Digging Through Jeskai

Posted in ARCHIVES - ARTICLES on October 17, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

Now that we have the results from Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, the new season of Standard is well and truly under way. There is always plenty of interesting information leading up to the Pro Tour, but the Pro Tour tends to introduce a bunch of new decks to the metagame, as well as going a long way toward refining the decks that were already known quantities. We also get our first glimpse at decks that will retain their value long-term, and part of the trick in doing well is picking those out from the decks that were only good in the short term (or perhaps not even then).

Dig Through Time | Art by Ryan Yee

The deck I wanted to focus on today is one of the two big decks, and surprising to nobody, it's the one that gets to play Dig Through Time. That deck is Jeskai Wins (although whether that name sticks is up for debate), and there are actually a ton of ways to build it. The same is true of Abzan as well, which is going to add a lot to the longevity and replayability of this Standard format. Mono-Black and Mono-Blue Devotion had very few flex slots, so even though Jeskai and Abzan are the two biggest decks, the fact that they aren't locked into almost any particular cards makes them play in a variety of different ways. Siege Rhino and Mantis Rider are about as close as it gets to locks, with even such luminaries as Courser of Kruphix, Sylvan Caryatid, and Goblin Rabblemaster getting cut depending on the build we are talking about.

That does of course make these decks difficult to build, which is also part of the fun. You have to look at what you are trying to accomplish with your deck, other decks you are trying to beat, and how other decks are going to try and beat you. We are also early enough in the format's lifecycle that it isn't clear which cards are best even in an unknown metagame, so you need to experiment there as well.

Jeskai

As was aptly pointed out on Twitter, this deck features a Human-Insect hybrid and a spell with Delve, so how could you not call it Jeskai Delver? I think that's a hilarious observation, but given that calling a deck "____ Delver" has so much meaning already (referring to a color or themed Delver of Secrets deck), I don't actually think that name is going to stick.

There is a range of decks that could be grouped under the Jeskai Banner (though none of them are interested in the Banner itself). Today, I'm going to stick with the versions that look to attack life totals at least somewhat, although Jeskai Control is definitely a deck we tested going into the Pro Tour. The reason I think a Jeskai deck that attacks is the superior choice right now is because of how good that plan is and how few incentives there are to do otherwise. When Sphinx's Revelation was a card, the game plan of survive and cast Revelation was clearly a good one. Now that Dig Through Time is the best draw engine, that is no longer the case. Instead of surviving to cast Dig, which while good, doesn't put the game away, why not be proactive and still cast Dig? Digging into 7–8 points of burn is a very easy way to win the game, and attacking with Mantis Rider and friends puts you in that position quite frequently. It's also worth noting how flexible all the burn spells and creatures are in the current Jeskai decks. While Jeskai Charm, Stoke the Flames, and Lightning Strike are great at burning the opponent out, they also do a very good job of killing or bouncing all the opponent's threats, after which you refill with Dig. That lets even the aggressive deck play a plausible control role, and really makes me uninterested in being the pure control version (as shocking as that may be).

Given that we are attacking, that leaves the core of the deck as follows:

That's only 20 cards, leaving us plenty of room for customization, and there's a lot of that coming up.

It may be surprising to see that Goblin Rabblemaster isn't on that list, but the European team that put Ondrej Strasky into the Top 8 left out all non-fliers minus Seeker of the Way, and it worked out well for them. Similarly, Seeker of the Way showed up as only a one-of in the list that Shaun Mclaren took to the finals, and therefore also isn't a mortal lock to be in the deck (although I would recommend it).

Half of Team ChannelFireball played Jeskai, and I tested that version a lot, so I'll start there.

Team ChannelFireball Jeskai

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The main difference between this list and others is in the two-drop slot, where Josh Utter-Leyton decided to place three Nullifys (which also explains the Mana Confluence in the mana base).

This isn't a card that's seen a ton of play up to this point, but I think it's very good in the deck. Jeskai is a deck that plays amazingly from ahead, and any time you stick a threat on an empty board you are in really good shape.

