Following Up With UB Control, Jeskai, and Abzan

If you haven’t read my article last week, I recommend giving it a once-over if you’re interested in the Immense Red or Esper decks. Today I’ll talk about Jeskai Tokens/Dragons and Abzan Aggro. First, a little more on UB Ojutai because I see people playing with it or against it on Twitch and it’s like watching an episode of Seconds from Disaster.

This deck and the normal UB Control decks are incredibly difficult to play and I’ll often take what I think is a reasonable line and realize a few turns later that I had done something completely wrong. Sometimes the deck is powerful enough to bail you out, but we no longer live in a world where Sphinx’s Revelation for 5+ solves everything. Or where we can just jam Pack Rat, make a few more Rats and try to race.

The mirror match in is a kind of Magic you simply never see anymore—an honest-to-God draw-go mirror that you can’t easily win by getting ahead. Seriously, you cannot win the mirror. In fact, trying to win the mirror is usually the worst way you can actually play the match. You can craft a plan to actually win, but doing so is incredibly hard versus just letting your opponent throw the game instead. The most common way I’ve seen people win is via Silumgar, the Drifting Death, simply because both players are trying to win the game and one player ran out of ways to take it out. The most common way I’ve seen people win the game when one player is familiar with the mirror is via decking.

Drawing cards in the control mirror is normally great, but historically there have been a few control matchups where getting far ahead on cards doesn’t accomplish all that much. This is one of those times. The only upside to drawing a bunch of cards early (early being before your 9th or 10th land drop) is that you can keep the lands rolling along. Otherwise, in game one both of you have roughly 20-22 noncreature spells that interact with your win conditions, depending on the exact build. That is a huge number when many of these decks only have 5-8 ways to win the game.

Here’s a complete list of the removal package that interacts with anything that isn’t Silumgar, the Drifting Death or Pearl Lake Ancient:

And cards that simply don’t care:

This isn’t even counting the occasions where the Dragons effectively negate each other.

The best way to win via normal means and not decking, especially game one, is going to gain a large mana advantage and then set up a turn where you can control the fight. Just having more cards than the opponent is worthless if you both have the same amount of mana, let alone if the opponent has more. Post-board it’s much easier since so many of the dead removal spells can be swapped with additional discard. The ideal play then is something along the lines of:

  • Wait until you have 3-4 more mana than the opponent and ideally multiple discard spells.
  • End of opponent’s turn—cast uncounterable Dragonlord’s Prerogative to go past the card limit.
  • Untap, draw for turn up to 11, play a land, fire off a Thoughtseize or Duress, and go to town. The most important goal is to get precious information and control the flow of the fight. This is why having multiple discard spells and Prerogative available to you is so important. There’s no shame in disengaging from a fight and if the opponent just blasts off his own Prerogative and lays down a 10-card hand, then your best plan is to just ship the turn.

Understand that once you decide to commit to being aggressive in the mirror, it’s hard to turn that off, since you have to force the opposition to start drawing cards or you’ll be the first one to deck. This is why people have been revisiting Pearl Lake Ancient as a possibility in the sideboard, though if you fall too behind on mana by saving your PLA, the opponent can take that aggressive stance with impunity.

As for more on the Esper Dragons deck, I highly recommend reading Paulo Vitor’s writeup.

Jeskai Tokens by Eric Froehlich

With Jeskai the main selling points are that you have access to Jeskai Ascendancy, which is easily the most powerful card in the format, and Treasure Cruise, which is the cheapest big draw spell in the format. Secure the Wastes was a huge addition for this deck as it can now afford to play a sweeper effect and one-shot players out of nowhere. Dragonlord Ojutai is the other big addition that was less talked about but nonetheless important to have against Virulent Plague and decks that are good at handling the token hordes.

The biggest issue with this deck is the potential clunkiness of the draws. Goblin Rabblemaster in particular lost a lot of value and is always going to be at odds with Jeskai Ascendancy on turn three. I cannot stress how much better the deck is with Ascendancy on the field, and the increase in spot removal and red decks makes me less happy with Rabblemaster. While I understand it’s a powerful card, I’d prefer a Seeker of the Way or Soulfire Grand Master for better on-curve plays and life gain. One of the biggest threats is getting pelted down early so that you just die to burn even after stabilizing. A third Secure the Wastes also feels appropriate since as a flex card it can be used so well on offense or defense.

