Esper Tokens is the hot deck right now. It made a finals appearance in both a Standard Magic Online Championship (the monthly season finals), and a Standard Grand Prix in Indianapolis. It’s a strong deck with few weaknesses, and the potential for explosive draws. Since it’s also appealing and fun to play, it’s sure to be popular. People do love their tokens, after all.
So it’s our job, this weekend, to beat Esper Tokens!
Unfortunately, it’s a task that’s a bit easier said than done. Like many decks in Standard, Esper Tokens has both aggressive elements and controlling elements. It has card advantage, and answers to just about everything.
Esper Tokens Test Deck
The first thing to understand is that the name “Esper Tokens” is a bit misleading. In reality, this is simply a WB deck with a few blue sideboard cards. (Splashing blue actually makes the mana better!) So don’t let the blue battlelands fool you. If you’ve confidently identified your opponent’s deck as Esper Tokens, then he or she will have few, if any, permission spells in the main deck.
Beating Esper Tokens will require overpowering them in a fair fight. They have a healthy mix of planeswalkers, creatures, removal, and utility spells. You won’t easily be able to shut down their game plan, so you’ll have to present something powerful of your own. Importantly, you’ll need to do so without leaving yourself vulnerable to their token swarm. In particular, you need to be prepared at all times for a large end-of-turn Secure the Wastes.
What to Do
- Be fast. Some of Esper Tokens’ heavy lifters include Painful Truths and its planeswalkers. If your deck is fast, you can punish the life loss and the tempo loss of Painful Truths. If you can establish a board presence quickly, you’ll make it difficult for them to protect their planeswalkers. Atarka Red and Abzan Aggro can accomplish this goal well.
- Go over the top. The alternative to being fast is to do something that trumps Esper Tokens. You can do it with a combo, like Rally the Ancestors, but the best single card for the job is Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Eldrazi Green, for example, has a big advantage over Esper Tokens, at least before sideboarding. Note that it’s hard for a control deck to completely shut down the Tokens player, so grinding small advantages won’t work. However, if you make your game plan revolve around putting Ugin into play, you might have a bit more luck.
- Play with Negate. Over the lifespan of Standard, there have been good arguments for playing with Dispel, Disdainful Stroke, Clash of Wills, and Scatter to the Winds. Right now, if you want to have the best chance of beating Esper Tokens, just play a lot of Negates! It stops an incredibly large portion of their best weapons, and is the only reliable way to avoid getting buried by Painful Truths.
- Other good cards: Hallowed Moonlight, Silumgar, the Drifting Death, Virulent Plague, Duress.
What Not to Do
- If you’re going to play Dark Jeskai, make sure you have a plan. Dark Jeskai is the best deck in Standard, and is tailor-made for killing creatures and grinding 2-for-1 advantages. Tokens is the natural foil to such a strategy, and this is at the heart of Esper Tokens’s recent success. If you’re a Dark Jeskai player, I recommend stocking your sideboard with the cards mentioned above (notably Virulent Plague).
- Don’t fold to Wingmate Roc. Wingmate Roc is the midrange-creature-mirror breaker. In an even game, it’s nearly impossible to fight through a Wingmate Roc. If you’re behind when your opponent casts it, forget about it! Make sure you’re either very fast, very powerful, or have a clean answer to Wingmate Roc like Languish or Exert Influence.
- Don’t overthink Knight of the White Orchid. Knight of the White Orchid is a great card when its controller is on the draw—it’s a mediocre card otherwise. That said, if you hamstring yourself trying to play around it, then you’ll wind up making it good 100% of the time! Don’t choose to draw, and don’t skip land drops with your control deck. If you’re playing a deck that operates on a small number of lands, then by all means, use your judgment as to playing out extra lands. Play the game with Knight of the White Orchid in mind, but when in doubt, just play normally.
Esper Tokens is not a broken, unbeatable deck. However, it’s not a flash in the pan either. Right now, it’s reaching high levels of both success and popularity, but I believe that once people learn to play against it, and begin sideboarding the cards they need to beat it, it will settle in as being simply one of many playable decks in the format. There’s no reason to be scared of it, but this weekend, you should most definitely come prepared.