The best deck to play during Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar was Team UltraPro’s Bant Tokens deck. Its 4 pilots combined for a 75% win percentage, which is phenomenal. Any time you have a Hall-of-Famer claim that this felt like the best deck he’s played in a tournament since Caw-Blade, you have something big on your hands. Since the PT, the deck has fallen out of favor and put up mediocre results. The premise is certainly strong, but maybe it’s not the best way to approach the token archetype going forward.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is the best card to come out of Battle for Zendikar, and it’s perfect in a deck that both wants token makers and anthem effects to pump those tokens. As if that wasn’t enough, Gideon will just finish off an opponent when a stream of 2/2s isn’t advisable and there is nothing worth pumping. Gideon does it all and is a perfect build-around while also being the perfect support card for so many strategies in Standard.
Secure the Wastes saw some play in Jeskai Tokens archetypes, but was restricted by the presence of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion as a more powerful option. Not being as strong as Elspeth isn’t a knock on a card, as the Sun’s Champion dominated Standard throughout her time in the format. The combination of end-step Secure the Wastes into any sort of anthem effect threatens to end the game quickly and out of nowhere.
Former Rookie of the Year Raymond Perez Jr. was able to pilot his version of Esper Tokens to a finals appearance at Grand Prix Indianapolis:
Grand Prix Indianapolis 2nd Place – Raymond Perez Jr.
There are a ton of good things going on with this deck. First off, spot removal is extremely weak against it. Every threat here presents the opportunity to get a 2-for-1.
Hangarback Walker has been a stalwart in Standard since the release of Magic Origins. It pulls double-duty in a deck full of ways to pump up tokens as both an early play and a nearly unbeatable late-game threat. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar ends up being one of the more complicated cards to play correctly in a deck like this because of how powerful the emblem will be late in the game. Hangarback Walker is a big part of the reason why. Late-game evasive threats are already challenging to deal with and increasing their power only amplifies that further. The Esper Tokens deck does a good job of utilizing all of its mana every turn, so there won’t often be a spare available to pump the Hangarback. Trading off and creating a couple tokens early on is not a big concern, so don’t be afraid to trade your Walkers in the early game to help stabilize your board.
Knight of the White Orchid was a mainstay in Extended White Weenie years ago. Triggering landfall, catching up, and stealing the play when on the draw with a 2/2 first strike for 2 mana made Knight the complete package. In a 3-color Standard format without amazing mana-fixing, playing a card for WW that searches up another Plains wasn’t very realistic. Knight of the White Orchid has become a powerhouse in various GW, Bant, and now Esper strategies. There are always more options extra mana between the powerful planeswalkers and the Secure the Wastes, so Knight is a perfect early roadblock that can easily provide a 2-for-1.
One of the biggest draws to playing what is essentially a 2-color deck is getting to play with great lands. Knight of the White Orchid providing excess lands may seem like it will occasionally lead to mana flood, but Shambling Vent has consistently proven just how strong it is. Mana-fixing is fantastic, but manlands take Standard decks to an entirely new level.
The Tokens deck plays 26 lands, which is a fairly high number. With lots of 4- and 5-mana spells in the deck, on top of X spells, Esper Tokens really wants to keep hitting land drops. Being able to use your lands to gain life, block, threaten planeswalkers, or deal the last few points of damage late in the game is game-changin. It also can’t be understated how strong Shambling Vent becomes late in the game after there’s a Gideon emblem or 2—a 3/4 or 4/5 lifelink is gigantic.
Wingmate Roc has been one of the toughest cards to deal with in Standard for over a year, despite mostly falling out of favor toward the end of the last Standard season. Well, Wingmate Roc is back and better than ever. A fantastic option in all of the midrange matchups, like Megamorph and Jeskai Black, it’s hard enough to deal with just a single 3/4 flier. The Roc doesn’t come cheap, but isn’t especially expensive either. A curve-topper that provides yet another 2-for-1 threat is the sweet spot in current Standard.
The removal suite varies from deck to deck, but Silkwrap has now become the removal spell of choice in many of the base-white decks. Being able to take out both Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Hangarback Walker in a 2-mana spell is perfect. The other options for removal feel endless. Stasis Snare, Quarantine Field, Murderous Cut, Ultimate Price, Utter End, Ruinous Path—the list goes on and on.
Personally, I’m not big on Ruinous Path and wouldn’t want to play too many copies of Utter End. The deck already has a glut of 3- and 4-mana spells, so I’d prefer to diversify the portfolio. I’d play a version closer to what Michael Majors played in the same tournament to a Top 24 finish:
Grand Prix Indianapolis 20th Place by Michael Majors
The changes made in this version are virtually all upside. Deathmist Raptors and Quarantine Field are excellent against many Standard decks. Against Dark Jeskai, exiling their threats turns off some of the delve capabilities and explosive starts. Against Megamorph, exiling turns off Deathmist Raptors and Den Protector recursion. Quarantine Field also threatens planeswalkers and can stabilize a late game by itself.
The addition of maindeck Duress is something I really like out of a deck that is capable of casting it on turn 1. I’m not a fan starting Duress in Dark Jeskai as you can’t cast it turn 1 without being able to deploy Mantis Rider on time and turn 2 is already reserved for Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy (and more powerful cards each turn after that). Here, however, I think it does a great job of shoring up the early game, and taking opposing planeswalkers like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar before they come online is often the difference between winning and losing.
