Four weeks is a long time. Well, at least it is in Standard Magic. The last big tournament I prepared for was the Philadelphia Open four weeks ago. At that time, Jeskai Black was everywhere. Now it's nowhere. Dead. Defunct. Gone. Getting back into playing and testing again, this was the biggest change in the metagame landscape. Maybe, I'm biased -- after all, I did play Jeskai Black in that Open. But it's not every format that a deck will be heralded as the best deck to come out of the Pro Tour, look like it will be the de facto best deck and succeed in dominating the next Grand Prix (for Jeskai Black, Grand Prix Quebec City), and then just quietly die off. Sure, the deck still sees play, but it doesn't have the same level of respect it used to. It is no longer considered among the decks that are most likely to win the tournament, and that's a big deal.
Looking back, the signs of the decline had already started prior to the Philly open. Grand Prix Indianapolis the week before had no copies of Jeskai Black in the Top 8. That open itself ended up with one lone Jeskai Black deck in the Top 8, and since then, no Jeskai Black pilots have found themselves in the elimination rounds of a major tournament. Granted, there have only been two big Standard tournaments since then, Grand Prix Kobe and Brussels, but the fact that the once mighty Jeskai Black has fallen is still clear. The natural question to ask ourselves is simple: what happened?
Understanding the Past
Ask twenty players and you might get twenty different answers, all of which will probably have some element of truth to them. My take on the fall is that there were two main causes: the rise of Abzan Aggro and the establishment of a defined metagame. At the very beginning of this format, back when Battle for Zendikar was new and exciting, many people (including myself) were ready to write Abzan off. It wasn't performing. It felt like a worse G/W Megamorph. There were a lot of different reasons given, but now it is very easy to say with confidence that Abzan is very far from dead in this format. Abzan's trajectory in this format has been the opposite of Jeskai Black's: not really putting up any results of note at the beginning and slowly picking up steam until it was consistently crushing tournaments. That incline of results is a common thing to see for a deck as lists of the archetype become more tuned throughout the progression of a format. As Abzan has gotten better it has picked up more pilots, making life much harder for pilots of Jeskai Black.
The rise of Abzan Aggro hurting Jeskai Black is easy enough to understand, but it doesn't tell the whole story. We've seen that story often enough in developing formats: a predator to the best deck emerges and pushes the best deck down to the level of the others and we enter a two or more deck format. The predator pushes the former best deck down to the level of the others, but it doesn't kill it off entirely. That's not how the story goes. But Jeskai Black is essentially dead, so what's different? It's time to look for another factor pushing Jeskai Black down. To determine what this factor could be, I first thought about what Jeskai Black is as a deck, what its purpose is. We can't easily call it a control deck, as it plays hyper aggressive cards like Mantis Rider. We can't easily call it an aggressive deck, as it plays hyper controlling cards like Ojutai's Command. Pilots of the deck will agree, Jeskai Black is a deck all about the grind. It uses expensive-to-cast cards and a volatile mana base that has difficulty casting multiple spells a turn reliably to make the opponent struggle to stick a threat, all while whittling them down with a small, cheap threat. It is a deck of versatility and options that allow it to mold its game plan to each individual game.
That all sounds really good when you say it like that, but the truth is in Magic it is almost always better to be single-minded. Jeskai Black is, at its core, a deck confused. It has cards that are good in some matchups and bad in others, and hopes to use its exceptional flexibility to control its draws enough to do the things it needs to do in any given game. This worked very well for a time, at the beginning of the format when every deck was confused. That's the nature of early formats -- most decks know what they want to do, but not the most efficient way to do it. This causes decks to be confused, to have cards that are subtly at cross-purposes with each other, and manabases that aren't quite right. Instead, Jeskai Black opted to be knowingly confused, but confused in the most flexible way possible. This gave it an advantage early in the format, but now that its competition is streamlined and ready, it can't continue to perform while being in such a state of confusion. Jeskai Black needs to evolve.
The Raw Material
Before working on an overhaul of the deck, it's a good idea to have a solid understanding of how all the moving parts work. Decks are complicated machines, and trying to make changes without extensive experience with the original can often result in a failure. As such, I tend to tabulate my thoughts on each individual card in an archetype and use those notes to guide me as I alter the list. Here are my notes on the Jeskai Black cards (first appearance of a card name bolded for ease of reference).
I'll start with the creatures. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is fundamentally important to the deck, and should not ever be played at less than four copies in the archetype. As such, notes on him are less important. It is worth mentioning that he plays better with cheaper spells, and that he dramatically magnifies the Diminishing Returns on Counterspells. Soulfire Grand Master is the other two-drop of choice, normally played at two copies, but I have been fairly unimpressed. The buyback effect is rarely relevant, current builds of the deck do not come close to maximizing the lifelink effect, and the 2/2 body is exceedingly poor. That being said, deploying an early copy of Soulfire makes the red matchup much easier. I believe Soulfire is better than the alternative of Seeker of the Way if the goal is to enter the long game every time, and consistently worse if not. Felidar Cub is an alternative I like over Soulfire when play of the white enchantment removal spells is high enough, but I don't believe that is currently the case.
