Just when we thought Standard was solved, Ivan Jen had to shake everything up by winning the last SCG Open with Jeskai Heroic Combo. I first saw this deck at the TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship the week prior. Glenn Jones was piloting the deck in the Diamond 5k event and he showed it to me and Frank in between rounds. I thought the deck looked sweet and I hadn't even seen it in action yet. When I saw the deck on the SCG Open stream last weekend, I was sold.
Here's the list:
There are three ways to win with this deck. The first and least exciting way is with good old fashioned beatdown. This is a heroic deck at heart. You play your Favored Hoplites and Akroan Crusaders, cast spells that target them to either make them too big for your opponent to deal with or create an army of 1/1 soldiers to swarm them. This is a good way to win the game but with all of the efficient removal seeing play in Standard, this will the least common way to win.
The second way to win is by creating an army of creatures and then casting a Jeskai Ascendancy. In this situation Jeskai Ascendancy is used as a pseudo Glorious Anthem. Each spell you cast will pump up your entire team and eventually you will be able to overwhelm your opponent. If you have an Akroan Crusader in play, each spell you cast targeting him will create a creature and pump your existing team. For example, if you cast a Defiant Strike, you get a creature and they both get pumped. Cast another one, get another guy and all three get pumped. You do not need to go infinite in order to deal a massive amount of damage with this combo. You only need a handful of spells can get the job done.
The two prowess creatures in the deck, Monastery Swiftspear and Seeker of the Way have incredible synergy with Jeskai Ascendancy. With the enchantment in play, each spell you cast pumps these guys twice which means the damage that they deal can really add up. With one of each in play, it only takes a couple of spells to create a lethal board state.
The third and most fun way to win is with your infinite combo. For those unfamiliar with the combo, allow me to explain. You need the following cards to go off: Two creatures, a Retraction Helix, a Springleaf Drum, and Jeskai Ascendancy. First, you need to have the creatures, the Drum, and the Ascendancy in play. Cast Retraction Helix targeting one of the creatures, and use the other creature to make a mana with Springleaf Drum. Tap the first creature to bounce the Drum, and recast it with the mana you made with the Drum. Then, recast the Drum. This will untap both of your creatures. Repeat this loop as many times as you want to make your creatures as big as you need them to be. Each time you cast a Drum, you will also be able to filter through your deck with Jeskai Ascendency. It's only a matter of time before you draw another Retraction Helix or a Gods Willing so that you can be certain that your creatures can get through.
This combo may look very difficult to pull off on paper. After all, you need five different cards to get this to work. Despite how many cards you need, it's actually quite easy to pull off. The deck plays sixteen creatures, and any two of them will make the combo work. Once you have the Jeskai Ascendancy in play, each spell you play will draw you a card. There are plenty of redundant cards in the deck for you to discard to the Ascendancy and with practically every noncreature spell in the deck costing only one mana, you will be able to find the cards you need pretty quickly.Why is this deck better than Jeskai Ascendancy Combo?
Jeskai Ascendancy Combo has been proven to be one of Standard's top decks. It's not a hard combo to pull off, as it only requires an Ascendancy and a mana creature. Once those are in play, the rest of the combo will come naturally by just going through your deck with the Ascendancy. One of the mana creatures in the deck is nearly impossible to kill due to hexproof ( Sylvan Caryatid). So why is a deck that plays small, fragile creatures better than a pure combo deck like Jeskai Ascendancy Combo?
The answer is quite simple. Jeskai Ascendancy Combo can win the game exactly one way: By comboing off with a mana creature and looting to your win condition. Whether it's Altar of the Brood, Burning Anger, or attacking with a giant Rattleclaw Mystic, there is only one way to get to that point. If you are unable to assemble your combo or you fizzle somehow, you have zero chance to win the game. Disruption is a real thing and if your opponent has an Erase, a Counterspell, or a way to kill your Sylvan Caryatid, the game is essentially over.
Jeskai Heroic Combo won't be able to go infinite nearly as often as Jeskai Ascendancy Combo, but that's ok. This deck has other angles of attack besides the combo which makes it much more flexible and much more immune to opponent's disruption. This is the exact reason why decks like Birthing Pod or Project X (for you old schoolers out there) were so good. You had other game plans and could adapt based on what your opponent was doing. If your opponent has Erases and Negates, no problem, just create a gigantic Favored Hoplite and win with that. If they have Anger of the Gods and spot removal, you can play a slower game and set up the Ascendancy win. This is a great combo deck for players who like Combo decks but hate opponent's disruption.Tips on playing Jeskai Heroic Combo
The biggest challenge with this deck is remembering all of the triggers and stacking them in the correct order. One Misstep in these triggers and it can throw everything off. You really have to play very methodically when piloting this deck. Here's how a typical turn can go down:
You have a Jeskai Ascendancy and an Akroan Crusader in play. You cast a Retraction Helix on the Crusader. What happens?
