Three Jeskai Variants in the New Modern

Linear decks may be the current rage in Modern, but control mages are gathering to make their stand. Wizards cited the lack of blue-based diversity as a contributor to their controversial January 18 ban update, and if the Twin refugees have anything to say, Snapcaster and friends will capitalize on the banning to make their Modern coup. The announcement’s immediate aftermath offered more than a few testaments to this control revolution. Although Affinity, Burn, Tron, and Infect occupy a comfortable (or stifling) segment of Modern’s current top-tier, it’s not just turn three Karns and turn two Glisteners all the way down! A few enterprising souls have disregarded the skeptical masses to Bolt, Helix, and Command their way to big finishes on one of Modern’s oldest reactive platforms: Jeskai Control.

Lightning Helix art

Whether you’re jamming last-minute testing for StarCityGames’ Regionals, refining a Pro Tour choice, or just curious about where Modern is heading, you’ll need to respect Jeskai options in our Twinless world. To be clear, none of the current Snapcaster Mage offerings come close to metagame shares enjoyed by their Deceiver Exarch predecessors. Thankfully for those with their Modern stocks tied up in URx money, Jeskai builds have scraped their way through the linear sea to a series of respectable finishes. We’ll be examining a few of those builds today. In doing so, we’ll highlight three Jeskai strategies you’ll want to consider for this weekend, and upend the narrative that Jeskai can’t succeed in the new Modern.

Jeskai’s Metagame Context

At first glance, Jeskai Control’s Modern prospects look about as optimistic as Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire odds. Looking at preliminary numbers (which will be finalized before tomorrow’s article), we’re seeing Jeskai Control at only 1.4% of the aggregated paper metagame and 2% of MTGO. Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker variants lag behind at 1% for both metagame subsets, with Midrange occupying 1% of paper and a flat 0% on MTGO. Compare this with the Tier 1 frontrunners, about 35% of which are decidedly linear. This is not a flattering picture of reactive control, and although it’s based on limited data collection, the pre-trend is likely to hold at least through this weekend.

A closer look at available metagame statistics complicates this assessment. Taken as a whole, the various Jeskai contenders make up 3% and 3.2% of the MTGO and paper Arcbound Ravagermetagames respectively. Shares like this are a far cry from Affinity’s 11.3% paper prevalence, or 10.4% for Burn, but they compare favorably with Naya Company (2.5% paper, 2.3% MTGO), Abzan (2.3% paper, 1% MTGO), and Abzan Company (3.6% paper, 2% MTGO). Even the mighty Bx Eldrazi can only boast a 3.6% paper slice, which is mere decimals away from the Jeskai upstarts (admittedly, Blight Herder and pals have ingested a more impressive 8% of the MTGO metagame). These numbers show Jeskai players, although far from Tier 1, are making a respectable bid for Tier 2. In an early, but by no means decisive, fulfillment of Wizards’ banlist logic, they are even exceeding the 1%-2% shares they were collectively posting from October through December of 2015.

Extending our analysis outside of Top 8s and Top 16s, we see players aren’t just winning with Jeskai decks, they are also bringing them to Electrolyzetournaments in the first place. Averaging Round 0 metagame shares from three different events (at 44, 51, and 80 players each), we find Jeskai Control representing 4.4% of all decks. Only Affinity, RG Tron, Burn, Infect, and Eldrazi occupied a higher share, with even Jund, Merfolk, and others trailing. This suggests a high degree of optimism among control mages. Astute statisticians will observe a performance gap between the Round 0 numbers and the eventual Top 8 finishes. Perhaps more pertinently, it’s important to disclaim zero of those Jeskai decks reached their respective Top 8s. This points to the uphill battle Jeskai pilots still face, even if the overall metagame is more hospitable to their strategy than these three events suggest. Besides, it doesn’t take a stretch to see how well-positioned Electrolyze and others are in such a field.

Overall, Jeskai’s prognosis is neither as fatal as the detractors would have us believe, nor as promising as Wizards probably hoped. I’m still optimistic about the numbers, which point to greater viability than many assumed, as well as more post-Twin interest than I would have expected. List refinements will go a long way towards living the Jeskai dream, which is our next goal as we pick apart three frontrunning builds.

Jeskai Kiki Control

We’re all on the prowl for an heir to Twin’s throne, and all those combo roads look to lead straight to Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Moderners from two years back will remember Shaun McLaren’s 4th place run at Grand Prix Minneapolis, which he revisted in an article immediately following the banlist announcement. Wizards also gave an explicit shout-out to Kiki-Jiki in their update. Ex-Twinners are naturally going to gravitate to Mr. Mirror Breaker and his leading lady Restoration Angel, so the pair is a fitting starting point to our Jeskai tour.

Doing McLaren proud, Nikolin Lasku battled his way to the Top 8 of a January 24th Italian Magic League tournament hosted by Magic Planet. Although Laskin didn’t break his way into the semi-finals, his performance at the 116-player event bodes well for the possible Twin successor.

Jeskai Kiki Control, by Nikolin Lasku (5th, Magic Planet IML 1/24/2016)

Creatures (16)
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
Snapcaster Mage
Vendilion Clique
Deceiver Exarch
Restoration Angel
Wall of Omens

Instants (16)
Remand
Mana Leak
Spell Snare
Cryptic Command
Lightning Bolt
Path to Exile
Electrolyze

Sorceries (4)
Serum Visions

Lands (24)
Island
Polluted Delta
Arid Mesa
Scalding Tarn
Flooded Strand
Mountain
Plains
Sulfur Falls
Sacred Foundry
Hallowed Fountain
Steam Vents
Sideboard (15)
Blood Moon
Dispel
Negate
Jace, Architect of Thought
Grim Lavamancer
Wear (Wear/Tear)
Engineered Explosives
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Anger of the Gods
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

We saw other Jeskai Kiki Control strategies over the past ten days (e.g. Vivek Soi’s 5th place bid at SCG Garden City), but Lasku’s performed the best relative to tournament size. Despite this victory, I think the IML list has significant room to improve. On the plus side, Serum Visions is easily one of the best cards in Modern, even if it plays second fiddle to its banned little brother Preordain, and I’m please to see Visions’ inclusion in a deck that typically forgoes cantrips. I’m also loving Spell Snare. McLaren’s hypothetical Kiki Control list ditched the Snares in favor of a lone Spell Pierce and more Mana Leaks, an uncomfortable trade in Wall of Omensa field heavy with Burn, Affinity, Merfolk, and Jund. You’ll need to adjust those ratios depending on how much Tron and Eldrazi you expect.

