The results are in, ladies and gentlemen. Bant Company is the deck to beat in Standard with Mono-White Humans rising as the best aggressive option. These realizations come from the SCG Tour® results at #SCGBALT, as well as the #SCGINVI over the weekend. Atarka Red was the envy of all the aggro decks before Shadows over Innistrad was released, but now the power has shifted to a new color.
White is currently the best option for control, midrange, and aggro deckbuilders to work with. There are some very powerful cards in green from the new set that join Collected Company, and even that deck looks to white to complement the creature package with strong removal. Excluding the existence of Reflector Mage, there would be much less incentive to even consider a third color, but the format has shifted into making the most synergistic cards work together at all costs.
The humans that emerged from SoI work together well, and when combined with the forgotten cards of Magic Origins, the deck fires on all cylinders starting as early as turn 3. The one-drop armada, joined by Thalia’s Lieutenant and Always Watching, creates an unstoppable force that strikes fear into all control players’ hearts.
The good news is that the deck, with all of its synergy and might, is not Atarka Red. The deck has zero reach, frail creatures, the absence of haste, no way to attack out of the blue for seventeen with one Monastery Swiftspear, and these are the reasons control is primed for a breakout. Aggressive decks with reach have held control players down ever since the removal of four-mana battlefield sweepers.
The neutering of control is offensively apparent with each new set printed, but our resolve will not falter. This format has clear boogeymen and unless Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad completely shakes up the metagame, we know exactly what has to be done. I have no doubt that this weekend will present new challenges for control mages; however, with my understanding of the format and a little insider knowledge, I don’t expect huge changes. Most of the great strategies have been developed by some of the SCG Tour®‘s greatest, starting with defending Players’ Champion Jim Davis.
Many of you watched me sit there on-camera with a Grasp of Darkness and no way to cast it with my first incarnation of Esper Dragons at the Open in Baltimore a few weeks ago. Davis’s take on Bant Company, along with the other forms that have since spawned, is full of card advantage, speed, and raw power. Luckily for us, the control lists I’m presenting today have a very good game against the deck with a touch of ingenuity required to gain the advantage after sideboarding.
After Ali Aintrazi narrowly missed Top 8 with my version of Esper Dragons at #SCGBALT, we hit the drawing board and worked to rectify the errors in the launch version. The manabase was redone, the ineffective Transgress the Mind was purged, and the removal package was transformed to suit the splash color more effectively, but in the end it wasn’t enough to save the sky dwellers.
Esper Dragons, as we all knew and loved it, is officially gone as a viable archetype in the Soorani wheelhouse. The death of Esper Dragons has to be explained for all of you loyal readers that either play, or play against it. After our brief mourning period, I’ll bring the article back to life with the most powerful Esper Control list and a bonus Jeskai Dragons option to wrap it up.
RIP Esper Dragons
Dragonlord Ojutai is still one of the most powerful creatures in Standard. I wouldn’t turn my back on the fastest win-condition option of the format if there were any juice left in its tank. After playing a ton of games, and I mean a ton, I found myself still racking up wins pretty easily.
I’d beat each deck in the format, lose to G/R Ramp here and there, but usually came out ahead against the field. Every four or five games I found myself holding Silumgar’s Scorn and fighting for my life to survive until the arrival of one of my six Dragons. This was the way it was before rotation, so I didn’t think anything of it. I’d then cuss my deck out when it failed to provide me the Dragon I required turn after turn, scapegoating luck as the sole factor.
I then finally realized the issue and confirmed my suspicion that Dig Through Time was the best bailout card in history. For the price of two mana, I would have been able to dig seven cards deep and easily find the Dragon to stop a spell in its tracks. There would be many, many situations where I’d not only find the Dragon but the Silumgar’s Scorn itself.
The loss of Dig Through Time has irreversibly destroyed the fabric of Dragons with Dragon-advantage spells. Painful Truths is still the best card-draw option in Standard, but it fails to fill the void in Esper Dragons that Dig Through Time created on its exit. The only way to revive this deck in any fashion is to simply add more Dragons, which I am not willing to do.
That would include Icefall Regent or more six-drops in an already expensive deck. I was really hoping that Epiphany at the Drownyard could produce a similar effect, but it’s far weaker than I thought. While testing Jeskai Dragons, I found that the Silumgar’s Scorn / Draconic Roar boosts weren’t affected by the loss of Dig Through Time. The eight-Dragon count is the magic number, and luckily Draconic Roar is much better than Foul-Tongue Invocation without kicking the extra ability.
For those who want to continue to battle with Esper Dragons, be sure you heed the advice above. Increase the Dragon count, possibly play a card like Anticipate, and make sure the mana mirrors that from the Esper Control list today. The only difference between the manabases is to shift it from the current U/W base that planeswalkers require to a U/B base, swapping the numbers of basics and Shadow lands to their U/B equivalent.
I have a great deal of respect for the Dragons strategy and just losing Silumgar’s Scorn shouldn’t be the death knell for the deck. There is a school of thought that cuts the two-mana counter completely and replaces it with more expensive ones to defend Dragonlord Ojutai in combat. The loss of Crux of Fate really hurts this strategy, because it allowed us to have a semi-cluttered battlefield, jam our Dragonlord, take a beating, and then remove all of the non-Dragon threats right on time. This line of play doesn’t exist anymore, and with the weakness of Silumgar’s Scorn and the absence of Crux of Fate, I decided to look for a control alternative.
