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Stark Reality – Finding the Perfect Jeskai

Most of the time, I play a lot more Limited than Standard, so that’s usually what I write about. But I’ve been covering Standard events at GP San Antonio and The World Magic Cup, I practiced a bunch of Standard to familiarize myself with the format, and then had a bird’s eye view of a ton of Standard.

Standard is awesome right now. I don’t know if I have ever seen a format like this one and I have been playing a long time. There are endless variations on every deck. The best decks are beatable by just about anything, and the cards available allow you to accomplish pretty much whatever you want.

More often than not, in a format with a card pool as limited as Standard, there usually isn’t that much variation in the lists of the top decks. Just look at the previous Standard format. Once the decks were established, the top decks were Mono-Black, Mono-Blue, and Esper Control. Sure, some people playing Mono-Blue played 2 Rapid Hybridizations and 2 Bidents of Thassa while other people went with 3 Rapid Hybridizations and only 1 Bident. Mono-Black lists were very similar as well. Usually in a Grand Prix if you saw 2 Mono-Black, 2 Esper, or 2 Mono-Blue decks in the Top 8 they were virtually indistinguishable.

It wasn’t really until Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx came out that we saw whole new versions of those decks. And even then, the differing versions like the BW Control deck that William Jensen and Owen Turtenwalk piloted to a Top 8 in Pro Tour M15 were still more similar to their predecessors (in this case mono-black) than Mike Sigrist’s Abzan Aggro was to the Abzan Control deck that Ari Lax won Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir with.

These 2 decks, while the exact same colors, are completely different decks. Usually with such a limited card pool available, there will be one clear best way to build around Siege Rhino. It is extremely rare for one person to put it next to Elspeth and another to pair it with Heir of the Wilds.

Or take a look at the Jeskai decks we have seen in the 2 months since Khans of Tarkir’s release. At the Pro Tour, I had the best Constructed record in the Swiss at 8-1-1 with TeamCFB’s Jeskai list, which had all the aggressive creatures the deck normally plays (Mantis Rider, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Seeker of the Way), but Josh decided we needed to also be able to be the control deck against Abzan Midrange because their removal was good enough to keep us off our aggro game, so we played 3 Nullifys and 3 Dig Through Times. I think it’s pretty fair to call our list Jeskai Midrange.

Meanwhile, Yuuya Wattanabe made Top 8 with a list with Brimaz and Gods Willing main and zero Nullifys or Dig Through Times. His deck is clearly much more aggressive and I would call his list Jeskai Aggro. And I’m not done yet. Shaun Mclaren made the finals of the Pro Tour with a list playing only 1 Seeker of the Way and a few sweepers main. His list isn’t aggressive at all and it would be most accurate to call his list Jeskai Control.  Oh yeah, and here at Worlds Yuuya cut the Mantis Riders/Brimaz/Gods Willing from his PT deck to play Jeskai Ascendancy, Raise the Alarm, and Hordeling Outburst. This results in a build that is much more synergistic and plays out like a combo deck.

In San Antonio, we saw 7 different decks Top 8 the tournament. We might be used to this in formats like Legacy or Modern where there are way more cards available, but that is virtually unheard of in Standard. The best decks are usually very tough to beat, but that’s just not the case in Standard right now. Decks like Faeries, Jund, Caw-blade, or even Mono-Black Control last year are tough to gain percentage against. Since you have to go really far out of your way to get an acceptable win rate against them you usually end up really hurting your deck against most of the other decks.

In current Standard, Abzan variants may be the best decks available in a vacuum because Courser, Caryatid, and Siege Rhino are 3 of the top 10 cards available in Standard and they work very well in the same deck, but they don’t create some massive insurmountable synergy. They simply fit in the same deck nicely. This results in a best deck that is very beatable with only small tweaks to the next-best decks, such as Nullifys in Jeskai. This means that you really can play anything. And as a result, we see extremely diverse fields and lots of variations on the top decks.

This is important to look out for because often people will work and work and work to make something that beats the best deck, but if it requires too many adjustments, then you may need to take a hard look at your finished product—it likely will not remain very good against the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th most-played decks in the format. In situations like these, it is usually better to just play the best deck or play the 2nd-best deck and just prioritize the cards you already have that are good against the best deck.