One of the bigger question marks in Lasku’s list surrounds Deceiver Exarch. Specifically, do you want three Exarchs or the full Wall of Omens playset? I believe Lasku took his cue from Alex Bianchi, who ran only a singleton Wall in his Grand Prix Pittsburgh-winning Jeskai Twin, but we also need to question if those assumptions hold in an post-banning metagame. On the one hand, Wall is an awesome two-drop against Burn and Zoo, not to mention extending your grind-game with Angel and Kiki-Jiki synergies. If you’re finding yourself buried in the Burn to Zoo spectrum, Wall of Omens is where you want to be.

On the other hand, if you’re finding yourself in a more open field (or, I would argue, a more average field), I’m actually liking old-timer Exarch. Although the Phyrexian Cleric has lost its closest ally, Deceiver offers more favorable interactions in more matchups. It taps down Affinity and Infect beatsticks and jams up Tron and Eldrazi lands. Wall sits there looking stupid in both those matchups. Like Wall, Exarch even clogs up Deceiver Exarchthe Burn and Zoo ground-game, but also threatens a real kill instead of just card-draw. Moreover, Deceiver is fittingly unexpected in a field that assumes its absence. Turn three Exarch into turn four Angel (blinking Exarch) into turn five Kiki-Jiki either wins the game outright or puts you far ahead on tempo if your Shaman eats a Bolt. This is the kind of flexibility and intimidation I want, and Exarch plays that role better than Wall.

If you’re looking to sleeve up Lasku’s 75, the biggest area for improvement is the manabase. I find his lack of manlands disturbing and you should too. Celestial Colonnade is easily the best non-aggro manland in the format with Wandering Fumarole a strong understudy. I’d even be willing to trim or cut the cantrips to accommodate the enters-the-battlefield restrictions. An argument can be made that manlands lose relevance in an overly aggressive field, but I think Lasku’s list already tackles that with decent removal and a redundant combo package. Adding a method of prevailing in grindfests (Jund at 5%-6% is still waiting) will serve you well in events.

We’ll need more data to confirm if Kiki-Jiki is where Jeskai wants to be, but I’m loving the Twin parallels and see a lot of potential for those who would see the Million Exarch March live again.

Traditional Jeskai Control

Shaun McLaren might receive plenty of credit for his Kiki Control list at Minnesota, but it was his victory at Pro Tour Born of the Gods that really put him on the Jeskai radar. His deck of choice back in February 2014? A no-frills Jeskai Control packing a tight five creatures alongside a reactive bonanza of removal, countermagic, and the deliciously grindy Sphinx’s Revelation. In the years following 2014, this more historic take on reactive Magic took a backseat to fancier (and, for the most part, more powerful) Twin strategies. January 18th means it’s time to unpack those Revelations, dust off the Tectonic Edges, and show those Grixis mages what they are missing by ditching Cryptic Command.

The low-creature count, highly conventional Jeskai Control lists have posted the most performances of any Jeskai competitor since the ban’s effect. I’ll show two exemplars today. It doesn’t get much more traditional than Sean Gillis’s Jeskai Control, which racked up a Top 8 showing at a Grand Prix Vancouver Modern side event. UW Control actually triumphed in the 80-contender field, further pointing to a metagame where can control can excel, but our focus is on the red-based list which has seen wider metagame success beyond Vancouver.

Jeskai Control, by Sean Gillis (4th, Grand Prix Vancouver 1/30/2016)

Creatures (5)
Vendilion Clique
Snapcaster Mage

Instants (28)
Sphinx’s Revelation
Lightning Helix
Cryptic Command
Electrolyze
Spell Snare
Remand
Mana Leak
Lightning Bolt
Path to Exile

Sorceries (1)
Supreme Verdict

Lands (26)
Plains
Mountain
Island
Ghost Quarter
Celestial Colonnade
Sacred Foundry
Hallowed Fountain
Steam Vents
Sulfur Falls
Flooded Strand
Scalding Tarn
Sideboard (15)
Supreme Verdict
Vendilion Clique
Spellskite
Crumble to Dust
Timely Reinforcements
Stony Silence
Anger of the Gods
Engineered Explosives
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Keranos, God of Storms
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

Note: the Wizards website lists an Engineered Plague in Gillis’ sideboard, and although I’d love me a Modern Plague reprint as much as the next fellow, I’m assuming this is an Engineered Explosives instead.

Don’t think I’ve forgotten about MTGO offerings! Magic League competitor AKTilted piloted a conservative Jeskai Control build to top honors at a League match on January 22. The ban update, which didn’t take hold on normal MTGO until the 27th, took immediate effect on the League field, which makes AKTilted’s performance an early indicator of Jeskai’s potential.

