With Modern in flux and Standard being great as usual, it's time to focus on optimizing the Esper Dragons list that has the tools to dominate. I posted a list when Oath of Gatewatch was released and have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to find the perfect cards to answer the metagame of Mardu Green, Eldrazi Ramp, Eldrazi Aggro, Atarka Red, and Four-Color Rally. The mission was successful and the list (slightly edited) before you has yielded success, qualifying two out of three of the mages wielding it last weekend for the next Pro Tour.
Sadly, I was the one mage who couldn't seal the deal. I lost twice to Atarka Red variants, but beat the usual suspects on my way to a mediocre record. I have since altered the list to give me some game 1 life against Atarka Red.
Adding two Flaying Tendrils to the maindeck may sound desperate, but the card is much more versatile than I could have ever thought. It's a powerful spell against the mana creatures out there, deals with the obvious red menace, kills a multitude of Eldrazi threats, and has some application in matchups involving tokens. The ability to discard weaker cards like Flaying Tendrils in more control style matchups with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is fantastic. Unlike decks like Mardu Green or Atarka Red, we aren't stuck with cards that have no impact in a specific matchup.
Fathom Feeder was another spicy addition to the deck. For people that have read my articles for quite some time, you know I have a bit of an affinity toward this little creature. It does much in the early game against the threats that try to drop you to dangerous life totals. It blocks and kills most things in the format and has a ton of upside later in the game.
I've also increased the amount of Ojutai's Commands in the main deck, which gives Fathom Feeder that instant speed block and removal that my Esper Control deck from the past enjoyed. I was looking to get it back in the ring and I'm happy that the format has sped up significantly and calls upon the colorless hero to save the day. Fathom Feeder is the only Eldrazi that I'll invite into Esper Control with open arms.
The other changes are all number tweaks in an attempt to move to a heavy removal suite to answer the aggressive metagame. Besides these few maindeck changes, I tweaked some of the sideboard to defend Esper's honor against the only matchup that has ever presented a regular problem. There are only a few things I hate in this world, and losing to knucklehead red definitely leads that short list.
- 1 Fathom Feeder
- 4 Dragonlord Ojutai
- 1 Dragonlord Silumgar
- 4 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
- 1 Silumgar, the Drifting Death
The Easy Matchups
Esper Dragons is far from an underdog when breaking down the current Standard format. The same rule exists today as it did before: control defeats midrange. The best midrange decks include Mardu Green, Abzan variants, Jeskai Black, R/B Dragons, Colorless/Blue Eldrazi, and Bant Company. There are a few other decks, but most branch off from this list in some way or another. The threat of Crackling Doom has scared all of the Dragon players into hiding from the last time I was able to speak to you all.
I hear doom and gloom from many of my esteemed colleagues as they cry from the rooftops that Esper Dragons cannot beat these Mardu Green decks. I'm here to tell you that they are incorrect. Many of us in the industry are too quick to develop fact-like statements from how the matchup looks on paper, but it's always beneficial to develop initial thoughts and reactions regarding how one deck beats another, or how to make deck A match up better against deck B. This is all part of the process when developing a tournament-winning decklist.
After that is all said and done, it's time to take the best possible Esper Dragons list and battle it against the best Mardu Green version. I have done that and can report back safely and say the matchup is easily winnable.
My older version of Esper Dragons had two copies of Duress in the maindeck, but they fell short against every matchup besides the obvious ones with a lot of spells. The old mentality was to Duress the Crackling Doom out of your opponent's hand and make the way safe for Dragonlord Ojutai. I was initially nervous about taking Duress out of the deck completely, but I was relieved when a new battle plan emerged to beat this midrange nuisance. The increased removal, Fathom Feeder, and a few extra Ojutai's Command moved us to a fully reactive list against Mardu Green and other decks with Crackling Doom.
When Mardu is avoided, we can revert back to interacting from turns 2 through 4 and then have our Dragon crash down on turn 5, but it gets trickier when they have the colors with an answer.
In the Mardu Green situation, the gameplan becomes "draw-go, take a few points of damage from a creature that has escaped, and then begin the card draw chain." Dig Through Time is still a four-of; Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is a must-kill; the copy of Painful Truths is absurdly powerful; and the countermagic that we employ is either super-mana-efficient or imitates Cryptic Command. These aspects of Esper Dragons give us the power to bury our opponent with card advantage without the help from Dragonlord Ojutai until the end. Don't be hasty with this matchup, and I guarantee you'll have positive results based on the strategy of patience.
