With the Mythic Championships behind me and the release of War of the Spark, I couldn’t wait to get to playing some Standard. The first thing I wanted to do was play with Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God.
4 Watery Grave 4 Drowned Catacomb 3 Steam Vents 4 Sulfur Falls 4 Blood Crypt 4 Dragonskull Summit 3 Swamp 4 Rix Maadi Reveler 4 Thief of Sanity 4 Nicol Bolas, the Ravager/Nicol Bolas, the Arisen 4 Thought Erasure 4 Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God 2 Liliana, Dreadhorde General 4 Bedevil 1 Shivan Fire 3 Carnival/Carnage 2 Cast Down 2 Lava Coil Sideboard 2 Duress 1 Negate 1 Disdainful Stroke 3 Cry of the Carnarium 1 Ritual of Soot 2 Enter the God-Eternals 3 Dreadhorde Invasion 2 Narset, Parter of Veils
One thing I learned about this deck is that Bedevil is much better now with all kinds of planeswalkers running around. Having a Hero’s Downfall is extremely good, and with Nicol Bolas to back it up we’re almost never losing to planeswalkers. The deck is, however, weak to cards like Search for Azcanta. It’s difficult to interact with Search in this deck, and after reviewing some lists from the SCG events last weekend, I may like the addition of a Bedeck // Bedazzle or two in the slots of 2-mana removal. This will at least allow you to leave those in against decks with Azcanta, many of which also have Thief of Sanity. I contemplated using Sorcerous Spyglass to solve the problem, also shutting out Teferi, but Teferi, Time Raveler makes it too soft, as it can be bounced then countered, or bounced then discarded.
Additionally, I think Ugin, the Ineffable is likely a better choice than Liliana, Dreadhorde General in this deck. Ugin allows you to interact directly with permanents, like Search for Azcanta, and while Liliana gives you an out to Carnage Tyrant, Ugin may just be better at the moment. If I were to run two copies of 6-mana planeswalkers, a split would also make some sense to me, especially if we become more controlling and put Search for Azcanta in our deck to find our bullets.
The strength of the deck is trading resources back and forth with the opponent, leaving both players on limited resources and making each activation of Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God simply backbreaking. Whether it’s a needed land or card in hand, the lower your opponent is on resources, the stronger each activation becomes. Nicol Bolas is every bit as good as I thought it would be.
The weak point of this deck, however, is that it’s extremely weak to very aggressive decks, or decks that can have a burst of creatures at once like Arclight Phoenix. Decks like Mono-Red Aggro are difficult without enough life gain built in, and without a fast clock. Nicol Bolas, the Ravager is really your only way to close the game out in a reasonable period of time. Additionally, your sweepers aren’t nearly as good as Kaya’s Wrath against a variety of green decks.
Rix Maadi Reveler is also a horrible card in this deck. This deck needs its resources, has a high curve, and doesn’t do damage well. For that purpose, I think the card is too bad for this deck, and I eventually moved toward cards like Chart a Course and Discovery // Dispersal. Discover seems better to me as the Dispersal half of the card can be relevant once you start diminishing the opponent’s hand size. At the same time, having creatures is important to pressure planeswalkers in this format. I’m surprised to see how many planeswalkers from War of the Spark outperformed my expectations. At the top of that list is Teferi, Time Raveler.
After losing a good amount with a variety of Grixis decks, but still wanting to play a similar style deck, I moved onto Esper Control.
Esper Control was one of the best decks from last format. Kaya’s Wrath and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria go together like peanut butter and jelly. Nothing’s really changed that. In fact, the only thing that feels better than that is casting Kaya’s Wrath on an opponent’s end step with a Teferi, Time Raveler in play.
1 Swamp 2 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin 4 Godless Shrine 2 Cast Down 2 Dovin's Veto 1 Island 4 Drowned Catacomb 4 Hallowed Fountain 4 Isolated Chapel 4 Glacial Fortress 4 Watery Grave 4 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 2 Teferi, Time Raveler 4 Absorb 2 Mortify 4 Thought Erasure 2 Chemister's Insight 3 Vraska's Contempt 3 Kaya's Wrath 1 Ugin, the Ineffable 1 Moment of Craving 1 Cry of the Carnarium 1 Narset, Parter of Veils Sideboard 1 Narset, Parter of Veils 2 Cry of the Carnarium 3 Thief of Sanity 2 Enter the God-Eternals 2 Moment of Craving 3 Duress 2 Teferi, Time Raveler
Once I gave up on Grixis, I was very interested in Esper. Esper seemed to have some naturally good matchups, and while it was hurt by the printing of Teferi, Time Raveler, it also felt like the best deck that could play the card as well.
