Jeskai Black Is Still Great

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The sky is blue, the birds are singing, and GerryT is loving some Jeskai Black. He’s here to help you avoid slow play, bad sideboarding decisions, and losses in his latest work!

The StarCityGames.com Regional Championships, February 6!

If I didn’t have a team of people who contributed to our collection of Modern ideas, I’d be writing about Modern this week. Instead, you get a little more about Jeskai Black!

In my spare time, I’ve been working on fine-tuning the various aspects of the deck, including cutting it down to 60 cards, figuring out the manabase, tightening up my sideboard strategies, and keeping up with the metagame.

I still need to test Ignacio Barbero’s Grixis deck, but I haven’t had time. That’s the first thing I’m going to do after the Pro Tour this weekend. Unless that proves fruitful (and I think it will), I would happily register Jeskai Black in any tournament.

Here’s where I am:

It’s 60 cards, but I’m not happy about it. The second Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is a necessity if you’re trying to beat Rally, especially in Game 1. However, the concession to fit in the second Kalitas was to remove the maindeck Disdainful Strokes. G/R Eldrazi is a nightmare matchup, and while Disdainful Stroke helps, the extra Duress will likely help more.

Unfortunately, I’m unsure if the second Kalitas or having access to the Disdainful Strokes is more important. The metagame hasn’t quite settled down yet, so playing Dispel, Disdainful Stroke, or Negate maindeck is somewhat risky. If you ignore G/R Eldrazi completely, I think Dispel is the correct call, especially since Jeskai Black (and Painful Truths in general) is at an all-time low.

On the Manabase

I learned an important lesson recently, and it’s that it’s not Wooded Foothills’s fault that my manabase is clunky. The reason Wooded Foothills results in my manabase being so awkward sometimes is because not only do I typically want the white mana for turn 2, but also because I can’t fetch a pair of basics after that and have all four colors.

Fetching Canopy Vista on turn 1 is rather similar to signing the match slip. Establish some basic lands first. If it means playing off-curve, it’s probably worth it. If you fetch Canopy Vista on turn 1, you’re probably playing off-curve anyway. If and when I play this deck in the future, I will likely ignore white mana if it means I have to play off-curve for the entire game. That is going to depend on my hand and what’s going on in the game, but I think taking that line, while risky, would have paid off better in most scenarios.

Right now I have nineteen black sources, sixteen red, fifteen white, and fifteen blue. Ideally that would be a little higher on red and lighter on black, but I can’t figure out how to accomplish that without cutting a Shambling Vent for a Mystic Monastery or Needle Spires. I want to make neither change.

Answers Via Threats

At the last #SCGINVI, there was basically only one deck that required a specific threat. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy was and is good against everyone, while Soulfire Grand Master made your burn spells great, gave you a life buffer for Painful Truths, and eventually won the game on its own. Between those two, you didn’t need much help against anything else. Your removal and card drawing would take over.

However, Abzan Aggro caused some difficulties. The matchup was certainly not bad, but how often you won was typically decided by how often they managed to stick a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Soulfire Grand Master on a clear battlefield could take it out with a Crackling Doom, but that was only if they were careless.

Instead of answering certain threats directly, such as planeswalkers, there is merit to playing a powerful threat of your own and taking a more proactive role. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet performs a similar role against Rally. Rather than trying to control everything they do, which simply isn’t possible without massive changes in the maindeck, I rely on Kalitas to throw a wrench into their plans.

Making those types of decisions isn’t easy because it means the deck isn’t a “pure” control deck, but that is what is necessary, at least for now.

Reactive vs. Proactive

If I’m forced to play proactive answers to fight things like Abzan Aggro and Rally, why would I play a reactive version of Jeskai Black over something like Team Lotus’s aggressive version? In short, I win more with the controlling versions. The real answer is that the matchups are far more polarizing for the control version, which, in this case, is a good thing.

Andrew Tenjum’s Jeskai Black decklist, for reference:

Tenjum’s manabase is solid. He has seventeen red sources, seventeen white, seventeen blue, and fourteen black. Unfortunately we can’t mimic his manabase because we’re trying to play Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. If you ever want to go down the tempo route, Tenjum’s manabase is a good place to start.

Threats are useless for a control deck, except against planeswalkers. If you want to load up on threats, that’s understandable, but then you’re no longer playing a control deck. While I appreciate a good tempo deck, I’d rather play control, at least if it’s viable, so that’s what I’ve been doing.

Ranges of Openers

The biggest issue with playing win conditions is that they don’t stop you from dying in the early game. Thankfully, that’s not accurate 100% of the time because of Soulfire Grand Master and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Not only do those cards represent win conditions, but they also go a long way toward buying you time.

As I mentioned earlier, the specific problems for Jeskai Black require solutions that aren’t Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy or Soulfire Grand Master. When you add cards like Monastery Mentor or Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet to your deck, your opening hands aren’t going to be as reactive as you want. Sometimes your hand dictates that you jam threats and hope that one sticks, but that’s not nearly as clean of a game plan as I’d like with my control deck.

When your deck is all interaction, you basically get to keep any opening hand barring any issue mana issues. Once your deck has some sorcery-speed monsters that turn on your opponent’s removal, your opening hands start looking worse and worse. If you know what deck you’re playing against, you might have to mulligan depending on how those threats line up against your opponent’s deck.

