After my poor showing at the PT, I was ready to give up on Esper Dragons. When I saw that Shota Top 8’d the event with a deck that was very similar to mine, I started changing my mind, but I still had reservations—he only went 7-2 with the deck, after all, and he’s much better than the average PT competitor. Upon looking at the metagame breakdown for Day 2 of GP Toronto and seeing a lone Esper deck, my decision to give up was looking better and better.
Then it won the event. Oh well.
Esper winning the event doesn’t mean it’s a great deck, but if you combine that with Shota Top 8’ing and some people on our team actually choosing to play the deck at the PT, I think it’s indicative that the deck is at least viable. If it’s viable, it’s worth working on.
In this article, I’ll go a little more in depth about how this new iteration of Esper works, and I’ll highlight the differences between the 3 builds and what I think should happen to the deck in the future.
If you’re an Esper player, there are 2 major changes to your deck. The first is the mana base, which is undeniably worse—it’s now harder to get the colors you need and it’s harder to flip Jace early. The second, and most important, is that you do not have Dig Through Time. Dig Through Time was very important for this deck because it gave you inevitability—given enough time, you’d draw Dig Through Time and win the game. There is currently no card that fills this role. Dig Through Time was also instrumental in helping you find white mana for Ojutai or Dragons to turn on the Dragon-dependent cards like Silumgar’s Scorn and Foul-Tongue Invocation.
Not having Dig Through Time means you have to kill people faster, as you no longer win every game that goes super long by default. It means you’re more likely to flood out and to draw dead cards, such as a very late-game Silumgar’s Scorn. It means you’re more likely to have mismatched answers—Grasp of Darkness against a 5/5, Ultimate Price against a gold creature, or Ruinous Path against a creatureland. In sum, it makes your deck significantly worse. Whether your deck is still good enough despite these factors is the key.
In practical terms, the absence Dig Through Time creates an inversion in matchups. What used to be your good matchups are now your bad matchups, and vice-versa. I always felt favored with Esper against most other slow decks because I had both a great late game and the ability to apply pressure, but nowadays your late game is much worse and they simply out-planeswalker you. Relying on creatures to win the game creates a spot where their removal is all live, and yours is worthless. Since you need so much removal to compete with the aggro decks, and you don’t have Dig anymore to filter through them, you end up at a severe disadvantage. If you’re playing against another Espers deck, or Seasons Past, they will draw cards like Grasp of Darkness and Languish, and those cards will sit on their hands for a while, but they will eventually trade for one of your good cards—there’s no way around it. Since you no longer have Dig and Duress, and they also run a lot of removal to beat the aggro decks, it makes it hard to create a spot where you can resolve an uncontested Ojutai and win from there.
On the other hand, I used to feel unfavored versus super aggressive decks, but nowadays I feel favored. The Humans decks in particular are very good matchups, which is not what I thought was going to happen when I started testing. The reason for this is that those decks are very soft to Languish (if you draw it, you basically win on the spot), and they also don’t have any ways to attack past Ojutai or to kill you once you’ve controlled the board. Reflector Mage is a very powerful card, and Ojutai is the one blocker that you can play and be assured it’s going to block that turn.
Post-sideboard, things also change. It used to be that the full-of-removal decks were good matchups that got worse post-board, because they got to bring in more relevant cards. Now you struggle to beat them game 1, but you’re favored game 2. The reason for this is that you have a lot to take out, and they don’t. They can beat you because they have a surplus of Languish, Grasps, Ruinous Paths, but if those cards are good, then what in their deck is bad? Even if they have a bunch of Duresses and Negates, they aren’t going to take out bad cards for them. There is very little that is good against spells and creatures, and you are a spells deck with 8 must-answer creatures (Jace and Ojutai). This now creates a scenario where they are the ones with the mismatched cards. You, on the other hand, get to take out your Grasps and Languishes—that are actually bad—and replace them with cards that force your creatures through and help with the late game, so you’re stronger both early and late. You exchange a bunch of 0s for a bunch of 9s, and they exchange some 6s for 7s.
The TL;DR of this all is that you no longer have a very good late game, so you need to adopt a more aggressive posture. A metagame with many slow decks is not good for you anymore, but a metagame with aggressive decks is.
Now, let’s analyze the lists:
Roberto Lombardi, 1st Place at GP Toronto
Shota Yasooka’s List
Some things seem to be pretty standard—everyone has 6 Dragons, 4 Scorns, some amount of removal, and so on. I’ll focus on the differences.
