While preparing for PT Aether Revolt, I was often the “enemy” in playtesting, charged with piloting Jeskai Saheeli against all of our brews. We and all major teams knew this was the deck to beat, and anything we built that didn’t beat it, or at least get close, got scrapped and we’d move on to the next idea. Time after time, Jeskai Saheeli seemed to end up on top because of how punishing a 2-card combo can be against opponents tapping out for expensive spells. Not since Splinter Twin with Deceiver Exarch has a combo this powerful and oppressive been legal in Standard.
The deck itself warps the Standard format, forcing players to play cheaper spells and creatures to avoid tapping out on their own turn so they can leave up mana to interact with the combo. Over the course of many turns, this results in the opponent using much less mana than what they had available, giving you a huge advantage.
I chose to play this deck over Mardu Vehicles, the deck the rest of CFB Ice played, because I was so comfortable with it after playing the enemy for so long in testing. The deck is resilient to “hate” cards like Authority of the Consuls or Implement of Combustion because it can play like a true control deck, winning with Torrential Gearhulks while countering spells and killing creatures with both sweepers and spot removal.
After throwing countless decks at Jeskai Saheeli, every deck we had seemed to be even with Jeskai Saheeli at best. I played this deck knowing the only matchup I didn’t want to play against was Mardu Vehicles, the team deck, because its extremely fast stats are often too much to handle.
Here is the deck I played at Pro Tour Aether Revolt:
Jeskai Saheeli might seem easy to play because you can curve Saheeli Rai into Felidar Guardian for a free win, but in reality the deck is moderately difficult to pilot. It’s important to realize what cards your opponent can have to break up the combo, such as Shock to kill Saheel Rai when it goes down to 1 loyalty, or Grasp of Darkness to kill Felidar Guardian.
Since it’s not always correct to simply go for the combo when the opponent has open mana, it’s often important to sequence your combo pieces on separate turns, leaving up Negate to counter interaction. Jamming Saheeli Rai on an open board on turn 3 is almost always correct because it forces the opponent to keep open mana or risk the game on whether you have a Felidar Guardian in your hand. Saheeli can also dig to the other part of the combo by scrying, or copy Torrential Gearhulks for card advantage and fast damage output.
Though this list is very similar to other Jeskai Saheeli decks, I tuned this version for a metagame I expected to be heavy in Mardu and other Jeskai Saheeli mirror matches. Here are the few changes to the stock lists that have been floating around:
4 Felidar Guardian: I saw some versions of the deck playing only 3 copies main deck, which is acceptable, but I really want to focus on combo’ing in game 1, and then side out some combo pieces in games 2 and 3 and focus more on controlling the game.
2 Shock: It’s important against a deck like Mardu Vehicles to play your removal on curve, so I opted to play Shock over a card like Immolating Glare or Oath of Chandra. 2-mana cards compete on the curve with Harnessed Lightning and are also huge liabilities in the mirror match. Shock, while not a premier card in mirror matches, allows you to have a 1-mana way to interact with an opponent trying to combo. The biggest strike against Shock is that it can be lackluster against B/G Constrictor because they have many creatures with 3 toughness or more.
1 Oath of Jace: Now this card is a “flex” spot in the deck, but is also in many of the stock versions. I chose to play only 1 copy because it’s a liability in aggressive matchups, since you can’t spend a turn digging for answers. In control matchups, this card can be quite good game 1 because it can filter your dead removal spells for useful cards like lands, combo pieces, and counterspells.
3 Negate: Negate is extremely important in the control matchups and mirror match, and can also counter some of the most problematic cards in the format for us, Heart of Kiran and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. As I stated before, I really wanted to focus on combo’ing in game 1 and Negate is the best way to protect your own combo while also having some flexibility in answering threats like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Heart of Kiran. In the mirror match its extremely important to counter a turn-3 Saheeli on the draw, and since we thought Jeskai Saheeli would be a big part of the metagame, I wanted to increase the number of Negate and avoid playing a card like Dispel in the main deck.
Cards I Didn’t Play
0 Nahiri, the Harbinger: In testing, Nahiri seemed to go against the grain of what the deck is trying to do. One of the major strengths of the deck is being able to play at instant speed from turn 4 on, and Nahiri, the Harbinger contradicted that. The biggest argument that could be made for this card is that it gives you a way to remove Authority of the Consuls.
0 Immolating Glare: I am not a huge fan of this card because you can’t cast it whenever you have available mana, meaning you have to cast it on your opponent’s terms. I think this is a fine card if you expect a bunch of creature matchups, and in the future would consider adding one back to the deck. The main reason I didn’t play this card is because I wanted fewer dead cards in the mirror.
The sideboard of this deck is heavily focused on combating control decks and aggro decks I expected for the Pro Tour:
2 Dispel: This card is for control matchups, and any deck I think is likely to bring in counterspells to go with their instant-speed removal to break up the combo.
4 Spell Queller: This is another part of the control, mirror, and Aetherworks Marvel package. Spell Queller provides you with a way to disrupt opposing combos, while also giving you an alternate path to victory against the decks it can be most difficult to assemble a combo win.
1 Quarantine Field: This is one of the few cards dedicated to midrange decks such as B/G and G/W Tokens. Quarantine Field also plays as a catch-all and can get rid of any hateful permanents like Implement of Combustion or Authority of the Consuls.
1 Shock: Another cheap way to interact with small creatures. This isn’t a card I want to bring in or keep in my deck post-board for other Saheeli combo decks.
2 Radiant Flames: A cheap sweeper for fast creature decks like Mardu Vehicles or R/W Humans.
1 Linvala, the Preserver: This is the top-end card for fast decks like Mardu Vehicles and R/W Humans. I generally don’t want to have more than three 6-drops in my deck, so I trim a Torrential Gearhulk when I board this in.
2 Fragmentize: This card is at its best against Mardu Vehicles, improvise, and Metalwork Colossus decks. This card is also good to bring in against certain versions of B/G Constrictor decks or G/W Tokens that have both Heart of Kiran and Walking Ballista.
Jeskai Saheeli is the most powerful deck in Standard, and that’s one of the many reasons I chose to play it at the Pro Tour. I knew the PT competitors would come with game plans against it, but I think the deck is resilient against those plans—at least, the plans we found. I don’t think this list is close to optimized yet because the full metagame is still unknown. With time and tuning for an established metagame, Jeskai Saheeli may end up being the best deck in Standard.