Dark Jeskai at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar *Top 4*

This was going to be the season I stopped going to all the Pro Tours. I love the competition, even though it’s brutal and stressful during the tournament itself. I love The Pantheon, the week spent before the PT is simply awesome. But at some point you have to find some balance. It’s hard to take a week off four times a year for the Pro Tour and still find time to travel anywhere else—even when you don’t have a boss or official vacation policy. I know, I know, “woe is me!” These are pretty good problems to have. But now, having Top 4’d, it looks like I’m going to have to play out the season. If I end up Platinum, that might even mean a second entire season. So I guess Angkor Wat, Petra, and Machu Picchu will have to wait a bit longer.

My trip to Milwaukee did not go smoothly. I grabbed a cab after work Friday to LaGuardia, ready to hop on the 6:30 flight to Milwaukee. We were going to get our Limited prep at the Grand Prix, and then finish testing Constructed during the week. That was the plan at least. But weather, (sensible) regulations on pilot hours, and a lack of Saturday morning direct flights meant the universe had other things in store for me. Instead I spent all day Saturday on Skype with Nassif taking turns watching each other’s drafts. Biggest takeaways: Ulamog’s Nullifier is pretty good just for the flash blocker, and I have a depressing tendency to draft green converge Eldrazi ramp decks. But finally, I made it to Milwaukee Sunday evening, ready to fall in love with a deck. And that deck was Jeskai.

Tournament Preparation

Why Jeskai? Well, it seems pretty clear to me that Jace is the card of the format, and Jeskai is the deck best positioned for Jace superiority. It’s the best deck to both abuse Jace and kill your opponent’s Jace. This is exactly the rationale for why I played Jeskai in Vancouver, where I missed my first Day 2 in a very long time, no one did well with our deck, and the Top 8 was Jaceless.

I’m not sure if the logic was any better this time, but the result at least was different. When I showed up, Ben Rubin was all about our Dark Jeskai deck, based on a core that had been built by Andrew Cuneo. Our choice to play the deck, and the technology we had, is entirely because of those two. The deck when I arrived, only had a few minor changes before becoming the deck we played, and it’s not entirely clear if those were even for the better. I’m sure going to 26 lands was right. I’m pretty sure removing 2 Wild Slashs for Fiery Impulses was right. I think adding the Outcast and the third Tasigur was correct. Adding the Sarkhan and cutting the Jeskai Charm for an Utter End? Still no idea. I also feel pretty good about our land choices, although it looks like Owen cut the Nomad Outpost for a second Sunken Hollow in his most recent build.

We had a number of other strong decks as well. Atarka Red seemed really good, although it was weak to our Jeskai build. Reid had an excellent Esper Control deck that he piloted to the Top 8 in GP Quebec the following weekend. It was strong overall and quite good vs. our Jeskai deck, but I felt uncomfortable playing such a thin-margin control deck because of how little Constructed Magic I play. Also, time limits seemed like a real issue in a format where everyone is playing fetchlands. I think this was likely one of the major reasons none of these decks made Top 8 of the Pro Tour.

Shahar had a really good RG ramp deck. The only problem was that he couldn’t build it to be good against every deck at the same time. Dark Jeskai, control, or Atarka Red—no matter how you built it, one of those matchups was a real problem. Finally, Costa had a very good, very grindy, “little Dark Jeskai” deck that didn’t play Mantis Riders. Unfortunately this deck was much weaker to Hangarback Walkers and Gideons, which is why he eventually played the Pantheon version.

So, what did I learn from this testing process? It helps having the best team in the world on your side. Why was our Jeskai better than the field’s? Kolaghan’s Command and Tasigur didn’t see much play in other versions, whether it was online or in the Pro Tour itself. And I got to arrive to Cuneo and Rubin having already done all the dirty work. It’s nice when the deck you are naturally drawn to is also very good. If the best deck we had was GW Megamorph or Abzan, I’d be less likely to have played it. It’s a really good feeling when Cuneo plays the deck you’re playing instead of control and when Owen is playing it instead of Abzan. Kai and I pretty much always play the same 75. So us old men think similarly about decks. Shahar is an amazing playtest partner and roommate.

