(Almost) Ascending to Glory – Jeskai Ascendancy at GP Copenhagen by Matt Gregory
At the time, I was playing [card]Scapeshift[/card] deck in Modern, and was yet to decide that the deck didn’t quite have the chops to be worth playing in the long run. My friend and testing partner Joao Choca was showing off by goldfishing a new combo deck he’d heard about and fallen in love with, built around [card]Jeskai Ascendancy[/card]. It worked by using [card]Glittering Wish[/card] to find the Ascendancy, which in turn pumped a bunch of mana guys up to massive size by cycling cantrips and [card]Treasure Cruise[/card]s. The deck looked ridiculous, fragile, and played a bunch of 13th-pick draft cards like [card]Wind Zendikon[/card] and [card]Crimson Wisps[/card]. Like most people at that point I hadn’t twigged that [card]Treasure Cruise[/card] was insanely busted, so I largely ignored it and kept playing counterspells.
Then Joao teamed up with Eduardo Sajgalik to work on the deck ahead of GP Madrid. They managed to trim most of the comedy bulk commons, and replaced the eminently [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]-able [card]Noble Hierarch[/card]s with more resilient [card]Fatestitcher[/card]s. They put up a pretty good showing. Still, I was unconvinced. I’ve never been a Combo player at heart. I liked my counterspells too much.
Come the end of the year, GP Milan came round – my first Modern Grand Prix. I’d figured out by this time that Scapeshift wasn’t the way forward. I was casting around for an alternative and settled, for reasons I can’t fully explain, on Jeskai Burn. For some context: I hate Burn decks. Always have, always will. I find them monstrously boring to play. But the deck was tearing the online metagame to pieces, it was easy to play, it was cheap to put together, and it played [card]Treasure Cruise[/card], which by then the world knew was broken in half, and then in half again. It seemed like a smart choice.
Then I spent Day 1 getting annihilated by decks running maindeck [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card]. 0-3 and drop. I have never before or since lost three games in a row at Competitive REL. It was hammering down with rain and my trainers chose that day to spring a leak. The walk back to my hotel took an hour. I’d had better days.
I came back on Day 2 for some side events, and to spend a bit of time birding the top tables. I got to watch as Eduardo took the deck I’d dismissed as a pile all the way to the Top 8, defeated only by a string of perfect topdecks out of Melira Pod. I’d been playing a deck which was so well-known and anticipated that half the field seemed to have maindeck [card]Kor Firewalker[/card]s. Eduardo was the only man in the room playing a deck nobody knew how to beat and was routinely killing people on turn 3. I was a convert at last. Next time I sleeved up Modern, I’d be packing [card]Glittering Wish[/card]es too.
Then – it happened.
Can’t blame them really. Wizards goofed. They reprinted [card]Ancestral Recall[/card]. The ban killed off a bunch of ludicrously overpowered decks – and the [card]Jeskai Ascendancy[/card] deck was one of them. They’d ripped the draw engine out. Oh, well. I’d just go off and learn to play [card]Splinter Twin[/card] like everyone else.
Fast-forward six months (feel free to imagine me waving my hands around and making wibbly-wobbly ‘time passing’ noises, a la Wayne’s World). GP Copenhagen was on the horizon, and to distract myself from imagining all of the delicious bacon I’d be eating, I was jamming Twin, trying to get my mental muscles in sufficient shape to avoid a complete crushing this time around. Then Joao made a passing remark about giving Ascendancy another go.
‘I thought that deck was dead without Cruise?’
‘Eduardo worked it out. [card]Life from the Loam[/card]’
Sounded completely ridiculous. Loaming with 16 lands? Ah, hell, sign me up. I was still sore after Milan. I lost a lot of dignity that weekend. I built the deck, I grovelled and muscled my way in to Joao and Eduardo’s private testing discussions. I goldfished, jammed, and practiced hard. I would be Ascending in Copenhagen. I wouldn’t be making the same damned mistake twice…
Here’s the list I registered:
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Scalding Tarn
2 Mana Confluence
2 Gemstone Mine
1 Breeding Pool
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Temple Garden
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Sylvan Caryatid
3 Faithless Looting
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Glittering Wish
1 Ideas Unbound
3 Jeskai Ascendancy
3 Life from the Loam
4 Serum Visions
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Sleight of Hand
4 Thought Scour
1 Abrupt Decay
1 Fiery Justice
1 Jeskai Ascendancy
3 Leyline of Sanctity
3 Path to Exile
1 Scarscale Ritual
1 Slaughter Games
1 Wear // Tear
1 Wheel of Sun and Moon
One of the reasons I think this deck didn’t ever really take off even when Cruise was legal is that – let’s face it – it looks like a right old pile. Few combo decks are as hard to parse when you first look at them, so I’ll briefly explain how it all works.
