Today I’m going to write about the Ascendancy deck that some of us played at PT.
Before we start, here’s the deck list we played:
This is strictly a combo deck, the likes of which we haven’t seen in Standard in a very long time. This is not like Splinter Twin where you can just kill with incidental damage—if you do not find your combo, you can very rarely win, which makes it so that your plan is mostly the same against everyone. Set up your combo and then execute it.
The combo involves Jeskai Ascendancy, any creature without summoning sickness, Retraction Helix, and Astral Cornucopia. You tap the creature to bounce the Cornucopia and then replay it, untapping the creature, and generating infinite loots and infinite +1/+1s. You can then either find Altar of the Brood to mill them (with Swan Song if you have extra cards to spare, so you don’t die on their upkeep) or you can simply attack them for a lot if your creature is not a Caryatid. It’s possible to kill on turn three, but turns 4-5 are the usual, which is often enough for this format.
This might seem like a very unlikely combination of cards to pull off, but it really is not that hard because one of the combo pieces—Jeskai Ascendancy—helps you find all the others. The “combo,” for the most part, is just two cards: Jeskai Ascendancy and a mana guy. If I play a turn two Caryatid and a turn three Jeskai Ascendancy, I would expect to win the game the great majority of the time, regardless of the contents of my hand. You will draw a lot of cards and eventually find what you need. Dig Through Time is also particularly amazing at finding multiple combo pieces.
In general, your best matchups are the ones that do not pressure you—the Slow Abzan decks and Mono-Green. Something like Ari Lax’s deck might seem like a bad matchup because it has four Thoughtseizes, but the truth is that you are much better at recovering from those Thoughtseizes than they are at killing you. You just cast Digs and Treasure Cruises and find those cards, and they even have to go through some hoops to kill your mana guys that are not Caryatid. I would happily play against Ari Lax’s deck all day long.
The combo is also surprisingly resilient to hate cards, because all the “hate cards” are 1-for-1s. They will have Negates, Thoughtseizes, and Erases, but those cards you can deal with. You have Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise to pull ahead if they try to fight that fight, on top of making plays such as bouncing your own Ascendancies if they’re about to be killed. There is no card like Stony Silence that just destroys you—the closest is Stain the Mind, but you can kill before that happens or you can just Swan Song it (plus, no one plays that). This is not to say that you are unaffected by sideboard cards—you’d much rather they not have Erases—but if a Mono-Green Devotion deck thinks it’s going to sideboard three Unravel the Aether and easily beat you, they’ll be in for a surprise.
Your worst matchups are the ones that combine pressure with disruption—Jeskai and Mardu aggro, for example. Those decks can kill your mana creatures, they can disrupt your spells with discard/counters, and they can kill you quickly enough that you don’t have time to amass many resources. Basically, I don’t care if you’re playing Negate or Thoughtseize, but if you have Negate or Thoughtseize plus Rabblemaster, then you’re probably going to beat me.
One might point out that it was ill-advised to play a deck whose worst matchup was the most popular deck in the field. Perhaps that would be right. The thing is, even your bad matchups aren’t horrible. You can still just draw a turn two Caryatid and be favored against everyone. Your good matchups, on the other hand, are really good. I’d expect something close to 45-55 against Jeskai (though it can change depending on their version and SB; McLaren’s seems worse than that, for example), but around 75-25 against Abzan, Mono-Green Devotion, Reanimator, and so on. If you imagine you’re going to play against equal parts of those decks, that’s a really good win percentage, even if you are a dog to the most popular deck.
