Blah, blah, blah. Pro Tour this, Pro Tour that.
I had the chance to watch much of the Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir coverage, something which I have not had the opportunity to do for the last three Pro Tours (as I was mostly off the grid in Guatemala, Bulgaria, and Malawi during those events). I am not going to rehash my thoughts of the event to you (other than a quick shot out to Greg Orange who impressively top 25ed both PTM15 and PTKTK). Instead I am going to talk about what I didn’t see at the Pro Tour and then a deck that attacks what decks post Pro Tour are doing.
Now, based on my testing I did not expect the prevalence of Jeskai Aggro, but it certainly was not under the radar when it came time for the pros to sleeve up their decks. In the time prior to the Pro Tour the decks I saw were all midrange all the time, I was having trouble finding test games against control and aggro because the stark majority were playing three color midrange builds. This style field requires decks to be able to deal with other midrange decks, reducing the value of small creature sweepers like Drown in Sorrow and Anger of the Gods while furthering the playability of slower but seemingly more powerful spells like Utter End.
If all the removal was three and four cost one for one spells, then flooring the board and swinging for lethal early in the game seemed like it would be a good way to attack the expected field. The premier board whip being five mana (End Hostilities) and the lack of an apparent control shell to play it also increased the value of unexpected aggro decks in my mind.
I really only saw two unexpected aggro decks; UW Ensoul Artifacts and a Mono-White Launch the Fleet deck. Both did well, but failed to run away with the show in the way I expected. There are several reasons for this. First, Wingmate Roc was being played in much higher numbers than expected. Not only can it block aggressive strategies effectively, but it also creates a means of gaining life. Where I was testing online there was not much showing for the Jeskai Wins decks which were out in force in Honolulu. The fusion of a burn deck with the longevity and flexibility of a UWR creatures build proved to be a solid strategy. The increase in burn spells to the deck pool from this deck makes it difficult for decks build on small creatures to get out of the gates.
If the top decks are relying on a large amount of targeted removal, either burn or kill spells, what kind of creatures are we willing to invest our mana into? Hmmm.
Oh yes, the Hexproof ones.
The first thing I learned when building this deck was the hexproof creatures have changed over the last standard season. Back in the Return to Ravnica and Innistrad days there were plentiful low cost options for a hexproof deck which easily could be suited up with a pile of Aura spells. Glaring Spotlight was even printed to keep these decks humbled. Today I see two prime places to start our hexproof building.
Sagu Mauler is the real deal. I have already sang the praises about the 6/6 trampler who cannot be targeted. He is exactly the sort of thing I like on the top of a curve. I do not think Fleecemane Lion has truly shined yet, but is one of the cards that enjoy looking at and considering the full potential of. In a world where many of the big beaters do not have trample, Indestructible is a keyword that can really draw a game out. With these two in mind, the deck is firmly in the Bant colors.
As I write this I am intrigued to look at Bassara Tower Archer again for a more traditional Aura style Hexproof deck. At the time I built the deck I deemed the GG casting cost a bit greedy for the three color mana base I was aiming to use and the small size of Xathrid Slyblade made an Abzan version of Hexproof too slow. Instead of relying on Aura’s to make my little creatures big I want to tap into White’s ability to use enchantments to exile permanents as a means to extend the game to the point where my Hexproof fatties can rule the day.
This does not appear as well in the final deck list, but originally the constellation theme was much stronger including four mainboard Suspension Field and four Nyx-Fleece Rams to elongate the game. Eidolon of Blossoms is a fantastic tool in enchantment heavy decks to continually draw cards. This card draw is improved with the combination of fetchlands and Courser of Kruphix, giving you a lot of selection about what and when you draw. The deck is down to only twelve enchantments compared to the twenty it originally had, but I feel that this is still enough to warrant the Eidolon’s inclusion.
It is worth touching on the inclusion of Ajani, Mentor of Heroes. Originally the deck had only one mainboard, but I found myself always sideboarding in more. It is easy to only think about his first +1 ability, which goes a long ways in both unfreezing stalled board states and in turning less vicious bodies such as Courser or Eidolon into legitimate threats, but the gravy in his value is really in his second +1, to be able to look through the top four cards of your deck and grab out a creature. Whether your opponent just cast End Hostilities or you really need to get one more creature on board before your opponent can get another blocker, Ajani is your guy. He is never a bad top deck, and he is not a liability in multiples because your opponent has to kill him or else they will be buried in his given advantages. Either he wins you the game, or they kill him and you happily play the second copy from your hand. I have never gained 100 life off of him, but there definitely are times where this could be applicable (against a top decking burn player perhaps?).
When I first started shifting away from the slower enchantment version of the deck, my first addition was Polukranos, World Eater. 5/5 for four mana is still good, easily blocking the Siege Rhino onslaught we are all enduring at the present time. His Monstrosity ability is still extremely relevant for not only getting rid of mana dorks and small threats, but also is a perfect defense against Hornet Queen. Being able to take out multiple deathtouchers while only losing one of my own creatures is immeasurably valuable. In addition to Polukranos I added another threat with evasion. In my last article I shared the clear power of High Sentinels of Arashin. The Sentinels effectively block Wingmate Roc and Prognostic Sphinx and can easily be boosted to be able to handle Butcher of the Horde all while providing a relevant mana sink for the late game.
Even with all of these changes, the expected win percent of the deck was still too low. I was still struggling against green midrange decks that could balance having both attackers and solid blockers. Icy Blast was the missing tool. Locking down your opponent’s team, potentially for two of my own attack phases not only ended games, but gave the opportunity for me to get back in games I should have lost. It also serves as a fantastic way to take care of Hornet Queen and her deathtouch friends. I think it is worth saying, Hornet Queen can ruin a midrange deck’s day, so make sure you have answers.
The first thing the sideboard targets is the Jeskai Ascendancy Combo. Erase is a simple solution that is extremely easy to leave casual mana up for. Erase also takes care of any God that may be floating around as well as taking care of Whip of Erebos (which you always need to be ready to face). The other answer is just as simple, Oppressive Rays. Forcing your opponent to pay three mana to tap their mana dorks is a quick way to make the combo no longer efficient enough to go off. It cannot effect Sylvan Caryatid, but often it doesn’t need to.