SCG Richmond and Jeskai Saheeli – A Tale of Infinite Cats

The vaunted Hometown Open. There’s just nothing better than being able to sleep in your own bed, roll out of it late in the morning, and take a short drive over to a convention center and play in a major tournament. This past weekend, I was lucky enough to both have home field advantage and capitalize on it, top 8ing SCG Richmond. But since my trip to the tournament was so short, let me first then take you through the more involved journey of testing and selecting my deck for this tournament.

When Felidar Guardian was first spoiled, like most people, I immediately recognized the parallels to Splinter Twin. My memory was good enough to recall what a control deck with a proactive combo threat could do within a format.  My very first draft of a deck the day it was spoiled looked like this:

I practiced with this list a little bit and found it to be pretty strong. However, in a metagame thrown into upheaval due to the recent bannings and the release of Aether Revolt, I was having a hard time getting a feel for what to expect and as such, I did not know what the ‘answers’ package should consist of. Regardless, the core of the deck felt very strong, and I knew I could return to it later once I had more information.

I then started trying out some four-color builds that contained the combo alongside Panharmonicon to get extra value out of my creatures. This allowed every one of my creatures to be a must-counter threat for control decks. Unfortunately, taking a turn off from the curve to increase the value of my later creatures while leaving my shields down turned out to feel even worse for this deck than the others when facing down the combo.

Once the tournament results came in from the first week in Columbus, I spent a fair amount of time playing around with Hunter Nance’s build of G/W Tokens. I thought that it was doing some pretty cool things with the planeswalkers and Heart of Kiran, but once again I found myself in a bad position of having to tap out to deploy threats to try and maintain my footing. Too often I was just dying to combo and I was also having difficulty with the more explosive draws out of B/G. The one thing that I still love about this deck, and which is still a major weakness for the Saheeli strategies, is that it pressures opposing planeswalkers very well. With a turn 2 Heart of Kiran staring you down, you just aren’t free to put a Saheeli Ral into play early on. And any other planeswalkers that show up later on are very unlikely to last long.

From there, I transitioned into practicing with the four-color builds that did well in those tournaments (without Panharmonicon), and still found them to be good at maximizing the value you get out of the combo pieces since you have so many good targets. Unfortunately, I found that playing against B/G was really difficult, since their threats outclass your threats at every stage of the game. Additionally, if they disrupt your combo in any way–especially with Lost Legacy–then you were left with an extremely difficult situation where Rogue Refiners and Cloudblazers had to outrace Verdurous Gearhulks and Mindwrack Demons.

Knowing that B/G would be one of the main decks to beat for the SCG Richmond Open, I did not want to fight that uphill battle. It was then that I returned to the Jeskai Saheeli list. As with the four-color list, the most appealing aspect of the combo is that it forces your opponent to change how they play Magic. They can never feel good about fully committing to threatening you in the mid-game, since they can just die at any point if there is an opening. This in turn buys you time to get to an end-game, which means that having a control shell that can go over the top with or without the combo is a significant advantage.

I started practicing as much as I could against B/G, and as I made room for more main deck removal and sweepers the matchup felt better and better. The keys were being able to answer a turn 2 Winding Constrictor, since their most punishing draws involved getting it out early and having a way to keep them honest in case they were able to get several creatures out in preparation for a crippling Verdurous Gearhulk turn. I trimmed slightly on my permission and card drawing to fit the extra removal in, and this ended up being the list I registered for the open:

Jeskai Saheeli by Charley Murdock

As is tradition, I will eschew a full tournament report and instead provide a few highlights from the weekend. This is in no small part due to the fact that I did not think a recap was going to be warranted once I started the tournament 1-2, including a first round loss where I could not find a 1 of Fragmentize post-board to answer my opponents Authority of the Consuls despite looking at 50 of my cards in game 3. Fortunately, I was able to rally to 6-2 before a close loss in the mirror to Justin Parnell and his sideboarded Elder Deep-Fiends in round 9.

Some highlights from day 2:

Round 11 Collins Mullen w/ RB Madness. I lost game 1 resoundingly as he was able to pressure me early with Scrapheap Scroungers and start bringing his Haunted Deads and Prized Amalgams into play. Luckily, my go-big plan with Gearhulks and creature lands was good enough in the post board games, as I was able to maneuver around his Scrapheap Scrounger recursion and out-grind him despite having Lost Legacy cast against me in both of these games.

Round 13 Jadine Klomparens w/ BG Snake. One of many BG matches on the weekend, I was able to get to the combo in game 1 quickly on the draw after Jadine ran out of answers and tapped out to try and threaten with an 8/8 Gearhulk. I opened game 2 with a permission heavy hand. Jadine admittedly navigated this game better than I did by getting me to commit my counterspells to lesser threats. Luckily, my extra removal and sweepers kept me alive long enough to establish control with Nahiri despite facing down two Ob Nixilis and eventually combo off.

Round 14 T.J. Martin w/ UB Control. These were three long, skill-testing games where we maneuvered to land threatening Gearhulks. The key moment in game 2 was when I fought over a Glimmer of Genius early on when T.J. was low on cards due to a mulligan. Unfortunately, he followed up on his turn with a Jace, Unraveler of Secrets which eventually took over the game. I decided to go down this aggressive line because I surmised that my post-board configuration was not optimal to fight a protracted counterspell war and I think that this line was correct despite losing. Luckily in game 3, T.J. only found one Gearhulk, which was late in the game, and I was able to run him out of resources and close it out before he could find any help. The other key aspect to this matchup for me was the fact that the U/B list does not have any creature lands. Had he had something to do with his mana while we passing back and forth turns for much of the end game, I would have been in serious trouble.

