The holiday season is all about reminiscing about what made the previous year great, what was a big point in our lives over that time, and what the new year holds.
About this time last year, there were two particular cards that made huge splashes for combo in our Standard environment. Over the last few months, both before and after the rotation of Theros block, these cards have dwindled in prominence and popularity, magnified by our need to fully unpack Battle for Zendikar.
Though dwarfed by the other development issues from the set in which it was printed, these two cards have allowed infinite combo back into Standard, a strategy mostly relegated to Commander or Modern. The first was likely the worst offender.
This enchantment was in danger of taking over both Standard and Modern with its propensity to create noninteractive tap/untap loops, unlimited power and toughness, or the ability to cycle through your deck with ease. Literally all of these abilities are powerful, and the fact they were attached to one enchantment was risky at best, reckless at worst.
Shortly after the enchantment was spoiled, some of the world’s best brewers got to work on uncovering the best way to use this new weapon, and a few weeks later we had one of my favorite decks last year, Ivan Jen’s heroic Jeskai deck.
- 4 Akroan Crusader
- 4 Favored Hoplite
- 2 Lagonna-Band Trailblazer
- 2 Seeker of the Way
- 4 Monastery Swiftspear
Ivan’s deck succeeded in a format full of nominally superior decks because of its built-in synergy, reliability, and in large part, its pilot. His deck was just the beginning as combo decks sprouted up, creating noninteractive, immense targets for cards like Burning Anger to abuse.
Jeskai Ascendancy’s success was the product of other cards and their ability to interact with it. Besides some blatantly awesome interactions like Sylvan Caryatid that had both hexproof and the ability to add mana again when untapped with the Ascendancy’s trigger, the enchantment flourished with reasonable one-mana cantrips like Defiant Strike and Dragon Mantle. When those pieces disappeared either from their own rotation or the rotation of those most important enablers, Jeskai Ascendancy has only seen a bit of play, and only in one real archetype: Jeskai Tokens. While a perfectly fine deck in its own right, with a Pro Tour Top 8 finish to boot, it is still familiar and, except for a considerably but brief blip, underrepresented.
Although Jeskai Ascendancy has slid from its former place of prominence, the Ascendancy should still be something we think of this holiday, both as something to pick up for a loved one, and as something to use ourselves and remember its blessing.
The token deck is a known quantity, but what other purpose does it serve? It can untap things, as well as provide the considerable boost that tokens need to be relevant in combat. Along with the format’s bogeyman, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, another creature sides well with Jeskai Ascendancy: Nettle Drone.
Though not half the card as previous analogous variants like Gelectrode, Nettle Drone is easier to cast and has better combat stats. A 3/1 for three mana isn’t above the curve or anything, but it’s a bit more respectable. Nettle Drone, which has only recently come onto the scene, suffers from being released at the same time as Ascendancy descended to near-bulk rare status. Nettle Drone, an easily forgettable common, might be able to leverage the untap ability to ping a player frequently enough to kill, but it is not the easier plan to execute.
- 4 Runed Servitor
- 4 Grim Haruspex
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Forerunner of Slaughter
- 4 Herald of Kozilek
- 4 Endless One
- 4 Nettle Drone
Nettle Drone needs a constant supply of colorless spells to fully utilize. To facilitate this, I wanted to use the classic “free” effects provided by casting zero-mana Hangarback Walker and Endless One. I’d say I cover this every week, but it continues to be awesome. With Grim Haruspex, this creates a zero-cost cycling ability, shrinking your deck for free. Herald of Kozilek can help make use of all those new cards, and cards like Ghostfire Blade can help push through real damage when you need it. I even liked Forerunner of Slaughter so you could give the Drone haste to attack or tap right away.
I’d argue that these kinds of deck, in one form or another, have made their way through every brewer’s mind, notebook, or deck box in the months since the release of Battle for Zendikar. Like most of those brews, this one was found to be wanting. After building it and testing it dry, it was rather silly without Nettle Drone. It turned out to be a subpar aggro deck a large amount of the time, and a lot of hands were bulky and unkeepable. While a shift to Jund for Catacomb Sifter and Den Protector was neat, it ultimately did not improve the situation.
Enter Jeskai Ascendancy.
Nettle Drone becomes untapped because of colorless spells, but it has another feature to its main activated ability that is equally important: tapping costs nothing. Except for abilities that actually produce mana, “free” activated abilities are fairly rare. With the ability to untap and tap again with every noncreature spell, Nettle Drone, and other creatures that benefit from this back and forth, can shine under the glow of the Ascendancy.
One of the biggest blows to Jeskai Ascendancy was losing access to so many good one-mana spells, namely those that replace themselves. While we don’t have that anymore, with only Defiant Strike surviving rotation, the one-mana spells are situationally impactful, and the ability to filter your draw, both with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Ascendancy can keep your hand relevant at all times.
