Jeskai Black At Grand Prix Houston

Pro Tour Champion Patrick Chapin discusses the results from the Grand Prix weekend in Houston and where the format’s most prominent and lasting control deck goes from here!

Going into #GPHouston, I was expecting there to be a big surge in G/W Hardened Scales decks to go along with the continued popularity of Four-Color Rally and Bant Company. This proved to be a pretty accurate forecast for this weekend’s metagame.

Houston Metagame (Top 100 after Day One)

Archetype Top 100 Metagame
G/W Scales 14%
Bant Company 14%
Four-Color Rally 11%
Abzan Aggro 9%
Grixis 8%
Jeskai Dragons 8%
G/R Eldrazi Ramp 6%
Jeskai Black 6%
Mardu Green 6%
Eldrazi Aggro 6%
Atarka Red 4%
R/B Dragons 3%
Esper Dragons 3%
Mardu Aggro 2%

I knew I was going to have limited testing time for this event, so I focused on tuning Jeskai Black rather than reinventing the wheel. I was definitely interested in Grixis since there weren’t all that many white cards I liked in the Jeskai Black deck, however, I didn’t feel confident spending what time I could allocate to such an exploration. Instead, I started with a Jeskai Black list somewhat similar to what Yuuya used to Top 4 the MOCS a couple of weeks ago.

Compared to his list, my first draft replaced the two Gideons with another Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and another Soulfire Grand Master, replaced a Roast with a second Murderous Cut, and replaced a Painful Truths with a third Dig Through Time. I also wanted to reimagine the manabase, as I felt Yuuya, like most Jeskai Black players, was being a little greedier with the mana than I’d like.

I started by playing against G/R Eldrazi, as I wanted to see how much the addition of Kozilek’s Return impacted the value of Monastery Mentor. The Ramp match-up was one of Monastery Mentor’s key selling points before, and I was concerned that Kozilek’s Return might hurt it too much. While I was pleasantly surprised with how well Kalitas performed, Monastery Mentor was not good at all. Josh Utter-Leyton suggested I try Mantis Rider, which made a lot of sense considering how many 2/3s everyone was playing.

I then played against Four-Color Rally, this time with Mantis Riders instead of Mentors as well as a Disdainful Stroke instead of the third Soulfire Grand Master. The Riders performed well, but drawing too many copies of Duress was a bit of a bummer. I knew I wanted to try replacing some with Dispels (or Negates, or Disdainful Stroke).

From here I moved on to test against Bant Company, this time with a Chandra, Flamecaller in my list in addition to two Dispels, replacing two copies of Duress and another Soulfire Grand Master. Chandra was absolutely breathtaking and I quickly moved to two copies with a third in the board. By the time the GP started, Pat Cox and I had moved the third to the maindeck. Here’s the list we registered:

Pat Cox’s build had Disdainful Stroke over Negate in the main, and Ultimate Price over Duress. We knew we were a little shallow at the two-spot on the curve, but none of the options seemed appealing enough.

The biggest weakness in Jeskai Black at the moment is just how much worse Soulfire Grand Master has gotten in this metagame. At a very basic level, a 2/2 inherently matches up poorly against the popular creatures these days:

Additionally, Chandra, Flamecaller’s ability to close out a game reduces the need for Soulfire Grand Master’s ability to go long. Finally, the move away from Kolaghan’s Command (which doesn’t kill three-toughness creatures) and Ojutai’s Command (which matches up poorly against Collected Company) means we don’t need that many actual bodies.

Of all the cards I actually played in the GP, Fiery Impulse was the one big disappointment. While I knew 2/3s would be everywhere, I didn’t fully take into account just how much work I’d have to do to get that third point of damage out of Fiery Impulse. Costing one mana is a super awesome ability, particularly on turn four, but in retrospect I would have preferred a couple copies of Draconic Roar (even with no Dragons).

I thought about this one, but the sorcery speed is brutal. At that point we might as well just be playing Roast. Besides, it is nice to have cards to flash back with our Jaces.

