Dark Jeskai Primer

Before Battle for Zendikar hit, Jeskai was a playable deck that was appealing to some players since it gave you an opportunity to outplay your opponent. It also provided an angle of attack that wasn’t all that common in Standard, leaning heavily on fliers and burn to pressure and close out games. While other decks still utilized Dragons and Birds, Mantis Rider stood out as a unique type of threat. But the power level of the format largely kept Jeskai in check.

With the new mana, however, Jeskai gained a new removal spell that is a marked improvement over its previous options. Crackling Doom solves one of Jeskai’s biggest issues, which is its lack of a good answer to the bigger green threats at instant speed. Roast was always an option, but the fact that it didn’t hit fliers and its sorcery speed made it vulnerable to things like Dromoka’s Command. Crackling Doom ignores all of that, deals damage to the opponent, and gives you the side benefits of hitting fliers and bypassing hexproof—your Dragonlord Ojutai is Doomed!

I put out a number of Jeskai lists with Crackling Doom before the first week of the season. With the help of some feedback, I gradually tweaked the deck and added the Dragonmaster Outcast/Ojutai’s Command combo. After playing a few games with that, I knew that this was a major step forward for Jeskai. While the deck could no longer just chain burn spells, it gained a stronger late game overall and could better complement the tempo starts against decks like Abzan. I was thrilled to see if it would perform.

Adam Varner took the deck, tweaked it slightly and finished in the Top 4 of the first Open of the season. Clay Spicklemire had a very similar idea with a Dark Jeskai deck and while his was clearly more aggressive, it lent credibility to the idea that this wasn’t just a lucky streak. Going into last weekend, Dark Jeskai was one of the best decks in the format. There were a few new tweaks, but the core principle of Mantis Rider, Jace, Vryn’s ProdigyCrackling Doom, a blue delve draw spell, and light countermagic were in every list.

The Pro Tour could completely change things, but for now it’s clear that this version of Jeskai is tier 1.

The Deck

Dark Jeskai

Since Jeskai’s cards can be used for both attacking or defending, this makes for a versatile hybrid-style deck. Some games can play out like Delver did, you land an early Hangarback Walker and Mantis Rider and simply clear the way for a few turns and win the game. Others you play Jace and control the board until your incremental damage builds up from Crackling Doom and the occasional attack, and you end the game with a barrage of Jeskai Charms. Recurring Dragonmaster Outcast and building up an army of Dragons to fly over and dismantle whatever defenses your opponent put together is also a solid strategy.

This is the deck that can best adapt to a player’s style—you aren’t necessarily forced into a particular line. Jeskai goes out of its way to include more solutions and angles of attack than anything else in the format.

What do you give up in exchange for the versatility? Well, not everything plays out as well as it looks on paper and the mana is a problem when you draw your lands out of sequence. It also demands proper mana sequencing starting on turn 1. Unlike Modern, you can’t just pay some life to undo a mistake if you fetch the wrong lands early. Getting shut out of casting Crackling Doom or spell + Dispel mana on a key turn can easily lose you the game.

The mana base gives you access to pretty much any colors you want, assuming you draw fetches early. Those tend to be the easiest games, since you can plan ahead.

Those games where you start with an Island, Sunken Hollow, and Polluted Delta, however, create more interesting challenges. You aren’t locked out of any color, but if you want white or red then you need to go get the appropriate battleland, which is going to come in tapped. You can set yourself up to cast a Mantis Rider or Crackling Doom on turn 3 if you draw the appropriate color. But assuming these are just your three lands for the first three turns, you have to decide if it’s even worth cracking the Delta at all without knowing what your fourth land will be. On one hand you’ll have 3 untapped lands going into turn 4, on the other if you draw another fetch or battleland, you’ve potentially locked yourself out of using it.

Above all else, practice this sequencing because it is the most important aspect of the deck. I don’t always look for the best sequence for a short-term problem as it’s usually better to give up some initiative to ensure that you can cast all of your spells on time. This is dependent on the matchup of course—against a red deck you will not have the time or life to give away.

Dark Jeskai runs many of the best spells and creatures in the format. It also has some of the best sideboard options available, which is why I believe it’s the most powerful deck in the format. It lines up well against every deck we’ve seen so far, and while it may not have favorable matchups across the board there is no matchup I’ve played that feels unwinnable or even particularly difficult. The games you usually lose are partially due to your own mistakes or your deck not coming together. When you do sequence correctly and draw well it is very hard for your opponents to compete with your card quality.

Gideon vs. Sorin

After more than two weeks of playing with Gideon, I made this swap because I just can’t get the mana right. Gideon gives your deck a bias toward white and it’s too difficult to cast when you don’t see early fetches.

My other reason was minor, but still noteworthy. I was losing close games because of my lack of life gain in the deck and I wanted another way to get a swing back my way in racing situations. Sorin accomplishes this and provides a good emulation of the Gideon emblem when attacking.

I’m going to continue to tweak the mana and hope for the best, because I do think Gideon is one of the best cards in the deck. Enough so that I’d be willing to play a 3-color version just to better support him. For example:

Allies of Jeskai

Sideboard

I want to start with the mirror, because I have a clear idea of how I want to play that matchup, and it has quickly become one of the most important nuts to crack.

