Last weekend was a tale of two Grand Prix. We saw Lucas Siow protect the Great White North in a GP Toronto Top 8 featuring 25 of 32 possible Den Protectors. Meanwhile down south we had Paulo Vitor leading the Esper Dragons charge at GP São Paulo. Both Top 8 tell a very different story about the metagame and speak to the variety in Standard. I’m thrilled with the state of Standard and I’m doubly happy for former local grinder and Cube aficionado Lucas Siow taking down Toronto, and Paulo Vitor’s persistence in always playing Esper finally getting rewarded. The long con is finally paying off.
These GPs also give you an interesting look at which decks are doing well when you delve deeper. While the Top 8s are quite different, you start to see a lot of crossover when expanded to the Top 16.
5 Esper Dragons (Winner)
3 Immense Red
2 Abzan Aggro
2 Ojutai Bant
3 Abzan Aggro
3 Ojutai Bant
2 Abzan Control (Winner)
2 Esper Dragons
Practically every deck in the Top 16 of one Grand Prix was mirrored in the other one. While the popularity may have been different, everything outside of Abzan Control and Mardu in São Paulo and RG Devotion in Toronto was represented at both tournaments. We can effectively break down the decks that matter from these two events:
I really don’t put a major gap between any of these decks, as the more powerful ones have all proven to be softer to beatdown and that raw power is less important than key disruption. If power and utility were all that mattered, then Abzan Control and Esper Dragons would be the only real choices. Instead we’re seeing that disruption backed by Den Protector can put a huge dent in the supposed top strategy of Esper Dragons. Ojutai Bant tries to have it both ways and run the Den Protector package alongside Dragonlord Ojutai.
If anything could be considered a true Rock deck—50/50 or slightly favorable matchups across the board—Ojutai Bant is the best representative. By playing both of the key engines in the format along with the best 2-drop (Fleecemane Lion) it provides as many options for its pilot as possible. The flip-side to this is that the mana gets a little hairy at times and that Dragonlord Ojutai really isn’t that good. Don’t get me wrong, Ojutai is still the best 5-drop available, but without discard or countermagic to defend it, Ojutai isn’t the steamroller people know.
Abzan Control by Lucas Siow, 1st Place at Grand Prix Toronto 2015
First: the biggest change of all, there’s 26 lands in the deck, but only three Sandsteppe Citadels. Frankly I can’t remember the last Abzan Control or Midrange deck I’ve seen with fewer than 4. Instead there’s the full 8 scrylands and only 11 enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands total. Outside of that switch-up, I’ve talked about the addition of Den Protector and it’s one that I really like in this strategy. Having another value creature and extra card selection is always nice. Just getting a Thoughtseize in the midgame is usually worth it, but you can get even cuter with recycling Den Protectors in long games.
Den Protector is a testament to just how good Eternal Witness and their ilk are. Regrowth in slower attrition formats is a great strategy, and this version being able to attack by a number of the usual blockers in the format is also great. Considering Abzan Charm’s 3rd mode, she gets even better. The singleton Dromoka’s Command is also a nice catchall* that gets better when it can be used early and bought back later at instant speed.
*Compared to Utter End which is just expensive and slow nowadays.
Crux of Fate is one of the other standouts as a 5-mana sweeper that’s easier on the mana base than End Hostilities and is capable of shutting down Ojutai and Silumgar from Esper Dragons. Players have also tried out Self-Inflicted Wound and Foul-Tongue Invocation, but those have largely been relegated to Abzan Aggro. Meanwhile, Lucas can hedge by using a Courser or Fleecemane Lion on defense to get a little more committed to the board in normal matchups or use it as a Plague Wind against Dragons in blue matches.
The sideboard contains the usual suspects, though it’s nice to see the Arashin Cleric and Drown in Sorrow package pick up speed. It’s one of the best ways to stymie the early game of the red decks. Plus once you get rolling along both are still reasonable to draw as they trump certain topdecks from the red decks.
This is one of the most well-rounded decks in the format.
Esper Dragons by Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, 1st Place at GP São Paulo
There have been a lot of changes since Krakow and one of the most glaring is the push away from a focus on the mirror. Compared to previous great control decks, people adapted very quickly to take on Esper Dragons. Meanwhile half the control players modded their decks to try and dominate the mirror which made teching the deck even tougher than usual.
Now we have a version with tweaks toward Hero’s Downfall (many of the online copies were dropping to 2), the fourth Ojutai, and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. The lack of Dragonlord’s Prerogative in the main deck and the move toward Ashiok is an interesting pushback against Abzan decks and midrange in general. Instead of just dominating the game with 1-for-1s and eventually running away with Ojutai, post-board the decks can lean on early Ashiok to grow a lead or even win, depending on how many planeswalker answers you’re facing.
One of the easiest ways to win against Abzan and other anti-attrition strategies is just to kill or counter a 2-drop and slam Ashiok. Depending on both players’ hands, the game could just be over. The 2s and 3s in Abzan do a great job of negating each other and if you have active Silumgar’s Scorn in hand, there’s not a lot that can be done to you. Even if all it does is buy 5 to 10 life and a card, it’s done so much for your future board positioning. Ashiok also gives you one of the few tools that can slide under countermagic early and win a control mirror before it ever really gets started.
Sideboard-wise one of the most important features is the full anti-aggro package against red. Between a full set of Bile Blight, three Drown in Sorrow, and Ultimate Price, PV’s deck can be configured to fight an early game war well. He can do this safe in the knowledge that Dig Through Time and his mass of Ojutais will likely trump whatever the opponent has once the game reaches a topdeck showdown. If the countermagic isn’t as effective, he can even jump into a pure discard/removal strategy—like Mono-Black Control from the last Standard format.
While the format may have caught up to Esper Dragons, it doesn’t mean that Esper is now suddenly bad. You just won’t have as many free wins as you may have had a few weeks ago.
Deck of the Week
GW Company by Craig Wescoe, Top 16 at Grand Prix Toronto 2015
Surprisingly, Wescoe left Bant on the bench this weekend in exchange for this update to GW Collected Company. Not a single creature is over 3 CMC so the Collected Companys will hit every creature in his deck. Craig is also absolutely slammed at the 3-slot with a whopping 15 creatures if you count Den Protector. Admittedly, Den Protector as a normal 2-drop and as a 5-drop are both much more likely here than normal.
The full set of Dromoka’s Command seems aimed at a less Esper-Dragons-dominated metagame. Or Craig felt so confident in the matchup he could jam four dead cards and perform respectably well.
Considering the stickiness of the creatures in his deck thanks to the Den Protector/Deathmist combo and the set of spells he runs, Wescoe is positioned very nicely in the midrange and red matches. This may have been the update people were waiting for to let this deck break into the mainstream.