This past weekend I was able to participate in Grand Prix Krakow, and if the results there are any indication of what the current Standard format looks like, Esper Dragons is a force to be reckoned with. The Top 8 was littered with control, as there were five copies of Esper Dragons and one Blue/Black Control; the finals was of course an Esper mirror. Going into Grand Prix Krakow it seemed like control was very well positioned based on the results of Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, and now it feels like Esper Dragons is the best control deck in the format. Does this mean that Esper Dragons is the best deck in the format? The answer to this question is debatable, but I would consider Esper Dragons the deck to beat right now.
With that being said the presence of Esper Dragons hasn't been felt in other major events as much, like say at SCG Providence. It is extremely interesting to see such a large showing for Esper Dragons in Krakow, compared to much less of that archetype in Providence. The reason behind this may just be different metagames in different tournament series, and in different geographical locations. Esper Dragons is a deck that does take some practice, and the players who did well with it at the Grand Prix were familiar with the deck from the Pro Tour the week before. I do expect the SCG players to start playing more Esper Dragons as the deck is extremely powerful, and Dragonlord Ojutai makes it into a faster control deck.
Here is a look at what the typical Esper Dragons deck looks like, and what Alexander Hayne won GP Krakow with:
While Esper Dragons was around before the Pro Tour, now it has been tuned by some of the top control experts in the game, and I expect this list to become pretty close to the norm moving forward. The deck has a lot going for it, but the most obvious thing is how important the dragons are. There are only five dragons maindeck, but with Anticipate and Dig Through Time it's pretty easy to find them. A new addition to the deck is Haven of the Spirit Dragon, so there is some built in resiliency if the dragons do die. I am not going to go into the card choices too much, as the deck is pretty self-explanatory. In terms of choosing to play Esper Dragons, I don't just recommend the deck to control players. This isn't a typical control deck, and a lot of the time, because of the ability to race with dragons, the deck acts more midrangy.
Here is another concern I have heard in relation to picking up Esper Dragons: "I don't want to play the mirror." Let me just say that this is valid, and control mirrors can be rough on players who aren't used to them. With that said I played Esper Dragons this past weekend, and it was because of configuring my deck a bit differently to be more prepared for the mirror match. Sometimes it is strange how a matchup can shift heavily in your favor, just by the addition of a couple cards. Here is the list I played at Grand Prix Krakow:
I may be a little biased since this is the list I played; it is natural to prefer it over the more stock one, but to me there are some subtle changes that make this version a bit stronger. Before I go into them it is easy to ask, "if this version is better how come it wasn't in Top 8?" Many players first instinct is to pick up the version of a deck that has already been proven successful rather than take what is seemingly more of a gamble on cards less well known. As far as this version of Esper Dragons is concerned there weren't enough players playing this list to provide an accurate sample size, to confirm if it is better than the more mainstream take on the deck.
Changes to the maindeck:
+1 Dragonlord's Prerogative+1 Foul-Tongue Invocation
-1 Anticipate-1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
The reasons for these changes are primarily to make the deck better in the mirror, while also not sacrificing much against the aggressive decks. In fact I almost played four copies of Foul-Tongue Invocation because of how well positioned it currently is. It is great against the two most popular aggressive decks, in Abzan Aggro and Monored Aggro, while also being one of the best answers to opposing dragons. It is true that the edict can be awkward against tokens and Satyr Wayfinder decks, though those strategies are losing popularity. The Dragonlord's Prerogative is great in the mirror or against the Abzan decks, as it is essentially just one additional source of card advantage. The only matchup where you actively don't want Dragonlord's Prerogative is versus Monored or Monored splashing green.
