Esper Dragons absolutely dominated GP Krakow with five copies splashing Ojutai in the Top 8. Throw in the single straight-UB deck and that makes six UB(w) Control decks. Jeskai Tokens and Ojutai Bant both slid in as well, and on the outskirts of the Top 8 were a high number of Forest decks, saddened that their only representative packed Islands as well.
UB(w) has one of the highest skill ceilings in the format and is one of the toughest decks to beat in a longer game. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Top 8 was pretty loaded, featuring Alexander Hayne winning the whole thing and Sam Pardee, Paulo Vitor, Martin Müller, and Robin Dolar in the Top 8.
On the flip side was the Providence Open, which saw no Esper in the Top 8, and instead a bunch of Abzan decks took centerstage. Comparing the Top 16s is interesting considering the complete dearth of Esper in Providence and the total dominance of the deck in Krakow. While UB(w) is great, perhaps it’ll be naturally kept in check by the low number of people willing and able to play it at a high level.
Esper Dragons: The Best Deck in Standard?
Esper Dragons by Alexander Hayne, 1st at GP Krakow
This deck will likely be the end boss of many Regional PTQs this upcoming weekend. If I were battling with UB Control and expecting a heavy control metagame with a smattering of other decks and red, then I’d jam more draw and more discard in the sideboard. As long as you set up strong end-of-turn plays then you get to decide which fights to engage in and can force a resource battle.
Against most decks you’ll already be well-equipped to deal with their best punches. Countermagic and a boatload of removal makes you a favorite against all the Forest decks. Dragons give you a respectable game against anyone trying to grind you out, and are the reason the Deathmist Raptor/Den Protector package don’t completely roll this deck.
Remember that the primary weaknesses of the deck are both that it can be run over early and bottlenecked on mana in the midgame. The vast majority of other shortcomings were solved with additions from Dragons of Tarkir, so leaning on their mana is one of the best things you can still do if you want to beat Esper.
If you’re looking for specific sideboarding plans that do work against them, here’s one with Abzan Control I’ve had some success with:
As well as having maindeck Den Protector, if you don’t already. Essentially, if you can limit the damage they do to your board as well as their ability to Dig Through Time, you can simply run them out of relevant cards and kill them. In a long game you aren’t necessarily hosed by a resolved Prerogative either, since you can set up a turn where you drop Dromoka and immediately cast a pair of discard spells. They’ll never have the chance to take out your Dromoka or play around your discard.
Bant also has some easy swaps involving Stratus Dancer and Negate since its creatures already have quite a bit of built-in resilience. Disdainful Stroke also keeps the Dragons and Digs in check, which means you can play a slower game and not always be up against the wall and trying to race Dragonlords.
Red decks already have a reasonable control matchup, so usually all that comes in are a few Rabblemasters or Eidolons of the Great Revel. With that said, it’s worth thinking about a little more as UB players focus more of their sideboard space on this matchup. Dash creatures are particularly useful, and Vaultbreaker isn’t a bad choice.
Ultimately, if you’ve practiced enough to make good decisions with Esper Dragons, there’s no reason not to play the deck. The metagame won’t warp to fight it quite yet and the deck is just incredible by all metrics right now. If there is a true best deck in the format, this is it. The other deck I suspect will be hitting Top 8s this weekend is Sam Pardee’s Ojutai Bant, which he played to a Top 8 finish in Krakow.
This was one of my favorite decks to come out of the PT. Taking a GW shell, adding a bit of interaction via countermagic, and jamming Dragonlord Ojutai as your go-to finisher is a very cool concept. You get the best of the aggression and value the GW shell can provide and add more ways to interact.
While you take on the role of beatdown in most matches, you can take a more controlled aggressive stance a la Abzan Aggro. Between Deathmist Raptor, Den Protector, and Fleecemane Lion, your primary early threats do a great job of sticking around and remaining threatening. Mastery of the Unseen can also undo a lot of early damage from decks if you can just stabilize the board for a few turns.
If more Esper decks start to pop up in your local metagame, moving Stratus Dancer to the main deck may be the right move. If you’re having issues with bigger green decks, though this one is better suited than many, Disdainful Stroke is just the ticket to keep Atarka in check while you beat down.
Regional PTQ Strategy
Based on the estimated attendance numbers I’ve seen, most of these (at least in North America) are not going to be large events. Some will be in the 40-60 player range, meaning if you know a certain contingent is on one deck it’s worth metagaming against. Even if you don’t tweak your deck, finding out what your opponents are likely on ahead of time will make mulligans a lot less stressful.
It also means that tuning your deck specifically to counter another deck isn’t an instant spew like it is in tournaments with hundreds or thousands of potential opponents. Knowing 10 people are on red or Abzan could easily be 20% of all the decks in the tournament. If you are going in dark, you at least can assume the vast majority of your opponents are going to be playing known entities. The odds of hitting some rogue archetype drop dramatically.
In some cases all you’ll need to do is win four* matches of Magic to win your qualification. This means your incentive to nail down a few matchups if you know even just a few people on those decks is increased dramatically. Over a 15-round tournament you can get on a run of only playing a few archetypes in the majority of your rounds, but ultimately there will be some variety. At these RPTQs, it’s possible you play two distinct archetypes the entire day!
*If you only get enough players for a 5-round tournament, go 3-0-2 and then win your Top 8 match. Congratulations on qualifying by winning a Friday Night Magic with better competition.
My Top 5 Standard Decks
These are the five decks I’d feel comfortable recommending, though obviously familiarity and metagame can have a large impact on your decision.
1. Esper Dragons
2. Ojutai Bant
3. Immense Red
4. Abzan Control
5. Jeskai Tokens
Abzan Aggro was going to make the list as well, but ultimately I think if you want to play an aggressive strategy both Immense Red and Ojutai Bant are slightly better options. Neither has nearly as abominable a mana base, and playing Abzan mirrors is miserable. In the end, you should play something you have a good handle on with reasonable matchups against red decks and Esper.
Good luck to everyone battling in their Regional PTQs for Vancouver!