There are three triggers that go on the stack, and you can order them as you choose. There's the Crusader's heroic trigger, the draw and discard trigger, and the pump your team trigger. The proper way to order them is to have the Crusader's trigger go on the stack last so it resolves first. That way you will get a Soldier Token which will get pumped by the Ascendancy trigger. If you order them in the opposite way, then you will end up with a Soldier Token without a +1/+1 bonus, which may not seem like too big of a deal but it can really add up if you order in incorrectly multiple times.
The other tricky thing about playing this deck is knowing the timing for the triggers and spells. This won't come up too often when you are playing at Regular REL like FNM and Game Day but if you're at a Competitive REL event like a GPT or Open, not knowing how your cards work will surely hurt you. For example, you play a Retraction Helix. You then tap your creature to return a permanent. After that, you try to untap that creature with Jeskai Ascendancy. Unfortunately for you, if you sequence your play like this, it's too late to untap your creature with Jeskai Ascendancy. You can't even draw and discard a card. If you tap your creature to bounce a permanent that means that the Retraction Helix has resolved. Once your spell has resolved, it's too late to use your Jeskai Ascendancy.
At the SCG Open, the player who won the event, Ivan Jen, used dice to represent each instance of +1/+1 with Jeskai Ascendancy. Normally I would think this is a bad idea because the +1/+1s are not counters and things could get confusing when you are playing with cards like Favored Hoplite and Lagonna-Band Trailblazer. Also, you usually don't want to remind your opponent of how big your creatures are for strategic purposes (the reason why I refuse to play with the Tarmogoyf Die). These instances of +1/+1 are derived information, or information that you and your opponent have to figure out yourself. However, when playing this deck, I actually think that using dice is essential in playing the deck properly. You're going to have tokens with so many different powers and toughnesses that it's nearly impossible to remember them all without a way of visibly tracking it. I recommend using dice of two different colors. Use one color for real +1/+1 counters and another color for your Jeskai Ascendancy +1/+1s. That way you won't get confused which dice go away at end of turn and which should stay.
Another common mistake you can make while playing this deck is playing and tapping the wrong lands. This manabase is painful enough already but if you play your lands in the wrong order or tap the wrong ones over the course of your turn, the excess damage can really add up. Additionally, tapping your lands incorrectly could leave you with the wrong colors of mana later on in the turn, especially when you are playing a long turn while going off with Jeskai Ascendancy.
Your best lands in the deck are Mana Confluence and Mystic Monastery. These are the lands that give you all three of your colors and are the lands that you should be playing first (especially the Monastery) and saving for last over the course of your turn. For example, let's say you have three lands in play, a Battlefield Forge, a Mana Confluence, and a Shivan Reef. You're only card in hand is a Dragon's Mantle. What land do you tap?
You have three options, and I think that two correct choices are either of the two painlands. It's hard to say which one is better to tap; it would depend on how many of each spell you have left in your deck and that is not something you can really calculate on the fly while playing in a competitive tournament. Some would think that tapping the Mana Confluence is better because if you draw a spell that requires colorless mana, such as Seeker of the Way or Springleaf Drum, you can save yourself a point of damage. However, if you take a look at all of the colored mana symbols in the deck, you can see that most of the cards do require colored mana. You're going to take a lot of damage from your lands whether you like it or not, so it's better to leave the Mana Confluence up because you are more likely to draw a Defiant Strike into a Retraction Helix than you are to draw a Seeker of the Way. The point of damage that you could save matters way less in this deck than in a deck such as Abzan Midrange because Jeskai Heroic Combo plays the beatdown role in all of its matchups.
My final piece of advice for playing this deck is to practice with it a lot. The biggest reason to practice is so that you get used to resolving the triggers in the right order, but the second reason is so that you know when you need to switch gears and try to win without Jeskai Ascendancy. Testing your deck will also give you the knowledge of which creatures you should play first and whether or not it is safe to overextend. Knowledge of the format is also helpful when learning how to play this deck. For example, if you know that Mardu Midrange boards in Anger of the Gods and no spells that kill Ascendancy, you will know that your plan for that game is to win with the combo. If you know that Abzan brings in Erase and Utter End, you can go for the creature kill.Wrap Up
Jeskai Combo variants are some of the most powerful decks in Standard and you can expect a metagame shift towards beating this combo. While we can expect to see more Erases and Counterspells in the future, this deck is still powerful enough to win without actually comboing off which is one of the things that makes it great. This is a very explosive deck and can just create wins out of nowhere, and it's definitely a deck that we need to be prepared for going forward. Good luck adjusting to the new metagame and thanks for reading.
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