Wow, what a weekend that was.
For months, many of us have been holding on to the hope that on the other side of Hogaak was a promised land of new opportunity for Modern, and the SCG Dallas Modern Open was everything we could ask for out of a light at the end of the tunnel. Between Magic Online results and all the decklists from the Modern Open, there's already so much for us to unpack, but it seems safe to say that there's a little bit of everything floating around that we've seen succeed before.
Team Lotus Box put a whopping three members into the Top 8 of the Open with Burn and Whirza won the tournament. Online, we got to see Grixis Death's Shadow facing down Grixis Death's Shadow in the finals of the Modern Challenge, and that's before we even start talking about all the different ways Stoneforge Mystic is already popping up around the format.
Last week, I talked about the decks I expected to see show up in Dallas, predicting the nature of the Wild West before we see the dust settle with one side left standing. While my predictions held up well for the decks we saw over the weekend, my expectation that we'd start to see the field thin out did not. Right now, Modern feels like we're still mid-shootout with no end in sight, which is a big reason I'm feeling good about keeping my money on the same sheriff I bet on in Dallas.
Of course, I'm talking about some good old-fashioned Jeskai Stoneblade.
- 1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
- 1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
- 1 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
- 1 Teferi, Time Raveler
Over the last week, Jonathan Hobbs and I worked diligently to arrive at this 75, but before I get into the card choices and how we arrived at this list, there was one burning question it seemed like I was constantly being asked over the weekend, and that was simply, "Why Jeskai?"
Now, this is not the first time I've stepped up onto the Jeskai soapbox to spread the good word of Lightning Helix, and I doubt it will be the last, but more so now than ever, I think access to cheap, versatile removal is extremely important. Over the last few iterations of the Modern metagame, this hasn't really been the case. Decks were using Faithless Looting to enable recursive threats or went out of their way to make their deck Lightning Bolt-proof. Over time this decayed the strength of Jeskai Control, making way for Azorius to claim the control-playing throne; however, with the banning of Faithless Looting and the unbanning of Stoneforge Mystic, things could not be more different from how they were then.
For one, answering a creature on Turn 2 is now a necessity against a much larger portion of the metagame than it was before. Stoneforge Mystic is of course the biggest addition to the list of things you want to Lightning Bolt, but the resurgence of Burn, Gifts Storm, Devoted Druid-based combo, and various creature decks has made having a density of answers to resolved creatures a priority of mine for the Modern format. Lightning Helix is especially important in this mix because it gives you time to get to casting Batterskull against decks like Burn who will answer your Stoneforge Mystic.
The second big edge gained from playing Jeskai is how much better your cards play with Stoneforge Mystic as a result of being cheap and proactive. Stoneforge Mystic naturally pairs well with one-mana spells, so the turn you untap with one you can not only activate Stoneforge, you can also interact with what the opponent is doing. Stoneforge also adds a dimension which encourages Jeskai to get on the offensive, which complements the Bolt-Snap-Bolt capability of the deck quite well.
Lastly, and probably my most important point on why I wanted to play Jeskai over a more traditional Azorius Stoneblade deck, is that when I'm facing an unknown field, I always like to lean towards flexibility. I talked about it a bit at the end of my article last week, but the nature of the Azorius Stoneblade decks and how they're built feels extremely exploitable. Constructing a threat base that either overloads the low removal spell count of Azorius or invalidates it isn't as hard as it might seem, and if your opponent comes prepared to exploit you, there isn't any room for counterplay.
So, if I had to sum that up in a few points, they would be:
- Removal is better than it has ever been in Modern since Faithless Looting became a problem.
- Stoneforge Mystic plays extremely well with Lightning Bolt.
- The added flexibility that comes from red makes it harder for Jeskai to get shut out than Azorius.
With that off my chest and my feet off the soapbox, what do I have to say about this list?
Starting with the good and moving to the bad, the best thing about playing Jeskai this weekend was how strong the core of old Jeskai still was. As we see old top dogs from years past wrestle for their place atop the summit of Modern, there was no doubt in my mind while playing that Jeskai could reclaim the glory it once had.
As more of Modern starts getting played on the battlefield than in the graveyard, Jeskai's positioning in the metagame only becomes more and more favorable. The returns of Grixis Death's Shadow, Devoted Druid, Eldrazi decks, and Jund are all big steps towards a metagame Jeskai thrives in.
