Rivals of Ixalan was the perfect “new year new you” of standard. 5 cards were banned, and a huge amount of constructed playable cards were added to support non-Temur non-monored archetypes. One of which is Esper God-Pharaoh’s Gift, which got two huge new tools in Dusk Legion Zealot and Ravenous Chupacabra. More importantly, the banning of Rampaging Ferocidon was the ultimate gift the deck could receive, and that ban alone meant that Esper GPG stopped being relegated to tier 2/3. The deck is an absolute powerhouse now, and there are some clear reasons why.
Why is Esper GPG strong right now?
With the ban on Ferocidon, monored’s only way to beat you is to race. Once you start making 6/6s the game is very likely over. Ferocidon was so unbeatable game 1 that they could play it at almost any point in the game and win. With the only automatic loss in the format gone, Esper GPG can now have a positive matchup vs monored. The printing of Ravenous Chupacabra and Dusk Legion Zealot means you have 12 creatures that cantrip while affecting the board, in addition to having maindeck removal. A curve of 2 drop, 3 drop, Chupacabra is such a backbreaking curve in a deck that wants to aggressively double or triple block. When my 4 drop lets me kill your 3 drop and then trade with your 2 drop, it buys so much time in a deck that has an insurmountable lategame against most of the format.
In the absence of temur and monored, BG constrictor and control decks are on the rise. Both of these decks are good matchups for Esper GPG, with the exception of UB control. UW approach is easy due to limited interaction and fumigate being terrible. Minister can stop them from chaining approaches while postboard the hand disruption lets you just kill them by playing dudes. Against gb constrictor, they have to have a really strong curve to beat you, but they struggle against decks that play better chupacabras than them. When our hostage takers and chupacabras buy us more than a turn, we can actually get to board states where we are winning even against a bunch of 6/5s. Postboard it gets even better when you have scarab gods and gontis/vraska’s contempt to kill more of their big targets.
The ultimate reason why GPG is strong right now is that you very rarely get punished for being a decent midrange deck. With Chupacabra and GPG as strong midrange trump cards, you very rarely get punished for just being a midrange deck. Chupacabra allows your backup plan of playing dudes and attacking to be a reasonable plan, since you now have 5-6 strong 4 mana. Having multiple 7 mana plays as well as the potential to hardcast angel means that a large number of your games are won by playing creatures and removal spells. Gate to the Afterlife as well as the number of creatures that replace themselves allows you to sculpt your hand better than the opponent, and if they try to answer your whole board you usually can invalidate that by just putting a GPG into play. Try winning a midrange mirror where none of the opponent’s creatures can die.
This last weekend, I won a 72 player pptq, with a final record of 8-0-2. I went 5-0 and double drew into top 8, and while some of the matches were close, the deck felt like the best deck in the room. The field was pretty diverse, with a pretty even mix of control, aggro, and midrange decks. My matchups were UB control (2-1), Esper Tokens (2-0), Monored (2-1), Monored (2-1), Sultai Constrictor (2-1), and double drew with Mardu Vehicles and UW Approach. In top 8, I played Mardu Vehicles (2-0), Sultai Constrictor (2-0), and Monored (2-1). Half of my games or more were won without God-Pharaoh’s Gift. Just being a better midrange deck than constrictor seems unlikely, but it’s usually what happens postboard when they bring in crap like naturalize and scarab god/deathgorge.
This is the list that I played, and I’ll wrap this up with some sideboarding advice.
