Getting Standard under Control

Posted in Top Decks on December 12, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

When Return to Ravnica block rotated out of Standard, so did the most dominant true control deck of the format, and there hasn't been any one deck that has taken its spot. Sphinx's Revelation just made it too easy to build a long-game control deck, and Supreme Verdict, Azorius Charm, and Detention Sphere were no slouches either. While we don't have such obvious building blocks around anymore, that does mean we aren't as locked in to playing Hallowed Fountain if we want to play a very controlling deck. The Azorius guild had a stranglehold on such decks before, but now their power and influence has faded, and a mage looking to control the game has a number of legitimate paths to go down.

When I say "true control," I mean a deck that has fewer creatures, more removal, and more sources of card advantage than a midrange deck. Some decks blur the line a little, such as the four-to-six Planeswalker versions of Abzan, but it is pretty clear that Blue-Black Perilous Vault or Mardu with sweepers are interested only in controlling the game. It's actually Siege Rhino's fault when it comes to these half midrange half control decks, which isn't the first or last time I've said that. Siege Rhino is just too efficient at playing defense to leave out of a control deck, but playing one on turn three can accidentally kill the opponent, which is pretty embarrassing for any deck that really wants to be control. Winning with a control deck should take agonizingly long, and beating the opponent with a quick Rhino or two is a huge faux pas.

When deciding to play control in the first place, you have to have an incentive to make a long-game deck. Why is it better to play fewer threats and focus on survival over winning? Sometimes the answer is that it isn't, and that's when aggro and midrange decks run rampant, as playing removal and threats is more effective than playing removal and card advantage.

The threats these days are insanely good, so I can't blame anyone for packing their deck full of cards like Fleecemane Lion, Siege Rhino, Goblin Rabblemaster, Seeker of the Way, or Savage Knuckleblade. That being said, there is room to gain advantage by blanking all or most of the opponent's removal spells, and by playing a deck that will win as long as it doesn't lose (which is a classic tenet of control decks).

Let's start with a deck that nobody would confuse for anything but control, a deck filled to the brim with counterspells, sweepers, removal, and—most importantly—card draw.

Thomas Enevoldsen's UB Control—Top 8, World Magic Cup

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Denmark won the World Magic Cup in part due to the strength of UB Control, although I suspect that part of the reason the deck was selected was because it made use of many cards that the other decks didn't want. Perilous Vault has ended up being surprisingly powerful, but so far this is the only deck that's really harnessed it, and the format was Team Unified Constructed, which meant that all three decks on the team were restricted to four of each card among the three of them.

What I like about UB (besides feeling compelled to bring up any deck with four Dig Through Time) is that it blanks all the removal spells the opponent has while going over the top of midrange decks and other control decks with ease. Given enough time, this deck can deal with everything, and Dig Through Time and Jace's Ingenuity makes sure it always has the cards to do so. Perilous Vault plus hand disruption and hard counters is a flexible and powerful suite of answers, and even decks like Whip and Green Devotion don't have as robust a late game as this deck. This is the closest analog in the format to Ravnica-era WU Control, with Vault playing a Detention Sphere/Supreme Verdict mashup and Dig Through Time doing its best to make up for the loss of Sphinx's Revelation (that's delving a little deep, as Revelation is irreplaceable, but it's the best we've got).

The main weakness of UB is the same weakness that control decks always have, which is decks with cards that cost one and two mana. Some control decks are better than others at resisting aggro, and this is about the worst that I've ever seen. Very few cards trade favorably for a one-drop, and even though Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow help stem the tide, this is not the deck to play if you expect to face a ton of aggressive decks. A game plan built around nine-mana sweepers, three-mana counterspells, and five+-mana draw spells is not the kind of game plan that survives contact with Firedrinker Satyr and friends. UB does a number on midrange and slow green decks, so if you expect to spend more time in the woods and less in the mountains, UB is the deck to play.

