Jeskai Control has firmly entrenched itself as the control deck of choice in Standard, eclipsing all others after both Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica and last weekend's GP Milwaukee. As we'll discuss today, however, the deck isn't "finished." We're continuing to see innovation, experimentation and development in the archetype, including some radical changes to the top-end finishers. Let's get across all the latest changes!
There's nothing wrong with sticking to a known quantity. A reasonably orthodox take on Jeskai Control made it to the Top 8 of the latest Pro Tour in Atlanta, and Isaac Krut was able to continue the deck's hot streak by putting it into the Top 8 of last weekend's GP Milwaukee as well.
There's not too much to talk about with this list, although there are a few specific points worth going over quickly. We've seen lists like this in weeks previous, but it's clear that Krut knew what he was doing in lining up his answers against the expected field. Last week, I wrote about the importance of playing cheap sweepers like Deafening Clarion or Fiery Cannonade, as well as effective answers to Adanto Vanguard and Arclight Phoenix like Seal Away. Krut did exactly this, and it's clear just how well his list was set up for success.
The sideboard offers useful flexibility, too. I like how Star of Extinction makes it possible to contest the "go big" strategy of many midrange decks by bringing in even bigger answers, while Legion Warboss is right down the other end of the spectrum, coming in against unsuspecting opponents or closing out a tight game three when time is of the essence.
One final direction it's important to note here – and this will be a recurring theme throughout today's article – is the rise of Niv-Mizzet, Parun. This card is seeing more and more play across both Izzet and Jeskai lists, and for good reason; once it lands, it offers immediate advantage and then spews value as you go ahead with your normal Game Plan.
This take on Jeskai, while a good shell for a high-end threat like Niv-Mizzet, is not the best-suited home for the mighty dragon. In the end, it's just another finisher - a powerful one, to be sure, and one that can be very difficult to beat, but unleashing Niv-Mizzet's final form requires a Jeskai deck of a different type.
Adrian Sullivan was richly rewarded with a wild take on Jeskai Control, winning GP Milwaukee with a build unlike anything we'd seen at this level. With no fewer than four copies of Niv-Mizzet, Sullivan laid out a clear roadmap for control mages moving forward - this card is an absolute house, and we shouldn't be sleeping on it.
This deck, while undoubtedly a control deck at heart, is much more capable of a combo-like finish than any other Teferi deck. Traditionally, Teferi-based control decks have relied upon a Teferi emblem to strip their opponents of everything they have before decking them as a win condition. Sullivan's list takes a different angle of attack, relegating Teferi from primary win condition to value engine – instead, Niv-Mizzet and Expansion // Explosion step in to end games, often out of nowhere.
Evaluating Sullivan's card choices reveals this emphasis on Expansion // Explosion as a win condition. Treasure Map and Spell Swindle are there to provide a burst of mana for a game-ending Explosion, such as the one we saw in round thirteen, where Sullivan blasted his opponent for 18 damage. The canvas is really Drawn Together, however, when Niv-Mizzet teams up with Expansion // Explosion, more than doubling the damage output of the card.
Nowhere was this deck's explosive capability better demonstrated than during the final of the GP, where Sullivan – with just eight lands and a Niv-Mizzet in play – dealt fifteen damage in a single turn. This "one-shot" potential isn't something people are used to when playing against Teferi-based control, and Sullivan took masterful advantage of catching the entire field flat-footed.
What does this mean for the future? It's difficult to imagine that Sullivan's list got the numbers 100% right, and even if the deck was perfect for last weekend, it won't be for the next one. If you're intending to explore this new Niv-Mizzet plus Explosion territory (and by all means, you should), there are two important factors to consider.
Firstly, the surprise value has kinda been spent here. Any informed player will be wise to the danger of being one-shotted out of the game and will be more conservative with their disruption and life total. Players will be less likely to consider themselves "safe" at 16 life on turn 10, especially when Niv-Mizzet is involved.
Secondly, this deck seems pretty cold to aggro. Cutting Deafening Clarion is not where I want to be, given the card's efficacy against Golgari Midrange as well as the various aggro decks of the format. Additionally, skimping on Seal Away and Lava Coil to instead play massive top-end cards is a risky business, although Sullivan did pick his moment this weekend. Be forewarned: this list, as it is now, is a little vulnerable to aggro.
On the whole, however, this is an exciting new direction for Jeskai mages, especially those who are wanting a proactive way to end games. The biggest factor in determining the success of Niv-Mizzet and Explosion in the coming weeks will be the cheap interaction that other decks play. If opponents have efficient removal to kill Niv-Mizzet or cheap countermagic (I'm looking at Spell Pierce in particular) to contest massive Explosions, we may not see this combo work its magic to the same extent.
Astute readers will have already noticed the fact that the Niv-Mizzet-Explosion combo doesn't actually require white mana. As loath as I am to ever cut Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, I've been having a great time slamming with Nicol Bolas, the Ravager recently. Additionally, The Eldest Reborn continues to be one of Standard's most underrated engine/finisher hybrids, so the case for Grixis rather than Jeskai is a strong one.
Overall, I like the well-rounded position this deck takes against the format. Cheap sweepers against aggro, hand and stack disruption against control, and maindeck answers to Carnage Tyrant – Grixis does it all (except remove Experimental Frenzy, I suppose, but you can't have it all). I'm drawn to this build thanks to the deep diversity within its reactive answers, and that it's a control build that is the most resilient to the Sullivane-sque combo finish.
Losing Deafening Clarion sucks as it's a great answer to cheap aggressive decks. However, it's a very one-dimensional answer, and playing black allows us to open up the removal suite a little bit to contest multiple angles, playing cards like Moment of Craving and Golden Demise to attack aggressive strategies.
Additionally, control matchups improve with the addition of hand disruption like Thought Erasure and Duress, and the sideboard is tooled to beat Counterspells. If they expect to Spell Pierce your massive Explosion, just zag on 'em with a massive Banefire instead. Nice Spell Pierce, mate. Ultimately, the spread of sideboard cards is designed to let you take any position you choose across the aggro-midrange-control spectrum, going big or small as required.
Finally, let's address the Elephant in the room – Pirate's Pillage? I'll give you a second to try to remember what the card actually does before discussing it. Is it better than Chemister's Insight? In a vacuum, almost certainly not. In a deck with four Treasure Maps and the Explosion gameplan, however, it's much closer than you'd think. My friend Martin "Harry" Porter put me onto this technology, and I've been impressed so far. It's still experimental, however, so if you're not happy with them, go for the safer option of playing Chemister's Insight.
Just as there are sub-archetypes within Boros (lifegain, Heroic Reinforcements), Golgari (explore package, Druid of the Cowl/ Carnage Tyrant), and even Izzet Drakes (one- or two-drop cantrips), Jeskai Control now has its own sub-archetype that may even inform deckbuilding in entirely different colours.
Niv-Mizzet and Explosion is something you absolutely must factor into your Standard play in the coming weeks, and Sullivan's innovative display this weekend will have a rippling influence on deckbuilding, both for and against the "combo". Whether you'll be adopting this new technology or just adapting to it, be sure to play efficient removal for Niv-Mizzet and/or cheap Counterspells for Explosion – or just get 'em dead before they can blast you into outer space with a huge Explosion!