Dark Jeskai and the cyclical dynamic of standard

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Siege Rhino - Khans of Tarkir

Siege Rhino – Khans of Tarkir

In recent years wizards has devoted considerable efforts to preventing the dominance of any one standard deck. In years past there was often a single archetype head and shoulders above the rest. Jund, Faeries, Caw-Blade, and Delver all come to mind. Grand Prix Quebec City, one week removed from Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, showcased the power of Dark Jeskai. The SCG open in Atlanta a few weeks earlier had a top 8 of 4 GW or GWX Megamorph decks and 4 Dark Jeskai decks. GP Quebec had a top 8 that was half dark Jeskai including eventual champion, Dan Lanthier. The elimination bracket was rounded out by a Rally deck, an Abzan deck, Reid Duke’s Mage Ring Esper, and Jake Mondello’s GR Eldrazi ramp. The top 4 was 3 Jeskai decks and Eldrazi ramp and the finals was the dark Jeskai mirror match between Lanthier and Omar Beldon. When Lanthier hoisted the trophy after showing his aptitude in multiple mirror matches many decreed that the format had already grown stale. Everyone was doomed to a 4 month span of Jeskai mirrors and the occasional cameo by Esper, Siege Rhino, and Atarka’s Command. This was, of course, untrue as the next week’s GP Indianapolis saw a top 8 devoid of Jeskai. This event and the SCG Open in Philadelphia a week later were both won convincingly by Abzan strategies. In Philadelphia, the aggressive combo of Anafenza into Siege Rhino encompassed half the top 8 with several additional lists in the top 16. This phenomenon where decks appear dominant only to be virtually nonexistent the next week is, I believe, intentionally engineered by wizards. Today I want to explore the cyclical nature of current standard and hopefully I can pinpoint the reasons for the decline in Jeskai and provide some tips to combat Abzan’s resurgence.

Here we go!

So first, let’s discuss how this happens. The cards produced over the last few standard formats have two things in common. Several of them are both very good and relatively narrow. This causes a few things to happen one of which is that the savvy deck-builders will often be a week or two ahead and have already figured out the strategy to combat such cards. An example of this is something like the main deck dispels that have become popular in dark Jeskai. In order to combat the power of cards like Dig through Time and Ojutai’s Command these versions of Jeskai sought to close the game early by protecting their threats or be better equipped to fight a counter war in the mid to late game. The evolutionary response was immediate however, since the decks started to plan for the mirror with cards like Mastery of the Unseen, Painful Truths, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. All of which cannot be dispelled. Tasigur in particular was effective because he allowed the deck to gain card advantage and was able to render the opponent’s removal, specifically their Ojutai’s Commands, inefficient mana wise. The Dispels that the Pantheon supplemented their Tasigurs with were able to protect their threats and close the game before the conventional mirror match lists could capitalize with Dig through Time or Gideon. Gideon can be especially problematic long term for Dark Jeskai but between Tasigur and Mantis Rider their list was able to ensure that a single Crackling Doom would usually be enough to finish off the walker or even the opponent before its advantage could prove lethal.

Crackling Doom - Khans of Tarkir

Crackling Doom – Khans of Tarkir

The Dark Jeskai deck continued to evolve and its spell suite started to resemble a control deck more closely than an aggressive tempo based deck. Lately I’ve been playing 2 main deck Utter End and a maindeck Negate alongside 3 Dig through Time and a Painful Truths. The substantial support for a more controlling game allows you to be able to navigate the mirror based on card quality and playskill and not just the number of cheap aggressive threats you drew relative to your opponent. This flexibility doesn’t come without a cost however, and the cost is what I believe has caused the recent decrease in win rates for the dark Jeskai decks. As you move towards utter end, negate, and grindy midrange card advantage like painful truths you open yourself up to be exploited by the aggressive linear decks in the format. These shifts in card choices immediately preceded the resurgence of abzan aggro. Likely because the agressive and efficient mana curve of abzan backed up by removal forced the Jeskai decks to have their situational removal at exactly the right times. They often didn’t. It’s tough from a deckbuilding perspective. As I touched on earlier, some of the spells are both very powerful and relatively narrow. While you’re often struggling to get a card or card’s worth of value out of valorous stance in the mirror match or agaisnt control you’ll likely die against a curve of anafenza into siege rhino of that same stance is a negate or dispel. It might even be too slow as an utter end. This trend away from valorous stance puts a ton of pressure on the crackling dooms and other cheap removal and consequentially it puts a lot of pressure on the mana base of dark Jeskai to have the right lands at the right time. The deck is actually unable to cast fiery impulse turn 1, Jace turn 2, and crackling doom turn 3. So games will come down to choosing which two things matter the most in that situations and casting them, often at the expense of efficiently casting the other card in your curve. I believe this has been touched on by other writers as well, but you might have to fetch a land so you can cast your spells in a timely fashion and just hope to draw the land you need for other spells later. Essentially color screwing yourself for the sake of efficiency. For example, with a hand of smoldering marsh, polluted delta, and bloodstained mire you can access all 4 colors by turn 3. If you have a crackling doom, a fiery impulse, and a Jace as cheap spells you can cast it could be correct, provided that Jace is good in the matchup and maximized with your draw for that game, to fetch mountain so you can cast impulse, island so you cast Jace, and then be unable to play cracking doom until you draw a monastery, plains, battle land, or non mire fetch. It’s unintuitive to do this but I find myself doing it fairly often. In a situation where there’s no clock on your mana you would likely fetch prairie stream with delta, mountain with mire, and play turn two Jace at the cost of turn one impulse and turn 3 doom. These imperfect sequences are bailed out by Jace’s looting effect as it’ll often find you the land you need to tie everything back together. Against decks like Atarka red and RG landfall you’ll be more likely to fetch so that you can cast your removal on curve, otherwise you might die. So these games end up playing out with weird mana more often than the matches against the mirror, control, and midrange decks do. The advent of RG landfall and the resurgence of Atarka red are two more factors for why Jeskai has been struggling as of late. These are good matchups for Jeskai but when the deck has cannibalized itself with super flexible removal like Utter End and maindeck Counter Spells to beat control and the mirror you will find your removal being spread to thin from time and mana constraints when facing these linear aggressive decks. Sometimes your counter spells will be drawn before the threats they need to target and sometimes your utter end or crackling doom will be a blowout two for one. But just as often you’ll draw a negate the turn after you get crippled by an Atarka’s command. Or they’ll go under you effectively and threaten the become immense/battle rage combo and force you to leave up mana while chipping in for a couple points a turn. These matchups are definitely winnable and I would say they’re even favored for Jeskai. There’s just so much less room to mess up as you’re walking a razor’s edge between aggressive and controlling as well as managing your mana and sequencing in an extremely tight window.

