Throughout its existence, Team ChannelFireball has been no stranger to having the best deck in the format. At Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, that was the case once again. Esper Dragons was a deck few competitors were prepared for and put up some of the best records we’ve seen at such a competitive level. The deck continued to dominate for some time afterward while players adjusted to the new menace. As with nearly every “best” deck, Esper Dragons would eventually lose its place at the top of the totem pole, but with such a powerful strategy, it comes as no surprise to see it rise in popularity again.
Grand Prix Brussels saw a huge reemergence of the deck as Lukas Blohon and his team tore through the Swiss rounds with tons of copies littering the top of the standings. Esper Dragons, as well as Abzan Rally, were played by many of the top players in the event and their results did not disappoint. Blohon ended up winning the event with this list:
Grand Prix Brussels 2015 First Place by Lukas Blohon
This deck is beautiful. It has tons of answers, cheap and powerful threats, and it gets to utilize two of the most powerful cards in Magic.
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Simply the best card in Standard. Just to give you an idea of how powerful he is—some players are already claiming he’s one of the best cards in Vintage. Card selection is huge, especially in a deck that is likely to have some number of dead cards in various matchups where either spot-removal spells, sweepers, or counters are just not needed, not to mention excess lands. The combination of delve spells plus Jace is also outstanding.
Dig Through Time
The real allure of playing any Esper Control deck is Dig Through Time. You get to play 4 copies of a card that is so good it’s banned in Modern, Legacy, and restricted in Vintage. With fetchlands legal in Standard, and Jace helping fuel delve, Dig is similarly powerful here as it is in other formats. That should speak absolute volumes. Drawing 2 cards for 2 mana is very strong, but being able to select from the top 7 cards of your deck, especially when you have the option to play a wide array of various answers, is incredible. Chaining Digs together is a common way to end the game, because the card advantage engine is totally overwhelming.
Dragonlord Ojutai soared in price after Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir when the world witnessed just how powerful this card is. The centerpiece and star of Esper Dragons saw play in Jeskai lists and made GW decks find ways to splash into Bant colors. Crackling Doom was not the most popular Magic card with Mardu strategies being—for the most part—quite a bit weaker than other options, and even with Crackling Doom, the Mardu matchup against the rest of what Esper was trying to do was poor. Being able to slam this down on the table as soon as you have 5 mana was a huge draw to the Dragonlord, but if Crackling Dooms are oppressive in your local metagame, Esper Dragons may not actually be the deck you’re looking for.
Dragonlord Silumgar is extremely well positioned right now. In the original version of Esper Dragons, Silumgar, the Drifting Death was the Silumgar of choice. Spot removal was the name of the game and the most popular planeswalker in Standard was Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Silumgar could attack Elspeth, couldn’t be killed with her minus ability, and continually wiped out Soldier tokens without blinking an eye or fearing removal. Without Hero’s Downfall or Elspeth in the current format, things have shifted. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is the most popular planeswalker currently, and being able to get an immediate emblem means that Dragonlord Silumgar is more likely to get value against removal. That being said, there are fewer and fewer ways to actually deal with the Dragonlord, as Dromoka’s Commands often won’t get the job done and Silkwraps and Ultimate Prices do nothing.
Silumgar’s Scorn is the best counterspell we have available, and is usually just Counterspell. The threat of Scorn means opponents can try to play around it by leaving an extra mana open, but if you have a Dragon in hand it punishes them. With access to 6 Dragons and 4 Dig Through Times to help find them, you often have a Dragon when you need one. Additional copies of Scatter to the Winds and Clash of Wills give important access to both a hard counter and another potential early play that is good later in the game. The threat of all 3 of these cards makes it very hard to play around any potential permission, unlike the days when decks could only play something along the lines of 4 Mana Leaks. Ojutai’s Command also fills in as a Dismiss for creature spells.
