Preparing For Regional PTQs and SCG Cleveland

Sam Black offers up his latest Standard technology for #SCGCLE! The format is trending towards Esper Dragons and red decks. How in the world do you beat both?

This weekend will host the world’s first batch of Regional Pro Tour Qualifiers, and, despite not playing, I’m very excited to see what happens. I’ll be
watching for how players feel about the events, what the results look to mean for Standard moving forward, and, of course, which of my friends qualify for
Pro Tour Magic Origins! With such an important event coming up this weekend, I’d obviously be remiss to discuss anything other than Standard, which is in a
weird place right now.

Leading up to Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, and for the last several months, Standard has felt wide open. The Pro Tour marked the resurgence of U/B Control,
which may have quietly been the most premiere event winning deck since Khans of Tarkir came out, while not drawing huge numbers in smaller events
or in the field in general. For Grand Prix Krakow, players latched onto the Esper Dragons deck that Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Josh Utter-Leyton finished
in the top 16 of the PT with. Paulo and others dominated the Grand Prix, suggesting a Standard with a new deck to beat.

At the same time, the Open Series in Providence featured a top 8 filled entirely with the old archetypes we’re used to, though all outfitted with new
cards, where the control decks were all heavily green. How are we supposed to navigate these two conflicting data points to understand the metagame we
should expect this weekend?

Personally, I’m torn. On the one hand, I think the Esper Dragons deck looks like the real deal, and I’m inclined to think Krakow showed us the “real”
metagame. On the other hand, we’ve typically seen pros pick up and succeed with the U/B/x Control decks at a much higher rate than non-pros, and this
weekend will be an entirely non-pro event, which makes me think it might skew toward the results from Providence regardless of what the “true” metagame
should be.

On merits/power level, I think Esper Dragons is clearly the deck to beat, but I’m not clear it’ll play out that way in terms of representation this
weekend. When there’s an underplayed best deck, playing that deck is great. Players who know it’s the best deck can’t afford to attack it as much as they
should because they have to respect the large numbers of other decks, and the few predators of the deck don’t rise to the top. As a result, if you agree
with my guess that there’s a solid chance that Esper Dragons will be underrepresented, or even if you think other players will act on an expectation that
it won’t be a huge portion of the field, now would still be a good time to take advantage of the underrepresentation of the deck, that is, if you agree
with my assessment of its power level.

Another concern that may keep many players off of playing Esper Dragons is fear of mirror matches that they’re outmatched in. If you haven’t played a lot
of control and don’t have time to suddenly learn the deck, you might worry that you’ll lose too many mirror matches to more experienced control players,
which is an extremely legitimate concern–control mirrors aren’t necessarily harder than other mirrors, but they do offer a higher edge to the player who
knows the matchup better by nature of the way the games play out (they tend to go long in a way that makes it unlikely that a player with a slightly better
draw will run away with the game). What this means is that even if this is a great week for Esper Dragons, you’d almost certainly be right to steer clear
of it if you don’t feel comfortable with the deck, especially the mirror match.

If the rumors I’ve seen on Twitter are any indication, I think you’ll have access to more than enough information on Esper Dragons this week if you want to
study that deck, so I’ve decided to focus on bringing new ideas to the table for those of you who are looking to attack the format from an unexpected

Despite weeks of spending almost all my time playing Standard to prepare for the Pro Tour, I’ve still been scrambling to play as many games as possible
before writing this to get as much information about the new ideas I’m trying as I can. While I’m concerned that this Standard format will get a lot worse
if Esper Dragons really is the clear best deck, on the fringes, there’s still a tremendous amount of space to explore. I spent the vast majority of my time
preparing for the Pro Tour working on Deathmist Raptor decks, and, even now, I’m coming up with new Deathmist Raptor decks every day.

Why Deathmist Raptor decks? Well, unlike the U/B Control decks that I was testing against before the Pro Tour, Esper Dragons tends not to play Perilous
Vault, which means that an early Deathmist Raptor can often give them fits.

Before I get into my exact lists, let me start with this point: If you want to reliably beat Esper Dragons, you’re best off playing Temur. There are a lot
of different kinds of Temur decks, and some are better than others against Esper, but the tools are there in those colors to make things very difficult for
them. I haven’t personally tested it, but Brian Dolan’s Temur deck looked great in the matches I saw
of his on camera, and I think it might be on the less hateful side, though I’m not sure about that.

Now, let’s get to my decks.

Patrick Chapin wrote about some morph decks last week, including his version of Temur Morphs. I’ve liked the increased threat
density that comes from not playing Elvish Mystic, and I’ve generally found the two-mana “morph matters” enchantments to be too slow. In practice, I’ve
liked Ghostfire Blade, as I think it helps the deck keep up with the green aggro decks in the format, which outclass your creatures otherwise. I’ve come
down on them recently because I found that I didn’t want them against Atarka Red, Abzan Control, or Esper Dragons, which are the decks I’m most concerned
with, but they’re awesome against decks with 3/3 and 4/4 creatures. I’m trying a Secret Plans over a Ghostfire Blade in the maindeck because I want it
against Esper Dragons and Abzan Control, but I’m still skeptical of the card.