26 Lands vs. 27 Lands
At the PT, I played 26 lands, and Shota played 27. I actually think the correct number is 25. This was one of the points of disagreement inside our team, and in the end I “conceded” because I wasn’t sure, but the more I play with the deck the more I feel I am right. In previous incarnations of the deck, you had 4 Dig Through Time—this meant you could afford to flood out. Now you can’t. Dig is also a draw spell that doesn’t draw lands most of the time, whereas Painful Truths and Read the Bones do. In the end, I think you simply can’t afford to draw many more lands than your opponent anymore, and 27 is truly an enormous number. Ivan was a big 26-land proponent, but even he liked to side out lands in many matchups—including potentially siding 2 lands out on the draw in some grindy matchups.
I do understand you need access to at least 5 lands every game, and 3 colors, but I think the way to fix this is to play Anticipate. Ivan hated Anticipate, Shuhei was lukewarm but overall disliked, so it was another point I “conceded,” but I think it’s correct. Anticipate is sort of a land that prevents flooding, and it’s a good way for you to find your key cards (Dragons, Languish) without being too clunky. It’s also reasonable with Jace because it makes flipping Jace easier and it gives you something to flashback when you don’t want removal.
Evolving Wilds vs. Shadowlands
This was our second point of contention. I really liked Evolving Wilds (as much as you can “like it”), whereas Shuhei and Ivan really disliked them. Roberto and Shota also didn’t play them. The main issue I have is that the shadowlands are just plain awful. Sure, if you have a basic they come into play untapped, but if you have a basic, then why do you not just play the basic?
You could argue that Evolving Wilds always comes into play tapped, but it means your battlelands will come into play untapped a lot more and I’ve found those to be monumentally more important. I don’t care if my third land comes into play untapped, but I care if my fifth one does, and shadowlands create a scenario where either all your lands come into play untapped (because you have basic + shadowland) or all of them come into play tapped (because you have shadow + battleland), whereas Evolving Wilds will lean a lot more toward one coming into play tapped and the other untapped. Since I feel like the second one coming into play untapped is by far the most important part, I like Evolving Wilds more.
3 Jace vs. 4 Jace
Shota and I played 4 Jaces, Roberto played 3. I don’t think 3 is an egregious number, as it’s not that good, but the fact that you have so little card drawing and so many answers makes me want to maximize them, because they are good at matching your answers to your problems.
2 Kalitas vs. 0
I think Kalitas is a fantastic sideboard card but haven’t loved it in the main deck because there are just too many ways to deal with creatures—it almost never runs away with the game, and if it doesn’t, I’ve found the impact to be too low.
2 Clash of Wills vs. 0
I don’t like Clash of Wills in this deck because there are so many taplands, which creates a spot in which you can realistically only Clash of Wills for 1, so it’s very easy to play around. That said, the metagame has evolved to be very planeswalker centric, and there is no easy answer for planeswalkers—you can’t play many Anguished Unmaking, and Ruinous Path is just bad. When cards like Gideon and Goggles are so popular, having more counterspells is good because those are ways to deal with them before the opponent has a way to gain an advantage.
If you’ve accepted that you want more counterspells, the new question is “which ones?” and “are they better than discard?” I think discard, in general, is better than counterspells in Jace/Ojutai decks, because it allows for a more proactive draw, but at the same time you don’t want infinite discard because they’re awful topdecks and don’t work that well with Ojutai. My inclination is to have at most one extra counterspell and 3 discard spells. Clash of Wills is probably the next best counterspell since you want to be able to deal with Gideon and having a tapland on turn 3 might prove too punishing—sure, it’s bad in a lot of spots, but it does what you need done, so I think I was wrong and they are right.
Updated Deck List
If I had to play a tournament tomorrow, this is what I’d play:
For the sideboard, I think the most important card is Virulent Plague right now as it’s very good versus the GW Token decks. I’m particularly fond of the Dark Petition/Infinite Obliteration/Virulent Plague package but I would jam 2 Plagues on top of that. I am not a fan of Dead Weight—I think against the aggro decks you’d rather have a fourth Languish. Flaying Tendrils is great versus mono-white but bad versus UW, so it really depends on what you expect to face. Silumgar’s Command is good at dealing with Gideon, but 5 mana is so much and you already have a bunch of 5s, so I’d be wary of playing it.