Our version is very different from Lee Shi Tian’s list, and I think it’s better. Here’s his list for comparison:
I’ll go over our list highlighting some unusual choices:
The first difference that we see is the kill mechanism—he uses a Nissa and two Twinflames, we use an Altar. Nissa is certainly a better card to draw if you aren’t killing them, but it’s worse if you are because it costs five mana instead of one. To be able to play a five-mana card, you need to basically have infinite mana. This is achievable, especially with Twinflame, but you need more cards in hand when you start the combo, and the chance of “fizzling” is a lot greater. Plus, it requires you to play Twinflame to be able to actually go infinite, and I’m not interested in playing that card because you do not need it and it feels too “win more” to me. Altar is not only a kill condition but also a combo piece. If you have two Ascendancies or two mana guys, it works just like Cornucopia, and sometimes you use it to loot or filter a green mana into a blue mid-combo. In the end, I don’t think Nissa’s applications outside of the combo are worth how bad she is when you’re actually combo’ing, because, as good as Nissa is, you’re usually not beating anyone with just her, and you have no follow-up.
There are other possible kill cards, ranging from the very unplayable Burning Anger to the very interesting Hammerhand and Messenger’s Speed (Speed gives it trample, but Hammerhand helps saving Caryatid from Anger). In the end, I think Altar is the best because it requires the least from you. To kill with Altar, you need:
- Mana guy in play
- 1 card in hand
- 3 mana total
In this spot, you play the Ascendancy, play the Cornucopia (untapping the guy), play the Helix (untapping the guy), and repeat the loop until you find the Altar (which will be your last card), and then you replay Cornucopia 50 times and mill them.
Lee Shi Tian’s deck cannot combo from this spot (and neither can any of the other kill conditions, at least not reliably). He can choose any single card in his deck that he wants in his hand, but there’s no card that kills from this position. He needs an extra land, so that he can loot into Twinflame and get infinite mana, and then he also needs an extra card so that he can loot into a Dragon Mantle or Nissa, or he needed to have found a Mantle during his combo somewhere (the first Mantle is free, but the second one costs a mana for a card). This is not a very big deal—most of the time you will have enough cards/lands to pull it off—but that coupled with the fact that you also need Twinflames makes it significant enough that I prefer the Altar as my kill.
“But PV, what if you mill the Altar?” Don’t worry, you can still win. The truth is, you don’t actually need a kill condition with this deck, but having one makes your life easier and eliminates any chance of fizzling. If you have no Altar in your deck, this is the least you need to kill:
- Mana Guy in play
- 3 lands
- 1 extra card
Here, the more cards in hand and mana you have the better, but it’s possible to kill with just this. Play Ascendancy, Cornucopia, and Helix. At this point you need to have one extra card in your hand, which you’re going to loot away until you find Treasure Cruise. Treasure Cruise is going to give you three new cards, which you’re going to loot into two Cornucopias and a second Ascendancy. You’ll then play both Cornucopias, generating two mana, and you’ll play the second Ascendancy—your hand will then be empty. With your Ascendancy trigger, bounce one of your Cornucopias. At this point, you have infinite mana, since you have two untap triggers every time you replay a Cornucopia (so use one for mana and another to bounce it back). You also have infinite Helix triggers, so bounce all of their non-land permanents, and then bounce your own Cornucopia (you have three, and you only need one). Loot that one away until you find Digs/Treasure Cruises, and amass a hand that has an extra Helix, a Swan Song, and at least a guy that attacks (multiple if you can). Then cast all your guys, replay a Cornucopia for 100 so that you have plenty of mana, and pass the turn. Next turn you repeat the loop and kill them with 500/500 attackers.
There is one issue with this kill—you might mill away two Cornucopias before you find a Treasure Cruise. There’s nothing you can do about that, but it will be solved if you have extra cards or extra mana at the beginning of the combo—this is the minimum you can go off with.
Everyone is playing four Communes, but not everyone is playing four Digs, which is honestly baffling to me. When I see a list with three Digs, I think, “this person just copied the SCG list and never actually thought about what they were doing,” because it’s just that wrong. Dig is the card that helps you find your combo and the one that makes you so resilient to hate cards. Play four of those, even if all you have to set it up is Commune.
