In a format defined by midrange, The Elderspell, and trying to go over the top of each other, Command the Dreadhorde is one of the best things you can possibly be doing. Other cards, like Mass Manipulation and Nexus of Fate, have tried to take the crown, but the black cards tend to beat the blue ones in this format.
Initially I was skeptical of Command the Dreadhorde. While clearly an incredible effect for six mana, the loss of life didn't seem easy to overcome. You can play Esper with Basilica Bell-Haunt and Oath of Kaya like Martin Muller has been doing, but playing without green seems like a mistake.
I'm not sure how the explore package failed to cross my mind, but I assume it's because I didn't realize how easy it would be to gain life, fire off a huge Command the Dreadhorde, and gain all that life back thanks to Wildgrowth Walkers, Merfolk Branchwalkers, and Jadelight Rangers entering the battlefield. Just in case the first Command the Dreadhorde doesn't end the game, you'll be at a healthy life total and be ready to go again.
There are some other ways to accomplish this, but the explore package is by far the most efficient.
What About Mono-Red Aggro?
If Mono-Red Aggro is the best deck in the format (and it is), then how is a deck based on casting a six-mana sorcery that deals you a bunch of damage viable? Realistically, Mono-Red Aggro is the worst matchup. Given how prevalent that deck has been, that seems like a death sentence for any Standard tournament, but that's not entirely true.
You lose three ways:
1. Getting burned out after barely stabilizing an early creature rush.
2. Runaway Steam-Kin gets huge, is difficult to block effectively, and allows them to out-tempo you.
Your Command the Dreadhordes are effectively dead cards, hence only playing three copies.
Bringing in big green creatures allows you to brick their smaller creatures while also pressuring them, which is the best way to beat Experimental Frenzy. After sideboard, these things are very easy. You could hedge more for Mono-Red in the maindeck with Thrashing Brontodon or more removal if you wanted to.
Even though it's kind of a fancy deck, this deck is ultimately an update to Golgari Midrange, albeit one that has a combo finish. You establish your mana, gain value through planeswalkers and Hydroid Krasis, and eventually finish the game with Command the Dreadhorde.
Tamiyo, Collector of Tales is the best card in the deck. You will typically name whichever card fits best on your curve for the turn after. Sometimes you just want to name a card you have four copies left in your deck, ensuring your Tamiyo will get some value if she's going to die on the following turn. Other times you'll be spamming Command the Dreadhorde, hoping to eventually find the namesake card while also filling your graveyard. Hydroid Krasis is a fine name if you have sufficiently developed your mana.
If Tamiyo is the strongest card in the deck, then Nissa, Who Shakes the World is second. She pressures opposing planeswalkers, makes your Hydroid Krasises huge, and creates an army of blockers in short order. Nissa is one of the strongest cards in Standard at the moment and should absolutely be seeing more play.
My maindeck is light on removal, but that's fine for Standard's current metagame. Most of the time, you invalidate what your opponent is doing and there are very few things actually worth killing. Runaway Steam-Kin is one of them, as are Experimental Frenzy, Benalish Marshal, and the various planeswalkers.
The sideboard is simple, yet effective. We have disruption for other midrange decks, big creatures for Mono-Red Aggro, and some additional removal. Traditionally you'll see more ways to grind in sideboard games, but this deck has everything front-loaded.
Sultai has many options that I'm not using.
Cards like Hostage Taker don't belong: solid in green mirrors, but mostly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Massacre Girl and Cry of the Carnarium are fine in some metagames, but not in the one we currently live in. I used Paradise Druid for a while, and while solid, I don't want to flood on mana creatures.
EFro used Narset's Reversal for mirror matches but Negate is more than good enough. If you'd prefer to have Thought Erasure instead of Duress, I wouldn't necessarily fault you, but Duress hits most of the things you care about. It's also only one mana, making it easy to cast in the same turn as a planeswalker, plus the cheaper option is much stronger against Mono-Red.
Sideboarding and Matchup Guide
VS Mono-Red Aggro
In Game 1, you'll need to keep your life total high and eventually turn the corner. Beating Experimental Frenzy is difficult, but Hydroid Krasis and Nissa, Who Shakes the World can compete with it. They have very few cards that actually matter. Runaway Steam-Kin needs to die on sight and Experimental Frenzy needs to either be destroyed or raced.
Four toughness is solid because of how few ways they have to kill those creatures with one card and Ripjaw Raptor is even better. Even if they remove it with Lava Coil and Goblin Chainwhirler, you still get to draw two cards. Most of the time, trying to remove it is an absolute disaster for them.