Painful Truths is so good. I would like to find room to play more. On a board even resembling stable, drawing 3 cards is extraordinarily powerful. Being able to play an instant-speed removal spell into untapping and drawing 3 is often impossible to come back from. In a deck full of rather efficient 2-for-1s, a cheap 3-for-1 can really push the advantage into the insurmountable range.
I’m not sold on removing the 2nd copy of Sorin, Solemn Visitor simply for what the card does to turn the corner. The one turn of lifelink is often enough to end the game and prevent any race from ever happening. It’s one of the weaker cards in the deck, so I can see why Majors decided to cut it, but it does combine very well with what the rest of the deck is trying to do, so I would try to find a way to include the 2nd Sorin.
Magic Online Championship 2nd Place by _FAB_
The version I would recommend playing is not too different from what we’ve seen, which is a true testament to the efforts of the pilots who have already been running Esper Tokens:
Esper Tokens Test Deck
As far as sideboarding, let’s start with the matchup we expect to face quite often, and that’s Jeskai Black. Your main deck is already really well set up for this matchup, as Gideon is fantastic, Ob Nixilis has a potentially huge loyalty that’s tough to deal with, and you have tons of great removal and threats. Wingmate Roc is especially challenging to deal with, so having answers to Dragonlord Silumgar after sideboard makes this matchup especially tough for Jeskai.
(Interesting side note, the way you sideboard on the play or the draw when playing a deck with 4 Knight of the White Orchid main can be quite different. The utility of a 2/2 first strike on the play with no additional ability isn’t huge, so if you have solid options after board, the Knight numbers can be shaved.)
On the Play
On the Draw
If players board in copies of Painful Truth and Exert Influence to deal with Wingmate Roc, with less early pressure, you can cut down on some of the removal and keep your Painful Truths and planeswalkers to win the late game if things slow down dramatically.
Atarka Red is a tough deck to tap out against, so you must be extra careful even on turn 4 when deploying a planeswalker. That being said, they are too powerful for me to actually bring out. Wingmate Roc, on the other hand, is just too slow and the risk of dying the turn you play it is too high. The CMCs of the entire deck come down dramatically after sideboarding and it becomes extra tough to get combo killed when your deck is full of 2-mana instants that can disrupt their game plan.
On the play
On the draw
I like to switch up which effective 2-drop I have in my deck depending on whether I’m on the play or the draw. Hangarback Walker isn’t impressive against a deck with Anafenza, the Foremost, Abzan Charm, and Wingmate Rocs to stop the Thopters. If Abzan curves out on the play, it can be extremely difficult to compete, so that’s why we bring in all of the Surge of Righteousnesses on the draw. The ability to play a turn-3 Knight of the White Orchid, find a Plains, and play it leaving up Surge of Righteousness to kill their Anafenza is exactly where I want to be.
I can’t give you a complete sideboard guide here since the control decks, and even just the Esper decks, vary dramatically right now. I can’t tell you to leave in your removal against a deck with no creatures. If they have both Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Dragonlords to deal with, you want removal. In general, cards like Silkwrap are not what you want. Stasis Snare is nice because it can deal with Gideon, Shambling Vent, or Dragonlord Ojutai. You’re going to want to bring in all of your Negates and Disdainful Strokes. Transgress the Mind is excellent. Infinite Obliteration ranges from okay to completely unplayable, based on their threats after sideboard.
Ob Nixilis is fine in this matchup, but spending 5 mana to start drawing 1 extra card per turn just rarely cuts it. Wingmate Roc is likewise the perfectly wrong amount of mana. Both of these cards tend to come down the same turn as Ugin, the Spirit Dragon would. That’s a bad place to be and neither of these cards are impactful enough to warrant their inclusion post-board against a deck with 4 Ugins. Silkwrap has very few targets and even though they have Rattleclaw Mystics, the acceleration on turn 3 isn’t usually as big, so Murderous Cut will get the job done just as well, while also potentially dealing with Whisperwood Elementals and Dragonlord Atarkas after sideboard.
Your game plan is to set up a big Secure the Wastes and kill them in one fell swoop. The Eldrazi deck has almost no way to deal with this, even if they’ve landed a giant threat. Transgress is perfect in this matchup—it deals with all of their threats. Don’t be afraid to use Negate early to stop an early ramp spell as it can often buy tons of time. This goes double if you can cast Negate turn 2 to set up a Painful Truths turn 3. Infinite Obliteration is the best sideboard card you can have in this matchup. The Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger deck doesn’t operate nearly as well with zero copies of Ulamog. Dragonlord Silumgar can easily steal a game on its own, especially if opponents aren’t careful about leaving their Ugins in ultimate range.
Esper Tokens is a tier 1 deck that has game against all of the top decks. Any deck that is able to chain Gideon, Ally of Zendikar into Wingmate Roc is going to have serious potential in Standard for the foreseeable future.
We continue to see small innovations in this powerful archetype as time goes on. Where do you expect this deck to end up? What are the cards you are looking to add to your current decks to combat this strategy?