Pro Tour Aether Revolt was a momentous occasion for the Magic Community. The Pro Tour Team Series made its debut, and I hope it was as exciting to watch from the outside as it was to be part of it on the inside.
I’ve always cared about how my teammates are doing in an event, but with the Team Series, that feeling was amplified. The team aspects of Magic have always been the most appealing to me, and the camaraderie I felt in the Team Series among both my team, CFB Ice, and with our testing partners on Face to Face Games was like nothing I’ve felt before. We would enthusiastically track each other’s records and feel personally invested in each other’s results. I really hope the Team Series is here to stay.
So Jeskai Saheeli was the deck I played and obviously, it turned out to be a terrible choice. Why did I play Jeskai Saheeli over the deck of the tournament, Mardu Vehicles?
Mardu Vehicles was the deck that everyone else on Team CFB Ice and 5 of the 6 members of Team Face to Face Games played—so why didn’t I? Throughout week one of our normal two-week testing process, our team mostly focused on Limited and recouping from jet lag. We played Standard, but mostly tried and dismissed brews, and focused on stock decks like B/G Delirum, Jeskai Saheeli, and 4-Color Marvel Saheeli.
The brews all failed mostly because they were weak to Jeksai Saheeli. Most of these brews focused on the improvise mechanic. We tried and tried, but the payoff for improvising always lead to a 4- or 5-mana 5/5 flying creature that was easily dispatched by a Harnessed Lightning or countered by a Disallow. The rest of the cards were just too under-powered to make this a competitive archetype. All versions of improvise decks proved to be quite poor against public enemy number one, Jeskai Saheeli, and frankly weren’t particularly good anywhere else either.
Other artifact decks like Metalwork Colossus brews came to the fore, and a lot of the team actually liked these decks to the point that they were strongly considered for the Pro Tour. The Metalwork Colossus decks were very good against B/G, and we even had some early success against Jeskai Saheeli. We focused on that matchup, and inevitably decided that Colossus was again too weak against Jeskai to consider for the Pro Tour after all. It just had too many ways to keep important artifacts off the battlefield.
After spending the first week spinning our wheels, we had one deck we liked that wasn’t completely stock: B/G Energy Aggro, similar to what Ken Yukuhiro played to a 9-1 record at the Pro Tour. This deck played a ton of 2-drop creatures, and we had Blossoming Defense to protect them from removal. This deck was performing reasonably well against Jeskai Saheeli, as well as some of our brews, but was a little behind the slightly bigger B/G Delirium decks that had success at the SCG Opens prior to the Pro Tour. Going into Grand Prix Prague, this was the deck myself and many others on the team were strongly considering, but ultimately it wasn’t good enough against Jeskai Saheeli, Metalwork Colossus, and other B/G Decks. Simply put, everything else we considered viable was reasonable against it, so we thought we could do better.
B/G Energy Aggro
After the Grand Prix, we started to feel helpless. Jeskai Saheeli was so strong against anyone trying to cast expensive spells or play a long game that it really limited our options. Going underneath the combo seemed like the best way to attack the deck, which led us back to Mardu Vehicles.
Around Monday or Tuesday Ben Stark said, “hey guys, I know it’s not an exciting deck or anything, but my record with Mardu Vehicles has been really good—maybe we should reconsider this.” Steve Rubin reported similar results, and early in testing even went as far as to say “Unlicensed Disintegration is the best card in Standard.” I personally laughed at him, knowing he says outlandish things like this all the time, but it turns out he wasn’t too far off. He felt especially validated when Owen Turtenwald made the exact same claim while we watched the Super Bowl in the hotel lobby. I still think it’s a bit much, but the card is definitely up there in power level.
So in the week leading up to the Pro Tour, most of us were strongly considering either Jeskai Saheeli or Mardu Vehicles. I had a lot of experience with Jeskai, and was often playing the enemy when someone wanted a Jeskai opponent. Watching how powerful the deck was, game after game, deck after deck, day after day—it made me fall in love with the deck, and unless we had something much better, I was going to play it. Every brew thrown at the deck just couldn’t compete. In retrospect, this made the deck feel much better than it actually was, because it just made deck building a nightmare. Everyone else slowly started to get on board with Mardu Vehicles, but I wasn’t quite sure why.
I decided to test out Mardu Vehicles for the first time, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. Our version of the deck had 4 Aether Hub, 4 Spire of Industry, and no Aethersphere Harvester to give us energy. The Aether Hubs were just Tendo Ice Bridges. Eric Froehlich watched me play game after game in which I had the choice of playing a 1-drop with my Aether Hub, or a turn-2 Veteran Motorist hoping to find more colored sources. He would laugh at my misfortune while I continued to try and figure out what everyone else saw that I didn’t. I lost almost every game I played in my first session, and almost every game I mulled to oblivion or couldn’t cast spells because of how bad the mana was. Others were reporting that the mana was never an issue for them, and I likely just hit the bad side of variance while they hit the good side. Either way, we recognized that the mana needed to be changed and we fixed it, removing most or all of the Aether Hubs from the deck. From then on, the deck performed much better.
I played some more Mardu Vehicles on Magic Online Wednesday before the Pro Tour and had quite a good record with it. I was actually starting to become impressed with the deck and when I went to bed Wednesday night, I thought it was the deck I was going to play—we just needed to work on the sideboard.
Thursday morning I was the first to wake up, and decided I’d play some Jeskai Saheeli online to get it out of my system. This was the turning point in my decision. I played approximately 20 matches with the deck, and lost only one of them. The deck I lost to? Mardu Vehicles. Everything else just seemed so easy to beat.