In

Out

I’ve been debating between Dragonmaster Outcast #3 or Outpost Siege #2, since both are great in the mirror, but if one of you has an active Outcast and the other has an active Siege the Siege player typically has four draws to deal with the Outcast before things get out of hand. Not terrible odds, but I’ve lost games in testing that I thought I had locked up because I bricked instead of making Dragons of my own. Most people don’t seem to like Radiant Flames in the mirror even though it’s the best way to catch up if the opponent sticks with an aggressive plan.

I like to make the matchup look like Jeskai Control vs. Delver. Jace, Outcast, and Siege are the three most important threats. If you let Mantis Rider hit you 3-4 times, Ojutai’s Command also gains life a fair bit of the time, because losing an otherwise locked-up game to Jeskai Charm or Doom-Doom-Wild Slash is not a fun experience. As a result you want to keep your life total above 4. Radiant Flames against something like Todd Anderson’s more aggressive SCG list is great since you’ll be favored in any long game.

If both of you are on the same control game plan (you should figure it out in the first five turns), never Complete Disregard anything except Outcast or Jace unless you are going to die to Mantis Rider. If you have an answer to flipped Jace, it may be better to let him flip and save your exile effect. Removing an Outcast forever means you may have shut down that entire angle of attack. Killing it still leaves most lists with 3-4 instant speed ways to buy it back.

Cards like Surge of Righteousness and Kolaghan’s Command can also come in, but it really depends on your opponent’s strategy and whether you’re on the play or draw. Against anyone still on the Abbot version I like a few Surge and the 3rd Radiant Flames. Against straight Jeskai decks I like Kolaghan’s Command because there are more nonred, 2-toughness creatures to shoot.

People don’t play Outpost Siege because they don’t want to give up a turn in the mirror, but if you adopt a control-heavy style and don’t get overwhelmed early then Outpost Siege is going to bury the opponent in a card draw fight. Treasure Cruise and Dig are both limited by graveyard size, and with this land-heavy, counter-light version there are very few dead draws. If you hit removal on an empty board, you should be favored from that position anyway.

Sideboarding Tips

  • The sideboarding is intuitive, but Fiery Impulse and Jeskai Charm are the most common cards to shave. Butcher of the Horde also comes out fairly often, but with the amount of megamorph running around you don’t usually mind another threatening flier.
  • In general you never want to bring in more than five cards except against the mirror and extreme matchups. For example, against red you want to make your deck very streamlined and you don’t care about things like Outcast, Ojutai’s Command, or even Jace. You just want to maximize your early removal, life gain, and board-stabilizing options. Against Esper Dragons your non-Crackling-Doom removal takes a huge hit, so much of that goes out the window. Instead you focus entirely on Dragonmaster Outcast and pressuring them. Kolaghan’s Command as a 2-for-1 is very good in this specific matchup.
  • I haven’t finalized a megamorph sideboarding plan yet simply because your deck lines up very well against them game 1. Dispel is the weakest card and Sorin also doesn’t have a lot of use. Still, other than Complete Disregard (or Touch of the Void in my old lists) to disrupt the Den Protector/Deathmist Raptor package there isn’t a lot that swings the matchup in the sideboard. Dragonmaster Outcast is a huge trump in the match and the primary win condition other than swarming in the air.
  • Abzan may have fallen out of favor this week, but one thing to note is that Wingmate Roc is a very scary card for you. Your removal doesn’t match up well against it and you don’t have a lot of ways to trump it outside of Outcast. Utter End and a Disregard usually come in just to help clear out Birds and Hangarback before they become an issue.

Gameplay Tips and Tricks

  • Remember that you can pop a Hangarback Walker at 3 with Fiery Impulse (spell mastery on) in response to an exile effect. This can be important if you have a Sorin/Gideon on the field or want to feed a Butcher of the Horde that you plan to play next turn.
  • Speaking of spell mastery, remember that when sequencing you can “get” people by casting Fiery Impulse for 2 and then resolving another spell before it resolves. Normally this comes up against red decks when they try to sequence landfall triggers or pump spells. Casting it in response to a landfall or prowess trigger so that they fetch in response, only to then cast a Surge of Righteousness to kill both creatures is a big game when you can pull it off.
  • If you need to kill something specific like a Wingmate Roc with Crackling Doom and they have another creature with 3 power like Deathmist Raptor, you can reduce the other with Jace to allow Crackling Doom a clear shot.
  • Be careful with how you fetch and tap for Radiant Flames, you often only want to cast it for 1 or 2 if possible. If you rush your mana you could end up locked into wiping your own board if you cast Radiant Flames.
  • If you have the choice between a 2nd Mantis Rider or another play on turn 4, don’t get cute, just play the 2nd Rider and go to town unless you absolutely need to Crackling Doom or gain life against red.

I’m excited that Dark Jeskai took off, because it has so many options and rewards both tight and outside-the-box play. I wholly recommend it this weekend at States or PPTQs even though it’s a known quantity. That’s all I’ve got for this week. I’ll be looking forward to the Pro Tour to see what we’ve all missed and what decks just needed a little more love and time to be strong. See you next week with a recap.

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