Ultimately I will admit, playing against Teferi has been a giant headache and one I’m still learning how to manage in sideboarding.
The first thing I noticed is that some matchups, such as the mirror and Esper Hero, used to be soft to Thief of Sanity. Thief, however, has gotten much worse in the face of Little Teferi. Teferi, Time Raveler can come out preemptively and plus before Thief, meaning when you play Thief you’re investing 3 mana to kill 3 of your opponent’s loyalty and let them draw a card.
I experimented some with Dreadhorde Invasion in this sideboard slot. Dreadhorde Invasion is simply excellent in mirror matches, but falls short against a lot of other decks playing Teferi, Time Raveler with creatures that can pressure your life total, like Esper Hero and Bant Flash. Thief also performs better against decks like Simic Nexus. For that reason I went back to Thief, but in retrospect I’d like to figure out another plan. I just don’t have it yet, and well, it may not exist.
The issue is that there are so many relevant planeswalkers in this format that being proactive is important, especially in post-board games. Esper Control, much like in older formats, is a deck that wins a lot of its game 1s when its opponents are drawing dead cards. In games 2 and 3, these decks are loaded with planeswalkers and cards like Duress, Dovin’s Veto, and other countermagic to interact with your answers while they are presenting threats, which also keep your planeswalkers in check.
I trimmed down on Chemister’s Insight out of respect for Teferi, Time Raveler. Chemister’s Insight is much worse as a sorcery, and if I’m going to have to play my card engines at sorcery speed I much prefer cards like Search for Azcanta, and one of the best new planeswalkers, Narset, Parter of Veils. Narset can’t help you hit that all important fifth land, but it does give you traction as the game progresses. While I’m not sure I want a second main deck, the first is an auto include. The static ability on Narset allows you to bury opponents in games you would have lost in the past against cards like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Hydroid Krasis.
I started with Liliana, Dreadhorde General as my win condition. Liliana made sense to me because it could come down and kill two creatures on certain battlefields while also acting as a win con. The issue with Liliana is that she doesn’t interact with your most problematic permanent type: planeswalker. The deck is soft to planeswalkers, and quite good at keeping creatures in check for the most part. Having a win condition that interacts with planeswalkers, like Ugin, is an upgrade.
Teferi, Time Raveler is good in basically every matchup they aren’t swarming you. So while it’s bad against Red Aggro and White Aggro, it overperforms in almost every other matchup. I wouldn’t want to leave home without a pair in the main deck, and while I currently have two more in my sideboard, there may be one too many cooks in that kitchen.
The rest of the main deck is pretty stock.
Speaking of sideboards, I moved toward all Duresses in my sideboard as an attempt to be more proactive. This format, especially with Teferi, Time Raveler in your deck, is all about getting your feet set, and snowballing with your planeswalkers and value generating cards. Duress or Thought Erasure on turn 1 or 2 is a way to make sure a planeswalker doesn’t get out ahead of you, or that a Dovin’s Veto doesn’t prevent you from slamming a Teferi, Time Raveler on turn 3. Duress also plays nicely with Teferi, Time Raveler. You can plus Little Tef, then on their draw step Duress them. Even if they draw instant speed removal, they can’t cast it because of Little Tef. Obviously this same trick works with Thought Erasure as well. If I side into a bunch of counterspells, like Dovin’s Veto’s in the mirror, I’m boarding right into their plan of Teferi. Sure, I may be able to counter that first Teferi, but if one ever sticks I’m rotting with dead cards in my hand.
One way I’ve been tinkering with defending myself against Teferi, Time Raveler is by boarding way down on counterspells, maybe an Absorb or two post-board, and trying to only play cards I can play at sorcery speed. It’s nice to have a copy or two to lean on when you’re pulling ahead to make sure you cover your bases, but I’ve lost far too many games without being able to play to the board in the face of Teferi, and the game snowballs quickly when you can’t interact with the board on your own turn while holding a counter or two in hand.
My list currently gives a lot of respect to Mono-Red. I’ve seen some lists with Vona, Butcher of Magan to replace Enter the God-Eternals, but my issue with that is that you need to wait a turn to get the life out of the card. The upside is that you can cast it on an empty battlefield, but generally when I get to casting my 5-drop I’m one or two burn spells away from death, and the 4 life up front is imperative to stabilizing, especially when you’re tapping out and don’t have the luxury of holding up Absorb.
