Dark Jeskai Rising

Posted in Top Decks on October 30, 2015

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).

We are now in the phase of Standard where there is a clear deck to beat, which I don't mind. As long as that deck isn't oppressive, which is not a point we've hit yet, having a public enemy number one is an interesting difference from there being a bunch of good decks. Not every format hits this point, and I like getting the varied experiences that come with some formats having an obvious winner and some not.

In case there is any doubt as to which deck is this frontrunner, take a look at the Top 8 from last weekend's Grand Prix in Quebec:

  • 4 Dark Jeskai (winner)
  • 1 Red-Green Eldrazi Ramp
  • 1 Four-Color Rally the Ancestors
  • 1 Abzan Midrange
  • 1 Esper Control

The Top 8 was half Dark Jeskai, and the finals featured a mirror match, which is a pretty strong sign that the deck is a good one. It's not conclusive evidence that the deck is the best, but it's another data point to add to the pile.

It turns out the Pantheon (the team that made the most popular and now stock version of the deck) was on to something, and were rewarded with two team members in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour. Since then, the deck has crept up in overall percentage, which, combined with playtesting, has convinced me and many others I know that it is the undisputed best deck in the format. I mentioned this earlier, but to clarify, being the "best deck" doesn't mean being the only deck by any stretch—it just means it's ahead of the other decks. Dark Jeskai isn't broken and hasn't hit a level where it's problematic to the format's balance, it's just a very robust and powerful deck in a sea of strong Standard decks. For more on the creation of the deck, Kai Budde wrote a primer on it, which is a very good read.

Here's what the winning list looked like, piloted by Dan Lanthier.

Daniel Lanthier's Dark Jeskai—Top 8, GP Quebec City

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Something within five cards of this list is what you can expect to face multiple times in any Standard tournament you join, so what can we do with this information? Let's take a look at some cards and strategies that are strong against Dark Jeskai.

Ugin is one of the best cards in the format against this deck. Ugin is an absurdly powerful card, but the reason I like it against Jeskai specifically is because of how it interacts with the deck's answers. Playing an Ugin against a Jeskai opponent who has Ojutai's Command and Dispel in hand is a great feeling, and the Jeskai deck will often be unable to answer the Ugin once it hits the board. Additionally, you will often have time to get to eight mana, as Dark Jeskai is more of a control deck than an aggro deck, and will often spend its turns getting value from Commands or Jace instead of playing threats and attacking. Part of the reason Jeskai gives its opponents extra time is that they often can't use that time to play a card the Jeskai deck cares about, and Ugin changes that.

Two Ugin decks made Top 8, and I have to imagine that part of that success was on the back of casting Ugin against Jeskai.

Reid Duke's Esper Control—Top 8, GP Quebec City

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Reid's deck is a control deck designed to survive until he can cast Ugin, and he even has Mage-Ring Network to support that plan.

Look at the breakdown of Reid's deck:

Besides two Ugins and the lone Arashin Cleric (which basically counts as a removal spell for early creatures), Reid's deck is only card draw and removal. If that's not an Ugin deck, I don't know what is.

All Reid wants to do is sit there and activate Mage-Ring Network, while using removal spells to make sure he doesn't die before he can end the game with Ugin. To be fair, that's Reid's general strategy in Magic, but it's the clearest with this deck, and he has done well for himself with the strategy.

Reid's deck wasn't the only Ugin deck in the Top 8, and at two Ugins, it only had half as many as the deck with the most. Yes, there was a four-Ugin deck in the Top 8, which is an Ugin deck beyond doubt.

Jake Mondello's Red-Green Eldrazi—Top 8, GP Quebec City

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Another deck that came out of the Pro Tour—although it flew a little under the radar there—Red-Green Eldrazi was brewed up by Mike Sigrist from Team Face to Face Games. Like Reid's deck, this is a very single-minded strategy. And if Reid was trying to stall until Ugin, this deck is clearly trying to just turbo Ugin out.

