Jeskai Control at GP Hartford

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  1. I had a rough time preparing for last weekend’s Grand Prix Hartford. Despite having played countless matches of Modern over the years, I felt truly alienated by the current state of the format. I’d open Twitter to see Jund players complaining endlessly about Tron, and invariably at least one meme post about having three Hollow Ones in play on turn one. This was just so different from the Modern that I had learned to love, the Modern where you played upkeep Deceiver Exarch to lock down a Birthing Pod. My instincts, as well as the most competitive players around me, all told me to stop wishing for a return to the glory days of Remand and Serum Visions; and to accept the new Modern as a format of linear decks throwing themselves at each other, as though my beautiful game had been reduced to blood-sport.

I tried as hard as possible to stick to my roots. I played league after league with Blue Moon on Magic Online to middling results, never quite able to build my deck in such a way that it could beat both Hollow One and Humans without losing an unacceptable percentage against the rest of the field. I tried the ideas of others, found a bunch of cool new tech, but just couldn’t find the results that I was looking for. Normally when I’m at odds with Steam Vents being viable in a Modern metagame, I look to Jund, but results told me that the deck simply wasn’t going to perform any better against the prospective field. I sure as hell didn’t want to run into some brain-genius bringing Tron to mise some match-ups against despondent Tarmogoyf players. Maybe the Twitter-negativity-squad was right. Maybe this is just what Modern is now, and I’m supposed to pick the brain dead linear deck that I felt was best positioned for the weekend.

I had given up once already, prior to Grand Prix Toronto. I played in the Modern seat at GP Santa Clara with my old stalwart of Grixis Shadow, but needed my teammates to carry me as I was bodied repeatedly by Wurmcoil Engines and Ulamogs. I thought Blood Moon was the answer, but it became abundantly clear that the rise of Humans and Hollow One meant that was no longer the case.

So for Toronto I left my Remands in my back pocket, registered a fairly stock Humans deck, and successfully exited the tournament a scant two hours after it began. The Sunday PTQ hardly went any better. It sucked. I hated Modern. I eventually left for Grand Prix Hartford with a Bogles deck in my bag and a heart full of holes.

We got to the border, only to realize that our driver had forgotten his passport at home. Yikes. If we turned around, we’d hit rush hour traffic in downtown Toronto, and probably barely make it to the venue in time for the event. He took out his driver’s license and found a picture of his passport on his phone from signing up for a crypto-currency exchange — likely the first net-positive to ever come out of Bitcoin. We cleverly rearranged ourselves so that I could do the talking at the boarder, and when I saw that the guard had the same haircut as me, I knew that we were in the clear.

After invariably getting lost a few times in the hell-scape that is the I-90 and upstate New York as a whole, we found ourselves nearing Connecticut, and my hour of reckoning was at hand. I closed my eyes and tried to decide once and for all if I had truly lost hope, if I was going to register the truly evil slippery boys at a tournament. Luckily, I achieved true mental clarity in my restless slumber, jammed into the backseat of an SUV, and emerged with this truly cosmic Jeskai decklist.

Jeskai Control @ GP Hartford – Daniel Fournier 

You see, there have always been dueling narratives about achieving success in Modern. On one side, you had the people preaching extreme specialization, putting years of work into an archetype until you’re its undisputed master, regardless of its position in the metagame. I always thought that might have been the optimal strategy back in the days when Modern was an interactive format of Jund, Twin and Pod. But, things have changed and the nihilist take of recent years was probably closer to the truth. The revelation I had in my restless fugue state was quite simple: I had no idea what I was doing with Bogles, so endlessly questioning this dichotomy was dumb as hell. I should build and play the deck that I’m comfortable with, and I’m always at home with a few copies of Steam Vents in my deck.

Why Jeskai?

I went over earlier how Blue Moon had a very hard time against the new resilient aggro decks that dominated the format, and I had a theory that Snapcaster Mage with Path to Exile was the best way to actually ensure you had a good Hollow One match-up. U/W Control can struggle against Meddling Mage, whereas Jeskai has an outrageously easy time with Humans on the back of Lightning Bolt and Helix. I thought it was unlikely that big mana decks were going to be a large portion of the metagame on this given weekend, and decided to build my deck based on Logan Nettles’ analysis of the recent MOCS. While a small sample size, and flawed by nature of it being a sample of MODO players rather than GP players at large, it was my best bet. I’d also assume that a MOCS metagame on any given weekend would be loosely representative of a GP winners’ bracket. Jeskai control ostensibly has good match-ups against the top four decks on this list, which is pretty damn nice.

I chose to take a white-heavy approach in building this Jeskai deck. There have been two major versions of Jeskai as of late — the Spell Queller burn build popularized on the SCG circuit last year, and the Search for Azcanta builds that take a more controlling path. There’s no doubt in my mind that the control versions are much stronger decks, what with the uptick in Lightning Bolts being able to turn Spell Queller into a massive liability. Ben Nikolich has been winning a ton at recent SCGs with this deck, playing a wild suite of middling one-ofs like Secure the Wastes and Sphinx’s Revelation. Those cards are outrageously weak compared to the power level of the format, so I’d rather play good cards instead of bad ones. Luckily for us, they just un-banned a certain mind-sculpting gentleman whose only practical role is in sealing up games where you’ve developed some form of advantage — just like those x-spells! I also decided to play an ambitious maindeck copy of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, since I liked the idea of a token-producing win condition but, well, prefer good cards to bad ones.

