Breaking Down Esper Transcendent with Dylan Brown

Expect the Unexpected

This week, Esper Transcendent designer and Facebook Team Transcendent admin Francesco Neo Amati sat down with Dylan Brown after his recent 21st place finish at GP Brisbaine with the deck.  Dylan shared his thoughts on why he chose to bring this list to the event, his thoughts on its position in the meta, and his overall experience piloting it at the GP.

Dylan Brown’s Esper Transcendent

Decklist Available on MTG Goldfish

Francesco Neo Amati: First off, congratulations on your impressive run at GP Brisbane, especially going rogue with Esper Transcendent. Thank you! It’s very gratifying, to say the least. You were one play away from Top 8. Why did you choose ET for this tournament and how much experience do you have with it?

Dylan Brown: Thanks! It was a great run, after starting 1-2, we really were able to rally back and almost make the top 8!

I chose Esper Transcendent for the event because I assumed with the printing of fatal push, as well as the bannings, the format would go into 3 distinct places:

  • Hyper Aggro: such as Affinity, Burn and Death’s Shadow
  • Big mana decks: Tron, Valakut, Eldrazi
  • Other Midrange: GB/x decks or Control variants

I’ve had a bit of experience with Esper variants, but with Push and Path, I wanted a slower, bigger version of the deck. [I wanted to] attack from multiple angles without being overwhelmed by the classic “wrong half of your deck at the wrong time.” The deck overperformed in the meta I expected, with only Tron and Valakut feeling very hard to beat. So hard in fact, I essentially decided having a sideboard plan for them was taking up too many slots, so it was just time to dodge the matchup, and play very tightly if we had to face it.

FNA: I’d say that’s a good read of the meta. Not only did you hang in there, but you continued to win all the way to the 15th round. What were your MU’s Day 1 and 2?

DB: Day 1:
Lantern (Loss)
Grixis Control (Win)
Affinity (Loss)
Affinity (Win)
Boggles (Win)
Kiki chord (Win)
Abzan (Win)
Jund (Win)
Abzan (Win)

Day 2:
Death’s Shadow Jund (Win)
Goryo’s Expertise (Win)
Cheerios (Win)
Grixis Delver (Win)
Burn (Win)
Dredge (Loss)

FNA: That’s a variety of different and competitive decks. It’s impressive and reflective of ET’s versatility and ability to adapt, regardless of archetype. Which cards stood out the most throughout the tournament and which underperformed?

DB: Throughout the event, Liliana of the Veil overperformed immensely. After playing the deck without her for months, it felt like she was the real missing piece. She forces the deck in a new direction that really challenges the other fair decks of the format while also giving a legitimate gameplan against Tron/Valakut.

FNA: With the addition of Liliana of the Veil, players may evaluate this deck as a subpar version of BGx. What are the distinct advantages and disadvantages of ET compared to BGx?

DB: I have seen a lot of chatter saying “this is just abzan for people who can’t afford Goyfs” which is a little ridiculous. The decks function in different ways and both have clear advantages and disadvantages. For me, it comes down to this: we are unable to quickly close out a game as efficiently as goyf/scavenging ooze/grin flayer can but we are also favored in those matchups as we have nothing for them to kill and an abundance of live removal ourselves. This forces our opponents to virtually mulligan.

FNA: That’s a fair assessment. What are the deck’s most favorable and unfavorable MU’s? What do you recommend to improve the unfavorable ones?

DB: The decks most favorable matchups are, by far, any Jund or Abzan variant with Jeskai and Grixis shortly following. No amount of AV’s, Rev’s, etc. can beat a resolved Narset. The combination of discard into Liliana is so much for Control to overcome as well as Narset threatening with the back-breaking ultimate.

For bad matchups, as I’ve said, anything that cares about its lands is an uphill battle. You’ve got to get that right mixture of luck, and skill to pull out the win, and variance happens in Magic.

FNA: As you may already know, there’s still been a lot of skepticism and criticism regarding this deck, especially towards Narset Transcendent, which may be attributed to its predisposed stigma rather than objectively evaluating it within the context of this deck’s design and gameplan. What’s your overall feedback on ET and Narset’s role in it?

