Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend GP Houston and battle some Standard.
I prepared quite a bit for this event, mostly by bricking on Collected Company after Collected Company on MTGO playing Bant Company and Rally. One of the intrinsic benefits of writing a daily column about interesting or unusual decks in Standard is that I spend so much more time going through deck lists from around the world and online. It’s easy to see what is doing well, what is heavily played, and where I might want to go with all of that information.
For me, nothing was working out. I figured I would likely play Rally, as it is pretty universally viewed as the best deck, but I didn’t enjoy it. Anyone who wasn’t prepared for Rally had no real business doing well in a GP since it’s such a known quantity now, and navigating through a field of hate with a deck I didn’t enjoy felt none too promising.
The first deck I liked was Mono-Blue Eldrazi. The deck had some solid disruption, a quick clock, some cool interaction, and was just generally enjoyable. The one downside to all of this? My fiancée watched me play the deck and also loved it. She ended up streaming some with it and it was definitely the right deck for her to be playing. The UR Thopter deck Face to Face and ChannelFireball came up with last year was one of her favorite decks, and she earned her first Pro Point in a GP last year playing it after going 8-1 Day 1. This deck was very similar. She ended up 9-3-2 in matches played, drawing into her 2nd lifetime Pro Point, so the deck ended up playing out quite well for her.
This meant that I could either try to buy and borrow the ~30 cards I was missing to build a second copy of the deck, but the hassle of trying to find Tomb of the Spirit Dragons and similar nonsense cards didn’t seem appealing. After seeing players struggle to find Abzan Falconers, I’m glad I didn’t go this route.
I was pretty happy to get to play a deck with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. Grixis Control looks solid, and may actually be a reasonable direction to take the deck, but I’ve enjoyed playing Jeskai Black quite a bit. The mana has worked out well enough with how ridiculous lands are in Standard, so that was the direction I looked to go.
I started with Yuuya’s deck from the MOCS:
BEENA, 5TH PLACE in a Standard MOCS
This is a beautiful deck. Yuuya managed to Top 8 one of the toughest tournaments in the world filled with MOCS qualifiers and Platinum Magic pros. He ended up making a few changes to the deck before playing a monthly MOCS qualifier and put up another outstanding 8-2 record there. The big changes were swapping out the 2 main-deck Kalitas for a 3rd Gideon and Chandra, Flamecaller. The sideboard became much more streamlined, and the main-deck Needle Spires turned into Mystic Monasteries, upping the blue mana count.
The next list I looked at was Gerry Thompson’s 5-0 Jeskai Black deck from an MTGO Standard Champs Qualifier:
THAGE, 5-0 in a Standard Champs
It is interesting to note that Gerry didn’t need any Mentors in his deck, but I enjoy myself a Mentor. There are some good sideboard cards here, like Dragonlord Silumgar, but I didn’t feel the need to play Arashin Cleric in today’s metagame. Red decks aren’t good, and the card doesn’t have applications anywhere else. The red matchup is already favorable—you can board in a bunch of Radiant Flames and Kalitas, so there are some good sweepers and big road blocks. Without Ojutai’s Command to even bring back Arashin Cleric, it’s relegated to my box of commons.
I love Painful Truths. I play as many copies as I can in whatever deck I can. The opportunity to play 4 was too alluring to pass up. The card is busted and it’s what I want to be doing turn 3 more than anything else in most matchups.
The downside to Painful Truths is that it requires you to play more cheap spells that you can actually cast on curve to maximize the value. Truths for 3 isn’t very exciting when you’re discarding 1-2 cards, but luckily, Jeskai Black is already looking for early interaction.
I would have preferred to go the Gerry route and play main-deck Disdainful Strokes over Duress. Duress was mediocre for me all tournament and I found myself boarding out at least 1 copy in most matchups, often more. Duress is actually better after sideboard against a deck like Rally where they’re bringing in their own Duress, Dispel, and/or Murderous Cut to go withCollected Company and Rally the Ancestors. In game 1, however, you’re reasonably likely to miss, which is a tragedy.
Here’s the list I ended up with:
Eric Froehlich, 11th at GP Houston
This deck is great and is definitely the deck I am playing going forward in Standard. Rally is an awesome deck, but Jeskai Black is far more customizable and I love battling with it.
