Jeskai Ascending: The Best Combo Deck that You aren’t Playing
Darren is back with what he feels is the best deck that people aren't playing right now, a new Jeskai Ascendancy Combo with a turn 2 kill.
A Standard Favorite
Pioneer is a format that was originally sold to us as “the place for your Standard cards to relive their glory days”, a sort of retirement villa where rotated decks and strategies can once again have their day in the sun. Throughout the format’s lifespan, this has held true to some degree, with many of the top and popular strategies having their roots in decks of Standards past. From Rakdos Sacrifice and its utilization of the Cat/Oven combo to Rakdos Midrange combining Bloodtithe Harvester and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, Azorius Control which peeks its head into the rotation every few years, I even remember suiting a Gladecover Scout up with an Ethereal Armor back in the day. One card that has been screaming “COMBO WITH ME!” since its Standard printing is Jeskai Ascendancy. From the first Standard decks that looked to suit up a Sylvan Caryatid with a Burning Anger to… actually honestly the same deck but with slightly better cards as the original Pioneer version, Jeskai Ascendancy has been rewarding a chain of spells since its release. With the release of Brothers’ War though, we have access to what is in my mind the best build of one of the best combo decks available. Let’s break down the latest when it comes to Ascendancy.
jeskai ascendancy combo
Third Path Iconoclast
Emry, Lurker of the Loch
Mishra's Research Desk
Otawara, Soaring City
Saheeli, Sublime Artificer
Jeskai Ascendancy Combo, in this iteration, is a hybrid Combo/Midrange deck that seeks to end the game via an infinite loop that involves casting and recasting a zero-mana artifact. While there have been many iterations of the Jeskai Ascendancy combo in the past, this specific one seems well suited for today’s meta game due to its flexibility. While other builds are solely focused on their combos (think the versions that use cantrips like Consider and Treasure Cruise to find Sylvan Awakening), this version allows enough room in the deck to slot in some value engines, and is capable of closing a game without its namesake. Like the original Standard version of the deck, today’s Ascendancy deck looks to use all parts of the buffalo, specifically with its ability to pump up the stats on the tokens from Third Path Iconoclast with the Ascendancy’s first ability. Splitting the game plan instead of going all-in on one gives this deck an edge because the two plans are so far separated from each other while working so well when put together. Neither half of the deck, be it the combo side or the token beatdown side, directly depends upon the other, but both take advantage of the same core of cards.
At its root, this is a deck looking to gain additional benefits from the casting of cheap artifacts. That in mind, Emry, Lurker of the Loch is the absolute all-star of the deck. She provides one of the two primary infinite combo routes (which will be described in detail later on), on top of generating insane value if she’s allowed to just sit around in play. Mox Amber allows her to generate additional mana, the new Mishra’s Research Desk – in combination with Soul-Guide Lantern – allows for a churning through the deck in order to locate the necessary pieces, and Tormod’s Crypt – again with the lantern – provides an excellent basis of main deck disruption for some of the more challenging matchups in the format. Lastly is Portable Hole, which provides just enough light disruption to buy the extra turn often needed to finish setting things up. This artifact core is essential to the deck’s success, and offers insane flexibility. Each card acting as either a cheap non-creature spell that generates value over time (especially when cast repetitively), or as yet another Jeskai Ascendancy trigger is the main driving factor of the deck and their importance cannot be understated.
The Backup Plan
We’re starting with the alternate win condition because we all know that you’re here for the combo, and I wouldn’t be a good writer if I didn’t keep the saucy bits for the end. The deck’s plan for when the opponent isn’t an absolute goldfish is to leverage the first ability on the Ascendancy, to make creatures large upon the casting of spells. Originally this was done with spells that made tokens such as Raise the Alarm or Hordeling Outburst, but with the recent printing of Third Path Iconoclast we have access to a means of creating value while creating value via the artifacts listed above. TPI may just look like another Young Pyromancer clone, but the distinct difference is game changing.
On top of the token spam that the deck is capable of, it also has the capacity to just play a very medium midrange game. While not the best way to sell a deck, sometimes a medium midrange deck is all you need to stymied the development of the aggro opponent. Emry enabling the drawing of multiple cards per turn and the flexible utility of some of the other combo pieces such as Retraction Helix make the deck tricky to overcome simply. While this is still very much a combo deck at heart, playing into this slower grindy plan gives more reach than most other combo decks can afford.