The aim is to get [card]Jeskai Ascendancy[/card] into play alongside some number of mana dorks. Once you’re in place, every cheap draw spell in the deck allows you to loot into [card]Fatestitcher[/card]s and more cantrips, all the while gradually making your team bigger and bigger. [card]Life from the Loam[/card] is the fuel that the combo runs on – you can use it to fill your hand with lands to discard to Ascendancy, ensuring you never have to throw away good cards, and because you can replace the draw/discard with dredge/discard, you can keep on going over and over, simultaneously keeping the combo firing and filling the bin with [card]Fatestitcher[/card]s and [card]Faithless Looting[/card]s.
Eventually your team will be sufficiently massive to swing for lethal, and if that isn’t possible (such as being in your second main phase, because you’ve used [card]Fatestitcher[/card] to tap opposing lands before you expose your Ascendancy to [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], and you had to let your opponent’s mana pool drain) you can use the alternative win condition of Wishing for [card]Wheel of Sun and Moon[/card], managing your library down to one card, and then looping [card]Thought Scour[/card] and any cantrip to set up an infinite loop and deck your opponent.
The second reason that this deck never caught on is that it’s utterly unplayable online. Partly that’s because half of the MODO world is still playing Burn (the fools) and this deck folds like a napkin to [card]Eidolon of the Great Revel[/card]. Partly, it’s because working through all the triggers takes more time than you have to actually finish the game. There is a special place in hell waiting for whichever member of Wizards’ R&D added the ‘may’ clause to [card]Fatestitcher[/card]’s ability.
It also doesn’t help that this deck is hard to play. Really hard. Think of the hardest deck you’ve ever played and double it hard. Unless you’ve ever played Vintage [card]Doomsday[/card], I suppose. The sheer volume of lines of play available in any given turn makes being clear on the right play a virtual impossibility. I’m aware of making two mistakes in Copenhagen that cost me games, but in reality I may have made many more errors. The margins between sequencing your plays one way and another are often so small, that it isn’t always feasible to tell whether or not you made the right call – even after the fact.
So, we’ve established that the deck is hard to play, awful against at least one commonly-played deck, and incredibly convoluted. I imagine most of you are asking a very reasonable question – why on earth would anyone play it in the first place?
Well, because the deck, played correctly, is hugely powerful. It works on a very similar axis to Pyromancer Storm, but it’s more consistent and presents fewer points at which it can be disrupted. Thanks to the Wishboard, it also has better access to answers for hate cards – and no answer is off limits, because you’re able to play all five colours.
It’s also fast. Turn 3 kills are routine, turn 2 even, if you lead with [card]Birds of Paradise[/card] into Ascendancy and go off thanks to [card]Gitaxian Probe[/card].
There’s also the element of surprise. Even though the deck is technically a known quantity these days, the fact is that I won plenty of games at the GP simply because my opponent didn’t know what cards I was playing, or how my combo functioned. Being under the radar certainly helps this deck to flourish.
I spent much of the weekend killing opponents who were convinced they were safe from just about any life total, and my games often drew quite a crowd in the process. The deck is pretty mesmerising to watch in action, at least unless you’re on the receiving end of it. I don’t recommend picking up Ascendancy if you prefer your opponents to like you at the end of the match. We almost called the deck ‘Are You Having Fun Yet?’.
