Last weekend was a bit of a departure from the norm.
I'm not talking about the Pro Tour. At least, not exactly. The Pro Tour was, all things considered, pretty normal. Six of the top 8 slots were taken up by Abzan and Jeskai decks, two of the top performing archetypes from the Open Series. Really, the only missing link was Green Devotion. The Pro Tour was quite normal. Too normal, almost. I expected to see a lot more diversity and wacky innovations.
It was a departure from the norm for me. Instead of playing some sort of grindy midrange deck, I opted to go with something a little more off the wall. Instead of playing Siege Rhino, I turned my back on my usual modus operandi and instead sleeved up some of the most powerful cards in Standard. I decided to build my deck by pulling random Draft commons and uncommons from the piles of cards sitting on my table at home.
As you might be able to tell, I ended up playing the Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck.
Going into GP Orlando, I was pretty likely to play one of two decks. The first choice for me was a planeswalker-heavy Abzan deck. The core of the deck was Thoughtseize, Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, and Siege Rhino backed up by Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Nissa Worldwaker, with a sprinkling of removal spells to top it off. Most of the people I was working with didn't really like this deck very much. For the most part, the message I was getting was "don't play this deck" even though I felt that it was actually testing very well against most strategies.
Mono-Green Devotion was definitely proving to be the worst matchup, but a sideboard plan of End Hostilities was working wonders against the deck. I was winning almost every game I drew an End Hostilities, and thus I felt like Mono-Green could be beat.
The second choice for me was some sort of a Thoughtseize + Goblin Rabblemaster shell. The deck could end up being either pure R/B or Mardu. The Mardu build was mostly just R/W and had much worse mana, but Crackling Doom was just an insanely good card. The main issue I was having with this deck is I was struggling to beat the Jeskai decks. Both decks would have more removal spells than the other deck had creatures, however, Jeskai could just start slinging burn spells to the face and end the game that way, and in fact, that's how most games ended.
Things changed during GP Orlando though. I brought a box of cards to proxy on, and I proxied up about 7-8 different decks to test. In between rounds, I would play games against Michael Majors and Chris VanMeter. One deck that Michael Majors decided to proxy up was Jeskai Ascendancy. I was skeptical about the deck. Even though it seemed to be extremely powerful in Modern, it seemed fragile in Standard.
Then I kept losing to it. Over and over again I would die on turn 4 or 5. Even hands with Thoughtseize and Rabblemaster weren't always quick enough to get the job done. I was sold.
Once I decided that I was going to play Ascendancy, Chris VanMeter and I started to work on the exact details of the deck. The Tuesday before the Pro Tour, we got together with Stephen Horne and just jammed a bunch of games and tried to hammer out exactly what cards we wanted and didn't want.
I ended up registering a maindeck that was very similar to what Andrew Baeckstrom finished 11th place with at the SCG Open in Indianapolis two weeks ago.
Here's the list I played:
I was pretty happy with the maindeck for the most part. Kiora's Follower became Voyaging Satyr because you can't cast Kiora's Follower off of Battlefield Forge, and the ability to untap a non-land permanent was practically never relevant. I only played three copies of Satyr because I felt like having twelve creatures was excessive (you only needed one to start the combo) and Voyaging Satyr was the worst one by an enormous margin. You could sometimes lose if Voyaging Satyr was the creature you started the combo with, since Satyr didn't actually generate mana by itself and you had to keep untapping lands to cast spells. With a manabase of painlands and Mana Confluence, this wasn't always optimal.
Dig Through Time was so good that I immediately added a fourth copy and even went so far as to play a Treasure Cruise as a fifth copy. I actually wanted to play a second Treasure Cruise along with a fourth Taigam's Scheming because I felt like Dig and Cruise were so good, especially since Commune with the Gods and Taigam's Scheming dumped cards in the graveyard. I didn't end up pulling the trigger though. I didn't want the deck to get too clunky and end up losing games where I stranded two or three of these big draw spells in my hand.
While the deck may look like a huge pile of unrelated Draft commons, it is actually pretty powerful. You can start a turn with a Sylvan Caryatid and a Jeskai Ascendancy in play, and by the time the turn ends, your opponent is being attacked by a bunch of 1001/1000s and 1000/1001s after having all of their non-land permanents bounced.
The simplest way to start the combo off is with Jeskai Ascendancy, two mana accelerants, a Retraction Helix, and a Dragon Mantle or Briber's Purse. You can either have two or more mana accelerants in play already, or you can use Twinflame to make a second one to start the combo off.
Tap your two creatures for a red and a blue mana. Cast Dragon Mantle on one, and untap your creatures. Float two more mana, then cast Retraction Helix on one and untap your creatures again. Now, you can repeat the combo of bouncing Dragon Mantle with the Helix'd creature while adding the red mana to recast Dragon Mantle with the other creature. Jeskai Ascendancy untaps your creatures each time you cast Dragon Mantle.