DB: Enough trashing Narset. It’s getting tiring and ridiculous. It’s not a productive discussion to have about this deck anymore. Yes, she isn’t JtMS, she’s unconventionally garbage, and, a lot of the time she has been legal, she has been stone-cold unplayable, but this deck is bizarrely the perfect shell for her. She does things that are honestly very subtle but have a huge impact on games, matchups, and how opponent’s board against us. 

First off, she is (in a vacuum) at a 55% rate to draw an extra card every turn. Sure, that’s not phenomenal, but it is very good. It ensures we can grind our way out of the cripple, fight games we force both players into Liliana. She forces people to attack. 7 loyalty is a huge damn number, and if people don’t want to be locked out of the game, they need to pressure her. How? By jamming creatures into play, swinging in, and avoiding removal. This lets us a) swing back through b) save a buttload of life.

Dont think “ok, so rebound is only good if you get the right spell….”
Honestly, I used the rebound mode 2 times all 15 rounds of the GP. I “Ult’d” 5 times and prompted concessions off her getting to 9. This doesn’t mean her -2 isn’t valuable, because it can pull you significantly ahead (Souls/Charm), but how you utilize her depends on the MU and state of the game.

She’s actually the quickest clock we have in a lot of match-ups, and it doesn’t matter if she draws less cards than Jace as she seriously just never dies. If you have Lilly and Narset in play, and only one dies, guess which bae gets to live?!?

If you want to keep being skeptical, attach this ridiculous stigma and preconceived notions, then please suggest a legitimate alternative, or in other words “put up or shut up”.

Best way I can say is that it is “crap on paper, terrifying on table”.

Narset is also this deck’s AV/Rev – starting as early as T4, but is a win con, too. The longer she’s out, the more card advantage and value you generate. It’s quality > quantity here, which is also why SV is more important than AV. Esper Charm is also card volume for us.

Guys, just get on board. The deck is very strong, it’s skill-intensive, interactive, and a blast to play. Not to mention, you get to shout “we got a reader” every time you cast Narset. 

FNA: I completely agree. Thanks for the thorough analysis. Would you define ET as Midrange, Control, or a hybrid?

DB: It’s a Midrange deck, but one that leans more towards the Control spectrum, that’s immune to removal. Doing so means our opponents have more dead cards in hand and we get to overwhelm them more easily. It forces them to board a predictable way which you can capitalize on and also allows you to make their average card quality much worse.

FNA: Liliana of the Veil was obviously the missing piece of the puzzle, kudos there, but are there any other cards, or changes in numbers (i.e. 2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in 75), you’d consider as top options for optimizing ET?

DB: Liliana of the Veil was 100% the missing piece, really tying the shell together, and I think going below 4 right now is a huge mistake. I’ve been tweaking a few numbers since the GP, but honestly haven’t found anything I’m not happy with. I feel the Walker suite is perfect, and the shell has become very tight with almost all the flex slots going towards adding 4x Liliana. The sideboard can still be refined and that all depends on the meta you expect, with maybe 3 flexible slots.

FNA: Do you think ET has the potential to be one of the best decks in the format (niche or not)?

DB: Honestly, I thought this deck was alright but not a true potential powerhouse; but with the uptick of Death’s Shadow (favorable), and Midrange/Control decks, I think this deck can firmly sit in Tier 2 with enough experience behind the player. It all comes down to knowing how to utilize Liliana and Narset correctly.

FNA: Do you have any last thoughts or advice for players playing, or considering to play, ET?

DB: If you or anyone reading this is considering the deck, it’s worth it. It’s not only strong, thought-provoking and incredibly resilient, it’s a blast to play! Planeswalkers are fun and so is winning a lot.

For more on Esper Transcendent, please follow the Team Transcendent Facebook community.  Franscesco works actively to improve the design of this deck and foster the growth of ideas between fellow Esper players by posting recent finishes with the deck as well as crowd-sourcing ideas for improvement on the deck via polls and questionnaires.  Additionally, an updating list can be found at the official Esper Transcendent Tapped Out page.