This past weekend was pay dirt for brew masters everywhere. I'm a Johnny, Combo Player at heart. I don't usually play conventional decks but rather "ideas." For me, I like style points and a deck that can win at a moment's notice (the first Modern deck I brewed when I got back into magic was Amulet/Hive Mind, which was right after Seething Song got banned). I'm always looking for interesting mechanics and how to exploit them. The more elegant the deck and concept, the better. Infinites and auto-wins get my gears turning because snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is the ultimate troll move in Magic, more so if I'm in a possibly hopeless position. My local game store in San Francisco calls me the "Mad Scientist" because I like brewing decks. I'd say more like Dr. Fronkenstien (nod to Young Frankenstein). I'd take parts of various successful or failed deck ideas and reanimate them into new shells when cards came out. At my LGS, I played Mono-Red and U/W Heroic when Theros came out, Bant Heroic when Sage of Hours came out (an attempt at multiple turns with Hidden Strings), and Jeskai Ascendancy when Khans of Tarkir came out.
When Jeskai Ascendancy was spoiled and people said it had a combo with Retraction Helix, I knew I had to work on it. I tried the green shell with Astral Cornucopias and Briber's Purse and found it durdled around too much trying to find pieces and the cards themselves did nothing on their own. In the end I decided to give it a try in my old U/W Heroic deck. The difference between that deck then and now was that it got two new cantrips - Defiant Strike (actually new) and Dragon Mantle (new because of the red splash).
One mana cantrips that have abilities? Yes, please.
At the Prerelease, I started assembling all the cards for the combo. The theory was simple - create a loop, generate triggers for Voltron, and cast Gods Willing for the win.
Jeskai Heroic Combo v.1.0 did alright. I went 6-3 at Grand Prix LA, but it didn't have the oomph I was looking for. My copies of Taigam's Scheming and Soldier of the Pantheon just didn't do enough. Abzan and Mardu were terrible because they flooded the board and killed my biggest creature. Finally, after going 0-3 at my FNM the night before SCG Oakland, I had to make big changes. Mardu decks with Hordeling Outburst were overwhelming one-for-one removal decks. Akroan Crusader was also an early beating. It was time to further integrate. Why go only vertical when you can also go horizontal?
Time to swarm!
Anything that didn't cantrip, combo, trigger, or have raw value went out the door. Out went 2 Soldiers of the Pantheon, 2 Lagonna-Band Trailblazer, and 2 Taigam's Scheming. In went 4 Akroan Crusaders and 2 Jeskai Charm. And with that, I built Frankenstein's Monster! One part Heroic, one part Red Aggro, and one part Ascendancy. How it would play out was a mystery to me. Ironically, at the player's meeting, Glenn Jones sat on my left and was flipping through his deck. I didn't know who he was, but I knew what he was doing. We had a brief chat on the differences (he ran 19 lands and 3 Springleaf Drums. He had fetches and went with Treasure Cruise and Taigam's Scheming), and we wished each other good luck.
Little did I know it would be a tale of two Jeskai Heroic Combo decks. The rest is on tape. From what I've heard and later re-watched, listening to the commentary makes it worth the price of admission. The five rounds on tape show how a little luck, an empty board, mostly careful play, and complete surprise can make for entertaining games to watch.
- 4 Akroan Crusader
- 4 Favored Hoplite
- 2 Lagonna-Band Trailblazer
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
- 2 Seeker of the Way
The deck wins in three forms. Plan A is the "hard lock" with two creatures, Jeskai Ascendancy, Retraction Helix, and Springleaf Drum. Creature one and Springleaf Drum tap for one mana. Creature two with Ascendancy Helix bounces Springleaf Drum, using the mana from the Springleaf Drum to recast. Jeskai Ascendancy triggers, untapping the creatures to repeat the cycle. Once the creatures are large, I can cycle my deck to hit Gods Willing and give the attacking creature protection from the blocker's color. Plan B is the "soft lock" with multiple Jeskai Ascendancy triggers for a major beatdown. Akroan Crusader is a star here, as multiple triggers on the Akroan Crusader can turn into double-digit damage. Plan C is to simply beat them down with heroic and prowess. During the Open, I had to do all of the above to win games.
Why You Should Play This Deck
It is an absolute blast to play, and it will make you a better player in paper Magic. The deck is designed to potentially win at all stages of the game, from early aggro to lategame combo blowouts. As long as you have a card in your hand, you always have a chance. You will learn the finer aspects of the game when it comes to stacking triggers. For me, you'll see I, by rule, always stack Ascendancy triggers as (1) Untap, (2) Loot, (3) Prowess, and (4) Heroic so that it resolves in reverse order. Just get into the habit. Also, both you and your opponent will learn all about how the order of blockers matter. If you send in a Siege Rhino and I block with a Firebreathing 2/3 Favored Hoplite and a Monastery Swiftspear with three mana up, the wrong order can result in me losing no creatures if I have a combat trick. If you like poker and bluffing, this is the deck for you. Blocking can be a risky proposition for your opponents. You can get cheap shots in as a result. Finally, it is fairly cheap. The manabase is relatively cheap, especially if you picked them up when Theros was in full swing. The rest is a bunch of commons and uncommons, ignoring Jeskai Ascendancy.