Duress is really strong in decks that can play it early without stretching their mana or hurting their late-game development. It’s tough in a deck that wants basics to turn on battlelands and also wants to cast Mantis Rider, but we have still seen main-deck Duress out of Jeskai decks, signaling just how powerful the card currently is. Taking your opponent’s most powerful spell is really strong, but so is the information Duress provides. Clearing the way for a Dragonlord Ojutai or just knowing that it’s safe to tap out or force through a Dig Through Time is often the difference between winning and losing.
Ultimate Price, Complete Disregard, Murderous Cut, and Utter End are not the best or most efficient removal spells we have ever seen, but they get the job done. Ultimate Price is likely the most important for the deck—consistent, early interaction is key when trying to set up a powerful late game centered around Dragons and big delve spells, but Utter End (and the ability to cast it with great mana) is a great tool for exiling creatures that want to return from the graveyard while also handling troublesome enchantments and planeswalkers.
Foul-Tongue Invocation is one of the biggest draws in a world where tokens are less prevalent. Edict effects will often take out the most powerful creature your opponent has when paired with cheap interaction in counters and other removal spells. The aggro decks of the format have been shifting away from cards like Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst and focusing more on bigger creatures and combo killing with Temur Battle Rage and Become Immense. RG Landfall deck has also been rising in popularity and is likely to continue doing so after Paul Rietzl won the Super League Championship with it, proclaiming the deck to be the best in Standard. Foul-Tongue does serious work against these decks as gaining 4 life is huge, representing an entire turn and more than an entire spell out of many red decks that are looking to rely on Wild Slash and Atarka’s Command to burn an opponent out from a low life total. Trying to cast this spell against the aggro decks when they don’t have the mana available to cast Atarka’s Command is key if you can’t counter the Command, but that is usually possible to navigate through if their draws aren’t perfect.
Crux of Fate
Crux of Fate is the perfect sweeper when things happen to get out of control. It also works really well with Foul-Tongue Invocation in that you can mop up the first wave of creatures and start picking off the important ones down the stretch. Not killing your own Dragons while taking care of everything your opponent has makes this a better main-deck card than Languish in current Standard Esper Dragons.
The lands in this deck are fantastic and I really like what Lukas and his team did with the mana base. Battlelands fit perfectly in the deck since you can actually play 8 basics, and the deck is slanted towards being a UB deck with a minor white splash (like original Esper Dragons). Before sideboarding, you never need access to white mana before turn 4, so a couple copies of Prairie Stream to complement Shambling Vent works perfectly. Haven of the Spirit Dragon is another powerful “manland” in that it can tap for white mana to cast Dragonlord Ojutai and then transform into an Ojutai late in the game, if needed. Playing a deck centered around blue with the 2 ally colors means having access to both Polluted Delta and Flooded Strand to get whatever mana you need while also fueling the graveyard interactions of Jace and Dig Through Time.
I played around with this deck quite a bit on Magic Online and there were very few changes I wanted to make while testing for the Super League Championship playoffs. Every small change I made to the deck still resulted in the exact same thing—I won. I didn’t drop a single match while testing with this deck and as someone who really enjoys playing control decks, it was an absolute blast to play. Here is the version I submitted for SLC:
Super League Championship 5th place by Eric Froehlich
Most of these changes are very minor. I like the additional early plays in Duress and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy—they are incredible in the format. I think playing fewer than 2 sweepers in the main deck is a little strange, and many of Lukas’s teammates agreed by playing 2 Crux of Fate. I definitely prefer that change going forward. Complete Disregard was the 61st card in the deck and certainly one I wouldn’t mind having access to, but every card I ended up virtually sleeving, I wanted more of.
