Going undefeated on Day One of the Pro Tour is not an easy feat. With the literal gathering of the world's greatest players to contend against, building steam for a run a Top 8 can't go better than earning the perfect 8-0 start.
Eric Severson, two-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor, managed to turn a 3-0 Draft into that record of excellence with a perfect start for Standard as well. Aiming for a breakthrough performance at the Pro Tour was a tough order, but Severson was trying with his version of Dark Jeskai.
"I definitely didn't think of this deck," admitted Eric Severson. "It's definitely a known entity."
What made it something of a not surprise for the weekend? "It's almost the deck that was doing well right at the end of the last Standard format," Severson said. "The very first Pro Tour it was a thing, but I thought Jeskai strategies were terrible up until Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. It's very powerful and it has made Jeskai a top strategy. Some even played it at the last Pro Tour. It is one of the more powerful decks."
What changed? It was less what Jeskai picked up and more what every other deck lost. "After Pro Tour [Magic Origins] the Jeskai decks really broke out. With rotation, Jeskai lost nothing, so it was obvious that Jeskai would be a good deck."
Eric Severson's undefeated record on Day One was fueled thanks to his draft prowess as well as his Dark Jeskai deck.
So what did Jeskai gain? It's the reason the "Dark" is running in front of Jeskai these days. "Jeskai doesn't want black," Severson said. "It's really a function of the mana base with Battle for Zendikar lands. If you were playing an allied shard, you could just play allied fetches and lands and be set. It turns out that Flooded Strand can't access red mana. You need to play these off-color lands like Sunken Hollow and you get the black for free."
So what is the Jeskai deck doing with black cards? "Crackling Doom is a great card. It gets Siege Rhino and always hits their best threat and adds extra damage," Severson said. "You're really a midrange deck that can attack from a lot of angles. In testing, we never found a deck that was really good against Jeskai. I tested with it all week and had the most experience with it. It's why I went for it for this weekend." A Day One feature match between eventual Top 8 contender and fifth-ranked Owen Turtenwald and Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Makihito Mihara showed the power of Crackling Doom along with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy transformed into Jace, Telepath Unbound: By using the +1 loyalty ability to manipulate the power of a creature, Crackling Doom cleared out a Dragonmaster Outcast poised to begin making Dragons for Mihara, instead of a 2/2 Knight Ally token.
So how does Jeskai play out? "It can play a more controlling came—card draw, cheap removal—and it's got the best sideboard in the format. You get Duress against control, and Radiant Flames against red or even white life gain cards. I cut Arashin Cleric at the last minute, but it's in there if you want it. It's also a fun deck. You feel like you always have a good game going on."
"I think it's going to be a deck as long as Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is legal in Standard," said Severson. "I think Jace in the Bring to Light deck is even better. Our Jace 'just' gets answers, but there Jace can flashback a Siege Rhino."
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy was a pivotal point about the deck. "From our testing, we learned you have to kill Jace no matter what," Severson said. "I had a decision in a game earlier today: Play a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or spend five mana to Exert Influence my opponent's Jace. If he gets to untap with the Jace, I'll lose to his well-stocked graveyard, so I spent five mana to 'kill' his Jace."
What else is critical to the Jeskai plan? "Dig Through Time," Severson said without hesitation. "Definitely Dig Through Time, and some decks play Treasure Cruise instead." Top 8 contender Martin Müller's take on Jeskai Tokens used a suite of Treasure Cruise to keep the plan going there. "The main reason one would play Treasure Cruise is the mana: Getting all your colors is easy, but getting two copies of a specific color is hard. We made some concessions in our mana to cast Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. If you want to cast something like Thunderbreak Regent and run Draconic Roar, you might play Treasure Cruise instead. It's a different option, but one of those two will be in it."
So what is Hangarback Walker doing in the mix? What does it bring to the deck? "The only real combo we have with Hangarback Walker is Gideon," Severson said. "If we have a lot of Thopters, the Gideon is powerful, but we just hope it's going to be annoying, gumming up the ground. It's less good in our decks than others, and not a great as something like Christian Calcano's Blue-Black [Aristocrats] deck. It's never impressed me. It's just really annoying for your opponent."
Is there anything that sets Jeskai apart from other blue strategies available? "There's no hard counters, and Disdainful Stroke is just in the sideboard," said Severson. "But I have two Commands that are in the main. The first is Ojutai's Command. The better mode is to counter a creature and draw card. Countering Wingmate Roc is great. If it just did that—counter a creature and draw a card for four mana—it's not enough, but the reason it's really impressive is the returning a creature mode is awesome. Putting Jace, Vryn's Prodigy back onto the battlefield is awesome. There's also Dragonmaster Outcast. For some decks, it's really hard to just kill a 1/1. If they kill it you can just end-step it back onto the battlefield and get Dragons right away off Ojutai's Command."
"We also have a one-of Silumgar's Command," Severson continued. "You can't play more than one because of the mana requirement, but it really shines in the mirror. Planeswalkers are really hard to kill and it's a great answer for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar: You can untap to kill Gideon and the Knight token by bouncing that. I've also killed both sides of Jace at once—the transformed and creature side were both on the battlefield. With the Dragonmaster Outcast around, they'll want to kill it. You can respond by countering their spell and killing their creature instead."
Severson had another example of how Silumgar's Command paid off. "Against an opponent earlier today, I cast it to bounce Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury and kill my own Hangarback Walker at 3/3 to have Thopters to block with," he explained. "I've been very impressed with it."
Severson summed the deck up succinctly: "You just have a lot of flexibility You have a lot of ways to answer things, and that makes it a hard deck to play against. The rule is to kill Jace, Vryn's Prodigy if possible, but it's got a lot of other powerful threats."