TeamCFB Deck Guide – Standard Esper


Last weekend, I finished 13th at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir playing the ChannelFireball Esper deck (it’s mostly a UBw build, but I like calling it Esper because saying Esper is faster than saying “blue/black splash white”). Despite no one reaching the Top 8, the deck performed very well—of the nine people playing it, eight made Day Two, three went 8-2 in Constructed (including myself), and one went 9-1. It was the best deck I’ve played in a Pro Tour in a very long time and I think it was likely the best deck in the entire tournament. Here is the deck:

On the surface, this appears to be a blue/black control deck splashing for some Dragons, but it actually plays out very differently than UB. You have a lot of the control elements, but instead of grinding through the game with Perilous Vaults and Jace’s Ingenuities, you just kill them. This adds an entirely new dimension to your deck, because as it turns out, a lot of the things that are good against control are very bad against a 5/4 flier with hexproof. Having Ojutai in your deck means you can now just kill a Mono Red player before they draw the burn to finish you off, it means you can now just kill a GW devotion player before they get Mastery going, it means you can just attack a Nissa or a Xenagos that would have otherwise won the game.

The best way to play this deck is to just to 1-for-1 everything in the early game and keep the board clear, and then play a Dragon. If I Thoughtseize them early, I’ll usually take whatever card they can play the earliest. The early-mid game is more important than the late game. There are very few permanents I will not counterspell/use spot removal on in the first four turns of the game. I just want the board to be clear so that I can freely play a Dragon, and then whatever they play will more than likely not be able to match it.

At this point, it does not matter if I’ve exhausted my answers, I’ll either find more or kill them. This is different than the conservative approach that a lot of the blue control decks have historically taken. I’d say that, when in doubt between do and don’t, you should choose “do” with this deck.

The Deck List

I really liked the deck list as we played it, and I think it was particularly good for the PT. Moving forward, I believe there are a few flex slots, but the core should remain unchanged.

The Dragons

I would not touch these slots. Five Dragons may seem like it’s not enough to turn on your Dragon cards, but in the early game you don’t need them, and in the late game you have enough card selection that you will find one sooner or later. The beauty of Silumgar’s Scorn is that they just can’t afford to play around it, because you might have a Dragon, and if you do then they timewalked themselves for nothing. As a result, it’ll usually counter something regardless of whether you have a Dragon or not. Throughout the tournament, I’d say I used the Force Spike mode more often than I used the Counterspell mode (many times I did have a Dragon in hand, but I didn’t have to show it). Your Dragons are also super hard to get rid of, so if you ever draw one, it’s likely that it’ll turn on Dragon synergies for the rest of the game.

Ugin is unfortunately not a Dragon, but I think you still want him. He’s your Get Out of Jail Free card—he will bail you out of many unfortunate situations. He sucks to have in your opening hand, or at any point in the first ten turns really, but I think it’s important to have one in your deck because there are many spots in which Ugin is the only card that wins the game. With 8 scrylands, 3 Anticipate, and 4 Dig Through Time, you will find him eventually.

The Removal

This deck has a lot of removal, and I think these numbers can be toyed with. If you expect green midrange decks, then Ultimate Price and Downfall are the best options. If you expect ramp decks, then you want those plus Crux. Red decks? Then you want Ultimate Price and Bile Blight. Abzan Aggro? You want Bile Blight, Downfall, Foul-Tongue. Burn decks and other Dragon decks? You want Foul-Tongue. This is highly customizable for the field you expect, though I had a tournament, I think I would just play our original configuration, as I see no need to change it. I would not like to go below 2 Crux of Fate, since it’s a very powerful card that I want access to, and I wouldn’t go below 3 Hero’s Downfall, since I think being able to get rid of anything no-questions-asked is important, but I could see metagames in which I play 4 or 0 of all the others.

The Counterspells

Silumgar’s Scorn is untouchable, as it’s basically Counterspell in this deck. It’s good in the early game and it’s good in the late game. Dissolve is also quite good, but the deck taps out a reasonable amount of the time and a lot of the removal overlaps at 3 mana, so I didn’t want to play too many of them. The Disdainful Stroke was a late addition because we expected more control decks. I rather liked it, and would actually not be opposed to having a second in the deck, as it’s very good against other control decks and the RG decks, which made up over half of the PT Top 8.

The Card Draw

Card selection is a better term than card drawing here, but either works. Anticipate is used mostly to make your early land drops and to ensure you have some turn 3-4 action. Dig Through Time is how you pull ahead of the other slow decks. I think Dig is better than Jace’s Ingenuity and would play four Digs before I would play the first Ingenuity. Anticipate is not as good as I hoped it would be, but I think you need some number of them. You want more Dragons in your deck, for example, but you can’t play more expensive cards, so you play Anticipates. It’s possible that cutting one Anticipate for a spell (or even for a land) is correct, but I would like to keep at least two.

