On Tuesday, September 24th, in the year of our Lord 2019, I, Brian S. Braun-Duin did glorious battle via livestream on Twitch.tv in the MTG Arena Throne of Eldraine Early Access event courtesy of a fully stocked account given to me by Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary and creators of popular trading card game Magic: The Gathering.
In other words, I got to play Eldraine Standard a few days early. It was best of one gameplay only, which means that there was no testing of sideboards and it came with the hand smoothing algorithm, which significantly favors aggressive strategies and one- or two-color decks. Yet, it was still a valuable chance to play with some cards and get a feel for how the set plays out.
During this event, I played three different decks for about an hour and a half each. While that is not an excessive amount of time, I did feel like I got some valuable insight into those decks and their strengths and flaws. I'm going to go a bit more in depth on each of these decks and the role I think they could play in Throne of Eldraine Standard.
This deck didn't impress too much during the Early Access event, but that may be partially because I have no clue how to properly build it. Also, this is a deck that suffers greatly from being played in best-of-one gameplay in that aggressive decks that will generally get their nut draws are going to be too fast for it a lot of the time. In traditional gameplay that won't be the case. Also, having access to cheap sideboard removal like Glass Casket will help immensely.
Even though I didn't win too much with this deck, I suspect it will still be a solid player in Standard.
Once Upon a Time was pretty good in this deck. I've seen players trying to just put Once Upon a Time into every green deck and I think that is wrong. The allure of casting it for free is hard to pass up, but the reality is that you do have to hardcast the card in a lot of games, and to maximize having it in your opening hand, you can't afford to play less than three to four copies. Playing that many copies means you will draw it a lot during the course of gameplay. If you're playing a deck looking to curve out, then you don't want to take turns off to play this card.
In this deck, however, it was pretty great. It helps find Risen Reef to provide something to do on turn thee. It can find a board sweeper by grabbing Realm-Cloaked Giant // Cast Off. It grabs Field of the Dead or Golos, Tireless Pilgrim or Hydroid Krasis and early in the game it can fix mana in this five-color manabase. This deck also has tons of mana, which means that paying two for it later in the game isn't that big of a drawback. You can cast it for two mana, grab a Golos and play it in the same turn often enough.
Speaking of Risen Reef, I happen to believe it is better than something like Beanstalk Giant // Fertile Footsteps. On turn three, you'd rather have Beanstalk Giant a lot of the time, because you're really hoping to ramp up on mana and Risen Reef is slightly less than 50% likely to hit land. However, Risen Reef has a much more significant upside in that multiple copies can get completely out of control, Risen Reef can block and attack in spots where that's relevant, and Risen Reef is going to be superior later in the game.
A late-game Reef can find nonbasics like Field of the Dead and chain with other Reefs, whereas Beanstalk Giant // Fertile Footsteps can only find a basic land. Being able to cast Beanstalk Giant as a big creature is nice, but not really necessary. Between Hydroid Krasis, Realm-Cloaked Giant // Cast Off and Golos, Tireless Pilgrim there is no lack of big creatures to invest into.
Realm-Cloaked Giant // Cast Off is pretty great. It's (mostly) a board wipe. Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp is likely to be a popular card, but other than that, I don't foresee too many Giants making their way into decks. Playing the creature half later as a 7/7 is also a giant beating, especially since future copies of Realm-Cloaked Giant played as Cast Off don't kill it. You can also use Teferi, Time Raveler to bounce Realm-Cloaked Giant in order to later recast it as a board sweeper. This card is incredibly powerful and we may see people playing cards with the Giant creature type just to avoid this card if it becomes ubiquitous.
One card I didn't have in my deck was Drawn from Dreams, which was popular in this strategy at the end of last season. I imagine it is correct to have that card in the list, especially with board sweepers, but as of now I don't know what cards to trim to make room for it. I will say that the loss of Elvish Rejuvenator is a massive hit for the deck. I don't think the strategy is dead without that card, but it's certainly way less consistent and explosive.
Fabled Passage is a massive upgrade for this deck. Before that card was released it seemed that, without Temples in Throne of Eldraine we would have to resort to playing gain lands like Dismal Backwater (also known as Dismal Backwash). Playing so many tap lands really hurt this deck's ability to properly curve out.
If you've been following along with Esper Hero, you may notice that this deck looks massively different than last season's version of the deck, which relied on cards like Elite Guardmage to enable Bolas's Citadel.
I no longer believe that strategy is viable, because I think that Teferi, Hero of Dominaria was an essential element for that strategy to work. Point-blank, I knew that Teferi, Hero of Dominaria was the best card in Esper Hero but I frankly underestimated how much the deck would feel the loss of that card. It is a massive loss, and forces Esper Hero fanatics (There are dozens of us! Dozens!) to reevaluate how to build the deck in the wake of his disappearance.
I believe that now you have to play a more traditional midrange game plan and close out games with powerful creatures, rather than Esper Hero's control-style midrange gameplan last season that just grinded out every deck or combo-killed them with Bolas's Citadel.
Instead of Elite Guardmage, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Bolas's Citadel, we now have Seraph of the Scales, Doom Whisperer and Lochmere Serpent.
