For the week since the Pro Tour, my online Standard weapon of choice has been Jeskai Tokens. I played a lot of Jeskai Tokens in the months following its unveiling at last year's World Championships and was drawn to it once again because of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. After just a few games of playing the deck again, I was sold -- Jace is an incredibly impressive card that flat out raises the power level of what was already a powerful deck. After a week of testing and tuning, here's the list I ended with:
This list is tuned to be good against the Pro Tour metagame: Red, UR Ensoul, GR Devotion and Abzan (both control and megamorph). I am very happy with it against that field. Before you get too interested, let me say that I believe that current meta shifts are hurting this deck's viability (but more on that later)
Before getting into any matchup specifics, let's talk about some cards I tried along the way that did not end up making the cut.
First up: Dig Through Time. The idea here was that with access to even more looting due to the effect of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, the graveyard would be able to support an additional delve spell. Turns out that while the graveyard can more or less support it, too many of the matchups we want it to be good in punish us for playing too many cards that are dead in the early game and I was often supremely unhappy with the singleton copy of Dig Through Time. Solid idea, but out it went.
The next card to be dismissed was Abbot of Keral Keep. At one point I was running a split of Seeker of the Way and Abbot of Keral Keep -- the deck cannot support more than eight creatures, and I thought Seeker was too important to cut entirely, so a split it was. The idea behind Abbot was similar to the idea behind Jace: that it is a card with a high power level that will benefit the deck by its presence. Turns out this was a very misguided notion, a deckbuilding philosophy more befitting Abzan decks than Jeskai Tokens. Tokens is a very synergy based deck which Jace happens to fit into very well by simply helping the deck do more of the things it wants to do (looting + casting spells), while Abbot's high power level comes at the cost of some anti-synergy (scripting when we have to cast our spells). I was unimpressed by Abbot in the Tokens shell and quickly culled my copies.
Finally, Goblin Rabblemaster did not quite make it into this build of Jeskai Tokens. Despite being fairly poorly positioned in a world of Wild Slashes and Searing Bloods, I wanted to try Goblin Rabblemaster on the theory that Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is already such a lightning rod for removal that Rabblemaster might often survive unbothered. In testing, I came to the conclusion that the deck running only eight real creatures cannot possibly have enough removal lightning rods for Rabblemaster to routinely do work. Alas, I still don't think it is time for the triumphant return of the Rabblemaster.
The first key to understanding how Tokens plays out against red is understanding how the new red deck is different from the red deck from before Magic Origins. Prior to Origins, the various red decks utilized Hordeling Outburst and Dragon Fodder as key components to their aggression, and Tokens matched up very well against these red decks because it could trade token for token and come out ahead. The new red decks are less dependent on one toughness creatures, making our tokens less valuable defensively . However, in exchange, these new red decks are not as fast as they once were. Cards like Abbot of Keral Keep add to the deck's power and resiliency at the cost of its speed.
What this ends up meaning to the matchup is that our tokens no longer have very easy blocks that are basically without risk (meaning that now we have to go for double blocks and risk getting devastated by a burn spell) but in exchange we have more time before being forced to block. Against the previous, faster iterations of red, the Tokens deck was essentially forced to block at every opportunity, or it would just be dead before being able to do anything. Nowadays, we can often afford to take some creature damage while developing our board to enable future blocks with less risk.
If possible, I try to avoid playing Seeker of the Way before Jeskai Ascendancy. You generally have enough time to deploy Ascendancy, and a Seeker post Ascendancy is much harder for the red deck to successfully Burn Away. It is very hard for them to win if our Seeker gets to be in combat a couple of times -- even the first time can be enough to take the game out of their hands. We also have Jeskai Charm's lifelink mode to bounce our life total up and out of burn range, meaning that we have a lot of redundancy in our lifegain. This certainly factors into the time we have and is part of the reason that we can delay our blocking, as unlike most decks, our life total can move significantly upwards throughout the game.
Post-board, I'm interested in the copies of Anger of the Gods as well as the copies of Negate. This is the only matchup I have found where I want to cut Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, but he is just too slow and too easy to Searing Blood for me to be comfortable leaving him in the deck against red. The other card I dislike is the fourth copy of Treasure Cruise, as being stuck with multiple dead Cruises is one of the easiest ways to lose this match-up. With previous Tokens decks, I would trim much harder on Cruise and also slim down on Jeskai Ascendancy itself, but against the current red decks, the games tend to go long enough for these powerful cards to be effective.
UR Ensoul Artifact
This deck is the main reason I really wanted to play Jeskai Charm in my build of Tokens. Jeskai Charm is very good against the hallmark card of the deck, Ensoul Artifact (and also very good against Hangarback Walker). If they Ensoul up a Darksteel Citadel, you even get to set them back a land! Despite this, Ensoul Artifact is still essentially their best card and the easiest way for you to lose. The Jeskai Tokens game plan in this matchup is very similar to the plan against red: deal with what threats you can while building your own board and working up towards bringing the fight to them. Life swings are a key part of the plan, whether from Seeker of the Way or lifelink on Jeskai Charm. Jeskai Charm is actually pretty taxed in the matchup as two of its modes are fantastic effects we probably want more than once per game. For this reason, I find that Jeskai Charm is the most frequent target for Jace flashback in the match-up.
