Blue-Black Control was one of the best performing decks in yesterday's Standard rounds, winning 62.5% of its matches. One of the four players running the deck was No. 11 Kelvin Chew. The other three came from the well-rounded testing group of Gerry Thompson (Pro Tour Amonkhet champion), Martin Jůza (Draft Master), Samuel Black (one of last season's top Pro Point earners), and Josh Utter-Leyton (Magic Online champion).
Left to Right: Samuel Black, Josh Utter-Leyton, Gerry Thompson
These four got together for a week of testing, mostly on Magic Online while sitting side-by-side, at Utter-Leyton's place in Denver. One evening, after unsuccessfully trying brews for several days, Thompson jotted down a blue-black control list with Search for Azcanta, Vraska's Contempt, and The Scarab God. The next morning, he compared it to a list that Utter-Leyton had laid out previously with input from his co-workers Ben Lundquist and Patrick Chapin. As it turned out, their lists were only a few cards different. What's more, Black had been working on similar decks as well before arriving in Denver.
When multiple people independently arrive at the same idea, then that's a good sign that they're on to something. The group discovered how well the deck matched up against the green energy decks, and they felt the card quality in blue-black was very high.
Jůza ultimately shied away because he didn't dare to play control mirrors against the likes of Shota Yasooka, who he regarded as one of the best control players in the world. Indeed, Yasooka used a Grixis Control deck of his own design to win Pro Tour Kaladesh with perfect plays at lightning speed, and he brought a similar build to the World Championship as well. But as it turned out, there was no reason to be afraid—Blue-Black Control was strong enough.
Just beat Shota in a control mirror AMA #MTGChamp— Josh Utter-Leyton (@wrapter) October 6, 2017
AMA, you say? Well, don't mind if I do. Let's start with the first question: "What's your decklist?"
Samuel Black and Gerry Thompson were on the same list, save for a few small differences. Compared to Utter-Leyton, Thompson had 2 additional Island, 1 additional Swamp, and 2 Submerged Boneyard instead of 4 Evolving Wilds and the third Field of Ruin, as he favored better mana over faster Search for Azcanta transformations and the ability to turn on Fatal Push. He also swapped the numbers on The Scarab God and Torrential Gearhulk. Black also made a few different card choices: he preferred to have one more Vraska's Contempt alongside 1 Harsh Scrutiny and 1 Supreme Will and shaved 2 Essence Extraction and 1 Glimmer of Genius to make room.
There were more small variations in the sideboard, but all three players had the same overall game plan.
The key cards that had multiple players gravitate towards Blue-Black Control as a strategy for this event.
The deck may ultimately win with The Scarab God or Torrential Gearhulk, but most games revolve around Search for Azcanta. According to Black, it is "roughly the best control enabler/engine/card ever."
Utter-Leyton described how well the enchantment fit into what the deck is trying to do: "You're just trying to trade one-for-one and keep the board clear while making land drops. Your ideal opening to the game is to go one-for-one with all their stuff. On turn four you want to play Search for Azcanta with another answer up to counter their thing. From that point, when you have Search for Azcanta on the table and the board is clear, it's really hard to lose. Search flips really quickly in the deck, and it turns into a long-game inevitability engine."
Thompson weighed in. "With all the cyclers and cheap interaction, it is pretty easy to get to seven cards in your graveyard, and then it transforms into a land, which is effectively a Rampant Growth. That's absurd for blue decks! Between it being very easy to slip into play early and the fact that it filters your draws, ramps you, and then draws an extra card every turn, it's the complete package."
One big difference between Kelvin Chew's list and the average build by the Denver-based crew was that Chew had 4 Glimmer of Genius. Utter-Leyton, however, felt that Glimmer of Genius was not a very good card for the deck, and his list ran it only as a singleton, and he had an explanation to back it up.
"Blue-Black Control has no catch-up mechanism, and almost all of your answers are counterspells, so taking a turn off to cast Glimmer of Genius is a big problem, and you fall behind as a result. Search for Azcanta is a way of getting your card advantage engine on the table for a lot less mana."
With fewer Glimmer of Genius, Torrential Gearhulk got a bit worse, but Ixalan offered another expensive instant to profitably cast from the graveyard: Vraska's Contempt. "Four mana is a lot, so it's not ideal, but you need a clean answer to things," Utter-Leyton said. Those things include hard-to-answer threats like Hazoret the Fervent, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, and The Scarab God. Vraska's Contempt slays them in a straight-up one-for-one trade, and the life buffer is not inconsequential either. With flexible answers, Blue-Black Control has few holes. Its only real remaining weakness is that it cannot deal with resolved artifacts or enchantments like Hidden Stockpile.
Compared to Blue-Black Control from the last Standard, the mana base got an upgrade. For a deck that reliably wants to get untapped lands in the mid-to-late game, Drowned Catacomb is a lot better than Sunken Hollow and Choked Estuary.
Another new tool is Field of Ruin. "Search for Azcanta is a broken card, and Field of Ruin is an answer to it," Utter-Leyton said. "Also, it is common to use it to turn on revolt for Fatal Push, and it fixes your mana, since you can fetch Island or Swamp with it."
How about the sideboard?
Their sideboard features the typical Duress and Negate, alongside various one-ofs that revealed each individual player's preferences: Utter-Leyon had Treasure Map, Black opted for Torrential Gearhulk and Gonti, Lord of Luxury, and Thompson included Liliana's Defeat and Search for Azcanta.
Rounding out the sideboard were cards against Ramunap Red, but the players didn't agree on what the best option was: Utter-Leyton and Thompson relied on Contraband Kingpin, while Black opted for the copies of Essence Extraction that he removed from his main deck because he felt the card was a little narrow and he didn't want to have double-black and double-blue three-mana cards when his mana fixing was Evolving Wilds.
The final sideboard slots were dedicated to Vizier of Many Faces, which was mainly meant against the green decks. "It's really good against all of their value creatures, like Rogue Refiner," Utter-Leyton said. "And it's a really good answer to Bristling Hydra and Carnage Tyrant, which are problematic on the battlefield otherwise."
What are good and bad matchups?
A big reason why the trio chose the deck was that they were expecting more green decks such as Temur Energy than aggro decks like Ramunap Red. "Good matchups are green decks; bad matchups are aggressive decks," Utter-Leyton confidently said.
"This deck really, really beats up on green decks," Thompson claimed. "Part of the reason is that in Game 1, they have pseudo-dead removal spells that rot in their hand, so you don't have to deal with every card they draw, and things like Essence Scatter are very favorable at trading with Rogue Refiner, Bristling Hydra, and Glorybringer. Basically, your cards line up and your threats are very difficult to kill."
0-2 into 4-3. Not baaaaad. Our deck is incredible. #MTGChamp— Gerry Thompson (@G3RRYT) October 6, 2017
Do you have any tips or tricks for players interested in picking up this deck?
Utter-Leyton's main recommendation was to not play Search for Azcanta on turn two. "You want to play a reactive spell on turn two and not fall behind. Search is generally played on turn four or later."
Thompson cautioned not to underestimate how much mana this deck needs or wants. "There are games where I end up playing a cycling land when I already have seven or eight mana." The activated abilities of Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin or The Scarab God can be pretty mana-hungry.
Finally, Black indicated that this deck supports different playing styles. "Gerry and I play the deck pretty differently. He's often playing 'buy time and drop The Scarab God,' while I am playing Search for Azcanta control. There are different ways to play the deck that are equally valid, yet strategically different, but it's all good because the cards are so strong."