About two weeks back, I wrote about a deck that Todd Anderson had been championing for my Deck of the Day column. This Jeskai Black deck featured no copies of the card Mantis Rider. It also sported 4 copies of Dig Through Time for card advantage, used Dragonmaster Outcast as the kill card, and was forced to play things like Planar Outburst to handle the board. It had no way to end the game quickly or capitalize on opponents’ stumbles and I really didn’t like what the deck was doing, despite its success. I called it an inferior version of Esper Dragons.
Unsurprisingly, the deck has evolved. Every change seems small and simple, but some extremely powerful cards managed to sneak their way into the deck. The tweaks that Todd, Michael Majors, and Gerry Thompson have contributed to the deck have it at a place where I feel it is the best deck in the format. What I once felt was a weaker version of a great deck I now feel is a superior version of a different great deck.
Here’s the list that Todd played to a Top 32 finish at the Invitational last weekend:
By Todd Anderson, 19th Place at the Standard Invitational
I spent some time talking to Gerry before playing in the Standard Open, and before I knew what he was playing. I was locked in on playing a deck with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Painful Truths as I don’t think you can play more powerful cards in the format. This meant that either a “Mardu Blue” deck or some variant of Esper were my top options. After Gerry sent me the list that he started 4-0 with, I began building it immediately.
He was several cards off from Todd, but was still similar. Gerry decided to run 2 Dig Through Times and no Treasure Cruises, Dispels over Duresses, and he moved the Monastery Mentors to the sideboard for a Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Sarkhan Dragonspeaker in the main deck. He also had 2 more sideboard cards than the list currently posted as Todd’s, although I believe he was playing Arashin Clerics there, as Gerry submitted 3 copies of the powerful anti-red card.
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is the backbone of the deck. Turn-2 Jace absolutely has to be dealt with, as anyone who plays Standard can attest to, but this deck takes it so much further. There are Kolaghan’s Commands and Ojutai’s Commands that threaten to bring back Jace at any point in the game. Ojutai’s Command in particular allows you to get Jace into play at instant speed, so an opponent tapping out is at serious risk in the middle stages of the game. The most powerful card in Standard is at his absolute best when you can flash back powerful cards for value at sorcery speed, making this the best Jace deck in the format.
Soulfire Grand Master
Soulfire Grand Master was originally viewed as broken before being condemned as a “necessary evil.” It was the best 2-drop available for Jeskai decks for some time, and would generally see play as a 2-of that had application early and could take over late.
The few extra life gained shifts from cute to incredible when you’re using that resource to draw 3 cards with Painful Truths.
Soulfire is another great combo with Ojutai’s Command and works fantastically with cheap removal spells like Fiery Impulse and Roast to clear the board, gain a bunch of life, and you’re often able to return the spells to your hand with the activated ability.
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Tasigur, the Golden Fang is just a solid card, but I’m not convinced it belongs in the deck. I’ve seen lists with 0 copies and I’ve seen lists with as many as 3 copies. He fights a good fight, isn’t vulnerable to Silkwrap, and threatens serious card advantage in the late game, but he’s not always easy to cast, and I have found myself unenthusiastic about the activated ability at times.
There are so many great ways to use your mana in this deck and there aren’t too many ways to actually delve useless cards out of your graveyard, so if you have 1 copy of Tasigur, odds are that you won’t find him until later in the game. At that point, it’s likely you can’t delve away all the useless stuff in your graveyard, making the activated ability nice but not amazing. It’s also tough to cast this card in the midgame against decks that have Crackling Dooms and Ojutai’s Commands.
I believe 1 copy is the right number, but there’s a reasonable chance I drop to 0.
Monastery Mentor is a Vintage powerhouse, which isn’t a big surprise in a format with the fast mana of Moxen, Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, Sol Ring, etc. That being said, it’s still extremely powerful in Standard where people have to play much more fair decks. Gerry played 0 copies in his main deck, but it only took 4 rounds on Friday for him to say that he firmly believed it should be main, and I agree.
Mentor is at its best in a deck that doesn’t need to throw it out there on turn 3, but can instead set it up with Duress or Dispel. Having access to Kolaghan’s Command to bring Mentor back from the graveyard and Utter End to free Mentor from under Silkwraps and Stasis Snares is a perfect combination to ensure that the card will always be powerful and that you only need 1-2 copies to get there as a win condition.