This combo allows you to draw your entire deck and turn the creatures you have in play into giant creatures. As you draw your deck, if you find the Briber's Purse, you can start to loop the Briber's Purse for zero instead of the Dragon Mantle and this allows you to net one mana each loop. Since the looting ability on Jeskai Ascendancy is a may ability, you don't have to draw and discard a card and can just generate infinite mana and make your creatures infinitely large.
Once you draw your deck and generate infinite mana, you can just cast all of the Rattleclaw Mystics and Voyaging Satyrs you drew along the way and then Strive Twinflame on all of them. Then you can loop Briber's Purse a bunch more times until the new creatures get quite large and swing for lethal. If your opponent has blockers, the easiest way around it is to just play a second Jeskai Ascendancy as you're comboing out. That gives you access to untap your creatures twice per spell, and you can use one of those untaps to start bouncing your opponent's board with the creature that has Retraction Helix on it.
It may seem complicated or seem like you need a lot of working pieces to go off, but it is actually surprisingly easy to win almost any game where you untap with a mana accelerant and an Ascendancy in play. You can also untap with multiple mana accelerants, cast the Ascendancy, and then go off. Being able to draw and discard with each non-creature spell you play digs you much closer to the cards you need to combo with, and it also fuels the graveyard so that cards like Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise can become effectively free to cast, since Ascendancy untaps your creatures. You don't need to have access to every piece of the combo to start trying to combo off. You just have to have faith that when you look at ten+ cards, you'll start to find what you need.
For example, if you start a turn with a Sylvan Caryatid and Ascendancy in play and your hand is a Twinflame and a Dragon Mantle with a few other bricks in hand (land or creatures), I would say you have pretty good odds to win the game this turn. You can cast Twinflame and loot, and then cast Dragon Mantle and loot and draw a card. Finding a Retraction Helix means you win and a Dig Through Time or Treasure Cruise means you almost certainly win. Cards like Dragon Mantle, Commune with the Gods, Taigam's Scheming or Briber's Purse all give you extra looks at cards. Sure, it is possible that you brick off from that spot, but more often than not, you'll win and you didn't even really need that much to get started.
I bricked off once in the tournament from that spot but ended up drawing Dig Through Time the next turn and just winning that turn instead. Dig Through Time is pretty effective at finding you what you need. I'll leave it at that.
It's also important to note that you don't need Briber's Purse to win with, so it doesn't really matter if you mill over your Briber's Purse at some point. You can win just by looping Dragon Mantle, although you do have to be mindful not to draw too many cards. It's also important to note that once you have the Dragon Mantle and Retraction Helix combo established, it's a really poor idea to cast cards like Commune with the Gods, since you are introducing a chance that you mill over all of your Twinflames. You're going to draw your deck anyway, so casting Commune is just a waste.
Retraction Helix also gives you an out to a bunch of random cards that would otherwise be a huge issue. You can start a turn off by just bouncing an Eidolon of the Great Revel before comboing off, or you can use Retraction Helix to bounce one of your giant attacking creatures if they choose it with a Deflecting Palm. I used Retraction Helix a bunch of times in the tournament to do things like bounce my own Jeskai Ascendancy to protect it, or even to just give my creatures +1/+1 with Ascendancy to save a Voyaging Satyr from a Drown in Sorrow.
I ended up going 5-5 with this deck. I had obviously hoped for better, but ultimately I am not too disappointed with that result, considering the deck ended up being very much on everyone's radar and most of my opponents came to the table completely prepared for it. My sideboard was complete and utter garbage, as well. The Pro Tour ended up being full of a ton of control decks, and had I anticipated that correctly, I think I could have easily gone 7-3 with a better sideboard and sideboard plans.
I also lost a game I thought I had locked up to Bile Blight on Sylvan Caryatid. Yep. My opponent Bile Blighted his own Sylvan Caryatid in response to a Dragon Mantle when I had a Helix in hand. I threw up in my mouth (and also all over the table) when it happened. It was gross.
On day one, I played against essentially four control decks. I had wanted to put Divination in my sideboard, but I let myself get talked out of it since we felt like any of the grindy decks without a strong clock were going to be good matchups anyway. I really regretted not having Divinations. Those decks weren't as good of matchups as I hoped. Even though I could easily outdraw them in games that went long, I also had a bunch of really bad cards in my deck. It doesn't really matter if I draw three cards with Treasure Cruise if the three cards I draw are a land, a Briber's Purse, and a Twinflame. I still need to find and protect a Jeskai Ascendancy or a mana accelerant. Instead of merely outdrawing them, I should have had Divinations so I could really freaking outdraw them.