26 lands is the bare minimum. I’m almost always happy to see more lands. Many of the games I lost were due to not being able to find a fourth land after resolving Painful Truths for 3 and while flood can certainly happen, having so much card draw, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, and Chandra, Flamecaller makes it tough to have more lands than you want.
Besides Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, there’s no slot that’s untouchable. In fact, there isn’t a single card in here that I haven’t seen a top player cut or shave in one of their lists.
I’m very high on Crackling Doom. It’s the best removal spell in Standard versus a wide variety of decks, but it’s not strong vs Rally. Yuuya ended up going down to 3 for the monthly MOCS, but I prefer 4.
Few lists actually play 4 Painful Truths, but I was thrilled with that number. The card is great. Even 3 mana, lose 3 life, and sift to turn on Fiery Impulse or Murderous Cut the next turn was excellent.
I like Dig Through Time quite a bit more than Treasure Cruise in this deck, especially since I’m often searching for a sideboard card (like a counter), a Kalitas, a Chandra, or specific removal. It does require the mana base to skew slightly toward including more blue sources, but I think that’s reasonable in a deck that is so reliant on Jace.
Kalitas main deck was great and I should have gone Gerry’s way with a 2nd copy. Even in matchups where Kalitas isn’t considered an all-star, Kalitas was an all-star. I crushed a number of Abzan opponents with the Traitor of Ghet and was more than impressed all weekend with the power level.
Speaking of power level, Chandra, Flamecaller is the real deal. So good. Amazingly good. A second copy makes a ton of sense. I ended up boarding in the other Chandra almost every single round I played and was happy every time I drew her.
If I’m going to make room for Chandra and Kalitas, I’ll need to make some cuts. I don’t want to cut any of the instants or sorceries, at least in number. Having the 6 draw spells was excellent and that’s the number I want going forward. The other numbers can certainly change in name as long as they have similar functions. Duress can become Disdainful Stroke and help improve game 1 in a number of matchups. I think I would be happy with a main-deck Radiant Flames going forward, especially if people continue to overextend against it without fear before sideboarding. Duress did not impress me and I would prefer having closer to 1 copy like finalist Andrew Cuneo in his version.
The other truly strange card implemented straight from Yuuya’s version is Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Gideon is a quick clock and the emblem is powerful with the tokens created from Monastery Mentor. The mana requirement is not the easiest in a deck that wants double-blue, double-red, and double-black, but when every fetchland is a tri- or quad-land, it’s definitely achievable though sometimes awkward. The card is very good, but I’m not sure it’s necessary.
Monastery Mentor is awesome, but not the best. It’s possible the correct answer is the Cuneo solution of Mantis Riders and no Mentors at all. It’s possible the correct answer is the Gerry solution of Mentors in the sideboard and no 3-mana threat. Or it’s possible my version is closer to being right. I think Mentor is a solid card, but 1-2 copies are all that is needed. Going forward, if I were to play the tournament over again, this is the list I would start with:
My tournament didn’t start off particularly well, I dropped my first game to Rally, but I managed to win the next 2 after boarding in 11 cards. This would become a recurring theme in the tournament. I ended up only losing 1 sideboarded game to Rally while losing every game 1. Unfortunately for me, that was the one that ended up mattering the most, playing for Top 8 against Owen Turtenwald.
Round 1: Bye (1-0)
Round 2: Bye (2-0)
Round 3: Bye (3-0)
Round 4: WIN Rally 2-1 (4-0)
Round 5: WIN Abzan Company 2-0 (5-0)
Round 6: WIN Mardu Green 2-0 (6-0)
Round 7: WIN Abzan Aggro 2-1 (7-0)
Round 8: WIN Rally 2-1 (8-0)
Round 9: LOSS BR Dragons 0-2 (8-1)
In the 4 matches that I didn’t win 2-0, I lost game 1 in all of them. This is pretty telling, although all of these losses felt like close games that were winnable. 8-1 in sideboarded games, however, is awesome. If you want to see the deck in action, both rounds 7 and 8 were on-camera feature matches.
