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Esper Dragons after Battle for Zendikar

Written by Tim Bachmann on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

Esper Dragons after Battle for Zendikar

Tim Bachmann

Hailing from northeast Pennsylvania, Tim has been playing since Mirrodin, and has been playing competitively since Dragons of Tarkir. With aspirations of playing on the Pro Tour, Tim plays in as many PPTQs and GPs as he can.

For a long time, actually, since I’ve come back to Magic with the release of M15, and from what I can tell, even before, the consensus was that there was one color that had the best removal in the Standard format. Now, I’m talking simple one-for-one removal. From the long, drawn out stories I’ve heard, Supreme Verdict was a fine card, Searing Blood was very effective, and from my own experience, Rapid Hybridization was a very useful spell. But people always returned to Black when they wanted good, simple, efficient, “kill your creature” type cards.

This trend continued throughout the days of Khans of Tarkir standard. We still had all of the old Theros removal spells like Bile Blight and Hero’s Downfall. Hero’s Downfall was almost an instant speed Vindicate in one color in a format that was almost all creatures and planeswalkers, and this amazing support card was given great new cards with Siege Rhino and Abzan Charm among others.

Black kept getting goodies in the form of removal, most notably Crux of Fate, Foul-Tongue Invocation and Languish. These all became role-players in certain decks, and Black remained at the top of the food chain in terms of removal.

And now things have changed. With the removal of Hero’s Downfall in standard, a lot of people have been simply replacing their Hero’s Downfalls with Ruinous Path. Now, Ruinous Path is a fine card. It’s essentially Hero’s Downfall at sorcery speed, but with upside later on in the game. However, if you’re someone who has played with Hero’s Downfall in the past, and has tested with Ruinous Path in the same decks that have had Hero’s Downfall played in them, the difference between Hero’s Downfall and Ruinous Path is huge. They are absolutely not the same card.

This along with Bile Blight rotating out of the format, and Ultimate Price losing value as maindeck removal, have made black removal very poor. I’m not at all ready to say it has the worse removal, as I still believe Languish and Crux of Fate are of high value, but I am ready to say that there is a new king of one-for-one removal, and that king is the color White.

For a long time, there was one card in particular that made me want to throw my beloved Jeskai deck into a trash bin simply because it was so difficult for the deck to handle with the removal suite I suited up in the deck. Stormbreath Dragon. This unfriendly rider of the skies will be gone the way of Hero’s Downfall. This means that there won’t be a specific creature red decks will be able to deploy against white based removal strategies at any given point that just says “I win the game because you’re playing the incorrect colors.” There are no more deck building concessions that have to be made because there is some terror floating around the skies that you have to worry about.

White is just better now.

I posit the following. White has the best one-for-one removal spells for creatures in the post-rotation, post-Battle for Zendikar format. Off the top of your head, you probably think of one card. Valorous Stance. If you know the Theros-Magic Origins standard format, you know that this card was a big player for non-black white decks. It killed Siege Rhinos and other big dudes, and it saved your own dudes from death (most of the time) for a measly two mana. Two mana is a lot less than three, and the one white mana requirement is a lot less to think about when building a deck than double black. Granted, the card didn’t kill nearly as many things as Hero’s Downfall, it was still a very useful card.

And it will still be a useful card, and will definitely see play in blue control strategies because the instant speed nature of the card plays very will with the reactive nature a counterspell based strategy wants to play.

However, there are overlooked cards that I feel warrant the statement I made. Magic Origins has the best one-for-one creature removal spell in the format. Swift Reckoning.

Exactly how many currently playable creatures exist in standard that have vigilance? A total of one that I am able to think of. Mantis Rider. Every other creatures taps to attack, and in some cases, taps to use an ability (looking at you, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy). For one white mana requirement, Swift Reckoning kills ALL of those non-bug riding creatures. And after the first few turns, you can probably kill those creatures at instant speed. That’s it. The creatures just have to be tapped. There are no Stormbreath Dragons that can get around this card, just a simple Mantis Rider. A much less scary threat than a Stormbreath Dragon.

There are no color requirements for the creature to hit like with Ultimate Price, and there are no toughness requirements to take into consideration like with Lightning Strike, Valorous Stance, or Bile Blight. Target creatures simply dies, that’s it.

Now, one spell and a few spells rotating out of the format can’t make Swift Reckoning and Valorous Stance the best removal spells in the format, can it? Possibly. But if I haven’t convinced you yet that the best splash to add to your deck for removal is white, let’s talk about another removal spell that caught a lot of play, and kind of supplemented Valorous Stance in the Jeskai decks.

Lightning Strike is going the way of Hero’s Downfall and Stoke the Flames. Gone for the time being, never to be seen until it’s reprinted. Now, this is my kind of removal spell. Nary the dead card, it can always point and click at the opponent to win a game. I’m a huge fan of burn as removal, and will be sad to see that there are much fewer, more restrictive options for burn as removal in the new standard.

But Lightning Strike isn’t really leaving. It’s just being made a little differently. For the same mana cost, in the color that now has the best removal, we’re given a burn spell that targets only creatures. Gideon’s Reproach. This card is able to kill every killable creature that Valorous Stance misses, and thus complements it exquisitely well. Granted the creature does have to be attacking or blocking, but really if your opponent isn’t attacking or blocking with their creatures, you’re probably in a favorable position unless the creatures in question are the Magic Origins planeswalkers before their flips.

So now, I’ll submit the deck that I believe in my amateur opinion is the best control deck to take with you on week 1-2 of the new standard format, and what I’ll be tweaking over the next few weeks and be bringing to my first Battle for Zendikar standard IQ:

1 Disdainful Stroke

1 Valorous Stance

So before rotation, Esper Dragons was more a Blue-Black control deck that splashed white for Dragonlord Ojutai. My take was to remove a bit of the heavy reliance on Black and add White as the go-to for early interaction.

I think that having the almost catch-all in Swift Reckoning is amazing. It’s been so useful in testing against a myriad of cards. It’s pretty much a more versatile Ultimate Price.

The sideboard is in the form of broad strokes right now. I believe that by virtue of the deck, we can beat any midrange deck without much trouble, and we have pretty good maindeck game against aggro decks. Through the sideboard, we get much better against the early aggressive decks with Gideon’s Reproach and Arashin Cleric, and possibly even Tasigur, while still having our strong dragons as finishers.

In testing, another card that has been a beating is Transgress the Mind. I’ve been a huge fan of Disdainful Stroke since its printing. Transgress allows us to hit everything Disdainful Stroke would hit, PLUS things with converted mana cost 3, PLUS it doesn’t feed delve cards or Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, or Den Protector.

Transgress plus Tasigur and Pearl Lake Ancient allow us to have greater resiliency and a longer gameplan against any controlling strategies that we come across. The only card that has actually been a bit shaky is Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Not having the scrys that the old Esper Dragons deck had with the lands is a huge deal, and I am currently testing the Jaces as Anticipates to see how that fairs.

My first IQ of the new standard format will be on October 10th, so I have a full week of events to scour over to see if I’m still very confident in my Esper Dragons list for that IQ, but so far in testing, it’s been very solid.

If you’re looking for a slightly-more-controlling-than midrange deck that isn’t a full on dedicated control deck, and has solid game against all of the really cheap and fast aggressive strategies that week ones of a new format are known for, this is a good place to begin. Hope you all are enjoying your testing!

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