It Was Foretold: Jeskai Control’s Return

I’ve been doing a lot of theoretical work over the past few months. With Dominaria’s release there was plenty of need—and opportunity—to explore and brew. During this process I was constantly underwhelmed by Modern’s ostensible top deck, Humans. It was a fine deck, but it didn’t really shine. As I explained last week, this left me perplexed about Humans’s persistent stand on top of Tier 1. That trend is especially odd given that Jeskai and other control decks effectively prey on both it and Affinity, which is keeping pace with Humans.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one, because Jeskai was out in force at Louisville. In both pure control and Tempo forms, too. Today I will be looking at the Louisville results and examining the return of Jeskai. I also have an update regarding my banlist testing series at the end.

Louisville Meta

Since the Pro Tour back in February, large-scale Modern events have been sparse. Instead, Team Constructed has dominated, which doesn’t generate very reliable metagame data. Team events allow weak decks to squeak through the Swiss, and Unified Constructed events require creative deck choices, so the picture is muddied. Modern is finally moving back into the spotlight with a string of SCG events leading into GP Las Vegas, meaning there is going to be better data on how the metagame is moving, starting with Louisville.

Prior to the event, I and a number of other writers speculated that Jeskai Control was due for a resurgence, either because the metagame was favorable or because of new cards. Apparently the collective wisdom agreed, because Louisville’s Day 2 metagame is dominated by Jeskai decks. Star City has 16 decks listed as Jeskai Control, with another two decks listed separately as flash and aggro. Humans and Affinity sit in the second and third places, with 13 and 11 decks respectively. Elves trails at 9 decks. Given that all those are favorable matchups for Jeskai, I must conclude the Jeskai players made the correct metagame call. The type of deck they wanted to hit was actually present in very large numbers, so they did quite well Day 1.

This trend continued on Day 2, as Jeskai is the most represented deck in the Top 32 with six members. In fact, fair interactive decks did extremely well in Louisville, making up 14 out of 32 decks. This is a strong pushback against what had been a linear aggro metagame, and it is a welcome one. The other striking thing is how known the Top 32 is. The only decks that qualify as rogue or outlier decks are RG Hollowvine, Amulet Titan, and arguably Infect. This doesn’t mean anything yet, but if we continue to see expected decks it would indicate a settling in the metagame, which would provide opportunities to exploit the complacency.

Pure Control

The most played version of Jeskai was the pure control deck, representing five of six Jeskai decks in the Top 32. Frankly, it’s a deck exactly as you’d expect.

Jeskai Control, by Jonathan Hobbs (2nd, SCG Louisville)

Creatures (4)
Snapcaster Mage

Planeswalkers (3)
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

Enchantments (2)
Search for Azcanta

Instants (21)
Path to Exile
Lightning Bolt
Logic Knot
Lightning Helix
Negate
Electrolyze
Cryptic Command
Secure the Wastes

Sorceries (6)
Serum Visions
Supreme Verdict

Lands (24)
Flooded Strand
Scalding Tarn
Celestial Colonnade
Hallowed Fountain
Steam Vents
Sacred Foundry
Sulfur Falls
Glacial Fortress
Field of Ruin
Island
Plains
Mountain
Sideboard (15)
Dispel
Celestial Purge
Vendilion Clique
Engineered Explosives
Baneslayer Angel
Detention Sphere
Runed Halo
Disdainful Stroke
Negate
Settle the Wreckage
Wear // Tear
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

The interesting inclusion is Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. It has become a theme in my writing, but Jace needs to be built around and supported because he is fragile. Jace will take over a game as few other walkers can if left unchallenged, but with Lightning Bolt‘s resurgence that is very unlikely. Teferi is not as powerful as Jace, but he is easier to wield. Jace’s best mode adds no loyalty, unlike Teferi, but Teferi also allows you to tap out and then protect him during the opponent’s turn. This is a huge plus in Teferi’s favor, as ease of use frequently beats raw power. In mirrors I would prefer Jace because he’s a mana cheaper and Brainstorm is so much more powerful than a random draw, but outside of that scenario I think Teferi will keep getting the nod.

