Never disrespect Jeskai

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The other day, I woke up at the crack of noon, groaned, rolled over, and went back to sleep. You see, I had stayed up all night bodying fools with Jeskai online. Humans? You better not over-commit into my Supreme Verdict. Tron? I have so many counterspells and Fields of Ruin. Storm? Don’t make me laugh. So when I finally managed to roll over to my phone and check Twitter, I was shocked, no, distressed, to see that Ross Merriam, previously near the top of my Magic-playing socialist power rankings, had written a sacrilegious article decrying everything that I thought I had believed in. I was stunned and betrayed. You see, I always thought Ross was one of the good guys, posting updates from activist meetings and playing Blue Moon at Modern tournaments. But no, that was but a facade. He was a Tron-sympathizer the whole time, and I was forced to send this message to maintain my social justice rose emoji clout:

My brand protected from any potential backlash, I set out to read the article, and, well, despite its deeply offensive title, Ross had made a bunch of good points. Ultimately, Jeskai was too full of mediocre removal spells and did struggle to create card advantage against linear decks in an appropriate time frame. Jeskai was poorly positioned against Tron thanks to a deck filled with Lightning Bolts and do-nothing enchantments. Jeskai couldn’t really beat Storm due its inability to hold up answers while generating advantage.

Over the next week, Jonathan Rosum, Gerry Thompson and Ari Lax wrote more articles on the contentious subject of whether or not Jeskai is the worst deck in the history Of Magic. Predictably enough, Rosum went to bat for the deck that he keeps winning with, while Ari dismissed the deck in favour of U/W Miracles featuring a heavy play-set of Terminus and Gerry delivered what I consider to be the definitive take down of SCG Jeskai. His article claimed that Rosum’s deck struggled against Hollow One, Tron, U/W, Storm, KCI, Dredge, Scapeshift, Vengevine and Mardu. Obviously I respect the hell out of Gerry, and so should you, but here I am, telling you that they’re all wrong.

You see, the SCG Jeskai deck can’t beat those decks, but if you throw conventional wisdom out the door and look outside of that circuit, you’ll learn that anything is possible, the sky’s the limit, and some other motivational nonsense. See, there are about four people in the world who routinely win with this deck, but half of them are shrouded in obscurity and don’t get the coverage that Nikolich or Rosum receive on a weekly basis. I wrote about Toronto local Andrew Van Leeuwen last month, but there was another Jeskai master lurking right around the corner. Two days after my article went up, this 7-0 list from a Modern challenge went up:

Jeskai Control — by MrCafouillette

MrCafouillette is one of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa’s accounts — and this is very clearly a Wafo-Tapa deck. An old-school control master, he correctly identified the same deckbuilding flaws in the stock lists as Ross, Ari, and Gerry, hereafter referred to as “The Haters”, did and took Jeskai down a different path: becoming an actual control deck. No more hideous Lightning Bolt/Lightning Helix splits, and a heavy reliance on the much-maligned Think Twice for velocity rather than the slow win condition of Search for Azcanta. This deck was essentially U/W Control with Electrolyze and Lightning Helix (ignoring the presumably metagame-specific Anger of the Gods in the sideboard) rather than the removal-filled builds constantly being torn a new one every week on Twitter and SCG Premium.

Last weekend, we were graced by another cosmic Wafo-Tapa list, this time from the Pro Tour:

Jeskai Control — by Guillaume Wafo-Tapa

Unsurprisingly, he went even deeper down the rabbit hole, fully cutting all the burn spells considered a liability in favour of yet more Think Twices and Electrolyzes. Despite sharing many of the same cards, this is now truly a different deck from the Lightning Bolt builds, so let’s go over the impact of the changes in some popular matchups to try and determine why this style of Jeskai is truly superior.

U/W Control

Oh look, all of a sudden, instead of having 12 mediocre removal spells in a control matchup, we’re down to a pair of Supreme Verdicts being the only truly blank cards in our deck. The way this pseudo-mirror plays out is as expected, with both players trying to hit land-drops and avoid significant discard steps, trying not to be the first player forced to play a proactive spell. Having access to Snapcaster Mage on Opt, but mostly a full set of Think Twice, gives us a huge advantage in this matchup that didn’t exist in the SCG build. Electrolyze being our removal spell of choice also gives us absolute dominance against their Snapcasters and Vendilion Cliques.

Ironworks

While Gerry listed this as a bad matchup, a build like Wafo-Tapa’s turns this around in a big way. Ironworks will try to beat Jeskai by hitting land-drops and developing their board until a crucial turn where they try to play multiple important spells, hoping to hamstring you on mana and resolve their last spell, then go off. This takes advantage of the fact that the deck often has to pay four mana for some of their counterspells, be they Cryptic Command or Snapcaster Mage. This build has an additional land and a full 17 instants with the words “draw a card” somewhere on them — you’re gonna hit your land-drops just fine and there are almost no blanks in your deck.

Mardu Pyromancer

Think Twice has always been the solution to contentious Thoughtseize matchups for Jeskai, and it’s no different here. While planeswalkers or Search for Azcanta perform poorly against a Thoughtseize deck that has an easy time sticking threat after threat, Think Twice lets you refuel quickly and find a counterspell before the critical Bedlam Reveler turn. The interstitial threats of Young Pyromancer and Lingering Souls look embarrassing in front of the full play-set of Electrolyze, and a low number of red spells makes fetching Plains and Island to beat Blood Moon much more feasible.