To complement Dig, we chose the usual Taigam’s Scheming and the unusual Satyr Wayfinder. Scheming is very hit or miss. It’s good at setting things up and it’s good mid-combo if you have another spell to loot into something, but it’s not great if you’re being disrupted since it’s minus a card. In the end, I think you need this kind of effect, and I think it’s better than Tormenting Voice in most spots. Wayfinder is actually very good, and fills your graveyard while providing some more mana sources, a chump blocker, Crackling Doom fodder, and even a creature for you to kill with. Once you have that many ways to fill your graveyard, you can also play Treasure Cruise, which is basically a worse Dig that helps you more if you have to combo without a kill condition. I’d play six Digs if I could, but, since I can’t, I have Treasure Cruise.
Kiora’s Follower has two upsides: it has 2 power, and it can untap your other guys in case they have been Helixed or in case you are going off with only painlands. It also has one major downside—it’s much harder to cast. The way this deck works, you never want to fetch for Forest; Forest doesn’t cast Ascendancy. Having a Forest in your deck is a necessary evil because you can’t get enough untapped green sources if you don’t (since the other green painland, Llanowar Wastes, is not playable). If you already have a green source, you always want to fetch Plains first, and hopefully never even play a second fetchland. Kiora’s Follower forces you to fetch Forest, and I don’t think it’s good enough to justify that. In a different mana base, perhaps you could, but I like our mana base just fine.
Both cost zero when you’re comboing, but I prefer to cast Cornucopia than to cast Briber’s Purse most of the time, especially in post-sideboarded games against blue decks because you want to constrain them on mana and it helps with counter wars. I’m not 100% sure this is correct and it’s possible that Purse or a mix is better, though.
This deck had, without a doubt, the worst sideboard I’ve ever played in a major tournament. The main issue we encountered was that, other than Swan Song, you didn’t even really want to sideboard anything in most matchups. You’d just be diluting your deck. In most matchups, we’d do +2 Swan Songs, -2 something—usually Taigam’s Scheming, but sometimes a combination of Scheming/Treasure Cruise/Voyaging Satyr—and that was it. We had many slots, but couldn’t think of anything to play in them.
Lightning Strike was fine as an answer to cards like Eidolon of the Great Revel, but on the play I didn’t even want it against Jeskai. Hornet Nest was our answer to decks like Mono-Red and Temur (it’s very, very good agaisnt Temur, and if that deck becomes popular I think it’s worth the slot; otherwise it isn’t), and Surrak was part of our plan to bring five extra counterspells and two Erases in the mirror and just play the waiting game. Satyr Wayfinder was a surprisingly decent sideboard card, though, letting you get to an extra land in the matchups where they kill your mana guys, and also letting you remove some Taigam’s Scheming without fear of not being able to cast Dig. In the end, most of those cards were just bad.
Overall, I think the sideboard needs a lot of rework. We considered something like Lee Shi Tian’s transformational plan, but the deck had so many cards that didn’t do anything to complement that plan that it didn’t seem particularly great. One Knuckleblade or one Polukranos isn’t going to beat anyone, you need a little more than that. There’s also the major issue that people will be gunning for creatures anyway; it’s not like everyone will be taking out all their creature removal and you will surprise them with a Polukranos—more likely they will side in their creature removal, even things like End Hostilities, which could be really bad for you if your plan is resolving a big guy. Transformational sideboards don’t really work well when what you’re siding in gets hit by the same kind of card that they will have against your combo anyway—it’s like a dredge deck siding in Tombstalker. Having a Nissa in your deck does help with this plan, though, so there’s that in her favor.
In the end, I have no clue what the sideboard should be. I believe that, with the right sideboard, this could be the best deck in the format. I don’t think our sideboard was the right sideboard, and I also don’t think Lee Shi Tian’s sideboard is the right sideboard, but I think his is better than ours. What I’m looking for is mostly a way to beat Jeskai; I’d happily dedicate 10+ cards for that matchup alone, because against mostly everyone else I don’t need more than 2. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears! In the meantime, I urge you to try this deck anyway. Even without the right sideboard, I still think it’s pretty good, and it’s not every day you get to kill turn three in Standard.
See you next week,