By Duncan Martin

While I was excited about UB Control, for Game Day this past weekend I finally gave in to my eggs-iest inhibitions and played Jeskai Ascendancy Combo in Standard.

It’s been a long time—and man, was it worth it.

There are few things I enjoy more in Magic: the Gathering than durdly combo decks that smash out of nowhere. Luckily for me, the Standard version of Jeskai Ascendancy Combo is both complicated and powerful.

While I played the deck some before the Pro Tour, I’d switched off of it to test the Abzan deck I wrote about a couple weeks ago. Because of that, I didn’t have much time to prepare a list that I would be comfortable with, so I went with Nathan Holiday’s version. A known combo player, I figured his would at least be a solid starting place.

In my games with the deck, it became blatantly clear that there are a lot of people who aren’t used to playing against this style of combo deck, and thus didn’t know what to do. To make it worse, all the articles I’ve seen on the deck are about what or how to play it.

So, I’m paying my dues and telling you all how to beat me, instead.

First of all, to know how to beat the combo, you’ll need to know what the heck they’re doing.

The Combo Itself

I have Sylvan Caryatid and Jeskai Ascendancy on board. I’ll tap the Caryatid for a mana.

I’ll cast Briber’s Purse (X = 0) for free, which triggers Jeskai Ascendancy. Caryatid untaps, and I may choose to draw a card and discard a card. Let’s assume that I do. At this point, I still have that one mana floating from the Caryatid.

Now I’ll tap it a second time, make another mana, and cast Retraction Helix targeting my Caryatid. Acendancy triggers, Caryatid untaps, and I can loot again.

Now I can tap my Caryatid to return my Briber’s Purse to my hand. Casting it for zero again will untap my Caryatid, and allow me to draw and discard again. If I repeat this, I can loot as many times as I want.

If you remember, I still have that first mana in my mana pool. I’ll tap my Caryatid for a second mana, casting Twinflame on her. She untaps, etc.

Now I have two Caryatids, which means that I can tap the copy for a mana, tap the original to bounce my Briber’s Purse, then play it for free, untapping both and netting a mana each time.

Here we are at infinite mana and infinite looting. We repeat until we hit a creature that can attack—let’s say Rattleclaw Mystic—play it, then Twinflame it. We then play Briber’s Purse an infinite amount of times to make the Mystic huge enough to be lethal in one hit.

By casting a second Retraction Helix targeting the copy of Caryatid, I can now bounce one of your permanents in addition to my Purse, and thus infinitely bounce your board.

I’ll attack you for 9,000,000.

This is, of course, just one version of the combo, but it shows the basics of all versions.

The other (increasingly more common) win con is Altar of the Brood, which mills out your opponent by playing Briber’s Purse or Astral Cornucopia (again for zero) an infinite number of times.

There is a common misconception about what to do against the attacking version, so I’ll hit it first.

Deflecting Palm doesn’t touch this deck unless your opponent misplays. The deck has the ability to easily make multiple copies of an attacker with Twinflame, each of which is more than lethal. Once you try to Deflecting Palm one of them, they bounce that target with his/her Retraction Helix target.

How to Win

There are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Key hate cards exist that are tough to beat.
  2. Aggressive decks have a better chance to race the combo.
  3. For the decks that can’t race or don’t run the main hate cards, it’s most important to know when to use the tools you have available.

The cards Jeskai Ascendancy Combo loses to are pretty clear:

Thoughtseize—Every combo deck has trouble with hand disruption, especially one with as many do-nothing cards as this one. Caryatid is an easy (and a lot of times correct) target for your Thoughtseize if you have removal for other mana dorks—but the problem card is Retraction Helix. The deck can’t function without it, and Commune With the Gods can’t grab it (not to mention it will accidentally mill some of them). Jeskai Ascendancy is obviously important, but it’s more easily found by the deck’s sorceries and instants.

Anger of the Gods—This deck needs dorks to go off. While it is possible to go off without any creatures in play at the beginning of the turn (a combination of plenty of land, a dork in hand, and a Twinflame to start your combo), it’s highly unlikely that the combo will come together before you kill them if you keep their board clear. Many lists side out all the creatures besides Sylvan Caryatid, so spot removal isn’t always effective, but this card always does the job.

Crackling Doom—For the same reason as Anger of the Gods, this card is very hard to beat. A lot of the games are decided by the fact that Caryatid stays around. This card wrecks that plan.

Matchups and Final Notes

What this means is that Mardu Midrange is very good against Ascendancy Combo. It commonly houses all of these cards anyway, so it is by far my worst matchup.

Blue-based control decks aren’t as big of a problem as they would seem. Yes, a counterspell hurts, but with no way to apply pressure (most decks winf off of a late-game Pearl Lake Ancient or a Prognostic Sphinx), the combo player has enough time to set up a hand which baits a counterspell and then wins in a single turn.

Decks that attempt to race the combo have a chance. It’s possible that Jeskai Tempo/Wins/Burn/Whatever-They-Call-It-These-Days can outpace the combo deck, but it’s not a sure thing considering that, without Thoughtseize to interrupt on turn one, the combo deck can win on turn three with a nut draw and turn four with a solid draw.

Green fatty decks need to try and slam threats as quickly as possible. This is one of the deck’s best matchups, but with a mediocre draw, it can easily lose to a turn-three 5/5.

Ascendancy is cast the turn you win, so sorcery-speed answers to it are useless. It is possible to beat the combo with cards like Erase and Utter End. You need to fire them off at the right moment, but with a Retraction Helix on the stack, an instant-speed answer to Jeskai Ascendancy can be almost impossible to react to—it requires Swan Song or a second Retraction Helix to save it. Of course, if have either of those cards, you still lose, seeing as how they get plenty of untap triggers to allow them to recast Ascendancy.

Because of all of this, value proactive answers to the combo (Thoughtseize, Anger of the Gods, main-phased Crackling Doom) over the reactive answers (things hitting Ascendancy).

It’s a lot to take in, but I hope this helps you start with solid strategy against a foe that a lot of Standard players aren’t used to tackling.

Duncan Martin is an artist/musician/writer/whatever from Jeffersonville, Indiana, who spends his days sorting cards, helping people brew decks, and petitioning to have Second Sunrise unbanned in Modern. He likes to draw cards, dredge cards, scry cards, and talk about old formats, Pro Tours, and awesome decks that have long since passed.

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