Jeskai, Esper, or Grixis?
Welcome to Ravnica Allegiance Standard, where the mana is perfect and the colors don’t matter! Control decks got a lot of new tools to work with alongside their near-perfect three-color manabases, but which three colors are the best?
Before we move forward, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. This is a card that has been at the center of Jeskai Control, the most successful control deck in Guilds of Ravnica Standard. Teferi is a card that naturally makes up for control’s biggest weaknesses, which is taking too much time to deploy a win condition because they don’t want to risk lowering their removal or counter shields. Teferi allows you to hold up interaction while deploying a must-answer threat, as early as turn five, making it an extremely difficult card to beat. Is it worth exploring non-Teferi control decks during Week One? Let’s examine some of the new toys we can play with and how they may perform in the potential Week One metagame.
Arguably the most impactful card for control in Standard, Kaya’s Wrath brings back the long-awaited condition-less four-mana sweeper. The casting cost is quite restrictive and pushes control decks in a very clear direction: Esper. Before this card, all we had was Ritual of Soot and Settle the Wreckage at four-mana, both of which are situational. Kaya’s Wrath cleans up Jadelight Ranger and Carnage Tyrant alike. Be aware that aggro strategies make big waves during the first week of a new Standard set because they punish the decks that are trying out new and un-tuned strategies. This means Adanto Vanguard isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future, so if you’re building Esper, build accordingly with cards like Vraska’s Contempt and Moment of Craving. You may also want to minimize the amount of Islands in your deck, as this may hinder your ability to play Kaya’s Wrath on curve.
I’m not as high on this card as some other prominent figures in the MTG community, but Jace’s Ingenuity has seen play in previous Standard formats and I don’t expect this to be an exception, especially with some upside stapled onto it. I would be more hesitant to play this in a non-Teferi control deck, simply because Teferi’s untap let’s you make use of the Addendum ability more often. Needless to say, scrying three and drawing three is incredibly powerful, especially in Week One when you aren’t guaranteed to have your answers line up perfectly and may need to dig for them.
This is a game-changer of a card for control decks. A counterspell with “gain 3 life” stapled onto it isn’t all that revolutionary, but in the context of the format, this can easily turn into a tempo-positive two-for-one. Mono-Red is expected to be a powerful force in this new format, so any Azorius-based decks are going to have a good time. Similar to Kaya’s Wrath, Absorb’s casting cost is also quite restrictive. You’ll want to avoid playing basics of your third color if you plan on playing three colors. It’s also entirely possible that sticking to two colors means access to a consistent, painless manabase that gets punished less often by aggro.
Yet another reason to go Esper, Mortify cleans up a lot of the creature threats in the format, big or small. The ability to destroy enchantments is far from irrelevant, which makes it stand out when compared to other similar cards in the format, such as Murder. The most common enchantments to expect in the new format are ones that have had large success in the previous one: Search for Azcanta, Ixalan’s Binding, Conclave Tribunal, and Experimental Frenzy to name a few. Ravnica Allegiance brings with it a whole new set of enchantments that could make a splash in Standard as well, such as Rhythm of the Wild, Wilderness Reclamation, and Theater of Horrors. Versatility can’t be understated, especially in an unclear meta.
Warrant // Warden
Split cards have the ability to be quite powerful due to their versatility, especially when both sides of the card are relevant. Warrant slows down the opponent’s aggression, but with the added bonus of putting the threat back on top of their library. This isn’t always a bonus, but denying your opponent a fresh draw can really hinder their development while buying you the necessary time. What is especially great about this card is that an effect like Warrant isn’t always relevant in every match-up. Sometimes your opponent doesn’t particularly care about attacking. Warden makes sure that, no matter the scenario, you have a proactive use of the card, meaning that it will rarely ever rot in your hand. A creature with flying and vigilance plays well on both offense and defense and four toughness means that Mono-Red may have to expend multiple resources to clear it off the board.
If you played Standard when Hero’s Downfall was legal, you’d know that a three-mana removal spell that can hit both creatures and planeswalkers is incredibly powerful. The current Standard format is not so different, as there are a plethora of must-answer threats. A more versatile removal spell means it is dead far less often. Being able to answer a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or a Doom Whisperer with one card is big game. Compared to Vraska’s Contempt, this card is able to curve a little better in the decks that you’d play it in, for example Grixis Control. Nicol Bolas, the Ravager is a common four-drop, so being able to curve your removal spell into your beefy threat means that you’ll find yourself falling behind less often. Destroying artifacts could also come into play here, as Treasure Map, The Immortal Sun, and Sorcerous Spyglass see play every now and again.
Bedeck // Bedazzle
This split card is worth discussing, as giving a creature +3/-3 is arguably stronger than Moment of Craving, which only gives -2/-2 but gains two life. For non-Grixis decks, the mana for Bedeck is quite restrictive, but Grixis may be in the market for a removal spell that clears more creatures. The issue with this split card is that its second half isn’t very strong. While Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin and Adanto, the First Fort can be problematic lands for control decks to contain, I’m not sure a situational six mana instant is the answer. Versatility is important, but it needs to be relevant and costed well, and unfortunately, I don’t think this spell makes the cut in control.