I’d personally go with a sideboard very similar to the one I played:
Dispel: They didn’t play Dispel, but I think it’s quite good versus Bant Company. It is not that good against other control decks, as a lot of the threats are creatures and planeswalkers, so if you don’t expect Bant Company to be very popular, then you should not play it. If there was a card I really wanted in my sideboard, I would cut Dispel for it.
Languish: For Humans.
Dark Petition: For grindy decks or decks against which you have a key card (Plague or Obliteration).
Plague: For GW Tokens or BW. Also good versus some random Rites decks or Mono-Red Eldrazi, though those aren’t very popular.
Duress: For control and decks with tons of planeswalkers, like GW.
Negate: For control and decks with tons of planeswalkers, like GW.
Kalitas: The most versatile card in your sideboard. Comes in against a lot of things—most creature decks, Goggles, sometimes Ramp if you have more to cut.
Dragonlord’s Prerogative: For grindy matchups and control.
Humans is a good match pre- and post-board—it gets worse post-board, but not by a lot. I think people tend to make their decks worse against you a lot of the time by oversideboarding—they are not going to beat you in your game so they have to make sure they complement their own game of aggression rather than replacing it. A bunch of Ojutais and 7 counterspells will win some games of course, but I think they win fewer games than aggression plus 3-4 key counterspells for Languish.
Against them, you can trim some counterspells, Ob Nixilis, and some card drawing. I don’t love Transgress but I think it’s okay against an Ojutai plan, so I would consider keeping in 1 or 2 if they overload on those (also makes Clash of Wills a bit better).
I think this is a good matchup game 1 and even-ish post board—perhaps slightly unfavorable depending on what they have. Game 1 is good because they simply can’t deal with your Dragons, so they dominate the game. Game 2 they have better answers (Clip Wings is a nightmare), and some counterspells, and you don’t get much—even Languish is not that great versus them because their late game is often better than yours, so you can’t just jam a bunch of answers because they can definitely beat you in the late game. I like cutting Ob Nixilis and an assortment of one-ofs including a Languish and a Foul-Tongue.
This is a bad matchup game 1. Jace and your Dragons are good versus them, but their planeswalker draws are very hard to beat, and Secure the Wastes is a problem. In this matchup, you have to try being the aggressor (as with most matchups game 1).
After board it gets much better for you as you have more planeswalker answers and 2 Plagues for tokens. Take out basically all your spot removal, only leaving some in for Avacyn—Languish is not that great against them either but you need some. They are a spell deck, not a creature deck, so you want cards that are good versus spells.
BW and GW are not so different. I think BW is also a bad matchup game 1 (but not as bad as GW), but also gets better game 2 (goes from slightly unfavorable to slightly favorable). Treat sideboarding like you would GW—they are a spell deck, not a creature deck, and planeswalkers are their biggest threat. The BW list that Top 8’d the GP is worse for you than normal BW because it runs 3 Ob Nixilis and 4 Secure the Wastes, as well as multiple sweepers for Ojutai—I think that version of the deck is a pretty bad matchup.
I think this is a good matchup because they don’t apply enough pressure and have no answer for Ojutai. Without Rally as a trump spell, it’s easy to just deal with all their creatures and leave them with a lot of air since they have a lot of stuff that effectively does nothing outside of the synergy and your plethora of removal spells makes it hard for them to have synergy. Do not be afraid to Languish away 2 creatures if those are creatures that do something, as that will make all their subsequent creatures much worse.
After board you get Kalitas, which is insane, but they get some removal for both that and Jace (though I don’t know if they can board in all of them), as well as Transgress. I’d say overall sideboarding favors them but it should still be positive.
In the end, I think Esper is still a viable deck, but your late game is much worse without Dig. Decks with tons of removal or tons of planeswalkers are bad matchups. Aggro decks are good matchups. You improve a lot against your bad matchups after board, however, whereas your good matchups only improve a little bit against you, which is why I believe the deck is still good.
Is it the best deck? Probably not. I think having a bad matchup versus the most popular deck is sort of a nail in the coffin for it to get “best deck” status. But I think it’s still viable. I would not recommend it for someone who doesn’t want to play it, but I think that, if you want to play it, you can do so without embarrassing yourself, and this is the version I’d play.
Good luck at GP New York.