Jeskai Tempo

The other Jeskai deck was Jeskai Tempo, which often acts like a control deck but isn’t a traditional one. The control decks answer everything and win via overwhelming advantage, whereas Tempo answers just enough to win with Geist of Saint Traft, combined with burn and Spell Queller protection. If the control decks appear stock, this deck is even less interesting. I played this deck with some changes in the mana base and another Geist instead of the third Electrolyze last year.

Jeskai Tempo, by Jimmie Smith (4th, SCG Louisville)

Creatures (10)
Spell Queller
Snapcaster Mage
Geist of Saint Traft

Instants (22)
Path to Exile
Lightning Bolt
Lightning Helix
Logic Knot
Electrolyze
Cryptic Command

Sorceries (4)
Serum Visions

Lands (24)
Flooded Strand
Scalding Tarn
Celestial Colonnade
Hallowed Fountain
Steam Vents
Sacred Foundry
Sulfur Falls
Glacial Fortress
Field of Ruin
Island
Plains
Mountain
Sideboard (15)
Vendilion Clique
Celestial Purge
Dispel
Engineered Explosives
Detention Sphere
Negate
Settle the Wreckage
Surgical Extraction
Wear // Tear
Lyra Dawnbringer
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Supreme Verdict
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

It’s fascinating how familiar this list is. If a deck that is almost unchanged over a year is still viable, why did it disappear? And is it better or worse than the alternative hard control deck?

In Comparison

While I classify these decks separately and their play patterns are noticeably different, looking at the decklists they’re extremely similar. The core of both decks is the package of instants and Serum Visions. The numbers are different, with Tempo preferring more burn while Control has Supreme Verdict, but broadly speaking both decks are built to maximize Snapcaster Mage. The only question is win speed. It is possible for Control to win quickly with an unanswered Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, but that’s improbable.

Having played both versions, there is no particular reason to prefer either clock. Tempo can severely punish a stumbling opponent but it will get overwhelmed in the long game. Control will always win as the game goes on, but it also gives opponents plenty of time to recover. Which deck you prefer is dependent entirely on your own playstyle as a result. The sheer number of pure control decks vs. Tempo doesn’t inherently mean anything since we don’t know starting population.

Signs of Adaptation?

What strikes me most about these decks is how stock they are. Substitute Teferi for any other planeswalker and these decks could be from last year. To an extant his is to be expected. The core of Jeskai is the removal package and Cryptic Command, but that begs the question of why it fell off so severely in the first place. Jund is a possible explanation as Bloodbraid Elf is a huge boost in the matchup, particularly against Jeskai Tempo, but Jund has never been enough of the meta to truly fear. Even if that was the explanation, the decks show no sign of any special consideration being given to that matchup.

My theory is that perception drove the Jeskai downtick. Players thought that Jund would be much bigger than it currently is and subsequently thought that Tron would be a bigger presence to feed on Jund. This hasn’t really happened thanks to Humans, and given enough time between events, players came to realize this and go back to their old lists. Conversations with a number of players tell a similar story, and it makes logical sense. I can’t say it’s definitively true, but I haven’t come up with a more plausible theory.

Interestingly…

The Modern Classic Top 8 is full of Tron. If you count Mono-Green and GR together, Tron is the most represented deck in the Top 16. In my experience the Classic is populated by players that washed out of the main event, which means that its results are indicative of the Day 1 metagame. While Tron was well represented in Day 2, it didn’t hold a candle to Jeskai or the other Tier 1 decks. The degree to which this means anything is ambiguous; this is Modern after all. Players play the decks they like more than anything else, but metagaming does still happen. I am very interested to know if Tron started out Day 1 as a large percentage of the field and simply fell off. If it did, that would indicate that a lot of players actually anticipated Jeskai coming out in force last weekend. Those who did simply missed their target and leveled themselves—as despite Jeskai being the most popular single deck, aggro was still the most represented archetype. If anyone has insight, please comment.