Jeskai Control, by AKTilted (1st, Magic League Trial 1/22/2016)

Creatures (4)
Snapcaster Mage

Artifacts (1)
Engineered Explosives

Instants (29)
Cryptic Command
Electrolyze
Lightning Helix
Path to Exile
Remand
Think Twice
Mana Leak
Spell Snare
Logic Knot

Planeswalkers (1)
Jace, Architect of Thought

Sorceries (1)
Supreme Verdict

Lands (24)
Celestial Colonnade
Flooded Strand
Island
Steam Vents
Arid Mesa
Ghost Quarter
Plains
Sulfur Falls
Hallowed Fountain
Sacred Foundry
Sideboard (15)
Dispel
Aven Mindcensor
Crumble to Dust
Supreme Verdict
Crucible of Worlds
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Engineered Explosives
Ghost Quarter
Negate
Wear // Tear
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

In an age where everyone quibbles over archetype definitions, even the most ardent Millstone-control fogies will struggle to deny how deeply controlling these lists are. Both players ran 12+ counterspells, a sorcery-speed sweeper, no more than five creatures, and more than enough burn to zap aggro pests early and go wide with Snapcaster late. It doesn’t get much more reactive than this. If blue-based control is to return to its Serra Angel roots, there’s a good chance it will be in overwhelmingly reactive shells like these.

Ghost QuarterAs with Lasku’s Kiki Control strategy from earlier, both builds have a number of core strengths but also areas we can enhance. Strengths first: I absolutely love the Ghost Quarters in a field with so much ramp, and want nothing more than to cast AKTilted’s Crucible of Worlds in Games 2-3. Tectonic Edge is a passable supplement to Quarters in the right deck, but if I only have room for one and need to shore up an otherwise miserable matchup, maindecking Quarters is where I want to be. Similarly, both Electrolyze and Lightning Helix are very exciting right now in our current Modern metagame. The former is a beating against aggro frontrunner Affinity, while the latter puts in work against Burn, Zoo, and Merfolk. Path and countermagic ensure smooth sailing against the creature-heavy linear strategies, and with much of Tier 1 occupied by these bloodthirsty hordes, this is certainly an area where Jeskai has considerable appeal.

We also see a number of Jeskai’s strengths in these sideboards, which tote a staggering toolbox of outs against most decks in Modern. This includes Stony Silence for Affinity, Timely Reinforcements for Burn and Zoo, and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion to do a Keranos, God of Storms imitation against BGx decks ill-equipped to tussle with haymakers (Gillis even brings the God to the fray!). The Jeskai boards also heavily commit to fixing bad matchups, with Crumble to Dust allying with the Quarters to regain lost Games 2-3 ground against ramp.

Lightning BoltDespite their shared strengths, both lists have separate areas of improvement. Let’s get it out of the way first: AKTilted’s decision to exclude Lightning Bolt is a bad one (Editor’s Note: I had to check to make sure it wasn’t an omission). It doesn’t make sense in a metagame where Bolt excels, nor does it make sense when you’ve already committed to a Snapcaster Mage playset. I believe this points to metagame differences in Magic League games more than anything, which could be relevant if you see your own field shift away from low-toughness targets to decks that brush off the Bolt. Even so, there’s still really no reason to leave the Bolts at home: -4 Think Twice, +4 Bolt, and move on.

A less overtly questionable inclusion, but one we still want to challenge, is Cryptic Command. Don’t get me wrong! Command remains an excellent card, and I wouldn’t leave home as a Jeskai mage without 1-2. But 3-4? Not in this field. There are too many decks either Cryptic Commandtrying to get under the Command early or beating it in the mid-game. Cryptic flood is very real in these kinds of metagames, and I want to minimize those chances with a more compact ratio. By a similar token, I’m nervous about those four Remands. With the exception of Jund, every frontrunning Tier 1 deck is either an aggro deck where Remand does nothing more than cycle, or a ramp deck where I don’t want to double Hordeling Outburst or quadruple Vindicate myself by countering on-cast Eldrazi. Remand is significantly better against Tron than Eldrazi, but overall the downsides still outweigh the benefits. Kiki decks can at least Remand their way into a turn five win. We’re playing a longer game, and Remand doesn’t fit our need for decisive, early answers that allow us to commence Colonnade beatdown.

Outside of these considerations, traditional Jeskai Control brings a lot to the table. Take a leaf from Gillis’ and AKTilted’s books by supplementing your inherently strong anti-aggro plan with a committed ramp-busting strategy. After that, make sure your maindeck inclusions fit the current metagame context, not the past many control players wish we could return to. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean cramming in something as offensively proactive as Gurmag Angler (although the next section will do just that), it does mean making smart reactive choices in an undeniably linear field. Succeed at this and we might see Sphinx’s Revelation return to the top tables soon.

The Jeskai Midrange Spectrum

While on the subject of the control and midrange, proactive and reactive spectrums, we’ll end our Jeskai safari with two options straddling those fences. Many URx converts and veterans will struggle to place themselves in the traditional Jeskai Control and more Twin-like Kiki Control camps. Sphinx’s Revelation and Cryptic Command can feel too durdly in a format where Affinity vomits out six cards on turn one, or where Goryo’s Vengeance roars online before you get a second draw step. That said, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker‘s two toughness is a far cry from Exarch’s four, and a slower, more fragile Twin imitation can feel like a pale mockery of the pre-ban favorite. For those facing these questions, the more proactive Jeskai Midrange strategies give you another niche to fill while still playing your Snapcaster playset.

First up is Stefan Krall’s Jeskai Geist, snagging 10th at the January 24th MKM Trial in Bottrop, Germany. The 100-player field saw a ton of Abzan Company in the Top 16, along with a scattering of the usual linear suspects. I know Jordan, an avowed Geist hater, is going to have something to say about this list in the comments, but we can’t talk Jeskai Midrange without bringing old Saint-Traft to the table.