 

 

 

 

 

The other problem I have with the lists derivative of Ben’s work is the over-saturation of burn spells. Too frequently, I see full play-sets of Lightning Bolt alongside Paths and Helixs, which spells doom in so many match-ups where that density of removal is a huge liability. I’d prefer to play fewer, but higher-impact removal spells, which meant three full wrath-effects and a couple of Detention Spheres, which I felt would be very well-positioned in a metagame where Hollow One and Bogles were likely to be serious competitors for the crown.

My manabase is also slightly different from the norm. I’m absolutely not a fan of how Jeskai mana has evolved as of late. Basic Mountain isn’t very good in a deck that isn’t chock-full of Lightning Bolts, and the deck honestly has some strenuous mana requirements in the early turns. We also want to keep Blood Moon in mind, and since we have a bunch of Detention Spheres in our deck, we want to minimize the cost of fetching Plains and Island early. This means we want to open with a Steam Vents as often as possible, then being able to fetch Plains for Helix or Island for Logic Knot on turn two. I also traditionally dislike Sulfur Falls in Lightning Helix decks, since it doesn’t combine very well with a Celestial Colonnade opening. The format is fast these days, and while Spirebluff Canal can be awkward with our powerful four-drops, I think the upside of having our mana work on early turns is worth that exchange.

 

 

 

 

 

Search for Azcanta really is a game changer for this deck. The inevitable card and mana advantage it produces is outrageous for the cost of a two-drop enchantment in a format where that permanent type is bordering on unbeatable. You can make all kinds of ambitious plays in the early turns that might otherwise be unconscionable in a control deck because you know that the Search you have in hand is going to lock up the late game. You can honestly just throw two removal spells at a Bloodbraid Elf and have it not be a big deal, knowing you can claw back from the disadvantage. Cryptic Command looking a bit awkward? Bounce a land and draw a card. You’re about to get a Rampant Growth that Impulses every turn. Speaking of Cryptic Command

 

Shame on anyone suggesting a control deck play fewer than four copies of the Best Card Ever. Cryptic is a gift from the gods, a truly unique and powerful card that is able to somehow simultaneously create an advantage out of an even game, answer difficult resolved permanents, and keep you in games where you’re way behind. It lets you play Magic how Garfield intended: sitting there with blue cards in your hand and Islands untapped, feeling smug and superior. If you’re going to play a reactive blue strategy, you need to be relying on this card to take over the game. Every time I see a Jace/Cryptic split, I magically grow one year older from stress. Even the tap-draw modes form a legitimate strategy against go-wide creature decks when you have access to so much mass removal. Even in match-ups where counter-magic is weak, Cryptic does work. Respect it.

Ultimately my tournament was a bit of a roller coaster. I lost a rough round three to Hollow One, after a pair of Burning Inquiries in the deciding game did a good impression of an entwined Ancestral Recall // Mind Twist. I rattled off a bunch of wins against a bunch of Humans and Affinity decks, but lost some heart breakers on Sunday to end up with a middling 10-5 finish. Notably, two of those match losses were due to my oversight in registering double Supreme Verdict rather than a split with Wrath of God. In a Meddling Mage format, there’s just no reason to get cocky and assume that your removal suite makes up for the liability of playing duplicates of a spell than can be split up at low cost.

Furthermore, it would appear that playing Supreme Verdict into Welding Jar is a bad idea. This might not be a problem for those of you with functioning brains, but it’s important for people like me to have as many crutches as possible when playing Magic. While I was obviously disappointed in my result, I was happy that I had found a path forward in a Modern format that had scorned me, and I had a lot to learn from my losses. It’s a breath of fresh air to walk out of a tournament feeling like you’ve not only gained a pile of knowledge, but even a new perspective on a format altogether.

Anyways, here’s how I’d build Jeskai going forward:

Jeskai Control – Daniel Fournier

I’ll go over a few notes on the changes made here before moving on to the sideboard. First off, I’ve decided to go with Opt going forward, rather than Serum Visions. In a deck that wants to be reactive and hold its cantrips as long as possible, Opt does a better job of finding the right tools for the right situation on a specific turn. We also have a lot of difficult decisions in regards to what lands to fetch, and having our cantrip be an instant gives us more time and more information to make those decisions with. The most significant thing, however, is how much stronger Opt is in conjunction with Snapcaster Mage. In the match-ups where we’re forced into being proactive, being able to end step Snapcaster and get a cantrip out of it is extremely important. Opt is also way better against Lantern, which is cool.