VS Green Planeswalker Decks
For the most part, your green creatures don't matter. The ground gets bogged down enough to the point where a 5/7 Wildgrowth Walker will only get chump-blocked for all eternity. There is some merit to protecting your own planeswalkers, but it's not that difficult. Originally, I only wanted to cut a couple of Wildgrowth Walkers, thinking that I might need them for Command the Dreadhorde. However, as my friend KYT pointed out, if your opponent has their own, you can often backpack off them. Drawing Wildgrowth Walkers in the late-game isn't ideal, so I want to cut as many as possible.
Duress doesn't come in because of how often it will miss and there are also some issues when facing down opposing Tamiyos.
VS Blue Planeswalker Decks
As always, these decks will vary quite a bit. Some are Esper with Hero of Precinct One, some without, some Jeskai, and some four-color. While often quite different, you will typically want to sideboard in similar ways. Change your sideboarding as you see fit, but this should be a fine template.
One of my favorite cards in these matchups is Vraska, Golgari Queen. You get to pick off Narset and Teferi on parity and it gives you a way to gain some life or remove another permanent post-Dreadhorde. Llanowar Elves is solid on Turn 1, but a disastrous draw any time after. Both players will have more interaction after sideboard, so drawing weak cards is a huge liability.
VS Simic Nonsense
These decks use mana ramp to cast big spells like Hydroid Krasis, Mass Manipulation, or Nexus of Fate. Since these are the only decks in the format that can go over the top of you, it's not uncommon for you to resolve a big Command the Dreadhorde and lose in a couple of turns regardless.
Your best bet in these matchups is to go aggressive, pressure their planeswalkers, and stop them from gaining any traction. Thankfully, your sideboard cards meant for Mono-Red Aggro are quite good here. Thrashing Brontodon brawls quite well against Nissa, Who Shakes the World's 3/3 lands.
Tamiyo, Collector of Tales is excellent here because she can dig for disruption or re-use disruption you've already used.
VS Gruul Aggro
VS White Aggro Decks
Save a removal spell for Tocatli Honor Guard if possible.
VS Izzet Phoenix
This matchup is very difficult, although could be made better with some Cry of the Carnariums. Since the red and white aggro decks do their best to play around the card, it hasn't been very impressive for me overall. Thankfully, not many people play this deck.
Some of the creatures come in to help race, yet often serve as big blockers if they decide to bring in Legion Warboss (which they shouldn't).
Tips for Playing Against Dreadhorde
Given that their entire gameplan is casting a massive Command the Dreadhorde, you should avoid doing their job for them by trading resources. They will snap off those snaps at each and every opportunity.
Be aware that most players will have some sort of semi-transformational sideboard. The goal is to become less reliant on Command the Dreadhorde in the face of hate while also having threats that aren't weak to The Elderspell. Cards like Unmoored Ego and Sentinel Totem should be doing very little after sideboarding.
The Other Options
As I mentioned earlier, Martin Muller had a deep run in the MTG Arena Mythic Championship Qualifier with his version of Esper. It's a viable option for sure, as it has a slightly stronger Mono-Red Aggro matchup in Game 1.
Here's my updated version of his deck.
Esper seems like it should be so good in theory! Unfortunately, the green creatures give you plenty of ways to protect your planeswalkers, which Esper lacks. Hero of Precinct One can accomplish the same thing, but you need it on curve.
I've liked Deputy of Detention as a good Command the Dreadhorde target that's also quite serviceable on its own. Some people make the argument that it just dies, but so does everything else. Even resetting a Runaway Steam-Kin is a fine use for it.
Tuning the original four-color version is an option as well.
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Paradise Druid
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
- 2 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
- 2 Trostani Discordant
- 2 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord
- 4 Tamiyo, Collector of Tales
- 4 Teferi, Time Raveler
- 1 Vraska, Golgari Queen
I actually like this deck and its plans quite a bit. However, once put under a microscope, this deck falters a bit. First of all, the mana is sort of an abomination. You get some extra power, but when compared to Sultai and its matchup spread, it's not necessary.
Also, Teferi, Time Raveler isn't great right now, which is another reason to not play Esper. When people insulate their decks around it, it's not nearly as threatening and frequently gets sideboarded out. Overall, it's a card I would avoid playing right now.
That leads to me wanting to try cutting the blue entirely and focusing on an Abzan-based list, but as I mentioned earlier, Tamiyo has been the strongest card in the deck. Maybe Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord returning the explore creatures can function as your engine instead.
If possible, I'd like to continue trying the white cards, since Shalai, Voice of Plenty insulates you against The Elderspell and is also great against Mono-Red Aggro. Similarly, Trostani Discordant is great against creatures, plus you get bonus points against Mass Manipulation.
No matter which version of Command the Dreadhorde you play, you will do well in Standard. The deck is at its absolute best right now and can always adapt with the metagame, so I don't think it's going anywhere.