Retooling Esper Dragons

We have one week of the new Standard format in the books, and things have been interesting. The SCG Open in Indianapolis was dominated by aggressive strategies, with Abzan Aggro being the most played deck, though a few control lists placed well.

Esper Dragons 

Jeff Kruchkow 

One of the biggest losses for Esper Dragons was the rotation of Ashiok. While it was only a 2-of in the main deck, it represented a different type of early pressure against green decks, broke the control mirror, and almost single-handedly gave the deck a reasonable matchup against UW Control. Kruchow appears to have filled those slots with more disruption.

Kenji Tsumura Tweeted this list with Despise about a week ago, and it looks like Kruchow favors that choice as well. Despise makes more sense early in a format where people tend to play more aggressive decks, but I expect it to fall off as the meta gradually slows down, shifting toward decks with 8-14 creatures. Unlike Thoughtseize, it can’t help force through Ojutai, though at least it still shows you whether the coast is clear.

Horribly Awry and Complete Disregard are two solid pieces of instant-speed disruption to partially fill the gap that Hero’s Downfall and Bile Blight left behind. Note that both cards exile, which is key against Hangarback Walker and Deathmist Raptor.

Blighted Fen seems like the best of the value lands for handling Siege Rhino and opposing Ojutais, but it’s the worst against Hangarback Walker. Blighted Cataract or possibly Haven of the Spirit Dragon are the best against creatureless control, and Shambling Vent is the best at stabilizing against aggro.

The more awaken cards I have in my deck, the more I want to run Shambling Vent as a sort of build-your-own Baneslayer Angel. Ideally that would look something like 3 Shambling Vent, 2 Scatter to the Winds , and 2-3 Ruinous Path.

Owen compared Shambling Vent unfavorably to Scoured Barrens, but I think he underestimates Vent’s ceiling—game-winning after a few hits in topdeck mode—as well as the interaction with awaken.

Silumgar, the Drifting Death is still the best Dragon against Abzan simply because it blocks everything and they have no way to deal with it, but it lost value in the rotation. Elspeth isn’t around to munch on, and the -1/-1 ability isn’t even that good at chewing up tokens any more with all of the Gideon emblems floating around.

Utter End is yet another instant-speed removal spell that’s stepping up. And it’s good! I’m not sure it’s 3-of good, but being able to answer random noncreature, nonplaneswalker permanents has its worth.

In the sideboard, I’m not sure why he’s decided on Ob Nixilis over Narset Transcendent. Perhaps the ability to kill Siege Rhino makes it stronger versus Abzan control?

Against most forms of the blue control mirror, coming down a turn sooner and threatening a more powerful ultimate earns Narset the nod, so it depends on the matchups you expect to use that slot for.

Esper Dragons

Patrick Cowe

Cowe and I agree on Shambling Vents, though he could maximize its potential by running more awaken spells.

Unlike Kruchkow, Cowe went with Jace in the main deck, which has its pros and cons:


  • Easy to flip with all the fetchlands.
  • Looting helps fuel delve.
  • Smooths out draws.
  • Once flipped, has a strong +1 against aggro, flashes back spells, and threatens a game-winning ultimate in the control mirror.


  • Turns on situational removal like Wild Slash.
  • Bad top deck.
  • Doesn’t start influencing the board when it first comes down, and takes a turn or two to get going.

I’ve found that Jace’s benefits in the control mirror only come to fruition post-board, when both decks board out their situational removal spells. In game 1, Jace just gives those cards a target, although it helps that Ojutai’s Command can return Jace in the late game. So, the factors you should consider are whether you want to run Ojutai’s Command and whether you have room for Jace into your sideboard.

My only real problem with this list is the mana base. He runs a few more white sources than he actually needs, even considering the Arashin Clerics in the sideboard, and that means his dual lands don’t come into play untapped as often as they should. The easy fix is to trade a couple Prairie Streams for more basic lands.

I like Cowe’s sideboard, for the most part. Without Thoughtseize in the format, Duress takes on the role of forcing through threats in the control mirror.

Without opposing Thoughtseizes and Ashioks, Orbs of Warding becomes a much more narrow sideboard card, only coming in against red decks, and I don’t think it’s worth it if people are trying to Berserk you out with Temur Battle Rage.

Dragonlord Silumgar isn’t always better than Silumgar, the Drifting Death, and even then, it isn’t better by enough to earn a spot in the sideboard. For example, Dragonlord Silumgar is much stronger against big-mana green decks, but Esper has a good matchup against those decks already. If you want it to take your opponent’s Gideon, then just play Dragonlord Silumgar in the main deck.

I ended up somewhere in-between the two lists, leaning closer to Cowe’s mana base and favoring Kruchkow’s spell composition. Here’s my take on Esper Dragons:

Esper Dragons

I was up to 3 Anticipates by the end of the last season, and I still like it. On the one hand, your mana is better so it’s less necessary for smoothing out your draw. On the other hand, Anticipate was never the best card for making land drops—it really excelled at helping you find Dragons and filtering through chaff in the mid-to-late game. Now, with 100% less scrying going on, other forms of filtering seem more valuable than ever.

It’s always hard to cut the sideboard down to 15 cards with this deck, and I spent a long time mulling over Ultimate Price, Narset Transcendent, Stratus Dancer, and a second copy of Horribly Awry. Transgress the Mind is also an option, and I like how it denies the opponent delve value, but in general I prefer Disdainful Stroke because it forces my opponent to commit resources and can answer bombs from the top of their library. The main role of Duress is to force through threats and draw spells, since that’s how to snowball a victory, and it’s much better at that than Transgress.

One question I have to ask is without Thoughtseize, Hero’s Downfall, and Ashiok, why do we need black? Sure, the Drifting Death is a fine Dragon, and the black spot removal is still good, but even white has an instant-speed option now in the form of Stasis Snare, and the deck could benefit from switching up its color composition.

UWg Dragons

With a heavier-white mana base, it’s easier to move in on cards like Stasis Snare and Gideon. Gideon doesn’t reach his maximum potential in a control deck, as the anthem is mostly buffing its own tokens and various awakened lands, but it’s still quite good and offers a similar kind of pressure to Ojutai— turning sideways until your opponent is dead. Gideon into Ojutai is a fairly brutal curve for your opponent to deal with, and Gideon into Planar Outburst lets you pass the turn with board presence after your sweeper.

The light-green splash is for Dragonlord Dromoka, which buffs the Dragon count while giving the deck an uncounterable Baneslayer Angel. While it’s more vulnerable to spot removal than Silumgar, the Drifting Death, it’s much better at racing Gideon emblems. It’s also way more likely to surprise someone.

From green, I considered Den Protector too, but there aren’t quite enough slots for it.

Lumbering Falls is a reasonable addition to the mana base. Unfortunately, it’s not the best one to awaken since awaken turns it into a creature automatically, meaning that you need an extra 4 mana up at all times to give it hexproof. While the upside is lower than Shambling Vent, it’s still a reasonable threat in its own right, and you might simply kill someone holding a grip full of sweepers and sorcery-speed spot removal. That said, there are a few edicts floating around that can take care of it.

Caleb Durward

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