I cut the Mana Leak, because that card is just so outclassed by Logic Knot these days. Counterspells are in an awkward place, and I have no problem just playing one less. That slot went to my crush, Vendilion Clique. I wanted to be able to set a more proactive pace in difficult match-ups without fully relying on the sideboard Geists. Having more cards like Clique, in addition to the Snapcaster/Opt plan, lets us switch roles more effectively. That’s always been one of Jeskai’s strengths — the ability to pivot and end the game very quickly — but was something missing in my initial build. I also decided that Elspeth was best left in the sideboard, and while Jace is undoubtedly in a weird place in Modern, he is the best way for a control deck like this to effectively turn the corner and end the game. Were there no clock, it would likely be better to play three Search for Azcanta and one, maybe no Jaces, but unfortunately we still have to actually do something at some point.

I’m usually reluctant to either share or even write sideboard notes, believing that they stifle creativity and make it harder to learn, but in building this deck’s sideboard, I decided to be a spreadsheet warrior and map out all my plans. I might as well share that. So without further ado, welcome to the fresh hell that is a Modern sideboard guide. I apologize profusely to my editor, and yes, I did give up after about 20 match-ups. See you on the other side of Dominaria, with some fresh ideas for an exciting new Standard!

Humans
In
1 Detention Sphere
1 Celestial Purge
2 Engineered Explosives
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
1 Negate
2 Logic Knot
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Hollow One
In
1 Detention Sphere
2 Runed Halo
1 Celestial Purge
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
1 Vendilion Clique
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Lightning Bolt (on the play)
1 Lightning Helix (on the draw)
1 Electrolyze
1 Negate
1 Logic Knot

Affinity
In
1 Detention Sphere
2 Runed Halo
2 Engineered Explosives
Out
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Negate
2 Cryptic Command

Green Tron
In
1 Detention Sphere
2 Negate
3 Geist of Saint Traft
Out
2 Lightning Helix
1 Electrolyze
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Wrath of God

Storm
In
1 Detention Sphere
2 Runed Halo
2 Negate
1 Dispel
2 Relic of Progenitus
Out
2 Path to Exile
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Electrolyze
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Wrath of God

Burn
In
2 Runed Halo
1 Celestial Purge
2 Negate
1 Dispel
3 Geist of Saint Traft
Out
2 Detention Sphere
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Supreme Verdict
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Wrath of God
1 Electrolyze
1 Field of Ruin

Jund
In
1 Detention Sphere
1 Celestial Purge
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
1 Negate
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Electrolyze
1 Opt

Grixis Shadow
In
1 Detention Sphere
1 Celestial Purge
1 Dispel
2 Relic of Progenitus
Out
2 Lightning Bolt
1 Settle the Wreckage
2 Lightning Helix

Mardu
In
1 Celestial Purge
1 Negate
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Detention Sphere
Out
2 Lightning Bolt
1 Lightning Helix
1 Vendilion Clique
1 Logic Knot
1 Settle the Wreckage

Bogles
In
1 Detention Sphere
2 Runed Halo
2 Engineered Explosives
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
2 Lightning Bolt
3 Lightning Helix
1 Electrolyze

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Control
In
2 Negate
1 Dispel
3 Geist of Saint Traft
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
4 removal spells (depends on 4+ toughness creatures)
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Supreme Verdict
2 Detention Sphere (might be better than some removal spells)
1 Wrath of God

Eldrazi Tron
In
1 Detention Sphere
2 Runed Halo
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
1 Electrolyze
1 Spell Snare
2 Lightning Helix

Scapeshift
In
2 Runed Halo
2 Negate
3 Geist of Saint Traft
Out
1 Electrolyze
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Wrath of God
3 Lightning Helix

Breach
In
1 Celestial Purge
1 Detention Sphere
2 Negate
1 Dispel
3 Geist of Saint Traft
Out
4 Path to Exile
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Wrath of God
1 Lightning Helix

Ad Nauseam
In
2 Runed Halo
2 Negate
1 Dispel
3 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Detention Sphere
Out
4 Path to Exile
1 Electrolyze
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Wrath of God
1 Lightning Helix

Living End
In
1 Detention Sphere
1 Celestial Purge
2 Negate
1 Dispel
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
1 Spell Snare
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
3 Lightning Helix
2 Lightning Bolt
1 Electrolyze

Dredge
In
1 Detention Sphere
2 Runed Halo
1 Celestial Purge
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
2 Lightning Bolt
1 Lightning Helix
1 Negate
1 Electrolyze
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Keep more counterspells in on the play.

AmuLIT
In
2 Runed Halo
2 Negate
1 Dispel
3 Geist of Saint Traft
Out
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Settle the Wreckage
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Electrolyze
1 Spell Snare
1 Lightning Helix
1 Wrath of God

Ponza
In
1 Detention Sphere
1 Celestial Purge
2 Negate
3 Geist of Saint Traft
Out
1 Cryptic Command
1 Settle the Wreckage
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Spell Snare
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Wrath of God

Abzan Company
In
1 Detention Sphere
1 Dispel
2 Relic of Progenitus
2 Engineered Explosives
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
4 Cryptic Command
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Settle the Wreckage

RG Eldrazi
In
1 Detention Sphere
2 Runed Halo
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Out
2 Logic Knot
1 Negate
1 Spell Snare

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