We were looking for a solution to when you are on the draw, especially since you can only play 4 Lightning Strikes and Magma Jet doesn't deal with Courser of Kruphix, Mantis Rider, Fleecemane Lion, or anything green decks cast off a turn-two Sylvan Caryatid. Nullify does that perfectly, and it even stops the turn-three Polukranos or Siege Rhino that this deck basically never was beating before. The main cost is in the mana base, but that isn't an exceptionally high one, and Nullify performed quite well for most who played it.

I've talked a lot about this card recently, and even went so far as playing three copies in my Vintage Super League decklist. I honestly think the card is nuts, and it's the card I most want to draw in Jeskai (or any deck playing it) after turn five or six. I will admit that it doesn't do much in the super-fast games, but in any interactive game or game that lasts more than the five or six turns I mentioned, Dig Through Time is awesome. It's also true of this format that the vast majority of games fall into at least one of those two categories, as this isn't a turn-four kill format unless you are playing Jeskai Ascendancy (another sweet deck, and what I myself played in the Pro Tour).

Casting Dig Through Time is not difficult to do, and it provides a very powerful effect for less mana than it should cost, so I'd highly recommend anyone playing Jeskai to play at least two copies of this, and likely three. It's just too flexible to not include, as it can be two burn spells if they are low, two removal spells if you are behind, or two threats if they are at a high life total and you need recurring damage. It can even be another Dig much of the time, if you are in a position to take multiple turns to cast them, and that's a powerful option as well. Dig Through Time enhances the burn plan while also opening the door to a control plan, and that's an incredible option.

This is a staple in most Jeskai builds, and is one of the easiest ways to run away with a game. If you can stick an unopposed Rabblemaster for more than a turn, you basically always win, and there is enough removal in this deck that it's not too hard to do so. The synergy between Goblin Rabblemaster and Stoke the Flames is also awesome, as you can tap the newly created token to cast Stoke if you don't want to attack with it, making the turn-four play of Rabblemaster + Stoke very easy (you just need to have played another creature prior). That sort of mana efficiency is how you get ahead, and between that and the power to win games exceedingly quickly, it's hard to get away from Rabblemaster.

I do think it's valid to leave it out, though, as it isn't your best card against green decks that clog up the ground and it's a three-drop that dies to Magma Jet. There are definitely metagames where I can see zero Rabblemasters being the correct number.

The main question for the five-drop slot is Sarkhan vs Stormbreath Dragon, and both certainly have their merits.

They are remarkably similar, and both provide the Jeskai deck with a hard-to-kill threat that cracks for 4 in the air as soon as cast. The main advantage of Sarkhan is that he can often be a two-for-one in the face of removal, as he comes down and kills something right away. He's better against the mirror as a result, because Stormbreath will often just trade for a Stoke the Flames. Sarkhan is much worse in the face of a Siege Rhino or Abzan Charm, so depending on how much Abzan you expect and how you expect the decks to look, Stormbreath could be the pick. Both are very close, and while Sarkhan gets the edge in a less-known field (good against mirror and some of the Abzan decks), if you are good at predicting what you will face, Stormbreath could be better.

Much like Dig Through Time, I have a hard time seeing myself play Jeskai without this card, even if not all lists include it. Seeker of the Way is just way too efficient and way too threatening for its cost to leave out, especially given how awesome it can be against both aggro and control both. It's at its weakest against green devotion or Courser of Kruphix decks, so it isn't mandatory, but it's the card you want to open with every game on the play and most of the games on the draw, so playing less than four isn't something I'd advise. If the format is so green-heavy that you are considering playing no Seekers, you should probably just be playing Jeskai Ascendancy combo instead.

Yuuya Watanabe's Jeskai Wins—Top 8, Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir

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In many ways, Yuuya has the closest list to the baseline, as it plays all the cards I'd expect from a "normal" Jeskai list, with Brimaz and Gods Willing as the most unique of the bunch.

Brimaz, King of Oreskos is a great card for the mirror match and against small aggro decks, but is not very impressive against green decks.

I like this card in the sideboard, but I think it's too weak against Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino to advocate for playing it main.

I like Gods Willing a lot, and played one copy for a large part of testing. It isn't a card you necessarily want multiples of, because it requires a threat to do anything, but it's very cheap and very effective when any of your creatures gets threatened. It also can be a 3+ point burn spell later in the game, as it gets your Goblin Rabblemaster or Mantis Rider through blockers. It can be especially sick with Rabblemaster, and I can definitely see making room for one of these.

