Lately I’ve been having trouble solidifying the threat base for my standard Jeskai aggro deck. I’ve been playing the deck almost nonstop since Khans of Tarkir was released and I’m currently at a point where I’ve been losing fairly often. The format is extremely powerful on a card by card basis and this makes it incredibly hostile to unproven strategies and errors in deckbuilding. There’s a plethora of creatures and spells that cripple opponents who are unfortunate enough to stumble. The curve of red aggro or Abzan aggro will bury the player who opens on 2 to 3 tapped lands. The efficiency of Siege Rhino will punish the player trying to mess around with cute creatures and strategies. The superior card quality of Esper Dragons will easily outclass the player who brings a low threat density and a lack of focused disruption to the table. Now, most of us who play a lot of standard already knew that. The implications of these facts are twofold. First of all, players are incentivized to stick to known strategies, especially ones with which they are comfortable. Secondly, the fact that the three most powerful decks, red aggro, Abzan aggro and/or Megamorph, and Esper dragons, all attack from different angles leads to some tendencies in deck building that try to pull a deck in too many directions at once. This is why it is so hard to choose a threat base with Jeskai. The deck is inherently scatterbrained in that it plays efficient and aggressive burn spells and creatures along with reactive cards like Valorous Stance that are often used defensively. Consequentially, the Jeskai mage finds himself holding a Valorous Stance when they needs a threat like Mantis Rider to pressure a Planeswalker or an opponent’s life total. Or, they find themselves having used a lightning strike on a Deathmist Raptor only to die to a Siege Rhino a few turns later while holding a wild slash. There’s one reason why I still love this deck despite these flaws and that reason costs 6 colorless and 2 blue. Dig Through Time is the linchpin of the deck when all hasn’t gone according to plan. If your Goblin Rabblemaster and/or Mantis Rider went uncontested, it’s unlikely you’ll even need to cast another spell to win that game. It’s the games where their removal lined up perfectly with your threats that you need to leverage the card advantage and selection that Dig offers. Dig can provide two, three drop threats to pressure an opponent from a position of parity or it can provide two answers when you’re way behind. It can even grab a Valorous Stance to kill a Rhino and a Rider to reapply pressure going into the mid game. This flexibility allows the deck to play much like the old Delver or Faerie decks where they can transition between aggro and control several times throughout the same game.
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The Jeskai decks that have been performing well lately have had very different threat bases. For the sake of this conversation, we are only exploring the Jeskai aggro deck that plays Mantis Rider. The Jeskai tokens deck is a fascinating and powerful option, however it’s play style and card choices are vastly different so it won’t be included in this discussion. Let’s briefly analyze the different threats in an effort to figure out the optimal list for the current meta.
Seeker is at it’s best against aggressive decks with small creatures and conditional removal. It’s also good against control but any two drop threat is good against control by virtue of going under most of their interaction and trading with a removal spell that costs the same if not more mana. Current matchups where Seeker is well positioned include Abzan aggro, Esper Dragons, Heroic, and Red Aggro. It may seem odd that I consider Seeker an effective card against the three most popular archetypes yet, I do not recommend playing any Seekers in Jeskai right now. The reason for this is the prevalence of Deathmist Raptor and Courser of Kruphix as these creatures block Seeker well and are moderately difficult to remove. Also, the overall average power level of standard has increased and we are now hesitant to saturate our deck with two drops as their value is diminishing as the game goes on. Soulfire Grand Master is the better two drop because instead of requiring that you have a density of spells to make her good she instead makes the spells you do have better while representing a powerful late game effect and being deceptively hard to kill for non red Mages. Soulfire also gains you life without any additional cards which is crucial in allowing to you represent spells with open mana against a deck like Abzan aggro or Heroic and not casting your spells on a rigid structure as seeker may incentivize. With the format transitioning towards powerful synergistic threats from the Midrange decks and less super efficient removal it is important that we make sure that the creatures that do survive can take over a game by themselves. That’s why Soulfire gets the nod, although Seeker will be back soon, he’s still a super efficient card and one of my personal favorites. Playing several copies of both white two drops is a luxury we are no longer afforded as we must make cuts for more expensive and more objectively powerful threats like thunderbreak regent, dragonlord ojutai, stormbreath dragon, icefall regent, or elspeth, sun’s champion. Or spells that ignore blockers and removal completely such as Jeskai Charm. It’s become harder to “go under” decks as the overall concentration of green creatures gumming up the ground has increased dramatically with the advent of deathmist raptor. Stratus Dancer is slightly too narrow and slow for maindeck inclusion but I wouldn’t sleeve up jeskai without at least one in the board for slow abzan decks and control as well as the mirror. This post has run much longer than intended and I will discuss the three drops briefly before wrapping up for the day and next time I’ll return and discuss 4,5, and 6 mana threats.