Jund

Gerry listed this as a good matchup for SCG Jeskai, and I can’t agree ever since the un-banning of Bloodbraid Elf. That card, especially in conjunction with Kolaghan’s Command, is such a liability for a deck chock-full of one-for-ones that I was struggling against Jund pretty consistently. Much like with Mardu, however, Think Twice is a pretty big deal here, and a high Electrolyze count lets us trade more efficiently against Bloodbraid and even out-muscle the card advantage of Kolaghan’s Command.

Scapeshift

I’ve never really thought that this is a particularly bad matchup for Jeskai ever since the printing of Field of Ruin, but I’ll defer to Gerry’s judgement on this one. Once again, not having a bunch of mediocre burn spells in our deck is very significant against big mana strategies where all we want to do is counter important spells, Field of Ruin important lands and generate card advantage through our engines.

Infect, Affinity, Humans, Spirits

These creature-driven matchups are the ones most hurt by the absence of Lightning Bolt, and Lightning Helix to a lesser degree, but let’s not forget that we still have Path to Exile and [/Card]Supreme Verdict[/Card] and that Electrolyze is a house against these strategies. All we have to do is avoid being overrun, then bury them in advantage while easily answering threats. By cutting some of the cards that are only good in these creature-based matchups in favour of similar cards like Electrolyze that solve problems elsewhere, Wafo-Tapa has turned these matchups from absurdly stacked in Jeskai’s favour to being merely pretty good.

Burn

Yikes. This matchup has always been rather black-and-white, hinging on whether you draw Lightning Helix or not, so as you might expect, losing it as well as Lightning Bolt is a pretty big deal. Electrolyze, Think Twice, and Teferi are all pretty mediocre here, so this is a pretty big negative for this version of the deck.

Tron

Wafo-Tapa isn’t really doing much different from the stock decks against Tron, and despite having all the same advantages as we do against Scapeshift, we can’t out-grind Tron quite so easily, as leaning on Field of Ruin will only get you so far. Without burn, you can’t close out the game very quickly, and eventually you’ll get wrecked by back to back giant Eldrazi or something.

I think we can reach three main conclusions from analyzing this new Wafo-Tapa build:

  • Jeskai can be built to have favourable-to-even matchups across the majority of the format as long as you’re willing to be ambitious in your deckbuilding.
  • Jeskai doesn’t need Lightning Bolt to be able to beat up on creature decks.
  • Jeskai needs to do something beyond going deeper into the control role to consistently beat up on big mana decks.

Based on that, I want to look back at Andrew Van Leeuwen’s builds from my last Jeskai article, as he leveraged a high Field of Ruin count alongside Ancestral Vision to improve the late game situation against big mana, while also embracing Lightning Helix as a way to ensure that we beat Burn as well as creature decks. I went over a lot of the basics of this deck when I last wrote about it, so instead of repeating myself, let’s look at the deck relative to Wafo-Tapa’s conceptually-similar build and discuss the changes made since late June.

Jeskai Control — by Daniel Fournier

Starting from the top, the manabase is much closer to Wafo-Tapa’s than the old build of the deck, with the notable inclusion of Spirebluff Canal over Sulfur Falls as a nod to early Ancestral Visions over turn-five Teferis. Speaking of which, Ancestral Vision and Remand over Think Twice and Opt are the only real material difference between the two strategies, with everything else, Lightning Helix notwithstanding, more or less falling in line conceptually. I think Wafo-Tapa characteristically went a little bit deep on his PT list, and foregoing Helix entirely was the expected step too far. This list brings us back a little bit from the deep end while making changes to shore-up our strategies against big mana decks as well as KCI. Remand lets us segue cleanly into the late game — with a nice side effect of being stellar in control mirrors — while a host of counterspells in the sideboard including the spicy Summary Dismissal ensures that we don’t lose once we’re there. Crucible of Worlds alongside five Wasteland-effects eventually closes out the game.

Rosum put it very well: Jeskai’s strength lies in its versatility. The control mage has so many powerful tools in Modern, and all we need to do to win is to figure out how to build our deck to adapt to the metagame at hand. When Hollow One was running rampant a few months ago, I jammed an unreasonable number of Detention Spheres and Settle the Wreckage in my deck and turned that matchup around. If big mana decks have got us down, we can make changes to then turn that around. Yes, an antiquated build of Jeskai might be weak in a certain metagame, but if you’re on the pulse and know how to build your control deck for a given week, you’re likely to have some success with it.

There’s one more thing to address, what I consider to be the ultimate elephant of the room when it comes to the Jeskai being bad meme: as Gerry called it, the Ham Sandwich Theory. To summarize, Rosum and Nikolich win with their decks because they’re way better than their opponents and would win if they had registered a literal ham sandwich. Wafo-Tapa is considered by many to be the poster child for winning with incomprehensible control decks, so why am I stanning for him despite being aware of this? I feel there’s a flipside to Ham Sandwich Theory, where these decks actually just have an extremely high skill floor and are therefore easily viewed as unplayable by unskilled, or more likely just inexperienced, pilots. You see, there are no crutches in this deck. If you’re playing sloppily and using your cards inefficiently, setting up important turns incorrectly, Jeskai isn’t going to be there to bail you out. There’s no turn-three Karn or lucky Bloodbraid Elf hit. Hell, in these builds with little-to-no burn and fewer Snapcaster Mages, you even have to play quickly, not wasting the clock on mechanical actions in order to win in time.

That doesn’t make the deck bad. It makes it hard.

P.S. Shota’s PT-winning Grixis Control deck was actually a literal ham sandwich, and I believe Wafo-Tapa is actively trying to lose when he registers Esper Charm in Modern, so don’t you dare @ me. Unless you have questions or comments, of course! I love to talk about Magic, for some reason.

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