So how did it go? Well, I finished 102nd. 2 places off the cash. 1% on tiebreakers. Having come 107th in Liverpool earlier this year, I’ve clearly established that breakers are not my friend. 10-5 is neither an astonishing, nor dreadful record. I felt that apart from the two games I punted, I played very well over the weekend. I felt sharp, and my decision making was generally good – at least so far as I could tell. So, why didn’t I win more than I did?
Well, the deck has its issues as it turns out. The old Ascendancy version could brute force its way through most one-for-one disruption by using [card]Treasure Cruise[/card] to win through sheer volume of cards. [card]Life from the Loam[/card] fuels your hand just as well in the combo turn, but drawing tons of lands doesn’t fill your hand with combo pieces when you’ve been [card]Thoughtseize[/card]d multiple times. It does find [card]Faithless Looting[/card] to trade your lands in for spells, but that’s not an especially efficient method of hand-sculpting when you’re facing down a massive [card]Tarmogoyf[/card].
The deck can also just decide for you that you’re not allowed to win. I lost two games after cycling my way through over half the deck without ever finding an Ascendancy or [card]Glittering Wish[/card]. When you’re playing a deck that has so few ways to interact with what your opponent is doing, and the format is chock full of lightning-quick wins, you sometimes just don’t have any way to win a game. Eduardo said it best – the deck is truly spectacular: it spectacularly wins, or spectacularly loses. You don’t get to play close matches.
Basically, it’s a glass cannon. One of the more robust glass cannons you’ll ever see, a highly polished and beautifully constructed glass cannon, but made of glass nevertheless. The deck is almost broken, but sometimes it just breaks. I planned on ascending to glory – but the deck wasn’t having it. Eduardo and Joao sadly fared no better – neither made Day 2. That’s the risk you take when playing a deck like this. You’d better learn to love the variance.
So what next for Jeskai Ascendancy Combo? Well, there were a few ideas we came up with but never found the time to try out. I liked the notion of [card]Noxious Revival[/card] as an answer to [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], which also draws extra cards when you combo off and puts a damper on the [card]Griselbrand[/card]/[card]Nourishing Shoal[/card] combo in a pretty hilarious fashion. We didn’t have the time to find out whether the pay-off was worth the inherent card disadvantage. Eduardo was keen on [card]Niveous Wisps[/card] as a flexible cantrip ,which bought time against a number of decks and turned [card]Slaughter Pact[/card] on against [card]Tasigur, the Golden Fang[/card] or [card]Gurmag Angler[/card]. Too cute? We never found out.
Come to that, we never even agreed on a decklist completely. I played one more [card]Path to Exile[/card] than the others in the board over the 4th [card]Silence[/card]. Joao came to loathe [card]Ideas Unbound[/card] and wanted it nowhere near his final 75. I came to dislike [card]Manamorphose[/card] with an almost equal intensity and required some persuading not to register the full set of [card]Sleight of Hand[/card] instead. The margins are just too fine to prove one card right and another wrong without a professional mathematician handy.
Personally, I’m interested in whether we can work out a version of the deck with more interaction, in the vein of the Josh Utter-Leyton’s list which was popular at the World Championships last year. We don’t have [card]Dig Through Time[/card] any more, but rumour had it someone was trying something similar by adding [card]Pyromancer Ascension[/card] to the list as a second engine card, which still allowed space for [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]. I’ve yet to see the decklist, however, and I don’t believe that this mysterious maverick was any closer to ascending to greatness than the rest of us.
For all of the deck’s flaws, I don’t regret sleeving it up in Copenhagen. It was fun and challenging to play and with just a little more luck I felt I could have wound up deep in the dollars at the end of the tournament. It wasn’t to be, but I’m happy I gave it a shot. I might be back with my [card]Pestermite[/card]s next week – not least because our store’s meta suddenly involves a rather large number of [card]Thalia, Guardian of Thraben[/card]s – but I doubt this will be the last time I cast [card]Glittering Wish[/card] in anger. And next time: who knows? I might actually find that elusive percentage point and come home with a bit more money.
Postscript – Having written this piece last week, I naturally managed to lose three straight matches at Competitive REL at my very next tournament, the RPTQ in Huddersfield. I suppose I brought that upon myself.
Community Question: In your personal opinion, what is the best build for Jeskai Ascendancy in Modern?
Thanks for reading,