Esper Dragons and Rally Aristocrats dominated the Top 8 of GP Brussels. Everyone was content to go back to the straightforward power of Abzan, and a few smart players were happy to take advantage of that. Turns out there are still plenty of ways to attack back with familiar strategies.
By Lukas Blohon, 1st place at GP Brussels
Dragonlord Ojutai has been maligned as a bad threat since the start of the format due to the number of Crackling Doom flying around. Even as other decks dropped Crackling Doom, Dark Jeskai became the #1 deck in the format. Atarka and Landfall were also bigger concerns at that time, which Dragonlord Ojutai wasn’t particularly good against. Now that Abzan has come back into the limelight though, Ojutai’s main prey has returned and without Elspeth, Abzan decks have even fewer ways to deal with it.
Also helping Esper Dragons out is Silumgar’s Scorn against 4-drops—turns out that card is pretty good. It helps even more when these are sorcery-speed threats and you generally don’t have to worry about the opponent going bigger than you. Nothing Abzan has trumps an Ojutai in a straight fight so you know how vulnerable you’ll be at a given moment. Between just these two cards Esper Dragons would already have a respectable matchup against Abzan, but in general Esper Control lines up well to begin with.
If the red decks keep lying low and Abzan continues to push Dark Jeskai out of the metagame, Esper Dragons is likely the best deck in the format. It even matches up better against the non-Dragon builds thanks to the Scorns and availability of Dragonlord’s Prerogative. Without the control mirror cards front and center in the Ugin builds, it’s no longer a matchup based around decking game one.
By Simon Nielsen, 2nd place at GP Brussels
Rally decks have certainly picked up after being an afterthought at the beginning of the format. Catacomb Sifter in particular was one of the unsung heroes of Battle for Zendikar, a card that does just enough. It allows for less emphasis on risky situational cards like Liliana or Merciless Executioner and plays very well with Grim Haruspex. The lack of any real removal spell in the main deck is a clear weakness, but one that takes into account the small number of must-deal-with creatures in the format.
Yes, Anafenza is good against this deck. You won’t draw it every game and sometimes it’ll simply die to a Murderous Cut before doing anything. Outside of Anafenza herself, Abzan matches up poorly against the two angles from which Rally attempts to win the game. With red on the outs and even Dark Jeskai aiming to get even with Abzan instead of swarm decks, right now is the time for this type of strategy to succeed. You can play unfairly against midrange decks trying to earn a living with a hard Rhino’s work, and against Ugin and pals you can just flood the board and force them to wipe you multiple times.
What interests me most about Rally is how it came out of fringe status to a full-on must-beat deck for the GP. It could just be a flash in the pan, but with multiple good finishes and the sheer power of the deck I think it could finally lock in top dog status. We could be returning to a metagame fluctuating between Abzan, Red, Esper, Rally, and Dark Jeskai.
Despite the disdain for Abzan, it still put a whole lot of people into Day 2 and remains one of the best choices. The raw power is so high that it can win games in a similar way to Dark Jeskai—just play all good cards until the opponent gives it up. Heir of the Wilds is an interesting curve consideration, a creature that swings into Rhino and Tasigur without concern and plays nicely with Dromoka’s Command as well. One of the main selling points for Abzan is that you curve fairly well without needing the perfect set of mana. Focusing on early green has done wonders for consistent curve-out draws and still allows for Anafenza on turn 3 a fair bit of the time.
While I still think GW Megamorph is a reasonable choice, why play it over Abzan Aggro?
If Abzan continues to show up in large numbers, then GP Brussels was a great demonstration of what to play moving forward. While I still really like non-Dragons Esper, clearly Esper Dragons is better positioned in a world of low red and tons of Siege Rhinos. GR Landfall is extremely underplayed for how powerful the deck is. Esper and Aristocrats both have a wide range of keepable hands that just get rolled by any reasonable Landfall start. Abzan is always a crapshoot based on removal spells, but as we’ve seen, blockers are just miserable against Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage.
By pokerswizard, 8-0 at Standard Champs
This build went 8-0 in the Standard Championships this past weekend and serves as a good example of what I’m talking about. The reason I like it over Atarka Red is just how absurd Den Protector is in the deck. It’s a solid 2-drop that also has amazing late-game value since buying back Become Immense can just win the game on the spot. I was surprised by just how often I was using Yasova Dragonclaw, and I’d consider maindecking her in some metagames. If you get a successful activation, the game usually just ends right there.
When everyone else is going wide and playing low interaction decks, then this deck can succeed. While Esper Dragons can set itself up to play a strong control game post-board, Den Protector, Abbot, and Outpost Siege give you a lot of staying power. If you’re worried about getting ground out, Flamewake Phoenix can also be used to pressure your opponent without committing too much to the board.
What I suspect will happen is that many Abzan players will keep trucking along and simply load up on Duress and Transgress the Mind to play around counters and sweepers. Maxing out on Den Protector and throwing in Mastery of the Unseen like the good old days isn’t too far out there. They already run the cards needed to keep these resurgent troublesome matchups within reason, it’s just a matter of implementing them in a well constructed post-board plan.