Long Live Jeskai Superfriends In Core Set 2020 Standard

After winning Fandom Legends with Bant Scapeshift, Bryan Gottlieb made it back to the semifinals with … Jeskai Superfriends?! He explains his surprise pick and how he’d build it for SCG Richmond!

We’re approaching the swan song of Core Set 2020 Standard, and with perfect Seattle summer weather sitting right outside my door every day, this is typically the point in the year where I’d expect my Magic playing to scale back a bit. After all, Brad Nelson’s criticisms about this format bearing all the hallmarks of eight-set Standard were spot on. Orzhov Vampires is the best deck, maybe you can go big, blah blah blah, tale as old as time, nothing to see here, let’s just pack it in until rotation.

Except it’s 2019, and we’re now living in a world where, somehow, someone is willing to offer me the opportunity to play high-stakes tournaments against some of the best players in the world without even leaving my house! When Fandom Legends reached out to me a few weeks ago and invited me to play in their Arena invitational tournament, I was thrilled. While I love my job casting the SCG Tour, it (in combination with my residency on the West Coast) dramatically cuts into my chances to play against the best competition our tour has to offer. A semi-retired, fully-washed old vet like me doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to get down in the trenches with the absolute best these days, and I’d been bemoaning how the current trajectory of Organized Play had made it start to look like I might never get the opportunity again. Here was a lifeline.

I wasn’t about to make my appearance a one-and-done, so I showed up to my first Fandom Legends event with a well-tuned Bant Scapeshift list and won the whole damn thing.

Since the Top 4 players requalify every week, I had earned myself another shot at the exclusive sixteen-person showdown. This past week, playing with a heavy heart after the passing of my friend Alex Stratton, I managed to secure a Top 4 finish and a sizeable donation for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This time, my deck choice was a little bit more out there.

This article is ostensibly about the creation and subsequent updates to this Jeskai Superfriends list, but I think it would be impossible to justify some of the decisions here without first sharing some of my strategies for preparing for the unique aspects of the Fandom Legends tournament structure. While this may seem like a topic that is only useful to extremely narrow audience, I want to emphasize that some aspects of this tournament are mirrored in both other newfangled Arena tournaments and more traditional forms of Magic competition. As our game navigates this period of dramatic change, it becomes more likely that you may have to compete under rulesets that break expected norms. This brief interlude can give you a head start.

Open Decklists

Now a fixture of Mythic Championships as well, open decklists fundamentally change deckbuilding. Period. If you’re not accounting for the fact that your opponent knows your decklist, you’re leaving equity on the table. In my Top 4 match against Reid Duke last week, there was an incredibly interesting spot on Turn 3 of our Game 1. Reviewing Reid’s stream after the match, I found him debating between casting an Adanto Vanguard and a Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord. He was hesitant to cast the Sorin, because in his estimation if I had Spell Pierce the game was just over for him. He cast the Adanto Vanguard, and I ultimately won an extremely close match where I had to fade the top of Reid’s deck on consecutive turns. I don’t know if the game goes differently if he just casts Sorin, but ostensibly the presence of a single Spell Pierce in my deck may have changed the outcome of the game.

This point becomes even more meaningful when I reveal to you that I absolutely did not want to play Spell Pierce in my deck in the event. In my estimation, Spell Pierce is at a low point, given Bant Scapeshift’s ability to quickly outscale the card, Orzhov Vampires’s lack of noncreature permanents, and the general prevalence of Teferi, Time Raveler. However, excluding the card wholesale would have given my opponents the green light for the entirety of the day. To keep opponents honest, I included a singleton copy.

You can see a similar concession in my Bant Scapeshift list with the one-of Time Wipe. While I had correctly identified that Deputy of Detention was the best card for the flex slot, I thought the one Time Wipe could go a long way in keeping aggressive opponents from going all-in on the battlefield. Sideboard Settle the Wreckage looks to achieve the same type of effect. I want my opponents to know I have that card. The random surprise blowouts are worth far less than your opponent having to respect the possibility of Settle the Wreckage on every turn you hold open four mana. If you aren’t contemplating the information you are purposely extending to your opponents, you aren’t maximizing your edge. Lists for open decklist tournaments should almost never be identical to their traditional counterparts.

I’d also note that Jeskai Superfriends benefits immensely from matchup knowledge prior to mulligan decisions. While a hand of Shocks is laughable against Bant Scapeshift, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered against Orzhov Vampires. With open decklists, you can take larks on decks that lean on cards with polarized applications.

Small Fields

The small field tournament allows a greater level of metagame prediction than stepping into the Wild West of a huge Open field. In the case of the Fandom Legends series, we play five rounds of Swiss and then cut to a Top 8. This means that every player is simply looking to secure a 3-2 record and move on to elimination rounds. With less incentive to hard spike an event, people are correct in gravitating to the “best” deck and looking to leverage a skill edge. You could see this play out in last week’s field, where six players chose to register Orzhov Vampires. Anticipating this saturation, I sought to hard-target Orzhov Vampires, fix Scapeshift matchups in sideboard games, and be configured to punish any other decks that may have been squarely directed at the top of the metagame, such as the Dimir Control deck that had begun making the rounds.

For the most part, Jeskai Superfriends achieved these goals. While I went 2-2 against Orzhov Vampires (and quite frankly could have been 0-4 or 4-0), it’s still unclear to me whether you can fare much better than a decent Vampires matchup while still beating anything else. The deck is powerful, resilient, and Sorin simply feels unbeatable at times. However, I also misbuilt my deck by several cards, and I think with some fixes, we may be able to start pushing the matchup into squarely positive territory. Let’s start by exploring the list I played at Fandom Legends, and we’ll conclude with updates.

