Remember the last time I published one of those silly Storm Count articles? Wait, don't go away just yet: this isn't one of them! Now then, I made a few comments about the then-upcoming Khans of Tarkir. The set was still largely a mystery at the time, but now it's out there, being drafted and incorporated into tournament decks and whatever else Magic players do these days. I even bought a bunch of the set myself. My set review for Khans of Tarkir should be out before this article, although it will have been a bit late, which is only partially my fault this time. But before I knew more details about the set, I expressed this concern...
Blue/black/green has historically been a good color combination for combo. But even when we got sets that emphasized color combinations, it wasn't one of them. Combo players could still use cards meant for blue/black, for blue/green, and for black/green together in decks, but that has some inherent limitations, with different Ravnica guilds employing totally different mechanics and all that. So I'm really excited for Khans of Tarkir. But I'm also apprehensive. There's the potential for the blue/black/green clan, Sultai, to introduce some really cool combo stuff into the game. But for all we know, the set could be at a lower power level than Theros and there could be nothing of interest. We'll see.
My use of the term “power level” is vague there, and deliberately so. At some point, I should get around to writing a boring, technical article qualifying what I think “power level” means, but for now, it remains vague. But most players talk about some concept like “power level” and have a rough understanding of it. While it's not tied to any one aspect of Magic, it deals with how quickly decks can begin doing what they're built to do, and with the kind of effects decks create in the game once they do start doing what they're built to do. Until a few years ago, it's generally recognized that the power level of new sets was very high, leading to faster Limited and Constructed formats and considerably shaking up Eternal formats. While this isn't, by itself, either good or bad for combo decks, it did give combo enthusiasts new toys to work with. But perhaps, as a combo enthusiast, I became spoiled. Lately, while new sets have given combo decks some new tools, there haven't been many cards promising to carve out their own niches as combo powerhouses. The entire Return to Ravnica block was almost entirely lacking anything that could produce cool new combo decks (exceptions include Balustrade Spy and Undercity Informer for creating the “Oops, All Spells!” deck, Rest in Peace for a new interaction with Helm of Obedience, and Guttersnipe for various shenanigans). And Theros block was even worse: an enchantment-themed block with almost no good enchantments in it, and nothing at all that could really power a good combo deck. The last such card was Young Pyromancer in the 2014 core set. For over a year, it stayed that way. Worse still, it became clear with new sets that Wizards of the Coast was trying (and seemingly succeeding) to pull the direction of the game more toward bland “midrange” decks across the board, which isn't the kind of environment that can contain combo. The combination of the lower power level and the shift in emphasis made me worry that the combo drought had no end in sight—until now.
My apprehension about Sultai cards and what they could do for combo was met with mixed results. But I'm not disappointed: the Sultai Brood introduced some very good cards, including what is probably the most powerful card in the set, Treasure Cruise.
I think the “Delvecestral Recall” nickname is even catching on. I commented on how I perceive the power level of the set as as whole in my review, and I'll try not to repeat myself now. But I am hopeful that this set marks the end of the combo drought. And it's not the Sultai Brood that gives me this hope, although there's some potential there...
No, the new Sultai cards, while sometimes very cool, mostly give control tools to work with, rather than combo. And Sultai just doesn't have a card to build a combo deck around, a new standard-bearer to do what Young Pyromancer did for combo. Well, the Sultai Brood might not, but Khans of Tarkir does.
Each of the five clans has its own three-mana “asendancy” enchantment. My favorite clan, the Sultai, get a wannabe Sylvan Library.
While it isn't bad, it's really just a filter and slow graveyard-filler. The only sort of combo deck that could use this would be a slow, controlling deck with a combo finish (perhaps Empty the Pits).
When it comes to combo potential, most of the other clan “ascendancy” enchantments don't provide much more. The Abzan one gives a boost that Outlast creatures can use, and it acts as a token-generator when combined with creature recursion.
Temur Ascendancy puts itself in a weird place. It definitely synergizes with beefy creatures, but it exists in a set that, with those colors, allows players to simply play beefy creatures without needing to wait. I mean, this is a three-drop...
And so is this...