Jeskai Midrange, by Stefan Krall (10th, MKM Trial Bottrop 1/24/2016)

Creatures (11)
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Vendilion Clique
Restoration Angel
Geist of Saint Traft
Snapcaster Mage

Instants (24)
Sphinx’s Revelation
Electrolyze
Mana Leak
Spell Snare
Cryptic Command
Lightning Helix
Remand
Lightning Bolt
Path to Exile

Sorceries (1)
Timely Reinforcements

Lands (24)
Mountain
Plains
Sacred Foundry
Sulfur Falls
Ghost Quarter
Hallowed Fountain
Steam Vents
Celestial Colonnade
Island
Flooded Strand
Scalding Tarn
Sideboard (15)
Dispel
Engineered Explosives
Wear // Tear
Sudden Shock
Timely Reinforcements
Supreme Verdict
Relic of Progenitus
Keranos, God of Storms
Narset Transcendent
Negate
Spell Snare
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

Justin Rike gives us our next Jeskai Midrange entry, coming in at 14th on the recent SCG Classic in Columbus. Featuring nine rounds and 260 players, the January 31st tournament, the Classic showcased a Top 16 infested with linear options. This made Rike’s Snapcasters a beacon of hope in an overwhelmingly aggressive field. Rike doesn’t have Krall’s Geists, upping his Angel and Pia and Kiran Nalaar counts to make up the deficit and filling in the rest with the Helix-man himself, Ajani Vengeant.

Jeskai Midrange, by Justin Rike (14th, SCG Classic Columbus 1/31/2016)

Creatures (10)
Restoration Angel
Snapcaster Mage
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Vendilion Clique

Instants (23)
Electrolyze
Lightning Bolt
Lightning Helix
Mana Leak
Path to Exile
Remand
Spell Pierce
Spell Snare
Think Twice

Planeswalkers (2)
Ajani Vengeant

Lands (25)
Island
Mountain
Plains
Celestial Colonnade
Flooded Strand
Ghost Quarter
Hallowed Fountain
Polluted Delta
Sacred Foundry
Scalding Tarn
Steam Vents
Sulfur Falls
Wandering Fumarole
Sideboard (15)
Izzet Staticaster
Stony Silence
Threads of Disloyalty
Celestial Purge
Disdainful Stroke
Dispel
Negate
Valorous Stance
Wear
Crumble to Dust
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

I know someone is already scrolling down the page to leave a comment field essay about midrange versus control classifications, but one of the reason I show these decks is specifically to show how complicated that relationship has become. Krall’s list has three Cryptics and a Revelation, often hallmarks of something more on Jeskai’s control side. Resisting easy categorizing, it then adds six solidly midrange beatdown creatures on top of a potent burn and Snapcaster suite. Seizing a Top 16 at the Classic a week later, Rike makes similar deckbuilding decisions, focusing on creatures that do bridge the gap between control and midrange (depending on their context) before cleaning up the spell selection to exclude the traditional staples we saw with Krall. All of this shows how fluid the distinction has become.

Let’s table the archetype wars for another time and think about the cards themselves. Strengths-wise, I’m as giddy about pairing Restoration Angel with the Nalaars Wandering Fumaroletoday as I was in my Shape Anew technology spotlight yesterday. Thopters clog up the skies against Affinity and Infect while also chumping ground-pounders all day long. They can sail across to chip away at life totals or hit the graveyard as Shock fuel. This makes for a synergy as relevant in aggressive matchups as in grindier ones. Similarly, I’m happy we’re still on manlands and Ghost Quarters, the former of which gives us late-game outs if our damage output gets stalled, and the latter of which provides an edge against an otherwise nasty ramp contest. Wandering Fumarole finally meanders into the manabase, and I really like the Elemental’s contributions to our faster clock. Finally, in case Tiago needed more endorsements, here’s yet another pair of decks rocking four of the Mages along with a bevvy of burn. No matter what Jeskai configuration you prefer, don’t be stingy on those ratios.

Ajani VengeantThat gets us to the big questions surrounding Geist of Saint Traft and Ajani Vengeant. To Wizards’ credit, these were two cards that were largely unplayable with Twin in the format, and Twin’s presence itself was a contributor to that irrelevance. More to the point, however, we must ask how much this has really changed with the deck’s departure. For Ajani, I think circumstances really do favor the ThunderCats fanboy. Vengeant stabilizes boards against both landlocked Burn/Zoo and airborne Infect/Affinity. Repeated frost effects are relevant in most matchups, including against ramp, and even ticking Ajani down to 1 for a Helix often buys the three-for-one exchange you need to swing most aggro contests. This combination of metagame context and individual utility give Ajani Vengeant relatively high marks in my post-Twin rankings.

Then there’s Geist of Saint Traft. On paper, Geist still presents the most consistently-fast, single-card clock of any Modern creature costing less than four. Only the most monstrous Tarmogoyfs can compare on a one-for-one basis, with everything else requiring at Geist of Saint Traftleast another card (or significant setup) to punch as hard as Geist and his guardian Angel. This kind of speedy clock screams “proactivity” to me, which is often where you want to be in Modern (particularly open Modern) metagames. On that topic of metagame context, we’re seeing plenty of aggro decks vulnerable to redundant Jeskai burn effects. In theory, this lets Geist sail across for six damage a turn for a swift close. Unfortunately, this context is also where Geist gets into trouble. Defying naysayers, Jund has survived the Twin ban in the short-term, and nothing makes Geist sadder than staring down the lone, Bolt-proof Tarmogoyf. Nothing, that is, except for Eldrazi’s tokens courtesy of Lingering Souls and Blight Herder, which demotes the proud Innistrad Cleric from all-star slugger to a blue Taoist Hermit. Abzan Company and Death and Taxes will also cause Geist to roll in his grave, and that’s if he’s lucky enough to avoid Kitchen Finks (which Jund and UW Control are both packing).

Once we figure in the inevitable increase in sweepers (Supreme Verdict from today, Pyroclasm in Tron, Flaying Tendrils in Eldrazi, Anger of the Gods in Jund, etc.), and you can call me a doubting Thomas for Saint Traft’s chances in this current metagame. Strategically, Jeskai Midrange remains a viable option, especially if you leverage mama and papa Chandra alongside Restoration Angel. Just be careful in straying too far from metagame context clues and back to old Jeskai habits that might no longer be applicable.

