Updating Esper

So, the jig is up. Esper sucks now, right?
-Everyone on the internet

It seems to me that people are now of the idea that Esper preyed on a specific metagame, and now that the metagame has changed, Esper is no longer good. I don’t think so. There have been developments that are bad for Esper, such as people playing more edict effects and more Collective Companies in their decks, but Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor were already real cards at the PT, people already had Read the Bones in their Abzan Control decks, and people definitely already played Abzan Aggro. Those were not major problems back then and I don’t think they’re major problems now.

It would be foolish of me to say life for Esper players didn’t get harder—it did. Significantly. But it didn’t get “impossibly hard.” Life is hard for every deck. A couple of weeks ago, you were playing the best deck in the format. Now you’re merely playing a good, tier 1 deck, of which there are plenty. It’s foolish to believe that Esper Dragons is no longer good. You certainly don’t have to play it, since it’s not way better than a lot of other decks, but it’s still a great option.

Most importantly, metagames aren’t fixed—they’re cycles. We are in the green cycle, an age where people play Collected Companies, Den Protectors, and Siege Rhinos. What beats a green metagame? Well, a lot of things do. Elspeth does, Anger of the Gods + Dragons do, Mantis Riders does, Whisperwood Elemental does, Atarka does. And what do all of those things have in common? They are all bad against Esper. So, even though Esper might not be the best deck now, it could very well be the best deck in the next Standard tournament.

“But PV, then why hasn’t Esper done well lately?”

It has done well. It hasn’t won everything, but it’s always present—there were three in the Top 8 of Grand Prix São Paulo and two in the Top 16 of GP Paris.

“Yeah but that’s because only good players play Esper, they would have won with anything…”

I keep hearing that “Esper isn’t that good, its pilots are.” I believe a popular saying is “he could have won with a ham sandwich.” I’m flattered, but I hate that stupid ham sandwich. I think this is a very flawed concept for two reasons:

  1. I haven’t won a match of Magic in two years. After picking up Esper Dragons, I’m 32-6-1 in professional Magic. If I “can win with any deck,” how come I wasn’t doing any winning before? Did I not have even ham sandwiches?
  2. It dismisses a deck’s successes on the strength of its pilots when I believe the opposite should be done (you should dismiss bad results on the weakness of pilots). If good players can get results with the deck, then that probably means the deck is capable of getting good results, and it might be worth the time and effort to learn. Sometimes, people will play practice games, play badly, lose, and think “Hayne wins with this deck because he’s good.” No. Hayne wins because he plays the deck to its full strength. Some people don’t win because they don’t—they’re the factor here, not Hayne. Hayne being good doesn’t make the deck able to do anything it can’t ordinarily do, but people being bad will stop the deck from doing the things it does. Esper Dragons is not even a particularly hard deck to play—much of the time you just go through the motions and a lot of the games are very easy (counter, removal, removal, Dragon, win). If the deck is good (and I believe it is) and you want to play it, it’s worth the time to practice a bit with it, and you can become proficient enough with it.

“Yes, yes, but how do you beat Den Protector?”

This is the question I get the most regarding Esper. My answer is the same as it always is—you attack with Ojutai. In the words of wise Jaya Ballard in what is one of my favorite flavor texts of all time, “Of course you should fight fire with fire—you should fight everything with fire.” Except in this case “fire” is Dragonlord Ojutai. You fight everything with Ojutai—Den Protector is no different.

I’ve been told on many occasions that I play the Esper Dragons deck “like I play Mono-Red.” According to observers, I play it much more aggressively than “normal.” The truth is that Esper Dragons is not a normal control deck, and that’s where its strength lies. It is control, but it’s not draw-go—you can punish stumbles, and you certainly aren’t a victim of the late game of other decks. Half the time my opponents play Den Protector, I just play Ojutai and race them. Full control of the game is not necessary.

“What about Perilous Vault? Isn’t it great? It exiles everything!”

I do not like Perilous Vault, and I don’t think it belongs in this deck, at least in its current incarnation. This is not a pure control deck—it wants to take the initiative, and Vault is just a little too slow for me. I could see playing one if you’re super worried about Mastery strategies, but I honestly think the best way to combat those is to go over them with Dragons or Ashioks, and not to reset the board.

“So would you change anything in your list from GP São Paulo?”

