Adapting U/B Control

After playing in the SCG Invitational last weekend, Reid Duke has adapted his U/B Control deck to be more successful in the current Standard metagame. Consider playing it this weekend at Grand Prix Salt Lake City.

Lately I’ve been living in the past. My infatuation with U/B Control began months ago, when Standard was a different world and U/B was hardly a part of it. Since that time, I’ve been fine-tuning my decklist based on my increasing knowledge of the deck and on the new archetypes breaking out week after week. Now I realize how much I’ve been missing.

Last weekend at the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Baltimore, I was living in the past. When I first picked up the deck, I did so because U/W Delver was an easy matchup; most players were unprepared for the matchup and had few realistic ways of beating a Curse of Death’s Hold. Such is no longer the case. Game after game, I found myself in familiar situations—winning situations, as they felt to me—only to lose a few turns down the road and sign the slip wondering what had happened.

Patrick Chapin always says that you need to adapt your decklist from week to week, but I never used to believe him. As much as can be possible in MTG, I tend to view things as black and white, good and bad. Now I realize that the need for constant change is not always just to adapt to the metagame, but also to ensure that the metagame doesn’t adapt to you.

When I picked up U/B Control back in December, it was an underpowered deck but one that was unexpected and perfect for the metagame. For one reason or another, I maintained that attitude right up until last weekend, where my opponents forced a painful realization on me: what I had registered was now simply an underpowered deck that everybody had expected and prepared for.

That said, I promise that we haven’t seen the last of U/B Control. Orrin Beasley piloting the deck to a 7-1 record gives me hope. As for myself, despite my complaints I fought through to a gentleman’s record of 5-3, though I felt fortunate to do even that. Even during the frustration and embarrassment of struggling through eight rounds with a bad deck choice, I knew that my difficulties were my own fault, not U/B Control’s. The archetype wouldn’t go down without a fight as long as I didn’t give up on it, and I spent my time between rounds thinking about how to correct the problems I was encountering.

Winning the Game

Above is my suggested list of U/B Control, not the list I played at the Starcitygames.com Invitational. The number one problem I encountered at that tournament was the difficulty in actually closing a game against Delver. In a feature match against Chris Cornwell-Shiel, I had two Curse of Death’s Hold and Sorin Markov in play on an otherwise empty board and went on to lose. It wasn’t bad luck, it wasn’t that Chris topdecked better than me, it was that I didn’t have a realistic plan for actually winning the game.

In the good ol’ days, Curse of Death’s Hold was effectively a win condition against U/W Delver because they had few ways to remove it and even fewer threats that lived through -1/-1. Today, though, everybody packs a hundred Celestial Purges in addition to Snapcaster Mages, Oblivion Rings, and Revoke Existences to back them up. Even worse, Batterskull and Jace, Memory Adept have become popular sideboard cards for Delver against U/B Control; Chris even surprised me with a Sun Titan!

Under such circumstances, sitting behind a Curse is not necessarily a winning proposition because your Delver opponent may have any number of backbreaking threats, more permission than you, and more ways to dig towards their relevant cards. Grave Titan and Consecrated Sphinx are unreliable because their mana cost leaves them vulnerable to permission and their card type leaves them vulnerable to Vapor Snag and Phantasmal Image. Sorin Markov and Liliana of the Veil are effortlessly neutralized by Celestial Purge. Nephalia Drownyard is painfully slow and fills U/W’s graveyard with fodder for Snapcaster Mage and Moorland Haunt.

I see now, and wish I had last week, that Jace, Memory Adept needs to be the weapon of choice. Around the time of Grand Prix Orlando, I lauded Jace as the safest and most reliable of win conditions for U/B Control. Never has that claim been truer than it is today with Celestial Purge running rampant. Starting with four loyalty and ticking up each turn means that Delver can have a hard time killing him by chipping away with 1/1 creatures. Similarly, it can legend-rule an opposing Jace which might otherwise kill you and costs five mana instead of six, which is huge against an opponent with permission.

As U/B itself remains a popular archetype, Jace has even more appeal. He’s cheaper—easier to resolve—than the alternatives, is impossible to remove, and fits perfectly with the Nephalia Drownyard mill gameplan.

There are some matchups, unfortunately, where Jace, Memory Adept does not pack quite the punch of a six-drop creature, and it’s those matchups that lead me to recommend Consecrated Sphinx as a sideboard card. Birthing Pod decks, Wolf Run, R/G Aggro, and Humans may have sorcery speed removal or Clone effects, which make Grave Titan and Wurmcoil Engine unreliable. Consecrated Sphinx, though, provides guaranteed value even if it’s Oblivion Ringed and locks up the game just as fast as the others if it goes unanswered. If it’s Cloned at least you get the first draw step, and U/B Control has more answers to an opposing Sphinx than any deck in the format.

