It seems fairly safe to say that Jeskai Tempo was the breakout deck of the opening weekend of Khans of Tarkir Standard. The deck plays fast, efficient early creatures capable of putting its opponent under significant early pressure alongside a suite of versatile burn cards designed to support your creatures in the midgame and then finish off your opponent in the lategame after they stabilize. Two takes on the deck made it to the top 8 of the Standard Open in New Jersey last weekend, piloted by myself and the eventual winner of the event, Kevin Jones. Discounting the manabase, the following 26 cards were played in both of our lists:
3 Seeker of the Way
4 Mantis Rider
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Jeskai Charm
4 Stoke the Flames
4 Lightning Strike
1 Chandra, Pyromaster
2 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
From there I rounded out the spell base with:
4 Titan's Strength
2 Gods Willing
2 Magma Spray
1 Seeker of the Way
1 Chandra, Pyromaster
While Kevin played:
4 Magma Jet
2 Steam Augury
2 Dig Through Time
2 Banishing Light
Our lists were only ten spells apart, but those ten spells change the feel and goal of our respective decks significantly. My list focuses heavily on getting the maximum mileage from its early threats: backing them up with Gods Willing and Titan's Strength, clearing the way for them with Magma Spray and just having more with the fourth Seeker of The Way and second Chandra, Pyromaster. Kevin's list accepts that his creatures will peter out in effectiveness as the game progresses and seeks to maximize his ability to close the game out with burn, searching for additional high power burn spells with Steam Augury and Dig Through Time, buying time for himself with Banishing Light and using Magma Jet to both smooth out draws and as a little bit of additional reach. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses.
- Strong vs. aggro archetypes. Magma Spray and Seeker of The Way are two of Jeskai's best cards against one-drops, and my list plays more copies. Titan's Strength also complements the deck's lifelink plan in these matchups, alllowing for huge life swings that can put the game out of reach for your opponent.
- Creatures are still relevant on stalled boards. If your opponent intends to stabilize via blockers, the suite of combat tricks makes their job significantly more difficult. Titan's Strength allows you to trade a Seeker of the Way or maybe even a goblin token for their road block and then continue beating with the rest of your team while Gods Willing can either die in the place of your creature or give pseudo-unblockable to finish an opponent off.
- Additional "play" against removal. Playing one mana tricks opens up new lines of play for the deck, getting creatures out of Lightning Strike range with Titan's Strength and straight up no-sirring any removal spell with Gods Willing. Once your opponent knows you are playing these cards, they have to think really hard about if they can play around them or not, further complicating the game.
- Bad in topdecking. On a cleared board, my list has several more cards that are just completely useless. It's very hard to win a game by topdecking Titan's Strength after all your creatures have been removed.
- No hard removal. Sometimes, the only thing you want to do in the entire world is get rid of that pesky Polukranos beating your face in so you can have enough time to cast all your sweet burn spells.
- Draw dependent: My list relies entirely on a scant few Temples and the scry trigger on the combat tricks to manipulate its library. For the most part, what you see is what you get and you have to heavily sculpt your gameplan around the spells you've drawn without being able to routinely access the ones you would like to draw as the game progresses. This deficiency magnifies the fact that so many of our cards are dead on their own.
- Great card selection. Conversely, Kevin's list is playing a ton of ways to ensure he gets the cards he wants when he wants them. Four copies of Magma Jet alongside eight Temples, as well as actual card drawing spells in Dig Through Time and Steam Augury. This list is far more consistent, doing powerful things in every game.
- Higher reach potential. Kevin's list has more total burn (via the Magma Jets) and more ways to find it (Steam Augury, Dig Through Time). This build seeks to finish off its opponent through the stack from a higher life total than my list can. In fact, Dig Through Time often plays out like an eight damage burn spell over the turns it takes to cast the Dig Through Time and the cards it finds. Eight damage for one spell is huge.
- "Dead mana." By this I mean the presence of spells that require you to spend mana to do things other than affect the board (Steam Augury, Dig Through Time) or affect the board very little (Magma Jet). These cards do a lot to set up your future plays, but they do stone nothing to solve a problem right now. If you are under the gun vs a strong board and a fast clock, spending the time to cast Dig Through Time or Steam Augury is not going to feel very good. It's entirely possible that as the rest of the metagame gets tuned and more powerful, casting low power level dead mana spells like Steam Augury will not be a viable option going forward if more consistently strong and faster opposing decks mean we can no longer rely on having the time to cast them.