Banlist Testing Update

It has been almost six months since my previous banlist test. I’ve been asked when the next one is coming out and the answer is I don’t know, because real life is getting in the way. I have to scale back. I do intend to continue doing these tests, but each is going to take much longer to finish. Rather than three a year as I did the past several years I’ll only be able to get one more in this year. If things change I will certainly adapt but I cannot promise anything. I could amass less data, but that’s not really an option. The whole point is to remove speculation and get actual data about the impact of banned cards in Modern. Shrinking my sample size would delegitimize the results. Therefore, while I’m getting started on the next test soon, don’t expect anything until winter comes.

The Candidates

This leads me onto the possible candidates. Stoneforge Mystic is the most plausible unban, but I’ve already tested it. While a redo isn’t out of the question, I can’t imagine the results would be different enough to be worthwhile. I’d rather stick to something new. The problem is that most of the cards that remain are either clearly broken (Rite of Flame, Hypergenesis) or had their chance and have proven problematic (e.g. Birthing Pod). As a result, I’m really only considering the following three(ish) cards for testing:

  • Dig Through Time – Dig never really saw any play before it was banned because Treasure Cruise far overshadowed it. The fact that Dig proved itself too powerful for Legacy suggests that Wizards was correct that it would just replace Cruise, but there’s no proof. I want to give Dig a chance to prove itself.
  • Green Sun’s Zenith – Green Sun’s Zenith (GSZ) was banned because there was no reason for any green deck not to run it. The card just did everything. However, times have changed and current green decks with Collected Company need non-green creatures to survive. It may be that the format has moved on from GSZ.
  • The Artifact Lands The artifact lands have always been banned because Wizards was afraid that Affinity would be as broken in Modern as it had been in Standard. Some would argue Affinity is still that broken, but many have tried the Artifact lands in Affinity and been underwhelmed. I want to try it in Ironworks combo. There may be no reason to revisit the old combo-Affinity, but supercharging Ironworks may be too good.

I have no real pull to one card over another, so I’m leaving it up to you. Cast your vote for the next test card by leaving a comment down below. I’m only going to count comments left here on Modern Nexus. The poll will close next Monday, and the victor will be my next test.

End Turn

Disclaimer time: SCG Louisville is the first pure Modern event since Dominaria released. Thus it is our only datapoint as to where the metagaming is heading. Don’t read too much into these results yet. SCG Minneapolis is likely to look very similar to Louisville simply because it’s a week afterward and there isn’t enough time to adapt. It won’t be until GP Las Vegas that there will be enough data to draw meaningful conclusions.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

28 thoughts on “It Was Foretold: Jeskai Control’s Return

    1. Thing with Twin is that we know what the impact is because it was in the format so long. The question mark is a lot smaller than this crop of cards.

    1. Punishing Fire is in a category of cards that *might* be fine, but why do we want them? They’re either terrible to play against for a number of reasons or lead to uninteresting deckbuilding and poor diversity. Fire’s only use is crushing creature decks, how would that make the format a better, fairer, more diverse place? Especially if Tron adopts it, which I don’t see why they wouldn’t, they’re already the best Grove of the Burnwillows deck. Before anyone asks, Jitte is in the same category.

      1. Why did we “want” bitter blossom? What problem was it supposed to fix? None. It was a historically strong card that had long since been surpassed by other better things and had no business sitting on the banlist. Ditto nacatl. Ditto sword of the meek. Ditto ancestral vision. Ditto jtms. The bar for getting off the banlist isn’t fixing a problem, it’s not causing problems.

        Tron playing punishing fire Is a hilarious scenario right up there with lantern overrunning modern with the thoptersword combo.