My sideboard was basically four copies of Swan Songs and eleven bricks. I felt that the Ascendancy deck was quite good, so I had Naturalize and Erase in my sideboard to combat the mirror. I did actually play the mirror once, so they were somewhat relevant. They are also good against Banishing Light. Magma Spray was there for cards like Phyrexian Revoker and Eidolon of the Great Revel which both really wreck you. Magma Jet was a fifth copy of Magma Spray and Circle of Flame was a nod to a Mono-Red or Mono-Black Aggro strategy. Those decks are the worst matchups, since they can kill you just as fast as you can kill them, and they also have disruption for your combo in the form of removal spells and Thoughtseize.
I really liked the sideboard that team Face to Face Games had for the deck. They had Lightning Strikes to kill Mantis Rider, they had the Divinations I wanted, and they also had a sideboard plan to cut all of their Rattleclaw Mystics and Voyaging Satyrs against decks that overload on removal spells, like Jeskai Aggro. Considering it is nearly impossible to untap with a Satyr or Rattleclaw against that deck, I can get behind that idea. Their gameplan was to rely on Sylvan Caryatid to combo and then use Bow of Nylea to loop Lightning Strikes or to Swan Song one of their own spells while going off and then Twinflame the Bird to win that way.
One thing to note is that there are a lot of different ways to build the deck. I like the Twinflame version because you win the turn you combo off, but there is also an Altar of the Brood version that combines Altar with Briber's Purse and Retraction Helix to mill your opponent out. One downside I see to that version is that you give your opponent an opportunity to just kill you with burn spells in their upkeep with no cards in library, which is actually fairly relevant against a lot of decks.
The upside to that deck is you can actually win on turn 3. Turn 2 Sylvan Caryatid. Turn 3, play Jeskai Ascendancy and then cast Briber's Purse and generate +1 mana. Cast Retraction Helix on Caryatid and loop Briber's Purse over and over again until you find Altar of the Brood. Then you can cast the Altar and proceed to loop Purse over and over again until your opponent's library ends up in their graveyard.
Ultimately, I don't think we've found the exact right mix for this deck yet. All of the versions have upsides and downsides that the other versions don't have. I think there is a build out there that just cuts the Rattleclaw Mystics and Voyaging Satyrs completely and just relies on finding Sylvan Caryatid and Jeskai Ascendancy and then hopes to win from there (which is generally easy). I think there might also be another version out there that is just hyper dedicated to whatever the easiest combo to generate is. This deck would likely have 4 Altars, 4 Briber's Purse, etc. I'm not sure exactly what it would look like, I just know that these lists are definitely not optimally built.
I ended up going 9-7. I lost the last round to Robin Dolar to miss cashing. A combination of burn spells and Mantis Rider hit me for exactly ten when I was at ten life the turn before I could combo off. It reminded me of the last Pro Tour, where we got paired up and I had lethal in play in game 3. I was at four life and he had no cards in hand and no board and he ripped a Warleader's Helix to kill me.
I guess you could say that every time we play I keep ending up being a turn late and a Dolar short.
In Limited, I went 4-2. My preferred strategy is to draft Sultai splash red. I know it's weird to go into a draft planning on drafting an exactly specific four-color combination, but it has really worked quite well for me. My first deck went exactly to plan and I went 2-1. I should have likely gone 3-0, but I made a bad judgment call in round 3 of the draft and lost game 2, and then got ran over by Incremental Growth in game 3.
The second draft had very little mana fixing, and I didn't see many good black cards, so I ended up just being straight Temur with Sarkhan, the Dragonmaster and Crater's Claws. I also had two Temur Charms and a bunch of powerful creatures. Mana issues aside, the deck was very good. I lost the last round to Ghostfire Blade. I actually drew reasonably well, I just couldn't beat that card in games 1 or 3.
I think I am finally reaching a point where I am starting to be happy with my Limited play. The myriad of drafts that I've been doing on Magic Online has really started to pay off. The goal is to keep at it so when I get back to the Pro Tour again I will still be in tip-top Limited shape, and I can spend more time focusing on being in tip-top Constructed shape as well.
Unfortunately, this was my last Pro Tour unless I qualify again. I needed to finish 11-5 to qualify for the next one. I think if I had a good Constructed sideboard I could have done that but alas. Usually Limited is what holds me back, but this time that wasn't the case.
Looks like I am going to be hitting up as many GPs and PTQs as I can to try to qualify again. I'll be starting this weekend at GP L.A. While I still like the Ascendancy deck, I don't think I'll be playing it this weekend. People will be gunning for it, and I think it is probably best to lay low for a while until people stop packing as much hate. I also don't want to play it again in an event without first working on it and trying to come up with the cleanest version I can.
Chances are you'll see me battling with a different kind of strategy. I won't spoil it, but let's just say there is a strong chance a certain Rhinocerous rears its beautiful head. Like I said, I won't name any names, but if it looks like a Rhinocerous, smells like a Rhinocerous, and has the word Rhino in its name…
It's probably a Siege Rhino.