I particularly like Dispel and Clutch of Currents. Once your opponent sees the Nettle Drone and Jeskai Ascendancy, the jig is up, and they’ll have a Fiery Impulse, Murderous Cut, or Abzan Charm to remove it. Cast it just one turn later and you’ve got solid protection for it, and they’ll have to use two of their removal spells to eliminate it. When your goal is to keep the Nettle Drone alive at all costs and begin to chain one-mana spells, the single turn off won’t matter. Clutch of Currents, while also being one mana, is most useful for its awaken cost. Because Jeskai Ascendancy untaps all creatures you control, the Island, Nomad Outpost, or Swamp you’ve awakened will untap, too, providing you a mana, which you can then use to cast another spell. If you target that Nomad Outpost, you could cast a Duress, and two Fiery Impulses before attacking for six, all for one “mana.” Nice! That’s why a single Noyan Dar made it in; in a perfect world, untapping with him would let you create an army from the dirt you use to cast your spells in a hustle, again with the benefit of untapped mana and pump throughout the process.
This deck in practice was focused, slick, and easy to play. The landbase was pretty close, with only a few minor hiccups. It most often won with combat, as getting the Nettle Drone and Ascendancy online together proved a challenge. Let’s face it; most of the time, I won with Jace advantage. Oh, and sweet, sweet awakened lands.
The second card we should remember this season not only for its potential now but its potential as new, powerful creatures get spoiled is Temur Ascendancy.
Let’s remember the better versions of the combo deck, based around the ability to generate mana, bounce the creature that generated that mana ad infinitum until you’d drawn your deck. Here’s Kent Ketter’s version.
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 3 Polukranos, World Eater
- 1 Karametra's Acolyte
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 1 Nylea's Disciple
- 4 Voyaging Satyr
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Eidolon of Blossoms
- 4 Genesis Hydra
- 2 Whisperwood Elemental
- 3 Temur Sabertooth
With the rotation of Karametra’s Acolyte and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, the primary avenue to produce more mana than you spent to bounce and recast the Acolyte vanished. Though the lead combo enabler is still in Standard, it has nothing alongside it to help.
However, we have Eldrazi now! Big is the name of the game, and getting a kickback every time you cast a large creature provides some potential, especially in our heavily one-for-one format. On that note, another common Eldrazi from Battle for Zendikar piqued my interest with this archetype.
Normally mana creatures aren’t quite so beefy, but I’ll take it! The Channeler can both trigger Temur Ascendancy and help you get to bigger and better things. What kind of things you say? What about Desolation Twin? I know, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is better 98% of the time, but hear me out. With a Temur Ascendancy, the Twins are lethal. Straight up. Your opponent, sitting at a comfortable eighteen life after two fetches and no further damage, gets smashed to death in one turn with one card. If that doesn’t get your Timmy senses tingling, you might want to go get yourself checked out.
Alright, so we’re on the longshot plan. What else is new?
- 2 Leaf Gilder
- 4 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 2 Surrak Dragonclaw
- 3 Shaman of Forgotten Ways
- 2 Dragonlord Atarka
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Kozilek's Channeler
- 2 Omnath, Locus of Rage
- 2 Desolation Twin
Six little mana creatures help you stay regular on your way to a four-mana spell, before you know it, you’re at Kozilek’s Channeler, you untap and you’re in business. Hangarback Walker, besides being the most versatile card in Standard other than Jace, can be cast early, in the midgame (maybe with Ascendancy so you can get one more counter at a discount), or lategame to trigger the draw portion of the Ascendancy. You really can’t go wrong. Shaman of the Forgotten Ways swelled in value with the release of Battle for Zendikar as people envisioned churning out huge monsters way ahead of schedule. It and the Channeler can help you do that.
The big creatures are all pretty powerful and self-explanatory. Surrak Dragonclaw seems to be going up in value in my book as people pack more Ojutai’s Command and Disdainful Stroke. Omnath, Locus of Rage is a one-two punch with Temur Ascendancy. Producing Elementals helps you draw more cards, and they’ll have haste. If you can get Omnath out before dropping a fetchland for the turn, it can be just as good as Desolation Twin, crashing with its newly-generated 5/5s for nearly lethal right out of the gate. Dragonlord Atarka, blasting the field and swinging for eight highly evasive damage is also terrifying.
Kiora, Master of the Depths, along with Ob Nixilis Reignited, got sidelined shortly after release in favor of that narcissistic Gideon, fighting for righteousness and “the Zendikari way.” Whatever. Here, her abilities are gold all the way around. Her first ability interacts well with our ramp strategy. Moreover, it has an always-cute interaction with Hangarback Walker, letting you play her on turn 4 and still get your Hangarback activation in for the turn.
Sarkhan Unbroken has to have support to be good. Ramping up to seven on the turn after you cast him will provide you access to most of the deck’s best spells, and the added option to create a 4/4 Dragon with haste that also draws you a card is a viable option, too. The power of always-haste really shouldn’t be ignored.
With a white splash out of the sideboard and facilitated by Windswept Heath in the maindeck, this list produces a variety of threats and is able to reliably cast them, maybe even two at a time, robbing your opponent of an escape route.
Just when I thought I’d start regifting these Ascendancies, they come back and surprise me. Has one of the other Ascendancy cycle, Mardu Ascendancy, Sultai Ascendancy, or Abzan Ascendancy, given you comfort and joy since Battle for Zendikar mixed things up? Maybe you’ve still got a Jeskai Ascendancy deck with infinite combo potential jingling in your pocket?