Running Back Jeskai Black

GerryT continues to climb The SCG Tour® Leaderboard! A great finish at #SCGATL has him excited to be in the thick of the race. So how did he do it? He explains all in his latest work going into #SCGCOL.

A third-place finish at #SCGATL was good for a cool twenty SCG points, catapulting me into sixth place on the leaderboard. It was exactly the type of finish I needed to put myself in the race for real, so it was a good weekend.

My weapon of choice was Jeskai Black. Last week, I wrote about potentially playing either G/R Eldrazi or Four-Color Rally, but, as always, the time spent traveling was also spent brewing.

Despite feeling like my G/R Eldrazi and Four-Color Rally matchups weren’t great, I played this:

Overall, I went 2-0 against Rally and my only loss in the Swiss was to G/R Eldrazi.

During the Standard Classic at #SCGCHAR, I felt unbeatable with Jeskai Black. I finally found a list that I thought was close to perfect, so I decided to run it back, despite the format being different with #MTGOGW in the mix.

What Makes Jeskai Black So Good?

Overall, it’s the combination of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy; Painful Truths; and Crackling Doom. It’s the engine that keeps the removal flowing and the removal that kills anything. It’s the perfect recipe for a control deck.

The game has changed a bit, and now there are planeswalkers that need addressing, so occasionally we need something that can attack. Monastery Mentor fills that role. Without Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the format, we might not need Monastery Mentor at all, but that’s what we need right now.

Jeskai Black is very good at not dying in the early game with cards like Fiery Impulse and eventually turning the corner in the midgame. Sometimes it involves sticking a Jace or Soulfire Grand Master and working that angle, but you can also outdraw them with Painful Truths and Treasure Cruise. You should be able to kill everything they play and find something to win with eventually.

If you can play quickly and appreciate feeling like it’s the early 2000s, you should try Jeskai Black.

61 Cards?

There was no decklist mistake — I did, in fact, register a 61-card maindeck. Blasphemy, right?

Basically, I don’t care. I’ll do whatever I want.

Realistically, though, I wanted another Magmatic Insight as a cheap cantrip to use alongside Monastery Mentor and Treasure Cruise. Plus, Jeskai Black has a tendency to flood after casting a bunch of Ancestral Recalls, so Magmatic Insight is something you can use to power through that. It also fills your graveyard for delve.

In order to use Magmatic Insight effectively, you need excess lands to discard. You don’t want to fire off a Magmatic Insight, discarding your fourth land, only to miss that land drop. If you’re playing Magmatic Insight in your deck, you often want more lands than you would normally play so that Magmatic Insight is always live. Playing 27 land among 60 cards felt kind of heavy, plus there were some sweet ones I wanted to play, so 27/61 it was.

The vast majority of games I lose to Jeskai Black are due to mana issues. These include games where I miss land drops, am missing a color, or have draws where too many lands enter the battlefield tapped. Sometimes I lose because I’m flooded, but those games are much rarer than the ones where I don’t get to play Magic at all.

Honestly, playing four colors is not free. At times, we have to pay the price for our greed.

The Manabase

My manabase was likely horrid. Wandering Fumarole is an excellent pickup from #MTGOGW, but it does weird things to the mana. The deck needs lots of red to operate and doesn’t want to fetch basic Island, so a U/R dual seems like a great fit, right? Well, the deck also wants double black for Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, so you kind of want your dual lands to be black. It helps that the majority of the time you’ll be fetching black Battle lands, so sometimes you end up with the black mana for free. However, if you open on Wandering Fumarole and fetch a pair of Battle lands, most of your lands are entering the battlefield tapped, which is clearly not ideal.

At #SCGATL, I went with a Wooded Foothills manabase out of color requirements, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Being able to fetch a Canopy Vista with your red fetchland might sound great, but when you have to do it early, you end up with fewer basic lands in play on average. That means your Battle lands will enter the battlefield tapped on average more often.

While the amount of colored sources might look correct with Wooded Foothills in the manabase, it’s likely worse to play with them just because of how poor Canopy Vista is. Then again, I didn’t have those issues when I made Top 8 of the Classic at #SCGCHAR. Therefore, the culprit is clearly Wandering Fumarole.

Going forward, I’m going to have to re-examine how to properly construct the Jeskai Black manabase.

The #MTGOGW Pickups

Unfortunately, this card underperformed. Awkwardly enough, it was a product of me typically being ahead on turn 6. With all the cheap removal, it’s unlikely that Linvala will be providing value. The real issue is being able to close from that point, but I suppose Linvala can serve that role.

She just pales in comparison to the other six-drop lady in the set.

Chandra is good on offense, reasonable on defense, and great at parity. Over the course of the tournament, I got more than my six mana’s worth every single time. You can’t play too many Chandras because of how expensive she is, but she is exactly what you want.

If there’s anything to take away from this article, it should be that Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is an all-star. Not only did it show up at the Open in multiple different decks, it also headlined a bunch of different strategies.

Kalitas hinders Rally, is a lifelinking monster against aggressive decks, and punishes people for playing creatures in general. This is a card I wanted to see often. If not for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and G/R Eldrazi, I would have happily played Kalitas over Monastery Mentor. As is, I had to tailor my threats as if they were answers themselves, so I ended up with a spread. Aside from Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet was the best.

Isn’t Goblin Dark-Dwellers An Obvious Inclusion?