If I were entering a Standard tournament this weekend, I would play an aggressive Jeskai build. The decks coming out of Worlds and the World Magic Cup all sought to go over the top of each other, so I think a deck with a quick clock is where you want to be. This is the list I would run:

Given the variation in the top decks, it’s pretty hard to write a meaningful sideboard guide so I’m just going to cover the most basic matchups.

Against Abzan Midrange-Control

Out

In

(The Erase is in the dark, if I see Whip I bring in the 2nd Erase for 1 Jeskai Charm)

Against Sidisi Whip

Out

In

It probably looks wierd boarding out Rabblemaster and Seeker and Gods Willing in, but in this matchup they usually get random ground dudes going with Doomwake/Sidisi that make Rabblemaster pretty bad. I am interested in being able to protect Mantis Rider and burning them out. Your goals are to hit with Mantis Rider and protect it with Gods Willing, and keep Whip and Hornet Queen off the table.

In most matchups the board plan depends on exactly what they are playing. It is better to under-board. In general you bring in the Gods Willing against decks that rely on spot removal to take out Mantis Rider. You don’t board it in in matchups where you are the control deck. In those matchups, you usually board out Jeskai Charm and whatever else seems weak against their particular deck.

I think this list is tier 1, but not substantially better than other tier 1 lists. Worlds was won by Shahar Shenhar playing Sidisi Whip. GP San Antonio was won by Ryan Scullin playing Mardu Midrange. Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir was won by Ari Lax playing Abzan Control. It wouldn’t be surprising to me at all if GP Denver is won by someone playing Jeskai. Right now I think Sidisi and BG variants, Jeskai, Mardu, Abzan, UB Control, and UW Heroic can all be considered tier 1. I would play this because I am familiar with Jeskai and because I think it’s well positioned.

If you want to do well in Standard, I recommend learning your deck and tuning it well, so you can have the right list for that weekend but don’t worry about which deck is actually the best. Treat it more like Modern or Legacy. Your top priority should be to understand your deck through and through so you can sideboard well against everything and play the deck at a high level.

Thanks for reading and while you are here, I just wanted to mention that for the first time in four years I will not be testing with team ChannelFireball for the next Pro Tour. I know how rumors tend to fly so I just wanted to speak briefly about this choice. First, I had no serious disagreements with any of the members or they with me. I haven’t really been enjoying long weeks playing a large amount of Constructed Magic, and if anything I have stayed working with the team despite that, because of how much respect I have for the group and because of how much generosity and leniency they have given me during the testing so that it could remain enjoyable for me. In particular, I think Luis has done an incredible job managing the group and I think Josh Utter-Leyton is the best Constructed mind in the world by miles. His ability to constantly innovate and have us one step ahead of the field, tourney after tourney, made it very difficult to leave the group. This will not affect my making content or affliation with this site.

I have constantly been impressed by ChannelFireball ownership and management, just as I was by the playtest team and this is where I plan to remain for the foreseeable future. I am going to attempt to test mostly online for a short period of time for the Pro Tour and am joining up with Paul Rietzl, Matt Sperling, Bob Maher, Dave Williams, Neil Reeves, and Lucas Siow to do this.

Right now we have a very small group, so if you think that playing Magic Online the week before the Pro Tour and sharing ideas in a private online forum is a good fit for you and what you are looking for, feel free to shoot me a Facebook message. I have nothing but appreciation for all the hard work TeamCFB has put in over the years. It has resulted in numerous great PT finishes for me, of course exemplified by my win at PT Paris with Caw-blade, a deck that I didn’t personally contribute a single card choice to.

This change may be permanent or I may wish to rejoin a testing team at some point in the future, my main goal is to look forward to every Pro Tour and to enjoy the testing and play. I’ll be taking it one Pro Tour at a time and see how it goes.

Covering the World Magic Cup was very high on the list of the most enjoyable Magic experiences I have ever had, thank you to everyone who helped make that possible.

Thanks for all the love and support.

Ben

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