Again, we’re looking ahead to the release of Battle for Zendikar, and the graceful exit from Standard of Theros Block and M15. My goal during this time period is twofold: first, to cover the obvious decks which will definitely be played in the first few weeks after rotation, and second to offer a balanced gauntlet to test any new ideas against.
Last week I covered Atarka Red, which represents the aggressive extreme of the format. Today I’ll move to the controlling extreme of the format: Esper Dragons.
Like Atarka Red, Esper Dragons loses very little, since the “theme” of the deck comes entirely from Khans of Tarkir block, which is sticking around. Moreover, since it’s a “shard” (and not a “clan”), it stands to benefit a tremendous amount from the new lands from Battle for Zendikar.
In fact, although I’ll be sticking to a fairly traditional Esper Dragons shell, the tools are now there to build a deck equally split between the three colors, should a white card such as Gideon, Ally of Zendikar take someone’s fancy.
If Esper suffers one big loss in the rotation, it’s Hero’s Downfall. A mix of Utter End and Ruinous Path (plus supplemental removal and permission) make a fine substitute, but nothing can quite match Hero’s Downfall in its efficiency and flexibility as a 3-mana instant.
Esper Dragons is a Dig Through Time control deck, but it’s a mistake to view it as a one-dimensional strategy. Esper Dragons can attack, and can close a game quickly. What’s allowed Esper Dragons to enjoy more success than its cousins, UB and UW Control, is its ability to utterly punish an opponent who stumbles, or one who underestimates its capacity to put on a clock.
What to Do
- Be fast. Esper’s defenses are rock-solid in the mid- and late game, but there are some holes in the first three turns of the game. You want to come out fast, because it’s much easier to win by pushing your early advantage than it is to build a board from scratch later on.
- Have reach or staying power. This doesn’t necessarily mean trying to beat them at their own card-drawing game. However, look for a way that your own strategy won’t peter out once you spend the cards from your opening hand. A Deathmist Raptor package is perfect. Other good examples are burn, manlands, and noncreature threats.
- Emphasize noncreature threats. A deck of all creatures simply won’t beat Languish and Crux of Fate. However, off-balancing the control player with early creatures, and then slamming a game-winning planeswalker or enchantment can most certainly work. Thankfully, Standard offers a lot of great options right now.
- Go over the top. Esper Dragons can counter your spells and destroy your creatures, but it cannot attack your life total until later in the game. If your game plan involves ramping to giant things like Gaea’s Revenge or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger (which are both good against counterspells), you’ll have plenty of time to do so.
What Not to Do
- Don’t fold to Dragonlord Ojutai, as most Esper players will play the full 4, and you’ll be facing them down often. You can include ways to kill hexproof creatures like Languish, Crux of Fate, or Crackling Doom. Even better, set your deck up in a way that you can close the game, or force your opponent into unfavorable blocks around turn 5.
- Don’t include too much removal in your deck. Inevitably, midrange and control decks are going to have a lot of weak removal spells in their game-1 configuration. Just be sure you have enough sideboard cards that you can take the bulk of them out of your deck. Multi-purpose cards like Abzan Charm will make your life a lot easier.
Esper Dragons, along with Abzan, was the hallmark deck that came out of Khans of Tarkir block. Since Khans block will now be making up the bulk of Standard, Esper Dragons is a natural starting place. Diversify your threats, gear your answer cards towards beating Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Dragonlord Ojutai, and most importantly, test the matchup.