig Through Times you cast (and how many fetch lands you activate). That brings me to another point: If you’ve scryed a bunch of dead cards to the bottom or (put them on the bottom with Dig Through Time), try to avoid activating a fetch land if possible. Having fifteen to twenty dead cards on the bottom of your deck is an advantage—you only need to play with a much less diluted deck in your upper half (this is especially true in Game 1 in the mirror, wherein you’d like to avoid drawing Ultimate Price and Bile Blight).

To this end, you should make a tick mark or something similar on your life pad every time anyone scrys to top or bottom.

Even though Esper Dragons posted a dominating performance at the Grand Prix last weekend, not all hope is lost.

I think there’re a bunch of different ways to attack the deck, and the most obvious one that comes to mind is Mono-Red.

This particular list has a few peculiarities, such as choosing to main-deck one Hall of Triumph and not max out on Goblin Rabblemasters in the main.

Stoke the Flames
Besides that, the matchup is favorable for Mono-Red because of how cheap the spells are.

Since every spell that Esper (with the exception of Thoughtseize) plays costs 2 or more to interact, and since most of the spells in this deck cost 2 or less, that means Esper is always trading at a tempo disadvantage, and at some point, it will die to Stoke the Flames or a burn spell off the top.

Once the Esper player is low enough on life total, the red player can actually dictate the tempo of the game by choosing when she wants her burn spells to be countered. This is related to the point I made earlier about not casting spells into a mana-screwed Esper opponent; it’s sort of the reverse scenario in that you can force the opponent to try to win the game with a creature and then burn him or her out.

In addition, having seven dash creatures means playing around Drown in Sorrow or sweepers is quite easy.

You can also note that the Esper Dragons deck doesn’t have a great way to remove an early enchantment.

This brings back to mind G/W Devotion, which was originally designed to prey upon control decks:

This deck is very strong against control decks because turn-two Mastery of the Unseen on the play sneaks under countermagic, and barring that, you can cast Genesis Hydra for a fair amount to find it with the trigger.

Mastery of the Unseen
The addition of Den Protector means you can actually rebuy any card in your deck over and over (via Temur Sabertooth with Den Protector).

I moved the Deathmist Raptor package to the sideboard, but that may be a mistake. There’s certainly a lot of room for customization in this deck since Genesis Hydra works as a kind of Demonic Tutor.

The most vulnerable cards against Esper are the mana creatures, so I would take those out (Voyaging Satyr first because you’re also being attacked by sweepers). Polukranos, World Eater is just a big, dumb creature that actually has no impact on most of the games, so it is an easy card to sideboard out. Dromoka's Command isn’t particularly good against Esper either (the best it can do is try to fight an Ojutai, and it will probably fail when the creature is killed by a removal spell or the Command gets countered).

There’re a bunch of decks that I would not play these upcoming weekends if you expect to have to slog through a lot of Esper:

Crux of Fate
Abzan Control — Game 1 is pretty bad given how many dead cards Abzan has, whereas the post-sideboarded games do favor Abzan, but not by enough to make the overall matchup favorable.

Sidisi Whip — This is a very slow deck, and it’s impossible for it to play around counterspells effectively.

R/G Dragons — Black removal spells are insane against this deck; in addition, every mana creature is virtually dead.

Jeskai Tokens — It’s a very unstable deck, although it can defeat Esper Dragons with Jeskai Ascendency.

R/G Devotion — This suffers from similar problems to R/G Dragons, and in addition, the primary draws to the deck are mostly shut down by Crux of Fate.

In any case, I wish everyone the best of luck at the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier this weekend, StarCityGames Cleveland, and Grand Prix Toronto the next weekend.

I hope you enjoyed reading this in-depth look at Standard, and I welcome any comments here or on Twitter @jkyu06.

Thanks for reading!


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