All that said, it would be silly to not make modifications in your deck from time to time. Esper Dragon has a lot of reactive cards, and those change in power from tournament to tournament—it’s possible you want four Bile Blights one day and zero Bile Blights the other. This is the version I ran at GP São Paulo:

The differences between this and our PT build, other than the removal spells, are:

-1 Ugin, -1 Silumgar, the Drifting Death, +1 Dragonlord Ojutai, +1 Dragonlord Silumgar

Dragonlord Ojutai is the best Dragon you can have. It doesn’t usually die, but if it doesn’t die, then you don’t mind that you have a second one, and you really want the first one. Regardless of what else you do, I believe four Ojutais is correct.

The rest is up in the air. I want at least one of Silumgar, the Drifting Death or Ugin—they both fill a similar role in which they are a “safe” kill condition and they trump Elspeth. Ugin is a much more powerful card, and certainly better against the Mardu decks with seven Edicts and zero Downfalls, but this deck doesn’t have a very easy time hitting its eighth land drop, since it doesn’t run any cards like Divination or Jace’s Ingenuity. I cut Ugin for that tournament and I didn’t particularly regret it, but after playing some more, I think I might want Ugin back in my deck.

Dragonlord Silumgar was OK, but not spectacular. When we played the deck at the PT, we had them in the sideboard because of the assumption people were going to take out their removal against us. It turned out people not only didn’t take removal out, they also brought more in, and Dragonlord Silumgar was still good, so it was moved to the main deck. It’s the best card in your deck in some spots, and doesn’t do anything in other spots.

-1 Disdainful Stroke, +1 Thoughtseize

Stroke was a card that I liked but most people didn’t play. I thought it was quite good in a metagame of Siege Rhinos, Thunderbreak Regents, Elspeths and Whisperwood Elementals, but it’s not good in a metagame of Den Protectors and Raptors. I think Thoughtseize is great in this deck, since it lets you just tap out for a Dragon knowing they don’t have anything. This was an easy swap.

-1 Anticipate, +1 Ashiok

Ashiok really overperformed for me. If you ever steal a Courser of Kruphix, then it feels like you can never lose, and stealing basically anything else is also good (except for Den Protector I guess). It also lets you mill people to death, which is relevant in the mirror—even if they eventually Downfall it, one or two activations could be enough to swing that race in your favor. On the play, Ashiok is good against almost everything—it gives you free wins in the way Dragonlord Ojutai does, especially combined with Thoughtseize. On the draw, it’s less good, but it’s still great in many matchups. I would not be opposed to two Ashioks. Anticipate is not bad, but it’s a bit clunky and probably the weakest card in the deck at this point.

The removal is very flexible and it depends on what you think you’re going to face. Against big decks, Downfall and Foul-Tongue are the best. Against small decks, Bile Blight is the best. Against any sort of RG deck, Ultimate Price is the best, though it does actually nothing versus a number of archetypes (some Abzan Aggro lists, the mirror). Moving forward, I’d expect Bile Blight to be less important, and Ultimate Price to be more important, since it kills all those Dragons that you will probably see. Downfall also seems like it increased in value, since it’s great versus both Dragons and Abzan Aggro, but it’s hard to play so many 3-mana cards. A third Crux of Fate is also a possibility—it’s not great against the decks that have both Dragons and normal guys, but it’s good against Abzan Aggro and really good against most Den Protector decks.

Right now, I’d swap one Bile Blight for an Ultimate Price, I would swap one Dragonlord Silumgar (or Silumgar, the Drifting Death if you want) for an Ugin, and I’d swap one Foul-Tongue Invocation for a Hero’s Downfall. Foul-Tongue is a great card when it’s good, but there have been way too many Satyr Wayfinders around for my taste, so I think it’s OK to go down to two of them.

You could also consider swapping one Dissolve for the fourth Hero’s Downfall. Dissolve is a good card, and it’s especially great against late-game Den Protectors, but it’s often very slow on the draw and if the metagame becomes more aggressive I think you can cut one. You can also cut the remaining Silumgar for a Downfall, or perhaps the Ugin if you’re worried about your Dragon count.

“I see you keep playing two Tasigur, but a lot of people cut that card. Is it actually good?”

Yes! I think Tasigur is an excellent card and I’m not a fan of cutting them, like some do. They’re great in the mirror and great against Mono-Red. They’re also decent against Abzan Control, Abzan Aggro, and some other aggressive decks, since 4/5 is a big body that blocks almost everything.

That said, my build for a tournament tomorrow would be:

Esper Dragons

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