Draft 1

Going into the draft portion I didn’t feel super confident. I had the best house record (at either 9-3 or 11-4), but on a small sample size. I really felt like I didn’t get the complexities of the format. I even felt worse than the previous Pro Tour, where I had about a 25% win rate in the house (on a larger sample too). I ended up going 2-1 in each of the drafts by drafting decks that ignored synergies, unless you consider Ruinous Path, Clutch of Currents, and Halimar Tidecaller to be synergy. This seems to be a format that’s really about just drafting a solid 2-color deck. Sure you might get an absurd Kalastria Healer Ally deck. And sure, you want a good mix of ingest and processors, but I don’t know if I really think of that as meaningful synergy. In general, drafting Battle for Zendikar like a core set is the right way to go. Anyway, I went 2-1 with the Ruinous Path/Tidecaller deck and felt pretty content. 66.7% has to be at or above my expected win rate.

Constructed, Day 1

We then moved on to Constructed. When you sit down ready to pilot your deck, there’s always this huge feeling of uncertainty. Is my deck actually any good? Will it be good versus the field? Did my last two changes actually make the deck better? Is my sideboard going to be relevant? You get your answers in pretty short order, although of course those answers are usually random—based on a small sample size and being mostly impacted by luck. Billy Jensen and I played the same deck, and I’m sure he played it slightly better than I did. I ran good and he ran bad. I felt like I had an unbeatable monster, while Billy played a deck with mana issues and bad matchups. Playing against Atarka Red twice and RG Landfall once certainly helped. I ended Day 1 with a 6-2 record after going 4-1 in Standard. The Pantheon did a very good job of distributing our wins. We had two 7-1s and four 6-2s, while managing to concentrate most of our losses among a few unlucky souls. For those of you at home, this is very important for making Top 8.

Draft 2

The story for Day 2 was very similar to Day 1. I drafted a solid, unspectacular UW flyer deck. I took advantage of all the synergies in the set to build a deck which attacked with flyers, while gumming up the ground and playing tempo spells. It was the style of deck which really only works in a highly synergistic format like Zendikar. Of course my one loss in draft was to Dan Ward, who actually drafted the nut synergy deck. He had five Kalastria Healers, two Retreat to Emerias, and a bunch of other good cards. Just to clarify, my contention isn’t that the best synergy deck can be amazing—it certainly can, but it’s more the exception rather than the rule. While your best “good card” decks will never be as good as Dan’s deck, on average just playing the best cards in Battle for Zendikar is a better strategy than taking synergy cards over cards with a higher raw power level. I’m sure the comments below will not entirely agree.

Constructed, Day 2

Going into Day 2’s Constructed portion, I needed a 4-0-1 to make the Top 8. My tiebreakers weren’t great, so it seemed highly unlikely that 4-1 would work for me. This meant I had a 1/16th chance, or 6.25%, to make the Top 8. Even if I assume my expected win rate is 60%, it only bumps my Top 8 chances up 13%. What can I recommend in this situation? Get lucky and play against Atarka Red twice along with a Dark Jeskai build that was much weaker in the mirror. The pairing and luck gods were kind to me.

Round 12 I played against Donald Smith running GW. It isn’t a great matchup, but slower, more defensive versions like his are probably better for our Dark Jeskai deck. Regardless, I drew very well and he just drew fine, so I was able to notch up my first win. Three more to go.

Round 13 I played Jon Stern with Atarka Red in a feature match. Game 1, I kept a terrible hand with 6 lands and a Jace. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking, and justice prevailed: I got run over in what’s usually a good matchup. Another obvious reminder—be even more aggressive with mulligans in good matchups. Game 2, I had a very solid draw with no red mana. Fast-forward to turn 5. I have 4 lands untapped (still no red), with a Soulfire Grandmaster in play. Jon attacks with a mass of Goblins and I block one, putting me to 3 life after lifelink. He taps a Mountain and casts Titan’s Strength…  on the Goblin I blocked. I’m sure he was playing around Ojutai’s Command (which I didn’t have) somehow, but it meant I was given a second lease on my Pro Tour life. I cast end-of-turn Dig Through Time, located a red source, cast Radiant Flames, and proceeded to win. Game 3 went according to plan, and I escaped in a nail-biter.