Taking Jeskai to the Top

I won’t be going to a Regionals event this weekend, but if I did, some Jeskai style would be in my final contention for deck-of-choice. No matter what build you look at, it’s hard to beat the Snapcaster Mage playset, the burn arsenal, the flexible sideboards, and the powerful, stalemate-cracking manlands. I’d probably lean towards Kiki-Jiki because I’m a combo player at heart, but the savvier choice is probably more on the midrange to control spectrum, like a hybrid between Rike’s and Gillis’ lists from earlier. Hopefully we’ll see more players packing their Steam Vents and Hallowed Fountains all weekend, whether at a Regionals near you or the big Pro Tour stage. Or just add Shape Anew to the Jeskai puzzle to really take it the next level!

Lingering SoulsAlthough this article focused exclusively on Jeskai Control, this is by no means the only direction we could see Ux(x) or even URx strategies go in Modern. Like David, I can’t deny some of Esper’s obvious advantages, whether the catchall Inquisition of Kozilek or the grind-standard itself, Lingering Souls. Blood Moon also remains a pet favorite, so both Blue Moon and Temur Moon options pique my interest. I bet we see a number of these strategies over the weekend, and although decks like those we saw today are sure to be big players throughout these tournaments, control won’t start and stop with Jeskai.

Drop by tomorrow as we unpack more metagame numbers and make some final format observations before the big weekend. Until then, let me know in the comments what you thought of our trek through Jeskai territory, the different decks and cards discussed today, and any other control innovations you have in your workshop. See you all soon!

Sheridan is the former Editor in Chief of Modern Nexus and a current Staff Author. He comes from a background in social science data analysis, database administration, and academia. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and Modern since 2011.

45 thoughts on “Three Jeskai Variants in the New Modern

  1. Pretty new to Nexus, but mad props to you. I have really enjoyed your articles. Please keep the control writings coming I love your take/info/etc.
    What do you think about the straight UW control list that just took first? I read you are low on wall of omens, but what is your take over all? Do you think that list can stand the test of time? Dragonlord? Where are the cons sphinxes?
    thanks for your time and effort you put into your articles. By far you are taking the top place in my ???heart???

    1. Happy to hear you enjoyed the piece! UW Control is a strong deck right now, but it’s very metagame dependent. Tron is an awful matchup for the deck and Eldrazi isn’t much better. Many of the aggressive decks, however, are more favorable. Jund isn’t bad either. As for Burn, that’s a tight contest, but you can’t be positive against everything. If you can mitigate the ramp factor (Ghost Quarter! Tec Edge!) the deck can be much more successful.

    2. I’ve worked on straight UW extensively and it does very well in grindy and red-based aggro heavy metagames. The problem is that Tron is quite bad since the deck really struggles against a resolved Ugin and can’t beat Emrakul or Ulamog and Eldrazi isn’t great. If you’re going that route then avoid Wall of Omens and stick to Kitchen Finks and Vendilion Clique with Resto and Sun Titan to finish. If you have a lot of Zoo and Affinity then consider Sunlance. Dragonlord Ojutai is surprisingly vulnerable and gains you no value on entry unlike the Titan nor does it play as well with Ghost Quarter, which UW needs to have a chance against big mana decks. A Sphinx’s Revelation is not bad especially against Grixis or Jund, but the card overall is too slow and clunky, especially now.

  2. My initial read on the metagame post-banning was that linear aggro decks would flourish, so I’m glad to see other URx mages picking up the Jeskai banners to help fight that down. Shaving down Cryptic to 0-1 and playing zero Rev feels correct at the moment. Once the meta slows back down a bit it we can go back to it, but for the time being, clunky spells will simply get you dead very fast. Rike’s 60 looks very good, though Spell Pierce in the main seems rather suspect. I’m also not in love with the sideboard. Definitely a good place to start though.

    Thanks for the sweet article, Sheridan!

    1. I also can’t help but find small areas of improvement for all these lists. Pierce is especially odd with all the Merfolk, Affinity, Eldrazi, and Tron running around, but maybe he knew something about the local metagame that we don’t. Can’t wait to see more control players flying the Jeskai banner and I’m also excited to see where the strategy goes from here.

  3. Disagree about manlands, although Lasku probably could have squeezed in a Colonnade or two. Triple Blood Moon from the board looks way more potent to me and Jeskai shells should have made this shift a long time ago.

    1. I love me some Blood Moon as much as you do, but I think there’s justifiable angst about including Moon in the three-colored shell. The card isn’t as great now as it was before the ban. Affinity, Burn, and Merfolk don’t care about it at all, and both Tron and Eldrazi can play through Moon much more capably than Bloom. The card is still good and can still “oops, I win” on unsuspecting Abzan, Naya Company, Abzan Company, UW Control, etc. players, but it’s lost a lot of profile. That said, I’d be much more comfortable running Moon alongside a more consistent clock. A Jeskai Midrange strategy could probably wield it better: there’s just more pressure at stake. Lasku has the combo to close things out, but otherwise is a little slow on his damage output (especially factoring in potential color screw on Clique’s UU and Angel’s W).

      1. Moon shuts down about 8-12 cards in burns among their strongest (Atarka’s Command, Boros Charm and possibly Nacatl) gaining you a lot of time! It also shut down the revelry that is supposed to destroy moon. I always side in at least 1 moon against burn in affinity.
        I don’t know if it’s correct in this shell though.

        1. You are correct – how could I be so wrong and have overlooked this card in a UWR deck with all those UU and WW spells – you and Jordan (once again) have broken modern

          1. 1. I didn’t say playing Blood Moon was a good idea in the deck.

            2. There are no WW spells, and “board out the mana intensive spells” means take out Cliques and Cryptics so you no longer need UU to cast any one spell, you illiterate cunt.

