Fighting Esper

Posted in Top Decks on April 24, 2015

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

Last week I wrote about various flavors of Blue-Black, and called out Esper Dragons as the deck I liked moving forward. It turns out that I'm not alone in that assessment, and it's unquestionably the deck to beat right now. This week, I'm going to take a look at some ways to try and do that, as well as some ways people are trying that I don't think are effective. Even if Esper Dragons is the best deck, that doesn't make it completely unbeatable, and looking at ways to do so is worthwhile.

First, here's the Esper list I'm currently playing, just so you know what the enemy looks like:

Esper Dragons

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This is very close to the standard list, though I've gotten rid of Silumgar, the Drifting Death and moved Ugin to the sideboard in favor of an Ashiok and two Dragonlord Silumgars. I like the power level upgrade on the Silumgar swap, and Ugin has felt like more of a sideboard card to me, what with costing eight mana and all that. Still, this isn't an article about Esper (though the deck is great and you should consider playing it!), so let's take a look at how to defeat this winged menace.

Ways to Defeat Esper

1) Go under it

Esper is not the fastest deck, and fast decks can punish it for playing 12 "enters the battlefield tapped" lands and being mainly restricted to one spell per turn. If you can force the game to come to a conclusion before five- or six-mana spells get cast, you negate a lot of Esper's power, and reduce the number of relevant cards in the deck dramatically.

Mono-Red Aggro

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Playing something like this is the best way to accomplish that, and Red Aggro is widely heralded as Esper's worst matchup. I used this list to illustrate this point, though Atarka Red—like the deck that won the Pro Tour—is in the same vein when it comes to strategy and effectiveness.

You can even bias your deck toward Esper by playing fewer cards like Wild Slash and more like Eidolon of the Great Revel or Dash creatures, though you don't want to go too overboard (and this holds for any deck you are thinking about playing). Esper may be the best deck, but it's definitely not the only deck, and assuming you will face 60% Esper decks is not a good place to start from. We aren't at that point yet, and I don't think we'll get there.

2) Play (cheap) resilient threats and disruption

This is one people frequently get wrong, mainly by not paying attention to the "cheap" part. It almost doesn't matter what a five-mana card does, I can be pretty confident in stating that it is not good against Esper. When playing against a deck with six counterspells that cost two or three mana, at least two Thoughtseizes, and a bunch of two- and three-mana removal, casting five-drops is an ineffective plan. The deck I think exemplifies this perfectly is Abzan Aggro, as it combines cards like Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer with Thoughtseize. These two-drops resist removal well, and pressure backed up by hand disruption is a good way to fight a slow control deck that relies on a couple of key cards to lock up the game.

Abzan Aggro

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This deck also does a particularly good job of not caring about Crux of Fate nor attacking into Ojutai, both of which are important when you are looking at trying to defeat our new dragonlords. Surrak is also good, giving the deck more reach than previous iterations, and you should look to keep Surrak in-hand if you think the opponent is going to tap out at some point. Getting a solid 5-point hit in before dying to removal is excellent value, and it isn't hard to assemble a formidable force.

Another entry in the "resilient threat" category is this particular combo:

Current Esper builds have very few ways to deal with a Deathmist Raptor permanently, and recurring Raptors is a legitimate way to fight Esper as a result (as a side note, this is part of the reason I like 1 Perilous Vault in the sideboard of Esper). Esper can't really ignore 3/3 Deathtouch attackers, and Raptor attacks into Dragons without fear. Once a Raptor or two has died, morphing and flipping a Den Protector leads to untold amounts of value, and I've even seen two Den Protectors loop to continue getting back Raptors.

The deck that makes use of this engine best right now is the Ojutai Bant deck that Craig Wescoe used to make the Top 16 at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, and Sam Pardee used to make the Top 8 of Grand Prix Krakow:

Ojutai Bant

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This deck even makes use of Disdainful Stroke and Stratus Dancer to add the disruptive elements that are good against Esper, and I know that this is one of the more solid decks you could be playing right now.