Goblin Rabblemaster is the exception to the rule of moving away from ground creatures. The megamorph decks have shaved removal and added more conditional removal such as Dromoka’s Command. The upside of a Rabblemaster surviving, even if only for a full turn, is incredible. You can feel a noticeable boost in the deck’s functionality even after producing one token and losing your Rabble before your untap step. The token will aid in casting stoke, chip in for a few points of damage, or make a crucial chump block. Sequencing with Rabblemaster is incredibly important for these reasons. Know the format and what spells they could be representing. It could be right to save your two drop for turn 4 if it means you can hit a Fleecemane Lion with Lightning Strike to pave the way for a goblin token to connect. Sometimes it’s right to play rabblemaster on turn 5 and make a token and cast a discounted Stoke the Flames. Plays like this allow you to seize the initiative and the tempo of the game. Jeskai is a deck that performs extremely well when it can cast two spells in one turn. Often, the tempo advantage from playing a Rabble or Rider and a Stoke will be enough to pull you even from way behind and pull you ahead from relative parity. Remember that decks will often have to leave up mana that can only be spent casting a removal spell and if you elect to just play lands and represent your own removal then they will have wasted mana each turn. This is especially important when you both have cheap answers to slightly more expensive threats. Cards like Abzan Charm and Anticipate allow them to capitalize on your lack of action though, so remember it is not a hard rule to not jam your threats into open mana. Before anticipate was printed I often elected to cast my spells against Blue Black Control on their 5, 6, 7 mana turns as opposed to their 3, or 4 mana turns. This is best done when you have a low threat density as it will buy you time to fill your hand with threats and counterspells (after sideboard). If you have a perfect curve I would err on the side of just playing your spells. This makes the control player choose between casting a Dig/Ingenuity or removal and they will often cast the removal and give you additional draw steps for counters or better threats because control is incentivized to Dig into a relatively clear board as it allows them to take counterspells instead of just removal spells. This will also facilitate them leaving mana untapped in the future which will make their draw spells even better. Remember, you can always try to dictate the pace of the game.
Mantis Rider – I do not much to say besides it is the best card in the deck and playing less than 4 in this strategy is criminal. Great on offense and defense, against walkers, and synergistic with stoke. I don’t believe I have ever side boarded out a single copy.
Hordeling Outburst – A great threat against red aggro and decks that rely on 1 for 1 removal. This card is unfavorably positioned in a field of Raptors, Lions, and Den Protectors since it doesn’t attack or block well there. It is good against red and passable against control but I don’t believe now is the time for outburst in the main.
Brimaz, King of Oreskos – At best against red decks and control. This is also poorly positioned against Deathmist Raptor and unfortunately is also hit by Ultimate Price as well as Valorous Stance. Still a great sideboard option for mirror matches, red aggro, control, and even Abzan aggro. It gets better when your opponent has altered their deck and is unlikely to expect it.
That’s all for this time! Thanks for your patience through my long and wordy Jeskai lecture and be sure to check out part two for the more expensive threats and the spell counts. Hope everyone enjoyed it. I’ll have a decklist next time as well in part two!
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