-Strained manabase. The presence of maindeck Dig Through Time adds a double blue spell we're hoping to cast as early as turn 4 or 5 to the restraints on an already miserable manabase. Certainly not an insurmountable problem, but it is a very real cost to playing Dig Through Time that should be considered.
Going forward with Jeskai Tempo, I like Kevin's list a lot. I viewed the Titan's Strengths I played as a hedge for piloting the deck in an uncertain metagame -- they perform at a reasonable level across the entire spectrum of opposing decks, either as a Lightning Strike to the dome or as a Lightning Helix against aggro in combination with Seeker of the Way. That being said, they are also never fantastic in any matchup, and now that the metagame is starting to take shape I will be looking to leave them behind.
My worries with Kevin's list are that some of the cards are just not powerful enough -- Steam Augury in particular, but Magma Jet to an extent as well. Overall, the Jeskai deck feels like it has a very powerful core of cards and then is forced into a lower tier of options to round out the deck. My list sought to maintain the power level by playing less consistent cards, while Kevin's sought to find and cast the powerful spells more often and let his average power level drop to achieve this goal.
Now that we've talked a little bit about how to build the deck and the strengths and weaknesses of various successful takes on the deck in the infancy of this format, let's discuss how to play the deck a little.
The deck has a fragile manabase and depends heavily on getting in points with creatures in the early stages of the game -- mulligan aggressively to hands that have a threat and the mana to cast your spells. If your threat is one of the three-drops, you probably need a two-mana or less removal spell as well. On the draw, I often find myself keeping two landers off a color if the rest of the hand looks good, but these probably need to be shipped on the play. That being said, you can afford to be choosy with your sevens but lands and spells is generally good enough to keep a six.
Games with this deck tend to develop in two distinct phases. In the first phase you are seeking to apply as much pressure as possible with your early threats. Here, your burn spells are generally pointed at opposing creatures to get yours through. In matchups where your opponent can punish you for overextending, don't. Your threats are all significant on their own and must all be answered. At some point, the low threat density of the Jeskai deck will end this phase, and you will be unable to continue to consistently apply pressure via permanents.
Now we move on to the second phase, where we try and finish the job with our burn spells. Burn spells can still be pointed at creatures here, but the goal in doing so would be to buy more turns with which to finish our opponent off. Doing so is certainly the exception and not the rule. If your list includes Dig Through Time and/or Steam Augury, this is often where these spells will end up being cast.
Success with the deck often depends on being able to recognize when the first phase is ending and you need to switch gears. The deck operates on reasonably tight margins, and you cannot afford to misevaluate where your burn spells need to be going. If the first phase is ending too early and you can't see a way to keep applying permanent-based pressure without egregiously wasting resources but you don't yet have enough burn to kill them, it is generally correct to switch gears anyway. The density of burn spells in the deck is rather high, and you will get there reasonably often.
One of the great weaknesses of the Jeskai deck is its manabase. When playing the deck, you need to be fully cognizant of your mana and think through what mana you will need over the course of the next few turns in order to plan your land drops. This is complicated by the high number of lands that enter the battlefield tapped. The task of adequately thinking through and developing your land base is not easy and takes some getting used to -- I threw away game 1 of my quarterfinal match in New Jersey to four successive mistakes in simply playing my lands incorrectly. Keep in mind that your goal is not just to be able to cast your spells when you need to cast them, but also to minimize the amount of damage you take from your painlands. Thinking about your mana requirements for turns in which you anticipate having to cast two spells is another higher order part of this challenge.
Last, but not least, Jeskai Charm is an important enough piece of the deck that it is worth talking about on its own. The lifelink and +1/+1 to your team mode is awesome and game-changing, but the matchups and situations where you want it are fairly intuitive. I will note that untapping with a Goblin Rabblemaster, making a second goblin, and swinging for nine points of lifelink is a sweet feeling. The most difficult part of playing Jeskai Charm is probably trying to decide between the Griptide mode and the deal four to the face mode. In general, if they spent their entire turn playing a creature and you can send it to the top and get an attack in, do it. This is effectively time walking them and almost always ends up being more damage than sending the Jeskai Charm to the face, even if the next attack is for less than three. In fact, if you are sitting down with the deck and trying to learn it, I would advise using the Griptide mode by default every time you find yourself unsure what is best. Get a feel for how awesome it is, and use that information to crush when it matters.
I have high hopes and expectations that Jeskai Tempo will prove to be an important part of the post-Khans of Tarkir Standard metagame, and I wish anyone who picks it up well. Seriously, the deck's a blast!