Jeskai Control In Standard
Thanks to Magic Arena I’ve found myself playing Standard for the first time in many years. From my experience in the single game queues of Arena, the metagame seems consist of a relatively small number of archetypes - Golgari Midrange, Mono-Red Aggro, various blue based Control decks, Green Stompy, and a mix of Selesnya and Boros decks leveraging History of Benalia and big, flying angels.
As a control player new to the format, this is good news. I’ve only had to learn the mechanics of a few decks to do reasonably well with Jeskai Control. It’s also refreshing piloting a control deck against a tighter field with fewer rogue angles of attack. Refreshing, and simpler overall, but still challenging. The biggest difference I find between Standard and Modern is how many “correct” choices there can be during deck construction - card choice really seems to come down to what decks you think you’ll be paired against most often. You can't just sleeve up four Path to Exile and call it a day. You have to choose between Seal Away, Justice Strike, Lightning Strike, and Shivan Fire and any mix could be valid.
My current list is as follows:
Let’s look at some of the rationale behind these choices:
It is tempting to play no creatures in a control deck and expect to win with planeswalkers alone. But planeswalkers get less reliable with every set. Cards like Lightning Strike, Assassin’s Trophy, The Eldest Reborn, Plaguecrafter, Conclave’s Blessing, etc. will all hit our planeswalkers even if we play no creatures. Meanwhile, only a few cards like Justice Strike and Cast Down actually end up stranded in hand. Even in the control mirror where it might help, our opponent’s will have things like Chemister’s Insight to convert some dead cards into value.
I find the best all-around control finisher is Niv-Mizzet, Parun. Untapping with a Niv in play is game over versus almost anything, as he generates absurd card advantage while gunning down creatures and planeswalkers alike. Nezahal, Primal Tide is slightly better in control mirrors but worse against everything else. I have recently swapped my one Blink of an Eye for a Dream Eater and have been quite impressed with it. Being able to force action on the end step, play it as a combat trick, and remove troublesome permanents like Ixalan’s Binding is a lot of upside, even if the card rolls over to a Deafening Clarion or Lightning Strike.
The other creature that makes the cut in Jeskai Control is Crackling Drake. In a vacuum this card is completely absurd, but in practice it’s just decent. More often than not your first drake is killed on the spot, doing little more than generating a mediocre two-for-one and increasing the chance your Niv-Mizzet or Teferi will stick. However when it does stick around it is an excellent early game blocker and a quick late game clock. I play three because I like having additional outs to big green creatures - particularly Carnage Tyrant.
Currently I’m settled on three Teferi, Hero of Dominarias, although it's possible it’s just wrong to play less than four. I played a single Ral, Izzet Viceroy for a long time before deciding that he just came up short too often. Sometimes he’d be unable to kill the thing I wanted him to due to insufficient spells in the graveyard, other times I’d have a window to cast him versus control and just be too worried that they’d resolve a Teferi and tuck him and then I’d need an answer to a resolved Teferi.
I have seen suggestions that Sarkhan, Fireblood could work in the deck as a way to loot away situational cards and excess lands, power up your drake/ral, occasionally help cast a Niv Mizzet, and act as another win condition. It seems worth testing, but I’m not sure a three-mana sorcery speed loot engine is what a mostly draw-go deck really needs.
I slowly came around to running the full set of Opts rather than more threats or answers. Opt helps with mana efficiency, gives our Crackling Drake more power in the early game, and with the card selection lets us both play fewer copies of our other cards and see more of the cards we want while scrying away the ones we don’t. Revitalize is a nod to the speed of the mono-red decks, and I just feel better taking early damage knowing I have nine life tucked away in my deck to help get me out of the red zone. Otherwise this could easily be Radical Idea to further help convert dead cards into action via Jump Start.
Chemister’s Insight is quietly the card making all of these Standard control decks work. I don’t think we would ever play Inspiration. However, being able to use Jump Start to turn a useless card into two fresh cards is fantastic. The only reason I don’t play four is because there is such a thing as too much air, and I have seven other cheap cantrips in Opt and Revitalize. Also, an opening hand with two Chemister’s Insight is really clunky in most matches.
For singletons I have a copy of Expansion that usually helps me win a counterspell war or copies a Deafening Clarion to wrath large creatures, and a lone Search for Azcanta. Personally, I am actually less and less impressed with the Azcanta. I find it really slow, plus I already have a very strong late game. I keep it in because it's also the card I fear the most from my opponents in the mirror.
And no, I'm not sure how to reconcile those two statements.
For the counterspells I would just highlight that Syncopate has been very good and I’m up to three copies. Most losses with this deck come from either an aggressive opponent coming out too fast, or a control opponent winning a counterspell war. Syncopate is both a turn two counterspell and a conditional two mana counterspell that helps in both situations. I do not like Essence Scatter because Syncopate takes care of big creatures and Deafening Clarion takes care of small ones. It is more important to have two mana spells to protect your win conditions from removal like Vraska’s Contempt, The Eldest Reborn, or enemy Teferis - hence my two Negates and a Disdainful Stroke.
For sweepers I run three copies of Deafening Clarion. While this card is excellent, this build is often forced to tap out for it on turn three, then weather whatever the opponent resolves on turn four. A major reason for this is my lack of spot removal. I run just a single Lightning Strike and a single Justice Strike. While I could play more spot removal to ease up the need for early game clarions, Standard’s spot removal can be really situational and I don’t want too many situationally dead cards. The single copies help because Lightning Strike can also pick off a low loyalty planeswalker and Justice Strike gives me a one card out to something like an enemy Niv Mizzet or an early Steel Leaf Champion.
So far I’ve stuck to the single game queues on Arena for convenience, so the Sideboard hasn't come up. But I would imagine the sideboard as a compilation of cheap removal for creature decks, cheap counterspells, a Nezahl for control mirrors, and a couple Settle the Wreckages or Cleansing Novas for Golgari and Mono-Green.
Overall this feels like a well-rounded maindeck, with the biggest weaknesses being aggressive decks when we don’t draw a Deafening Clarion early on, and control decks that resolve a Search for Azcanta. The dream would be seeing the Revitalize replaced with some kind of two mana modal spell like Izzet Charm, so here’s hoping for something like that in the Azorius cards in the next set!