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Costa Success – Examining Jeskai Heroic

When I first saw the list that won the Standard Open last weekend, I really liked how streamlined it looked—but I have to admit I didn’t immediately recognize how truly powerful it is. After a couple days of practice, I can say with confidence that Jeskai Heroic is the real deal.

The deck’s win % after untapping with Jeskai Ascendancy is staggering, and unlike other iterations, you don’t need to assemble a four-card combo to win. Flooding the board with any 2 or 3 creatures usually gets the job done. It’ s surprisingly easy to attack for 15-20 damage the turn after playing Ascendancy, putting your opponent dead or insurmountably far behind.

A low land count makes looting and cantrips much more likely to find a relevant spell, and Springleaf Drum acts like a land that triggers prowess, not to mention enabling an infinite combo with any two creatures, Retraction Helix, and Jeskai Ascendancy.

The Springleaf Drum/Helix combo is particularly potent when combined with the haste ability on Monastery Swiftspear and Akroan Crusader tokens. You are fully capable of winning starting with just an Ascendancy in play at the beginning of your turn.

My adventures with the deck started with Ivan Jen’s 1st place list:

The first thing I noticed about this list was how weak Seeker of the Way is as a game-one card. In game one, you are focused on being as linear and combo-oriented as possible. Seeker rarely gets cast when it is drawn in game one, and is a liability in your nut draws where a one-mana creature would be better. Seeker is obviously one of the best cards against aggro and is one of the most powerful individual threats in the deck. That said, I think it doesn’t fit in enough with your pre-board game plan and should be relegated to the sideboard (where I would play the full four).

I also believe that Lagonna-Band Trailblazer is better than Favored Hoplite. This may be blasphemous to traditional heroic players out there, but this deck is absolutely focused on having a guy that sticks in play so you can untap with Ascendancy and a creature. Surviving Lightning Strike, Magma Jet, Bile Blight, and Anger of the Gods is huge. The Trailblazer also makes playing your cantrips (Dragon Mantle, Defiant Strike) into open mana much less risky. Favored Hoplite might be a better card when you are going beatdown, but the Trailblazer is also able to block many cheap creatures (Fleecemane Lion, etc), so I think it’s generally a better choice as a four-of.

The mana base for the original list is also a little off. Shivan Reef is almost strictly worse than the 4th Mana Confluence, considering how few colorless symbols there are in the deck (only Springleaf Drum after cutting Seekers from the main). I’ve also been very impressed with the scry lands, so I added a Temple of Epiphany over the second Reef.

Magma Jet is also a confusing card for the sideboard. In my mind, interaction in a deck like this should come in rarely and be as cheap as possible. The scry ability on Magma Jet is nice, but I don’t think it outweighs the one-mana difference of Magma Spray. I could see playing Lightning Strike as well if you find yourself wanting burn as a reach spell or to answer a particular 3-mana creature. In general though, I see this slot as for the other Heroic decks and aggro, where Magma Spray is much better.

After playing for a full day on Magic Online with deck, here is my current list:

Updated Deck List

Treasure Cruise is a sideboard card specifically for Thoughtseize decks. These decks are often capable of interacting/ripping apart your hand in a way that makes “going off” by looting with Ascendancy very difficult. Cruise is good against any attrition matchup, but is also there to help restart the engine.

Tips and Tricks for Playing Jeskai Heroic

I generally like to play my scry lands and Monasteries early rather than a turn-1 creature. The 1 or 2 incremental damage usually isn’t worth setting up your library and developing your mana. Often, you want to slow roll your creatures anyway if you only have 1 or 2 to make sure they are in play to be targeted by your cantrips, get boosted by Ascendancy, or be protected by Gods Willing.

Against removal-heavy decks, you can wait to play any creatures until after you have Ascendancy in play to make every single one into a bonafide threat. This also forces your opponent to play removal on turns 3-5, which is where they would normally be casting their threats on curve.

Akroan Crusader is without a doubt your best creature. If you sense removal, play other creatures first to protect it. Turn-3 Ascendancy into turn-4 Crusader with some spells in hand will often win the game by itself.

Keep borderline hands with Ascendancy and mulligan borderline hands without it. The card is better than the rest of your deck combined, and is often the only thing that matters from either side.

For those who don’t know, the “Springleaf Drum Combo” is 1 Springleaf Drum, 1 Retraction Helix, 1 Jeskai Ascendancy, and 2 creatures. Only 1 of these creatures (the one targeted by Retraction Helix) has to be unaffected by summoning sickness. The other creature (the one you use for mana with Springleaf Drum) can be summoning sick. You repeatedly bounce Springleaf Drum, breaking even on mana and trigger Ascendancy repeatedly (looting to whatever you need). This combo should give you two extremely large creatures and the ability to bounce a blocker as long as you have a spell in hand to untap your attacker. You can also dig to Gods Willing to push through a more complex board.