Next up is the Eldrazi army. Eldrazi may be busted in Modern, but in Standard, I think people are trying a bit too hard to make it happen. It has some explosive qualities with a few low-costed colorless threats, but three power for three mana isn't what it used to be. The toughness of these Eldrazi creatures happen to be two or one for the most part, which gives our sweeper of choice a high level of effectiveness. Flaying Tendrils and Virulent Plague make Whirler Rogue and her friends a non-issue.
The higher-costed Eldrazi can be irritating and tough to deal with, but the rest of our deck lines up well with those threats. It comes down to their inability to deal with Dragons and that's what shifts this matchup heavily in the hero's favor. There are no other really “easy” decks to beat in Standard, and I do believe that Esper Dragons isn't at the height of its power by any stretch of the imagination.
I always explain to my readers and friends why “it's bad right now” is a dangerous phrase to use. Decks like Esper Dragons and Esper Stoneblade have an array of powerful spells that will always be effective in the metagame but would prefer not to see a world of Crackling Dooms or a world full of combo decks. Good cards are good cards and there is always room in the metagame for them.
With a full sideboard dedicated to defeating Atarka Red or other hyper-aggressive decks, the Eldrazi matchup has moved to yellow. It was super-tough before and now I've been on the winning side of 50% with the ability to steal game 1 with a well-timed Flaying Tendrils and an abundance of lifegain. The other medium-to-difficult matchup worth noting is Four-Color Rally. Rally decks have some of the pressure elements that midrange decks contain but tack on that combo kill in the late game. The matchup has gotten a little worse after the increased in Merciless Executioners in the sideboard, but it's still beatable. I had Hallowed Moonlight in the sideboard but found that a couple copies of Infinite Obliteration do the trick. Infinite Obliteration is a card I bring in against the mirror, Four-Color Rally, and Eldrazi Ramp decks.
Sometimes I'll bring in one against Mardu Green to eliminate the Goblin Dark-Dwellers side of the deck, but besides that, use Infinite Obliteration sparingly. It's there to defeat creatures that are center stage of their respective decks, like Nantuko Husk; Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger; World Breaker; Dragonlord Ojutai; or Goblin Dark-Dwellers. Once Nantuko Husk is eliminated, Rally decks flounder around with awkward interactions and are pretty easy to defeat.
The only deck I'm absolutely terrified of in Standard is Atarka Red with four Painful Truths, for obvious reasons. Any deck that can put a lot of pressure on you while gaining an offensive amount of card advantage is one that you'll want to avoid all day with Esper Dragons. Even though I have had very good experiences against Mardu Green, I have been whipped some games here and there when everything goes according to plan. It sounds dangerous, but in these situations, you have to sideboard out some removal and go full-on control in order to come out ahead. Life totals get dangerously low, cards are ripped out of your hand, but at the end of the day, there will be victory if you can keep refueling.
A Quick Legacy Ending
There is a Legacy SCG Tour® event this weekend at #SCGPHILLY and I'm pretty bummed about missing one that close. I booked my flight to Houston ages ago and I have to get into the ring with this version of Esper Dragons and put it to the test. For all of you lovely people who are playing Legacy or plan to play this weekend, I'd like to drop off my updated Esper Stoneblade list, in case you wanted to kick it old school and beat the same old characters and the new invading Eldrazi.
I played this at the last Legacy Open back in November and lost a crucial win-and-in to some Blood Moon shenanigans. The deck then had one more Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and one less Snapcaster Mage in the main deck. I switched it back to three and one, because even though the planeswalker can get out of hand, Snapcaster Mage is just better more often. Drawing multiples of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy isn't fun either when your opponent has a Karakas on the battlefield.
The only other difference is that I added a fifth Sword to Plowshares effect in the sideboard to help stop the Eldrazi threat and boost up already decent matchups. Path to Exile is a card I've always wanted to add to my Esper Stoneblade deck, but in recent years my losses to aggressive decks were at a minimal.
Eldrazi can raise the stakes with explosive draws, but with lots of one-mana removal, you can fight it. The answer to an opposing Chalice of the Void rests in the hands of Disenchant, Council's Judgement, and Engineered Explosives, which is the best I can do. I'm not yet ready to dedicate a large portion of the sideboard or main deck to defeat this virus spilling over from Modern.
Good luck this weekend and I hope to return from Houston with some good news!