Again, the breakdown is telling:

Replace the removal spells from Esper with mana acceleration, and you have basically the same underlying skeleton. Jake Mondello played more big threats than Reid did, but that's because Red-Green Eldrazi doesn't get Dig Through Time or Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, so it needs more ways to make sure it has a game-ender in hand once it gets to seven or more mana.

So, casting Ugin is good. Are there any other ways to attack Dark Jeskai (and the format as a whole)?

Ugin goes over the top of Jeskai, so another approach is to play Rally the Ancestors...and go over the top. Hey, powerful cards do some work, and the Rally deck is a very powerful option indeed.

Pascal Maynard's Four-Color Rally—Top 8, GP Quebec City

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This is a very strange deck if you haven't seen it before, but the game plan is almost as simple as the previous two decks (even if the execution is anything but).

There are a ton of individual card interactions, but the base idea really is that easy. Elvish Visionary, Jace, and Grim Haruspex draw you a bunch of cards, often letting you chain Rally into another Rally, and Catacomb Sifter scrys enough to do the same. If you manage to sacrifice all your creatures before Rally exiles them, you have no fear of your second Rally being weak, and Jace even flips himself to avoid the Rally trigger. Again I have a deck guide for you, written by the creator of the deck. I tend to like getting that information from the source, so I'd recommend reading it (and Matt Nass did go 7-3 at the Pro Tour with the deck, which is a strong follow-up). I also played the deck in a set of videos, if you want to see it in action.

The reason Rally has some game against Dark Jeskai is because it doesn't care about so many of the cards Jeskai plays. When it goes off with Rally, there is no number of Crackling Dooms, Ojutai's Commands, or Tasigurs that matter. Really the only cards that do matter are Dispel and Mantis Rider. If the Rally deck isn't under pressure, it can use Jace to get around Dispel, and is very good at going off multiple times if needed.

One big reason I like the idea of Rally moving forward is because of the direction I see Jeskai heading. As the mirror becomes more and more important, people are going to play more controlling cards in Jeskai, and they are going to build their decks to win more attrition battles. That plays right into Rally's hands, and it's very possible that the next wave of Jeskai lists has a significantly worse matchup against Rally.

Rally is a tricky deck to play, so I'd highly recommend practicing with it, but the payoff is there. I wish I'd played the deck at the Pro Tour, and think it's better now than it was then.

The last way to beat Jeskai follows the old saying: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Yes, playing Jeskai is a way to defeat Jeskai, even though you'd think it would be hard to get a significant edge. There are a couple ways to have an advantage, though the first one is the kind of answer most people don't want to hear.

1) Practice

This is a hard deck to play, and the mirror is very tricky. There's no overarching pattern to how it plays out, as both players are just constantly fighting to control the board and gain card advantage, which leads to a very wide range of games. I have been playing a lot with Jeskai, and it still feels like I'm learning, so this is definitely a deck that rewards a lot of practice. I happen to enjoy decks like that existing, so if you want to be the boogeyman instead of fear it, there's not much better than picking up Dark Jeskai and playing it until you've gotten very comfortable.

2) Have a controlling sideboard

I wouldn't adjust the main deck too much, as there still are way more non-Jeskai decks running around than Jeskai decks, but there's room in the sideboard to try good late-game cards. The mirror does go long, and cards such as Mastery of the Unseen, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, and Painful Truths are ways to get an edge. I don't know what the right numbers are yet, but you can see these cards appearing in many of the Top 8 lists, and being on board with this plan gives you an advantage against those who aren't.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas of where to go from here, though I do have to reiterate that this isn't a Jeskai-against-the-world format quite yet. I expect Jeskai to be the most-played deck of many tournaments, but we aren't at the point where if you can't beat Jeskai you have to go home. It is worth biasing your deck against, and knowing how to play the matchup is important, but we have a ways to go yet before I'd be concerned about format balance. I happen to like having a deck with a target on its head, even though I am planning on being that target this weekend in at Grand Prix Indianapolis. Wish me luck!


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