The Thoughtseizes

Thoughtseize is a bit lost in this type of control deck, but I think it’s very important to have some in your deck. First of all, it lets you deal with Pearl Lake Ancient, which is otherwise just going to kill you a lot of the time. Second, it lets you do something early. In a deck with 12 lands that come into play tapped, being able to go turn 1-tapland, turn 2-tapland + Thoughtseize taking their 2-drop is very relevant. It also lets you scout the way for an Ojutai attack.

The Mana Base

The mana is the worst part of the deck by a significant amount. You want UU and BB very early on, and not having either could be disastrous. You also want UUUU in the late game, so that you can cast Dig+Counterspell or double Counterspell, and you want white by turn 5 every time. You also want two Haven of the Spirit Dragon, since they act effectively as white sources for Dragons and have huge late-game impact.

You then want to have fetchlands, since they’re great, but they also demand fetchable lands (if i didn’t have Deltas in my deck, for example, I’d have played more Caves of Koilos over Swamps, but you need to be able to fetch). Without Arcane Sanctum, there is just no way to make the mana base perfect, so you have to settle for the best you can do. After trying multiple configurations, this was the one we came up with, and I was satisfied with it. Some members of the team played a second Urborg instead of a second Caves of Koilos, but I believe this is not correct, as casting Ojutai early on is too important.

The Matchups

Mono-Red (either splashing green or not)

Mono-Red is your worst matchup because they are much faster than you and your answers match up poorly against their threats. The best way to play the matchup is to counter/kill everything as quickly as you can, and then hope to play a fast Dragon to kill them. If they flood a little bit, you can actually win the game, since an attacking Ojutai will draw you into enough answers to be able to attack three more times, but it’s overall an unfavorable matchup and very tough game 1.



In game two things improve for you with the addition of more cheap removal and Drown in Sorrow (your best card against them). I’d go as far as saying that I feel favored if I’m on the play after board, but not if I’m on the draw. If Mono-Red becomes huge, then I think you want a third Drown in Sorrow after board, but past that there’s not much you can do—anything else would just be upgrading your 3-casting-cost removal into 2-casting-cost removal and I don’t think that is a good use of a sideboard slot.

Green/Red Aggro

We expected this deck to be popular, but I saw almost none throughout the tournament. It’s also a bad matchup, since they have early creatures plus a lot of the cards that are great against you (Rabblemaster and Boon Satyr).



After board, things also improve a bit, but not much because, unlike red, they actually have a good sideboard against you (planeswalkers, mostly). If they don’t have Rabblemaster/Mystic/Satyr, then don’t board in Drown.

Abzan Aggro

I believe Abzan Aggro is a good matchup, but not by a lot. It also depends heavily on their build—some people have useless removal like Hero’s Downfall whereas other people have great cards for the matchup like Thoughtseize. Their best card by a significant margin and the source of most of your losses is Rakshasa Deathdealer, since it’s immune to a lot of your removal and attacks past your Dragons. Kill it on sight if you can.



On the play the Dissolves should be replaced by Thoughtseize.

After board, I think they improve a little more than you do (though it obviously depends on what they have), but you also gain some tools. Dragonlord Silumgar is particularly effective against them, since 3/5 deathtouch is enough to brickwall almost all of their guys, and they will bring in planeswalkers against you.

Abzan Control

This matchup is great for you. Game one, you’re playing the same deck except all your cards are good and half of theirs do nothing.



After board they get rid of some of the dead cards and add in more discard, but you get Opportunities, so you’ll still be favored in the late game. Their best way to beat you is early pressure with Fleecemane Lions and Rhinos. You will usually be able to win any game that goes late no matter what they bring. Haven of the Spirit Dragon is very good in this matchup, as it turns a late-game useless land into a rebuy of one of your best cards, and they don’t have access to that.

RG Devotion

This matchup is also quite good—you can usually 1-for-1 them in the early game and then you play a Dragon and win. It is possible for them to overrun you with mana guys, Whisperwoods, and planeswalkers, but it is not likely, and if at any point you go Ojutai into Crux of Fate it becomes very hard to lose the game.




After board, they get more planeswalkers, but you get Dragonlord Silumgars to steal them. They improve a little bit, but not much—their deck is all mana and threats and they need both, so it’s not like they can take out 8 mana guys and board in 8 good cards, and there aren’t many threat-upgrades they can make other than Nissa and Xenagos.

Other Control Decks

There are three potential stages in a control mirror: Dragons, Pearl Lake Ancient, and decking. This deck can win the game on stages 1 and 3. The normal UB decks have stages 2 and 3. Stage 2 is the most reliable one, but if stage 2 fails, then you’re likely to win stage 3, since the UB deck packs more raw card drawing (and needs it more most of the time), so they’re more likely to be decked if they do not kill you.

