Jeskai Control has done it! In the hands of Eli Kassis, Jeskai Control took down Grand Prix New Jersey!
As a friend of Brad Nelson, I'm obligated to say that this pains me. As a control enthusiast, I'm just glad that the deck I've been talking about and working on ended up taking down the whole thing! Regardless, Jeskai Control taking down the tournament means it'll have a target on its head, but it also means a lot more people will be picking up the archetype in the next few weeks. Today I'll discuss my current build of Jeskai Control, as well as a sideboard guide for how I would approach all of the major matchups in Standard!
First off, let's take a look at Eli's list and dissect his card choices.
A few weeks ago, a Jeskai Control deck featuring four copies of Azor's Gateway took third place in a Magic Online PTQ. I immediately jumped on board and took it for a spin. However, my experience at the time was less than ideal. I got smashed by aggressive decks before assembling all five different casting costs and ultimately spent a bunch of mana to loot away some extra lands.
Against midrange strategies, I kept getting my Azor's Gateway hit by the likes of Vraska, Golgari Queen and Vraska, Relic Seeker. I just couldn't get it through to flip, and relying on it almost always seemed like a mistake. And if I ever exiled a useful spell in order to progress the transform path, I was left with one less valuable card after it got destroyed.
But things change, and things have been changing quickly in Standard over the last few weeks. And aside from a Mono-Red deck winning Grand Prix Lille, I haven't seen much in the way of true aggressive strategies lately. That means more time to transform Azor's Gateway. That means a big mana advantage (and a five-point life buffer) once you meet the requirements. And let me tell you, having a big mana advantage is a huge deal in a control mirror.
But isn't Search for Azcanta the best thing ever in a control mirror? Well, yes and no. Again, things change. In the previous Standard format, Search for Azcanta was one of the few ways to truly gain raw card advantage. Filtering through your deck for specific answers or just generating raw resource advantage was a big deal.
But now, with Expansion // Explosion, I often find myself discarding to hand size after killing a creature or planeswalker. Additionally, Chemister's Insight is a great way to turn excess lands or dead cards into real spells. And to be frank, there is some clear tension between Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin and Chemister's Insight, to the point where I often find myself casting Chemister's Insight over activating my land. And when I'm doing that, I think I should start looking for something else.
This is the battle I've been struggling with for the last few weeks. Basically, if you're playing enough blue sources (eighteen or more), Sinister Sabotage is the right choice for a control deck. Surveil is a powerful tool for control decks to smooth out their draws as well as dig deeper into their deck for specific things. If your deck is more tempo-oriented, and you want to close games a bit more quickly, Ionize is a much better choice for a counterspell because that two damage starts to add up over time. Yet Ionize is also the correct choice if it fits your manabase. If Ionize just said "1UR, counter target spell," I would play it over Sinister Sabotage if I were playing fifteen sources of blue mana.
When looking at Eli's decklist, my first reaction is "Why are you playing so many sources of red mana?" Seventeen sources of red mana for so few spells (ten if you don't count Expansion // Explosion) seems like a bit much. For example, there are fifteen sources of white mana and thirteen white spells. It has been my mission over the last few weeks to fix the mana of Jeskai so that either the sources of color matched the spells or the manabase fully supported the spells I wanted to cast! What should we do?
This is the missing link to fixing your mana. As much as I hate it, Meandering River is an important part of Jeskai's manabase until we get Hallowed Fountain. I get it. I know. But it still needs to be there.
In my testing, Chemister's Insight was one of the best spells in the deck, though versions playing Azor's Gateway ultimately ended with me playing three copies. Eli is also playing a virtual three copies, though went the way of splitting the slot with Divination. If I told you I honestly thought about playing Divination in Jeskai Control, I'd be lying. After all, Chemister's Insight has felt great. Why would I explore another option?
