Tuning the Grand Prix Winning Jeskai Deck

There are a number of viable strategies in this Standard format (B/G, Jeskai, Grixis/Esper, WW, Mono-Red, Drakes, G/W, Mono-Blue), but more importantly, every deck can be built in many different ways. If my opponent leads with Overgrown Tomb, then I know they are probably B/G Midrange, but I have no idea what is in their list—it could be 10 cards different from the other B/G deck I just played the round before. As a result, you can have a metagame that is entirely different from the previous one, even if all the deck numbers remain relatively constant.

The deck I want to talk about today—Jeskai—is one that can be built in many different ways, depending on what you expect to face. The important thing is that your build is cohesive—whatever adaptations you make, they have to make sense in the context of what your build is trying to do. For example, it doesn’t make much sense to play Treasure Map if you aren’t playing Niv-Mizzets, it doesn’t make much sense to play all 2-mana reactive cards if you’re playing Azor’s Gateway, and so on.

Here’s the list Adrian Sullivan won GP Milwaukee with:

Jeskai Control

This is a very different take than the one we are used to, but the list makes sense to me. The goal of this deck isn’t to control the game and then cast a big Expansion // Explosion (though it can do that)—it’s to turbo out Niv-Mizzet, Parun. Because of this, it plays four copies of Treasure Map, which are a bit worse than Azor’s Gateway or Search for Azcanta as a late-game “close the game” card, but better when they are accelerating into your actual game-winning plays. And because it has Niv-Mizzet as its plan, it plays two copies of Dive Down. Dive Down is very weird in a deck with only seven creatures, but the combo of Niv-Mizzet plus Dive Down is powerful enough that it’s OK to have the potentially dead card in your hand a lot of the time.

So basically the key here is that Niv-Mizzet, Parun is a powerful enough card that it justifies an amount of theoretically inferior cards in your deck because once it gets going, then nothing else you have matters, and nothing they have matters.

I believe the Treasure Map + Niv-Mizzet, Parun that Adrian introduced to us is the best shell for Jeskai control decks moving forward, at least until things change radically again. Both the Map and the Dragon give you a good edge in control matchups, and they provide more than enough late game without being super clunky. Having Niv-Mizzet as your plan also lets you race main deck Carnage Tyrant from B/G a lot of the time, as Adrian showed us in the GP finals. The card does a surprising amount of damage very quickly.

Once you decide to dedicate to “turbo Niv-Mizzet,” the rest of the deck has to be tuned toward this particular goal, which his build is. Since Adrian has Dive Down, he wants to play another creature to potentially protect, and his Enigma Drakes make sense. Most people play Crackling Drake, but he’s not interested in incremental card advantage—he has Niv-Mizzet for that, and it’ll win the game no matter what. He’s interested instead in being able to block early, and Enigma Drake is the better card for that. Its size is very relevant, specifically against Adanto Vanguard, a card that might give Adrian’s list problems since it’s suspiciously devoid of Seal Aways.

The difference between 3 and 4 mana is particularly glaring when you consider the planeswalkers that can be played in response to Crackling Drake if you’re on the draw. If you’re playing against B/G, you can play Drake and they can follow it up with Vivien Reid, which is disastrous. The same can be true for Teferi out of other control decks. Therefore, this deck doesn’t want to tap out on turn 4 to play a flying threat, but it’s OK tapping out on turn 3 because then, even if your opponent answers it, they haven’t gained any advantage on top of that.

The usage of Ionize over Sinister Sabotage also makes sense to me. Sinister Sabotage is a much better card, so the only question you have is whether you can afford to play it. I think that, for the most part, if you’re the Jeskai version with five Islands that’s not turbo Niv-Mizzet, then you can play it. If you’re the version with three Plains (such as Eli Kassis’s), then you can’t. Adrian Sullivan’s version does have the five Islands, but it also has several other blue spells it might want to cast in the same turn (Opt, Dive Down). Getting to potentially triple-blue is more problematic, which is why it runs Ionize.

Even though I like how Adrian’s deck is generally constructed—you shouldn’t stray too far from it if you want to play turbo Niv-Mizzet—there are some choices I’m a bit skeptical on, starting with the one Rekindling Phoenix in the main deck. I like Rekindling Phoenix, and I think it’s a great sideboard card against white decks and against red once people start cutting Lava Coils against you, but I don’t fully understand its role in the main deck. I think the impetus for it is something like, “I can’t play Dive Down with only six creatures!” but you know what? I think you can. I’d like to remove the Rekindling Phoenix. In its place, I’d add a fourth Deafening Clarion. Clarion is very bad versus Jeskai and Drakes, but it’s your best card by a lot in any white matchup, and it’s also good versus B/G. Basically, B/G has three main ways of beating you:

  • They overpower you with planeswalkers and incremental card advantage
  • They rush you down with their explore creatures and you die because you have a slow hand
  • They play Carnage Tyrant

Clarion does nothing against the first scenario, but it stops the second scenario in its tracks and it’s also a good game 1 plan versus the third scenario. One Clarion alone will do nothing versus Carnage Tyrant, but you can always play two (either via a second copy or an Expansion // Explosion), and that will kill it. Besides, this deck has creatures, and giving them lifelink can allow you to easily race a Carnage Tyrant.