While I think Esper Control is a very solid choice in the metagame right now, the deck has its weaknesses, most of which are the variety of planeswalkers in the format that generate value and come out quickly. While we get to use Teferi, Time Raveler as well, it’s also our biggest weakness, so keep that in mind. I think a good proactive plan against these planeswalkers is necessary, which may lead to a good version of Esper Hero being the better Esper deck.
Esper Sideboard Guide
I haven’t decided for sure if I want a copy or two of Duress in my deck post-board. On the draw I sometimes shave one Teferi, Hero of Dominaria for a single copy of Duress. No final thoughts on that though. You can also shave Mortify if you’re sure they have no Experimental Frenzy.
Basically, take out your card draw and planeswalkers for more interaction for creatures. If you can keep creatures from damaging you, you can maintain a high enough life total to ride your more powerful cards to victory.
I’ve considered leaving in the Ugin and taking out a Search for Azcanta. Having Ugin to keep up with an Adanta, the First Fort in creature production has its merits, but Search is the cheapest card engine you can leave in your deck, which is why I rarely cut it. I’d likely just leave it as-is, but trying Ugin for post-board games could be okay. It will just leave you with a higher curve than you may want.
The matchup revolves around who is able to stick a Teferi, Time Raveler first and let all their big finishers land untouched by countermagic. This approach really slims down on countermagic so that you’re never stuck with anything when they stick a Teferi, Time Raveler. Cry is an almost strict upgrade to Kaya’s Wrath. Thief of Sanity has often felt like a liability, but in some games, runs away with the game. I’d experiment with actually cutting them on the draw, or maybe just boarding out all your counterspells and playing your Duresses to force the Thieves through. I’m still working on this approach but I do know that Teferi, Time Raveler makes these very difficult in your post-board games, while I think you’re a favorite in game 1.
This is the definitive matchup for cutting counterspells post-board. Between Vivien, Champion of the Wilds and Teferi, Time Raveler, they get to play circles around countermagic. While it’s good to have a counter in the holster when you assume control it’s very hard to rely on them. For this reason, I turn into a sorcery-speed control deck, boarding in my own Teferi, Time Ravelers to make sure they can’t cast spells at instant speed, and shutting off Frilled Mystics and other counters they may have brought in.
It’s possible you want more or less Duress here as well. I did a limited testing session with this plan and it felt good, but Duress never came up. The idea is you can pick off their 3-mana planeswalkers or Vivien Reids, while forcing a Kaya’s Wrath through a Dovin’s Veto. They play a high creature count, so you don’t want to overload on Duress, but you can usually reliably fire one off early, or find a spot in the middle of the game where you need it.
Overall this matchup is quite close. I believe you’re a pretty big favorite game 1, and post-board it gets a bit trickier. The matchup overall is quite close. I’d rather play the Esper side for now though.
On the draw in this matchup you can leave a Cast Down in your deck over an Absorb if you want more coverage for Thief. Teferi, Time Raveler is such a good followup to Thief of Sanity that it’s become a bit too slow for this matchup, especially on the draw. Teferi, Time Raveler and Mortify can interact with Dreadhorde Invasion as well, but 2 mana and leaving a little creature in play can make a world of difference.
I’m not sure between cutting Ugin, the Ineffable or the fourth Absorb here, but Ugin is extremely expensive and vulnerable to Duress and Thought Erasure when it would be good, whereas Absorb is better at protecting you in the early game. It’s possible that on the draw you should have Ugin because you’ll have an extra card to hit your 6th land when you need it, and Absorb will often be turned off by a Teferi, Time Raveler. Again, these matches are quite snowbally and generally favor whomever gets on the front foot with a Teferi, Time Raveler first.
The last couple of slots are very dependent on what the opponent has. If they’re siding in Carnage Tyrants, do not leave yourself vulnerable to them by cutting Kaya’s Wrath. You can occasionally manage their threat with Thought Erasure, but once they resolve you need a way to recover. You no longer need Ugin as a way to attack them to death, and it’s too slow and requires too much mana at sorcery speed.
If you’re sure your opponent doesn’t have Carnage Tyrants you can leave in Contempts as a way to answer Tamiyo, Collector of Tales. This is one matchup I’d rather have another counterspell in the sideboard to a Duress so that Tamiyo’s static doesn’t lock me out, but you just have to take them as often as you can with your discard.
I’ve had a lot of fun trying to crack this Standard format, but with a set with this many powerful cards, I’m still lost as to what the best deck is and why. Esper Control is certainly a strong contender, and I’ll keep plugging away at it until I find something I like better. I went into this format thinking Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God was the best planeswalker in the set, and as of right now, I have to say, while it’s quite strong, Teferi, Time Raveler is just a messed up card and my current front-runner.