Greasefang, Explorer Boss
With the introduction of Explorer on Arena, we’ve seen the week one metagame congeal around Pioneer decks that easily port over to Arena, such as Winota, Rakdos Midrange, and Azorius Control. These decks all managed to have a small handful of cards missing on Arena that could be replaced reasonably or at little cost. Other decks haven’t been so lucky.
Each of the top combo or combo adjacent decks in Pioneer are missing irreplaceable pieces in their transition onto Arena. Lotus Field is missing Pore Over the Pages and Hidden Strings. Jeskai Ascendancy Combo is missing, well, the namesake of the deck in Jeskai Ascendancy along with the delve draw spells of Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time. Mono Green Karn leverages a combo as a backup plan, but without Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx the deck is currently missing in action.
With the absence of combo in Explorer, I’ve found that the two decks that are still operating in a similar fashion to those decks are Winota and the various Greasefang, Okiba Boss decks. While Winota, Joiner of Forces was expected to sit upon the throne of Explorer early, it is the power and consistency of Esper Greasefang that has my attention as the best combo deck in Explorer’s best-of-one queue.
Esper Greasefang Decklist – BO1 Explorer
Let’s look at the cards that make up Esper Greasefang and how they synergize into Explorer’s premier combo deck.
Greasefang, Okiba Boss is the engine that makes this deck function. With the printing of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, vehicles were given a new lease on life and Greasefang quickly lifted cards like Parhelion II and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship from the shadows of Karn wish boards and bulk boxes. A 4/3 for three-mana, Greasefang stands up well to the red removal in the format outside of Lightning Axe and avoids Fatal Push without revolt like Winota, Joiner of Forces. Greasefang serves to reanimate vehicles from the graveyard and paired with Parhelion II, attacks for 13 damage on turn three and leaves two 4/4 angels behind to finish the game off next turn.
Ledger Shredder is a new addition to the deck from Streets of New Capenna and works to fuel the graveyard through looting whenever either player casts their second spell for the turn. While less effective in Explorer than Pioneer thanks to the lack of Izzet Phoenix, this new card can still grow quickly, help to lock down the battlefield from small attackers out of mono red or Winota and can enable your Greasefang plan through looting way excess vehicles. One of the best sequences for Ledger Shredder is casting Thoughtseize into Greasefang, Okiba Boss on turn 4 to discard a Parhelion II after clearing the path of counterspells or removal.
Parhelion II is the primary combo piece alongside Greasefang, Okiba Boss and serves to end the game on the spot if you manage to attack with it. While costing 8-mana, the goal is to never cast it for full retail value, by discarding it to one of your many discard outlets and then reanimate and crew it with Greasefang. Once you’ve seen this play pattern once, you’ve understood the combo; no intricate fiddling with 100 clicks, just crew, attack, and win.
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship serves as a backup vehicle to reanimate with Greasefang, but one that is ultimately much easier to cast. Repeated Lightning Bolts to opposing creatures and Planeswalkers can control the board easily and a 6/5 body is quite threatening on its own. While not as powerful a backup plan as the Abzan or four-color version gets through Esika's Chariot, Skysovereign, Consul Flagship does a good enough job of ensuring you are more likely to reanimate something with Greasefang, even if you can’t find Parhelion II.
Portable Hole is one of the premier cheap removal spells in the format, hitting plenty of valuable one and two-drop creatures. The advantage of playing Portable Hole stems from having additional artifacts to pitch for Tezzeret, Betrayer of Flesh’s plus ability and previous builds’ Thirst for Knowledge. While this version leans more into the newer draw engines, Portable Hole remains a staple removal spell for this deck.
Kaito Shizuki is a newer addition to Esper Greasefang to help increase the amount of card draw and filtering the deck has to find your key pieces of the combo. In a deck brimming with cards you may want to turn into other cards depending on if they are combo pieces, situational removal, or extra lands, having a Planeswalker that can soak damage and help filter is incredibly powerful.
Tezzeret, Betrayer of Flesh operates similarly by leveraging the plus ability to cast a mini-Thirst for Knowledge, which benefits from the vehicles and Portable Holes you can discard. It also can crew vehicles or turn Portable Holes into 4/4 creatures, so you can transform your early game removal spells into mid-and-late game threats. Like with Kaito, you are almost never working to use the ultimate of these Planeswalkers, they are tools to facilitate your main and backup plans first and foremost.
Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord is a powerful anti-aggro card that can swing any race where you have some board presence. The best part about this Planeswalker though, is that it can buyback Greasefang, starting a chain of reanimating Greasefang, which reanimates Parhelion II, which attacks for 13 lifelink and should end just about any game. Sorin is also pesky for control decks as it can ping down opposing Narset, Parter of Veils and chip away the opponent’s life total.
Faithful Mending and Tainted Indulgence pair up as draw two-discard one cards that function to help smooth out your draws and discard your vehicles. In the early game they can facilitate your combo and in the mid to late game, they can help mitigate flooding or pitch dead cards in a specific matchup. Like with Izzet Phoenix in Pioneer, having access to consistent card draw and filtering can help you overcome tougher matchups.