The changes I made to the sideboard are in many ways cosmetic to the competition I expected to face. The second copy of Infinite Obliteration was because I expected Gaby Spartz to play an Ulamog deck and Lee Shi Tian to play Abzan Rally, which would have worked out really nicely. Paul Rietzl had been playing versions of token decks and it wouldn’t surprise me to have anyone else in the playoffs also on a similar token strategy, so my final cut was the third Arashin Cleric for a second Virulent Plague. Unless Esper Tokens or other token strategies are prevalent in your local metagame, I certainly wouldn’t advise that going forward, and it did not pay off for me as the only tokens deck in the playoffs were in Cheon’s Atarka Red deck, where I would strongly prefer the Cleric.
Going forward, my recommended sideboard for my list would just be to swap the 2nd Plague for a 3rd Arashin Cleric. I prefer 2 copies of Infinite Obliteration in the current meta, but that could easily go back down to 1 or 0 in the future depending on metagame shifts.
I think this is an excellent deck against many of the top choices in Standard today, but that does not include Jeskai Black. The quick clock, early interaction in cheap counters/Duress and Crackling Dooms make Jeskai a tough matchup. I was able to defeat it the few times I faced it on Magic Online, so it’s certainly far from unwinnable, but it’s a grind. Other versions of Esper that don’t rely on Dragons have a much better matchup against Jeskai, turning their Crackling Dooms into 3-mana Shocks rather than all-star removal. This is a dramatic shift to how the matchup plays out.
Let me preface this by saying that I have absolutely no idea if this is right, but it is what I was doing and I didn’t lose any post-sideboard games in the matchup. The idea here is to force them to have cards that do very little like Fiery Impulse, hopefully control their threats, and have some cheap ways to fight their powerful instants. The plan is to prolong the game, so not dying to an early Mantis Rider is key. This matchup is the one reason why I prefer Surge of Righteousness over Ultimate Price in the sideboard, as I think Ultimate Price is actually better than Surge in the red matchups. Stabilize early, pick apart their hand with Duress, and get to the middle of the game using Dragonlord’s Prerogative to get around their Dispels, Negates, and Disdainful Strokes. This is huge, and I have never had opponents in this matchup come back from that—getting to that point is the challenge.
I believe this to be one of the harder matchups. However, if people ever start playing straight Jeskai instead of Jeskai Black, I actually believe it turns into one of your better matchups. Passing up Crackling Doom, Duress, Kolaghan’s Command, and Tasigur concedes a lot of value.
There are too many takes on Abzan to provide an accurate guide. That being said, this is one of your absolute best matchups and a strong reason to play Esper Dragons. They don’t play well against Dragonlord Ojutai—they have to leave up mana and not cast spells to try to kill the flyer before it takes over the game. This plays into your hands—just pass when you can’t protect it, and attack when you can. Providing more time to set up your Digs is never a bad thing.
There are versions of Abzan where Ultimate Price is nearly dead. Players on Abzan will likely take out Wingmate Rocs against you, since they aren’t very effective, and if they don’t have a card like Heir of the Wilds, you may be looking at Tasigur as one of the few mono-colored hits. Whether you keep all your Ultimate Prices in, some, or none will depend on game 1 of the matchup. Clash of Wills is generally a card you don’t want in when you’re on the draw, but against Anafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino, it’s not quite as bad in this matchup as it is against Jeskai. Surge of Righteousness can be brought in as an answer to both of these creatures. Duress is not fantastic in this matchup, and is generally a card I want to remove entirely if they are playing a bunch of creatures, since there is a very real possibility of simply whiffing. Tasigur is a decent threat to side in, and if they are playing a slower version without as many creatures, keeping Duress and potentially bringing in Dragonlord’s Prerogative is an option.
These options can vary, but it’s a pretty decent starting plan. If they don’t have removal for Jace, leave a couple copies in and remove a Crux of Fate and either another Silumgar’s Scorn or an Utter End. Jace is slow and not fantastic in this matchup though. If you see any Dragon Fodders or Hordeling Outbursts, then bring in Virulent Plague (again, replacing a Scorn or Utter End). Crux isn’t great in this matchup because of how slow it is, but I have found 1 copy to be playable.
