Learning Through Experimentation

Experimenting with different cards in different formats is how we find new decks. As important as it is to remember to polish your experiments into fully-crafted decks before taking them to a major competition, remember this as well: nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I tried some… unorthodox strategies at the Season Three Invitational. While I admit to some degree that I played Sphinx’s Tutelage in Legacy “just to get it out of my system,” in reality I had specific targets for the tournament but failed to see the whole picture. For reference, the deck:

I went into the tournament specifically gunning for decks like Omni-Tell, Miracles, and Lands. Omni-Tell was considered by most to be the top dog in Legacy going into the weekend and traditionally there is a far higher concentration of strong Miracles and Lands pilots present at the Invitational. I thought this deck, with its ability to leverage a largely non-interactive win condition in a shell reminiscent of Omni-Tell’s, would be highly effective at making the majority of these deck’s cards blanks. Well, I wasn’t completely wrong, I just couldn’t beat a Young Pyromancer.


I was put on camera in the second round against Gerard Fabiano and although I was playing Magic and making trades, I was just slowly losing because his deck could operate from a lower resource base and he was actively putting pressure on me while I tried to simply stay afloat. I severely over-estimated the weight Baleful Strix would be able to pull in my deck, and Gerard easily dispatched me with True-Name Nemesis while later in the fourth round I could not contain Young Pyromancer.

That being said, I was able to demolish Lands and (barely) beat Burn, so it wasn’t as if the deck was incapable of winning. So what’s the key difference between this week and two weeks ago at the Charlotte Open where I was successful with a brew?

Jace Grixis in Modern works off multiple pre-existing shells and incorporates an effect that already has roots in the format (Snapcaster Mage) while Esper Tutelage is trying to do some things that are completely different in a format that many powerful interactions are pushed out or deemed sub-optimal due to their inefficiency.

In reality, this isn’t even really a Sphinx’s Tutelage deck but rather the result of trying to fit the least “slot-intensive” kill condition into a dedicated Dig Through Time deck. In this case, two Sphinx’s Tutelages and two Surgical Extractions for insurance against Emrakul (and also being excellent splash damage against Lands, Reanimator, and Omni-Tell). However, Omni-Tell is able to succeed using the redundant model of velocity + Dig Through Time because it wins the game instantly upon completing its combo, even though it requires a significantly larger number of working pieces and plays less interaction.

Despite the fact that Tutelage “can work” the theory starts to fall apart once we come to the conclusion that the majority of interactive blue decks in the format contain Volcanic Islands and thus Pyroblasts in sideboard scenarios. Now that our opponents can effectively interact with us, we are forced into much more difficult situations of having to manage our opponent’s initial interaction and keep Sphinx’s Tutelage on the battlefield long enough to kill them, all the while staving off death.

So what’s the take away here? I certainly don’t regret my decision to try something new, but I think it’s safe to say that even if I were to rebuild the deck in a manner in which it were prepared to fight some of the more popular threats out of Grixis decks, there would still be too many problems. That being said, I do think there is a world where a deck like Miracles could use Sphinx’s Tutelage as a sideboard tool to dispatch decks in a timely manner that are well set up to contain their traditional win conditions. Miracles also has the luxury of using Sensei’s Divining Top as a Turbo-Mill element, particularly if two are involved.

After exiting the Legacy rounds at 2-2, I was content to drop from the tournament after taking my first Standard loss, and despite receiving some good-natured ribbing, I was of the opinion that I could not, in fact, win the tournament with my flawed gem of a Legacy deck.

I should have kept playing Standard.

I sent Gerry a message the previous week after seeing Josh Utter-Leyton’s Standard Super League Monastery Mentor deck via Mark Nestico’s article and trying out some changes of my own.

I’m not particularly a huge fan of playing a ton of three-drops in Monastery Mentor and I thought that Abbot of Keral Keep was inferior to Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, but what I was interested in was playing the best card in Magic Origins in a “fair shell” with Magmatic Insight/Treasure Cruise as an engine.

Here’s what we played at the Invitational:

I’ve always had an odd issue with Jeskai decks in the past, constantly wanting to add lands to the deck and finding myself, as a result, being on both sides of mana screwed and flooded. The way most Jeskai decks are constructed, they tend to have a high volume of enter-the-battlefield-tapped lands and in the draws in which the aforementioned aren’t drawn, painlands typically end up making your life miserable. This coupled with the fact that frequently they wish to sideboard into configurations that are more late-game oriented and thus more mana-hungry means that the deck’s draws are often awkward.

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Magmatic Insight, and Treasure Cruise do a lot of work to alleviate those issues because we can comfortably play 26 lands with a lot of insurance on getting flooded due to this engine and Soulfire Grand Master. Furthermore, the way our deck is constructed can actually allow us to shave Magmatic Insight or even a land depending on how far our curve is pushing up or whether we are on the play or on the draw. This manner of constructing the maindeck gives the archetype a great deal of flexibility in terms of how to handle certain matchups and the wide range of configurations that Jeskai is capable of.

While we did okay on the big picture, many of the details were off. Gerry mentioned that he was trying a Pia and Kiran Nalaar due to how a lot of the original list I sent him was a lot of air that, despite generating a ton of velocity that pushed us towards a late game, didn’t really have the requisite power to compete.

I never tried Ma and Pa Nalaar, and we simply failed to realize exactly how powerful they are. Whirler Rogue had a breakout performance at PT Magic Origins in U/R Thopters, but when you are able to combine Hangarback Walker, Chandra’s parents, and Jeskai Charm, Jeskai is given a powerful combo-kill playstyle to achieve late in the game that utilizes cards that are great at all stages. Pia and Kiran also give the deck a ton of game against Dragon-style decks and anything interested in getting aggressive with its go-wide colorless fliers that combined with Jeskai Charm give the deck a great deal of ability to race or block effectively.

If we had embraced a deck more in-tune with playing this style of a late game rather than leaning on the archaic (and awkward with Magmatic Insight) Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, I suspect we’d have had something special. Here’s where I’m at a few 8-man’s later:

Despite all of this high praise for Ma and Pa Nalaar, I’m not actually positive that you do not wish to swap the third copy for another Ojutai’s Command. Command is one of your best tools to breaking up Den Protector loops and for going wild with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, but all Pia and Kiran do is just kill your opponent.

While it is true that Theros Block is rotating out soon, it’s amusing to note how relevant decks like these will actually be even with the introduction of Battle for Zendikar. The way Standard is moving towards Abzan and Jeskai dominance with everyone incorporating Hangarback Walker is likely indicative of the first Pro Tour of the season.

Unfortunately, it will be a while before I have another Standard tournament so it is unlikely that I will be playing this Jeskai deck anywhere but on Magic Online, but I have my sights set on attending the Modern Grand Prix in Oklahoma City in a few weeks and I still plan on playing Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy in my deck. While it is more than likely I will be playing a list similar to what I did battle with in Charlotte, I’ll be toying with this during the week:

This is an homage to PV’s style of Grixis Twin deck. As I’ve discussed, a big issue with Jace Grixis is in its closing speed so incorporating an instant-win combo is a big deal in a lot of matchups where your threats are generally slow or inconsequential. When necessary, we have the ability to sideboard into a Jace Control deck that is looking to once again straight-up grind. Even if this proves to be a failed experiment, I’m pretty excited about transforming Jace into the Telepath Unbound and targeting a Dispel in my graveyard before casting Splinter Twin on my Deceiver Exarch this week.