Very rarely has Standard been in a place where, this late into the format, decklists for the main archetypes are not yet set in stone. This is certainly the case for Jeskai Control, which can be built in a variety of ways to tackle specific metagame trends. In this article I will write about the different versions, focusing on the list that I played at Grand Prix Lille to a 12-2-1 finish and that George Channing, Joao Choca and I piloted at Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica. This build relies on the resiliency of Rekindling Phoenix as its main threat.
There have been, and still are, a lot of different versions of Jeskai Control going around. Most of them have in common the basic package of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, removal, sweepers and counterspells. However, in this Standard format, the presence of so many good uncounterable cards and hard to kill threats (Carnage Tyrant, Adanto Vanguard, Arclight Phoenix, Banefire, Niv-Mizzet Parun, and so on), makes it hard to be in a position where the game is completely under control. You could be 7 cards up with a Teferi on board and still die to a Carnage Tyrant or to a storm of Arclight Phoenixes.
For this reason, Jeskai pilots have come to the conclusion that the deck needs a way to close the games quickly. The days were you could just mill your oppoonents using a Teferi loop are long gone. The solutions to this problem have come in different forms. So first let’s have a look at those and analyze the good and bad points of each.
Crackling Drake is for sure the most common choice in various Jeskai lists. Four toughness allows it to survive the damage from Deafening Clarion, enabling the lifelink mode on it for some huge life swings in the aggro matchups. On the other hand, it has a few issues. First, it forces some deckbuilding choices which I do not like; because of the need to pump its power, the deck needs to contain Opts and Revitalises which I believe are just not good enough to be included. Having too many cantrips will mess up the deck’s land count and will create some opening hands which are hard to evaluate. These spells also eat up spell slots which could go to better cards such as Chemister’s Insight. Finally, the biggest issue with Crackling Drake is that it is not very resilient and specifically it is very bad against Golgari Midrange decks, where it enables their Chupacabras, and can get picked off by both Vivien Reid and Vraska, Relic Seeker.
Pros - Synergy with Clarion, good against aggro.
Cons - Deckbuilding constraints, bad against BG.
A bit more of a niche option, this version relies on the flip side of Azor Gateway to gain mana advantage and close the game with a huge Explosion or Banefire. This version is excellent in the control mirror since the Gateway can filter away bad cards in game one, although the looting becomes less powerful in the post-sideboard games. Once flipped, the mana advantage will make it very hard to lose the control mirrors. However, it is bad against aggro where there won’t be enough time to flip the Gateway. It is also not great against BG since they can easily destroy the Gateway with all their planeswalkers. Also it places some deckbuilding restrictions since you will be required to have a good spread of manacost among your spells, although this isn’t very hard to achieve.
Pros - Good vs Control, looting generally good in a control deck.
Cons - Bad vs aggro, Bad vs BG.
This version has more of a combo finish, and tries to get to 7 mana to play a Niv-Mizzet Parun protected by a Dive Down. Just by itself, Niv-Mizzet is nearly unbeatable for control decks and adding the extra protection makes this a game winning play most of the time. Untapping with it gives the possibility of recovering even from the worst position, since a Deafening Clarion with both modes will cause a huge swing even against aggro. However, the problems with such lists are obvious. Playing four copies of a six mana threat will make the deck extremely clunky, and the Dive Down is practically useless until the Parun hits the battlefield. The higher curve forces to play weird cards like Treasure Map or Sailor of Means which are certainly not good in the deck. Playing fewer copies of Teferi, which is by all means still the best card in the deck, is not a great prospect either. Moreover, having just the Niv-Mizzet isn’t a game ending play in itself, as it actually gets easily dispatched by all the planewalkers played in Standard with no value to be gained.
Pros - A protected Niv-Mizzet will take the game away in any matchup.
Cons - Very slow and clunky.
And finally, my favourite version. I chose to play Rekindling Phoenix at the PT and GP Lille because it will reliably stay in play in most matchups. It is incredibly powerful against BG decks, as it stops then from playing their planeswalkers, which cannot favourably interact with it. Vraska’s Contempt is the only clean answer to it, but a Phoenix being dispatched by a Contempt could mean that a Teferi on the following turn could stick unanswered. Often, Phoenix will survive and will be able to get them dead very quickly, before their Carnage Tyrant can take over the game. Against aggro it is an excellent blocker and against control the resiliency offsets the card draw from Crackling Drake to the point that I am not sure which one is actually better there. The drawback of Phoenix is not being able to utilize both mode of Clarion at the same time which makes it overall worse than Drake in aggro matchups. Also it is vulnerable to the exile enchantments coming from white decks.