2 God-Pharaoh’s Gift
4 Gate to the Afterlife
4 Angel of Invention
3 Ravenous Chupacabra
4 Minister of Inquiries
4 Walking Ballista
4 Champion of Wits
4 Dusk Legion Zealot
4 Seekers’ Squire
2 Hostage Taker
1 Trophy Mage
4 Concealed Courtyard
4 Aether Hub
4 Drowned Catacomb
2 Glacial Fortress
// 15 Sideboard
2 Aethersphere Harvester
2 The Scarab God
1 Vizier of Many Faces
3 Kitesail Freebooter
2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury
2 Vraska’s Contempt
In: 2 Vraska’s Contempt, 3 Kitesail Freebooter, 2 Aethersphere Harvester
Out: 2 Minister of Inquiries, 2 Dusk Legion Zealot, 2 Champion of Wits, 1 Trophy Mage/God-Pharaoh’s Gift
GB Constrictor (Good)
In: 2 Aethersphere Harvester, 2 Scarab God, 1 Vizier of Many Faces, 2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury, 2 Vraska’s Contempt
Out: 4 Minister of Inquiries, 3 Dusk Legion Zealot, 1 Walking Ballista, 1 Champion of Wits
UB Control (Even)
In: 3 Kitesail Freebooter, 3 Dreamstealer, 2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury, 2 Scarab God, 2 Vraska’s Contempt
Out: 4 Minister of Inquiries, 4 Angel of Invention, 3 Ravenous Chupacabra, 1 God-Pharaoh’s Gift
UW Control (Very good)
In: 3 Kitesail Freebooter, 3 Dreamstealer, 2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury, 2 Scarab God
Out: 4 Minister of Inquiries, 3 Ravenous Chupacabra, 2 Hostage Taker, 1 Gate to the Afterlife
RG Monsters (Good)
In: 2 Vraska’s Contempt, 2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury, 2 Aethersphere Harvester, 2 Scarab God
Out: 4 Minister of Inquiries, 1 Trophy Mage, 2 Dusk Legion Zealot, 1 Champion of Wits
Mardu Vehicles (Very good)
In: 2 Vraska’s Contempt, 3 Kitesail Freebooter, 2 Aethersphere Harvester
Out: 4 Minister of Inquiries, 3 Dusk Legion Zealot
Grixis Energy (Unfavorable)
In: 2 Vraska’s Contempt, 1 Vizier of Many Faces, 2 Scarab God, 2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury, 3 Kitesail Freebooter, 3 Dreamstealer
Out: 4 Minister of Inquiries, 4 Angel of Invention, 4 Walking Ballista, 1 Champion of Wits
Esper/4c Tokens (Very good)
In: 2 Scarab God, 2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury, 3 Kitesail Freebooter
Out: 3 Ravenous Chupacabra, 2 Hostage Taker, 2 Walking Ballista
Monoblack Aggro (Good)
In: 2 Vraska’s Contempt, 2 Aethersphere Harvester
Out: 2 Dusk Legion Zealot, 1 God-Pharaoh’s Gift, 1 Gate to the Afterlife
Moving forward, I would cut a Vizier and a dreamstealer for another vraska’s contempt and either another hostage taker or a ravenous Chupacabra. If you have a ton of grixis energy in your area, cut a dreamstealer and a harvester for another contempt and vizier/Chupacabra.
You can cast a Walking Ballista for x=0 to immediately trigger a gate. Shooting your own creatures with walking ballista comes up a lot.
If you have 2 GPG in play, you can return a minister of impediments from the first trigger, and immediately mill yourself before the second trigger. GPG doesn’t target so if you hit a champion or an angel then you can return that.
If you have to play a land on turn 1, with no minister in hand, play a glacial fortress or a drowned catacomb. This way, if you draw two concealed courtyard you can hit all your lands untapped.
You can hostage taker your own creatures/artifacts. This is relevant against control, abrade, or when you just need to get more creatures in the graveyard.
Aggressively mulligan for hands that have spells. Most of your spells replace themselves so mulliganing away bad hands is beneficial.
It’s always better to lead with seekers’ squire on turn 2 than dusk legion zealot. If you’re activating a gate and milling with minister to dig for angel, mill after you crack gate.
Against red decks, wait until turn 5 to play and activate gate. This lets you play around abrade by baiting them into tapping out. You can also play gate and leave 2 mana up to play around abrade until you get a second gate.
You have priority after playing a land, so for any land other than aether hub, you can immediately eternalize champion of wits even against scarab god or scavenger grounds.
Angel of Invention’s fabricate is chosen upon resolution, so if they want to kill it they have to kill it before the choice is made. This is relevant vs magma spray/shock.