This past weekend I was in Quebec City and was able to witness firsthand how powerful the Jeskai Black deck is, as four copies of the archetype made it to the Top 8. I actually played the deck myself just because it seems like the default best deck. Unfortunately I fell short of Top 8 after an undefeated record on Day 1. Along the way I was able to find some holes in the deck, even if they are small, that seem very exploitable. The Top 8 was littered with either Jeskai Black decks or decks that thought the Jeskai Black matchup was in their favor.
One way to have a favorable matchup against Jeskai Black is to actually play the deck but tune a version to have a good mirror matchup. This isn't easy by any means but I do believe that Omar Beldon was able to do it. He tore through a ton of Jeskai Black before finally falling short against Dan Lanthier in the end. Here is the version that Omar played:
When first looking at the list it may not seem different from the average Jeskai Black deck, but it really is. Adding cards like Duress and Negate to the maindeck help against the mirror and any other controlling decks. The sideboard plan involves bringing in a number of cards including Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, two copies of Mastery of the Unseen, and Painful Truths. Omar's list has more cards to bring in for the mirror than any other list I have seen. By doing this he has sacrificed some slots for other matchups but the gamble obviously payed off.
One thing that can be learned from Omar's performance is that it's not necessarily a good idea to just play the stock list from the previous weekend. In fact all of the Jeskai Black lists in the Top 4 were at least slightly different from the lists that did well at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. By having access to four colors worth of cards it is pretty easy to tune the deck in order to fit a specific metagame. For example, we see that Virulent Plague has popped up in a lot of these lists, which is to accommodate for the Bant Tokens matchup. Bant Tokens is one deck that has a perceived edge against Jeskai Black, but a card like Virulent Plague can completely stop the Bant Tokens deck in its tracks.
So obviously Jeskai Black is a very powerful strategy and is here to stay, but there are a couple decks in the Top 8 I played games against and do in fact have a good matchup against Jeskai Black. The deck that stuck out the most to me was the version of Red/Green Ramp that Jake Mondello was able to make Top 4 of the Grand Prix with. He wasn't the only one playing the deck though; there was a small Canadian contingent running it as well, though they didn't do as well as Jake. This is an archetype I have been working on for a little while now, but admittedly there are some things about Jake's list that I hadn't tried out yet. Here is the list that he played:
Perhaps the one thing that stands out the most is that there are no mana accelerators which are creatures in the deck. Instead the only early drops are Jaddi Offshoot and Hangarback Walker. Jaddi Offshoot fills an important role as not only is it a one-drop, but it is a critical source of life gain. This deck is relying on seven-, eight-, and ten-mana cards to win the game, so having extra life can allow you to actually reach that point in the game. In addition, Jaddi Offshoot is not just gaining one life a turn, it is often three life a turn because of the ramp spells searching out lands. This deck has a lot going for it and while Grand Prix Quebec City was its coming out party, the deck is in no way a finished product. While Jake won most of his matches versus Jeskai Black he did lose to Omar in the semifinals. One reason is that Omar was running two copies of Utter End so that he could reliably take Ugin, the Spirit Dragon off the table, but I do believe it is possible to play a version with an even better matchup versus Jeskai Black.
This is a deck I have been playing with a lot over the past few days and this is the list I am on as of now:
This list has been performing very well versus Jeskai Black on Magic Online and I have liked the changes overall from the list Jake Mondello was playing. The first and most obvious change is adding four copies of Wooded Foothills to the deck. While I could see not playing Wooded Foothills when just thinking about the maindeck, as Dragonlord Atarka is the only red card and it is a seven-drop, it is important to consider the sideboard cards too. It is not realistic to expect to cast any sideboarded red card in a timely fashion without playing Wooded Foothills, and you don't really want to be using Sylvan Scrying to get a Mountain if you can avoid it. Lastly, with a Jaddi Offshoot in play, the life loss from cracking a fetchland is completely negated. It seems silly not to have Wooded Foothills in the deck and I recommend anyone looking to play the deck to immediately add them. The only legitimate argument to not having them is that you can actually run out of lands to fetch, but normally twelve basics is enough.