How Does the Combo Work?
This is a combo deck, which means that it needs a terrible graphic flowchart made in MS paint.
For those of you not quite advanced enough to follow this excellent and plainly clear flow-chart, here’s an actual breakdown of each of the combos.
The goal is to use Ascendancy’s untap ability to enable the repetitive casting of a zero-mana artifact in some capacity. There are two ways to make this happen, either Emry using her own ability to pull a Tormod’s Crypt or a Mox Amber (the rocks) from the graveyard to play – with the Crypt sacrificing itself to get back into the yard, and the Amber needing a second copy in order to Legend Rule itself – OR by suiting up any non-summoning sick creature with Retraction Helix to send the rock back to your hand. Casting the rock from either zone will trigger Ascendancy and untap the source that allowed you to cast it originally. On top of this loop, Ascendancy also gives two additional effects on that same casting; a loot and a +1/+1 buff to each of your creatures. The primary object is to establish this loop in order to use either of these additional benefits to end the game.
As discussed above, the mass-pump effect is critical to games involving TPI in any capacity, as going wide and doing your best Craterhoof Behemoth impression is typically enough to win a game. While attacking is all well and good, there are typically more circumstances where attacking isn’t an option as the opponent will be well equipped with blockers. This is where the alternate win condition comes in; Thassa’s Oracle. With an additional prerequisite of one card in hand, the Oracle plan becomes available via the looting ability on Ascendancy. With each iteration of the rock loop, you can effectively either mill one, or filter through your deck to put a card into your hand if you have a card in hand to discard in exchange. With enough lands, casting the oracle isn’t an issue, though it is worth noting that the Ambers can provide the required mana in combination with Emry. Covetous Castaway is included as a means to avoid situations where you are looting through the deck searching for the combo and things line up in such a way that you need to put one of your pieces into the graveyard prematurely. With the mana available from Emry and Amber, you can mill through the Castaway and cast it for its Disturb cost in order to put an Oracle back into your deck to redraw when you’re prepared to finish the game. There are many options and possibilities as the deck begins to churn, and there are frequent situations where the option of a preferred route to victory is possible so ultimately pilot preference is allowed to shine through.
And All the Rest
Aside from Portable Hole, the remaining cards in the list are included as a means to dig for the required combo pieces as most combo decks are familiar with already. Consider is a classic dig spell which can either look two cards deep for the next missing piece. Put an artifact into the graveyard for Emry value, or just be a one mana spell for TPI. Fallaji Archeologist is a surprisingly influential inclusion here, contributing to three different aspects of the deck. It’s firstly a creature, which is strangely important in a deck that would on occasion attack in with an infinitely large creature. It can sift through the top to find a Jeskai Ascendancy or artifact piece, and it also mills cards for Emry. Bitter Reunion, similarly, is also much better in exactly this list than it is anywhere else. The hand filtering is of course nice in the deck that wants to find specific pieces, but the capacity to give creatures haste is essential to trimming a turn off of the overall clock. Emry gaining haste gives immediate access to the first part of the combo of course, and also eliminates the biggest fragility of the deck. Meanwhile, it is also often the case that on the combo turn either TPI and its tokens or any other creature that may want to have a Retraction Helix slapped onto it will come into play on the turn that you want to turn it sideways. The card is sneakily powerful, and its usefulness is quite unapparent until you’re sitting behind the wheel.
Portable Hole is one of the most important, yet least exciting cards in the list. Many decks in the format are seeking to disrupt combo decks in some form or fashion, be it via Thalia, Guardian of Thraben in main decks, incidental hate for other decks in the format such as Damping Sphere for Devotion, and Rest in Peace for Greasefang and Phoenix, Portable Hole is often the first and only line of defense against such disruptive measures. Its synergies with Emry do occasionally pop up as yet another artifact that can exist in a graveyard, though primarily this is just necessary removal. There are some thoughts abound that this deck should lean even further into its original Standard construction by featuring more removal spells, but in my experience and when taking into consideration that Retraction Helix can also be a removal spell, that isn’t particularly needed.