That brings us to Elspeth, who has been a champion of control decks for as long as she's existed. I prefer a more focused and less aggressive approach to deck building, and sometimes that can be quite effective, which is where Elspeth comes in. She makes it worth trying to survive, as she will win most games by herself, especially when supported by the proper removal spells. You don't need creatures when you have Elspeth, and that extra space gives you so much room for card draw and more removal.

There are a number of controlling decks that feature Elspeth, the first of which has a lot more red and black cards than I'm used to playing in control.

Mardu Control

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This looks suspiciously like the Mardu Midrange deck that's been a solid part of Standard, but thankfully it cut all the cards that could accidentally win the game in favor of more ways to kill the opponent's cards that can win the game (plus a full set of Read the Bones). All of a sudden, I've become interested, and can see myself playing a non-blue control deck for the first time in a very long time. Blue has been a mainstay in control for so long because of control's desperate need for card draw, but thanks to Reid Duke's namesake card, that is no longer the case. Scry 2 plus draw two is a solid effect, and one that can find whatever the deck is missing at an efficient-enough rate that it can support trying to play six+ lands while killing everything the opponent dares challenge you with.

Anger of the Gods is a cheap sweeper that shines against aggro, and cards like Hero's Downfall, Crackling Doom, and End Hostilities sweep up whatever is left. The removal in this deck is truly fantastic, and the combination of cheap removal, unconditional removal, and the Diabolic Edict effect of Crackling Doom makes it so no threat is safe. Black and red have their strengths when it comes to killing things dead, and this deck sure takes advantage of that.

The threats aren't quite as minimalist as Blue-Black, which often uses two Pearl Lake Ancients (or in the case of Enevoldsen's deck, four Ashioks), but two Elspeths, two Sarkhans, and one Empty the Pits is a pretty lean package. Both Elspeth and Sarkhan double as removal/card advantage, with Empty being the only focused finisher, which is how you can tell that this really is a control deck. If you can't win the game without looking like you might get decked, you aren't truly a control deck. Luckily, Empty the Pits will kill the opponent as long as it's not the actual bottom card of the deck, barring some strange game involving gaining 200 life off Whip of Erebos. That lets this deck focus on killing the opponent's stuff instead of the opponent, which saves it cards and effort.

This deck is certainly much better against aggro decks, but it does give up some percentage against control and other late-game decks like Devotion or Whip. Thoughtseize is more efficient than Dissolve, but as we are fond of saying during testing, discard doesn't have protection from topdecks (just replace "topdecks" with something a little cruder and you have the actual quote). When the opponent draws a Whip of Erebos or Elspeth on turn twelve, Thoughtseize rots in your hand while Dissolve solves the problem. Similarly, cards like Lightning Strike, Bile Blight, and Anger of the Gods are cheaper, but cards like Perilous Vault and Silence the Believers handle a much wider range of threats.

I would look to play Mardu control in a field of smaller decks, a field where you expect to face aggro and midrange a lot more than other control and comboish decks.

I can't in good faith leave Abzan out when talking about control decks, especially Elspeth-based ones, but as I said before, it really does inhabit the space between midrange and control. If decks are a spectrum, with one-drop aggro on one side and a deck that kills with Nephalia Drownyard on the other, this is about 70% of the way toward the Drownyard side of things.


Ben Stark once called Nephalia Drownyard the most fun card in Standard, which is saying something. I'm not sure if he liked it for its game play, flavor, or both, but it takes a special kind of mind to think that inexorably milling someone out, three cards at a time, is the most fun one can have playing Magic. That I agree wholeheartedly is neither here nor there.

End Aside

Abzan may have a zoo's worth of animals ready to tear its opponents apart, but there are still builds that I would classify as control, and Shaun McLaren's deck from Worlds is an example of that.

