Different Kinds of Control

Posted in Top Decks on February 12, 2009

By Mike Flores

In honor of Domain Week, I thought I'd open this one up with arguably the most successful "Domain" deck* as played by arguably the most successful Magic player.

(*All due respect to Kai's fellow Hall of Fame member Raphael Levy and his domain-based Gaea's Might Get There.)

Kai Budde's Domain

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This was a Grand Prix–winning deck from the first time we had Worldly Counsel and so on in Block Constructed. This is what we think of as a classic "Domain" deck (as opposed to, say, Domain Zoo).

Kai's deck was all about power. This deck could do basically anything. If the mana was there, the Domain deck could play essentially any spell in the format. How often is it that you have a card-drawing spell that is preferable to Fact or Fiction? In this case, instead of splitting five cards, you get to keep all five (with Allied Strategies). Ordered Migration was a kind of Dragon ... 5 power and 5 toughness for five mana, split five different ways for potential defense. Collective Restraint was ... well, it was just very good at keeping opponents off, and relatively early.

However in the long game, legitimate bombs like Legacy Weapon (destroy anything) and Yawgmoth's Agenda (do anything all over again) could ensure a slow, painful, and usually successful (eventually) campaign.

So can this kind of deck make a comeback with the return of the domain mechanic in Conflux?

Possibly in Standard ....

I think that Exploding Borders is probably a mite too expensive for a basic land search card, and a little narrow for its "Tribal Flames" side, but Voices from the Void has a very Mind Sludge feel to it. The original Domain players never really got a chance to use Rampant Growth, and with the incredible gold cards available in Standard, there might just be enough incentive with Worldly Counsel to lace all the cards together ... like the "Quick n' Toast" five-color control deck, but a little more formal.

That is, unless the little tiny blue creatures have something to say about it ...

... Which is my painfully inelegant way of transitioning to the next kind of control deck.

Today the most prevalent kind of control deck in Standard or Extended is typically aligned to the Faeries tribe. As we are in the midst of an Extended PTQ season, I am going to focus on the latter format and remind you that Faerie Wizards is the most popular deck in the current Extended. So popular, in fact, that seven of the eight decks to make the single elimination rounds of a recent Burlington, NC PTQ featured both Vendilion Clique and Umezawa's Jitte!

Just look at the most recent week's worth of PTQ blue and grey boxes:

Faerie Wizards2 Wins, 10 Top 8s
Affinity1 Win, 4 Top 8s
Black-Green No Cloud1 Win, 1 Top 8
Bant Aggro Control1 Win
Storm5 Top 8s
Elves4 Top 8s
Naya Beatdown3 Top 8s
Green-Blue Control2 Top 8s
All-In Red1 Top 8
Black-Green Death Cloud1 Top 8
Lightning Bolt1 Top 8
Mono-Red Burn1 Top 8
Tezzerator1 Top 8
'Tron1 Top 8

... But we've talked about Faeries several times already this season. It is arguably the most flexible deck in the format, capable of playing a tempo-oriented game deploying Vendilion Clique and Venser, Shaper Savant at the end of turn, dominating creature decks with the power of Vedalken Shackles and Umezawa's Jitte, or playing Counter-Sliver, protecting the clock with its light permission.

Faerie Wizards is a fine anti-combination deck in general (it is particularly well suited at smothering Glimpse of Nature amp;c. with Spellstutter Sprite), yet—as we discussed last week—has sizable issues with the popular Storm decks.

All in all this is a strange segue into the principle topic of this week, White-Blue 'Tron.

Let's look back to the week of January 17-18, the week of Grand Prix–Los Angeles. There was an oldie-but-goodie with a blue box next to its name...

Faerie Wizards2 Wins, 8 Top 8s
'Tron1 Win
Storm3 Top 8s
Black-Green Death Cloud2 Top 8s
Lightning Bolt 2 Top 8s
Astral Slide1 Top 8
Blue-Black Faeries1 Top 8
Black-Green No Cloud1 Top 8
Elves1 Top 8
Red-White-Blue Rogue1 Top 8
Zoo1 Top 8

Through another week of smiling Faeries (and two Faerie Wizards wins!) we see a control favorite with a powerful mana base:

Nicholas Gulledge's White-Blue 'Tron

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White-Blue 'Tron decks play somewhat similarly to conventional white-blue control decks, descendants of Weissman all. They have permission and card draw from blue, Wrath of God from white. The difference is that because 'Tron decks have to dedicate more than half of their mana bases to colorless lands, these decks typically try to cheat a bit on colored mana costs. That is why you will usually see a spell like Condescend in a deck like this, or Remand in some versions, despite the fact that the former was never widely played outside of these kinds of decks and the latter has lost a lot of favor (though also, of course, a nod to the fact that Condescend or Remand can help dig you to a full 'Tron).

But when we say "somewhat" we mean that there is a steep incentive to playing 'Tron over regular white-blue. That is the opportunity to play incredibly expensive spells, such as Spell Burst with the buyback, Sundering Titan on eight, or Mindslaver and the activation on ten. The 'Tron deck plays a bigger Decree of Justice and has a lot of card-drawing redundancy (this version plays eight copies total of Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven), which other control decks just can't muster.

Using its card advantage, 'Tron can afford to play one-for-one (or near one-for-one) Magic, relying on the card drawing to build incremental advantages ... not dissimilar to the progressive positional jockeying of a deck like The Rock, but with more immediate power and typically more dramatic effect.