It’s not perfect, but it’s what must be done. Ideally, my control deck would be able to keep basically any hand, but that’s not a luxury we can afford right now.

Your Worst Enemy Is the Clock

Overall, 50 minutes is not enough time to play three typical games with Jeskai Black. This Standard format, perhaps more than any other, seems to have games that take longer than 50 minutes.

In order to play three games in the time alloted, you basically can’t afford to stop and think things through! I think it’s important to play a deck you can afford to play on autopilot when necessary. For me, this version of Jeskai Black is like riding a bike.


Four-Color Rally



The numbers for this matchup are right where I want them because their decks are stock and I’ve been working on this matchup the most. Right now, I like keeping the singleton Chandra, Flamecaller in the deck, but I don’t think I would ever want the second.

I could also see keeping in a singleton Soulfire Grand Master to potentially gain you some life a little bit later in the game. It’s just one of those cards that often doesn’t attack or block, and you rarely have the mana available to use its ability. Most of the time, you’re fighting off their anemic beats while trying to keep counterspell mana open.

G/R Eldrazi



I also recommend taking out a Charizard and a Jack of Clubs. (I’m stealing Michael Jacob’s joke here, because that’s about how miserable this matchup is.)

Not all is lost, however. If they don’t want to play Kozilek’s Return, you can beat them with Monastery Mentor. Meanwhile, your Fiery Impulses are live against their mana creatures. At that point, I think you actually have a reasonable sideboard plan against them.

If they want to play fully-powered G/R Eldrazi, you’re going to have a tough time no matter what cards you play. Monastery Mentor is KO’d by a Kozilek’s Return, either the front or back side. Your other threats, Soulfire Grand Master and Kalitas, are little more than annoyances to them. Being a Mantis Rider-based deck would help here. Unfortunately, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is likely too slow without Mantis Rider and burn spells to back it up.

Take some risks. Duress their Kozilek’s Return and jam Monastery Mentor or attack their mana and hope they draw all big things. There’s little else you can realistically do. Barring that, it might be time to try Patrick Chapin’s idea of playing Mind Rot (or, ya know, Rakshasa’s Secret). Still, that’s a lot of slots for just one matchup, although I could see bringing it in against other grindy decks.

Atarka Red



You have some options here, but much of what I do is based on what I expect them to do.

Atarka’s Command and Titan’s Strength are mediocre against Fiery Impulse and sweepers. Despite that, their hyper-aggressive game plan is what I’m scared of most. Please try to sidestep me by siding in Den Protector, Painful Truths, or Pia and Kiran Nalaar! If that happens, I can sideboard in Chandra, Flamecaller, which their plan basically can’t beat.

Sometimes it feels right to try and protect your two-drops with Dispel, but if they are sideboarding out Atarka’s Command, your Dispels won’t have many targets. Either way, I don’t recommend siding out Painful Truths, unless they play and sideboard very aggressively. They don’t have the ability to burn you out, and you’ll probably need to refuel in order to beat things like Hordeling Outburst.

Arashin Cleric is great if they keep their aggressive stance, but unfortunately I don’t think I have the slots for a sideboard card that’s only good against Atarka Red (and only half the time). I’d much rather focus on making my G/R Eldrazi matchup playable.

Abzan Blue



In matchups where I need to make all my land drops–say, because I’m sideboarding up to both Chandra, Flamecallers–then I cut the Magmatic Insights.

I dislike Kalitas here because it lines up poorly against their creatures, at least in size. Also, Reflector Mage tends to be a huge tempo swing if they expect you to keep in Kalitas and therefore keep in some Reflector Mages.

Overall, sideboarding is light here because the deck has been tuned to beat up on Abzan variants. Duress is slightly better here than against normal Abzan Aggro because of the presence of counterspells. They’ll beat you by getting ahead on the battlefield and using a counterspell to cement their tempo advantage. As with Abzan Aggro, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is their scariest card because it’s not easily dealt with.

I’ve found that most permanents are easy enough to beat, which is why I cut the Utter Ends altogether. While Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is an issue most of the time, using an Utter End to remove it after it’s already gotten value is not a winning proposition.

Abzan Aggro:



It’s possible that I’m undervaluing Kalitas here. It’s slow and doesn’t line up well against most of their creatures. However, it is another body that is capable of attacking Gideon, so it might be worth it. I’ve found that Chandra is excellent for that job as long as you can keep the board relatively clear.

Mardu Green



Again, I may be undervaluing Kalitas here. Something has to go and I think Soulfire Grand Master is a better card in the matchup.

If they have a bunch of Pia and Kiran Nalaars, you should bring in at least one Radiant Flames or Kozilek’s Return. With Kalitas running around, it’s unlikely they have Pia and Kiran Nalaar in their 75 at all.

The plan, as is the plan against most midrange decks, is to kill their stuff and resolve a Chandra, Flamecaller. No matter what you do from there, Chandra will likely win the game for you.

My next Standard tournament is going to be #SCGLOU. After my likely horrendous showing at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, I’ll probably spend the two weeks preparing for that event. Perhaps it’s time to start streaming again…

The StarCityGames.com Regional Championships, February 6!