As you are reading this, the Season One Invitational is either about to begin or has already begun. Thankfully, my deck is ready, and my excitement is hard to contain.
I have received both praise and criticism for this take on control in the new Standard format. There are cards that I have selected for my charge into battle that many of you would never dream of playing, which is perfectly fine. Since my very first days of writing, I've said that there are a thousand different ways to crush an opponent's tournament dreams with a control deck and this is just one of those ways. I have put a great deal of faith into the Dragon-based control strategy and they have dominated in the testing games I've played so far. Silumgar, the Drifting Death is still an all-star in this Standard format by being relatively unkillable. Anyone who has played U/B Control understands the power of the hexproof Dragon, so he's not the card in question. Dragonlord Ojutai, however, is the true wild-card win condition of the deck.
Ojutai is not the sturdiest of win conditions, as it only has four toughness, and it's just not as good as Prognostic Sphinx in a vacuum. However, using Silumgar's Scorn and Crux of Fate has put me in this position and I await the results. I could play a weird split by cutting a few Dragons and shaving a few copies of Silumgar's Scorns, but if my testing holds up, all of that is unnecessary and victory is possible with Dragonlord Ojutai.
For those who follow me on social media, you've seen the list I'm about to highlight. Today's article will be an attempt to debunk some allegations of weaknesses that have cropped up about some of these cards, as well as an explanation of the sideboard to assist you with preparation for an unknown field.
Now that you have the decklist, let's start by addressing a few concerns. Silumgar's Scorn is probably the best place to start.
Silumgar's Scorn is a fantastic Magic card and a mandatory four-of if you're playing with Dragons. In my last article, I was full of excitement about this card and all of the other splendors that Dragons of Tarkir had to offer. That excitement hasn't diminished in the slightest and I am more certain of the power of Force Spike in Standard now after playing the deck. If Silumgar's Scorn wasn't printed and Force Spike was, I would be hard pressed to not use it in some fashion this weekend. Aggressive and midrange decks can press very hard to take advantage of you while developing your mana, and for this reason I banked on the power of Thoughtseize to protect me just long enough to get to the point where I've answered their biggest threats and started landing my own powerful haymakers. Thoughtseize is a great card, but it turned into a liability with life loss, unfortunate top decks, and being a horrendous late game-draw.
Silumgar's Scorn has solved that problem for good.
It serves the same purpose I had initially given to Thoughtseize, stopping a two-drop in its tracks on the play and a three-drop on the draw. The only difference is the weakness to Fleecemane Lion or Rakshasa Deathdealer. These two cards are a pain game one, but the metagame I'm preparing for will contain less of these suckers than we had seen prior to Dragons of Tarkir. The negative is purely on the draw, because Silumgar's Scorn easily stops them in their place with a Temple on turn one and any of my eight untapped blue sources on turn two.
So you think Force Spike isn't good? Let's see if I can change your mind. If you are rocking a Silumgar's Scorn without a Dragon and you're nervous, you need to snap out of it! From turns two to four, it is as hard of a counter as Counterspell itself. You heard me right, and I will gladly step to the podium and debate this declaration against the world, because testing always reveals the truth. If your savvy opponent is reluctant to play his or her Goblin Rabblemaster on turn three because of the menace of your two blue mana, we've already won the game. What is your opponent going to do? Wait to cast Goblin Rabblemaster on turn four? If they do, then you've opened your spell book to Dissolve, Hero's Downfall, Ultimate Price, or maybe even that same Silumgar's Scorn but with a Dragon this time. Even if you are completely without an answer and your hand contains a ton of Force Spikes, then Time Walking your opponent because they've pushed all their plays back turn after turn is easily just as good for this specific control deck.
We prey on all opponents in the late game with this build of Esper, unlike many of my other versions of the past. This deck has eight counterspells in the late game, three Narset Transcendent, powerful win conditions, and killer card draw. As a kicker, our sweeper doesn't remove those win conditions and can be absolutely devastating to any opponent that enjoys playing creatures. Silumgar's Scorn makes all of this possible as the king of delay, a hard counterspell in the early game and something special when Dragons enter the battlefield or even are just hanging out in your hand. I truly haven't felt there has been a good counterspell in Standard since Cryptic Command, and you may have noticed that I ignored the existence of Mana Leak. This omission is not to offend you all or get anyone riled up, but instead is a declaration of the power of Silumgar's Scorn. The Mana Leak-style protection of Silumgar's Scorn in the early game is close enough to the real deal, and the late game isn't debatable. You will find a Dragon, you will cast that Dragon, and you will protect your Dragon without the opponent having the option of paying a token mana fee to get out of it.
I have complained about WotC taking control apart piece by piece as they eliminate broken cards such as Doom Blade, Wrath of God, Compulsive Research, and similar powerful control effects, but this set has given us the tools to rebuild. I completely understand that many of you will still be skeptical of Silumgar's Scorn and will need to see it in action. I hope this weekend I'm able to play well enough and have a little luck in order to show you all the power of this card and how it's probably the closest we'll ever get to a good counterspell again.