Pros - Very good against GB. Excellent both for defence and offence.
Cons - Bad synergy with clarion.
There is not really a specific answer as to which version one should play going forward. It depends on the metagame that is expected, as each choice will gain or lose some percentage points in the various matchups. For people that want to try the Rekindling Phoenix version, I’ll now include an explanation of the card choices for my decklist and some sideboard notes.
27 Lands - Including all the available duals and a Field of Ruin. This deck is very demanding in terms of mana. It can’t miss a land drop until later in the game. The color requirements are also very demanding which means that the manabase has to feature all of the 20 dual lands available in Standard. This means that some hands will have a very slow start featuring only taplands (Clifftop Retreat and similar) which should often be mulliganed.
Threats - No surprises here. Teferi is still the strongest card in standard and it would be a crime to play with fewer than 4. Phoenix follows as the other 4 of in preference of the alternatives described before, while Niv-Mizzet is reserved for the sideboard.
Wraths - 4 Clarion should be the norm in any Jeskai list. Here I also chose to play 2 Cleansing Nova as it is good against Carnage Tyrant specifically and the secondary mode of destroying enchantments is very relevant against decks playing Conclave Tribunal or Experimental Frenzy.
Counters - The deck runs Ionize over Sinister sabotage since it is easier on the manabase and the 2 damage is often relevant when also attacking with a Phoenix. Also I like having a couple of Syncopates to have an additional spell to cast on turn 2.
Spot Removal - It is somewhat difficult to choose the removal to include in the deck, as Standard contains lots of different threats, and none of the available cards will deal with all of them. I decided to run a few one-ofs and a couple of Seal Aways as Adanto Vanguard is usually one of the biggest issues. Among these, Fight with Fire deserve a special mention as it can be used as a sort of combo finish with Expansion, dealing exactly 20 damage for the bargain price of 11 mana. It might seem unrealistic but actually it has happened a good amount of times, especially against BG decks.
Card Advantage - The last few slots go to the spells that provide card advantage. First and foremost, I believe 4 Chemister’s Insight are a necessary inclusion. This spell is just too powerful and I can’t see myself ever replacing any number of those to run Opt instead. There is just one Azcanta as it is really too slow for most matchups and BG can easily deal with it before it flips. Running 4 Insight also means that even with a flipped azcanta on the board, often there will be an insight in the graveyard to jump-start instead so in general there will always be something to do with the extra mana. Finally, there are 2 Expansion // Explosion which I like a lot as it is a card that is incredibly versatile. It can serve as an extra counterspells in counter wars, it can double up a Clarion to kill a Carnage Tyrant, or can close the game by just being a Fireball.
Sideboard - I mentioned earlier how Standard is full of threats that are either uncounterable or hard to kill. For this reason the sideboard contains cards that are aiming at solving these issues specifically. Lyra and Shalai will help against aggro decks and in particular will prevent the game to be closed by an opposing Banefire. River’s Rebuke and Settle the Wreckage are additional answers to Carnage Tyrant. Ral Zarek and Justice Strike are needed to deal with Niv-Mizzet for good, since the Teferi minus ability can only delay the inevitable. Lava Coil helps deal with both flavours of Phoenixes. Finally there are a few counterspells which are needed in control matchups and of course our own Parun.
Finally, below is a brief matchup guide for the main decks currently in Standard with some sideboard notes. Remember that since decklists tend to change, there is a need to adapt rather then strictly follow a sideboard guide. I will add some information on how to adapt depending on what cards the opponents are playing specifically.
Black Green Midrange
Out: 2 Ionize, 2 Syncopate, 2 Seal Away, 1 Lightning Strike
In: 2 Negate, 2 Disdainful Stroke, 1 River’s Rebuke, 1 Settle the Wreckage, 1 Ral Zarek.
This is the most important matchup to practice. It is favourable, however the games will be hard and there is no room to make mistakes. First, we are replacing bad counterspells for cheaper ones since we only care about their expensive cards and cutting spot removal since Clarion is able to deal with anything that is not a Carnage Tyrant. Speaking of the death lizard, try to always have a plan for the turn it is expected to enter play, and figure out if you can race it or you need to kill it and how. Try to get in a position where Teferi or Phoenix are already on the board when the Tyrant gets played. Often this involves using Clarion on turn 4, or 5, then sticking a planeswalker. Remember that there is no way to get spells back from the graveyard so always be conservative, as running out of Wraths can mean death. They have no way to directly interact with out life totals, so going down to 1 is not a problem and that allows you to cast your spells at the last possible moment.
Postboard, remember that they play duress and that your Settle can get discarded before the attack step. Also some versions of BG have lots of Thrashing Brontodon or Midnight Reaper. If this is the case side in the additional Lava Coil for another counterspell.