I usually don’t talk about sideboard construction because I believe that most players should be able to look at their local meta games and decide what should be included for themselves based on what they expect to face. With this deck however, there is a very straightforward conversion that happens in the face of its most difficult matchups. The sideboard is designed to either fight through Rakdos midrange by shifting plans away from the combo element and leaning further into the grindy token strategy, or to eliminate the threat of counter-measures such as graveyard hate, counterspells, or enchantment removal. As far as the conversion plan goes, Saheeli, Sublime Artificer does astounding work in providing bodies that can soak up damage, threaten lethal in combination with an Ascendancy, and a source of damage on a permanent type that they likely aren’t expecting in the post-board games. She is a massive headache against the likes of single-target creature removal, and makes the deck even more flexible in that matchup than it already was because the opponent will need to guess which strategy you plan to go all-in on. Treasure cruise, additionally, suits this plan perfectly as we have seen in other iterations of the Ascendancy deck with its capacity to refill a hand for a single mana with no work needed as the deck naturally wants to self-mill anyway. The numbers are still being ironed out between these two cards, as their usefulness exceeds more than just the one difficult matchup, but for my local area a lighter touch felt more appropriate.
Spell Pierce, Destroy Evil, and Soul Partition are an essential suite for eliminating cards that prevent the Ascendancy deck from doing its thing. Spell Pierce is a classic gotcha style answer to any early disruptive spell, while Destroy Evil largely has Sheoldred in mind as that card is completely unbeatable if it resolves. Soul Partition is an interesting choice as its use isn’t obvious at first glance. This card’s major role is to buy about a turn or two of extra time, which is often all that’s needed to establish a combo. So If the opponent is packing something like a Damping Sphere, Karn the Great Creator, or Rest in Peace, it is trivial to remove that card from play for a turn, resolve the Emry, give it haste with Reunion, and start going to town. The real deal is the card’s general blanket utility, as regardless of the threat or disruption that we’re facing that short window of time provided is all that’s necessary to push through. The remaining cards in the board are all flex slots, that are meant to answer either specific pieces of disruption that you know opponents will be playing or to stop specific decks from steamrolling you. I’ve included Pithing Needle and Rending Volley because both Greasefang and Humans are decks that I don’t particularly enjoy losing to – same with Devotion. Ultimately the key note to hit with the construction of the sideboard is flexibility and the ability to tune the deck with exactly the perfect tools you need to buy just that smidge of extra time.
But this Deck is Like, Bad Right?
I mean, no. From my limited experience with the archetype (currently about 50 matches, which sounds like a lot but really isnt when taking into consideration sequential iterations and different builds), the deck is capable of some disgusting things that can be difficult for some decks to handle. It is rather fragile to relentless creature removal and interaction that you might see out of the likes of Rakdos or Dimir Control, but if left alone for even two turns the deck is capable of exploding out of the gates. The split plan of attack between the static combo, subdivided again into the multiple different methods of performing the combo, makes for an incredibly difficult-to-interact-with strategy, and a flexible pilot who is able to shift gears as soon as trouble starts to arise should have little to no difficulty moving between all of the various plans of action to find the best outcome for that given match. Even against the difficult matchups like Black midrange, the deck is full well capable of pushing through hate cards and opposing threats in order to secure a win.
With access to a turn two win, several turn three wins available, and a fairly consistent turn four win, this deck is fully capable of becoming “a thing” even right now. While I don’t see it taking the meta by storm (especially given its difficulty to pilot on MTGO), I have been playing this deck at the local level and at some larger RCQ level events lately and the deck performs very well. It rewards both pilot experience and in-depth format knowledge, offers variable gameplay that doesn’t get stale or boring quickly, and comes at a match from an angle that many opponents aren’t expecting. Its a very fun deck that I hope catches on, though I am happy to be its lone champion should that ever be the case as well. We’ve seen a few successes lately with some less optimal builds on MTGO in the past weeks and a handful of other creators have investigated the deck for content purposes, but I think it’s fair to say that the deck certainly has legs and is primed to become a legitimate player in the format.
That’s all for this one. I’ve really been enjoying my time working with some cards that most players read for the first time during our match, yet also with a deck that provides a fun and competitive play experience. This is exactly the sort of thing that i’m after in this game, and I’m hopeful that this article might convince some of you to give the deck a try as well. As always i’m open to hearing any thoughts or comments on this deck or to deck suggestions for future articles – We love to hear from you! And remember to stay safe, play smart, and thanks for reading.