Painful Truths is the card that really drove me to this deck. 3 mana for 3 cards is simply overpowered, even at the cost of 3 life. There is so much 1-for-1 trading that goes on in a format filled with powerful creatures and powerful removal that Truths is the card that breaks open all of these midrange matchups. I would love to see 3 copies in the main deck, especially considering how often you board up to 3 in the current lists.
Dig Through Time vs. Treasure Cruise
I’m not sure which is right, but I lean toward Treasure Cruise. Dig being able to find what you need in a deck with many 1-ofs and 2-ofs is certainly nice, but the additional cost is real. Without Dig, you can potentially shave some blue mana, cutting copies of Flooded Strand for Wooded Foothills to make the mana smoother and increasing access to turn-1 Fiery Impulse or being able to get Smoldering Marsh for Duress and Painful Truths early. If the number of Dispels in your metagame is high, then the choice is easy to play Treasure Cruise, but the format will continue to evolve in different directions, so the optimal choice could easily vary week to week.
Duress vs. Dispel
They both do great, similar things. Duress is the more proactive card and I believe it was a mistake that I ended up playing 0 copies in my 75.
Dispel, however, was excellent. It deals with top decks, which Duress can never really do, and with cards like Ojutai’s Command and Dig Through Time in the format, not to mention Kolaghan’s Command and many of the removal spells, having access to counters is really nice. If the metagame continues to shift away from instants and more decks are running Painful Truths to complement Treasure Cruise or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, then Negate will likely make a resurgence over the cheaper and narrower blue instant.
Fiery Impulse and Wild Slash
Fiery Impulse and Wild Slash are great right now in a world of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigys. When shock effects are good, Jeskai Black is going to be good. You can’t really afford to cut cards like this when people are playing Jace and Monastery Swiftspear, but there are a number of matchups where the cards are pretty weak.
Luckily, you have so much card advantage built into your deck, and everybody has to play creatures, that even if you get 2-for-1’d in using double Fiery Impulse to kill an opposing creature, you’re not going to be left devastated in many games. Roast has beautiful synergy with Soulfire Grand Master, as gaining 5 life is a ridiculous amount, and it can be cast early enough to deal with a Jace, while also taking care of Siege Rhino and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Roast is as well positioned as it has ever been in the format.
This Command is so good right now as it’s as consistent a 2-for-1 as you’re going to get and it will only cost you 3 mana to do it. I keep talking about how powerful card advantage is, and stripping your opponent of even a single card is a great start. The fact that this is always live as a shock-plus-discard-1 is great—the worst-case scenario is each player discarding a card and them taking 2.
Having access to this card against control decks as a way to deal with Jace without having to load up on otherwise shock effects is what puts it over the top for me. A very common line on the play that is extremely difficult to beat is playing your own Jace, having it removed by whatever shock effect they have during your end step, them playing a Jace, and you killing their Jace and returning yours from the graveyard with Kolaghan’s Command. The added utility of being able to kill a Hangarback Walker, a pair of tokens, or a Hedron’s Archive is quite nice.
Ojutai’s Command’s ability to draw a card and always replace itself means that the card is essentially always good. The big issue is the casting cost is a little high at 4 mana, so opponents won’t walk into it. That being said, it’s often impossible to avoid, as failing to progress your board can leave you far behind, and if you happen to have a Jace or Soulfire in your graveyard, getting one back into play and drawing a card is still completely backbreaking. The incidental life gain is a nice bonus in a deck with Painful Truths and in a world of Zurgo Bellstriker.
Utter End is just a decent all-purpose card. It kills creatures, planeswalkers, enchantments, or anything tough to deal with. The cost is not cheap, so you can’t just jam a bunch of these into your deck, but with Jace to flash it back the utility is too strong to not play 1. Silumgar’s Command may just be too cute. The card is powerful in the format and often offers a 2-for-1, but the 5-casting-cost is a bit high for current Standard. If it cost 4 and could answer an opposing Gideon when opponents try to play around Ojutai’s Command, then we would definitely be in business, but Gideon will already be in play and have gotten that extra value before Silumgar’s Command is turned on. It’s still a nice way to deal with the planeswalker and the token, but 5 mana is a steep price for that effect.
Here’s the list I ended up sleeving up for the Standard Open:
I felt like this deck was very close to being broken. I started the tournament 5-0, only dropping a single game, before a nice little string of 7 games with some pretty horrible mana problems (the fun highlight was game 3 of the mirror and I have about the best possible starting hand on the play. I lead on turn-2 Jace, turn 3 I loot with Jace and cast Painful Truths for 3, turn 4 I cast Painful Truths again after he plays Monastery Mentor, turn 5 I Dig but don’t find a single spell in the top 20 cards and die to Mentor). Standard with all of its power creep is not a forgiving format when you can’t play lands and spells, but I believe this deck does a great job to typically mitigate that since there are so many powerful early plays that getting flooded is often a good thing. Getting into the late game where you can cast multiple spells per turn, which you will be able to do thanks to Soulfire and all of the card advantage, is a nice place to be.