The Planeswalkers

Most of these cards are uncontroversial choices in a Jeskai Superfriends list. One of the unique things about this deck is that, via Sarkhan, you’re uniquely able to pressure opposing planeswalkers without relying on creatures. This leaves the decks sporting large quantities of creature removal mostly at a loss, as this is one of the best decks in the format for protecting Teferi, and removal is trending towards sorcery-speed options like Legion’s End anyway. Sarkhan’s proactivity and impressive clock holds up our gameplan against the fringes of the format nicely. Sometimes you just kill your opponent on Turn 6. This is a good space for a controlling deck to occupy.

The fatal flaw with my cadre of planeswalkers in the Fandom Legends tournament was the inclusion of Saheeli, Sublime Artificer. With a reduced number of Spell Pierces and zero Mox Amber in the list, Saheeli just did nothing most of the time. Seriously, I didn’t make my first Servo token of the tournament until the semifinals. While a large quantity of three-mana planeswalkers is a must, the format has moved in such a way that I believe Mu Yanling, Sky Dancer to be the stronger option. -2/0 is extremely effective against the best deck in Core Set 2020 Standard and does a great job mitigating their best card against you, Adanto Vanguard. 4/4 bodies are also the perfect size for blockers against Vampires, since they survive Sorin activations and Adanto Vanguard blocks. When removal gets scarce for your opponent in Games 2 and 3, don’t be surprised when Yanling takes over games on her own.

While people seem to have the belief that Karn only merits inclusion in conjunction with Saheeli, I don’t believe that to be true. Karn’s high starting loyalty is again at its best against Vampires, and sometimes you just need to make a blocker. I think Kasmina, Enigmatic Mentor is the chief competitor for Karn’s slot, but I don’t really find the two comparable. You don’t benefit all that much from Kasmina’s passive, and its impact on the game is minimal for a four-mana investment. Karn can just win games on its own in short order.

The Removal Suite

Three-mana sweepers mostly feel like the missing check on the format, and here we have a deck that makes reasonable use of both sides of the Deafening Clarion buffalo. Cleansing Nova gets the nod over Time Wipe given the absence of creatures in our deck, and it certainly paid some dividends when I squared off against Matt Nass’s wild-looking artifact-based deck.

It’s not surprising that an aggro deck like Vampires has found space to take over in a format which is almost completely devoid of one-mana interaction. Shock isn’t mind-blowing, but it gives us options and lets us hopefully play our first Teferi onto an empty battlefield.

The real get for this deck was Baffling End, and I mostly turned to the card after being blown away by it in my Bant Scapeshift list. As I’ve mentioned, Adanto Vanguard is a huge problem, and you simply must have outs to it. In this list, you are uniquely able to leverage Baffling End in conjunction with Teferi, Time Raveler and Deafening Clarion. There were several times during the tournament that I returned my Baffling End to hand with Teferi and immediately answered the opposing Dinosaur token (and the rest of the battlefield). Don’t lose sight of this line.

The Glue

Think back to the polarized card quality argument and you can see why I’m high on an effect like Opt. Sometimes you just need specific answers. Opt helps towards that goal. In my update, I considered a fourth copy, but after abandoning the tyrannical overlord Saheeli, I looked towards Drawn from Dreams to fill this need. A big card drawing effect did feel like something I was missing at times, and I appreciate another payoff after plusing Teferi, Time Raveler.

The Manabase

To the people who were playing this archetype with 23 lands a few weeks ago… really? How do you ever cast your spells? In my opinion 25 is the bare minimum, and if you played a 26th like a Mobilized District, I’d totally get it. Your spells are powerful. Give yourself the opportunity to play games of Magic.

The Sideboard

I felt like I came to the table with a well-built sideboard, and I was pleased with how dramatically I was able to alter the Scapeshift matchup. Fall of the Thran was a suggestion from Gerry Thompson, and it unquestionably changes all the math whenever it shows up. Its high cost, though, limits me to one copy. As far as Blood Sun and Alpine Moon go, I’m convinced that Blood Sun is the more effective option, given its ability to shut down Blast Zone. It’s too easy for Scapeshift to get out from under Alpine Moon, but Teferi bouncing a card that cantrips is not a good long-term plan. It’s going to take a lot of Zombies for Scapeshift to get the job done, given all your access to sweepers. One bounced Blood Sun tends to be irrelevant in the long run.

Anti-aggression options abound after sideboarding, and the combination of Ixalan’s Binding, Baffling End, and Settle can replace clunkier, more expensive planeswalkers and give Orzhov Vampire opponents headaches. Meanwhile, Dovin’s Veto remains the best catchall in the business. Sometimes, you just have to say “no.” I’m considering Fry in greater numbers going forward, as it’s starting to seem like Esper Hero may be primed for a bit of a resurgence.

This would be my take on the list for SCG Richmond, and I like its positioning against the big players. One awful matchup that I’ve said very little about is Simic Nexus. Direct Challenge on Magic Arena is presently bugged, and you can’t issue a challenge with Nexus of Fate in your deck. This means that for Fandom Legends, I didn’t have to account for the archetype. This was very much a factor in my decision to play Jeskai Superfriends. However, I think in the IRL metagame pure combo versions of Simic Nexus continue to trend down, replaced by something akin to Sam Black’s take on the archetype. Versions like this are much more beatable for Jeskai.

If your local meta is still filled with old-school Nexus of Fate lovers, you may want to consider other options. Otherwise, get your Jeskai kicks in and surprise your opponent with a fringe choice that actually has legs.