Having survived, I could taste the Top 8. But of course the last 2 times I was in this place I missed, so I was crossing my fingers for the gods of chance to remain on my side. My pairing for round 14 was great—Pia and Kiran Nalaar Dark Jeskai, piloted by Samuel Tharmaratnam. I’ve played against Sam a few times before, and he’s a quality player, but The Pantheon’s deck aligned poorly for him. Hangarback Walker isn’t a card our deck can really deal with, but it is overall just too slow and of too limited impact to really make a difference in the same way Tasigur and Kolaghan’s Command do. Plus it even matches up poorly against our Radiant Flames in the sideboard.

Now there was just one round left and I could draw. Lucky me too, I was playing against Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa with Atarka Red. It was a good matchup, and I thought that if I were losing, I could likely get a draw and have another shot the following round. Last time I was in this situation, against Pat Cox in Washington, I got the draw from a losing position and then proceeded to lose the following round to not make the Top 8. Luckily, this time the matches played out according to plan. And by accordingly, I mean perfectly for my deck. I know Paulo thought it was a good matchup for him, but I’ll have to respectfully disagree. After a draw with Martin Mueller, I was back in the Top 8 after a three-year drought. Even better, I was playing Paulo in the first round, and would get one more chance against Atarka Red.

The Top 8

I played a few warm-up games in the matchup the night before, and then with Kai the morning of. Sure, it was the matchup I’d played the most, but it can’t hurt to refresh myself a bit before the real deal. Also, knowing his sideboard made a difference. Some people still sideboarded Thunderbreak Regent, and a number of people brought in Hooting Mandrils. As such I had to be a bit careful about trimming too many Crackling Dooms, lest these big guys become a real problem. Versus Paulo, however, I was able to go down to 2 life without worrying at all. Finally it was time for the match to start.

And what a match it was! By which I mean Paulo mulliganed three times and had to stick with terrible, terrible draws. Given the choice of course I’d prefer to win long, drawn out, epic matches. Think of me versus Kibler at Pro Tour Dark Ascension, except reversed. But not far behind is the mana-screwed/mulliganing opponent. I’ll take the wins any way I can get them, because as someone who’s lost many, many times in his life, I can assure you that winning ugly feels a whole lot better.

Speaking of losing pretty, my next round was the semifinals against Ryoichi Tamada. Pro Tour semifinals are my white whale. Quarterfinals I’m pretty good at, but semifinals? Coming into Milwaukee I’d lost 7 times in the semis, which I’m sure is a record of some sort. I’m not a superstitious man, but if I were, I’d burn a little incense and stop by an altar before the semis of Pro Tours. Instead I did the next best thing and played against Kai. I lost a little more than I won, but didn’t worry too much. We thought he might bring in Mastery of the Unseen, and we thought it would be bad. Turns out we were right about at least 50% of that.

After winning a close game 1 in which I took an aggressive line, I was excited to Duress him twice in game 2 and see a clunky hand without much mana. I decided to leave him with a Disdainful Stroke and not much action as I figured I’d be able to play around it and was a little flooded myself. Instead, he drew and played Mastery on turn 4 and it proceeded to win him the game on its own, letting him keep up Stroke mana against my threat-light draw. Game 3 was similar, and I was ejected for the eighth time in the semis. I still don’t know if the Masteries are genius or folly, but they certainly worked for him here.

All in all, it was a pretty good tournament, not only for me, but for the Pantheon in general. I think our deck was good, but not quite as good as the world seemed to think. We ended up putting up a 61% win rate in Constructed, which is about average for us. But it wasn’t as high as our Infect deck’s win rate at Pro Tour Fate Reforged, or Storm the year before that at Pro Tour Born of the Gods, and neither of those decks put any of us into the Top 8. It was better than we did in Standard at Pt Magic Origins, but still, was middle-of-the-pack overall. The big difference here is just that we managed to distribute our wins well and put 2 people into the Top 8, rather than having a bunch of Top 16s and Top 32s. It also means you’ll probably see me at more events this year, and my viewings of really old awesome sights around the world will have to wait a little bit longer.


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