Disdainful Stroke is another interesting choice and speaks to how much this iteration seeks to take advantage of end-stepping spells. Considering that two of the most popular choices at the Pro Tour ended up being GR Devotion and Dragons, this was not a bad call at all. It also keeps UB and Esper from easily refilling and is only truly dead against the red decks.

Moving forward, based on the higher presence of red decks and increase in spot removal, I’d prefer any creatures be 2-drops or Dragonlord Ojutai. I also want the third Secure the Wastes and potentially a maindeck End Hostilities or two to keep Abzan and GR in line when you don’t get heavy removal draws. My friend Michael Boland has been battling with his own Jeskai Tokens deck for a while with a more controlling take. He recently won a PPTQ, slaying me in the semifinals and beating up a number of GR Devotion and Abzan players on his way to victory. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion has also been one of the best cards in his deck and it’s surprisingly only a 1-of here. While Virulent Plague is a concern, I find that overblown when you can easily win with Ojutai or even the immense card drawing power to find Erase.

Jeskai Dragons by Patrick Dickmann

Well I’ll say this for Dickmann’s deck choice, he really hates small creature decks and Forests. Everything in this deck punishes creatures for having less than 4 toughness and the Scorns interfere with any dreams of jamming Dragonlord Atarka and winning on the spot. Meanwhile the Dragon brigade provides a reasonable clock, though the deck is definitely on the slow side of the spectrum. Instead of bridging the gap between controlling to winning in a few turns like tokens can with Jeskai Ascendancy, this Jeskai deck has to do it the hard way.

That’s the biggest weakness I see with the deck: while everyone else is streamlining or buffing up their threats, this deck sort of just meanders. It’s a respectable control deck that can shift into attacking, but it doesn’t hit particularly hard and everyone has adjusted their decks to deal with 4/4s already. At a glance it’s worse than the Esper deck in every way, except that it has a much better red matchup. Of course, the power of this kind of deck can be deceptive and this deck may play out better than it looks.

Honestly though? Being good against red may be enough to make the cut because of how popular red has become in many metagames. I certainly can’t see beating a Wild Slash into Twin Bolt. You also don’t have to deal with a horrific Island mirror and can lean on Stubborn Denial. What I like about Patrick’s choice is that it knows what it wants to do. If you want to run Silumgar’s Scorn, you need controlling elements and want to hold open mana. If you want to jam Mantis Rider on turn three it doesn’t make a ton of sense to run a counterspell and clunky Dragons while it also hurts your ability to run Anger of the Gods or more expensive removal.

For my final deck of the day, we have Brad Nelson’s 9-1 Abzan Aggro list.

Abzan Aggro by Brad Nelson

The key to this otherwise standard-looking Abzan Aggro deck is Surrak, the Hunt Caller. While some players have toyed with him, this deck isn’t messing around and jams three while moving Wingmate Roc to the board. This deck just wants to bash with him on turn four and then hasting up a Rhino on turn five for victory. Not only is Surrak a reasonable threat on his own, but he makes all your other cards that much scarier.

Of course post-board there’s nothing that says you have to stick with that strategy. The mix of Thoughtseize, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and Wingmate Roc can alter the composition of your threats quite nicely. Unlike a normal aggro deck, you can work around a player with a ton of removal by playing a longer game. That Warden of the First Tree, Fleecemane Lion, and Rakshasa Deathdealer are such great mana sinks really lets you control your commitment to the board.

Little touches can make a huge difference in how these decks play out and Brad’s deck is a good example of that. Moving forward, this will likely be the most netdecked Abzan Aggro deck, but I encourage you to look at why these choices were made and if and how you want to transition the deck for post-board play. You can try to help the opponent stumble with discard or you can try to control the flow of the game with resilient threats and planeswalkers. Just have a plan.

I’m really excited to be playing Standard. The variety is pretty great and the haymaker Magic has been toned down to decks that need to make real sacrifices in deck design to do so. Yes, Dragonlord Atarka is a ridiculous Magic card, it also costs 7 and dies to common spot removal. Losing to a turn-three Goblin Rabblemaster is a far cry from losing to Geist of Saint Traft. There’s more skill than just sequencing, which is how it started to feel with Pack Rats and Revelations flying around—and that’s a great thing.

I mean arguably five of the best creatures in the format are Dragons, that’s pretty sweet in its own way.

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