My round 9 loss to BR Dragons was painful. When my opponent won the roll and mulled to 5 on the play, I was feeling pretty great about moving to 9-0. I also had a solid hand with reasonable mana, Jace, and Painful Truths. He led on Bearer of Silence, and then used Draconic Roar, revealing Thunderbreak Regent to kill my Jace. When my Painful Truths revealed all bricks and no removal, I ended up falling to 10, facing down the Dragon and flier. Dig Through Time found removal spells, but I was at 1 life and not even able to fetch out a 6th land, losing in painful fashion. Game 2 I had the game stabilized at a double-digit life total and needed to untap the next turn to lock it up, but a dashed Kolaghan off the top ended things.
I think the BR Dragons matchup is quite good, but maybe I’m off in that assumption. Their deck is very clunky and their answers aren’t great, but it feels like it’s a very similar position in all matchups for the Dragons deck, and yet it keeps putting up decent numbers. Being able to clean up tokens, gain some life, and have Crackling Dooms, Disdainful Strokes, and Transgress the Minds for the Dragons feels like a good place to be, but the matchup is probably closer than I think.
Day 2 Started Beautifully
Round 10: WIN 4-Color Company 2-0 (9-1)
Round 11: WIN Bant Company 2-0 (10-1)
Round 12: WIN Abzan Aggro 2-0 (11-1)
Round 13: WIN Esper Dragons 2-0 (12-1)
A solid 4-0 8-0 start, winning an on-camera feature against Hall-of-Famer Paul Rietzl in round 11 and an off-camera feature against Shaheen Soorani in round 13. The deck was firing on all cylinders—each matchup felt hugely advantaged, and I didn’t stumble at all. Against Shaheen, he ended up getting mana screwed twice, something that can certainly happen with an average converted mana cost over 4, but this was a bit extreme. I think the matchup was excellent for me with cheaper spells, cheaper threats, and answers like Crackling Doom for his Dragons to couple with cheap planeswalkers and Dispels, Disdainful Strokes, Duress, and Transgress the Minds to trade up. All of that with 4 Painful Truths equals a great matchup, but when he missed his 4th land drop in game 2 after I kept a 1-land hand with Jace and lots of early spells on the draw, curving out perfectly, it felt awkward.
In round 14, I was paired against Mark Jacobson, the lone 13-0 in the tournament and a certain lock to make Top 8 even if he lost the last 2 rounds. It’s pretty common practice in this spot to consider scooping. You are giving up some amount of equity in doing so. You can slip to the 2nd or 3rd seed, although dropping below me in the standings doesn’t change much since I would never choose to play against someone who just did me a big favor if I were now the higher seed when playing them. Seeding does matter, but the potential equity lost is very small. You will still make Top 8, which is where most of your equity is located, and if the whole theory of “knocking someone good out of Top 8” was to actually matter and you beat them in the Swiss, why would you have not beat them in the Top 8 itself?
The equity lost from not conceding is potentially very large, although it could end up being zero. If you are an individual who has no Pro Tour aspirations, isn’t worried about future relations, etc., you could lose zero equity from the dream crush situation. But by not helping someone else, you can’t possibly have any expectations of that person to do so for you in the future.
Reading this will probably upset some people. I know that some people find the idea of conceding in tournaments distasteful, but it is absolutely part of the game. To answer some common questions about situations like this:
Q: How can you even have the expectation of someone conceding to you?
A: I absolutely have no expectation of someone conceding to me. Everyone can do what’s best for them. For many people, conceding is actually what’s best for them. It builds up good will where someone will go far out of their way to help you in the future. By attempting to dream crush, you can guarantee the opposite will happen. Players may go out of their way to try to dream crush you, knowing you will be doing it to them if the situation arises. For many fans of the game, they love this prospect since it’s the purest form of a Magic tournament where all results are earned on the battlefield. Realistically speaking, this can never actually happen. I don’t care enough about the competition to eliminate a good friend in a spot where I don’t need to and asking me to do so is just silly.
Q: Are you angry about the situation?
A: Short answer is an easy no. It’s also not something I will ever forget. It would take multiple acts of kindness from that player before I would consider helping him out in the future, and I think many of my friends would feel similarly. In the end, it is just a game and a competition. I lost fair and square. Someone had the opportunity to help me out in a big way at little cost to themselves and chose to take their equity. This is a reasonable stance to take, not something anyone can be angry about, and of course I will do the same to them in the future.