There are games in which someone will be able to amass enough of a lands-and-disruption advantage to stick a Dragon and attack multiple times with it, and then this person can actually win the game in short order. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. This is a dimension that did not exist in previous UB mirrors, unless someone managed to play an early Ashiok.

If Dragons do not win the game early, then another way to finish the game is Pearl Lake Ancient. They might have it—you don’t. If you get to those spots and they have it, then you need Thoughtseize to deal with it. If you can’t do that, you’ll likely just lose. If you can deal with it, however (or if they do not play it), then the matchup could come down to decking. There’s always a balance between aggressively trying to win and trying not to lose, and each game is different than the other, but the important thing is to choose one and commit to it, because once you’ve cast three draw spells it becomes too late to realize that maybe you should be trying to deck them.



Sideboarding should change if they don’t have Dragons, in which case you want all Downfalls and no Foul-Tongues.

After board, there is less removal and more threats, so it’s unlikely that the game goes to decking—you can be more aggressive with your card drawing then (and having an uncounterable one really helps).


• “PV, doesn’t Ojutai just turn on their otherwise dead removal?”

Well, kind of. The thing about Ojutai is that yes, he’s vulnerable to removal, but at a time of your choosing. If they leave 3 mana up at all points to Hero’s Downfall it, then you just don’t attack until you’ve found a Thoughtseize or a counterspell, and that’s good for you. If you play Ojutai and pass the turn, and then they pass it back to you with no play, you can just decline to attack—cast a draw spell instead, or play a Silumgar. This kind of game favors you most of the time.

• “Isn’t Narset Transcendent good in this deck?”

No. Narset is very hard to cast and ultimately does not do what you want her to do. She’s basically a Dragon that doesn’t block, doesn’t win the game quickly, and doesn’t turn on Dragon synergies. She could be good in some matchups, but the mana base doesn’t let you play her even out of the sideboard.

• “How about this other white card?”

There are only six white sources in the deck if what you’re playing is not a Dragon, so you just can’t afford to have a white spell. There are many white spells I’d like to have, especially against Mono-Red, but unfortunately you just can’t play them.

• “How about Encase in Ice?”

Encase would be good, but you have Edict effects in your deck, and you can’t play both of those as they’ll just sacrifice the enchanted guy.

• “Is this version better than Shouta’s Icefall Regent version?”

Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure. My inclination is that it is, as Ojutai is a much better card than Icefall Regent, but I do envy his ability to cast his spells whenever he wants to (or at least in theory, since I don’t think he’s playing enough lands in his deck). I haven’t played his type of deck at all, so I cannot say for certain.

• “Is this version better than Adrian Sullivan’s Dragonless deck?”

I feel confident that it is. The ability to close out games+attack planeswalkers with powerful Dragons is too valuable for me, plus I get to play counterspell, which makes both my early game and my late game better.


  • Sequence your lands properly. You always want to play a UB land first, and then decide turn two. If you have Temple of Enlightenment and Dismal Backwater, it’s usually correct to play Dismal Backwater. If you’re going to fetch for Island, play Flooded Strand rather than Polluted Delta, since Strand doesn’t fetch for anything else.
  • The best turn to play a tapland after turn one is turn four. Try to avoid playing a tapland on turns two and three if possible.
  • Don’t waste your scry with Anticipate and Dig. If you know you’re going to Anticipate at the end of the turn, then scrying a card becomes less valuable—either save your scryland for a future turn, or play Anticipate main phase and then play the scryland. If you’re going to attack with Ojutai and you’re looking for something specific, then play scryland first. If you are not looking for something specific, play scryland after combat.
  • Silumgar, the Drifting Death will trigger whether he is attacking or not. You can play a turn five Ojutai and then a turn six Silumgar and -1/-1 your opponent’s team on the spot. I actually forgot about this in my feature match against Sam Black, where I passed the turn facing five Bee tokens. It didn’t matter at all, since I just attacked the following turn, but it could have.
  • You can cast Foul-Tongue Invocation to gain life even if they have no creatures.
  • Dragon cards will check when you cast them, not when they resolve. If I play Silumgar’s Scorn and you kill my Ojutai in response, the condition will still have been met.
  • You can kill exploit creatures with the trigger on the stack, and then they will do nothing even if the opponent sacrifices a creature. This is very relevant in the case of Sidisi.
  • If you have Silumgar and Ojutai, you can Bile Blight your own Ojutai and then attack with Silumgar to kill their Ojutai.
  • Game one, it doesn’t matter what you exile for Dig Through Time, but game two it does because of Tasigur, so keep that in mind if you board him in.
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