Icefeather Aven was horrible for me in early testing, and I don’t think anything’s changed to make it better positioned; it just costs too much mana, and
bouncing is the wrong answer for most creatures in Standard, which tend toward Siege Rhinos, cheap creatures, and hexproof creatures. The deck is very good
at spending its mana going long, and I think it benefits a lot from having a few cheap interactive plays, but the trick is figuring out which spells those
should be.

Disdainful Stroke is good against Abzan Control and Esper Dragons, but horrible against Atarka Red. Burn is the opposite. Stubborn Denial is great against
Esper Dragons, and playable but lackluster against Abzan Control and Esper Dragons. Obviously, there are also other concerns. For now, I’m playing a mix,
with the ability to shift in the sideboard, and I have a lot of space dedicated to fixing the Atarka Red matchup, which is quite bad, because I know I’m
already great against Esper.

The problem is Abzan Control really outclasses you. The card advantage you’re getting from your morphs is relatively immaterial because their larger
creatures allow them to ignore the bodies you have left over in ways Esper can’t, unless you have Deathmist Raptor, but Deathmist Raptor doesn’t line up
well against planeswalkers, and they have Utter End. Basically, Siege Rhino and Elspeth are huge problems. This is why I’ve moved Disdainful Stroke to the
maindeck, and Sagu Mauler is great here, which is why it’s in the deck, but I don’t think this is enough.

I don’t think the metagame is at the point where it calls for this solution yet, because while this deck really does crush Esper, I think you have to give
up on either Atarka Red or Abzan Control, and you’re still not advantaged against the one you choose to focus on. (If I were to give up on Atarka Red and
try to beat Abzan Control, I’d want more Disdainful Strokes and Sarkhan Unbroken in the sideboard.)

Obscuring Aether is really incredible in this deck. It’s not uncommon that you’ll save more than one mana in a turn with it, and then when you’re done, it
flips into a functional creature, especially if you have Ghostfire Blade (Obscuring Aether + Ghostfire Blade is a reasonable line for punishing Crux of

After seeing how well the morphs performed against Esper, I wondered if I could keep that edge while adding black to have better answers to creatures that
trumped my morphs. I built this deck, which goes in a very different direction:

I started with Sylvan Caryatid, but I found myself sideboarding it out against everyone and realized it wasn’t where I wanted to be. So what’s going on
here? Well, card advantage mostly. Palace Familiar and Satyr Wayfinder offer bodies to sacrifice to Silumgar Sorcerer and Merciless Executioner, which give
me answers to creatures while keeping my creature density for Collected Company high. Den Protector, Stratus Dancer, and Shorecrasher Elemental give me
plenty of ways to return Deathmist Raptor, which I’m very good at finding thanks to Collected Company and Satyr Wayfinder. Bident of Thassa takes advantage
of the random evasive bodies I end up with, and it often lets me force my opponent to trade with my Deathmist Raptors. Shorecrasher Elemental can always
flip back and forth to rebuy Deathmist Raptors, and a pair of Den Protectors offers another loop to keep the Raptors going.

This deck is about really maximizing Deathmist Raptor. Out of the sideboard I take advantage of my devotion to blue with Master of Waves assisting a
playset of Hornet Nests (which pair optimally with Collected Company) as my answers to red aggro. There’s too much black removal in the format for Master
of Waves to be a particularly impressive maindeck card, but I expect it will still be outstanding against red decks. The rest of the sideboard gives you
more counterplay against control decks.

In my testing so far, I’ve liked the synergies a lot, and Shorecrasher Elemental has performed pretty well, and the mana works because black is a really
small splash. I like how Palace Familiar’s positioned against Esper, especially with Bident of Thassa and especially because they play edicts.

The cards I’m least confident in are Collected Company, which has been fine, but it places a lot of restrictions on deckbuilding and can be awkward for
sideboarding, and Satyr Wayfinder–those are the cards I’ve been siding out the most. I’d really like to get Courser of Kruphix into the deck, as I’ve
really been feeling the lack of lifegain, especially with all the painlands (and it’s just an outstanding card). I could also see moving all the Stratus
Dancers to the maindeck and playing Obscuring Aether. This might result in something more like:

Again, Sagu Mauler finds its way into the deck because I think it’s very strong against Abzan when they can’t expect it to be that. Without Satyr
Wayfinder, I’m worried that Merciless Executioner might not be good enough for the maindeck, and I added a Sultai Charm to help with the lack of creature
removal and because it adds a lot of versatility to the deck in conjunction with Den Protector.

I haven’t tested this version of this deck yet, but on paper, I like a lot of what it has going on.

I wish I had more time and more concrete information, but that’s really the nature of Magic–there’s always more to test whenever a deadline approaches,
and you do the best you can with what you know.

Another direction I might explore this week is something like this, but splashing Mastery of the Unseen instead of the black cards. Mastery of the Unseen
used to be great against U/B Control decks, but it lost a bit of stock when Perilous Vault was more popular. Now, Perilous Vault is less popular, but the
Esper decks are better at just ending the game before Mastery of the Unseen can take over. Still, with heavy access to counterspells to stop them from
aggressively deploying Dragons and with a high density of great morphs to manifest, it might be a good tool again.