Round 15 Shaheen Soorani w/ BG Delirium Midrange/Control. Not the configuration we’re used to seeing over the past few weeks, Shaheen instead loaded up on delirium enablers and control elements. This included Vessel of Nascency, Grapple with the Past, and Liliana, the Last Hope. Discussing the match afterwards, Shaheen mentioned how he had learned over the weekend that he could not play a game off curve while holding up removal spells for the combo, because my deck would eventually power through them without ever being under real threat from his deck in the process. I think his assessment was correct and he maximized his opportunity to win the match, but it was precisely this dynamic that I exploited so often throughout the weekend.

Quarterfinals Luke Feeney w/ Jeskai Control. This matchup was a nightmare for me. Every percentage point I gained by tuning my list to beat B/G I gave back two-fold in this matchup. The fact that I had only 3 maindeck permission spells and that my opponent had full information of my deck before the match started put me in a really bad spot. Luke was able to capitalize on this in game one when he cast a turn 5 Jace on the play, knowing that there was a good chance I would not have a counterspell and that he was safe from the combo on my turn 5. And unfortunately I did not have one of my three Disallows; as a result I never had a realistic chance to pressure his Jace and comeback in the game. I got some sideboard help, but my opponent was also well prepared and was able to load up on even more permission and removal and I always felt behind on every counter war that occurred, especially since I never drew my one Dispel. We did have some interactive game play where we fought over Spell Quellers and the permission spells we had under them, but I just couldn’t get a chance to gain a foothold and climb into the game.

Alas, thus ended my bid to keep the trophy in my hometown. I am still very pleased with my performance, and fully acknowledge that much of the credit belongs to the sheer power of the deck itself. It is the first premier level success I’ve had that didn’t involve green mana, and I will be proud of that no matter how oppressive the deck turns out to be!

But despite how good the deck is, after having spent more time in my post-tournament reflection, there are a few things about my specific configuration that I consider to be flaws and even possibly just outright mistakes.

First of all, I struggled with my manabase, especially on day one. There were several games where I had to expend energy from my Aether Hubs early, which then left me unable to cast cards like Disallow or Nahiri because I was just too anemic with my mana source availability. I would begin by going to the full four ‘fastlands,’ and trimming down on two of the Port Town slots. I still think it was right for me to go with 25 mana sources as opposed to 26 for this tournament; however, if the pure control decks are going to be more of a factor going forward then I would want to fit in the 26th as well.

I reference the “Port Town slot” because I think it was a mistake to play this particular land. Thinking about it now, I prefer Prairie Stream for this deck. My reasoning is that having this slot be a land that can enter the battlefield untapped early is a lot less useful than having lands which will enter untapped in the later game. This is especially true when you have the combo “rolled-up” in hand and just need an untapped land from your deck to combo on turn 6 or slightly later when you want to do so with Disallow backup. Additionally, it is always beneficial to have an untapped mana source when you enter the pivotal turns whenever you are in a control mirror matchup. Finally, you already have the fastlands in your deck, so you are likely to have untapped lands to play early which you will also always prioritize to play first.

Blessed Alliance was originally included as a way to answer a Bristling Hydra or a giant Electrostatic Pummeler that dodged Blossoming Defense. However, given the narrowness of Blessed Alliance in the current metagame, I would replace at least one of them with a Dispel moving forward. Dispel has much better applications against a larger portion of the field, especially given how useful it is when dealing with other control decks. It also still serviceable in the same matchup that Blessed Alliance was intended for, since it can stop a Blossoming Defense when removing a large creature threat.

I’d also probably play this card

Overwhelming Denial was a card I completely missed on, but would have been outstanding during the tournament. It serves two purposes in completely shutting down a control or combo player’s big play late in the game when four mana isn’t a huge cost (since we aren’t required to win a counterspell war), and protects your own combo or Torrential Gearhulk when they are relying on their negates and dispels to outmaneuver you in the counterspell battle. If they spend their Disallow on your creature, they are left with cards that they have sunk opportunity cost with their mana in leaving available, and you get to progress forward.

If I were playing the Pro Tour or SCG Regionals this weekend, this is what I would register:

We still have a Pro Tour this weekend to spectate and digest, but I predict one of two things will happen: Either the Jeskai Saheeli strategy will prove to be too strong to hate out of the metagame and be well represented at the top of the standings, or there will be a non-combo version of the control deck similar to the one I lost to in the quarterfinals that keeps it in check. These “bigger” control decks will then become vulnerable as the format moves forward, so I think that either way (and assuming my binary assumption isn’t discounting anything off the radar that may surface) Jeskai Saheeli is going to be a major player in Standard for the remainder of this format. It will then be up to Wizards to let me know whether or not they are going to shake things up with their next announcement, or if I will get to keep flinging infinite cats at my opponents for the next few months.

Charley

Charley Murdock
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Charley Murdock

Charley Murdock is a competitive Magic player from Richmond, VA. He is a student of the game, a member of the Scrubland podcast, and a data analyst on his boring days. With a focus on improving and learning, he has managed to find major tournament success in multiple formats, including a semi-finals appearance at Grand Prix Atlanta. His favorite phrase in Magic is ‘quadruple block’, and he will always pause his match to watch whenever it is uttered within earshot. You can find him on twitter at @Charleym_
Charley Murdock
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Published:February 2, 2017

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