Feature: Losing Control

Posted in Feature on September 3, 2011

By Blake Rasmussen

Blake is the content manager for DailyMTG.com, making him the one you should email if you have thoughts on the website, good or less good (or not good). He's a longtime coverage reporter and hasn't turned down a game of Magic in any format ever.

Players at Philadelphia have discovered that Modern has a multitude of deck options, from Affinity to various flavors of Zoo to Twelvepost, Pyromancer Ascension, several types of Storm decks, Melira-based decks, and Elves, among others. But one thing they haven't had as much luck finding is a strong control deck.

Of the decks that went 4-1 or better on Day One, only three could be classified as anything resembling a control deck, among them Antonino De Rosa's Death Cloud deck and Brad Sheppard's Next Level Blue deck.

The problem, said Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, was that the extremes of the format were just too, well, extreme.

"I think that Cloudpost decks make control hard to build, because they out-mana you," Damo da Rosa said. "Even the combo decks are hard to stop."

He said he and the ChannelFireball crew tried a variety of ways to make control work, including Vendilion Clique, Spellstutter Sprite, Aven Mindcensor, various Swords, Tarmogoyfs, and a Mystical Teachings deck.

But in the end, he said, they couldn't figure out a way to beat two of the three pillars of the format: Zoo, Cloudpost, and combo.

Next-Level Blue?

One player who did think he found a way to attack those decks is Brad Sheppard, whose Bant Next-Level Blue deck took him to a 4-1 record in Modern, beating combo, agro and big mana decks along the way.

Watch for a Deck Tech on Sheppard's list later today, but the thing to know is that all of the usual suspects are in his list: Tarmogoyf, Vendilion Clique, Spell Snare, Cryptic Command, and Path to Exile. He's also running Spellstutter Sprite, Preordain, Sword of Feast and Famine, Vedalken Shackles and Engineered Explosives to round out a list he says absolutely destroys combo decks and has a solid match-up against aggro decks. The weakness, he admits, is Cloudpost decks, and even after sideboard he says the match-up isn't any better than 50/50.

One thing he did bemoan was a lack of card advantage, something Gerry Thompson pointed out was a massive weakness for control decks in the format.

Thompson, who worked with Patrick Chapin on a control deck prior to the tournament, said control decks are forced to play a bunch of cheap answers to match the speed of the format, but lack any good way to catch back up on card advantage later.

Several traditional card drawing spells just didn't cut it, he said. There weren't enough playable artifacts for Thirst for Knowledge, Gifts Ungiven didn't have enough good piles, and Mystical Teachings was far too slow.

But, Thompson said, he's not even sure additional card drawing would make things easier on control mages.

"I don't think even unbanning Ancestral Vision does it. I don't even think Jace does it."

Even more troubling to Thompson and Chapin was a way to finish games. Thompson said Vendilion Cliques and Creeping Tar Pits just didn't do it in a format where Glimmerpost can uncounterably gain enough life to negate several attacks. They determined they needed a combo finish to end games quickly enough, and at that point just opted to play combo.

If even the mighty Jace, the Mind Sculptor can't do it and Vendilion Clique can't even race a Glimmerpost, where is a control player to turn?

Death Cloud

The answer, it seems, might not be blue after all.

Death Cloud

Former US National Champ Antonino De Rosa went 5-0 in Modern on Day One with a Death Cloud deck that preemptively attacks players' hands and looks to shut them down with the late-game combination of Garruk Wildspeaker and the deck's namesake sorcery.

"It doesn't matter what cards they have in their hand, because Thoughtseize takes them," De Rosa said.

Between discard like Thoughtseize and removal like Doom Blade, the deck can control opponents on two fronts, giving it game against both creature-based decks and combo decks.

To add to the allure, De Rosa said that cards that are traditionally weak against combo, like Doom Blade and Damnation, gain a lot of relevance in Modern because many of the combo decks are creature based. Doom Blade is just as effective against Splinter Twin, Elves, Infect, and Melira decks as it is against Zoo.

To solve the finisher problem, De Rosa simply shuts the door on their mana base with Death Cloud, which also conveniently keeps Cloudpost decks in check.

Additionally, Death Cloud gets to play the spell that De Rosa says is the "best card drawing spell in the format" in Eternal Witness.

The face of Death Cloud.

In true control player fashion, De Rosa warns that the deck doesn't have any overwhelmingly strong match-ups. He said the deck is likely 60% against the field, but that he had to "get a little lucky" to go 5-0 again on Day Two.

However, there are still options that seem unexplored. Shadow of Doubt appeared underplayed as a cantripping way to fight fetch lands and Cloudpost decks, Logic Knot has potential as a two-mana counterspell, and Chapin himself said he wished he had played a control deck after missing out on Day Two with a combo deck.

Now that the format is a bit more defined, there are plenty of opportunities to find a control deck. Will Sheppard's Next Level Blue be able to adapt to the metagame? Will discard-based "control" become the wave of the future? Or will someone find another, as-yet-undiscovered angle?

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