Doom Whisperer in particular has been very impressive. There are a lot of games where Doom Whisperer sets up easy lethal by finding Oath of Kaya to finish off the opponent. Plus it is large enough to dodge most red removal, and with Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord, it can represent massive life swings.
Seraph of the Scales is merely a tool in this configuration. It's a solid card, good against non-exile removal and good with Hero of Precinct One, but not a gamebreaker. It's part of the whole configuration of being more aggressive, not an essential cog to it. Seraph sucked last Standard season with Nexus, Scapeshift and so forth being part of the format, but with a lot of those cards gone, Seraph actually has a decent shot of being strong.
Lochmere Serpent was incredibly impressive in the few games I got to play with the card. It immediately changes the nature of the game and is phenomenal at turning Esper Hero from "on the defensive" to "on the offensive with lethal" in short order. Gaining a few life points and drawing cards can sometimes help close games as well, although ultimately sacrificing a land for that ability was a huge cost.
One card that really surprised me was Drown in the Loch. I played one copy in the event and then immediately adjusted it to two. I suspected this card would be too situational to be good, even though the power level of it when active is incredibly high. It was easier than I imagined to get this card online. I still don't believe you can play too many copies of it, as you don't want to flood on them early in the game when they do nothing. But I found this card to be exceptional at closing games out late, especially with a card like Doom Whisperer to find it when needed.
Ultimately, I think this Hero deck is still a bit clunky and the aggressive-midrange build is way less impressive than the old combo-control-midrange build with Bolas's Citadel from last season that was, at times, the best deck in the format. Being forced to close games in a short window makes a deck way worse than one with raw inevitability that can make the opponent play to its tune.
Still, I think the deck is a fine deck. Lochmere Serpent and Doom Whisperer both pack a massive punch, and the Teferi, Time Raveler + Oath of Kaya grind vs. aggressive decks is still very much alive. I don't think this will be a format dominator again, but it could easily live on as a solid tier 2 strategy.
This deck felt like what the more aggressive Esper Hero strategy wanted to be. Kethis, the Hidden Hand was a good midrange beater that doubled as a way to make your other cards cheaper and could occasionally bring back value from the graveyard.
This deck felt chock-full of cards that were powerful on their own merit and also had significant synergy with each other, which is exactly the mark of a good deck in Standard. I'm not saying this will definitely be a good deck, just that it has the basic makeup of one.
Kethis, the Hidden Hand makes your other cards cheaper. Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves is a nice card on its own, but better when it costs four mana, and Tolsimir also works incredibly well with Garruk, Cursed Huntsman, which makes 4 power of wolves that can gain 4 life, fight opposing creatures, and notch Garruk up to ultimate loyalty for the following turn.
Vraska, Golgari Queen also plays nicely with all the legends, allowing you to turn duplicate copies into fresh cards. Vraska also works well with Oath of Kaya, providing easy fodder to sacrifice and also plays well with Garruk, allowing you to sacrifice a Wolf to increase Garruk's loyalty up to ultimate.
Garruk, Cursed Huntsman, for what it's worth, seemed busted-level good to me. I think this card is the real deal. I did a fist pump every time it was in my hand and when it wasn't, it was generally the card I most wanted to draw. It's very reminiscent of Elspeth, Sun's Champion. It sprays the board, it kills creatures, and it has an ultimate that allows your creatures to quickly end the game. Those were all things that Elspeth did as well, and I can't say that Garruk necessarily does them any worse. It may do them better.
This deck, from three to six mana, is full of impressive and powerful cards with incredible synergy with each other. There is but one flaw. This deck sucks on turns one and two. Paradise Druid is nice to set up future turns, but other options all suck. Corey Baumeister was playing Incubation Druid, but I'm not excited by the card, as it offers your opponent an early chance to stymie your development with a removal spell. Especially with Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp being a presumably big part of the format, I don't know if Incubation Druid is where I want to be. Incubation Druid is also a pretty weak draw on turns four to six.
Two-mana removal is perfect to have on these turns, but sadly, the options are weak. There's Glass Casket, Legion's End, Disfigure Assassin's Trophy and so forth, but these are all very narrow options. Trophy is a card you don't want to play early, and the rest all have significant drawbacks. A good Cast Down or Doom Blade-style effect would be perfect here.
At any rate, this is a really fun deck that is reminiscent of old Siege Rhino Abzan decks of old. I loved playing those decks a lot, and I've enjoyed this one so far. I think out of the three decks in my article, this is going to be the best performing deck, at least early on.
One massive advantage of all three of these decks is that they all have the ability to play phenomenal sideboards. Some of the two-color decks or Simic decks don't have great options past the first few slots, but Abzan and Esper have really strong options throughout.
Another thing to note is that all three of these decks will be way better than they looked during the Early Access event in traditional best-of-three Standard. Three-color decks traditionally do not perform well in best-of-one simply due to the nature of the hand selection algorithm and how it favors both aggressive and one- to two-color strategies. Couple that with the strength of these decks lying at least partially in their ability to shift after sideboard, and I'm hopeful for these strategies in the early days of the format's development.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2019 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest on the Bash Bros Podcast.
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