The opposing card that is the trickiest for us is Stubborn Denial. Make sure you are cognizant of this card the entire time you are playing, as getting a key spell countered by Stubborn Denial can be very hard to come back from. For that reason it is often better to use removal main phase while they are tapped out then to try and 'get them' in response to them playing an Ensoul Artifact. It's pretty corner case, but keep in mind you can use Jace's plus ability on their four power guy to turn off Ferocious on Stubborn Denial
Post-board, I like Anger of the Gods and Negate. I will sometimes bring in a copy or two of Valorous Stance to have additional ways to deal with Ensoul Artifact in the case that it is not enchanting a Darksteel Citadel, but I'm not really convinced that's right (pretty painful when they do suit up a Citadel to be stuck with a Stance in your hand). I dislike Stoke the Flames and Raise the Alarm the most, and will generally trim down on those to fit however many cards I end up wanting to bring in.
GR Devotion / Abzan
I am pairing these two decks together because their matchups both play out very similarly to each other and to how they played out before Magic Origins. Pre-board with the current configuration is pretty rough for Tokens, with the main goal being to overpower them with the raw power of Jeskai Ascendancy. This has a higher success rate against Abzan than GR Devotion, just due to the fact that Abzan tends to give us more time before we are under significant pressure.
At the PT, both of these decks underwent meta shifts that favor Tokens. Abzan decks started to drop Fleecemane Lion, the card that I have long held is the card that Tokens least wants to see. Lion represents significant early pressure in a form that Tokens does not interact well with -- especially when the rest of the metagame dictates that we play Wild Slashes over Lightning Strikes. Without Fleecemane Lion, it is way easier for Tokens to build up to the kind of powerful chains of spells it is known for. Similarly, Courser of Kruphix began to Disappear from the GR Devotion decks. This change was not nearly as widespread as the dropping of Fleecemane Lion, but is another change that benefits Tokens (Courser was just a very annoying card for Tokens to play against, stopping us from having early profitable attacks and helping their late game be on par with ours).
Post-board against both of these decks, I am all in on the Dragonlord Ojutai and Disdainful Stroke plan. Against Abzan, cutting the Wild Slashes and Fiery Impulse along with Seeker of the Way and the Jeskai Charms makes room for three Dragonlord Ojutai, four Disdainful Stroke, three Valorous Stance and two Negate. Depending on the exact flavor of Abzan they are on the Negates may not be good and Fiery Impulse / Seeker of the Way can stay in in their place. Against GR Devotion you still want the Dragonlord Ojutais, Disdainful Strokes, and the Valorous Stances, but the Negates are certain to be awful and you probably are interested in the copies of Anger of the Gods. In that matchup I cut the Raise the Alarms and Seeker of the Ways first, followed by the Jeskai Charms and then trim the Wild Slash count for the rest of the spaces. Wild Slash killing Elvish Mystic is strong and still merits some spaces in the deck post-board.
The plan for these post-board games is to play a much more controlling role. They likely have some form of enchantment removal now, so Ascendancy cannot be the end-all be-all of our game plan. Dragonlord Ojutai functions very nicely as an additional way to win that happens to synergize in a very powerful way with an online Ascendancy. The Disdainful Strokes stop most of the powerful things they try to do, and the Valorous Stances are there to ensure that if anything slips by while we are forced to tap out we can still efficiently deal with it.
As I said, I played this deck pretty consistently in the week since the Pro Tour. I think my results peaked around Wednesday -- at that point I had the deck tuned to essentially what you see in this article, and I was winning a pretty high percentage of my matches. But then the meta started to warp and change more in response to the Pro Tour decks, and I found my win percentage dropping again. Turns out the decks and cards that are good against red and UR Ensoul Artifact are also pretty good against Tokens. The most egregious offender here is Dromoka's Command and the entirety of the GW deck (both the Kibler and the Collected Company versions).
And if Day 1 of Grand Prix San Diego is anything to go off of, it looks like that GW deck is at a height of IRL popularity too. The deck was everywhere during day one of coverage, with many top players piloting it to reasonable success. Abzan decks seem to have dusted off their Fleecemane Lions, too. The meta is once again becoming a pretty hostile environment for Tokens.
It was fun while it lasted. I'm going to be shelving my Ascendancies for a little while at least. So then, what was the point of this article? Well, for starters, I was very impressed with how Tokens did against the narrow field it was good against, and believe it to be an excellent option if the meta ever shifts back in that direction. But more importantly, a lot of the powerful cards and ways it was winning had little to do with the Ascendancy / token generating synergy. As such, my next step will be to apply what I learned from working on this deck to Jeskai Aggro and see if I can get that to work. Jeskai Aggro seemed to have some decent success Day 1 of GP San Diego, which is pretty encouraging.
Wish me luck.
Thanks for reading,