One of the main storylines of last weekend's Strixhaven Championship turned out to be Brainstorm's strength in Historic, mostly exemplified by Izzet Phoenix's solid and Jeskai Turns's great performance. However, the tournament also delivered a major shake-up to the established order of Standard—to many people's surprise. Jeskai Mutate outperformed all other archetypes, at solid margins for the most part, and helped two players get to the playoffs.
Although I was watching the event from the sidelines, the deck's success didn't surprise me as much. Fortunately for me, I have some contact within the team that brought the deck, which consists of not only the two Top 8 competitors Matti Kuisma and David Inglis but also Kaldheim champion Arne Huschenbeth. While I didn't influence the deck selection, I did do some dedicated matchup testing with Tristan Wylde-LaRue (Tristan_MTG) who finished the Championship with a requalification through a 10-5 record. And fortunately for you and me, he provided me with a lot of information that I brought into form for this article for you to digest.
|Matti Kuisma's Jeskai Mutate|
Although this is a combo deck in nature and does contain some infinite loops, due to the timer system you'll seldom get to go full combo on your opponents if you play it on Arena. Don't be disappointed when you watch replays from the weekend. The combo aspect will be far more relevant in paper matches.
Goldspan Dragon is your most important card and the centerpiece of the deck. Not having access to it will make your games much more difficult, in particular making all mutate creatures you draw substantially worse. But between Expressive Iteration, Fire Prophecy, Seize the Spoils, and Prismari Command you're fairly good at finding it. Don't forget that the Dragon also improves those Treasure tokens you procure prior to it hitting the board.
If you have a Goldspan Dragon in play and a critical mass of spells and mana, you can construct infinite damage. This works through mutating at least one Vadrok, Apex of Thunder and Lore Drakkis onto your Dragon, which eventually pays for more than itself because mutate triggers Goldspan Dragon's Treasure-producing triggered ability. The most basic loop uses one copy each of Unsubstantiate, Prismari Command, Vadrok, Drakkis, and Dragon.
Assuming you already have Lore Drakkis and Vadrok mutated onto your Dragon and have sufficient mana, meaning eight starting mana, you cast Prismari Command, dealing 2 damage to Goldspan Dragon and creating a Treasure, which comes out to two Treasure tokens in total. You cast Unsubstantiate on your Goldspan Dragon, returning the full mutate pile to your hand. This part nets one mana, as the two spells cost five, but you earned enough Treasure for six mana in the process.
Recast Goldspan Dragon for five mana. (You're down five mana.)
Mutate Vadrok for four mana and cast free Prismari Command from graveyard, targeting Dragon and creating Treasure. The Dragon ability triggers twice for a total of three Treasure tokens. (Sacrificing them means you go up two mana on this step and are down by three in total now.)
This loop generates one extra mana per iteration, so on every third iteration, you can replace one Command mode with "deal 2 damage to your opponent" once. In real-life tournaments you only need to demonstrate this process and then declare you're repeating it ten times to deal 20 damage to your opponent. On MTG Arena, however, you need to perform every action every time, and there's an upper limit for how much time you can take in a single turn (six minutes plus extensions of 30 seconds each).
So you'll seldom be able to use the combo to it's fullest on Arena. Also note that you'll need to go into full control mode, both for sacrificing Treasure while Goldspan Dragon is on the battlefield and for responding to your second Prismari Command with Unsubstantiate. The combo gets easier and faster if you have additional mutate creatures that make the loops produce more mana/triggers/free spells/cards per iteration. Nonetheless it's often a good idea instead to unsubstantiate everything your opponent has in play and end your turn with a bunch of mana and multiple copies of Unsubstantiate in hand to stop your opponent from redeploying, simply because this is so much easier on the clock.
Also note, while eight or nine mana to start the combo (depending on where exactly you start) may seem like a lot, you can usually acquire some extra mana before going for the actual loop. You'll typically put some mutate creatures onto your Dragon beforehand, target it with some Spikefield Hazard, attack with your Dragon, or cast some Commands or Seize the Spoils.
Look to use Unsubstantiate to bounce your own Goldspan Dragon in response to removal. If you have Lore Drakkis on it, it's almost always better to unsubstantiate your Dragon than to negate their removal spell.
You don't always have to mutate onto your Dragon right away. This comes up especially often in game one when your opponents don't have a ton of Redcap Melee and other removal. It can be better to wait until you untap so you have more mana to protect it or so you can put better cards in your graveyard. If you have a Negate and a Lore Drakkis in your hand and you think Negate is a strong card in the matchup, it might be worth waiting so that you can use Lore Drakkis to get back the Negate.