Q: Is it fair if people concede to you because you have more relationships with others versus someone else they may not have chosen to concede to in the same spot?
A: Many people have the perception that “Pros get all of these perks and it isn’t fair.” I’ve been playing Magic for over 20 years. My first GP Top 8 was in April of 1997, nearly 19 years ago. To imply that it’s unfair that certain people accrue advantages for being known isn’t fair. They’ve put in the time and effort to make a name in the game. They’ve likely done some pretty great things to be in the Hall of Fame.
I don’t think anybody in these situations have “unearned privileges” that other players don’t have. Do they have privileges? Yeah, probably, but they are very much earned. I think it’s great that a person who has put so much into Magic, that has given back in so many ways, that people love to watch and compete, like LSV, is able to get a few extra advantages from acts of kindness in tournaments. It’s not just something that was handed down to him.
I know many people will think I’m wrong and disagree with my position on that, and I don’t expect to be able to change their minds in the same respect that they could never change mine. I don’t expect anyone to do anything for me and in the end they will do whatever they think is best for them. In most cases, I believe the thing that’s best for them will be performing the act of kindness.
So in round 14, I faced down Hardened Scales. I had to mulligan after losing the roll, faced down a 4/3 trampler on turn 2, and didn’t have removal spells to interact. Game 2, I had a pretty big advantage in the game, but Evolutionary Leap crushed me. I was up so many cards, but the Leap alone negated about 6 of them and was a massive beating.
Round 15, I had to face Owen Turtenwald’s Rally deck in another on-camera feature. After losing game 1 and stalling on lands, game 2 looked pretty good despite some mana troubles. I ripped apart his hand and stabilized with Kalitas and a double-digit life total. I had Dispel and Disdainful Stroke both up to handle a potential Rally or Company, and I had already removed a Reflector Mage, leaving me in a spot to need to fade a Reflector Mage for a turn or two to end the game. I wasn’t able to do so. Mage came off the top, the game ended a turn later, and Owen went on to win the tournament.
I had my 4th 12-3 finish in a GP this season, and my second consecutive painful one, losing my last 3 win-and-in matches. It was a solid GP season—I cashed all 8 I played and finished 2nd in Detroit early this season—but it didn’t help when both of my Pro Tours were abysmal. The cap is gonna crush me and I will likely need to Top 8 a PT to remain Platinum for a fourth consecutive season.
Here’s a quick guide to how I sideboarded in some popular matchups:
I really dislike discard in this matchup, even though Transgress is fine. This is one matchup where Mentor isn’t incredible, but if they don’t have a quick removal spell for it, it will completely take over the game as you start using Roasts and Crackling Dooms to control their board while expanding yours.
You get to add tons of disruption for the big spells, sweepers for the dorks, and Kalitas as a trump. Discard spells improve post-board with addition of Kalitas. Crackling Doom is a slow and clunky removal spell against them and is the least desirable card in my opinion.
Similar to Rally, but Kalitas and Disdainful Stroke are much less good. Their deck is less explosive, and not having to worry about Rally is nice. I didn’t drop a game to this deck, controlling the board even against strong draws that featured early Jace being flipped and lots of Collected Companies. It’s hard for them to finish you off and making your deck a little stronger against Reflector Mage is nice.
You get to take out some of your less exciting cards for cheap and fantastic options. Huge upgrades.
Many version of the red deck are looking to go bigger and wider, so you can’t completely cut Crackling Doom like you might have in the past. This also makes Painful Truths less bad than it would have been. Duress should have plenty of hits, especially if they end up boarding in cards like Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. The sweepers are great and even better with Soulfire Grand Master.
I think that Jeskai Black is one of the best options going forward in Standard and would be my first choice. Jace, Kalitas, and Chandra are such strong cards right now that all flavors of Jeskai Black and Grixis Control are poised for excellent results.
Is there a sideboard or main-deck card you’ve found to be really exciting in Jeskai Black that nobody else has found? Any matchups that you’ve found to be a nightmare? Sound off in the comments!