The Return of Planeswalkers
The format has dropped in power level, which means battlefield sweepers are at a premium. Languish is the best option for control to clear the battlefield, but that locks us into a heavy black shell right off the bat. Black could be the weakest color in Standard at the moment, even with the popularity of W/B decks. Each W/B deck is basically mono-white with a few black spells and Shambling Vent.
White is too good not to be the primary color and blue has Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, which requires a turn 2 mana supply for my favorite slice of the color pie. This had me immediately begin with U/W Control, but after a few games I saw first-hand the inability for this color combination to stay ahead on the card advantage race.
The obvious solution was to get some black in there for Painful Truths, and then the deck worked perfectly against the field. Toying with planeswalkers, the removal package, and the mana requirements of the spells chosen, I came up with the list above. The enchantment package did the best job of dispatching threats by exiling them for a very cheap mana cost. Anguished Unmaking simply did too much damage in the Esper Dragons list and it had to be moved to the sideboard for the much less painful version of Stasis Snare.
How about non-creature threats, then? The answer was pretty humorous, because I’m known for digging around in the attic of old Standard cards to find the best solution for the problem faced. Silumgar’s Command was a spell I had locked away for the longest time and its number was finally called. It’s instant-speed, counters, kills, bounces, and most importantly of all, removes planeswalkers.
There are few effects that destroy planeswalkers in current Standard that will see competitive play. Hero’s Downfall was a four-of in every deck, Utter End took the reins as the answer-all, and now Anguished Unmaking does the deed well, but has to be played in the sideboard. If you are expecting a slower metagame, then I can easily see one sneaking into the maindeck, but I’ve found it to be pretty effective as a one-of in the post-sideboarded games.
I know that there’ll be concerns about using enchantment removal with cards like Dromoka’s Command floating around. The only time a card like Dromoka’s Command ruins us is when they hit a Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy while freeing their captive creature. Enchantment removal is not a huge dagger in the side of the control player’s plan because they are freeing cards turns after their effectiveness has run its course.
The deck that runs Dromoka’s Command and boasts a very high win percentage is Bant Company, and Game 1 is good against them anyway. Since they don’t have countermagic and we do, they run into the issue of never resolving Collected Company or falling into a battlefield sweeper helplessly. After Game 1, the Dispels and Negates help protect us against both the Collected Company and Dromoka’s Command strategies. Dispel is powerful against that deck and our edge against them increases after sideboarding it in.
The use of planeswalkers as a win condition centers on the team captain Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. There is no other low-costed planeswalker that can carry the burden of applying pressure on our opponent at a price cheap enough for us to defend its arrival with a counterspell or removal spell. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar isn’t at its peak strength in this deck, but it does the trick better than the other options by a mile.
Sorin, Grim Nemesis has been a true gem for control players, as I knew it would be. It gains so much life, and in testing, it puts games away when left out for a couple of turns. If planeswalkers are to carry us to victory against any foe, they will need powerful spells that clear the battlefield to back them up. The best battlefield sweeper for white in Standard is Descend upon the Sinful. There is only one in the deck, though, because of the difficulty of achieving delirium. If delirium came more easily, then it would be the only mass removal spell in Esper Control, but because it has that inherent weakness here, we have to use Planar Outburst.
Scatter to the Winds and Planar Outburst give another avenue of victory outside of the planewalkers for those racing against the clock. It’s not easy to win a full match of competitive Magic within the allotted time with a true control deck like this unless you animate some lands, awaken some others, and keep nicking your opponent to death regularly.
The sideboard is filled with some spicy options that may need further explanation. The Archangel of Tithes was so impressive in the white aggressive decks that I had to give it a try. With only sixteen white sources I was nervous, but I’ve surprisingly been able to cast it on time. When it comes down in the first sideboarded game, it demands a removal answer that most opponents simply don’t have because they had to sideboard them out.
This is the same logic for Ojutai Exemplars, which provide massive power, lifelink, first strike, and survivability. These four-mana threats both enter from the bench against aggressive decks, where our blue countermagic is pretty weak. The only other time I use Ojutai Exemplars is against the control mirror for similar reasons. This creature is super-tough to kill and most removal has been cut because of the total creature count being four in the maindeck.
Pick the Brain is another brand-new addition that took the place of Infinite Obliteration. I had Infinite Obliteration in here originally, but the double black became a pipe dream. I need some answer to Ramp, and luckily this can sometimes have the same effect. Pick the Brain also can come in against slower decks and other blue decks because it is a discard spell, after all. It has been fantastic with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and eventually I may incorporate more delirium to kill two birds with one stone and add additional copies of Descend upon the Sinful to the deck.
The rest of the sideboard is pretty self-explanatory and can be altered a bit to fit the appropriate metagame. With the death of Atarka Red, unpopularity of G/R Ramp in live play, and the boost of white as the most played color, control (like this version) can easily take center stage.
If you really want to play Dragons, then I have a bonus deck list here for you all as promised. This is my take on Jeskai Dragons and I hope some of you find success with it. I hope to see flags of control all across the United States planted in victory formation at #SCGStates this weekend!