As for the cuts, there is one less Anticipate for starters. It is necessary to play some amount of Anticipates as a way to fuel delve and not play 28 lands, but drawing multiples early in the game kinda sucks. Usually against the aggressive decks you want to be playing removal spells as early as possible, and there isn't a good turn to cast Anticipate. I don't recommend going down to less than two copies though. The big cut that some may question is completely getting rid of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. I have played enough with Esper Dragons to know that Ugin, the Spirit Dragon isn't necessary. This is a card you never want to draw early in the game. While it is nice that you can return Ugin, the Spirit Dragon with Haven of the Spirit Dragon, and find it with a Dig Through Time to reset a board full of planeswalkers, the vast majority of the time Ugin, the Spirit Dragon in this deck just feels like a win more card. Despite what people say it does not count as a dragon, because it doesn't help with Foul-Tongue Invocation or Silumgar's Scorn.
The sideboard is where things get really interesting. Here is how my list differs from that of Hayne's:
+2 Risen Executioner+1 Drown in Sorrow
-1 Dragonlord's Prerogative-1 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver-1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
The big card that is in my version for the mirror matchup is Risen Executioner. For players looking to get an edge in the Esper Mirror this is what you want in the sideboard. Remember how control decks used to play cards like Perilous Vault and Silence the Believers? Well those cards have disappeared for the most part. Risen Executioner can't be answered at all, except by blocking it with Silumgar, the Drifting Death or resolving Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Both of these situations very rarely happen. Without the presence of Risen Executioner the control mirrors generally are a game of cat and mouse, which lasts many turns. Risen Executioner seems to be the best possible card in the mirror, and closes the game out quickly.
As for the other changes, the additional Drown in Sorrow is a nod towards expecting more Monored Aggro, one of the scarier matchups, though the matchup is still close. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver is completely random to me as a singleton, and there will be players that keep in some amount of Hero's Downfalls versus you after board. My version has one less Tasigur, the Golden Fang because there is such a thing as too many delve spells. You are rarely boarding out any Dig Through Times and there are spots when I have drawn three delve spells and wanted to vomit. It is true that Tasigur, the Golden Fang is very versatile and can come in against pretty much everything.
Alright so looking to beat Esper Dragons but don't want to beat it with tech for the mirror? That's okay, but I wouldn't actually recommend Monored Aggro as that deck is still only flipping coins versus Esper Dragons. Here is a deck that caught my eye as a strategy with a ton of potential, played by Pro Tour Champion Antonio Del Moral Leon:
Instant speed threats that you can play at the end of the opponents turn are traditionally very strong versus control decks. Boon Satyr is the obvious one that comes to mind and, by the way, there are four copies here. The new card here that really stands out though is Collected Company. Putting two creatures into play at the end of the opponents turn is not just surprising, it's game breaking. The creature suite works well with Collected Company, and there are even Den Protectors to rebuy the Collected Companies. In addition there is an explosive devotion element, including the unexpected combat trick, Aspect of Hydra.
I do think that this list could use some polishing, though I need to put some work into Collected Company to be sure what changes are best. I'm not sure about the four Dromoka's Command in the main because that card is bad versus control. However, after board Del Moral Leon has access to another haymaker he can board in for the control matchup, and that is Mastery of the Unseen. Clearly this deck has the tools necessary to beat the control decks, and I expect to see other decks attempting to abuse Collected Company using similar ideas as in this version of Green/White Collected Company.
There is one more deck I will recommend which has a good matchup against Esper Dragons. It is a deck designed by Craig Wescoe and his article here provides some additional information on the deck. I want to provide the list that Sam Pardee played at GP Krakow because I talked to him about the changes he made to the sideboard, and like them a lot. Here is the list:
He is boarding in Stratus Dancer against control decks, and the card is absolutely busted in conjunction with Deathmist Raptor and Mastery of the Unseen. Besides the control matchup cards like Arashin Cleric and Encase in Ice go a long way to shoring up the Red/Green Dragons and Monored matchup, respectively. Ojutai Bant has resilient hard to answer threats, it rarely runs out of gas, and sometimes just has a better late game than even the control decks. I expect to see much more of this deck in tournaments to come.
Overall control, and this past weekend specifically Esper Dragons has been dominant. I hope to see new creations which aim to beat the control decks while still being reasonable versus the rest of the field.
Thanks for reading,