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These interesting dynamics tie in with the cyclical nature of standard because the flex slots being essentially main decked sideboard cards (Dispel, Negate, Utter End, etc) makes the deck much worse against the decks you don’t want those cards against. In this case those decks are RG aggressive decks and GW or GWX linear decks with efficient resilient threats and a quick clock. The Dark Jeskai decks will move back towards Roast and/or Valorous Stance in some capacity and play marginally fewer maindeck counterspells and Utter Ends. Then Esper and Eldrazi ramp decks will likely have a good weekend, or at least a better matchup than they did previously because you can’t beat everything you’ll often find. Players are hedging their 4 flex slots being something like 1 [car4d]Roast[/card], 1 Utter End, 1 Negate, 1 Painful Truths. Jace affords you the luxury of pitching any card that isn’t relevant in the matchup or the current board state. You might find them going super hard at one archetype. Those would be the players with 2 maindeck Dispels and a Silumgar’s Command or something like maindeck Mastery of the Unseen or a second Dragonmaster Outcast main. Either school of thought is totally defensible, it’s dependent on your local metagame. At the moment I have two counterspells, one Utter End, a Roast and a Painful Truths. I want to go a little more in depth about Painful Truths now, so that’s a perfect segue.

Painful Truths - Battle for Zendikar

Painful Truths – Battle for Zendikar

An aside on Painful Truths in Dark Jeskai: In a stretch of testing games I won every single game where I cast Painful truths for 3. Granted, they were post board against Rally and I cast Radiant Flames for 3 shortly thereafter. The card does a lot for the dark Jeskai archetype. Going up cards is one of the best ways to succeed in the mirror. The removal of Mantis Rider from some lists altogether (more on this later) means that your opponent is less and less likely to make your life total matter. The mirror will play out like a control mirror would, dominated by exchanges that leave you up a card, Dig through Time, and land drops. Painful truths shines here. Also, you often board in Duress. In matchups where you have Duress and/or Fiery Impulse in your deck you’re able to cast the turn 3 Painful Truths without discarding. This is relevant because the cost of discarding a land is deceptively high. You’re a very mana hungry deck and getting a land off of dig is something you want to avoid doing at all costs. Same with discarding a spell to Jace to keep a land. The exceptions to these rules will be very obvious when they come up in games and usually have to do with casting multiple spells in a turn or with having exactly enough mana to force a spell through with counter backup, basically a different way to cast two spells in one turn. I don’t think the life from Painful Truths is negligible, seeing as there’s 12 fetches in your deck and some very aggressive mana curves and playing a Roast or two to go with your Grand Masters when coupled with Ojutai’s Command should make it more than manageable. I’ve only boarded out the Painful Truths agaisnt red decks and on the draw against the faster versions of Abzan. I like one main.

An aside on Mantis Rider: Don’t ever cut it, thanks for reading, bye!

Okay, kidding, come back! Great, now listen up! Don’t cut Mantis Rider from your maindeck. You can cut some after board in certain matchups but the card is just so good on offense and defense that it even feels good when it dies. Outside of more fringe things like Silkwrap the card usually dies to crackling doom or Abzan Charm. These cards are great in your opponent’s hand, especially Abzan Charm. I’ve been experimenting with cutting a few riders on the draw in the mirror. I would keep them in on the play. Since the matchup often plays like a control mirror the Rider will hit them a few times then die and not really garner an advantage. At least that’s the idea, in theory. My opponents usually kill me with double Rider with a Negate backup. It’s interesting that when the Jeskai deck was first built after Khans came out I would never play Rider into Abzan Charm because all you needed it to be was 3 damage. Now I’m happy to get my Rider charmed since it means they can’t use the charm to go up a card. This is a function of the deck being way less aggressive. Now it plays similar to modern Grixis control when the first incarnation was more like the old uwr Geist Burn deck. That’s basically all I’ve got this week, thanks for reading and check back next week when I start talking about the players champs at the end of the month.

Bonus decklist!

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