I asked my team how much better they thought Mardu Vehicles was than Jeskai Saheeli, since they were all locked in at this point, and Paulo said something like “I think they’re pretty close, but for some reason, this feels like the PTs I’ve played aggro decks at and I’ve done well with them before. I can’t really explain it, though.” Paulo is a mentor to me in many ways, and this is probably where I should have just listened to someone as successful as him, with as much experience as he has. Without anyone being fully confident I was making a mistake, I wanted to play the deck I felt most comfortable with.
Later that night, the team worked on the sideboard for Mardu Vehicles. I was initially shown a sideboard with 5 lands. Yes, 5. The team thought the deck didn’t want to tinker with the main deck much, and that upgrading Spirebluff Canals into main-deck basic Mountains was the best we could do to improve our deck. Having main-deck Mountains allowed us to more easily cast Gideon, Ally of Zendikar on turn 4 in game 1s against all decks, while having the blue lands in the sideboard helped for Metallic Rebuke out of the sideboard. I understand the logic they used to decide this, but I disagreed with it fundamentally, and not having a complete sideboard worried me. The team ended up split playing either 1 or 2 lands each, but with so little time left and the rest of the team working on Mardu Vehicles, I went in my room with Petr Sochurek and worked on sideboard plans for Jeskai Saheeli. Running out of time, I picked the deck I felt most comfortable with, knowing the deck I had chosen had a huge target on its back. You can find the list I played here.
I ultimately decided to play Jeskai Saheeli because of its raw power, and because of how comfortable I was playing it. Jeskai Saheeli warped the format. The combo punishes anyone trying to cast expensive spells at sorcery speed, and I was hoping more people would show up trying to do that, and use sideboard cards like Implement of Combustion and Authority of the Consuls to try to break up the combo. These cards proved too weak to rely on in testing.
Playing Jeskai Saheeli was a mistake, and I learned my lesson not playing the team deck for the first time. If a deck has a target on its back at the Pro Tour level, you have to have some really good reasons to consider it, and I don’t think I had good enough reasons to do so.
Pro Tour players devised successful plans against Jeskai Saheeli, and though I knew people would come ready to fight it, I thought the deck was resilient enough to combat some of these approaches. Low-curve decks that apply pressure while also being able to hold up mana to interact with the combo are the perfect way to attack the deck, and everyone seemed to play these decks at the Pro Tour instead of leaning on sideboard cards. I would avoid Jeskai for the time being, but it may be a good choice again when the format slows down some.
Do I regret the decision to play Jeskai? I do, but it was a mistake I was prepared to live with and happy to learn from.
This is the most confused I’ve been about Standard after a Pro Tour in a while, because I don’t have any strong ideas about what I should be playing this weekend. I do have a couple of ideas I want to try in preparation for GP Pittsburgh.
This is one deck I plan to test for the event:
This is Andrew Wolbers’ deck list from GP Denver and the prior Standard format. We tried a similar version of this deck in testing, and it was performed well. Deep-Fiend popped out as one of the most powerful cards we could play, and this was the best performing Deep-Fiend deck in testing. Kozilek’s Return is great against Mardu on its own, and flashing it back is a nightmare for B/G decks. It didn’t get better on its own, but Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler’s Copter leaving the format actually helped U/R Zombies deck get better even if it didn’t get a single new card. The real question with this deck is its consistency.
The major changes I’d make to this list would be to play the full 4 Tormenting Voice, cut the Wretched Gryff from the main deck, and probably a copy of Fevered Visions. Fevered Visions may need to go entirely, as the format is too fast and punishing for it right now, but it’s possible it’s too important to fuel your hand size to keep the Zombies coming back from the dead. If not, it could be moved to the sideboard while you fill out the main deck with the full 4 Lightning Axe and Fiery Temper, and add cards like Shock to the main deck to replace the rest. This deck was certainly a dog to Jeskai Saheeli, but with all the Mardu running around, Jeskai should be an afterthought for most players, putting this deck in a reasonable position.
The sideboard of U/R Zombies could use work, but I think overall the archetype has legs. One of the biggest reasons myself and other teammates were afraid to play this deck was because it had no new cards. This is an irrational fear, but we were punished for doing the same thing in the last Pro Tour, playing B/G Delirium with only Blooming Marsh as new cards in the main deck. If you’re looking for something to try out in the post-Pro-Tour metagame, this is a good deck to test.
Another deck that popped into my head while watching the end of the Pro Tour was true B/G Delirium with Ishkanah, Grafwidow. Mardu Vehicles struggled against this card before, and you can still play B/G Delirium without Emrakul, the Promised End.
Liliana, the Last Hope is quite good against the creatures Mardu Vehicles plays, and the new addition of Walking Ballista is a great card to recur with Liliana because it provides a great mana sink later in the game. Walking Ballista also helps with delirium, giving you a better artifact creature than Pilgrim’s Eye to play in your deck.
Here’s an untested list of what I have in mind:
This B/G Delirium deck is similar to last season’s. Fight aggro decks with Liliana, the Last Hope and Ishkanah, Grafwidow while providing card advantage with Liliana, the Last Hope and Tireless Tracker against other midrange decks. A deck like this would likely be poorly positioned against Jeskai Saheeli and 4-Color Marvel Saheeli decks, but should be competitive elsewhere. I’m not fully confident of what to do right now in Standard, but this is where I’m going to start.
With Mardu Vehicles being the deck to beat, that should push Jeskai Saheeli to the sidelines for a while. Midrange decks built to beat Vehicles could pop up and have some early success. If this is the case, Jeskai could come back and be in prime position once Mardu is less represented in the metagame.
For now, I’d avoid Jeskai Saheeli. If you’re looking to play the combo, look at the 4-color version the members of Team CFB Fire played, as it lines up better against Mardu Vehicles. I’m really excited to tackle the task of finding a deck that beats Vehicles and lines up well against the rest of the field. If you already know, share with me below!