I think common sideboard plans are to take out the Utter Ends in this matchup, and shaving 1 is okay, but it’s not something I do. Often they will take out their combo, but having instant-speed interaction against pump spells, even at 4 mana, is better than the other options. They also commonly bring in more expensive cards—up to 4 copies of Outpost Siege—so having some answers like counterspells and Utter Ends when they slow their deck down works.
Dragonlord Silumgar is not good in the matchup. That being said, I have wanted 5 Dragons to more consistently turn on my Foul-Tongue Invocations. All of this makes the matchup sound bad, and while it certainly isn’t great, it’s a lot better than it used to be in the old metagame. The ability to actually make white mana to play cards like Arashin Cleric to slow them down is better than stretching your mana to cast Bile Blight in the past.
Rally the Ancestors
Infinite Obliteration is your MVP here. Removing all copies of Nantuko Husk or Zulaport Cutthroat can make it impossible for opponents to win. It’s possible to die from the durdle beatdown plan, but it’s not very common. Dragonlord Ojutai is a beast to try to get through, and they struggle to interact with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Collected Company is their best card, so stopping that is key. It’s a challenge for them to set up a good Rally after you’ve stopped the Company, but they will have their own sideboarded Dispels, so be careful not to tap out when you can get blown out. Arashin Clerics are actually great at preserving early life and not dying to the random beats. Combining Duress with Infinite Obliteration to potentially rip their hand apart with the pieces of the combo they are holding is both fun and devastating.
I have been leaving in Utter End as a way to deal with Jace, especially after it flips. It’s rough not having good interaction after sideboarding on the draw to deal with Jace, and I have definitely lost games because of that, so leaving in a copy of Ultimate Price isn’t out of the question. That being said, it’s just a really bad card in the matchup overall, so I’ve been taking a gamble with that choice. On the play, you can use Clash of Wills, Silumgar’s Scorn, or Foul-Tongue for a Jace, so it isn’t a threat then.
Land drops are very important since they allow you to play multiple spells in a turn. This frees you up to cast card-advantage spells and pull further ahead. Dragonlord’s Prerogative is a great trump, but having more lands so you can counter their Digs rather than tapping out is insane. This is the matchup where in Dragons of Tarkir Standard you would happily keep a 7-land hand. That has become a much bigger risk with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy threatening to ultimate for an emblem before you can do anything.
I leave in 1 Ultimate Price since I think it’s common for them to board in Rattleclaw Mystics. Once that’s no longer the case, I would remove them (although it can also be good against Whisperwood Elemental. If they bring both in, keep in all Ultimate Prices). Infinite Obliteration is insane, but not altogether game-winning. That being said, you will probably win this matchup. Aggressively countering mana-ramp spells is a sound strategy as you are looking for time before the big things come down. Duress is excellent, as is every piece of countermagic you have at your disposal (besides the useless Dispel). They don’t have great answers to Jace, so he can take over the game easily. Fueling up Digs is fantastic, as every additional counterspell is a challenge for them to beat, as is Infinite Obliteration.
I have considered Oblivion Sower for the sideboard and it could be quite good. I faced a number of them in my testing and it’s very problematic since they get so many lands thanks to the delving this deck does. It could be excellent in the mirror or versus Jeskai, a.k.a. any deck with fetches and Dig Through Time/Tasigur, the Golden Fang. It’s definitely worth considering going forward.
Esper Dragons is a perfect example of a deck that can take advantage of metagame shifts. Jeskai Black was considered the best deck and is very popular, so Esper Dragons takes a back seat. Once GW Megamorph decks and Abzan decks focus on trying to beat Jeskai, a deck built to prey on those will shine, just like how Esper Dragons did this past weekend. So where do you think the next metagame shift will be? Will Jeskai Black start to reemerge as a deck poised to defeat Esper Dragons and RG Landfall? Will Esper shift back into the non-Dragon variants to have better game against Jeskai?
These are the things that keep Standard interesting for me!