Eighteen lands and four copies of Springleaf Drums provides 22 mana sources. The deck is R/W/u, hence the need for R/W access on almost all of the lands. The lands are half ETB lands and half painlands. That's the price I pay for color consistency without always killing myself (I replaced a fourth Mana Confluence for a fourth Mystic Monastery). Fetchlands and basics just didn't meet my color demands. The deck turns on red or white mana on a dime. In several matches, I easily lost five to ten points of life when playing aggressively eschewing ETB mana for fast mana. More importantly, scry matters.
The general rule for me was to keep all one-land hands unless it was Shivan Reef or had zero creatures. Doing mental math, this meant close to 90% of my hands were keepers. That automatically gave me a statistical edge since all the other 23 to 25 land decks would hit zero to one land no less than 12% of the time, never mind the contents of the rest of their hand. The Springleaf Drum is critical also because the actual mana production of the deck is higher except that the Drum does work with Ascendancy.
The deck would not exist without both Defiant Strike and Dragon Mantle being cards and serving as cantrips. Defiant Strike allows the innocent looking Lagonna-Band Trailblazers to kill Goblin Rabblemasters and for Favored Hoplites to smite Sylvan Caryatids (triggering prowess doesn't hurt either). In a deck designed to tax the opponent's resources while building position, cantips are essential. Retraction Helix, Jeskai Ascendancy, and Dragon Mantle are also a strong card drawing combo.
The Gods Willings are there because it's Gods Willing. It is superior to Ajani's Presence maindeck simply because it gives protection to allow you to go through opponents' blockers, stops exiling effects like Abzan Charm, and scrying.
Retraction Helix is an all-star. You have to use it judiciously as it is essential to the hard combo and will bait out reactive spells. However, if the opportunity to tempo exists, go for it!
The two Jeskai Charms have been widely debated. Those two last-minute insertions, although not used, are essential in most game 1s. I cast it once (Finals, Game 2), had it Thoughtseized (Finals, Game 1), and had it taken by Brain Maggot (Quarterfinals, Game 1). Barring the Jeskai Ascendancy itself, no other card would attract that much attention because of its power level. Jeskai Charm is tempo and putting a card on the opponent's deck (i.e., quasi-time walk) or converting to damage justifies its presence in game 1. But overall, it is in the flex spot and going into an open field, raw power helps.
This motley crew of red and white creatures was the best combination of efficient creatures I could assemble. The deck runs sixteen creatures, of which fourteen are one-drops. The one-drops all share the same features of being reactive to any instants I may cast, whether it is prowess or heroic. Other than the Akroan Crusader, they all have 2 or more toughness which goes to 3 when I cast a spell out of my hand (i.e., Drown in Sorrow or Polukranos).
Lagonna-Band Trailblazer was downsized to two copies to be more aggressive. Otherwise, he is ordinarily the first line of defense against early rushes, though Favored Hoplite still does the job most of the time. More importantly, the critical mass of one-drops means that casting a creature with a Springleaf Drum in play is mana neutral as I get the one mana back through the Drum activation. This is critical for the Turn 1 ETB land, Turn 2 land, Springleaf Drum, play 1 drop, tap 1 drop, and Springleaf Drum for another 1 drop. I'm now set up for three mana on Turn 3 with two creatures, and my innocent turn 1 do nothing play is now much more intimidating.
The two copies of Seeker of the Way is my acknowledgement that I don't want to roll over to Mono-Red or Jeskai, plus I can engineer substantial lifegain. However, its two-mana cost is why it is strictly a two-of. He is much harder to protect before turn 3.
This is one of the harder, if not hardest, decks to pick up in Standard. The first two turns are critical. Going first has tons of permutations. Ironically enough, going second isn't always that bad. That brings us to the golden rule: "Knowing is Half the Battle." When everyone plays the major archetypes, you can predict the opponent's actions, reactions, and gameplan. That turn 1 land play can dictate your strategy. Similarly, Courser of Kruphix is my best friend since I get to know what they are going to draw. That dictated my entire strategy in Round 8, Game 3, when Bradley Yoo was going to Doomwake Giant my board. At that point, it was time to sand bag and rely on digging through the deck for answers to combo on the spot. Knowing what the opponent can and cannot do was just critical to the deck's success.
