The Resurgence of Esper Dragons

Posted in GRAND PRIX BRUSSELS 2015 on November 15, 2015

By Frank Karsten

With the recent rise of Abzan, which again is the most popular deck in Day 2 of this Grand Prix, a question on many competitive Standard players' minds was how to beat it. Here in Brussels, it seems that an answer was found: Esper Dragons.

The deck put many copies in Day 2, but most notably, six players from Team Cabin Crew—Lukas Blohon, Robin Dolar, Ivan Floch, Martin Jůza, Thomas Hendriks, and (16) Ondřej Stráský—who played the deck to a combined 29-7-1 record on Day 1. That's a 76% win rate!

Left to right: Ivan Floch, Ondřej Stráský, Martin Jůza, Thomas Hendriks, Robin Dolar, and Lukas Blohon

Lukas Blohon had the best result of them all overnight, scoring a pristine 9-0 record with the following version.

Lukas Blohon's Esper Dragons – 9-0 at Grand Prix Brussels 2015

Download Arena Decklist

Esper Dragons did very poorly at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, so what changed?

"The metagame shifted," Pro Tour M15 winner Ivan Floch explained. "There is Abzan again, Jeskai is less popular, and there are fewer answers to Dragonlord Ojutai around. On top of that, Esper Tokens is a good matchup, and R/G Landfall is the best matchup ever."

"I think the deck is broken," No. 16-ranked Ondřej Stráský mentioned. "I just played against Abzan and it was a pretty good matchup." Ivan Floch explained why: "It's hard for Abzan to overrun you early, and your creatures are superior to theirs in the late game. Foul-Tongue Invocation and Silumgar's Scorn reliably answer their main threats, and afterwards you pull ahead with Dragonlord Ojutai."

It's also important to get the mix of cards right. "I have been playing the archetype for over half a year and ran the deck at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar too, but the version I played there was in need of some changes," Gold level pro Robin Dolar said. "I originally had Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in the sideboard because I didn't want to have targets for Wild Slash in my main deck, but now I swapped Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Duress to the main deck. Together, they combat Crackling Doom, which can be a huge difference against Dark Jeskai, and Abzan players often don't have many answers to Jace. Another change is replacing Silumgar, the Drifting Death with Dragonlord Silumgar; that's a big improvement because opponents often don't have removal after Duress and Jace."

How about the more traditional Esper control decks popularized by Reid Duke and Patrick Chapin? "I also considered Reid Duke's version without the Dragons, but compared to that list, the Dragon version does much better against Eldrazi Ramp and aggro decks," Dolar explained. "Reid Duke's deck can't beat a chain of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, but Esper Dragons can," Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir Top 8 competitor Thomas Hendriks was quick to elaborate: "Just play a turn-five Dragonlord Ojutai and counter or discard all their ramp. Sometimes you actually want to play a new Dragonlord Ojutai, replacing a tapped one by an untapped one, so that they can't exile it with Ulamog."

The versions of the six players were not exactly the same. Some had one or two Complete Disregards, some had one or two Ojutai's Commands, and others ran none of those cards but a fourth Jace, Vryn's Prodigy instead. "The take-away from this is that if you break it, it doesn't really matter which individual cards you have in the deck," Grand Prix Top 8 collector Martin Jůza said. "You will still crush everyone if you have the right deck for the metagame."

"Having two Ojutai's Command in my deck was not the best decision I ever made," Robin Dolar said, and the others couldn't help but laugh at that statement as it wasn't the first time they heard Dolar say that today. "I wouldn't play Healing Hands, and definitely not for four mana. Command is just too fancy and expensive; it's better to have two or three mana interactive spells against Abzan."

It's possible that some improvements could still be made to the deck. "The sideboard is a mess," Lukas Blohon admitted. "I have Horribly Awry in my sideboard, for example. I mean, it's fine, but that's how much sideboard space is filled with random cards."

Before I let the group go, I had one final question: Who initially came up with the idea to bring back Esper Dragons? "This version, it was Thomas who played it first," Robin Dolar said. "It was easy for him to convince Ondřej, who talked to Lukas, and then everyone discovered how well-positioned the deck was. Dark Jeskai is probably the worst matchup, but it's still close, and Esper Dragons is good against most of the other top decks in Standard right now."