Nope, but understanding why requires knowledge of how Jeskai Black operates and how the matchups play out.

Since Jeskai Black is a control deck, I want to be able to keep a wide range of hands. I want to answer my opponents with cheap removal and interaction. On top of that, I want to make a solid push to turn the corner in the midgame by playing multiple spells in one turn. With how I build my control decks, that typically involves playing a bunch of cheap cards, some of which draw me more cards. Occasionally, I’ll have a big spell or two on the top end that I can draw into later on to close the game.

Goblin Dark-Dwellers doesn’t interact early, it’s a virtual mulligan in your opening hand, and Jeskai Black doesn’t take advantage of the 4/4 body very well. There are some games where you’ll get in chip damage from Crackling Doom, Soulfire Grand Master, and creature-lands, and the 4/4 body will be relevant. However, most games, your opponents will be at a healthy life total by the time you’re trying to turn the corner, and the 4/4 won’t be enough to enter into a racing situation if that’s what the texture of the game requires you to do.

Additionally, it’s likely that your opponent will be sitting on removal in hand because I basically only deploy my creatures once I have a bit of reprieve. Jeskai Black is excellent at not playing into our opponent’s removal, but by adding Goblin Dark-Dwellers, you’re losing that advantage.

That said, I think Goblin Dark-Dwellers is a phenomenal Magic card, just not one that belongs in Jeskai Black, at least in my build. Goblin Dark-Dwellers is a brute-force card, similar to Siege Rhino, and belongs in a deck that can take advantage of that. Jeskai Black is a deck based on cheap removal, card drawing, and finesse, and has very little interest in a five-mana sorcery.

If you want to play Mardu Green or something similar, get Goblin Dark-Dwellers in your deck! Crackling Doom and Siege Rhino will often put them in range of a 4/4 menace, plus you have plenty of other things worth killing, so it’s likely that the 4/4 will stick.

The Four-Color Rally Matchup

Game 1 is difficult because Jeskai Black doesn’t have the tools to defeat Rally in its maindeck. Ideally, you have some counterspells, sweepers, and a clock. Sometimes having lifegain is important because of Zulaport Cutthroat and their anemic beats. Despite popular belief, Infinite Obliteration isn’t what you want. They’ll find a way to kill you without their combo piece.

Post-board, your matchup is quite good with seven counterspells, three Radiant Flames, and a pair of Kalitas. The difficulty comes in finishing three games, but also trying to spike Game 1 or win both of the post-board games. If you’re losing Game 1, there is no shame in conceding early to ensure you actually have a chance to finish the match.

In order to have a better matchup all around, you will likely need more copies of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in the maindeck. Playing more copies wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

The G/R Eldrazi Matchup

Similar to Rally, you don’t have the tools to defeat G/R Eldrazi in Game 1. I used Disdainful Stroke in my maindeck as a way to stop some of their ramp or their big plays, but also because I thought it looked solid in the format. Sure, it doesn’t stop Painful Truths or anything in Atarka Red (outside of Become Immense), but it’s good against basically everyone else.

A pile of Duresses may also help, especially alongside Monastery Mentor. The issue is dealing with a Kozilek’s Return out of the graveyard. Cranial Archive wouldn’t be the worst thing against Rally, but do you really want to sideboard that in the G/R Eldrazi matchup? It’s unbelievably slow.

If people stick to Chris Brickey’s Mono-Green Eldrazi deck, I like my chances. Regardless, Infinite Obliteration is not cutting it. I may try some Transgress the Mind in the future, as that is a better way of dealing with Kozilek’s Return.

The Atarka Red Matchup

There are never many people playing red decks after a new set is released, so I didn’t try too hard to beat it. Jeskai Black ends up having a reasonable matchup against Atarka Red anyway, which was proven by my 2-0 record against it in the Swiss. My loss in the Top 4 to Korey was mostly due to mana issues.

Still, there are a few things I could do to solidify my matchup against Atarka Red. Arashin Cleric is the somewhat obvious one that should give you a life buffer, give them another target for Fiery Impulse, and give you time to cast Painful Truths.

More Duresses would also help, as they allow you to stick a threat, such as Monastery Mentor, or to take their most threatening cards, such as Hordeling Outburst. If I play Jeskai Black in the future, you can bet I’ll be more prepared for these matchups.

Going Forward

Rather than trying to fix the issues of my Jeskai Black list from #SCGATL, I think it’s time to try something new.

This list, with its abundance of Roasts and lack of things like Crackling Doom, might be too weak to something like R/B Dragons, but I’m willing to take that risk. I mentioned earlier that Crackling Doom is a key part of what makes Jeskai Black so good, which this deck doesn’t exactly have access to.

The abundance of free card advantage is appealing. Jori En, Ruin Diver sort of replaces Painful Truths while Goblin Dark-Dwellers provides a clock in addition to functioning like a removal spell. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is excellent, although I may want more removal in this build. It’s possible that playing without Grasp of Darkness is wrong, but by removing it I make the mana much better.

Perhaps Jori En, Ruin Diver would be better in a deck with a lower curve, such as Jeskai Black, but with delve, Fiery Impulse, and Duress, it should be active more often than not. Keep in mind that Goblin Dark-Dwellers will trigger Jori En all on its own!

I’ll definitely be testing this deck, but first, I have to focus on #PTOGW!