Let me start by saying that the casting-cost variation is a real issue for the archetype. Azor's Gateway needs five different casting costs to transform. And while you don't necessarily need to transform it quickly, there are times where doing so will end you the game on the spot. I missed on the transform a few times on the weekend, and each time I internally questioned why I didn't split the mana costs of my cards more evenly.
One thing I do want to point out is that Chemister's Insight is exceptional when you pair it with Settle the Wreckage, and I'm not sure if I'm willing to give that up. And speaking of Settle the Wreckage...
In the main event, I played Settle the Wreckage. And after a few matches, it became clear to me that Settle the Wreckage was just worse than Cleansing Nova on so many metrics. Exiling your opponent's creatures is obviously strong, as dealing with the likes of Arclight Phoenix, Rekindling Phoenix, and even Adanto Vanguard is not always easy. However, giving your opponent a bunch of mana, as well as a card they can very easily play around, it not exactly desirable.
I also think people are sleeping on the versatility of Cleansing Nova to act as a Disenchant effect. Your opponent is burying you with Experimental Frenzy? Knock it down! Trapped your Teferi, Hero of Dominaria in Ixalan's Binding? Release the Beast! There's also a lot of value in having a sweeper that doesn't have conditions attached. If your opponent suspects Settle the Wreckage, it can change how they attack you. And if you have Settle the Wreckage, this is very bad. If you don't have Settle the Wreckage, this is often very good. Because of this mini-game, it might be important to constantly mix it up just to keep them honest!
I don't mind either of these cards, but neither is particularly useful at opposite ends of the game. Shock can be a cheap removal spell or potentially finish off an opposing Teferi, Hero of Dominaria after it is used to "tuck" yours. Banefire is awful in the early turns but can be used to cleanly answer large creatures or finish off your opponent given enough time. And for a deck revolving around Azor's Gateway, having a Fireball effect that your opponent can't counter will win you games throughout a tournament. My only problem is how inefficient it is in the early turns.
This gets my stamp of approval. I've had two in the sideboard before, and I think it's more than fine as a way to clean up an opponent who's overrun you with planeswalkers. And with the Golgari decks leaning hard on Memorial to Folly and Carnage Tyrant, Star of Extinction just makes sense!
This is one I didn't expect out of the sideboard in a control strategy, but it makes a good bit of sense. I've long been a proponent of having some cheap-ish threat in the sideboard to punish opposing control decks for taking out all of their spot removal, and Rekindling Phoenix seems like a great card to do just that. But is this card better than Legion Warboss? Certainly, Rekindling Phoenix can come in against a wide variety of matchups, where Legion Warboss is really only ideal against slower decks. I'll have to think about this one a bit more.
I can't say I agree with this one, though I do think The Immortal Sun is a powerful card. It's great against the planeswalker-heavy variants of Golgari, though Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is still one of your best cards against them. My biggest fear is relying on a card like The Immortal Sun to get the job done against a deck that can play up to four copies of Assassin's Trophy.
I like this addition to the sideboard, though I feel like it would get a lot more mileage in the maindeck. A few weeks ago, I saw a Jeskai Control deck built by (who I thought was) Guillaume Wafo-Tapa that opted for four copies of Revitalize in the maindeck. And when the format is more aggressive, and features more copies of Banefire, Revitalize deserves some maindeck consideration. But if you're going to sideboard a card that gains life, I think you want something with a bigger impact. I've had success with Shield Mare acting as a great defensive measure and generating upwards of four life points.
If you're going to play something like Revitalize, I think it should be maindeck rather than sideboard because it doesn't generate a big enough impact in matchups where you want it. Cycling and gaining some life can be valuable in Game 1 in the right metagame, but I want my sideboard cards to have a much bigger impact for the investment.
Jeskai Control is an archetype close to my heart. The gameplay is sweet, the cards are powerful, and all I ever want to do is draw cards and kill creatures. And as you work on a specific archetype over a few weeks to some amount of success, you start to see all the hard work you put in come to fruition. And while you didn't necessarily win the tournament itself, it's always a plus when the deck you've been putting so many hours into comes out on top (sorry Brad).