I am still unsure how I feel about this one. It’s a bit counterintuitive to move towards Ultimate Price given how many of those above creatures are gold. However, if you look at the major decks:

G/W Scales:

Bant Company:

Four-Color Rally:

Abzan Aggro:


All the top decks have at least two of their main threats as eligible targets. Many of them also either grow out of range of a Draconic Roar or just start out of range.

Where is Ultimate Price bad? G/R Eldrazi Ramp and Eldrazi Aggro are the main ones. However, it’s not like Draconic Roar is breathtaking against either, though clearly it is much better against Eldrazi aggro.

The real question, though, isn’t whether or not we can find targets for an Ultimate Price. Really, the question is where is Ultimate Price better than Draconic Roar, and by how much? If we had the “wrong” one, how bad would it be for us?

Advantages of Draconic Roar:

Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim Stormchaser Mage Eldrazi Mimic Bearer of Silence Eldrazi Skyspawner Reflector Mage Bounding Krasis Mantis Rider Catacomb Sifter Shambling Vent Needle Spires

It can also stack with a Fiery Impulse or another Draconic Roar to kill a Siege Rhino.

Advantages of Ultimate Price:

Nantuko Husk Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet Dromoka's Command

It’s also good against creatures that can grow too big.

When we don’t have an answer to many of those aggressive gold or colorless creatures, we get run over. When we have Draconic Roar in hand against a Husk or Kalitas deck, we still have Murderous Cut and Crackling Doom as ways to kill the fatties.

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is an excellent victory condition against Collected Company decks, but they are far from short on counterplay. Getting your Kalitas Reflector Maged is a problem, and I definitely felt the shortage of Duresses here compared to earlier builds. I’m not saying Duress is amazing against Reflector Mage decks, because it’s often not. However, playing too many counterspells can leave us bottlenecked on blue mana. Additionally, these Collected Company decks play such a good tempo game that we can’t afford to slow-play our cards and protect them. Additionally, Bounding Krasis can be a very effective way to power through a Kalitas even if Dispel, Negate, or Disdainful Stroke is held up to protect it.

I wrestled with whether to play two or three copies of Kalitas, and I’m still not sure which is better. The card’s amazing, but they know that and have lots of answers. Getting it bounced and not being able to replay it is particularly brutal when you have another one in your hand.

My love for Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet was obviously at least partially driven by Rally’s popularity and success, but I also just love the combo of Kalitas + Murderous Cut or Fiery Impulse on turn five. That way, even if they Reflector Mage him, we’ve got something to show for it. However, I think I want to cut a Fiery Impulse or two as well as a Murderous Cut. It might be time to go down to two copies of Kalitas and get a little more variety in the list.

All of these are “answers” for Collected Company and Rally the Ancestors, and generally if you draw one of these plus a removal spell, a card drawer, and a Kalitas or a Chandra you’ll be in pretty good shape. What mix of these cards to play, however, is a tricky question.

Dispel is the best against Collected Company decks by far. All you want in this world is some tempo! The ability to make a big play for three mana and hold up Dispel for their Company is incredible, and trying to do the same with the two-mana versions gets a bit clunky since we’re so short on other two-mana cards to pair them with on turn four.

So why not use all Dispels? Well, there are clear diminishing returns involved and there are some decks where Dispel is really bad, like Eldrazi Ramp. Besides, while Dispel on an Abzan Charm is fine, we’d really prefer to have a Negate for their Painful Truths and Ruinous Path or a Disdainful Stroke for their Siege Rhinos and Goblin Dark-Dwellers.

As for Duress, well, as I said, it can actually get a little awkward if we’re trying to hold up too many counterspells at once. It’s not like we’ve just got blue mana for days or anything. Besides, the information is good, and even though Duress is tempo negative, it can be a bit “faster” than two-mana removal. It’s also nice to have some disruption we can flash back with Jace.