White-Blue 'Tron has Tolaria West, which accomplishes several objectives for this deck. First of all, Tolaria West can complete the 'Tron, matching up Urza’a Mines, Urza’s Power Plants, and Urza’s Towers. It can grab the singleton Academy Ruins for Mindslaver recursion, or it can find the necessary zeroes in the deck list: Chalice of the Void for combo decks, Engineered Explosives for little creatures, or Tormod's Crypt for the opposite graveyard.

Due to its half-nature as a white-blue control deck, this sort of a 'Tron can play flexible defense. For example, it can hold the ground while gaining life with Kitchen Finks against Zoo, disrupt a combo deck while summoning a reasonable clock with Vendilion Clique, or lock the Lightning Bolt deck completely out of the game with Circle of Protection: Red.

It is generally a mistake to assume that drawing a single sideboard card will defeat a prepared opponent playing a top combo deck. For example Chalice of the Void will usually slow a Storm deck down somewhat, but if you don't have your opponent on a clock, you can expect to lose, eventually, to Shattering Spree and the scripted combo. However, a deck like 'Tron can lace together many advantages, for example its card advantage to draw its spoilers, or to stack multiple (possible) "I win" cards one on top of the next.

Here is a video that I think outlines exactly that sentiment. It is about playing White-Blue 'Tron sideboarded and shows Chalice of the Void and Vendilion Clique buying precious turns against a couple of different Extended combo decks:

While 'Tron's remaining half-nature as a big-mana deck affords it the fabulous threat base we described, its mana is also a potential weak spot. There may be no juicier Molten Rain target in Extended than Urza's Tower ... and when the guy who invented All-In Red crammed all those Blood Moons and Magus of the Moons into the starting 60, he was salivating at the thought of a mana base with maybe one basic land. Yes, 'Tron does supplement colored mana and acceleration with Chrome Mox and Azorius Signet, but it would be foolish to discount that potential Achilles heel.

Like Storm, 'Tron benefits at least somewhat from the dominance of Faerie Wizards in Extended. While the little blue guys are by no means a bye, 'Tron's extremely expensive spells are outside of Spellstutter Sprite's easy grasp (and Cryptic Command is not yet a four-of staple in Extended Faeries decks); that said, Glen Elendra Archmage is superb against this creature-poor strategy, and the rise in that spell might make for a sticky matchup where once there was a clear path.

But the itchiest patch of skin on the 'Tron deck's back has got to be Gaddock Teeg. This little troublemaker is a particular thorn in the 'Tron deck's side. You see, 'Tron has all of these super-expensive noncreature spells, such as Mindslaver, Decree of Justice, and even Gifts Ungiven—all nixed. Even the previous 'Tron anti-creature slot of Repeal was locked out ... and you certainly can't Wrath of God out of this problem

As a result, many 'Tron players have gone with Oblivion Ring as a one-for-one option that can slide under Teeg's four-mana ceiling; this deck is no exception, but it would not be out of the realm of possibility to see Path to Exile in the near future (and coming the other way, this deck has already got at least one basic Plains!).

With that said, I think that there are two new Conflux cards that can improve the already imminently viable White-Blue 'Tron deck in Extended:

  1. Path to Exile – I've said before that this is going to be one of the best Constructed cards in the new set, and positioning it in an Extended 'Tron deck is an essentially perfect way to showcase its speed, flexibility, and power. Gaddock Teeg is literally the most annoying thing that a 'Tron deck has to deal with, with that little Grizzly Bears stopping basically everything in the deck short of a Triskelion (and even the permanent-hating Repeals out of some versions). However Path to Exile makes short work of Gaddock Teeg, especially at the end of the opponent's turn, so that 'Tron can untap and crush with Mindslaver or what have you.
  2. Martial Coup – This card is a mite expensive as a Wrath of God, but 'Tron is the deck that can get away with a seven mana or more expensive threat. Compare Martial Coup to, say, Sundering Titan. For eight mana it could have a similarly sweeping effect on the board ... and potentially more devastating, depending on the opponent. This is a card that plays offense and defense simultaneously, and can even have a "Fireball" feel to it. I don't know that it will replace the draw-fixing cycler Decree of Justice, but Martial Coup's Wrath of God redundancy is not something that you will quickly want to overlook. There is value in simply playing more "stuff" than the opponent is willing to deal with, and sometimes the opponent overcommits simply to bleed out your two-for-ones with more gas in the kitty. When you start playing six Wrath of Gods ... That plan works not so much; especially when numbers five and six spit out Dragon-sized threats.

Now on the subject of Dragon-sized threats, I want to leave you with a final White-Blue 'Tron video, this time focusing on the deck's fabulous offense. Remember: 'Tron features dramatic threats due to its massive mana generation ability, rivaling combo decks while still sitting essentially in the control neck of the metagame woods. Versions like this one will typically kill the opponent with ...

  1. Sundering Titan – The 7/10 is huge and tends to have a more damaging effect on the opponent than the 'Tron deck, even when 'Tron is losing multiple lands. Remember: You are the one with a three-turn clock in play, and you probably have the full-on 'Tron down if you just spat out an eight.
  2. Mindslaver lock – Any Mindslaver is usually pretty bad for the recipient, but the Mindslaver lock is essentially a game win, even if it would practically take forty turns to finish the game. When you have Academy Ruins plus twelve more mana (including at least one blue source), you can lock the opponent completely down with Mindslaver. You need ten mana to play and sacrifice the Mindslaver, and an additional two plus the Academy Ruins to put it back on top of your deck every turn. Therefore when you have all this machinery and you successfully stick the Mindslaver, you imply a win. Played correctly, your combination ensures that the opponent never really gets another turn, and by the very nature of it, you will never deck out. As long as you tap your opponent out each turn, there is rarely any way out.

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