What I've learned from playing control decks is that you need to hit the nail on the head over and over. From my many months of playing Jeskai Black a few years ago, making sure you have the right threats, right removal, and right sideboard is paramount. And if you're stretching the color requirements, you also need to keep up with changing the manabase to match the spells, and vice versa if the lands just can't support your spell suite.
What I'm really trying to say is that Jeskai Control, like many control variants in the past, is customizable. If you expect to play against a bunch of aggro decks, you can shape the removal suite to include Shock in excess. If you think midrange strategies will dominate the format, as they've been doing over the last few weeks via Golgari, then planning for longer games is much more important than having cheap removal. And if control decks start to take over, you need to make sure you have ways to steal initiative early so that they're reacting to you at every turn.
What do I mean by "initiative?" Well, for starters, any spell you cast in the early turns of a control mirror that forces your opponent to play differently is something I would consider as "taking the initiative." If your opponent is frantically trying to catch up, then you've successfully taken control of the game. Sometimes that happens with something as innocuous as a second-turn Search for Azcanta. More recently, the threat of transforming Azor's Gateway has become the new normal. And let me tell you, it becomes pretty tough to lose once you've gained that significant of a mana advantage.
After sideboarding, once both players have gotten low on removal in favor of counterspells like Negate or Disdainful Stroke, virtually any permanent that can (effectively) win the game creates initiative.
Even hitting all your land drops creates initiative if your opponent is missing theirs. And very often, in a control mirror, the first person to blink is the one who ends up losing, and if you start missing land drops and have to discard to hand size, you will almost always be the first person to blink. With that said, something cheap like Legion Warboss can steal initiative from your opponent before something like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is an actual threat. Even if they cast Teferi, you can still threaten to kill it after they use the minus ability. And in the control-on-control matchups, anything that comes down before Teferi can be cast is a big deal. And if that spell dodges Negate and/or Disdainful Stroke, that's also a big plus.
Right now, Standard control mirrors are in a sweet spot where there are very few four-drop spells that actually matter. Anything you cast on the third turn while on the draw is very unlikely to get punished. Of course, the average cost of something needed to have a significant impact starts to shrink when the trump card of the matchup gets cheaper. For example, when Jace, the Mind Sculptor was legal, you needed some two-drop threat to force the action. That's one of the many things that made Squadron Hawk and Stoneforge Mystic so good!
Sideboarding with Jeskai Control
First off, I want to say that I was very happy with my overall build of Jeskai Control. My losses came almost entirely on the back of bone-head mistakes, and all of my wins felt like I had the necessary tools to get the job done. I also have quite a bit of experience with my list, so I figured I would use it as the baseline for a sideboarding guide. Here's my most recent Jeskai Control list:
Against Jeskai Control
Cutting all your removal is dangerous, as people have mostly "figured out" that you want some sort of cheap threat after sideboarding to help steal initiative from your opponent. The problem is that Seal Away is actively bad against most of those threats. Lava Coil does have some value in helping contain an opposing Crackling Drake, so if you see those make sure to leave a few Lava Coils in your deck to help deal with it, as well as any pesky Legion Warboss. In that scenario, I would lean toward cutting Disdainful Stroke, since you don't want too many counterspells and Negate counters most of the same cards plus all the cheap interaction.
- 3 Carnage Tyrant
- 1 Elvish Rejuvenator
- 1 Golgari Findbroker
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 2 Midnight Reaper
- 3 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 2 Seekers' Squire
- 2 Wildgrowth Walker
Try not to use your sweeper on a single creature unless you are very far ahead. Use your life total as a resource. Try to save your counterspells for their more important late-game threats, as Deafening Clarion should do most of the heavy lifting in terms of cleaning up their early threats. However, if you don't have a way to kill Jadelight Ranger and you have a counterspell, preserving those life points early can be crucial in the developmental stage of the game. Play defensively, but don't be afraid to go low on life total.