3) Join it

I have enjoyed the Esper mirror match, and one way to be good against Esper is to become proficient in the mirror and just play the deck. It's the best deck for a reason, and I would never recommend against playing it. Here are some tips for the mirror match:

Card draw is the key to the matchup. The first person to resolve a Dig ends up pretty far ahead, as Dig finds more counters to stop their Digs and finds more Digs. There are more removal spells than threats, but there are enough threats to close out the game. And I've rarely seen games come down to decking. Instead, one player draws more cards, which snowballs, and that player ends up with seven cards against the opponent's zero.

These are precious resources, to be hoarded carefully. I hate using any of my disruptive elements on anything except Dig Through Time or opposing disruption spells, and will generally not fight over Dragons, Ugins, or removal targeting my Dragons. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, as sometimes you do have to pick a fight over a Dragon. But in general I prefer to let them have the Dragons and battle over Digs. Both players have enough removal that killing Dragons is trivial (and I'm even playing three Foul-Tongues to facilitate that), and by picking your battles wisely you will end up with a big edge.

Don't miss land drops. You actually have a lot of control over that in this deck, and I tend to scry lands to the top and Anticipate into lands a high percentage of the time. When you know you are playing the mirror, priority number one is to not miss a land drop until turn 10, and even then you'd prefer to keep laying them. Playing multiple spells in the same turn is crucial, and discarding is disastrous. Discarding a Bile Blight or Ultimate Price doesn't matter much, but discarding a Hero's Downfall just means you are down a card when, later, you are trying to kill an Ojutai or Ugin.

These are the basics for playing the mirror, though there is no substitute for practice. Figuring out when to pull the trigger on casting Dig or when to fight over a Dragon is not easy, and playing the matchup will help immensely. Post-board games are also somewhat different, as both decks are more threat-dense and both decks have un-counterable draw in Dragonlord's Prerogative (which I have main for this exact matchup). It's still about the card draw, but with less removal, I'd be more tempted to try and force through an Ojutai and bash the opponent.

Ways to Not Defeat Esper

1) Try to go over it

The number of times I've faced Abzan Control or Mardu Control decks that try and go over the top of Esper with Thoughtseizes and cards like Elspeth or Outpost Siege is way too high, as that strategy is very ineffective. Esper has four copies of Dig Through Time. Have you read Dig Through Time??? I don't care if your deck has a total of seven Thoughtseizes and Duresses, at some point I will draw a Dig Through Time, and the game will be effectively over. These decks just don't kill fast enough to make use of the temporary disruption, which is why I like Fleecemane Lion + Thoughtseize a whole lot more than Elspeth + Thoughtseize. Even Siege Rhino + Thoughtseize is not good enough most of the time, and I've found the slower Abzan decks to be quite easy of a matchup. I've even played against Abzan Aggro that sides in Elspeth, which is pure insanity. Don't make your deck worse after sideboarding, and don't think Elspeth is a good plan to beat Esper.

These two traditional anti-control cards are also less effective than they used to be. Against Blue-Black Perilous Vault control, the deck with zero Dragons and one or two Pearl Lake Ancients, these were often good enough, but against a deck with three Ojutai and two Silumgar, they are so much worse. I've played against many people who side in Nissa and find her to be almost uncastable. Ojutai smashes her in one hit, and Dragonlord Silumgar is even worse; he takes her and animates a land to defend Esper!

This is a slow control deck, but it's one full of Dragons, and people need to rethink their approach to beating it. Cards that were good are no longer as good, and new solutions are required.

2) Try and side in ways to kill Dragons

Just because the deck is called Esper Dragons doesn't mean it's vulnerable to a bunch of removal spells. Siding in Windstorms and Crux of Fate to kill Dragons is not the way to beat the deck, as the Dragons often don't come down until the game is near decided. I'm not saying that cards like Crackling Doom (in an aggro deck) are unplayable, as those have gained value. But an Abzan Control deck siding in Foul-Tongue Invocations sounds like a dream matchup, and I've played against exactly that online. Dragons aren't the weak point in the deck; the speed of the deck is, and siding in removal doesn't take advantage of that. I don't mind siding in Valorous Stance in a creature-heavy deck, as that at least saves a high-value creature from a removal spell, but siding in removal that only kills things is not the way to go.

Whichever method you use (or don't use), hopefully you can find a Standard deck you love to play. I happen to really enjoy playing Esper, but it's far from the only choice, and hopefully these tools let you fight it if you want to play something else.


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