The main deck that team East West Bowl decided on for the PT was Esper Planeswalkers. A couple days before GP Albuquerque, I was tinkering with Esper Dragons but couldn’t really get it to a place I liked (though Shota proved that deck can still be competitive). My main concern was with Ojutai. Before, Ojutai had Crux and Dig Through Time to back it up, but now it feels like the sole way to win a game instead of one of many. It also works way less well with Languish than Crux, and a lot of the removal that all the white decks play can take out an Ojutai with ease.
At the same time I was having trouble finding a good source of card advantage—Epiphany at the Drownyard just wasn’t good enough. That was about the time Andrew Brown said he wanted to look at a planeswalker build. I was immediately interested since all the Esper-colored ‘walkers are able to generate card advantage and take over games—the 2 qualities I felt I was missing from a Dragon-centric build.
After iterating a ton we eventually ended up on the following list, which was primarily metagamed against WW Humans and Bant Company:
One of the biggest hurdles of the deck was actually making a workable mana base. I would argue the final product reaches that point, but it is by no means good. That’s just mana in Standard, and some of the strange looking numbers are concessions to having enough untapped lands, basics, and overall sources. The reason it ends up working at all is the deck is heavily base-black. We went so far as to play Spell Shrivel over Scatter to the Winds because of how often we simply wouldn’t have UU on turn 3. Clash of Wills works very poorly here because of a common sequence of tapped land, untapped land, tapped land, and untapped land. This means you’ll often only have clash up for 1 on turn 3, and the card is quite weak in a deck tapping out frequently for 5- and 6-mana threats.
In that way, this Esper deck is actually different than recent types of control decks. You really only have inevitability when chaining planeswalker activations and all efforts to control the early turns are just a concession to keeping the board clear enough that your ‘walkers don’t die to the creatures in play. The fact that all the planeswalkers start with an absurd amount of loyalty certainly helps this plan, and we joked in testing that we should just call the deck Esper loyalty.
As for the games, they’re pretty straightforward. Kill everything on sight, then land a ‘walker as soon as possible. Narset is deceptively good in this deck, but more for the ability to rebound your spells than draw cards. Sure, you’re going to draw cards about 50% of the time, but the ability to set up rebounding Languish or better yet Silumgar’s Commands is what really makes the card worth playing. Even rebounding Anticipate comes up often and will let you find the right answers at the right time.
Narset is also fantastic with Dark Petition. Petition can find a key card and let you deal with a threat at the same time so that you can untap the following turn and slam a Sphinx or Sorin to close the game. The fact that you get free mana in your next upkeep if you rebound it to cast a spot removal spell also helps with the “keep your ‘walkers alive” plan, and it’s no wonder multiple teams came to the conclusion that Dark Petition is just great now.
Last but not least is Sphinx of the Final Word. If you would have told me I’d register that card for the Pro Tour I’d have called you crazy, but here we are. I originally wanted to add it to the deck as a way to stabilize versus Bant Company. Many games we’d be able to kill a bunch of creatures, but then die to Lumbering Falls or at the very least have our planeswalkers get killed repeatedly. Sphinx solved that problem by being a huge roadblock and a finisher at the same time, that survives Languish and doesn’t turn on blank removal. It does enough things well enough that it gets a pass and actually is a key card to close many games.
Speaking of useless removal, we decided that a transformational sideboard plan full of creatures would catch some people off-guard. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is great but less great when it dies to Fiery Impulse. That happens way less often post-board, not to mention we brought them in alongside proactive discard. Ojutai and Kalitas fulfill similar proactive roles, and Ojutai was added as a way to beat opposing Ojutais with Always Watching from WU Human decks. It also pressures planeswalkers well and is a whole lot better when there’s less removal post-board. Moving forward, I like it less, since players might bring in Clip Wings versus you and if you just board out your flyers entirely, you can gain an edge that way. The cyclical strength of creatures in the Esper sideboard will be an interesting development to follow throughout Standard.
We wanted Infinite Obliterationfor ramp, but in the one match I played against ramp, I Narset rebounded it and still died. I’d look to more counterspells alongside Ojutai if you want to beat ramp more often—if you really expect a lot of ramp, I’d recommend playing a more proactive deck.
Moving forward, I’d want access to Virulent Plague as part of the Dark Petition package. Whether or not you want to maindeck it really depends on how much GW you expect to face, though I imagine it’s better suited out of the sideboard since your GW opponent will likely have to shave on some number of Dromoka’s Command. Virulent Plague also works well against WB decks that have Westvale Abbey and Secure the Wastes, and against Mardu decks that have Chandra, Flamecaller and Secure.
All in all, I think Esper Planeswalkers is a very powerful deck that has room for customization in an evolving metagame. Since the format is less about Bant Company and WW Humans than it was a week ago, I’d cut down on a little spot removal for more noncreature interaction in the main. I like Duress more than Negate, but will need to test those options. This deck is a blast and I recommend giving it a try for your next Standard event!
And a final thanks to Andrew Brown and the rest of Team East West Bowl for all the help tuning the deck in the days leading up to the PT.
Tips and Tricks
• If you plan to Narset plus, do that after your other activations to have a better chance of getting a spell. If you Narset before Sorin plus, for example, and have a land on top, you can’t get past that land whereas the other order lets you get a spell if it’s the second card (if a spell is first, you draw it off Sorin anyway).
• Sometimes it’s right to play basics over taplands to ensure your topdecked battlelands enter untapped. For example, in Seth’s game 5 versus Steve Rubin, I think he should have lead with Swamp over Shambling Vent to have an opportunity to draw a blue battleland turn 3 for his Spell Shrivels.
• Don’t board out so many spells that you’ll have difficulty turning on spell mastery for Dark Petition. Also, consider shaving a Narset or 2 when bringing in 5-7 creatures from the board.
• The time you most want to activate Narset first is when you also have Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. If you draw a spell off Narset, you’ll have a fuller and more informative hand for your Jace loot.