Be cautious bringing back Seize the Spoils with Lore Drakkis. You'd often rather have a it in your graveyard than in your hand. It's the best value target for the Vadrok trigger and it can be difficult to find the time to cast it from hand.
Postboard, if you've trimmed or cut Unsubstantiate, you need to be careful with your mutations. Be a little more patient with your usage of them. You can definitely still get outvalued even if you're getting a bunch of value out of Drakkis and Vadrok.
This matchup is good for you. The key to this matchup is to make sure their Lovestruck Beast // Heart's Desire never get to attack. Between Spikefield Hazard, Unsubstantiate, and Fire Prophecy, you have a lot of ways maindeck to get rid of 1/1s. If you aggressively kill Clarion Spirit, Edgewall Innkeeper, and tokens they have a very hard time pressuring you. Beyond that, they have very few ways to interact with you in game one. You're naturally insulated against Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp and they often have to pass their turn if they want to hold up Chop Down. Vadrok is very hard for them to kill and lines up well against all of their non-Lovestruck Beast threats. Cinderclasm is the best card in your deck against them. Keep in mind that you can cast it off Vadrok, but it costs an extra mana if you want to deal 2 damage instead of 1.
In game one Stomp, Giant Killer, and Kabira Takedown // Kabira Plateau are typically their only removal spells. You can mutate above your Goldspan Dragon to dodge Giant Killer.
Vadrok is close to indestructible in game one and blocks a ton of their stuff. I'm not very likely to mulligan a functioning hand that can cast Vadrok on turn three.
It's hard for you to catch up in game one and this is the main way you lose. As a result, you should mulligan hands with bad mana or no early interaction.
Sometimes the Naya deck has trouble curving out and can get clogged on threes and fourss. If your opponent is playing a three-drop on turn four and passes, you can be aggressive with Unsubstantiate to keep them bottlenecked on mana.
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They're likely to board in removal like Redcap Melee, Banishing Light, et cetera and maybe graveyard hate in the form of Tormod's Crypt or Klothys, God of Destiny.
Cycling is a deck that can follow many different game plans, which makes the matchup somewhat difficult. Sometimes they try to grind you out with Improbable Alliance and Zenith Flare, sometimes they aggro you out with Flourishing Fox and Flare, sometimes they're a token aggro deck. The Fox draws are by far the hardest to beat. You don't have many outs to a big Fox other than Unsubstantiate, which is awkward to line up because you can be forced to unsub a 4/4 or 5/5 Fox to stay afloat. Postboard you have a Glass Casket to help deal with it, but it remains an issue. Don't be afraid to aggressively two-for-one yourself to deal with Foxes if you have to. When you're on the draw, you should try to play an untapped red source and hold priority if possible to bluff Spikefield Hazard. This stops them from being able to play a turn two Fox and cycle, which gives you more time and a bigger window to kill it with Fire Prophecy.
They are almost always short on interaction in game one. The most they have main is usually up to two Disdainful Stroke and/or up to two Shredded Sails. Because of that you should be playing your Dragons early and aggressively, meaning, if you have a chance for a turn four Dragon, you should likely take it.
In postboard games you often have to play more patiently since they have a lot of outs to a resolved Dragon. They're likely going to have cards like Redcap Melee or Shredded Sails as well as more counterspells.
In the postboard games especially, your Dragon is almost always going to trade for their Disdainful Stroke. Unless they're aggroing you out with Fox, they'll almost always leave mana up and you can't really afford to cast Dragon plus Negate because you risk getting double flared. Eventually you just have to bite the bullet and start trading five-mana Dragons for their two-mana counterspells. It sucks, but sometimes they'll also not have it or they'll flood out on Strokes when you don't have Dragon.
Dragon is your only card that gets stroked, so there are a lot of hands where you don't ever actually have to cast it or you can loot them away to Seize the Spoils—but if you do this you have to be confident you're never going to cast a Dragon since their Strokes will never leave their hand.
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Whether you want Redcap Melee or not depends on if they keep Irencrag Pyromancer.
You're firmly the control deck in this matchup and a little ahead. Your combo stuff is mostly to provide card advantage. Vadrok is a good blocker, but awkward against Frost Bite. You can theoretically blank their copies of Frost Bite by holding Vadrok until you have a Dragon or by throwing them into Seize the Spoils or Prismari Command. It's sometimes awkward for them to have to hold up mana even for Frost Bite though, so the threat of playing Vadrok into Lore Drakkis taxes their ability to cast spells and/or activate Faceless Haven.