March of Otherworldly Light is a strong removal spell that has the side benefit of teaming up with Portable Hole to hit early creatures that might run you over before you can establish your combo. While best in best of three where you can exile Rest in Peace, in best of one, exiling turn one mana dorks can give you time to race Winota.
Thoughtseize is every part the format staple of Explorer that it is in Pioneer. Having access to hand disruption that can ensure your Greasefang survives or that your Parhelion II can attack undisrupted is a major selling point of the deck.
Shatter the Sky is the default replacement for decks missing Supreme Verdict in Explorer and Greasefang uses Shatter the Sky to help cleanup large battlefields that have gone wide enough to beat a single Parhelion II attack. While more useful against decks like Winota or Mono Red, in matchups against control, it is an easy tool to discard and warrants one copy main as an out to potentially bad situations.
Stealing the Game
With the capability to effectively end the game on turn 3 backed up by disruption, Esper Greasefang has one of the most consistent early gameplans in Explorer. Turn one is either Thoughtseize, Portable Hole, or a tapped land. Turn two you play one of either Faithful Mending or Tainted Indulgence and ideally discard Parhelion II, before playing Greasefang, Okiba Boss and virtually ending the game on turn 3. While this is the best-case scenario, having access to a way to end the game in a best-of-one match on turn three manages to outpace even Winota.
So, what happens when you don’t live in Magical Christmas land or when your opponent holds up removal for your turn three play? Well, you operate as an Esper Control deck digging towards your combo with value engines such as Kaito Shizuki, Ledger Shredder, and Tezzeret, Betrayer of Flesh while maintaining the board with March of Otherworldly Light, Shatter the Sky, and Portable Hole. This backup plan can also rebuy copies of Greasefang, Okiba Boss through Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord.
For me, this ability to end the game quickly or force your opponent to respect your combo from turn three onwards pushes and pulls your opponent into uncomfortable positions. This is one of the hallmarks of powerful combo-control decks of the past such as Splinter Twin or Cat-Combo that easily beat unsuspecting opponents. Against more seasoned opponents, these style of decks constantly ask the question of ‘When are you willing to lose to the combo?’ Choose the wrong timing and you die, either to Greasefang, Okiba Boss, or a resolved Planeswalker taking over an uncontested battlefield.
Explorer and Best of One Advantage
Another aspect of the deck that levels up in best-of-one play is that there aren’t any decks that can afford to run main deck hate cards against your main strategy. Unlike in the past where cards like Aether Gust, Mystical Dispute, Grafdigger's Cage, and other sideboard cards made their way into main decks, the only cards that turn off your primary gameplan are Rest in Peace effects, Weathered Runestone, and Karn, the Great Creator.
Now, in Pioneer, Karn is a major downside to this style of deck, but as mentioned above, without the premier Karn deck of the format, you are generally safe from losing your ability to crew your vehicles. The other cards generally aren’t played in best-of-one because the vast array of decks that are playable means you would have dead cards in a non-zero number of matches. Color-hoser cards that hit most the top decks or cards that beat the de facto best deck will make it to main decks and Esper Greasefang avoids both those concerns.
People are more focused on Winota in best-of-one right now and that means if they were going to maindeck a hate card, it would be Grafdigger's Cage, which doesn’t stop the Greasefang combo at all. While that can shift if players continue to see an overwhelming amount of Greasefang in the queues, it seems unlikely for Greasefang to overtake the popularity of Winota, given its continued performance in both Explorer and Pioneer right now, while Greasefang struggles to adapt to Mono Green Karn in Pioneer.
Where Does Greasefang Struggle?
Like most creature combo decks, you will have some difficulty against removal heavy midrange decks like Rakdos Midrange. While you can kill them if they tap out for an early Bloodtithe Harvester, the combination of Thoughtseize and instant speed removal for Greasefang can be an issue for the deck, especially if they can progress their board without ever fully tapping out.
Low to the ground aggro decks can also get under your slower hands and since it is best of one, you won’t know if your reasonable hand is too slow versus a deck like mono red as you might in best of three. While your combo hands are much faster than these decks and cards like Faithful Mending can help mitigate early damage, if they can hold up a three-damage burn spell for your Greasefang, they may be able to run you over. Adding Ledger Shredder to the deck does help mitigate some of these early starts though.
Greasefang, Okiba Boss’s debut in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty spawned a new archetype that has since splintered into three or four different viable versions. While each of them has put up results in Pioneer, I’m excited to see how those decks translate over to Explorer.
The Esper and Mardu version battled fiercely to see which version would become stock and now we get to see these battles again in a format that has a different set of metrics to clear. For me, Esper looks like the clear favorite, especially in best-of-one and I look forward to pod racing past Winota players on ladder with my favorite motorcycle rat.
A special shoutout to KarnageKardsENT, resident Greasefang aficionado for his Explorer Greasefang list and being a top-tier resource on up to the minute lists for Esper Greasefang. His success in both Pioneer and Explorer helped me immensely with this article.
Thanks for reading and stay safe!