I have also added a creature land to both the maindeck and sideboard. There are going to be games where your opponent has nothing on the board and is simply holding up Ojutai's Command or a removal spell for whatever big threat you have in hand. These are the games where being able to sacrifice a land to put actual pressure on the opponent is nice. The reason the Foundry of the Consuls is the land in the main is so that you can block opposing flyers that are otherwise tough to deal with. The Spawning Bed comes in versus any type of control deck. Blighted Woodland is the land that got cut as, while having a land that ramps is good in theory, most of the time there isn't actually time to activate it. There is also one more total land in the deck, in order to have one more green source. Only fourteen green sources doesn't seem like enough since, without one, you are essentially forced to mulligan.
As far as the actual land searchers go the numbers have been adjusted a little bit. There are only three Sylvan Scrying since drawing two is normally not great, and sometimes you don't have time to cast them. In a similar vein there are only two Map the Wastes as playing a glorified three mana Rampant Growth just isn't appealing as a four-of. Nissa's Pilgrimage is much better in my opinion as even when the extra lands put in hand aren't super relevant the Jeskai Black deck will often make you discard a card with Kolaghan's Command so having an extra land is nice. The last change is to add the third Dragonlord Atarka. The deck wants another seven-mana threat as going Explosive Vegetation or Hedron Archive into an immediate threat is very powerful.
In testing what I have learned about the Red Aggro matchup is that it is by far this deck's worst matchup. Originally I had both Seismic Rupture and Radiant Flames in the board, but that still isn't enough. In my opinion the best option is to try to get a Whisperwood Elemental or Dragonlord Atarka on the table as fast as possible. Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is just too slow. This is why some of the cards for just the Atarka Red and Red/Green Landfall matchups have been cut, to make room for more versatile options. Right now the deck is sideboarding in Rattleclaw Mystic against a lot of decks. The idea here is that after game one everyone will board out their Wild Slashs, Fiery Impulses, and other various types of removal. These removal spells are the reason why it isn't correct to maindeck Rattleclaw Mystic, but having a two-mana accelerator can really be a game changer if left unanswered, so it is nice after board. The idea reminds me a lot of how Abzan Control used to bring in Fleecemane Lion in almost all its matchups, while opponents boarded out Lightning Strikes.
The rest of the sideboard is set up well against Jeskai Black. The best way to beat that deck is keeping the creatures off the table, which is why Rending Volley is the best sideboard card and Roast is also quite strong. Overall I am happy with this list of the Red/Green Ramp deck though it is obviously a little different from Jake's. There was another deck which made the Top 8 of the Grand Prix and I learned first-hand that the Jeskai Black matchup is very good. Here is a look at Reid Duke's Esper Control list:
This deck may seem like it does a whole lot of nothing, and in a way that's true. This is a pure control deck that aims to answer literally every single threat the opponent plays. Reid is able to do this with the occasional spot removal spell, counter magic, and of course having lots of card advantage. Reid had success with a similar list at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar and has now officially proven the deck is a legitimate contender in Standard. While the deck is clearly strong it is also important to remember that it is Reid Duke that has been doing well with it, not just the average Magic player. There are tons of little decisions that need to be made with the deck, and it is clearly one of the most skill intensive decks in the format.
It did not feel good to play against Reid from the Jeskai Black side of the table, and while that is the deck he lost to in Top 8, it seemed to be primarily due to Mana Screw. I was impressed that even though the deck has very few win conditions, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is just as good as ever. The last deck that really stood out from Grand Prix Quebec City was Pascal Maynard's Rally the Ancestors deck, this is it:
I know that I am making the claim that many of these decks have a good matchup against Jeskai Black, and it is true, though that doesn't mean the matchup is unlosable. Over the course of the swiss Pascal beat up on a number of Jeskai Black opponents so, once again, while he lost in the Top 8, I do think the matchup is favorable from the Rally side. This deck also has very good matchups against many other archetypes as well, like Green/White Megamorph. The only card that is really scary for this deck is Anafenza, the Foremost, though it is possible to set up a big turn involving the use of Sidisi's Faithful to bounce an opposing Anafenza, the Foremost. Moving forward I Anticipate Abzan Aggro also seeing less play overall as the matchup versus Jeskai Black isn't very good.
This past weekend there were some breakout decks, but one thing remained clear, and that is that Jeskai Black is the clear deck to beat. Personally the deck I have been working on the most is the Red/Green Ramp deck, though there are clearly other archetypes that can contend with Jeskai Black as well. It will be interesting to see how things develop, as while players are already starting to call Jeskai Black the next Caw-Blade, it remains to be seen if that is truly the case.