The only missing link is U/B Zombies, which packs both Doom Blade effects and Clone effects. It’s there that the two Batterskulls come in as cheap, reliable threats and ways to pull your life total up and out of danger.

Colored Mana

At the Invitational, I packed four Liliana of the Veil along with Sorin Markov, Grave Titan, and Distress out of the sideboard. While each of those cards had their uses, there are two benefits to cutting all of them at once.

The first is that Celestial Purge changes from a backbreaking card to downright bad. The only targets in the deck are the two maindeck Curse of Death’s Hold (and the two Batterskull tokens, which I would generally not sideboard in against white decks anyway). Any opponent in a tournament setting will bring in the full amount of Purges against you simply out of fear and uncertainty. While the maindeck Curses are extremely valuable in game 1 against Delver, this is the reason why I haven’t suggested sideboarding more. It’s even within the realm of possibility to sideboard out the two Curses to make Purge stone dead, but it’s also okay to leave them in just as two more ways to sweep the board.

The second benefit is allowing the mana to shift away from black, allowing you to play with fewer basic Swamps. I would never go too low because Black Sun’s Zenith is very important, but not needing double black on turn 3 or triple black on turn 6 helps a lot with a somewhat unsteady mana base and allows you to maindeck all four of the Nephalia Drownyards.

Gitaxian Probe

I’m especially happy to cut a few Swamps because my recommended list plays 26 lands instead of the standard 27. The first reason for this is that I’ve cut the clunky six-drop creatures and Karn Liberated. The second reason is that the deck plays as though it’s fifty-six cards instead of sixty.

Gitaxian Probe was my major change for last weekend’s tournament, and it was the one thing I felt I’d done right. The Probe is unbelievably valuable against blue decks to plan your gameplan and see when the coast is clear to tap out for a threat. What’s more, it allows U/B Control to support more Snapcaster Mages, which gives the deck extra lategame power and is simply the best card in many matchups and situations.

Before adding Probe to the deck, Snapcaster Mage made me uneasy. Spending two extra mana on a spell left you very vulnerable to Mana Leak out of the blue aggro decks, and seeing multiples early in the game was dangerously clunky and inconvenient. However, with the ability to cycle them for two or three mana, those risks disappear. Once in a while you can randomly take advantage of an aggressive draw, dropping a Mage as a Silvergill Adept on the second turn much like Delver would. I used that technique to put pressure on an opposing U/B player in one match, forcing him to make a premature move and leading indirectly to a win down the road.

The Removal

I feel strongly that Liliana of the Veil, Sorin Markov, and Curse of Death’s Hold should no longer be linchpins of the deck. However, their roles need to be filled by something. Tribute to Hunger is an easy swap for Liliana, which even fits with the strategy of upping the number of Snapcaster Mages.

Without Curse of Death’s Hold to keep Moorland Haunt in check, I recommend the full four Ratchet Bombs. Though the Bomb is rarely exciting, I feel it’s one of the most consistently good cards against Delver. It answers an early Delver one-for-one reliably and efficiently and can stop you from plain losing to a turn 3 Geist of Saint Traft, though you may have to take some damage from it first. It’s an “instant speed” answer to tokens, which protects you from Moorland Haunt + equipment, and can even be used to kill the equipment straight up! In short, while it’s not the card you think of as winning games for you, it protects you against all of the most common ways for Delver to beat you.

As always, Doom Blade and Go for the Throat are staple cards, and in combination with Snapcaster Mage constitute a major strength of the archetype. Tragic Slip is also quite good, though I don’t feel it’s a necessary maindeck card like some other U/B players do. Two off the sideboard is perfect, as their speed is important in some matchups. They become better as you increase your removal count in the matchups like R/G Aggro where you simply want as many ways to kill a creature as you can get.

Despise and Phantasmal Image are your answers to hard-to-answer creatures like Strangleroot Geist and Thrun, the Last Troll.

U/B Control in the Metagame

Though U/B has a lot of factors working against it these days, I would strongly recommend this decklist for upcoming Standard tournaments. The maindeck Jace, Memory Adepts and Gitaxian Probes provide an advantage in the mirror match. Being less vulnerable to Celestial Purge means you’ll present a matchup that your Delver opponents haven’t practiced or built their decks for. Finally, I feel that this list maintains the strengths that have always drawn people to U/B: an advantage in control mirrors, a strong lategame, and a variety of answers.

As things continue to develop, I predict that U/B players who fail to adapt will become frustrated and perhaps abandon the deck. If that happens, decks that it had previously held in check like Esper, Grixis, and Wolf Run may return to prominence. Like many decks, U/B is at its best when it’s unpopular and not prepared for. I see the winds taking Standard back in that direction, which is why I advise the dedicated U/B players to hold strong and not give up on the deck!