I’m a creature of conflicts it seems.  My favorite color in Magic is black, but my favorite three color combo is Jeskai. There is a bit of a problem there – Jeskai commanders suck. Sure they can be competitive and super powerful, but if you are looking to relax and jam some games with friends, then Jeskai starts causing problems. This is a terrible problem, because I really wanted a Jeskai deck that was enjoyable to play with and to play against.

First things first, though…

History of Jeskai

In the beginning, there was darkness. Then in Planar Chaos, WotC gave us Numot, the Devastator. Numot quickly became infamous in EDH for taking over games in really unfun ways. Many EDH players despise mass land destruction, and Numot is incredible using mass land destruction and his effect to keep everyone down. You don’t need to target the player you attack with his ability, and you can split the lands. One Armageddon and Numot makes the whole table unable to actually catch up. Not exactly fun.

For many years, this was the only available legend in these colors. Then, Commander 2011 was released…and there was much rejoicing. But then, we read the not-yet-called-“Jeskai” legends…and there was much sadness to be had. Ruhan of the Fomori can’t be controlled. While this isn’t terrible, it takes away choices from the controller. Some enjoy the random aspect, but unlike Vial Smasher the Fierce (discussed last week) all aspects are random. Vial Smasher deals random damage, but you control what spells you play. Vial Smasher turns burn spells into two-for-ones, but Ruhan’s random attacks limit your ability to address your threats. It also puts itself at risk of random bad attacks.

The other new release was Zedruu the Greathearted.

The gazelle-minotaur.

-Now, this thing has neat abilities. She’s wonderful…if you don’t plan to actually win the game. Simply play all the group hug cards you can and Donate them to your opponents. This quickly imbalances games (to your detriment and defeat.)

The adjustment is group hug-into-punishment. You play Aggressive Mining, Illusions of Grandeur, Steel Golem/Grid Monitor, Bronze Bombshell, and others. Donate them away to hamstring your opponents. Many of these cards can be utterly devastating when cast early; a quick Aggressive Mining can shut down a stumbling opponent.

The third – and possibly more popular – option for Zedruu is group hug-into-combo. I’ll admit it – I have done this. Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker with Sky Hussar and the variations of it, Palinchron combos with Mana Flare…even storm combos or infinite turns are possible. After all,Zedruu provides life and cards, which are two very important resources to enable combo decks.

For years this was the fate of Jeskai decks. WUR had notorious commanders – or just plain bad ones (Ruhan, I’m looking at you). Tables would distrust any WUR deck before it did anything. If the deck wasn’t trying to combo off or lock the table down, chances are the general was just for the colors. This dark time continued until the release of Khans of Tarkir.

Jeskai by Name

When Khans of Tarkir released, ‘Jeskai’ became a thing. This gave WUR a stronger identity and something concrete to say instead of just naming off the colors. But there was yet another dark cloud on the horizon.

Narset, Enlightened Master is a fantastically cool card. She attacks into free spells! Walkers can be cast for free, equipment, draw spells, ramp – really, anything we flip. Sure…she can’t play creatures, but in Jeskai most decks already ran only a few creatures to begin with.

The challenges came when the Narset deck was “solved” before the set was even released. The internet hive mind found the critical mass of extra turns, extra combat phases, evasion, and explosive ramp potential to turn Narset into another Jeskai combo deck with a single critical hexproof piece. Before casual junkies could make a Prowess deck with the new goodies, the deck was tainted for many players. Narset Super Friends was the less-powerful-but-still-remarkably-strong deck that was the “casual” approach to getting every bit of value from Narset possible.

Fate Reforged provided another Jeskai commander – Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest. In one capacity he functions as an interesting support commander, enabling double strike all over the place. However, the card also screams VOLTRON! Which…is what about 100% of us did. I tackled Shu Yun for a Sunforger-based deck.  (Who didn’t? – Ed.) It was still Voltron through and through. Shu Yun has a very easy time killing a player by turn five.

Though Jeskai decks in tournament settings had many varieties and moving pieces, casual Commander suffered. The decks were one note, had been done to death, and lacked a creative push for players. Once again, everything settled into goodstuff builds, taking turns, infinite loops, and Voltron kills from nowhere. Jeskai remained in a position where many players were instantly suspicious due to every general’s infamous reputation. Combatting this lead to players getting more efficient with the decks.

This didn’t help the reputations.

Enter Partners

I’ll admit, I was down on the Partner mechanic at first. I really wanted four-color commanders. Instead, WotC gave us Partners so we could build our own four color decks. The Partners do work in making four color decks, but I do not think this is their best use. Combining Silas Renn, Seeker Adept with Akiri, Line Slinger or Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder works fine, but you usually end up building to one general with the other functioning as a lieutenant.