I know that there are a lot of creatures in Abzan Aggro that this can't target, but don't let that discourage you. I went over the positives of Ultimate Price a few weeks ago and I'm just going to give you all a pep talk to soothe stressed nerves today. Cutting Bile Blight and playing Ultimate Price will not turn your win percentage from 60% to 20% against Abzan Aggro like many are fearful it will. My sideboards are dedicated to plugging the biggest holes that may spring a leak at big tournaments such as an Open or Invitational, and that remains the case here. Encase in Ice is here as a four-of in order to completely dominate sideboarded games against this particular deck. Game one is not lost because of Silumgar's Scorn and the ability to counter all of their threats easily on the play. There will be some matchups where you're on the draw and see a deadly multicolored creature, and in that case the other spells will help increase chances of survival. Once you've got anywhere near parity you'll be able to use Narset Transcendent, a Dig Through Time, or cast a removal spell with counter available on that turn and you'll turn the corner, taking over the game.
It is a fact that the Abzan Aggro matchup got harder, but the others have gotten a whole lot easier. Ultimate Price is just too versatile not to play and it kills annoying cards like Courser of Kruphix, Polukranos, World Eater, Stormbreath Dragon, Whisperwood Elemental, and a host of other characters that Bile Blight could never touch.
The best planeswalker since Jace the Mind Sculptor? Probably not. But since Elspeth, Sun's Champion? That's entirely possible because I honestly believe that the loyalty was a typo that R&D never fixed after playing with the four-mana Planeswalker. Going up to seven loyalty is just an absurd number that pushes any deck not packing black spells up the creek without a paddle. If your opponent doesn't attack Narset with their creatures, they are guaranteed to lose to the Rebound ability over a few turns. At first I was just happy that it drew a card 50% of the time – maybe even more with a little scry help – but using the Rebound ability for the first time on a Dig Through Time was an experience like none other. It essentially becomes a quadruple Demonic Tutor and losing becomes impossible.
Playing against G/R Aggro, G/W Devotion, the control mirror, and Abzan Midrange became a joke if you could keep Narset Transcendent in play for a couple turns. The first ability fuels, the second controls, and the ultimate will decimate. You would be surprised to know the percentage of decks that need noncreature spells to defeat you. People have overlooked the ultimate, but if it's fired off, the game more than likely ends in your favor.
I could write an entire article just containing scenarios that prove Narset Transcendent's power level, but this is one of the criticisms that wasn't just about that. People are concerned about the white splash, not just Narset, asking if it's really worth it. The answer is yes, not just because of the power of Narset Transcendent but also because of the necessity of Utter End. White is needed to keep horrifying enchantments exiled for good... even though victory was possible against an Outpost Siege here or a Mastery of the Unseen there, why go through that trouble? Utter End gives us a versatile answer to those dominating threats as well as any run-of-the-mill creature that threatens lethal damage.
The twelve Temples give us so much digging power that cutting a land was easy. The price for all of that scry is a slower start, which is why I eliminated all other lands that enter the battlefield tapped. I was able to get the mana so consistent, in fact, that I'm playing two copies of Radiant Fountain this weekend. It's an ambitious plan, but I believe the manabase can handle it. If you want more consistency and aggro isn't a big thing in your area, I'd cut them for an Island and a Swamp. We have a total of fourteen lands that enter the battlefield untapped, which is close to the number played when piloting U/B Control.
Each card in the sideboard has a specific purpose except Dragonlord Silumgar, as I bring in the legendary dragon against every single deck. After game one, our opponents have to drop generic removal in exchange for their control hate, giving us the opportunity to slam the best haymaker of all against them. In the olden days of yore, I'd have my Tamiyo, the Moon Sage taken from me with a Zealous Conscripts and ultimated. It's a terrible feeling – and now we have the chance to give it to other people. Many of the planeswalkers have a kill switch and can be removed permanently if necessary, and Dragonlord Silumgar does that for us. The ability to steal a creature and use it on defense or offense is great, and after sideboarding most of our opponents will just have to stare at it blankly. Protecting this creature is much more difficult than the others, but with smart timing and sideboarding it can be a dominant player for Esper Control.
The Drown in Sorrows, Encase in Ices, Virulent Plague, and Pearl Lake Ancient are all easy to figure out. The token and small creature destruction package is locked and loaded for you to dominate your tournament of choice. I usually board out countermagic and expensive removal for them, but you can alter that strategy a little when you see fit. The Pearl Lake Ancient is solely for control decks, and the four Encase in Ices come in to upgrade our removal against any deck that has a target for them. Don't forget that every creature in Abzan can be targeted by it, and the same is true for those pesky red aggressive decks. It's such a great card and rarely dead when drawn later in the game.
The Ojutai's Command is a sweet lifegain spell and can be brought in against the control mirror as a bullet removal spell for a Dragon with upside. There is one target to be brought back, which is a Stratus Dancer that also comes in against the control mirror as well. Stratus Dancer is such a sweet card because of its threat capability and free Negate that can't be fought over. It can be a pressure play on turn three or you can wait to cast it on turn five to keep some protection. If it works out as I plan it to then I'll up the count, but for now it's just a very sweet third Negate with a hint of extra value.
The real test for my control acumen is finally here. It's time to see if my take on Esper Control is up for the challenge. Wish me luck!