Standard on the Move

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Time goes so incredibly fast sometimes, and what a difference a few weeks can make when it comes to Magic: The Gathering. Right after the Pro Tour in Brussels, I went to the Grand Prix in Krakow, Poland, which at the time of writing, was only three weeks ago. When it comes to where the Standard format is, it feels like three months ago.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was a week behind at that time already. I split off from the team I worked with for the Pro Tour to hang out with family and friends in the Netherlands, so I didn’t really do any testing for the GP. I talked to the guys I was going with from the local store, but I was mostly helping them settle on decks rather than thinking about my own plan. Keeping it short, I was going to play Heroic again. I did well at the PT; why wouldn’t it do well against a bunch of random GP players?

Well, as it turns out… they played different decks at the GP than at the PT. They weren’t even all ahead of me, but as it turns out, if you are far enough behind, you might be ahead of someone again.

I was well aware of the Esper Dragons deck that Channel Fireball had done well with, and I had even heard about the Risen Executioner tech from the Wizard’s Tower team guys, who apparently crushed an unsuspecting Jon Stern in a Last Chance Trial mirror. I had accepted that I would probably lose to Esper Dragons. This wasn’t much news, as I had expected I would probably lose to UB at the Pro Tour too. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that almost every pro I talked to was on the Esper Dragons deck. This meant that if I made it up high enough, I was bound to face it, which wasn’t great planning on my part.

I started with two byes then won three rounds, even beating a UB control player at 4-0. To be fair, game two my opponent played a turn-two Duress and passed without playing a land, which basically cost him the game right there, so I’ll admit I got a little lucky. Then, I played against Abzan Control. Abzan was one of my closer matchups, and he drew and played well, while my draws were lacking. I lost and dropped to 5-1.

The next round, I got paired against someone playing RW Aggro. Yes, you know, that deck that was good a month or two ago. I loved that deck, then. Now-not so much. Guess what it’s really good against though?

Exactly: Heroic.

My opponent played the first game fairly poorly. I almost eked out a win, but a clump of lands at an inopportune time did me in. The second game, I started with a Lagonna-Band Elder, and my opponent played a Temple of Triumph and passed. I looked at my options. I could play a land and play an Ordeal, but that was weak to Chained to the Rocks. I could play a tapped land and keep up God’s Willing, which would make sure I kept a creature around, but wouldn’t really do much else. I could also play a land and a Seeker of the Way, which seem great, because the only way he could kill both of my creatures is if he had exactly Mountain, Chain, and Wild Slash in his hand (and he had mulled to 6).

Turns out, not only did he have exactly that, he also had two more Chained to the Rocks, so despite my drawing more creatures to make up for losing the only two in my hand, I was not winning that game ever. I went to 5-2.

I then had to play Pascal Maynard, whom I knew was on Esper Dragons. While the games were close, I lost after I punted hard in game three, completely forgetting about the Ajani’s Presence in my hand when Pascal played a Crux of Fate. (He later tried to return the favor by trying to Ultimate Price my creature after letting an Ajani’s Presence on it resolve, but his noble gesture ended up not mattering.)

Being 5-3 meant I was out, and since I had been the only one still live, we spent the rest of the weekend eating an insane amount of pierogies and trying not to get ripped off by the dealers (who were seriously lowballing whatever you were selling, and lying straight to your face at that; it was almost amusing). I’m used to the U.S. dealers, who obviously have to make money too, but here, I felt like they took my cards and wanted the sleeves on top of that.

The next week, I had an RPTQ to play in Jacksonville, which was projected to have approximately 60-65 players, and indeed about that amount showed up. For this tournament, I had tested, and I had decided to play Esper Dragons. This time, some people tried to warn me that I was one week behind again, as everybody would be gunning for Esper Dragons after it just won the GP in the hands of Alexander Hayne.

However, people seemed to be underestimating two things:

1) how good Esper Dragons is,
2) how hard it is to “hate” on the deck.