            3. Kill yourself.

  4. Glad to see Jeskai as a color combination making a bit of a comeback – I’ve always enjoyed that wedge. Of the lists presented, I think that the Jeskai Geist midrange deck is probably the best positioned, since wiping out aggro decks with tons of spot removal and hitting Eldrazi with fliers that they can’t block, as well as a Geist they’ll have a whale of a time removing (thanks to Restoration Angel and Path) seems like the best plan against the field right now.

    The Jeskai Kiki Control deck looks good, but are we sure that Jeskai for extra spot removal and combo targets is the way to go, as opposed to UR for more sweepers and Blood Moon? I don’t know, but I wonder. The pure Control decks just look like the style of deck that the metagame has hated out – the likes of Gruul Zoo can fight through its early dose of spot removal and T4K it because they only have one Snapcaster back to block (if that), not to mention the likes of Merfolk laughing off its counterspells with Æther Vial and Cavern of Souls and Tron ripping it to shreds with a T4 Karn. I think that decks that reactive are very difficult to succeed with consistently in Modern.

    Last but not least, let’s talk about card choices. Anyone who is not packing 4 Bolt, 4 Path, and 4 Helix in these decks is either ignorant of the meta or has taken leave of their senses. Those are arguably as important as your win conditions (and in a grindy enough game, Bolt and Helix might BE your win conditions). The likes of Cryptic Command and Sphinx’s Revelation are too slow to truly make a difference right now (I wouldn’t run Rev at all, and I’d max out at 2 Cryptics in the 75), and Remand should be used with caution (probably best in a type of Kiki Control where cheap creatures would be replayed, only to walk right into a sweeper). I’d like to see more Ajani Vengeant, especially in Geist Midrange. The reason why is beacause you can punish an opponent trying to race the Geist with either removal + lifegain, or by tapping down the creature that’s racing you. I feel that 4 Mana Leaks are excessive, especially if you have some number of Logic Knots and/or Remands in there already. The sideboard issue is going to be a bit of a mystery beyond the obvious Stony Silence and Crumble to Dust concessions (what sweepers? how many? what counterspells? artifact/enchantment hate? So many questions), but I think those will be sussed out in the near future. An exciting place to be overall.

    1. I’m actually more optimistic about the combo versions than the Geist ones, just because I’ve had bad experiences running Geist into Goyf and token walls. Between Jund and Eldrazi, not to mention random Abzan and BW Tokens showing we might run into, that’s a scary possibility I can’t help but ignore.

      The question of Jeskai for Angel + removal vs. UR for Moon + Shackles/sweepers is an interesting one. I’m nervous about running Moon alone in a UR shell, just because we don’t often have the clock to back it up and close a game. Eldrazi and Tron are much less susceptible to Moon than Bloom was, and many of the aggro decks (Merfolk, Affinity, Burn) don’t care much either. I’d also rather have catch-all Path as a fast removal option than something like Shackles. But maindeck sweepers rock, and Blue Moon is well-positioned to handle those. Maybe we’ll see Temur Moon make a comeback to add some pressure!

      Interestingly, although 4 Bolt is certainly non-negotiable, I think Helix and Path are more fluid. Many successful Jeskai lists over the past weeks have trimmed copies for more space elsewhere, and I think that can work as long as you are making smart trades. Otherwise, agree that you still need some baseline of those cards before venturing out with Jeskai.

      1. Everytime i see Geist in a list i have to think about Thassa.
        Yes, she has no impact when she hits the board, i get that. But she fixes your swingy draws and diggs for either spells or creatures, whatever you need at the moment in addition to providing a permanently unblockable Geist. Atleast against attritionbased decks you have the time to side her in

  5. Awesome article again Sheridan.

    This is why modern nexus is awesome. They not only give us recent results from around the world of magic, but also delve into the decks, their apparent weakness/strengths, their place in the current meta game, as well as ways to change/improve the decks.

    This is the single most indepth look at jeskai post ban that I have seen on the internet. Jeskai and URx decks have been very active on magic related forums recently so it really great to see modern nexus sharing the data with the players who are currently brewing. Other sites may list a deck, but they stop short of actually talking about the deck in an relevant fashion or giving any meta game related data.

    I would have liked if the deck also touched on the fringe Jeskai Prowess/Delver deck as an additional way to go with Jeskai. I have to admit I am a little biased as a Jeskai Prowess/Delver player myself. However, with a lack of results for the jeskai prowess/delver deck I totally understand why it was not discussed on the article.

    I can’t wait until we have even more data from the pro tour/regionals alike to see if jeskai takes another step forwards or backwards. One thing I am confident about is that Modern Nexus/Sheridan will give us the data as soon as it is available. Thanks again for the awesome article and keep up the great work!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the Jeskai deep-dive! Hopefully we see more Jeskai finishes added to the sample. On the subject of data, I think you’ll enjoy our analysis of metagame statistics coming out tomorrow. Lots of great stuff in there to get us into the Regionals and Pro Tour weekend!

  6. I would like to contest this statement:

    “A less overtly questionable inclusion, but one we still want to challenge, is Cryptic Command. Don’t get me wrong! Command remains an excellent card, and I wouldn’t leave home as a Jeskai mage without 1-2. But 3-4? Not in this field. There are too many decks either Cryptic Commandtrying to get under the Command early or beating it in the mid-game. Cryptic flood is very real in these kinds of metagames, and I want to minimize those chances with a more compact ratio. ”

    Jeskai Control, by Sean Gillis & Jeskai Control, by AKTilted (1st, Magic League Trial 1/22/2016) each run 4 copies and 3 copies of cryptic command respectively, and yet get this chronic scrutiny from almost every competitive modern forum. We’ve all heard the echo that 3 blue and 1 colorless mana is too steep to justify playing more than an inconsistent number of copies, like 1 or 2. This means you can’t count on seeing it all the time, which seems odd, considering it is one of the most powerful effects at turn 4+.

