Battle for Zendikar Standard is a format of flexibility. The fetchland-plus-battleland mana base leaves plenty of room for mixing and matching colors, and choosing the cards that you want to play with.
Since the format’s inception, we’ve seen Esper decks pop up now and again. Of course, old-fashioned Esper Dragons is still out there, and we’ve also seen new creations like Fabrizio Anteri’s Esper Planeswalker deck as well as Patrick Chapin’s take on the archetype. Not only are the Esper colors home to a great collection of Standard’s most powerful cards, but the lands available mean that Esper has one of the most appealing mana bases out there.
Each of the decks I’ve mentioned have looked good to me, with their own sets of relative strengths and weaknesses. Today, though, I’m going to focus specifically on the deck I call Mage-Ring Esper.
Mage-Ring Esper is a pure control deck. The major difference that sets it apart from other, similar decks is the emphasis on playing at instant speed. Between Mage-Ring Network, Dig Through Time, Ojutai’s Command, and a balanced suite of other removal spells and permission, the deck is designed to pass the turn with open mana as often as possible.
There’s one final point that I’d like to emphasize before I dive into the finer details about the deck. While I feel that Mage-Ring Esper, Esper Dragons, and Esper Planeswalkers are all strong decks, I also believe that it’s a mistake to try to hybridize too much. For example, playing just a couple of Dragonlord Ojutai’s will make you unnecessarily vulnerable to Crackling Doom. Adding a couple of Gideon, Ally of Zendikars to Mage-Ring Esper will force you to tap out at inconvenient times, and will not play well with the rest of the deck. Instead, I recommend choosing one direction and sticking with it all the way.
Without further ado, here’s my current recommended deck list:
Deck Difficulty – Hard
In my opinion, Battle for Zendikar Standard is shaping up to be more challenging to play than previous Standard formats. Fetchland-plus-battleland mana bases can be difficult to navigate, and the prevalence of Commands and Charms give you a huge number of options on any given turn. That said, even relative to the other decks in Standard, I believe that Mage-Ring Esper requires more practice to pilot proficiently.
The problem mostly comes from the round clock. In fact, in a non-tournament setting (or an untimed Top 8), Mage-Ring Esper is probably a bit easier to play than Dark Jeskai or Esper Planeswalkers. But finishing matches on time can be a real struggle, since the win conditions take so long to actually close out a game.
Running out of time is an especially big problem in Standard, since every deck plays with so many fetchlands. When you factor in shuffling, what started as a 50-minute round winds up being quite a bit shorter than that. You’ll need to be efficient with your shuffling and in-game mechanics. For example, it’s usually a bad idea to spend more than a few seconds shuffling your opponent’s deck after they use a fetchland.
Remember, if even one out of every ten or fifteen would-be wins is turning into an unintentional draw, it’s a tremendous blow to your tournament equity, and can be a good tiebreaker in favor of choosing a different deck.
If Mage-Ring Esper has one weakness (other than trouble with the clock), it’s planeswalkers. The quickest and easiest way to lose a game is to get behind with a Duress on your opponent’s side of the board. You should manage your permission spells carefully to protect yourself against planeswalkers. You might also need to consider having Duress and/or Negate in your deck post-sideboard, even in matchups where they might not stand out as being stellar cards.
Among the format’s popular decks, there are no horrible matchups. Your scariest opponents will probably be Atarka Red players. This matchup is inherently bad, but can be corrected if you’re willing to sideboard extensively. Red isn’t particularly popular right now, so taking a calculated risk is an option. However, if you show up with fewer than 4 Arashin Clerics, don’t expect to have a fighting chance in the matchup.
Finally, and perhaps most unfortunately, the players that want to metagame against control have the tools to do so. Traditional builds of Dark Jeskai, with two Dispels in the main deck represent a close matchup, but one that favors Mage-Ring Esper. However, if a Jeskai player was to show up with an additional Negate and Disdainful Stroke in their main deck, it would be enough to tip the scales in their favor. If too many people begin overloading on Duresses, Dispels, and Negates, then it will probably be time to set Mage-Ring Esper on the shelf.
Strengths and Good Matchups
That said, I feel great about Mage-Ring Esper as things stand right now! Dark Jeskai is a close but favorable matchup. Abzan is the same. GW Megamorph and tap-out control decks are solidly favorable.
If you’re confident in your ability to play quickly, and have time to get in some practice games, then Esper could make a great deck choice for you!
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Jace is outrageously good. He’s reminiscent of cards like Stoneforge Mystic, Bitterblossom, and Dark Confidant in his ability to immediately hijack a game. Games where you draw Jace and he lives are much different (and easier) than other games. The way he combines with Ojutai’s Command is a defining aspect of Mage-Ring Esper.