Mardu Ascendancy is amazing for aggro, but doesn't really lend itself toward a combo deck.
And then there's Jeskai Ascendancy...
Right away, players caught on to the potential for spell chains, and there were attempts to create new combo decks exploiting this card. I was aware of that when I wrote my article, but I hadn't really looked into Jeskai Asendancy, and I was skeptical. If it had been a monoblue card with the same properties, I'd probably have extolled its superb combo potential. But with its imposing color restriction, I worried that it wouldn't be practical. I had a lot of other cards to review, so I reluctantly left it at...
Jeskai Ascendancy: Not sure what to think of this one.
I moved on and continued editing that article. The day after I submitted it for publication, I began regretting my terse treatment of Jeskai Ascendancy. Here was the set's most obvious combo engine, and in a Comboist set review, my statement was basically, “I don't know.” So I aim to rectify that. Here, behold a decklist that some other person, not me, came up with...
4x Mana Confluence
4x Misty Rainforest
2x Verdant Catacombs
1x Breeding Pool
1x Stomping Ground
2x Temple Garden
4x Birds of Paradise
4x Noble Hierarch
4x Sylvan Caryatid
4x Gitaxian Probe
4x Serum Visions
4x Sleight of Hand
4x Cerulean Wisps
1x Crimson Wisps
4x Glittering Wish
3x Jeskai Ascendancy
4x Treasure Cruise
4x Leyline of Sanctity
3x Swan Song
1x Jeskai Ascendancy
1x Simic Charm
1x Abrupt Decay
1x Guttural Response
1x Wear // Tear
1x Fiery Justice
1x Flesh // Blood
1x Scarscale Ritual
Yes, I actually just provided a decklist from the Modern format. Don't worry, I won't stop making fun of Modern, the format in which Deathrite Shaman is banned. But in this case, Modern is probably the most sensible choice. The power of Jeskai Ascendancy in that format, which has a large pool of cards and access to combo components that can make the enchantment function well but also has slower gameplay than Legacy, has already been demonstrated. If there's only one environment in which Jeskai Ascendancy will be successful, it's probably Modern. But I'm hoping that the card can do even more. Players are also trying to make Jeskai Ascendancy combo an archetype in Standard and Legacy. In Legacy and Modern, the principle is, more or less, the same. Creatures that tap for mana can enable cheap cantrips, which in turn untaps those mana-producing creatures, makes them bigger, and gives some filtering in order to keep the chain going. Once Jeskai Ascendancy is on the battlefield, these are very much Pattern C decks, although they behave more like Pattern B decks prior to that (see this article if you aren't familiar with those terms).
If a deck can get Jeskai Ascendancy on the battlefield, this kind of combo can kill pretty quickly. Spells that essentially cast for free, such as Gitaxian Probe, Manamorphose, Land Grant, and Noxious Revival provide a boost to mana, which can stabilize a long chain of card-drawing spells. Sensei's Divining Top can also ensure smooth spell-chaining, and drawing a second copy allows for an easy loop. Enlightened Tutor or Glittering Wish can help make third turn Ascendancy plays more likely. Cards like Fatestitcher and Obsessive Search work well when discarded to Jeskai Ascendancy. There are also options like Treasure Cruise and Ideas Unbound for generating more card advantage to keep the engine going. And this kind of deck can even go infinite, with options for doing that including View from Above, Regrowth, and Reborn Hope. There's definitely a plethora of options, but there are also limitations: the deck needs an appropriate composition in order to go off with Ascendancy on the battlefield and it needs quick access to get Ascendancy out in time for the combo to have a good chance of winning. Whether this will be good enough to compete with existing combo in Legacy and Modern is still uncertain, but I have my hopes up.
In Standard, one-drop creatures that tap for blue mana aren't really available, nor are awesome fuel cards for a spell chain engine, but players are still attempting to use this enchantment with token swarms and burn spells. I don't know if this will pan out, but it's interesting to see how, even with such a constrained set of tools to work with, players are able to exploit this fascinating new card. Time will tell whether the hype was warranted, but I, for one, will be keeping an eye on Jeskai Ascendancy.