On the draw or play
On the draw
On the play
Crackling Doom is the more powerful card, but on the draw I will leave in the Roasts as a way to deal with Jace before opponents get to untap. The matchup is absolutely an attrition battle unless someone plays an early Mentor and the other player is completely screwed. Jace is amazing—kill it at all costs, stop it from being returned with Ojutai’s Command, etc. Card advantage is big since so much is being traded 1-for-1 and there are so many 2-for-1s. That’s my main incentive for bringing in Ob Nixilis—it can’t be stopped with Dispel and can rarely be attacked to stop its high loyalty, so then the main concern is an Utter End that most decks have 1-2 copies of, or he’ll take over the game.
The shock effects do little to nothing in the matchup, but either way, Roast is the more powerful option. You still have Kolaghan’s Command to deal with potential Snapping Gnarlids, although if they are playing an extra aggressive version with lots of early drops, things will have to be adjusted. I have seen many players simply boarding out their Wardens for this matchup anyway, so the Shock effects have even less utility.
Roast is great. Roast with Soulfire Grand Master is insane. You can kill almost anything they play. Painful Truths is absurd as this is an attrition based matchup and having more answers is huge. Ob Nixilis is just completely unbeatable in the matchup and this deck is the main reason he earns a sideboard slot.
The removal spells stink. If they are leaning on Monastery Mentor, you should reevaluate. If they have both Mentor and Jace, you should leave in some copies of Fiery Impulse. That being said, you still have 4 Crackling Dooms that can take care of a Mentor at no cost of tempo. You have lots of answers to Dragonlords in Crackling Dooms and the Infinite Obliteration out of the sideboard. You also have cheap threats and lots of cheap counter magic to go with your card advantage. Painful Truths is especially tough to beat when you can’t put any pressure on an opponent. This is another matchup where access to Duress would be fantastic.
You are boarding in a ton of cards, but that being said, this matchup is quite good. After sideboard, the conventional approach is to board out 100% of the combo to bring in cards like Outpost Siege and potentially Sarkhan, Dragonspeaker. This makes Negate better than Dispel. Crackling Doom dealing 2 damage is pretty close to irrelevant, although if they are heavy on cards like Sarkhan, having more answers makes sense, and I believe Utter End would be your best option assuming they also have Outpost Siege.
Roast isn’t great, although if they end up on Hooting Mandrils, it’s a very nice and cheap answer, and being able to gain 5 life through a Soulfire even a single time could easily be enough to win the game on the spot. Arashin Cleric is absurd in this matchup. Radiant Flames is even more absurd. You have so many trump cards that you’re able to take out some of your traditional power in Jace and Painful Truths and have a deck that matches up extremely well.
Unfortunately, you don’t have nearly enough to bring in for this matchup. You could bring in Arashin Clerics as a way to start dealing 1, but I think I prefer having the random 2-point burn spell or hoping to catch a Jaddi Offshoot with a Fiery Impulse and spell mastery. This matchup isn’t good since Ugin is great against you and you can’t really kill them before Ulamog comes down. Get down Monastery Mentor early and try to swarm them. Negate does serious work and you want to just hit a key ramp spell when you can pressure your opponent. All of your card draw goes toward finding more Negates and potentially Infinite Obliteration while crossing your fingers. That being said, I’ve managed to defeat this deck the few times I’ve played against it, but I would greatly prefer to never play the matchup.Mantis Rider is a huge loss here in what was already a bad matchup for Jeskai.
It’s not going to be easy for them to kill you with the random creature plan, although it is certainly possible. Stopping Collected Company is your first goal and stopping Rally the Ancestors should finish the game. Their clock isn’t fast, so you have plenty of time to set up where you can generally exploit the late game. Having access to so many counters means you are favored to be able to stop their Company. The shock effects are mainly used to kill Jace and Grim Haruspex to keep the card advantage in check, that way you’re able to find more answers to their powerful instants before they’re able to find them.
There are many ways to customize the final handful of slots in a deck like this, but I believe it is the best choice in Standard. What changes do you expect to see going forward in the evolution of the Jeskai Black/Mardu Blue deck?