From looking at most of the lists people have been playing, it seemed like most people were generally content with:

15 white mana

15 blue mana

18 black mana

14 red mana

This seems too lean if you ask me. Having just fifteen sources of blue mana for Jace is already suspect, but we’re also trying to support Dig Through Time. As if that wasn’t enough argument, it’s also important to remember that fetching up Battle lands isn’t the same as having a bunch of four-color lands in our deck. If we want to Fiery Impulse a creature early on, we may need to use our Polluted Delta or Bloodstained Mire to find Smoldering Marsh.

While I agreed with the crowd that we didn’t need a ton of white mana, that’s actually mainly because I’m not playing Soulfire Grand Master while most builds are. Red mana, however, was very important early on. It was obvious that people were cheating on red mana because they wanted to play more Shambling Vents, but the difference between one creature-land and another isn’t that big while having the right color of mana for your cheap removal is huge. Besides, Andrew Cuneo makes a good point: it’s not actually clear at all that Shambling Vent is even better than Needle Spires in the abstract. Needle Spires does a much better job of pressuring planesalkers, for instance.

I was running 27/61 for a bit, with the following manabase:

1 Wandering Fumarole
1 Needle Spires
1 Shambling Vent
2 Mystic Monastery
1 Nomad Outpost
2 Smoldering Marsh
2 Sunken Hollow
1 Prairie Stream
4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
4 Bloodstained Mire
1 Plains
1 Island
1 Swamp
1 Mountain

Notice how this list has:

15 white mana

19 blue mana

19 black mana

16 red mana

If you start with twelve fetches, four basics, and one of each Battle land, you’re already talking about nineteen slots accounted for already right there. That list also includes Flooded Strand, Prairie Stream, Sunken Hollow, Plains, Island, and Swamp, which is a lot of non-red lands. In fact, with just ten sources naturally, we can’t play more than two additional non-red sources if we want to get to sixteen out of twenty-seven, or just fifteen out of twenty-six.

Sunken Hollow is great. It’s the best one, in fact. We need double blue for Dig and double black for Kalitas, all our fetchlands find it, and it’s the perfect dual to play early when we don’t know which card we’ll play first, Mantis Rider or Crackling Doom. Any white source and any red source combines with Sunken Hollow to give us all the options.

I was finding the colored mana to be great, but we did have a little bit of an issue with flooding. We debated just replacing one of the tri-lands with another Needle Spires, and in retrospect I think I would have preferred that. The way I arrived at the above, however, was starting with four copies and only subtracting one when I noticed how rarely I was activating them.

It’s always tough to tell when you have a sample size as small as one tournament, but I was screwed a bit more than flooded at this event. Instead, I ended up subtracting a Wandering Fumarole and a Nomad Outpost for a Needle Spires, effectively subtracting one of each color save white (which was already lowest for me). I guess the hope is that Painful Truths will just fix your mana sometimes. I asked Andrew Cuneo what he thought of 26 lands versus 27 at the moment:

“I think it’s probably a mistake to play 27 land in this format because that means you probably played too many expensive cards, and that’s not what this format is about.”

Interesting food for thought. I’m not sure how I feel about that statement yet, but it is something I’m thinking about. I do know that as good as Chandra, Flamecaller was for me, I think I’m moving back to having the third copy in the sideboard (at least for Jeskai Black; Grixis probably needs the punch).

Here’s the list I want to try, moving forward:

The first thing that probably jumps out is the inclusion of a couple of copies of this little Dragon right here.

I’m kind of feeling how good Dragonlord Ojutai is against Reflector Mage and Bounding Krasis. I also like how relatively few Crackling Dooms there are compared to what we’d seen in weeks gone by. After all, Jeskai Black and Mardu Green are at their lowest levels in weeks. Besides, who doesn’t want their Draconic Roar to deal three damage to the face?

I’m also kind of feeling the pull towards more Dragons, maybe getting all the way up to being able to support Silumgar’s Scorn. What about something like this…?

There’s no SCG Tour® event this weekend, so it’s a great time to catch up on your playtesting or team practice for #GPDC! Good luck!