Snapcaster Mage decks have been a staple strategy in Modern for years. Esper pops up every now and again, but mostly they are either straight white-blue or Jeskai. Recently, however, two different Jeskai decks have occupied a significant portion of the metagame. There is a lot of overlap between the cards each deck plays, but the overarching philosophy between the two builds is quite different. Today we're going to compare these two Jeskai builds, one of which I call the tempo version in the other the control version.
Several players have successfully piloted each version of Jeskai in recent live and online tournaments, so both have established themselves as legitimate contenders in Modern. The main difference between the two is that the tempo version wants to end the game quickly while the control version generally wants to extend the game as long as possible. There are some exceptions based on matchups, but in general these are the two philosophies underlying each build.
4 Path to Exile
3 Lightning Helix
These numbers are standard across all Jeskai builds. A few versions run one or zero copies of Electrolyze, but most players run two copies. Path to Exile is the most efficient removal spell in Modern, able to kill Goblin Guide, Gurmag Angler, Death's Shadow, or pretty much anything that doesn't have hexproof or is named Etched Champion. For three mana you can flash it back with Snapcaster Mage, which makes it an automatic inclusion as a four-of in every Jeskai build. It's just so much better at doing what it does than any other card you could play instead.
Lightning Helix has a bit different story. Somehow nearly every Jeskai deck has settled on three copies of Lightning Helix as the correct number. The interesting part is that Jeskai Tempo and Jeskai Control arrive at this number for seemingly opposite reasons. Jeskai Tempo just wants three additional copies of the next most efficient burn spell that can target creatures or players. The life gain is merely a bonus that comes up against Burn decks. Jeskai Control, on the other hand, wants the most efficient cheap creature removal spell that can also gain life. The fact that it can also target players is a bonus that could sometimes speed up your clock against decks that are creature-light. These differences in philosophy surrounding why to include Lightning Helix in each respective build is highlighted by the contrast in number of Lightning Bolts.
*3-4 Lightning Bolt
*2-3 Logic Knot
*3-4 Snapcaster Mage
*3-4 Cryptic Command
*1-2 Spell Snare
These are the cards that are omnipresent across nearly all builds of both Jeskai archetypes but whose numbers vary in a mostly consistent way across the two distinct archetypes.
The most notable difference is that the control versions almost unanimously play three copies of Lightning Bolt whereas every build of the Tempo version runs four copies of the most efficient burn spell ever printed. As noted in the discussion of Lightning Helix, the two archetypes are interested in cheap burn spells for different reasons. The tempo build wants to deal around 9-12 damage to the opponent each game with burn spells whereas the control build is mostly concerned with using burn spells to efficiently deal with opposing creatures. Playing anything less than four copies of Lightning Bolt would be blasphemous in the tempo deck, whereas it has become the industry standard in the control build.
This makes sense when we think about the reasons each build plays Lightning Helix. The tempo deck essentially plays it as a slightly worse version of Lightning Bolt whereas the control build wants to run three copies so it can reliably draw a life gain spell that it can flash back with Snapcaster Mage against decks like Burn that pressure its life total too hard. So it makes sense to shave a Lightning Bolt over one of the three copies of Lightning Helix in the control deck (because after all we still have four Path to Exile is cheap removal and we need the life gain from Lightning Helix) whereas it couldn't be more wrong to shave a copy of Lightning Bolt from the tempo version without first shaving all three copies of Lightning Helix from the deck.
The reason the control decks shave a Lightning Bolt is to add a third copy of Logic Knot. Both builds run the first two copies as the standard number, but the control decks tend to run a third copy over the fourth Lightning Bolt. This is because the control version tends to prolong the game into a stage where counters are more important whereas the tempo version would rather have the extra burn spell to burn the opponent out.
Most most tempo builds only run three copies of Cryptic Command and four copies of Snapcaster Mage, whereas the control builds tend to do the reverse: four Cryptic Commands and three Snapcaster Mages. Like running the seventh burn spell or the third Logic Knot, counters are more important later in the game, so the control deck wants access to the full set of Cryptic Commands, which can also be used to buy the deck time to draw into answers to the board when facing down a potentially lethal attack. The tempo version doesn't find itself in those situations nearly as often and it would rather not clunk up its hand with too many four-cost spells – it would rather run another Snapcaster Mage that can be efficiently turned into a burn spell and attacker to finish the game. The control deck really only needs Snapcaster Mage to two-for-one attackers or chaining Cryptic Commands in the later game by using Snapcaster Mage to flash back Cryptic Command and then using Cryptic Command to bounce Snapcaster Mage and counter the opponent's spell. You really only need to draw one copy of Snapcaster Mage to get this going whereas the tempo version makes better use of Snapcaster Mage as an attacker and therefore would rather run the full four. Interestingly enough, I couldn't find a build that accurately represented every trend between the archetypes, so the tempo build I highlighted above actually deviates from the norm and runs the full set of Cryptic Commands, though this is an outlier.
Now let's consider the differences not just in numbers but in cards included in one build and excluded from the other.
1 Vendilion Clique
4 Spell Queller
3 Geist of Saint Traft
These are the cards typically included in the tempo version but not in the control version. The only hard and fast rule is that Spell Queller is a strictly tempo card. It doesn't synergize well at all with Supreme Verdict, and that card plays an important role in the control build's game plan. It's also not a spell you can find off a transformed Search for Azcanta, which generally makes it inferior in that build to a card like Negate. In the tempo build the body is very relevant, even if it only gets one or two hits in, because that version is looking to burn the opponent out as quickly as possible. Spell Queller doesn't need to be a permanent answer, it just needs to buy you the extra turn or two. If you can close out the game before they kill the Spirit, it was as good as a hard counter. You're also not looking to extend the game beyond the first several turns, so most spells that could be played in that window of time cost four or less, so it can usually counter any spell outside of the Tron matchup.