The Dragons aren't as good in this matchup and can sometimes be clunky, especially if we know they have Redcap Melee. They're hard to protect and aren't good blockers. Eventually they let you pressure your opponent, but usually the games are won on card advantage through looping removal spells. The best thing Dragon does is to serve as a mutate target that dodges Frost Bite.
You should default to casting your spells at the beginning of combat unless you have a strong reason to do otherwise. It's very easy to get punished by Embercleave if you wait until later, and Robber of the Rich does that automatically.
On the flip side, the only reason to mainphase removal is if they're tapped out and (a) you have Dragon and casting Cinderclasm on their turn might let Frost Bite kill it or (b) you are casting Fire Prophecy and worry about them killing their own creature to fizzle it.
Vadrok dies blocking Fireblade Charger if they have Bonecrusher Giant in hand.
Robber of the Rich has reach.
They can't mutate creatures that the Robber stole onto their own creatures. In spite of what the reminder text says, mutate actually requires the mutating spell and its target to have the same owner. If they want to mutate, they'll have to steal and cast another of your creatures first.
Cleave can be pretty awkward for them at times. If you have a way to blank Cleave in hand, it can be better to block in a way to force them to tap out for it rather than block for maximum value.
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This matchup is suprisingly good as well. The scariest card in their deck is Seasoned Hallowblade, but it's not actually that much of an issue. You can win games by using your removal, including Spikefield Hazard, as a Raven's Crime.
The reason this matchup is good for you is because they don't present a particularly fast clock and have trouble interacting with you. In game one the only interaction they have is Skyclave Apparition, Giant Killer // Chop Down, and the occasional main-deck Glass Casket. While Naya can sometimes develop while keeping up Chop Down, there's almost no way for Monowhite to do so. It's extremely telegraphed when they're holding Giant Killer, and they can't really afford to pass their turn to bluff. If they pass with three mana up and you cast Vadrok plus Drakkis, the game usually just ends.
Beyond that, the rest of their removal all comes at sorcery speed. You can either mutate above Goldspan Dragon to play around Chop Down or below to play around Apparition. However, getting apparitioned isn't even that bad because you'll get back a gigantic Illusion token (you get the sum of the mana values of the exiled cards), onto which you can then mutate again. Vadrok lines up well in this matchup. It blocks Faceless Haven and Legion Angel nicely, but be careful of Alseid of Life's Bounty and Selfless Savior. Prismari Command is very good in this matchup, and is especially backbreaking against Maul of the Skyclaves or if they acctually board in Glass Casket. Ramping is very strong in the matchup (because they don't have interaction) and the 2 damage is almost always live.
This matchup is also surprisingly good for you. It's very awkward to play from the Rogues side. You have enough removal that it's very hard for them to make any progress attacking you or your library, so they have to try to grind. Grinding is pretty hard for them though because they can't ever tap out and it's really hard to resolve Into the Story into our pile of Negates and Disputes. Don't open yourself up unless you have to; try to make it as awkward as possible for them to resolve Into the Story.
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It seems like the main way you lose this matchup is to stuff like Polukranos, Unchained and Elder Gargaroth. They're the beatdown in the matchup. They play Duress and threats while you try to make sure you have enough counterspells to stop them until you eventually can start looping. Unsubstantiate on Emergent Ultimatum is huge.
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In game one they pretty much have no interaction and Spikefield Hazard answering Magda, Brazen Outlaw in addition to the usual Adventures package is quite nice.
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This is another matchup where you want to fight over 1/1s instead of trying to kill Lovestruck Beast. Historically this strategy has not worked against these sorts of decks because of The Great Henge, but because we have Prismari Command we don't have to be so afraid of getting henged and can ignore the 5/5 Wall.
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Here you're fairly close to playing the same deck postboard, but trade some interaction for a combo-value finish. In game one that difference is more pronounced. This matchup is the main reason for the sideboard Mazemind Tome's as it is fairly hard to grind through them by mutating onto your creatures.
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Although the deck is quite good, it is also fairly difficult, so don't beat yourself up if you perform below your own expectations at first. The deck being a known quantity in full force will lead to people playing better against it and adapting their sideboards. However, I'd expect that process to take longer than the process to learn to play the deck to a proficient level.
Special thanks again to Tristan for providing me with the extensive notes that made this article possible!
Until next time,
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.