For Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, our team didn’t really have a “team deck.” Most of the time, the great majority of the team plays the same deck, or is at least split between two decks. For this PT, we had eight decks among the 16 of us: Jeskai, Grixis Death’s Shadow, Jund Death’s Shadow, and five 1-ofs (Affinity, Lantern, Devoted Druid Company, Eldrazi Tron, and R/G Eldrazi). No one could really conclude what the best deck was, and those who thought they had a great deck couldn’t convince the others.
I almost never know what I’m playing much in advance, but this tournament was a particular kind of torture because I simply hated every deck. Modern is so wide that if you’re looking for a reason to play a deck you will find one, and I can’t help looking for reasons not to play things.
I didn’t want to play Lantern because I thought it was horrible versus Death’s Shadow decks.
I didn’t want to play Death’s Shadow decks because I thought they were bad versus Humans.
I didn’t want to play Humans because I thought everyone would be gunning for them.
I didn’t want to play Eldrazi because I thought those decks were just bad unless you had an Eldrazi Temple on your lap.
I didn’t want to play Affinity because I thought it’d just lose to sideboard cards.
I didn’t want to play Devoted Company because we didn’t have time to test that particular version and no one had any idea how good it was.
I didn’t want to play Tron because I hate Tron.
Some of those reasons were better than others, but for better or worse, this is how I stumbled on Jeskai. We were operating under the assumption that Humans was going to be the most popular deck in the tournament, followed by Death’s Shadow variants, Affinity, and Burn, so it seemed like a good choice. You can’t beat Tron, but we thought Tron would be less represented than the other decks that auto-beat some of our choices.
It turned out that we were kind of right about the metagame (those were the four most popular decks), but we grossly overestimated their percentage. We thought there would be almost twice as much Humans as there was. When the most popular deck in the metagame is 9%, it doesn’t truly matter that it’s the most popular deck—it might as well be the 5th most popular deck. It’s only a percentage point away anyway.
The thing with Jeskai is that you have some great matchups, but your horrible matchups are, for the most part, worse than your good matchups are (though Humans is a pretty good matchup). Affinity is a good matchup, but you’re not 80% to win. Tron is a bad matchup, and they actually are 80% to win. If you play versus half good matchups and half bad matchups, you’re not going to have a winning record. For Jeskai to be a good choice, your good matchups have to vastly outnumber your bad matchups, which was not the case at the tournament—or at least not by enough to justify it.
“But PV, why play Jeskai over U/W?” I’m glad you asked! Jeskai has more cheap removal and life gain than most U/W builds, which makes it significantly better against decks like Humans and Affinity. In return, you have a worse mana base and you’re worse at attacking other people’s lands, which makes you more vulnerable to the big mana decks, like Tron.
If the field is evenly distributed, then I think U/W probably has better matchups overall than Jeskai because it’s also better in the control mirror. The problem is that if the field is even, then I don’t think you should be playing either of those decks. U/W is better than Jeskai against Tron, but it’s still bad versus Tron, and if you expect Tron to be popular, then you shouldn’t be playing either of those decks to begin with. The spot where you should be playing those decks is when Humans and Affinity are a big percentage of the field, at which point I’d rather be better versus them and worse against Tron because the whole reason I’m playing this deck is because I expect those decks to vastly outnumber the big mana decks.
The deck is pretty compartmentalized, and you have a lot of cards that play the same role.
This is the reason to play the deck—if those aren’t good, then the deck isn’t going to be good. Other than removing creatures, they also serve as kill conditions sometimes, especially against a deck like Death’s Shadow, since Bolt/Snapcaster/Bolt is 8 damage out of nowhere. Against combo decks, you often want to fire off your Bolts early on so that you can play a Snapcaster and start pressuring them.
The 3/3 Bolt/Helix split is a little weird (Bolt is usually considered the better card), but I think in this deck it makes sense. The life gain is very relevant against aggressive decks, especially Burn, and you don’t often need your removal to cost 1. If you do, there are already 4 Paths and 3 Bolts for that.
These are your ways to stop something troublesome from resolving. 4 Logic Knot may seem like a lot, but you have more lands than most people anyway, and the flexibility of having a turn-2 counter for their Cranial Plating (following a 1-mana spell or a fetchland) that also works to counter a late-game Scapeshift is very good. Between fetches, cantrips, and Search for Azcanta, you can usually cast big enough Logic Knots. After board, it gets a little worse as people bring in graveyard hate, so you can trim on them.
Cryptic is very good, and I can hardly believe some U/W players played only 3. Throughout the tournament, I used every combination of modes.
This could be the wrong number. Serum Visions is clearly more powerful, but Opt works so much better with the rest of your deck since most of what you’re doing is instant. A lot of the time, you draw a Serum Visions on turn 2 and you can’t play it until turn 5. With Opt, you just fire it off when you have spare mana. Opt is also better with Snapcaster, as it lets you flashback something useful without having to tap out. I’d keep the 3-2 split like this for now.
Snapcaster was already very good in this deck, and the addition of Opt made it even better. Against aggro decks, you usually flashback a removal spell and then hope you can trade for a body. Against control decks, you use it to rebuy your key spells (Cryptics, Secure the Wastes). Against combo decks, you use it to pressure their life total with a flashbacked Bolt early in the game, or you use it to rebuy a counter in the late game.
Search for Azcanta is the whole reason this deck is playable—I would never play it without it. It’s a kill condition that only costs 2 mana, and that sets up your draws before it goes live. Because you have Search in your deck, you can play all those 1-for-1 spells knowing that you’ll win the late game anyway.
Search is more vulnerable in Modern than it is in Standard since people actually play land destruction (Field of Ruins, Blood Moon, Spreading Seas), but it’s also more effective when you flip it because so many things in the deck are cheap. It’s very easy to cast a removal spell or a Logic Knot and use Search in the same turn, whereas with Standard you often have to take a turn off to cast whatever you drew.