        If jtms is virtually unplayable in the format I’m willing to at least ask if a two mana shock might also be unplayable, no matter how much ca it can potentially generate or how it can technically also be your win condition. I mean what would happen to the format if there was a red instant that was effective at killing small creatures…

        1. How exactly is repeatable removal not going to drive out creatures smaller than x/3? That’s what happened last time it was legal and was why it was banned. Nacatl was a bewildering ban and was taken off very quickly, the rest were speculative bans out of fear of what they’d done in Standard.

          It’s ultimately the same reason that Mind Twist is still banned in Legacy. Is it too good, who knows. Would it be fun, no.

          1. I mean I don’t know for sure, but 1R for 2 damage is an abysmal rate. We just had JTMS come off – a card with a lot of comparables in that it can theoretically generate mind boggling CA and literally win the game itself given enough time to do so. The issue is “time” is in short supply in this format.

            I am not convinced running a playset of punishing fire in every deck is any more likely than running a playset of JTMS in every deck. If the card isn’t in every deck, then no, it wont push out every 2 toughness creature anymore than fatal push pushes out every 2 cmc creature. Not every deck plays those cards because not every deck is vulnerable to those cards.

            Graveyard hate is also a thing that looks increasingly important in this format as more and more decks look there for value . Perhaps we just go to more maindeck nihil spellbombs if punishing fire.

            Test it and I bet you’ll have the SFM experience – card is bad or irrelevant vs many decks, and very good vs other decks. On the whole its a card you can play to improve those matchups – but not a card you just autosleeve 4 up everytime.

    1. I think the worry with artifact lands is not that they might enable an unbeatable deck, but that they might turn every artifact-based deck into Dredge. Meaning matches where the only thing that matters at all is whether the opponent draws their hate card in time and double Stone Rains the artifact deck with Ancient Grudge, or resolves an effective one-sided Stasis in the form of Stony Silence.

  1. As most of the people I see in here, I also vote for Splinter Twin.
    I really think there are many reasons you should test again Splinter Twin, even if the question mark it poses is a lot smaller than Preordain’s for example.
    1) Does Fatal Push make Twin more fragile, thus an OK card to unban? Could one build a Grixis Twin list with Fatal Push and do well? What’s the impact of Fatal Push overall in Twin?
    2) Does Opt help Twin? Does Jace, TMS help out of the sideboard? What about Ancestral Vision?
    3) What would be today’s matchup vs Jund/Jund/GDS? Is it that bad still?
    4) Most votes in here maybe(even if it’s not in the voting list), and most talked card in the banlist since it got banned. Many people want to see it back.
    5) 4 mana sorcery speed card that could make Modern’s average cmc a lot bigger.

    That said, I also vote Splinter Twin, and my main argument is #1.

    Great article,

    George.

    1. As impressively impassioned as your arguments are, they’re beside the point. Twin wasn’t banned because is was unanswerable or inherently overpowered. The problem was diversity. There was nothing you could do in URx that was better than just winning on turn four. The core card pool for URx isn’t dramatically different from when Twin was legal, so I can’t see a compelling reason Twin wouldn’t just replace all existing URx decks again. After all, why not just add in the combo to an existing Jeskai or UR deck. Spell Queller and Search for Azcanta are at least with good in Twin as they are now in controlish decks. Why wouldn’t you just run Twin in every blue deck? Until that question can be answered, there’s no reason to test Twin.

      Even if that wasn’t the case, there’s less to learn by testing Twin than the other options I presented. We’ve seen Twin in action before, we know what it would do. For that reason I’m not testing Twin this time, regardless of arguments to the contrary.

      1. Blue Moon is already a deck. It now needs to look for Through the breach, madcap experiment or splash white for Nahiri etc.

