Esper Dragons is one of my favorite decks ever, and I was sad that it wasn’t competing well when I tested for the PT. I was thrilled to see the deck over-perform at GP Brussels, capping the week off with a win in the hands of Lukas Blohon. You could say that GP Brussels was a fluke—just one tournament and everyone who played the deck was good and would likely do well with anything—but I don’t think that’s the case. I think Esper Dragons is a legitimate deck now, and I want to explain why, as well as what list you should play.
To understand why Esper Dragons is good now, we have to analyze why it stopped being good in the first place and whether whatever caused that is still an issue. I see two main reasons why the deck fell out of favor:
Better mana bases in Standard mean players can splash black in more decks (in fact they’re often encouraged to do so to make fetchlands work), and with this comes the best removal spell in Standard against Dragonlord Ojutai. This is not to say you can’t beat Crackling Doom—you certainly can, it’s just a 1-for-1 after all—but it’s a hoop you don’t have to jump through if you don’t play Dragons. It doesn’t make your matchup necessarily bad, but it turns one of your best matchups, originally one of the best reasons to play Esper Dragons, into slightly even, and that’s a big downside.
This is a very fast and powerful deck that presents too many threats for Esper Dragons to handle. There’s no Bile Blight, so you’re very weak to cards like Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst, and there’s no Hero’s Downfall, so haste creatures are a big problem. On top of that, the Become Immense/Titan’s Strength/Temur Battle Rage package lets opponents swing past Ojutai, which didn’t happen before. I thought this was going to be the most popular deck at the PT, and that was the sole reason I didn’t play Esper Dragons.
The first problem is not fixed—but it turns out to not be such a big problem. Most Jeskai decks will play black, so they will have the best card against you, and there are still a decent number of straight Jeskai decks out there (though none made Top 8 at the GP), but, again, it doesn’t make the matchup bad. You will not play Esper if you expect a lot of Jeskai, like you previously would, but you can still play Esper despite expecting a lot of Jeskai if you think it’s good against other decks.
The second problem is diminished because Mono-Red is less popular now. While Mono-Red is very powerful and should not be discounted in any Standard tournament, ultimately it doesn’t matter what I think, it only matters what the other players in the tournament think. It seems they don’t like Mono-Red as much as I do (though perhaps the fact that Esper Dragons is good will change that).
That by itself would likely not be enough to make Esper Dragons come back, but it’s also gained in a few areas. Namely:
Foul-Tongue Invocation Is Better
Foul-Tongue was never a card that I loved, but it was always a very solid role-player. The PT metagame, however, looked like it was going to be dominated by Hangarback Walker, which is especially good against Foul-Tongue. On top of that, red decks moved from being burn-centric to having a 20-damage combo kill, which meant the 4 life gained has little relevance against them. Hangarback Walker is not as popular as it used to be, so Foul-Tongue is better.
Eldrazi Ramp Is a Deck
The non-Dragon Esper builds (Reid style) are usually very slow. Now you have a deck that can beat you in the late game, and being able to play Ojutai on turn 5 and attack them to death is invaluable.
Hard Counters Are Better
In the PT metagame, it didn’t make a difference if you had a Counterspell or a Clash of Wills, but now it does. Decks like Eldrazi Ramp or Rally the Ancestors are based on resolving one big spell, and the ability to counter that spell no-questions-asked for only 2 mana is huge. Clash of Wills will do a good job countering the first Rally, but it won’t be good when they have 2 or when you want to play a threat.
Dragonlord Silumgar Is Better
There are fewer Valorous Stances going around, and more cards like Ultimate Price and even Crackling Doom. On top of that, having Dragonlord Silumgar in your deck makes life awkward for anyone who has Gideon or Ugin—those planeswalkers are vulnerable to being stolen and ultimated immediately. Before, I felt like I had to play Silumgar because I wanted 5 or 6 Dragons. Now, I feel like I would want to play it even if I didn’t have any Dragon synergies, and that is huge for this deck.