Even though Search effectively wins the game, you still need a way to kill people, especially if Search is dealt with. Gearhulk and Secure the Wastes were the two kill conditions we thought were best because they would kill people while also having the flexibility to do something different. They were both also instant speed, which was relevant in control matchups. I think Secure and Gearhulk are the best, but this slot is really up for grabs, and anything that kills them (Gideon, Elspeth, Fireball…) could be played instead.
Most of the sideboard is intuitive. Dispel is very important in control matchups and against Burn, so we have 3 (I also side in 1-2 versus decks with Company and Chord since that’s basically the only way you lose). Negate is worse in those matchups, but hits Tron and Scapeshift as well. Purge is excellent against any deck that’s base red or black, but excels when it gets to kill Liliana on top of hitting all their creatures.
Elspeth and Gideon are two extra kill conditions, but for different matches. Elspeth is great versus decks like Eldrazi, whereas Gideon is better if you need to pressure people more, or if you’re trying to sneak a kill condition through something like a Stubborn Denial for 1.
Vendilion Clique is a catchall card—you bring it in against any control or combo deck, or when you need to pressure them. If you are going to game 3 and you have five minutes left on the clock, then Vendilion Clique should be in your deck. Between Bolts, Helixes, Snapcasters and Electrolyzes, you actually deal a ton of damage, so Clique doesn’t have to attack very much.
Modern is way too wide for me to talk about all the matchups, but here are the more common ones:
Your best matchup—you just kill everything they play. Every time my opponents would Freebooter me during the tournament I’d either have several extra removal spells in my hand or draw one shortly after because the deck has a lot of them. They have no effective way of beating Search, so the plan is just to survive until it comes online. Logic Knot is horrible versus them (they have Vial, Cavern, and a lot of cheap spells), so just fire it off at the earliest opportunity.
Post-board things get a bit better for you since you get to bring in even more removal. Purge is a little counterintuitive since the deck is mostly Bant, but it hits Freebooter, Mantis Rider, Malcontents, and Kemba, so it’s definitely good here. If I had a third, I’d board it in.
This is a bad matchup game 1. You have a horrible clock and few cards that do anything. They can give you the first 6 Bolts and as long as they deny the 7th you’re not going to win. You do have a ton of disruption, though, as well as Search for Azcanta, so it’s not hopeless, but if they have a good start then it’s rough for you.
Post-board, things get much better. You give up the ability to burn them, but you become much better at dealing with their combo pieces, so you can play the control game better and eventually find a way to win. You have Cryptic, Engineered Explosives, Detention Sphere, and Wear // Tear, so you can mostly deal with whatever they present.
Grixis Death’s Shadow
This is a slightly favorable matchup. It’s very hard for them to navigate your burn spells because if they’re at a high life total then you can just Bolt Death’s Shadow, whereas if they go too low you just Bolt them. Their safest life total is in the 7-8 interval, but even then a Snapcaster attack plus a burn spell played twice can finish them off.
You get some more tools to pressure them and their planeswalkers, and Purge is basically instant-speed Vindicate. I like taking out some Knots and Cryptics because I expect my graveyard to be attacked and because they have Stubborn Denial.
This is another good matchup, though not nearly as good as Humans. You basically just have to kill everything they play, but their cards are very polarized in power level. Instead of having 2/2s and more 2/2s, they have Ornithopters and Etched Champions. The two most important cards for them are Etched Champion and Cranial Plating. Champion because it’s very hard to deal with, and Plating because it means you have to kill everything very quickly. You’re usually capable of killing everything in a long game, but if they can keep moving Plating around then you have trouble killing two things in the same turn.
Out on the Play
In on the Play
Out on the Draw
In on the Draw
Vendilion Clique isn’t excellent or anything, but I like that it can take Etched Champion from their hand and also ambush Signal Pest. If you are on the play, I’d rather have Logic Knot because it counters their important 2s, but Logic Knot is much worse on the draw.
Other Control Decks
These are mostly bad matchups because their mana is much better than yours and they usually have better win conditions. Jeskai has 9 fetchlands and only 8 fetchables, so if the game goes super long you will definitely run out. Search for Azcanta is great, but you might be unable to flip it at points because they have Field of Ruins or Spreading Seas. In game 1, your best way to win is usually burning them out—you’re unlikely to win a counter war over a Secure the Wastes, and Gearhulk they can just Path. That said, some control decks have really been skimping on countermagic (Levy’s version only had 3 Cryptic, 1 Negate, 1 Logic Knot), so it’s possible to win this way. The only issue is that there’s no way for you to know what their list is until you get to the point where you try to go for it.
Post-board you usually adopt a more aggressive posture and try to force though an important spell, such as a Vendilion Clique or a Gideon. You have 3 Dispel, 2 Negate, and 4 Logic Knot, which is more cheap counters than almost anyone will have, so you’re very well equipped to win mid-game fights over something. Also remember that most people take out removal spells post-board, so Celestial Colonnade can often just attack if you have 6 mana.
So, would I recommend Jeskai going forward? It’s hard to say. My initial answer is “no,” but I don’t know what the metagame is going to look like. Modern metagames are usually very localized, so if your local store has a lot of Humans, Affinity, Burn, Death’s Shadow, Company, and other creature decks, then it’s a good choice. If those decks aren’t a big portion of the field, then I would not play Jeskai.
If you assume that the metagame is right for Jeskai, then I like the deck the way we played it, and at this point wouldn’t change anything. If you expect Lantern to become super popular after its win, you can add Stony Silence to your sideboard, but I’d just err on the side of having more generic answers for now.