Over the weekend in Columbus I had an amazing tournament experience with my favorite Modern weapon, Jeskai Control. I picked this deck up on a recommendation of a friend after a disappointing performance with Jeskai Nahiri at the 2017 Season One Invitational, and piloted it to a top 32 finish in the Modern Open that same weekend. Since then, I have been exclusively playing and tuning the 75 with my friends. Across the last several events the deck has performed extremely well for me, enabling me to convert my last four Modern SCG events into top 8 finishes.
While I'm very proud of these results, it was great to finally get the trophy itself. Playing out the top 8 with many great competitors and friends, leading to an incredible finals match against (Jeskai King) Kevin Jones in an insane 74-card mirror match was the perfect way to end the weekend. My goal with this article is to answer many of the questions I frequently get about the deck and to help prepare you for playing with, or against, the best control deck in Modern.
Jeskai Control has existed since the inception of Modern in one form or another, even taking down a Modern Pro Tour in the hands of StarCityGames's own, Shaun McLaren. The popularity of this archetype has fluctuated over the years, and recently the Jeskai Geist builds have been popular and have established themselves as a tier one archetype. However, my deck diverges from Jeskai Geist in major ways.
While many of the core cards in both decks are the same, the way they play out is extremely different. While the Geist builds seek to leverage an early tempo advantage through Geist of Saint Traft and Spell Queller, then finish the opponent off with a flurry of burn spells, the Jeskai Control deck I play takes a different approach. By utilizing a large number of cheap and efficient interaction spells early in the game alongside powerful card advantage spells like Snapcaster Mage, Cryptic Command, and Search for Azcanta to dominate the late game.
Sinking the Opponent in Card Advantage
The recent printing of Search for Azcanta gives Jeskai Control additional inevitability against the majority of the metagame at a relatively low deckbuilding cost. Previously, this slot in the deck was occupied by Think Twice, which was serviceable but never amazing. What makes Search for Azcanta great is that it's great on turn 2 but also great on turn 10. The front half of the card helps filter your draws in the early game, which can be crucial as certain cards' utility are extremely matchup-dependent (Supreme Verdict, for example). Once Search for Azcanta transforms into Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, it starts generating an even larger advantage through its ability to help find whatever card you need at the moment, be it a big finisher in Secure the Wastes, a ton of cards and life in Sphinx's Revelation, or just another Lightning Bolt to help stabilize the battlefield. In addition, being a land that taps for mana is huge in many spots and is often overlooked when evaluating the card, as this deck rarely runs out of things to spend mana on. The efficiency of Search for Azcanta combined with its overall power level makes it the perfect tool for the deck, and I believe much of this deck's recent success can be attributed to the addition of this card.
Treasures of the Sunken Ruin
I get a lot of questions about some of the unorthodox cards that I've had success with and the role they play in the overall strategy of Jeskai Control, so now seems like a great time to go over a few of them.
One of the least controversial cards on this list, Sphinx's Revelation is the ultimate card advantage spell in a deck designed to get to the late game. The life gain is also nontrivial, often buying you time to deploy cards from your now fully-stocked hand.
Secure the Wastes is often questioned, and I see many other players cut it from the 75 without giving it a second thought. However, I believe the card is a very unique and am extremely valuable tool for Jeskai Control. On the surface, Secure the Wastes seems like a clunky late game finisher, but it goes much deeper than that. Its power as a finisher comes from the fact that it's very difficult for those with traditional removal to interact with and will basically always get a hit in by casting it on your opponent's end step.
Another benefit of Secure the Wastes is that it's an instant. Being an instant allows you to hold up mana during your opponents' turn, a critical part of Jeskai Control's strategy. However, the most unrecognized usage of this card is as a solid early/midgame play. Securing for three or four is a fantastic way to either pressure a deck like U/R Gifts Storm, buy yourself some time against aggressive creature decks, or pick off a pesky planeswalker.
Nothing too complicated going on with this one. Nahiri is a good way to deal with problematic permanents like a Blood Moon or a Reality Smasher, loot away dead cards in various matchups, and is simply a strong proactive play that most opponents cannot ignore. This slot could also be Ajani Vengeant, which has many of the same strengths; and while my Nahiri can't ultimate for Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, she isn't without anything to put onto the battlefield.
The world's largest Snapcaster Mage plays an invaluable role as a way to gum up the ground, end the game quickly, and is a great target for Nahiri's ultimate. While many might cut this for the fourth Snapcaster Mage, it has enough upside to earn its spot in the list.
Because Jeskai Control preys so heavily on creature decks, you can afford to include a card that might not always have a target like Negate because in the matchups where you want it, it's an all-star.
Supreme Verdict is one of the best cards to have against any creature decks, and the fact that it can't be countered makes it a key card to beating Grixis Death's Shadow and Merfolk. Other matchups the card excels in are against any Collected Company variant, Affinity, Eldrazi Tron, and Humans.
This card gets a lot of hate, but I think its one of the best hate cards Jeskai Control can play. Runed Halo is an extremely unique and hard-to-deal-with answer to specific threats. It shines against Titan Shift, Grixis Death's Shadow, Infect, Burn, Ad Nauseam, and G/W Hexproof. However, it's also more versatile than people realize, as naming cards like Thought-Knot Seer, Reality Smasher, Grapeshot, Codex Shredder, Etched Champion, and Prized Amalgam are all things that have come up.