I believe that those factors combined are definitely enough to bring the deck back to tier 1.
Once we’ve established that we want to play Esper, we have to determine which cards to include. This is the list Lukas won the tournament with:
GP Brussels 1st Place by Lukas Blohon
I think this list is good, but there are a lot of small problems I have with it. Luckily, Strasky’s list fixes basically all of them:
GP Brussels 5/8th Place by Ondrej Stratsky
Though the lists are similar, I feel like every time they diverge, I like what Strasky did more, and my ideal list is almost identical to his. If I had to play a Standard tournament tomorrow, this is the deck I’d play:
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
Duress is the key to tying this deck together. It’s good in all control mirrors, it’s good against Jeskai, it’s good against Eldrazi decks, and it’s even good against Mono-Red. Playing Duress solves many of the issues I had with the deck, to the point where I feel like an idiot for not figuring out that the deck wanted maindeck Duress sooner. Duress lets your Jaces be proactive in matchups where you don’t want to flashback removal. It allows your Ojutai to attack safely, and it clears the way for Dragonlord Silumgar. Lukas played 2 of these, and 2 Scatter, Ondrej played a 3/1 split, and I definitely agree with the 3/1 split of spells.
Foul-Tongue Invocation is better than it was before, but I still feel like 4 is too many and would prefer playing 3 and 1 Murderous Cut, which is a bit more versatile. This is the only thing I think Lukas did better.
Ultimate Price is a very swingy card—it’s either great or it’s useless. You want to play more than 1, since it’s really irreplaceable, but you don’t want too many dead cards in the matchups where you don’t have targets. I think the fact that blue decks will have Jace as a target and you will also have Jace to discard it is enough to make me play 3.
Utter End is not a good card—it’s a necessary evil to combat Hangarback Walkers and planeswalkers. I feel like Hangarback is less prevalent now, and for planeswalkers you have the extra Duresses and two Silumgars, so you don’t need it as much. If the format goes back to one where Hangarback is everywhere, then I think 2 Utter End (or 1 and a Complete Disregard) is good. While Stratsky didnt play it, I prefer playing 1 Ojutai’s Command, which is a good bullet to have, even though Lukas said he’d cut it from his deck. It’s not nearly as good in this deck as it is in Jeskai, which is why there is only one, but I think it’s still going to be good a lot of the time.
Shambling Vent is not great, but it fills an important role: it combats Mastery of the Unseen. This is less important for Esper Dragons than for the version without Dragons, since you can just race Mastery a lot of the time, but the cost is so low and it does have a lot of random applications, so I think playing 2 is justified. Besides, you do have a Scatter to the Winds, and it’s a decent combo if it ever happens (awakening the Shambling Vent.)
Everything else in the main deck seems pretty standard to me, so I don’t think I have to go over those choices, but if you have questions about any of the card choices, let me know.
Ondrej’s sideboard is perfect and I would not change a card. Ultimate Price is just better than Surge, and I would rather have the 4th one over the first white card. Horribly Awry is also weird to me, and I’m not quite sure what it’s doing there.
If you want to experiment with other options, I think the two viable choices are Ugin, Spirit Dragon and Languish. Ugin is a powerhouse, especially against Jeskai (not getting Commanded and dodging Dispel is nice), but you do have 2 Silumgars already and a number of Dragonlord’s Prerogatives—which are great now, by the way—since they’re a trump you can have and other control decks can’t, especially in a Dispel world. So, there’s a limit to how many expensive cards you can run. If I played Ugin, then I’d try to have the 4th Duress over the 1st Negate, as they go much better together. Languish is clearly a metagame call against tokens, Wingmates, Deathmist Raptors, Anafenzas, and so on, and it’s also good against Mono-Red, so I’d try to have it if I thought the format was going in that particular direction (though right now it’s not, so I wouldn’t play Languish).