Sideboarding

This is the part of the deck that I’m working on the most right and now and continuing to learn about. Ivan Jen had Chasm Skulker as his sideboard threat of choice. However, I’ve found the Skulker to be a bit too resource intensive, which is awkward in sideboarded games where your opponents are capable of interacting more meaningfully. That said, I do like the plan of becoming a bit less combo and a bit more beatdown oriented in some matchups, shaving Retraction Helix and Springleaf Drum for threats and protection.

One way to do this is with Seeker of the Way and either Mantis Rider or Goblin Rabblemaster—becoming a low curve Jeskai aggro deck with Gods Willing and Ajani’s Presence to protect your creatures.

My instinct is that Rabblemaster is better, because it hits much harder and is easier to cast. Flying is less relevant when you have Gods Willing to push through blockers. Rabblemaster definitely fits into the class of cards that win the game on their own, which is the type of sideboard threat a combo deck looks for.

Another option would be to continue the theme of “going wide,” sideboarding a package of Raise the Alarm and Spear of Heliod. I’ve yet to test this idea, but I think it has some promise. It unfortunately makes Gods Willing worse and Ascendancy better, which may not be the right way to approach sideboarding.

Against Aggro

In these matchups you usually want to cut down on Helix and Drum because they are close to dead without each other, and you don’t really need to combo to win. Ascendancy will pretty much always beat an aggro deck especially if you have an Akroan Crusader. Seeker of the Way will do the job on its own fairly often as well.

Weak Maindeck Cards:

Strong Sideboard Cards:

Against Green Devotion

Certainly one of your best matchups as they have a slow clock and no meaningful way to interact. I could have no sideboard at all and feel comfortable with the matchup. In theory the bad cards are Titan’s Strength and Lagonna-Band Trailblazer.

I would essentially just cut one of each for two Negates and call it a day.

Against Abzan

This is another matchup I think is pretty good. They don’t have a particularly fast clock but also don’t have such a huge suite of disruption that you get locked out of the game. I like keeping the combo in here, but also really like Treasure Cruise to help deal with the attrition element.

Weak Maindeck Cards:

Strong Sideboard Cards:

Against Jeskai

This is a complicated matchup because their deck takes so many different forms. I think game one is pretty favorable, since they have trouble interacting with Ascendancy if you can keep their burn spells off your creatures. Lagonna-Band Trailblazer and Gods Willing really shine here. After sideboard they likely have Anger of the Gods and ways to deal with Ascendancy.

I don’t have a specific sideboard plan for this matchup, since it seems to be based on feel/how they choose to sideboard. Jeskai Charm is definitely the only maindeck card you really want to cut, though I would also shave pieces of the combo. The Raise the Alarm plan would be good here, but I don’t necessarily love running Rabblemaster into all their removal. Treasure Cruise is good here as well.

Against UB Control

This is a bad matchup. I think you want to fully sideboard out the combo, expecting the game to go long. Since they don’t have a ton of sweepers, going wide is a reasonable plan. I would go:

Remove

Add

Problems

The fundamental problem for this deck is an opponent who is capable of interacting directly with Ascendancy. This usually takes the form of Thoughtseize, Banishing Light, countermagic, or Erase.

Erase and countermagic are the biggest problems, since at least with Thoughtseize you don’t waste mana on Ascendancy and have the opportunity to topdeck it. Banishing Light is beatable by going off all in one turn with Ascendancy or by using Retraction Helix to bounce it. You can also use Helix to protect from Erase, but this is much more difficult. Generally most of these spells combined with significant pressure will spell your doom unless you draw a redundant copy of Ascendancy.

However, unlike traditional Ascendancy combo decks, we have pressure of our own to force the opponent to have an answer quickly and not just focus on beating the enchantment.

I’m really excited about this Jeskai Heroic deck moving forward. It’s really powerful, well positioned, and fun to play. You have an insanely good primary plan, but also a number of backup plans—to the point that it’s unclear which one is best. I like that the deck can play an aggro role and punish opponents for mulligans, bad draws, and mistakes in sideboarding or understanding of the matchup. The fact that you have a combo to win out of nowhere also makes the deck really difficult to play against.

Unfortunately there isn’t a Standard tournament in person for me to play this at in the next couple weeks, so I’ll be resigned to Magic Online for the time being.

And now on to Legacy…

Thanks for reading,

Matt Costa

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