Geist of Saint Traft is mostly only found in the tempo version, and in that version it plays a very important role. It's hard to kill and offers at least four points of evasive damage when it attacks. When you have active Geist of Saint Traft, you can afford to use burn spells on blockers to either clear the path for Traft or to keep him alive after blockers so he can attack again the following turn. This way you're ensuring a recurring source of damage instead of the one-hit punch of a burn spell to the face. The control builds are mostly not interested in this effect as they would rather run a more controlling card like Secure the Wastes, Torrential Gearhulk or Sphinx's Revelation as their win conditions.
Vendilion Clique is a reasonably costed body that provides some disruption, especially against combo decks. It can also cycle a card from your own hand if you draw something that is not good in a matchup or in a particular board state. The control version makes much less use of the body since it's not trying to win a damage race by attacking with creatures, so it would rather just run a more disruptive spell that does not have a body attacked to it. Since the control version has so few creatures, the opponent will often be holding onto a removal spell against you, so the Faerie would just die to that removal spell and thereby would not have impacted the game in any significant way. It's really only good in the tempo build that can make good use of the three-power evasive body as an attacker.
The last inclusion in the tempo version that is not present in the control version is Opt. The tradeoff is pretty much between Opt and Serum Visions. You would think that the tempo version would rather have the sorcery while the control version would rather have the instant, but actually it's the reverse. The reasoning is not obvious at first glance, but it makes sense once you consider all the other spells in each respective build and the differences in overall game plan. In the aggro version, you often hold up Spell Queller with the intention of countering literally any card they play, just so you can untap and attack with the Spell Queller. When they don't cast a spell, if you don't have a play to make on the opponent's end step, you have given up a whole turn of tempo. Since you are a deck that wins by generating tempo, you cannot afford to take such a risk. By playing Opt over Serum Visions, this gives you a backup plan of Snapcaster Mage into Opt so that you continue to establish a tempo advantage even when they don't play a spell on their turn for you to Spell Queller.
In contrast, the control version doesn't mind playing the waiting game. If the opponent doesn't cast a spell, you're generally happy to prolong the game because your deck is designed to win the long game. You don't need to burn a Snapcaster Mage plus Opt – you're just as happy to sit back and hold your Snapcaster Mage for later. What you really want is the extra look early to find specific answers to keep from falling too far behind and losing before you could set up for find the right answers. Digging deeper with Serum Visions for that Supreme Verdict or that Logic Knot or that Path to Exile is much more important to the control deck than it is for the tempo version. The tempo version mostly has interchangeable pieces anyway, so if you have lands, creatures and spells you're okay with waiting around until later when you can use Opt to merely dig past a land. These are the reasons why the control decks are trending toward Serum Visions and why the tempo decks are trending toward Opt.
In addition to Serum Visions, these are the other cards included in the control version but not in the tempo version:
1 Nahiri, the Harbinger
1 Secure the Wastes
1 Sphinx's Revelation
2 Supreme Verdict
2 Search for Azcanta
4 Serum Visions
1 Torrential Gearhulk
Supreme Verdict plays an important role in the control version's game plan. It's not looking to establish its own board presence in the form of creatures, so it's definitely in the market for sweeping the board. Instead it wants to resolve Search for Azcanta early and start generating advantage with that card. Or against decks that dictate a faster tempo, it can just as easily buy itself time with Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile and Lightning Helix and resolve the Search for Azcanta later.
Sphinx's Revelation is a way to pull ahead on cards and life, and Secure the Wastes can produce blockers when needed. Both can also be found off a transformed Search for Azcanta or flashed back with Snapcaster Mage. This makes them better than creatures in the control deck.
The other "finishers" in the deck are Torrential Gearhulk and Nahiri, the Harbinger. These two work together in tandem quite well; Nahiri going ultimate can search out Gearhulk for a ton of value. Nahiri is also an answer to creatures, artifacts, or enchantments. Since games tend to go longer in the control version than they do in the tempo version, the versatility provides by Nahiri to pick off a variety of permanent types is quite welcome. Torrential Gearhulk is also just a massive threat on its own and will often dodge the types of removal spells that are stranded in the opponent's hand such as Fatal Push or Dismember.
The tempo version has enjoyed approximately twice as much success in the past month or so than the control version has, but the tides are beginning to shift in favor of control. Head to head, I believe the control version is favored as Search for Azcanta is the most important card in the matchup. The tempo deck can pull out games with Geist of Saint Traft if the control deck cannot find a Supreme Verdict in time to deal with it, but control version also has other answers in the form of Snapcaster Mage or Secure the Wastes, though those are a little harder to resolve.
On the other hand, the tempo version runs white creatures (Spell Queller and Geist of Saint Traft) while the control build does not. Geist of Saint Traft even kind of counts as two white creatures if we include the Angel Token. Then again, if we include tokens, Secure the Wastes provides an army of white creatures. So maybe the control version runs more? They also both run four Celestial Colonnades, which become white creatures when animated, but I suppose it's strategically irrelevant how many white creatures a deck plays. At least that's what I hear. Believe at your own risk.
The bottom line is that either version is competitive right now. If you can play control decks quickly, I would recommend playing the control version over the tempo version, but otherwise I think the tempo version is also a fine choice. The point of the article wasn't to tell you which one is better, but instead to examine both builds and to compare the differing philosophies of each and how these differences give rise to the choices in deck building for each respective build. Regardless of whether you choose to pick up Jeskai in Modern, hopefully this analysis has given you a better understanding of each archetype and perhaps also deepened your understanding of the thought process behind deck building and deck tuning.