Simic-based control decks were not very common in Guilds of Ravnica Standard. Some players tried to make Sultai work with cards like Assassin’s Trophy, Thought Erasure, and Vraska, Relic Seeker. Growth Spiral is an interesting addition to these types of strategies, where you can hold up interaction or cast Growth Spiral. The great thing about ramping in a control deck is that you can leverage the extra mana by casting multiple spells a turn or drowning your opponent in card advantage by casting your draw spells earlier. You also get to ramp into your big finishers such as the previously mentioned Vraska or even Carnage Tyrant. Hydroid Krasis is also an interesting pay-off that replaces itself upon cast, not resolution, meaning that it’s a very difficult card to efficiently answer and can be a mirror breaker against other control decks.
Cry of the Carnarium
At a quick glance, Cry of the Carnarium doesn’t seem much better than Golden Demise, but the exile clause can be quite relevant, especially if Golgari strategies stick to Midnight Reaper. The new card Gutterbones may find a home in black aggressive strategies, so having an efficient answer to multiple recursive threats may be necessary as a control deck. Afterlife also seems to be pushed on quite a few cards, too.
This is a card that really caught my eye for Jeskai. While there are no shortages of two-mana spells available to Jeskai, the fact that Scorchmark permanently exiles the creature is really important. This is comparable to Seal Away, which remains on the battlefield and can be removed. It’s also comparable to Lava Coil, but that’s not an instant. Scorchmark is more flexible with its timing, allowing you to make the best use of your mana. Is it powerful enough to replace Seal Away or Lava Coil? My instincts tell me no, because Seal Away can hit Adanto Vanguard and Lava Coil deals with Rekindling Phoenix and Crackling Drake, but if we start to see creature strategies that rely on the graveyard, especially green ones with access to enchantment removal or non-attacking means of winning the game, Scorchmark could find a home in sideboards at the very least. Grixis could similarly utilize this card, although it depends on how the meta shakes out.
The Best Control Deck for Week One: Esper
I had a lot of success with a Dimir deck in the first week of Guilds of Ravnica Standard. The reason for this is that Ritual of Soot was really strong when people were playing unoptimized, aggressive strategies. Continuing on that note, cards like Thought Erasure could pick apart most decks’ poorly designed curves. You’ll be able to punish a lot of people this way in the first week of a new format. The reason I never played Esper was because the mana wasn’t consistent enough. Teferi is obviously powerful, but you would be slowing down your ability to effectively curve out, which comes in handy against aggro decks. Two new shocklands change the equation greatly. The new manabases are so consistent that you’d be able to hit Sinister Sabotage into Kaya’s Wrath most games.
Before I send you away with a decklist and call it a day, let me just say that I think both Jeskai and Grixis have good things going for them, specifically Niv-Mizzet, Parun. Jeskai also gets access to Crackling Drake and Deafening Clarion, two cards that can single-handedly run away with the match against aggro.
Grixis gets access to Bedevil and Nicol Bolas, the Ravager. Versatile removal spell and proactive threat are a good combination in a new format when you don’t know what to expect. Grixis still gets access to Thought Erasure as well.
But Kaya’s Wrath brings home the bacon. This card will be in Standard for many months to come. Just like Llanowar Elves had a major impact on the format, so will Kaya’s Wrath. A one-mana dork used to be a mainstay in Standard, but was deemed too powerful for a while. The same was said about a four-mana wrath. And here we are again with both in the format.
Let me see you out with my preferred Esper decklist that I’ll start my testing with once the set releases.
Lagzilla’s Esper Control
1 Chromium, the Mutable
4 Thought Erasure
1 Discovery // Dispersal
3 Moment of Craving
1 Cast Down
2 Sinister Sabotage
1 Cry of the Carnarium
3 Kaya's Wrath
2 Vraska's Contempt
2 Chemister's Insight
1 Precognitive Perception
2 Search for Azcanta
2 The Eldest Reborn
2 Disinformation Campaign
3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Isolated Chapel
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Godless Shrine
4 Watery Grave
1 Cry of the Carnarium
1 Moment of Craving
2 Ixalan's Binding
1 Disdainful Stroke
3 Thief of Sanity
1 Nezahal, Primal Tide
Let’s explain a few of the card choices:
Mortify provides a versatile removal spell that also hits Experimental Frenzy, a problematic card for control decks.
I’m not sure how good Precognitive Perception will be, but it’s quite possible that this card is significantly better than Chemister’s Insight. Only time and testing will tell how big the difference between four and five mana is in this new format.
A split between Absorb and Sinister Sabotage seems reasonable as both counterspells could be relevant in the meta and can be found off of Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin accordingly. If the meta shifts away from aggro, Absorb may be relegated to the sideboard or not played at all.
As with any new format, make sure you’re keeping up to date with all of the decks that are having success. Change your decklist to keep up with the decks that are beating you. The first week of testing will be critical in getting a feel for the power of the format. Nobody is going to have the perfect deck to start with, but it’s important to get your reps in so that you’re at least comfortable with your 75. SCG Indy is right around the corner (January 26-27), so if you intend on competing, practice lots and best of luck!