While overall I felt there was a lot of strength behind the Jeskai deck we registered this weekend, I also felt quite a strain at some points in how we had built the deck.
Perhaps the biggest oversight we made in deckbuilding, Sword of Feast and Famine was kind of anemic in our deck in hindsight. Connecting with a Sword of Feast and Famine was undeniably powerful but equipping it to a creature was not a guaranteed success, the creature count of the deck was fairly low, and drawing the card naturally was one of the worst things that could happen to you.
The other big oversight we made in deckbuilding was our addition of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I was fairly adamant about Gideon being a way to solve the Sword problem, but realistically, this was just a bout of win-more thinking. Gideon is a card you play because you want it to win you the game, and for next to no other reason, which normally in Jeskai would be acceptable, but when we had already devoted six slots to Stoneforge Mystic and Equipment as our win condition, it was overkill.
After considering it more, these two underperformers were both symptomatic of the same big issue, which is that Jeskai as we had built it was not built to be as good a Stoneforge Mystic deck as it could have been. In pursuing the flexibility we desired, we sacrificed the kind of streamlined nature a deck like Jeskai requires to keep pace with a format that has more raw power.
Ultimately, for Jeskai to use Stoneforge to the best of its abilities, a lot would need to change either in the way Stoneforge is used or in the way the rest of the deck is structured to use Stoneforge. The answer to the question of which one of those two approaches is better is one I've yet to determine, but as far as solving the mystery goes, I'm well on my way.
Where I want to start with making Stoneforge Mystic shine is with a leaner list somewhere close to here. Not only does this list cut back on the control elements that wind up partially at odds with Stoneforge, it also replaces them with two of the most promising cards to pair with Stoneforge in the archetype.
In thinking of cards that are perfect follow-ups to a Stoneforge Mystic, you really don't need to look much further than these two. Earlier I talked about how the best thing to be doing with Stoneforge was using all your mana efficiently to interact the turn after you cast it, and both Teferi and Spell Queller meet those requirements. Teferi, Time Raveler and Spell Queller are already a bit of a combo on their own, but each also does wonders in protecting whatever plan it is you have for your Stoneforge.
Specifically, the sequence of "Stoneforge Mystic, find Sword of Feast and Famine, untap, pass with Spell Queller up, Spell Queller your play, activate Stoneforge, put in the Sword, equip, and attack with Spell Queller" is absolutely backbreaking. Enabling these kinds of scenarios to happen is what I mean by making Stoneforge Mystic shine in Jeskai. Finding cards that make the full package of Equipment and threats work together smoothly will be key to the archetype finding its own place, rather than being Jeskai Control with some Stoneforge Mystic.
Speaking of Jeskai Control with some Stoneforge Mystic, I'm pretty eager to take this list for a spin. Over the weekend, I, along with many others, made the assumption that a Stoneforge Control deck would be one of the best decks in Modern, but perhaps the answer has been to use Stoneforge only at its strongest when it's needed.
The other best win condition any control deck has had access to in the history of Magic, Search for Azcanta, seems like it's got more going for it now than ever. Azcanta is one of the few cards that really grinds an opponent out on its own, and without needing to be exposed to opposing creatures like any planeswalker does.
By taking an old plan out of the pages of Legacy Miracles back in the day, Stoneforge Mystic can come off the bench in a pinch to help any matchup where inevitability isn't enough. It's kind of the same idea as the Geist of Saint Trafts that pop up from time to time, but with a much more powerful and flexible card, opening the door to rethinking more and more of the slots available in the sideboard. It's quite likely this will be the best way to handle Stoneforge Mystic in blue decks for the time being, following the deckbuilding trend of control decks adding threats and becoming more midrange-based in the post-sideboard games of most matchups.
Regardless of which of the two of these is closest to the Jeskai decks that I expect to emerge as dark horses of the Modern metagame, it's important to remember that there's a lot of dust left to settle before we crown a new sheriff of the format. It's still the Wild West out there and I'm not quite sure we've seen every contender roll into the gunfight just yet. So keep working on improving what you think has what it takes to succeed. There's a lot of untapped potential waiting to be harnessed in Modern right now, and with Throne of Eldraine rolling into town soon there's no telling how things will look even a month from now.