Since Goblin Chainwhirler is the defining card of Standard, every deck must have a plan against it. The Esper Knights plan is to play no creatures that die to its enters the battlefield ability while also playing cards that match up well against Goblin Chainwhirler's supporting cast. Esper Knights isn't just good against red decks though—it also has a strong plan against the green and control decks of the format.
Here is the list I started with:
The deck has a good mix of aggressive threats, efficient removal, card advantage, and late-game cards that can take over or finish a game. At it's heart, it is a History of Benalia deck, but unlike some of the more aggressive vehicle shells, it has a more robust late game in case the aggro knight plan doesn't work out.
Knight of Malice is strong in the current metagame. A two-drop two-power first striker that doesn't die to Goblin Chainwhirler's enters-the-battlefield ability is pretty powerful against the red decks. It often forces them to use a burn spell on it, especially after we have a white permanent on the battlefield to make it three power and thus able to trade with Goblin Chainwhirler. Where it really shines, however, is against the white control decks. They rely on cards like Seal Away to deal with early pressure, but Seal Away cannot hit Knight of Malice due to its hexproof from white ability. I sometimes forget that I can target my own Knight of Malice, not because I don't know how hexproof works but rather because I mentally shortcut the ability as "hexproof from Craig Wescoe."
History of Benalia is another card that is great against Seal Away since it produces vigilant tokens that never tap. Thus if you go Knight of Malice into History of Benalia, the opponent will often be handcuffed as to how to deal with the onslaught of attackers while staring at a useless Seal Away in hand. History of Benalia is also great at turning the corner against the more aggressive strategies. If we're too far behind or have a five drop in hand, I'll often trade aggressively with opposing attackers, but if I just have knights and/or another History of Benalia, I'l often race since my creatures all get a giant bonus from the chapter three ability of History of Benalia. This often results in an attack for 13+ damage, which usually forces the opponent to chump block at least one attacker. Given that the knight tokens have vigilance, it also makes it such that the opponent won't have a lethal counter-attack. And since they don't have a lethal counter-attack, it means they say go and then chump block with all their creatures the following turn and then die the turn after. So be sure to always consider the math and decide whether the opponent is actually the aggressor or if your best chance to win is turning the corner and becoming the aggressor when History of Benalia goes ultimate.
Knight of Grace isn't quite as well-positioned as Knight of Malice, and we also don't have as many ways to give it the bonus, but it's still good by its stats alone. It's also especially good against the blue-black midrange decks that rely on black removal like Fatal Push and Cast Down to deal with early threats. It's not uncommon to hit for six or more points of damage with Knight of Grace before the opponent can set up. This makes the workload of all our other cards that much lighter.
That feeling when you're such a powerful planeswalker that your ultimate is just reminder text. pic.twitter.com/QIscrdx12z— Craig Wescoe (@Brimaz4Life) April 13, 2017
The typical premier line of play is Knight into History of Benalia, but if you don't draw History of Benalia, the backup plan is usually Gideon of the Trials. Gideon of the Trials is quite the formidable threat, attacking for four damage each turn with immunity to damage and destroy effects. It can also neutralize an opposing threat, which is especially useful early on against the aggressive decks. Gideon can also neutralize an opposing Lyra Dawnbringer which might otherwise halt our attack altogether. Instead it turns Lyra Dawnbringer into the equivalent of an 0/5 flying wall. Gideon also sticks around after a Fumigate or other board sweeper effect. This means we can continue the pressure or take out a planeswalker post-Fumigate. Also contrary to my pinned twitter post regarding Gideon of the Trials, the ultimate is not just reminder text. Against Approach of the Second Suns it forces them to answer Gideon of the Trials in order to win the game. This will often buy us enough time to win the game since they usually spend multiple turns digging for the Approach of the Second Sun just to recast it in time. Forcing them to cobble together a new game plan while facing down lethal often proves impossible for them.
Draws where you curve out with a knight into History of Benalia, especially when you follow it up with a second History of Benalia, are usually very difficult for an opponent to beat. Draws don't always pan out that way, though, and other times the opponent has all the answers even when you do get the right draw. These are the times when The Scarab God really shines, allowing you to take over the game with its activated and triggered abilities. It's the perfect follow-up to Fumigate, putting all those fallen creatures to good use. It's also the best card in midrange matchups where each player trades removal spells for opposing creatures and everything is constantly trading in combat. Graveyards quickly get filled up with creatures on both sides, especially with our Fatal Pushes and Cast Downs killing instead of exiling opposing creatures.