The fact that it is so good when it’s good, and still good in a matchup when it’s not great, is worth including even if it’s bad versus 30-40% of the field. If you aren’t rushed down, you’ll win a lot of games anyway, so you have to minimize the number of times you do get rushed down.

The next thing is the fact that the deck plays Lava Coil instead of Seal Away. In my Jeskai decks, I always thought that four Seal Away was automatic—it’s the best card for dealing with both Arclight Phoenix and Adanto Vanguard, which are two of the most problematic creatures for this deck. Yet, Adrian Sullivan played zero. Why is that?

Well, Lava Coil has some advantages compared to Seal Away. Since it’s a spell, it works with Niv-Mizzet, Parun, it can be copied by Expansion, and it boosts your Drakes. That’s a lot of small synergies. It’s also red, and the deck has more sources of red mana than white mana. Finally, it’s better at killing Midnight Reaper, which is the card most B/G players sideboard in against you.

There is one thing, however, that Seal Away has going for it that Lava Coil doesn’t: synergy with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. While being a spell is relevant, it is not that relevant, because all of those edges are small. If you have Niv-Mizzet going, then you’re already happy and likely don’t need the extra spell, your Drakes are already big enough to do what you want them to do, and you almost never cast Expansion on Lava Coil. Overall, being a spell is less relevant than enabling the super powerful play pattern of Teferi, untap two lands, and removing whatever threat is coming at it. Turn-5 Teferi + Seal Away is enough to beat a lot of Drake decks game 1, but if you don’t have the Seal Away then it could die to a couple of Phoenixes.

Past that, there is one card I’d like to try but haven’t yet: Sailor of Means. It fills a lot of the same roles that Enigma Drake does (mostly blocking Adanto Vanguard for 3 mana), but in exchange for being an alternate win condition, it gives you a Treasure. Between Niv-Mizzet, Expansion // Explosion, and Treasure Map, this Jeskai deck utilizes Treasures extremely well (to a point where Pirate’s Pillage might even be a good card), which makes me think that perhaps it’s worth giving up the ability to block Arclight Phoenix and the fact that it’s an extra win condition just for that. It does make your Dive Downs worse, since no one is going to try to kill Sailor of Means anyway, but it’s worth trying.

Then there’s the sideboard. The first order of business for me would be to remove Banefire. I don’t really get Banefire in a control deck’s sideboard—it’s not a card I think I ever want. Banefire is only good if you’re winning the game with it, and this deck doesn’t have many incidental sources of damage—you’re not realistically going to cast an Ionize and then Banefire someone with 18 mana, even when you have Treasure Maps. If your deck is trying to get some damage in with creatures and then ending the game with Banefire, then yeah, Banefire is great, but it’s not what this deck is trying to do.

Instead, I’d rather play Sarkhan, Fireblood. I’ve had a lot of Sarkhan, Fireblood + Niv-Mizzet, Parun decks and the combination is always great—it was actually one of my sideboard plans with the Drakes deck. The key is that both cards are individually good versus control—playing a turn-3 Sarkhan will filter your draws and threaten ultimate, so they have to react to it, and there aren’t many easy ways of doing that. Niv-Mizzet is obviously good. Then, if you draw both together, they become amazing, as you can play a Niv-Mizzet as early as turn 4, or turn 5 with Dive Down up (plus the draw from Sarkhan triggers Niv-Mizzet—value). In a deck whose main plan is to turbo out Niv-Mizzet, it surprises me that Sarkhan, Fireblood isn’t present in the sideboard. Personally, I’d play the full four—I want it turn 3 every time in the mirror and if I draw multiples and don’t want them I can always loot them away.

We can also cut the Spell Swindle, which I’m not a huge fan of. It’s the type of card that is very flashy, which means we remember it when it’s good (such as in the GP coverage), but most of the time it’s not. The fact that the winning deck played a copy is enough to make me not want to play it, as it’ll be on everyone’s minds from this point on and it’s easy to play around.

For the fourth copy of Sarkhan, I’d cut a Disdainful Stroke. At first I thought Disdainful Stroke was a decent sideboard card vs. B/G, but after playing the matchup I decided I didn’t want it, at which point it didn’t make sense to have the card at all—I’d rather be more proactive with Sarkhan in the mirrors.

Then, there are the Seal Away slots in the board, which I would just turn into Lava Coils. B/G usually sides in Midnight Reaper, and Lava Coil is better at answering that.

This is how I would build the “Turbo Niv-Mizzet” deck:

Turbo Niv-Mizzet

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