Currently, I believe that Jeskai Control has an excellent position in the metagame. Modern is currently dominated by creature-centric decks, but Jeskai's tools allow for it to fight against just about everything. The deck can be adapted to a specific metagame fairly easily and has access to very powerful sideboard cards if it needs them, including Rest in Peace and Stony Silence. One change I would recommend making to the deck would be the addition of Field of Ruin or Ghost Quarter to the maindeck in place of a spell. Cards like Cavern of Souls, Sea Gate Wreckage, Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, and Gavony Township can be extremely problematic for the deck, as my current build has very few ways to manage lands.
With Rivals of Ixalan around the corner, I decided to see if there are any cards that could improve Jeskai Control, but unfortunately, the set appears to have very little to offer this archetype. That said, there are two cards that might make an impact across the format that Jeskai Control should care about:
Merfolk Mistbinder slots easily into the existing U/G Merfolk deck that has incorporated Kumena's Speaker and Merfolk Branchwalker, and I would be surprised if it didn't see any play. If Merfolk picks up in popularity, that would be a beneficial metagame shift for Jeskai Control, as tribal creature decks are weak to being picked apart by our removal.
Blood Sun is more difficult to evaluate. Its primary strength is cutting off fetchlands, which severely limits the number of decks that can play it. The only place I really see this showing up is in a Skred Red style deck, and even then, I think it's unlikely. However, if this card does show up, I think that would shift things towards a less favorable metagame for Jeskai Control.
It's difficult to describe how to play Jeskai Control because each game is often very different, and you're almost always going to be the reactive player. So instead I have come up with some general guidelines to follow when playing. While these are not hard and fast rules, they should apply in the vast majority of situations.
Don't try and win. This is the first piece of advice I give to anyone who asks me what their strategy should be. While it seems ridiculous and you are obviously trying to win each game you play, the deck rewards playing extremely conservatively when you can afford too. If you can focus on generating small advantages each turn, you will eventually be in a position where you can resolve a haymaker spell and put the game out of reach.
Trade resources often. You don't want to lose a game with spells you could have cast still in your hand. If you trade resources to the point where both players are out of cards, in most scenarios you'll be ahead, as there are several draws in the deck that can lock up the game easily if the opponent has nothing. You don't want to be playing against Burn and lose the game with a Logic Knot and a Cryptic Command in your hand that you didn't cast, because you never felt you needed to until it was too late. Countering a Lava Spike when you're at fourteen with a Cryptic Command is often correct, because you just want to trade resources.
Understanding what's important. This is certainly the most difficult part of playing the deck. You need to make sure that you're spending your resources in the right places. Can I afford to take three damage to hold up Cryptic Command? Should I counter a Devoted Druid if my opponent doesn't have a Vizier of Remedies? Always try to think about your opponent's game plan and how they are trying to win so that you can disrupt it. This is where being very familiar with a format is invaluable, as you won't end up casting Path to Exile on the wrong creature or letting a crucial spell resolve because you don't believe it's important.
VS Grixis Death's Shadow
The goal in this matchup is to run them out of threats. Path to Exile, Celestial Purge, Runed Halo, and Supreme Verdict are the cards you should be looking for. This is also a matchup where you might have to keep a land light hand if you have good interaction spells, as taking a mulligan and then getting a discard spell played on you will often run you out of resources.
VS U/R Gifts Storm
In this matchup, you can't afford to tap out. You often want to draw a Vendilion Clique or Secure the Wastes early in the game, as they will give you a big edge, especially if you can back the pressure with a few counterspells. Fetch a Plains early if you can afford it, as you don't want to be stuck under a Blood Moon.
Against Humans you can't afford to stumble at all. Look for an opening hand with several cheap removal spells to deal with their disruptive threats. Supreme Verdict will usually end the game, so if you have one in hand, try to hold a removal spell for a potential Meddling Mage.
VS Jeskai Geist
This matchup revolves around Geist of Saint Traft. If they stick one on turn 3 and you can't Supreme Verdict it immediately, it's often too late. Having a Logic Knot for a turn 3 Geist goes a long way. Remember: Spell Queller can exile Supreme Verdict, so it's not always a clean answer to a Geist.
This is the deck's worst matchup. Game 1 is almost unwinnable, and games 2 and 3 aren't much better. Your best hope is to use Runed Halo or Detention Sphere to answer either Prized Amalgam or Bloodghast and focus on using removal that exiles creatures on the other. Often in these games you just need to buy enough time and they will mill out. Try not to tap out if they can cast a big Conflagrate either. Cryptic Command in conjunction with Snapcaster Mage can buy you a few turns, so use it to dig for answers. Another good plan for the matchup is to concede and go get lunch.
This matchup feels great after sideboard. Drawing even a single Lightning Helix is often enough to put the game out of reach, and when backed up with Dispel, you can normally get around Skullcrack. If you can land a Runed Halo after the opponent plays an Eidolon of the Great Revel, they are often forced to use a removal spell on their own Eidolon or risk becoming locked out by it as the game goes on.
Hopefully this article is a good introduction to Jeskai Control. If you decide to bring the deck to an event, I would recommend playing a fair number of matches beforehand and always keeping the round clock in mind.