Mantis Rider is maybe the most conflicted card in current Jeskai Black lists. Deploying him on turn three is difficult for the four-color mana base, and the deck packs very little in the way of follow-up to an early aggressive Mantis Rider start. The two-drops in the deck are not at all aggressive, making Mantis Rider the sole source of aggression in the deck. That being said, he does quickly close out the game and having vigilance allows forward progress in the game state to be made on stalemated boards. Sadly, he does not line up well enough against Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to have a locked spot in the list. He is often sided out, and I could see trimming the maindeck copies. Tasigur, the Golden Fang is one of the big payoff cards of the black splash, and consistently impresses me. Like Mantis Rider, he closes out games quickly when the advantage is in our corner, but he also enables some serious grinding in longer games. One of his biggest advantages is that he represents an early huge roadblock to the aggressive decks -- turn three Tasigur is fairly easy to pull off, and exceptionally good at slowing down an aggressive start from the opponent. Last in the common Jeskai Black includes is Dragonmaster Outcast. This card is uniquely great at absolutely taking over games, and has beautiful synergy with both Kolaghan's Command and Ojutai's Command. The downside, of course, is that he has no impact on the game whatsoever until you have six lands out. He is best against the green midrange decks which have less removal at their disposal. Indeed, he is one of the only ways I ever find myself beating Abzan Aggro.
Onto the spells. As previously mentioned, the current builds of Jeskai Black are built to grind. The heart of this grind is Ojutai's Command and Kolaghan's Command. Both of these spells represent conditional two-for-ones whose power goes greatly up when our graveyard has a target for their recursion. Of the two, I tend to find myself wanting to draw Ojutai's Command more and liking Kolaghan's Command less. When Ojutai's Command is good, it is backbreaking. Leaving four mana up in an Ojutai's Command deck severely limits your opponent's reasonable options. Kolaghan's Command has no such lasting impact, but it does do good work at times by recurring our threats. Of note is the fact that the abundance of exile-based removal in the format makes Kolaghan's Command less reliable than I would like. I don't have much to say about Dig Through Time that hasn't already been said. Card is great and powerful, the number of copies we play mostly limited by how many copies of Tasigur we have (how taxed our delve is) and how many cards that are dead early we want to be running. It is common for Jeskai Black lists to be playing two maindeck counters between Negate, Disdainful Stroke, and Dispel. Two is a small enough number that the anti-synergy with Jace doesn't really start to matter. I tend to favor Negate, as having something that plugs the gap left in the counter wall of Ojutai's Command is particularly useful. Another option here is Duress, which plays better with Jace. Duress is reasonably strong against the field right now, with enough Planeswalkers in creature-heavy decks to not often whiff if you are careful with your sequencing. Duress also reliably hits the yard to fuel our delve, another piece of minor synergy in its favor.
The removal suite has two main components. The first is Crackling Doom, the other big reward for diving into black mana. Handles anything (including an overly confident Gideon) and has some tagged on incidental burn. Card is well positioned right now with the rise of Esper Dragons (although I am unconvinced we want all four copies in that matchup, we do certainly want some) and Abzan Aggro. The other main component is the one mana burn spells, Fiery Impulseand Wild Slash. A necessary evil to combat Atarka Red and Warden of the First Tree, these spells also synergize nicely with Soulfire Grand Master. Impulse is the better creature removal spell, but Slash is marginally more useful in the matchups where they are both terrible, and also is sometimes useful as a Planeswalker burn spell. Utter End and Jeskai Charm are sometimes seen as one-ofs. Utter End is fantastic because it can deal with planeswalkers, something Jeskai Black often has a hard time doing. Charm helps close out games and can soft-lock the opponent's draw step, especially with a Jace at the ready to flash it back. I feel like Charm has gotten worse lately, with the best target for its Griptide mode often being Siege Rhino these days, which is just not where you want to be.
Informing the Future
The first step in using this information to fashion a new decklist is to have a clear goal in mind. I want to make the deck better against Abzan Aggro and streamline it so that it has a clear gameplan in every matchup. Note that these goals are directly derived from my reasoning as to why Jeskai Black got worse. To accomplish both of these, I want to focus the deck around Ojutai's Command. The card provides a tempo hit that can greatly help us against Abzan Aggro and is powerful enough to be strong against the field. This means that our overall game plan is going to lean towards the controlling end of the spectrum. Ojutai's Command is weak to planeswalkers in general and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in particular, so we want to be sure to shore that up. Another danger with an Ojutai's Command centered gameplan is falling too far behind early, so we may want to look into options to catch-up (sweepers in particular seem attractive, but more early game might suffice).
Here's my prototype list:
This is where I am at currently with the Jeskai Black archetype and what I intend to work on going forward. Despite using all the same cards as previous lists, I feel like this list has a much more streamlined game plan. It is almost certainly weaker in the Mirror Match than more stock lists, but that's a cost I'm willing to pay to have a clear plan against the rest of the field. It's hard to call this list a radical departure from previous lists, as it is only something like ten cards away from them. But sometimes, ten cards can make all the difference.
Thanks for reading,