Ondrej Strasky's Jeskai Wins—Top 8, Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir

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This list is the most different of all the Jeskai lists, as it plays zero Rabblemasters and four Hushwing Gryffs, a card that didn't show up anywhere else. The idea behind this build is that it's all fliers (Ashcloud Phoenix being the backup after Gryff, Mantis Rider, and Stormbreath), with Seeker of the Way getting an exception because of his early-game prowess.

Hushwing Gryff shuts down Siege Rhino, Hornet Queen, Doomwake Giant, and Wingmate Roc, all cards that give Jeskai a ton of trouble.

Frank Karsten talks more about the logic behind Hushwing here, and having played with the card in the week since the Pro Tour, I think it is quite good against Abzan (although fairly weak in the mirror).

Phoenix is a card we tested and found to be underwhelming, but in a deck with all fliers it is a bit better.

Once you are in the spot where you don't care about ground blockers, that frees up resources you can use to just kill the opponent, and Ashcloud Phoenix is good at that. I still don't love the card, but it may have a place.

Tapping three mana on your turn to kill something with a spell that doesn't have the option of burning your opponent isn't really what this deck wants to do. This build of the deck is very much geared toward beating Abzan, and I think playing Banishing Light goes too far in that direction. I don't see this version being good enough in the mirror, as it's playing worse cards in every spot where it differs, so one way to help that is to cut the Banishing Lights.

Shaun McLaren's Jeskai Wins—Top 8, Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir

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McLaren has the most controlling version of Jeskai in the Top 8, with main deck Anger of the Gods and Banishing Lights, as well as the full four copies of Dig Through Time.

I get the idea behind this card, but I don't think it's right for what I expect Standard to be moving forward. It's way too weak against green decks, isn't really conducive to this deck's aggressive plan, and there isn't enough fast aggro to make it truly worth it.

There are times where this is a huge blowout in the mirror, but there are also times where you need any proactive card to get the job done, and this doesn't help at all.

Flying Crane Technique | Art by Jack Wang

Now that we have studied the ways of the Jeskai, what is the best build of the deck? That's certainly not clear, nor is it guaranteed (or even likely) that there's one right answer. I can suggest a list I think will be good for the field I expect coming out of the Pro Tour, but what the metagame looks like could change in an instant. Staying on top of metagame changes is a big part of success in Magic, although you can make choices that are powerful even in an unknown metagame, which gives you a bit of a safety net if you do miscalculate.

The list I'm suggesting does a good amount of that, as it is playing the most powerful card Jeskai has available (Dig Through Time), although it is definitely metagamed against Abzan. Given that Abzan won the Pro Tour and did very little losing in the Top 8, I think it is the deck to beat, and the cards that are good against Abzan happen to be great against Green Devotion as well, which is where I think many people will go to beat Abzan. Beating the most popular deck and the deck built to beat that deck is exactly where you want to be, although this deck is giving up some percentage in the mirror to do so.

Jeskai Wins

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This basically takes the list Team ChannelFireball played and the list Team Cabin in the Woods played (called such because they met in a cabin in Europe instead of in Hawaii), and merges them. With no Rabblemasters and three Hushwings (I hated drawing two in any game) plus Phoenix and Nullify, the deck is very much geared toward beating green. It also plays Digs, which gives it a ton of play at instant speed. Gryff and Nullify work very well together, and this deck can realistically pass the turn with its whole hand live for most of the game. That makes it much harder to play against, which is definitely a valuable trait.

The sideboard is pretty light on Ascendancy hate, and mostly has cards for the mirror, green decks, and random control decks. This is the list I've been trying on Magic Online, and I've liked it so far. Jeskai is a very customizable deck, so as long as your are making changes that make sense with regard to the overall game plan (i.e., don't play Gods Willing and zero Rabblemaster, or too many reactive cards that don't kill the opponent), you can build the deck in a ton of different ways. I'm curious to see what becomes the accepted "best" way, or if even such a thing reaches consensus.

I would be playing something very close to this if I were playing at GP Los Angeles this weekend (gpsocal.com), but I'll be observing and narrating the action from the vantage point of the booth instead. Coverage is always fun, and I look forward it!

LSV