Ojutai’s Command allows you to build card advantage, life gain, and defense into your deck all at once. When you have a Jace in your graveyard, it can also effectively act as a Snapcaster Mage, since any time your opponent taps out, you can return Jace at the end of their turn, ready to flash back your best spell.
Dig Through Time
Dig Through Time has been a staple of control decks for as long as it has been legal. It’s banned or restricted in all other tournament formats and for good reason. It’s the best card in the deck, and the best card in Standard. Always play 4 in your control decks, and never sideboard one out.
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Not only is Ugin a reliable win condition, but he’s also “your game plan” in a lot of matchups. With Hero’s Downfall out of the picture, many decks simply cannot beat a resolved Ugin. Cards that would otherwise be troublesome for control decks—Dragonmaster Outcast, Deathmist Raptor, Evolutionary Leap, Mastery of the Unseen—all get utterly trumped by Ugin. The presence of 2 Ugins in your deck means that you don’t have to bother answering every little thing your opponent does. You can simply survive long enough to go over the top of it!
The rest of the removal and permission suite will be filed under “optional,” but I do consider Utter End to be indispensable. As mentioned above, planeswalkers can be troublesome, as can noncreature cards like Sphinx’s Tutelage, Jeskai Ascendancy, and Hedron Archive. Utter End is a versatile, reliable, and clean answer to anything (other than manlands), and is a great addition to the deck.
You need to round out the deck with removal spells. None of the options available are perfect, so you’re forced to mix and match. Enchantment-based removal isn’t ideal since it plays poorly with Ugin and makes you vulnerable to Dromoka’s Command. Instants are also preferable to sorceries. The priorities are, in order:
1. Answer Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy on sight.
2. Answer Mantis Rider without falling behind or taking massive damage.
3. Answer hard-hitting creatures like Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Anafenza, the Foremost, and Siege Rhino.
4. Answer manlands, Hangarback Walker, planeswalkers, and other annoyances.
One of the best removal spells in Standard, and one of the only cards that can kill Jace, Mantis Rider, Siege Rhino, Hangarback Walker, and Shambling Vent alike. However, Dig Through Time is indispensable and you have to be careful not to overtax your graveyard.
Access to a small number of board sweepers is valuable, even though they don’t play well with all of the instants. Languish is great, but Esper already has a hard time against Siege Rhino and Tasigur. Planar Outburst is slightly preferable to End Hostilities and Crux of Fate. The awaken doesn’t come up often, but it’s pretty valuable when it does.
Silumgar’s Command is expensive, but does something that the deck needs in answering Gideon. As a 1-of, you can usually find a way to use it profitably.
Surge of Righteousness
I like sideboarding in 2 copies against Jeskai and Abzan, and as many as I can get against Atarka Red. If the metagame continues on the path it’s on, it wouldn’t be out of the question to maindeck this card. However, it’s a shame to have any of your cheap removal be useless against GW Megamorph.
An unexciting card without Dragons, but removal spells that can kill anything are hard to come by. It can’t target their best creature, but against Jeskai you need to kill every creature as soon as they play it, or else you’re dead anyway. I like Foul-Tongue Invocation as part of a Dragon sideboard package, but maindecking it as a simple 3-mana edict isn’t out of the question.
Dispel and Horribly Awry
Dispel and Horrible Awry are great, but I’m not willing to put a counterspell in my main deck that can’t stop a planeswalker.
Clash of Wills
An all-purpose answer for a deck that really wants to avoid falling behind early. Clash of Wills is great on the play, but mediocre on the draw.
Reliable, and counters the spells that you most need to counter. Since you have 4 Ojutai’s Commands that can only stop creatures, it’s okay to have one counter that only stops noncreatures.
Scatter to the Winds
An unexciting card, and much worse than Dissolve was. However, I like having access to one all-purpose counter.
The card draw options, beyond Dig Through Time, are very poor. I’ve tried Treasure Cruise and Painful Truths, but each have their own problems. Dragonlord’s Prerogative gets Dispelled, and you don’t have many nonland permanents to go with Ugin’s Insight. All that said, you can’t just play four Digs and cross your fingers that you’ll draw one every game. Anticipate lets you see more of your library, it smooths your draws, and helps with delve.
It’s your only hope of beating Red, but is surprisingly good elsewhere as well. Some life gain and a speed bump is usually exactly what this deck needs to beat a fast draw out of Abzan or Jeskai. Importantly it’s another value target for Ojutai’s Command.
This is a response to Jake Mondello’s Top 4 finish with Eldrazi Green. I don’t necessarily think that it’s one of the best decks in Standard, however, we have access to a card that will almost singlehandedly win the matchup, and there’s no reason not to take advantage of that!
So that’s a rundown of Mage-Ring Esper. I’ll be playing the deck this weekend at Grand Prix Indianapolis. If you’re interested in the deck, keep your eyes out for some of my upcoming articles, where I’ll offer updates, sideboarding advice, and a few gameplay tips and tricks.