Shaun McLaren's Abzan Midrange—World Championship

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This deck is once again looking to control the game with a combination of removal spells and card draw, but it just so happens that Siege Rhino is one of the best removal spells and Courser of Kruphix is one of the best ways to draw cards. That they have legs and can kill the opponent is a regrettable downside, but this still is a very valid way of building a controlling deck. Reid's favorite card once again makes an appearance, and between that, Duneblast, and a whole crew of Planeswalkers, I have no trouble giving this the control deck stamp of approval.

As usual, Abzan is the most reliable choice. It can't really boast an insane win percentage against anything, but the reverse is also true. There's no deck that just crushes Abzan, and even decks with favorable matchups, like some versions of Whip, still don't have a huge edge, and depending on the Abzan build, may not even have any edge (unlike Razortip Whip, which is both a Whip and has an edge against everything). Abzan is always safe, and by playing this version of Abzan, you are going just a little bigger than most other Abzan decks, which usually is a good sign. Removing a couple cheap creatures for Planeswalkers and cards like Duneblast is a pretty big deal in the mirror, and this deck is able to do that without giving up much ground against aggro.

Another strength of this deck is that by swapping just a few cards, you can adjust the focus of the deck significantly. Blue-Black control doesn't have this luxury, for example, as it's pretty locked in to being glacial control. If you were to take seven expensive cards out of this Abzan deck for four Fleecemane Lions and three Anafenzas, the deck would play very differently and still be quite good. I'm not necessarily recommending that exact change, but the point is that this deck has the flexibility to become midrange or even slightly aggressive without much work, which means you can tune and adjust the deck in a significant way as you try and predict the metagame. That is a more pleasant prospect than simply discarding the deck when the metagame isn't right, which is the case for some decks.

The last deck I want to talk about also has the unfortunate habit of killing the opponent quickly, but I'm willing to look past that in order to cast Dig Through Time. Jeskai Tempo, as you can see by the name, isn't a true control deck either, but you can build it in such a way to push it toward that direction. By doing so, you improve your matchup against green decks, which is not a bad idea in this day and age.

David Ochoa's Jeskai Tempo—9th Place, GP San Antonio

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This is basically the same deck that many of Team ChannelFireball played at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, and it uses Nullify as its backup two-drop of choice. Nullify helps immensely on the draw and answers Siege Rhino and Courser of Kruphix way better than any other card commonly played in Jeskai. One of the biggest weaknesses of this deck is creatures that have a lot of toughness, and Nullify, well, nullifies those threats with ease. Note that the deck also plays the full amount of Dig Through Time, which demonstrates where its priorities are, and I can't argue with doing so.

Much like the Abzan deck, this deck still has the capability of attacking the opponent to death, and anyone on the receiving end of Seeker of the Way into Goblin Rabblemaster isn't going to believe that this is really a control deck. Those draws aside, a deck with a ton of removal spells and the four Digs I mentioned can play the control role quite well, even if it has this aggressive element to it. The fact that Dig often just gets two burn spells to finish the opponent off does show the flexibility of the card, and it's part of what makes this deck a viable choice even if it appears to lack some focus.

As much as I like Jeskai, I feel like the field is a little hostile toward it right now. I think it preys on other control decks quite well, mostly because of its lower curve and huge amount of burn spells, but even with Nullifies I don't love the green matchups. If the field has a large amount of fast aggro and slow control, with a smaller percentage of midrange green decks than there are currently, I like Jeskai. It can go small and go big, but what it has trouble with is being medium. Siege Rhino is a huge challenge, and in an Abzan-infested field, I'd lean toward choosing another deck.

Whichever control deck is best currently, I'm just happy that there are many viable ways to be the control player. It's way more interesting to live in that world than a world where the best control deck is blindingly obvious, even if the overall power level of control is a little lower now than it has been in the past. If you want to cast Dig Through Time or Read the Bones after killing all your opponent's threats, you certainly can, and all of these decks give you good starts on doing so.


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