        Blue moon with Twin would be really scary and if anything it would be stronger now than it used to be, as the format doesn’t count on having to always answer a T3-4 play on the spot or die. Yes Fatal Push is a card. But you can EOT tap the land and then they have to use the removal even if you didn’t have the combo.

        I loved my Temur TarmoTwin deck, but I doubt it would be a good choice to bring it back. Not yet at least.

      2. Not arguing that you should test Twin. However, to be fair, the “diversity” argument WotC put forth seems rather hollow and has only ever been used to justify one other card (Mental Misstep) which clearly homogenizes decks far more than Twin. What blue grindy deck isn’t going to play Snapcaster? What red, white, and black decks in need of removal won’t play Bolt, Path, or Push? What green deck that needs a beatstick won’t play Tarmogoyf? The level or representation across different archetypes Twin had wasn’t so different from these, and nobody thinks these cards are so prevalent they should be banned.

        So in the end we’re forced to accept that Wizards didn’t ban Twin for diversity reasons, because that would be disingenuous with other cards left alone in the format. Twin was banned, as many have suspected, primarily to spice up the upcoming Pro Tour. The question is whether they’ll ever own up to it and release it or if they’ll continue to hide behind the “diversity” argument given in the ban announcement.

        1. None of those cards listed win the game on turn four and avoid sorcery speed removal in the process. The twin package is fairly small, and slotted into various decklists. The diversity argument you’ve made is illustrating the reason for banning: it didn’t matter what other colors you were in, twin was worth inclusion because it was too powerful.

          1. Winning on turn four is allowed. Turn three is not.

            My argument is that Twin is the only card on the entire banlist banned solely for “diversity” reasons. Why is this? There are other cards that homogenize archetypes. Since Twin is the only card banned by this justification, it would seem that Wizards INVENTED this justification in order to conceal their true motives for banning Twin.

  2. I don’t know if you ever managed to take a look at my paperstrip method?

    I’ve recently restructured the whole thing. It still takes a month to test against the top 25 decks in modern but now the number of Cards I can test simultaniously can be extremely large.

    It took the old version 5 generations to produce something close to being competitive while the new version seems to generate something equally good in just 1 generation.

    I’m pretty sure the method will now cover your needs to generate testdecks while at the same time test any number of keycards. Using the process with others will speed it up a lot.

    If you want to you can “outsource” a build to me and I’d generate it within a month 😀

    https://www.mtgvault.com/wickeddarkman/decks/deckbuild-with-paperstrips-v3/

    1. It’s an impressive piece of work and a good simulation. It’s just not what I’m looking for. Sims model reality but are not themselves reality. I’m looking for human generated data as that is more in line with what would “actually” happen, with all the oddities and imperfections that entails. To get that data human beings have to play Magic.

      It would be interesting to see how closely the sim matches the test data once it’s in.

      1. It’s not “really” a computer-simulation, It’s more like a statistical tool.

        All the data is “human-generated” as the users have to play magic to generate any data.

        Against the first decks the entire deck consists of blank cards and you simply decide what you draw. The more decks the “Tool” gets to play against the more reality chips away the less adaptive cards, and at the end of the project you have a deck built totally from scratch. The you restart it all and focus on a mix of new Cards and the best of the old Cards.

        I often take some of these “evolutionmade” decks to tournaments when I have the time, and I get better and better ranking with it. So far I haven’t broken through to the top, but I keep on restructuring the whole process endlessly trying to generate something that can adapt to the meta faster than ordinary players.

        I usually start from scratch which is why it would be interresting to use my tool on something which is already considered a powerfull deck 😀

  3. Green Sun’s Zenith. I think the artifact lands either break KCI or do nothing, and DTT is so similar to Treasure Cruise and dominated Legacy enough after Cruise was banned that I don’t think it would ever be safe in the format.

  4. By the way, David–thank you for doing this testing. To my knowledge, nobody else goes public with this level of banlist testing, and I know it’s helped redefine my overall idea of what’s safe in a format and what’s not.

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