Out: 4 Deafening Clarion, 2 Seal Away, 1 Rekindling Phoenix, 1 Cleansing Nova
In: 2 Negate, 2 Disdainful Stroke, 2 Niv-Mizzet Parun, 1 Ral Zarek, 1 Justice Strike
The mirror revolves mostly around hitting land drops while dealing with the random threats that will come out of your opponent sideboard. Don’t be afraid to keep land heavy hands and consider mulliganing hands with only 2 lands. Not getting to cast a Chemister Insight on turn 4 can mean immediate defeat. Most spot removal stays in to deal with the likes of Legion Warboss, Niv-Mizzet and Crackling Drakes. However during game 1 and 2 it is important to understand what cards exactly the opponent is playing and adjust the sideboard in accordingly. Invoke and Lava Coil might be needed, and sometimes I have even sideboarded in Lyra and Shalai if they have a burn plan involving Banefire.
In general, always keep in mind that everyone is playing Niv-Mizzet so be prepared for when he hits the board. Don’t keep passing with a hand full of counterspells as they will be useless against the Parun.
Out: 4 Deafening Clarion, 1 Cleansing Nova, 3 Rekindling Phoenix (if they have Lava Coil)
In: 2 Niv-Mizzet Parun, 1 Ral Zarek, 1 Settle the Wreckage, 1 Lava Coil, 2 Lyra, 1 Shalai (if they have Lava Coil or Banefire)
This matchup is incredibly varied since the Izzet decklists differ by a lot and even against the same exact decklist sideboarding will depend from how your opponent sideboards. The biggest issue is playing around their removal. Most lists run a combination of Lava Coil and Beacon Bolts, the first is good against Rekindling Phoenix, the second is good against Lyra and Shalai. Try to understand what they will leave in the deck and sideboard accordingly. I don’t like having the additional counterspells, although Disdainful Stroke could be useful if they are playing the version with 4 Crackling Drakes.
As usual, try to have a plan and be prepared for their big turns when a lot of Arclight Phoenix will hit the battlefield or a hasty Drake comes your way. Remember that they can’t interact well maindeck as they play no counterspells so just slam your threats whenever is best. Postboard they might have Negates or Strokes so don’t always expect things to resolve.
Out: 3 Ionize, 2 Chemister’s Insight, 1 Teferi, 1 Expansion // Explosion
In: 2 Lyra, 1 Shalai, 1 Invoke the Divine, 1 Settle the Wreckage, 1 Lava Coil, 1 Justice Strike
The aggro decks can be more or less grouped in the same category. It doesn’t hugely matter what cards they are playing specifically, the aim is always the same: killing everything that moves. Sadly that isn’t necessarily easy. Adanto Vanguard is the biggest threat you need to watch out for as it avoids pretty much all removal spells. Try to snipe it with a Syncopate when on the play or save Seal Away for as long as possible in case they draw one later. Sometimes you can get to the point where you can repeatedly kill it or block it with Phoenix to get their life low enough, but that does not happen often.
If they play red, be always prepared for the turn they cast Heroic Reinforcement. Don’t tap out leaving yourself dead to it and remember that you can copy it with Expansion to get two extra blockers. The Mono-White version will have Venerated Loxodon which can push their creatures out of Clarion range so be mindful of that.
The token version with Green is essentially different in that they will try to maintain a strong board position rather than kill you quickly. Against that I like having in Negates to counter their March of the Multitudes and River’s Rebuke to reset a board that has become too much to handle.
I hope that this article will be useful to anyone that is battling in the last few PPTQ. This is certainly one of the best standard we have had recently, and if like me you can’t wait to watch more of it, I recommend tuning in at the World Magic Cup that is happening next week in Barcelona. I’ll be battling alongside Autumn Burchett and Chris Orchard in one of the most fun tournaments of the year, and there will be plenty of Standard and Jeskai to watch!
About Francesco Giorgio:
Since he started playing Magic in 2012, Francesco has fully immersed himself in the competitive aspects of Magic. After moving to England in 2014 he became a Silver Level pro and has been a constant presence on the Pro Tour ever since. Francesco joined Team Axion in 2016, with the aim of contributing to the development of a major mainstay team at future Pro Tours. Francesco is at his best with a 40 card deck, but also enjoys the Standard format. His achievements include 2 Limited GP Top8s and a 3rd place in the 2014 World Magic Cup. Francesco is the current captain of the English National Team and aims to bring the team to another important finish at this year World Magic Cup. His main objective for this season is to Top 8 the WMC and maintain his status as captain for next year.