That brings me to this point: this deck's strongest suit is its ability to quickly shift strategies. Once you size up the opponent, you can instinctively identify what measures they will deploy and your appropriate counter-measures. A weak draw by the opponent can lead to opportunistic beat downs. More importantly, you can affect your opponent's strategy. The deck has multiple ways to bring the opponent to zero. A quick punch in the opponent's life total can force them into a defensive strategy and turtle up. That buys time. From there, you switch from Plan C to Plan B, with the chance of hitting Plan A.
Cards That Didn't Work
Delve cards like Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time, which are played in the green variants of combo, require graveyards. However, the deck is heavily based on cheap permanents. Granted, you can cycle quickly with Jeskai Ascendancy, but you should be winning in that situation. Similarly, Taigam's Scheming didn't do enough. Often times you would dig, show two cantrips, and keep it in to take advantage of heroic or prowess. However, that means all I really did was scry 2, so I'd rather have a flex slot like Jeskai Charm. Too many two-drops hurts the manabase. It's built to survive on one land with one-drops drawing cards through cantrips. Also, the deck needs to operate efficiently turn 2 or 3 with mana up. High casting costs constrain the deck's ability to react. This means only two Seeker of the Way and no other two-drops, never mind three-drops, maindeck.
This was, and still is, a work in progress. Erase was for potential Jeskai Ascendancy combo decks, but the prevalence of G/B Constellation didn't hurt either. The Negates and Disdainful Strokes were for wrath effects, such as End Hostilities. Ajani's Presence similarly came in against decks with lots of targeted removal (they came in most of the time). Magma Jet is solely for red burn decks. Seeker of the Way was for all aggro decks, and one would come in whenever I was on the play replacing Monastery Swiftspears. Chasm Skulker was designed for Mardu matchups where I needed to grind and pop more tokens, as well as Abzan. I am, of course, open to replacement suggestions. Given how the Mono-Red matchup is basically a coin flip, perhaps Magma Sprays are required. Other cards that I rotated out included Triton Fortune Hunter (outclassed by Crusaders) and Nyx-Fleece Ram.
My run was definitely a combination of planning, small miscues by my opponents, and luck. It's not every day that you cobble a Standard win with four lands, a Jeskai Ascendancy in play, four cards in my hand, and my opponent at 29 life at the start of my turn, facing lethal damage the next turn. The nicest thing about the deck is that I always felt I had a chance as long as I could draw a card. In my case, I hit pay dirt, and sometimes in spectacular fashion. Here are my overall thoughts on matchups.
VS Jeskai Aggro - This is not a difficult matchup if you recognize the conventional strategy. Their defensive strategy (especially Magma Jet) is to burn creatures, which is particularly poor with heroic, prowess, and Gods Willing. Goblin Rabblemasters have to face waves of 1/2s that become 2/3s or better after any instant. Seeker of the Way is an all-star and is to be protected at all costs (which isn't too hard either) with all of the other pressure. If a Jeskai Ascendancy comes online, the Jeskai deck probably cannot recover.
VS G/B Constellation - This is a difficult game to win without Jeskai Ascendancy due to them flooding the board with creatures. However, their deck is incredibly slow and presents very little early pressure. That would give you a look through at least 1/3 of your deck for missing pieces. Fortunately, the deck's composition makes it semi-resistant to Doomwake Giant unless they have multiples.
VS Mono-Red - The game is tough unless you chain together a proper defense to ride out the early waves of goblins and Monastery Swiftspears. Presumably, the other control decks will take them out. When I came across them, the first game boils down to a critical mass of one-drops. Game 2 is about Seeker of the Way bailing you out. In the future, I may add more cards to shore up this matchup, especially against Eidolon of the Great Revel.
VS Abzan Midrange - This matchup is very difficult, depending on how much enchantment removal they run. Maindeck Utter End is significantly stronger against the hard combo. On the flip side, an overtly controllish draw exposes them to aggro strategies. An early Akroan Crusader could overrun their one-for-one defenses. Ultimately, the games are going to be very skill intensive.
Overall, Jeskai Heroic Combo is well-positioned in the current metagame. This deck races G/B Constellation, Abzan Midrange keeps Jeskai in check, and G/B Constellation beats up on Abzan Midrange. All of the other decks respect Mono-Red strategies, but realize that Mono-Red can easily run out of gas. Jeskai Heroic Combo fits somewhere in between with both a short, mid and longgame. The deck even has flex spots for your metagame. If you want a challenge, like a skill intensive deck, want to see amazing stuff when you get lucky, and a deck with tons of possibilities, go for it!
To all my fellow brewers, keep at it! Jeskai Heroic Combo is moving the metagame, and that's the highest compliment a brewer can get. If I can do it, so can you!