Lyra Dawnbringer makes sense as a one-of over a fourth copy of The Scarab God for a few reasons. The most important reason is that both creatures are legendary, so you can't have multiple copies of either on the battlefield at the same time. This means the first copy of either has much greater utility than the second copy does. In other words, the second copy of Lyra is too much of a lyrability. The second reason is because they work well together. For instance, if you cast Lyra and the opponent kills her, then when you play The Scarab God, she is very likely the best target to make into a zombie since she has flying and lifelink. The third reason is that some decks just can't beat Lyra Dawnbringer. As good as The Scarab God is, sometimes you're too far behind and the opponent can just attack with all their creatures before you have a chance to untap with The Scarab God. Lyra Dawnbringer having lifelink means the opponent will need five additional damage to attack through it. That extra life buffer can often be the difference that allows you to turn the corner.
Karn, Scion of Urza is another way to take over the game after you have deployed all your knights in the early turns. Since we don't run any artifacts, it's rare that we make tokens with Karn. Instead we use the Planeswalker mostly as a card draw engine. It's possible this should be split as one Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and one Karn, Scion of Urza, but we already have four five-drops in our deck, and pushing the curve too high will hurt our ability to tempo the opponent out, which is often our game plan against the more controlling decks.
The removal spells are mostly geared toward the red decks. Fatal Push, Cast Down, Seal Away, and even Walking Ballista answer an opponent's early threats. Then we have exile effects such as Cast Out and Ixalan's Binding (and also Seal Away) to deal with Hazoret, the Fervent or Chandra, Torch of Defiance, or in some cases, Glorybringer. Given the prevalence of red decks in the metagame right now, I think that's the deck you want your removal spells to be best suited for, at least in the main deck. Post-board we can adjust things against the other decks of the format. Finding the right mix of Cast Downs, Cast Outs, Cast Betweens, and Cast Arounds for each matchup can be a bit tricky, so let's discuss sideboard strategy.
Against the green creature decks, whether we're talking about B/G Constrictor, (nearly) Mono-Green Stompy, or the myriad other midrange green decks, we want to be cautious of relying too heavily on enchantment-based removal spells. They have access to a lot of ways to get rid of enchantments, especially in post-board games. So instead of relying on Cast Out and Ixalan's Binding to take out their bigger threats such as Ghalta, we pivot and bring in Fumigate, Settle the Wreckage, and Vraska's Contempt. Angel of Sanctions is also really good against the versions without many ways to kill opposing five-drop creatures. Same goes for Hostage Taker unless they have Fatal Push. Profane Procession is good if you suspect they won't have a lot of enchantment removal, and even if they do, it is often a two-for-one if you can activate once before it's dealt with.
Against the red decks you want a few more answers to aggressive creatures. So I've been bringing in the extra Cast Down, Seal Away, and Settle the Wreckage. I also bring in Vraska's Contempt to answer Hazoret, the Fervent and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. It's tempting to board out The Scarab God against them, but I would advise against that. Post-board games slow down and they have a lot of removal spells to handle most of our threats. The Scarab God is our best way to take over the game since they have very few ways to beat it. Instead I would board out all three copies of Gideon of the Trials. Gideon of the Trials can gain us some life, but they have too many haste creatures for Gideon fo the Trials to really be effective enough of the time, especially when they bring in Glorybringers. So that's where I would look to make cuts. Or as some might say, Gideon can getty-on-out-of-here against red decks.
Against control decks we board out most of our removal spells, including all copies of Fatal Push, Cast Down, and Seal Away. And we replace them with Duress, Karn, Negate, and Vraska's Contempt. I also like replacing Lyra Dawnbringer with Angel of Sanctions in the control matchups because it has greater utility and the ability to embalm it can produce card advantage. Lyra Dawnbringer is mostly just a 5/5 with no relevant abilities in that matchup, especially against white-blue decks. This also makes sense flavor-wise. The last thing you want to do when the Second Sun is Approaching is to play a creature that Brings the Dawn.
Overall I think this deck is good right now. It has a solid plan against the top decks. I might want a few more Negates in the sideboard over Profane Procession or Hostage Taker, but that's about the only change I would want to make. I intended to record a video set with the deck for you to watch it in action, but unfortunately I had some technical difficulties with the recording equipment. I did manage to at least record a four-minute deck tech with it though, so I will leave you with that.