    Additionally, I think the absence of twin is actually points in cryptic’s favor. Investing mana in a card like cryptic command is less of an overcommitment when you can’t be punished by dispel + twin. I’m not trying to only cherry pick and cite the success of the two lists to drive my point home, but I will say that cryptic command certainly looks a lot stronger with one of its major challengers, twin, neutered.

    1. Agree that Command is stronger and, as I said in the article, I’m very happy running 2 in a Jeskai list. 3-4 get a little dicier and it becomes a metagame call. Twin’s absence improves Command significantly, but the rise in linear decks and ramp decks that ignore countermagic make it a bit worse. To me, that calculus points to 2 Commands in a deck, but if you really went bananas on early interaction you could go up to 4 to hold down the mid- and late-games.

  7. I mentioned this in a prior comment section, but what about Condemn for Esper decks that need other good one mana spot removal?

    On the subject of revelation, I’ve long been of the opinion that Jeskai should cut the card. Its fantastic in the right deck, but Jeskai doesn’t play enough card draw for the card to be more than rev for 3 on turn 8. For revelation to really shine, you need to be dedicated to drawing a lot of cards, so you can basically hit a land drop every turn for the first 10 turns for Revelation to put away a game. For a blue deck that’s built to abuse Rev, it functions a similar role as Lilliana. It puts the game away, firmly out of reach. Without that kind of dedication to drawing cards, Sphinx’s Revelation is going to be a poor card.

    1. Condemn is an interesting one. It’s great against aggressive creatures (Modern has plenty right now) but terrible against the utility ones. It also picks up points over Bolt and co. when you’re aiming it at tougher targets like Goyf, Rhino, Tasigur, Angler, etc. I’d be worried about playing it in a field where you need to kill Hierarchs, Confidants, Overseers, and Abzan Company combo pieces. But if you have a field heavier with the more conventional Condemn targets, it becomes much better.

      Mostly agree on Revelation. It doesn’t have the best positioning right now because the kind of deck that supports it isn’t so hot in Modern these days. Other Jeskai options will prove better. I’d even rather have Visions in many lists!

    1. I’m really not sure where you get that from. Are we discussing the results/implications of the ban and how that plays out for decks and metagames? Absolutely! We’d be misleading and disingenuous to pretend it didn’t happen and not consider it in the new metagame context. Are we complaining about it? No way! Articles like this and Monday’s piece are incredibly optimistic for new Jeskai and control offerings in the post-Twin world.

      Many in Modern assume that just mentioning the Twin ban automatically means a complaint or a whine. This is not at all the case. It’s totally possible to discuss Modern’s next developments while acknowledging the ban but not crying about it, and I’m confident the last series of articles has achieved that.

    2. I dont think so – I dont even play Twin and I think it was wrong. In anycase this article has nothing to do with whining – it appears that you are whining about non-existent whining – how about you sack it up whiner

  8. How come only the combo version plays Serum Visions? I thought it was almost an auto-include in any blue deck. Do you think I could get away with not playing it in my Grixis build?

    1. Traditional Jeskai Control (and some Jeskai Midrange) tend to avoid the card. See the recent Jeskai Control finish at a 1/31 SCG IQ as an example, or some others in this article:
      http://sales.starcitygames.com//deckdatabase/displaydeck.php?DeckID=98286

      Visions is great if you’re digging for specific pieces and if you don’t need to hold up mana. Jeskai doesn’t often fit those criteria, which makes it less appropriate. Also, Jeskai lacks the delve requirements on Angler and Tasigur: Grixis, by contrast, has those requirements in spades. As long as your Grixis deck is playing delve creatures, Visions is mandatory. Doubly so if Delver is in the picture!

      1. Yeah, control really doesn’t care about the cards it draws, just that it draws cards. That’s why Think Twice is better than Visions in a noncombo shell.

        What do you think about Tidings for the big card draw? Five mana, draw four vs seven mana draw four of Revelation. Yeah, it’s sorcery speed, and you don’t gain the life, but I don’t think the life gain is that big a deal in most cases. Maybe as a one of?

      2. I think this line of thinking while popular is not actually correct. It depends on the build of UWR not just is it combo or not combo. UWR decks that are more heavily towards the control end of the spectrum do not want Visions but I believe the midrange versions absolutely do benefit from Serum Visions.

  9. I like Cryptic a lot more because of the aforementioned lack of dispels in the format but also how bad manaleak/remand are in this deck…. you have a high likelihood to get to turn 4 thanks to the removal package and i think 2 is a good number but i can see the case for 3…. it’s the only catchall answer in a deck that NEEDS to answer every threat….

    i’m not sure if jeskai control variants have the staying power even with it’s mild success thus far…. it gains it’s advantages over aggro by packing a ton of burn but those cards aren’t great outside of it’s aggro matchups and just turns into a bad burn deck… if it has to lean on the mana leak/remand side of the deck… it isn’t going to do well at all…

    that being said… it’s about as good as you’re going to get if you want to play blue or any kind of control….

    1. It’s a weird balancing act you’re doing with Cryptic. On the one hand, you really want these past turn four (and maybe on turn four, depending on the board state). On the other hand, I don’t want a single one before turn four, and there are matchups where I don’t want any until at least turn six. I feel much safer on turn three when I have Leak and Bolt backup, or Leak and Helix backup a turn later, than if I’m only on a Cryptic. For me, 2 Commands is the right number to maximize that scenario, but 3 could work in the right metagame.

      As long as aggro sticks around like it is now, I feel like Jeskai has a good amount of Tier 2 staying power. The deck is such a beating against aggressive strategies with a surprising amount of anti-ramp game if you tailor the sideboard. I don’t know if it’s going to hit Tier 1, but I do think we’ll see a lot of Jeskai in 2016.