The Partner cards do shine in three-color combinations. Partners allow new focuses for decks and the chance to move away from infamy for certain color combinations – Esper and Jeskai probably benefit the most from the addition of partners.

In a three color combination the Partners are better able to support each other. Even if they have a different focus, you can find overlap and push that theme to make the deck fun. The best thing for the Jeskai partners is that nothing screams ‘combo’ or ‘unfun’ to the table. Numot signals that lands are going to die, even if he’s the only card that does that; Akiri, Line-Slinger is the only Jeskai option that actually signals anything. The others are all extremely modular that benefit most EDH archetypes.

The first and worst Partner is Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist. This is the saddest Partner commander. Group hug effects on the famous Ludevic? Fine..  let’s do this. Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker gets counters from people playing spells – they need cards to do that.  Ludevic gives cards if other people get hurt, so they mostly support each other.  The good thing is that they curve into each other quickly, and Ludevic’s four toughness can hold the ground for a bit without needing to soup him up. But totem armor would help him hold the line for Ishai.

Ludevic and Akiri, Line-Slinger would be my choice for a Jeskai artifacts deck. The extra card is a nice perk – he can come down while you build up a board and then Akiri shows up to drop the hammer. You can also go a mad science/daredevil theme deck with Akiri jumping off cliffs and hoping to avoid rope burn, and Ludevic making a monster and wondering how bad it could be.

I am not a fan of Ludevic and Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder. There are certainly decks there, but I don’t think they support each other like the others do.

Moving away from Ludevic himself, Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus is one of my favorite new commanders. I blame this entirely on my love (and small obsession) with Jori En, Ruin Diver. Kraum is a big, hasty, reverse-Jori En. You don’t usually draw as many cards, but I have no problems slowing down my opponents because they don’t want to give me a card. Alone, he can fill in several roles from control, to combo, to aggro…or even a theme deck.

However, when you start adding partners, the options get fantastic. Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker with Kraum provides a great commander pairing for Jeskai control. Ishai gets bigger to punish opponents for playing spells, and Kraum keeps you flush with cards. They also work well in a more aggressive deck that still wants late game reach or a ‘judo’ deck.  I’ve taken the Jori En judo deck and turned it into a three color deck using these two legends; I really like their ability to aid closing out a game.

Kraum and Akiri, Line-Slinger don’t seem to pair as well, but Akiri’s love of artifacts can provide two different voltron options to take down your opponents. Kraum also adds some good blue options for artifact shenanigans and draw spells to shore up the biggest weakness in W/R EDH decks.

Kraum and Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder work together more effectively than Akiri in my experience. I like Bruse’s ability to double strike Kraum, and they curve into each other wonderfully. As an added bonus, Bruse doesn’t need artifact support, which leaves you free to tackle any archetype. Don’t forget – Bruse gives lifelink in addition to double strike.

Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker does great things for partners. She needs no support to make her effective, and her ability can assist aggressive and controlling decks with equal ease. I’ve already discussed the benefits of combining her with the U/R commanders to make a Jeskai deck. Combining her with W/R can do things in some interesting places. Akiri, Line-Slinger loves her artifacts. A few spare defensive pieces or an extra sword turns Ishai into a killing machine. As your opponents spend resources to keep Akiri under control, Ishai continues to grow. These two in an aggressive shell present a “damned if you, damned if you don’t” option to your opponents. I love doing this to opponents (it’s why I like Kraum and Ishai in my judo build).
My second favorite Jeskai pairing is Ishai and Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder. This deck ideally functions like a ballista; you draw the bolt back, further and further, adding more power to the eventual release. Your opponents are playing spells, while you’re just holding back defensively and keeping Ishai alive. Then, when the opportunity presents itself you cast Bruse and double-strike Ishai. She one shots an opponent and gains you back at least 21 life. Boom!

This gets better because Bruse can attack the next turn, target Ishai again, and you can finish off another opponent. If Bruse dies, you can easily recast him and finish the final player. I find the tempo approach – where you keep just one threat out and protected – a fun challenge in EDH. Plus, with these two commanders, you can play anything else in the deck and have fun. Aggressive, pillow fort, control, tempo, art theme where the background is gorgeous and being blocked by a dumb bird or a big shirtless guy or whatever the foreground is. These two support everything. Ishai doesn’t necessarily help Bruse the way he helps her in return, but they enable a lot.

Jeskai and You

Have you made a Jesaki deck that deviates from the infamous turns, fast combo, or MLD options? What did you try out? If you haven’t tackled Jeskai then take a second look at the partners and let me know which combo catches your eye. Jeskai decks have tons of options for builds; have a strong early, mid, and late game; and they can recover from everything your opponents throw at you.

Let me know how the partners have made Jeskai or another color combo fun for you and your group in the comments or Twitter.

-Erik