Seven Ways to Beat Esper Dragons

Posted in GRAND PRIX SÃO PAULO 2015 on May 2, 2015

By Frank Karsten

Esper Dragons is the deck to beat in Standard right now. It has efficient answers in Silumgar's Scorn and Hero's Downfall, an excellent late game with Dig Through Time and Dragonlord Ojutai, and it showed its power by dominating the Top 8 at Grand Prix Kraków two weekends ago. For reference, here is Alexander Hayne's winning list from that event:

Alexander Hayne's Esper Dragons --- Grand Prix Krakow

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Even though the deck is public enemy number one, it is not unbeatable. As Grand Prix Santiago 2013 Top 8 competitor Jonathan Melamed told me before the tournament: "It's the best deck of the format, but it's not necessarily the best option for this weekend. You need to be prepared, but you don't need to be afraid."

I spoke with him and several players in attendance today to get a handle on the best way to dismantle Esper Dragons. So far, I've been able to compile seven different approaches, and I'm sure this list is not exhaustive. Let's count them down.

7. No dead cards

Any deck filled with Bile Blight, Ultimate Price, Roast, Wild Slash, and/or Dromoka's Command will have a hard time against Esper Dragons. Most of their threats are big flyers with hexproof, and you can't afford to have dead cards against them. To give an indication: No. 22 Willy Edel mentioned that he didn't want to have more than 3-4 "dead" cards in his main deck.

As a result, many players have been cutting these restrictive removal spells from their main decks in favor of more pro-active threats. It's still a tough balancing act because you may need some of them to beat Red Aggro, but if you want to beat control, you better be threat dense!

6. Instant-speed threats

If you play a few creatures early on followed by a planeswalker on turn four or five, then the opponent can just Dissolve your planeswalker, untap, and cast Crux of Fate to clean up and gain control of the game.

A better way to get around those cards is to play threats at instant speed. With cards like Collected Company, Silumgar Sorcerer, or Boon Satyr, you don't give the opponent to use the mana that they kept open for Dissolve during your turn, and they allow you to untap with a threat in play right after a Crux of Fate. In the words of Willy Edel: "Green/White Company looks like an underpowered Abzan Aggro, but instant speed threats are so good."

5. Go over them

There are few decks that can beat Esper Dragons in the late game, but one deck that might be able to do it is the 5-color Blue Dragon deck that Mike Flores piloted to a Top 4 finish at a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier last weekend.

It is somewhat similar to Esper Dragons, but it features Crucible of the Spirit Dragon for a mana advantage in the grindy control mirrors and more counterspells to ensure key spells don't resolve, so it may have an edge that way.

4. Answer their Dragons

Although Dragonlord Ojutai and Silumgar, the Drifting Death have hexproof, there are still ways to answer them. Thoughtseize or Disdainful Stroke is one way to do it, as hexproof doesn't save their dragons when they are in their hands or on the stack. "You need to stop Dragonlord Ojutai," Willy Edel explained. "Discard spells and countermagic is the best disruption because it also stops Dig Through Time."

Edict effects are another way to beat the Dragonlords. Foul-Tongue Invocation is essential in any black Dragon deck nowadays; Merciless Executioner works particularly well in decks with Whip of Erebos and Collected Company; and Crackling Doom is a big reason to play Mardu now.

Nevertheless, not everyone agrees that answering Dragons is the best way to go. "What you should not do is try to kill the Dragons," Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa said. "I've had several opponents bring in more removal against me, but I don't need the Dragons to win." He may have been referring to awkward removal spells like Hero's Downfall, and it's still better to have Edict effects than those, but his comment certainly suggests that removal spells are not the best line of attack.

3. Go under them

The Esper Dragons deck often has a hard time dealing with early beatdown. They are a Dig Through Time deck after all, so if they don't have the right answer immediately, then you can beat them with fast pressure before they can set up their drawing engine. "Be aggressive. Be faster," Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa said. "Mono-Red with dash cards is probably the best deck against Esper."

Even though fast aggro decks can have an edge against Esper Dragons, it's important for them to have a plan for the post-board games when Esper Dragons gains access to additional cheap removal and Drown in Sorrow. As Willy Edel told me, "if they really want to beat you and dedicate the sideboard slots, then Esper Dragons can beat Mono-Red."

2. If you can't beat them, join 'em, but be ready for the mirror

You can always convert to the Esper Dragon army yourself, but if you do so, you should be ready for the mirror match.

Several pieces of sweet sideboard tech have been suggested recently. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver; Risen Executioner; Pearl Lake Ancient; or Grindclock can all give you an edge as they provide a new angle. None of these alternative win conditions are susceptible to Foul-Tongue Invocation (the key removal spell in the mirror match) and that is why many players like them.

Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, who had plenty of the experience with the Esper Dragon mirror match as he recently made Top 8 at Grand Prix Kraków, liked some of these cards, but not all. "Ashiok is fine, but I don't like Risen Executioner because it needs to win the game by itself. Sometimes it deals 16 damage and then you still lose because Risen Executioner it didn't do enough. Grindclock is similar; it's good on turn two, but if it doesn't win you right away then it did nothing, and it's a bad topdeck."

PV main suggestion for the mirror match was to go for value. The game can quickly snowball out of control when one player starts chaining Dig Through Times, so having additional ways of generating card advantage or stopping them from getting 2-for-1s can help. Therefore, Stratus Dancer, Dragonlord's Prerogative, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang are good options.

1. Hard-to-answer threats

The answer I head the most by far from anyone I asked about the best way to beat Esper Dragons is to go for hard-to-answer threats, with the Den Protector/ Deathmist Raptor engine being the angle of choice for many players in attendance today. "It's a permanent source of card advantage and board presence, and it can grind them out", No. 24 Martin Jůza explained for instance.

This graveyard engine takes advantage of the fact that most Esper Dragon players have no Perilous Vault in their decks. For the same reason, threats like Mastery of the Unseen and Hammer of Purphoros are well-positioned, too. The spot removal spells of Esper Dragons, such as Hero's Downfall and Foul-Tongue Invocation, provide no permanent way of dealing with these cards, and even if your opponent is connecting with Dragonlord Ojutai, they may still succumb to these threats because their deck lacks the right answers. Sure, Perilous Vault is showing up in more and more sideboards of Esper Dragons, but right now this is still an exploitable weakness.

To a lesser extent, Outpost Siege, Ashcloud Phoenix, and Whip of Erebos can help, but they're easier to counter and easier to race with Dragonlord Ojutai than the previously-mentioned cards. Many Esper Dragons decks also have 1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon to deal with these cards if the game goes long, and that becomes more of a factor when you play threats of higher casting costs. "What you should not do is bring in expensive planeswalkers," Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa warned.

Finally, you can make little tweaks by favoring cards like Hordeling Outburst or Satyr Wayfinder (which are quite good against their Foul-Tongue Invocations) or Anafenza, the Foremost (which can not be not hit by Ultimate Price of Bile Blight). That's the kind of thinking you need to beat them.

All in all, there are plenty of ways to go about it, and Esper Dragons can be defeated if you set your mind to it.