  10. Opinions on Logic Knot in UWx decks? It plays with path a lot better than Leak does, and its never really dead. You can’t play a full playset, but its reassuring to know that your Logic Knot is as live on turn 2 as it is on turn 8. I don’t think you can play the full 4, but I think there are enough UWx decks in modern that could play 1-2 without taxing their graveyard that heavily.

    1. It depends on how important Sun Titan and Snapcaster Mage are to your deck, since they don’t synergize. Sun Titan wants lands and creatures in the graveyard to recur and Mage wants spells which doesn’t leave much for Knot to eat. If combo is big in your meta then it is a consideration but Spell Snare is probably just better.

      1. Because snare is so much more narrow than Logic Knot? Really? Kkot is absolutely fine as a 1-of or 2-of as you have so much stuff hitting the gy. We all know how much mana leak sucks – I replace some number of Leaks with Knot (usually 2/2 split)

    2. As David said, if you’re rolling with lots of Snaps and Titans, Knot becomes pretty bad. If you’re using 4 Snaps and no Titans (like most Ux(x) decks), then you could certainly use a singleton Knot for the mid and lategame when opponents expect two open mana to present Leak. That said, I would never go beyond two in a 4 Snapcaster deck.

  11. Hi Sheridan,

    Nice article, I enjoyed the read. It doesn’t really matter much now, but your assertion that Geist was unplayable because of Twin is incorrect. Geist was actually amazing in that match-up, both pre & post board.

    You’d have to actually play the matches a few times, because on the surface it’s easy to see where the opinion comes from. Play Geist and die right? Well the reality is that against Twin, you’d just jam Geist on turn three if you were on the play. If he resolved, it was really unlikely they could deal with him, and since there is so much removal in the Jeskai deck, dying to the combo wasn’t a huge concern.

    I’m no MTG pro, but I have played a ton of Jeskai Geist. My final record over the last several months in MTGO events was 22-6 vs UR/Grixis Twin.

    I discussed this on reddit a while back, so I’ll just re-post what I wrote there as a way to finish my explanation.

    “Game one it’s like we’re pre-boarded for it. We have a ton of removal for the combo, and our Helixes will counter all of their bolts. Our match-up haymaker is already in the deck as a four of, and we can force him through by playing 9 different flash threats at the end of their turn. Jeskai has to attempt to be the aggressor and force the twin pilot to respond to us.
    In side-boarded games most Twin pilots turn away from the combo against Jeskai, and the match-up becomes about landing a difficult to remove threat like Keranos, Teferi etc. The thing is a Geist deck is generally better positioned to win this fight because while twin needs to resolve a five mana sorcery speed threat, the Geist deck needs to resolve one that only costs three mana. Like twin we also have a lot of flash threats that allow us to play on their end step to make this possible, and plenty of removal for their threats. We also run Keranos and/or Elspeth Suns Champion for if the game goes long. One important thing to consider as well, is that Geist beats Keranos. Assuming our life totals are both reasonable, if they tap out for a Keranos and I play I Geist, I will still have mana up after, and Keranos has no hope of racing Geist.”

    1. This is an interesting take on Geist! I will say that it’s not widely supported by the numbers, which saw basically 0 Geists in competitive play throughout almost all of 2015. I believe a part of this was not just Twin but also the decks rising to beat Twin. BGx, especially Abzan and its Souls, are nasty counters for Geist decks. Also, there was little reason to play Geist in a metagame when you could just play Twin instead, which moved potential Jeskai mages into Twin strategies.

      I think my big issue with this characterization is the “if it resolves” assumption, and I believe many players felt similarly. Turn three Geist could meet a Remand. Turn four Geist could eat a Snapcastered Remand or a Cryptic. Any of those Geist could meet an Exarch/Twin combo (with potential Dispel backup on turn five when the Geist player is only holding up a lone Path or a counter). Although your experience may have beaten those scenarios, I believe they were very problematic for other potential Geist pilots, even if only in perception.

      1. In all fairness seeing 0 Geists in competitive play in 2015 (a fact I think is incorrect), says nothing about how the Jeskai Geist vs URx Twin matchup actually plays out. What it says is that not many people played the deck. It’s impossible to use statistical data to gauge how a matchup will play out if you don’t have any data.

        While it may be correct that playing Twin was just a better thing to do, or that Geist wasn’t well suited to other decks, I’m not arguing that point.

        I am just pointing out that the perception that the Jeskai Geist deck had a poor twin matchup is false. The fact is that the Twin combo is not a safe/reliable win con against a Jeskai deck that can disrupt it while simultaneously applying pressure. Because of that Twin decks had to operate as a control deck and control decks are one of the matchups Geist really shines in.

        I work closely with some other Geist experts, Scott McCallim, Larry Swasey, and Jason Clark. This is a consensus we all share by playing the matchup collectively hundreds of times.

        I think the work you do is awesome and I’m a big fan of your site.

  12. What do you think of the old Henry Romero Jeskai build with 4 lightning angels and 4 lightning helixes? I would assume it gets better after the twin ban. What are your thoughts on the deck and its position in a meta of burn, zoo, jund, eldrazi, tron?

    Thanks in advance.

  13. I’m a blue player at heart, and I was a Twin player before the ban, and that was the only deck, beside UWR (it was much worse in that meta than now), to make me enjoy playing Magic.
    I now switched to UWR and I have to say that I’m smashng opponents with an hybrid build between UWR Control and UWR Flash/Proactive style. Here’s my decklist for references, I’d like to know what do you think of that. I’ve been impressed by Gideon, Ally of Zendikar so far and the three Restos give me a proactive plan, beside giving me chumpblockers that often kill opponent’s creatures. Two Cliques seem the sweetspot to go proactive and the main Verdict is fantastic.
    http://tappedout.net/mtg-decks/18-01-16-wBb-uwr-flash/
    Keep up the good work, Sheridan!

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