It’s not a matter of just slamming some Merciless Executioners or Foul Tongue Invocations in your Abzan deck and calling it a day. Nor do Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor “just beat Esper.” You might catch a player off guard with an edict effect, but the good players are just as aware of this “tech” as you are. Den Protector and Deathmist Raptors are tough to deal with, but Esper is very good at not having to deal with everything. In that, it’s kind of like the Faeries deck of old. Something slips through the cracks? That’s okay; I’ll just attack you. People don’t expect control decks to be attacking very much, but just like Faeries, Esper can turn the corner very quickly, and once an Ojutai starts attacking, the game is near over almost regardless of what kind of board you have.

People (especially Red players) also seem to think Red “just beats Esper.” (I use quotes there, because boy do I hear that sentence often… I wonder if it is because people are so confident in their statement or because they really don’t have any arguments.) While I think Red is definitely favored game one, the amount Esper improves after sideboard is pretty big, while Red improves their deck only slightly. Both decks also have draws that just beat the other deck, which overall makes this matchup much closer than people think it is.

Of course, after saying all that, I have to admit that the only match I lost at the RPTQ was to Red (I did also beat it once, though), and sadly enough, this was in the top eight. I went 5-0-1 in the Swiss, with the draw being intentional in round five. I played for standings in round six and won, putting me on the play in the top eight, which makes game one against Red a lot more palatable too. Sadly enough, my draws in the one match I really had to win were pretty far below par, and I lost two (still) fairly close games, killing the dream of requalifying for the Pro Tour.

The RPTQ was only two weeks ago, and by now, half the format seems to have been turned upside down. While in Sao Paulo Esper Dragons still reigned supreme, in Toronto it was Abzan variations that seemed to dominate the top tables, with Abzan Control taking it down in the end when it looked like Mardu Dragons might take it home. The week after, in GP Paris, a Four-Color Collected Company deck was the talk of the town, while Abzan Aggro and GW Collected Company (another Craig Wescoe deck; sounds like this guy knows what he is doing) duked it out in the finals.

From Red to Esper to Abzan to Green Aggro decks in a matter of weeks… It’s just hard to keep up. So what’s next?

While it seems a lot of people have moved on from Esper Dragons, I am not convinced that’s a good idea, or at least, I haven’t seen anything that’s better yet. Yes, the format has gotten more hostile towards the deck, but that only took Esper Dragons down to be “one of the good decks” instead of “the best deck.” So, if, like me, you’ve been playing Esper Dragons for a while, I don’t think there is a need to switch to something else just yet. None of the other decks are clearly better than what you are playing now.

Abzan Aggro has been called the new best deck, and that deck has always been good. However, I haven’t seen it be dominating. I’d be hesitant to play it in metagames where people are channeling their inner Siow and jamming the Abzan Control deck. Atarka Red also looks like a less-than-solid option if more people are moving towards green decks, whether those are Abzan Aggro or Control with Coursers, or GW Devotion with the Seeker of the Way plus Dromoka’s Command combo (which is very good against Red, from my Bant Heroic experience).

What I’m waiting for now is for the format to settle a bit. It looks wide open, and it’ll probably take a week or two before we see which decks are the best. Then, we can focus on having a deck that’s well positioned against those. Until that moment, I’d suggest just jamming Ojutai down people’s throats. Just make sure you have enough of them (i.e. four). For those interested in a list, here you go:

Esper Control by Jay Lansdaal

Perhaps having only one Anticipate is greedy, but to be completely honest I cut both from my deck for a while. With Aggro making a comeback, you really don’t want to be casting Anticipate. If you don’t like Anticipate at all, I could see cutting it for another Haven of the Spirit Dragon. If you do want more Anticipating, you probably want to move one of the Silumgars to the board over whatever card you don’t expect to need in your metagame. If you expect a lot of mirrors, you probably want to cut the Tasigur for a Risen Executioner.

Once I find the next best thing, I’ll be sure to let you all know!

Jay Lansdaal
iLansdaal on Twitter

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