Also, try not to fight over a removal spell on Teferi, Hero of Dominaria unless you're completely out of gas or are desperately looking for a sweeper effect. I don't mind getting anything I play hit by an Assassin's Trophy or Vraska's Contempt so long as I still have something important to do on the next few turns. I just don't want to lose to a Vraska, Relic Seeker or Find // Finality getting back Carnage Tyrant.
Against Boros Angels
- 4 Adanto Vanguard
- 4 Rekindling Phoenix
- 4 Resplendent Angel
- 4 Tocatli Honor Guard
- 3 Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice
- 3 Lyra Dawnbringer
This particular matchup feels pretty easy, as they have very few cards that pressure you efficiently. While some of their creatures have extra lives or are tough to kill, those creatures don't come down quickly enough to do major damage. Your counterspells are amazing here, but you also need most of your spot removal to make sure you keep both Adanto Vanguard and Rekindling Phoenix in check.
They should have a tough time beating a resolved Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, so you don't need to go too hard on things like Azor's Gateway. Plus, after sideboarding, most of your cards have some value in the matchup, so looting anything away that isn't excess land is pretty hurtful to the overall gameplan.
Against Izzet Arclight
There are two versions of this deck that you need to be aware of. Some play Enigma Drake, while others rely on Goblin Electromancer to explode. They may look similar, but they do things much differently in-game. I think people will be leaning toward the Enigma Drake version, so we'll focus on that version for now.
This is a matchup where I wish Baffling End was an extra Lava Coil. This is also a matchup where I would much prefer Settle the Wreckage over Cleansing Nova, but I just absolutely despise Settle the Wreckage. Regardless, this matchup isn't as tough as most people will lead you to believe. The Seal Away version of Jeskai Control does a ton of work in stifling their end-game, as your main form of spot removal can take care of any of their creatures.
I also like turning the matchup on its head and presenting my opponent with some serious pressure via Legion Warboss. They are unlikely to have more than a few copies of Shock after sideboarding as a way to kill it. When you draw Lava Coil or Baffling End to get rid of their Enigma Drake, putting up a reasonable defense against Legion Warboss becomes much more difficult.
While I do recommend trying to cheese them out with Legion Warboss, this style of sideboarding isn't for the faint of heart. You could just draw a few copies of Legion Warboss and die to their Drakes. It happens. However, if you can catch them spinning their wheels too much, you need to be able to punish them. Otherwise, they'll just run you down with Niv-Mizzet, Parun and Firemind's Research. Trust me, I know.
Against Mono-Red, Mono-Blue, and Mono-White Aggro
These are your worst matchups by far, because they get under you without much trouble. If you don't draw Deafening Clarion at the right time, you're going to lose. And sometimes, even if you do draw Deafening Clarion, you're still going to lose. Jeskai Control, in this iteration, isn't prepared to fend off these cheap threat decks. We're focused more on beating midrange strategies, and it's worked to great success so far. However, after seeing the results of Grand Prix Lille, we need to be prepared to shift more toward cheap removal (Shock, Shivan Fire) in order to contain these decks.
To be honest, I don't have a good sideboard plan for any of these decks. I just try to find little holes in their gameplan and exploit them to the best of my ability. But we're a clunky, slow control deck and we just have to work with what we have. But that's the coolest part about the current Standard format! Golgari might be the most-played deck at the moment, but it doesn't just dominate you in the actual games! And if you over-prepare for a midrange card advantage battle, you're going to open yourself up to people going way under you.
I fully expect this Standard format to continually flux in terms of what is the "best deck." I mean, the most recent Grand Prix results showed us two completely different formats. But that's to be expected when there are so many playable archetypes that attack from so many angles. Some are punisher decks for opponents that are too slow. It's a Rock-Paper-Scissors metagame, where everyone just keeps trying to get a leg up on everyone else.
And I'm absolutely loving it.