Two weeks ago, I discussed U/B Control for the new, unknown M12 Standard. While the format is still fresh and changing, today it’s becoming more clear what control decks will need to do to survive. I’d like to reexamine Control and take a look at the options available to blue players in Standard, particularly the ones who don’t care to sleeve up Sword of Feast and Famine. Â
While Caw-Blade was making its dramatic comeback at the StarCityGames.com Open in Cincinnati, Shouta Takao was playing the Top 8 of Japanese Nationals with a very traditional U/B Control list.
This deck looks much like U/B Control has looked for the past eight months. Takao utilizes Ratchet Bomb, which has long been a fringe card for U/B, and fills Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s empty spot on the mana curve with extra Belerens and Solemn Simulacrums. Reliable and consistent, it’s hard to go wrong with a list like this one.
Meanwhile, in the world of Magic Online, U/W Control has been a quiet, but consistent player in the Standard Events.
JB2002, a master of U/W in all formats, explained to me that Venser, the Sojourner fills the void that Jace, the Mind Sculptor left behind for control. He ticks up in loyalty while drawing cards, locking the opponent out of the game doubly fast. JB’s decklist features ten permanents that draw cards when they enter play, as well as plenty of other combos for Venser’s +2 ability.
U/B Control and U/W Control share quite a few cards in common. Even the way I’ve named the decks in this column makes it seem like they have the same strategy with a difference only in their splash color. Such is not the case. U/B and U/W are very different decks with different plans of both attack and defense.
U/B employs the “sniper” game plan: kill every threat the opponent presents as soon as possible. Black provides the most brutally efficient answers available in Standard. Doom Blade and Go for the Throat take care of creatures of all sizes at instant speed and often for much less mana than the creature’s controller paid. Discard and permission answer problem cards before they’re even in the picture. Once the opponent’s threats are neutered and his defenses laid bare, a single threat can finish the game in short order.
When Jace, the Mind Sculptor was legal in Standard, the sniper strategy was the most efficient, straightforward, and consistent one available. In other words, it was the best. Jace, at such a reasonable mana cost, smoothed out draws, provided an endless stream of answers, and could even be a finisher when you were ready. Jace Beleren can’t hold a candle to him, for the crucial reason that his card advantage ability costs -1 instead of 0. Eventually, Jace Beleren gets down to one loyalty and you’re faced with the choice of letting him die, or letting your opponent draw a card. The sniper strategy revolves around trading one for one, and Jace Beleren’s +2 ability undoes that. Drawing a third card and losing the planeswalker, however, isn’t appealing either as it leaves you with the task of winning the game as well as keeping your opponent from sticking a threat. I expect more out of a protected planeswalker than Jace Beleren can give in many matchups. He is, at best, a necessary evil in U/B Control.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor was an irreplaceable loss for U/B, but the deck survives on the strength of its answers and its finishers. Even without a constant source of card advantage, defending yourself and landing a six-drop is a great game plan against many decks in Standard. Jace Beleren, Spreading Seas, and Preordain aren’t game winners, but all they need to do is back up your Grave Titans and Wurmcoil Engines by helping you survive and hit your land drops.
U/B has a strength that, while hard to quantify, is not to be ignored: Information. The ability to see the opponent’s hand, and sometimes their library with Memoricide or Surgical Extraction, combines great with U/B’s variety of efficient answers. When is it safe to tap out for this Titan? Should you use Mana Leak or Doom Blade on that Hero of Bladehold? A careful, thoughtful Magic player need not have any extraordinary talents to win with U/B Control because the tools are laid out in front of you. Use your discard spells to see the path to victory, your removal to keep it clear, and Grave Titan will walk it again and again.
Some of Standard’s most popular decksâ€”Primeval Titan Ramp, Splinter Twin Combo, and to a lesser extent Lotus Cobra decksâ€”are successful because they’re so difficult for ordinary decks to interact with. Many generally good cards have no impact against them because their game plans are so wildly different from ordinary decks. They need not answer what their opponents are doing because, when they’re ready, they can simply go over the top and win the game. U/B Control is the nightmare matchup for these decks. It has such a wide variety of answers: discard, permission, spot removal, land destruction, and sometimes sweepers or bounce spells, that it’s never at a loss, even against unorthodox strategies. No matter what else happens, U/B will have a niche in the metagame because of the way it preys on Valakut, Eldrazi Green, and Splinter Twin.
Valakut Ramp typically needs to hit six lands, then resolve a Titan to win the game. After a handful of one-for-one trades, Valakut is utterly unable to do anything threatening. Unfortunately, there are Standard decks at the opposite end of the spectrum as well.
Tempered Steel fully operates on three lands, and many of those lands come alive when they’re finished casting spells. Its threats come down fast, and all need to be answered right away if Tempered Steel is in play. More importantly, Origin Spellbomb and Shrine of Loyal Legions provide a form of card advantage, and the presence of cards like Glint Hawk Idol means that not every threat can be answered in the same way. The sniper strategy tends to fall short against Tempered Steel for these reasons. Tempered Steel can beat U/B as often with a few Memnites finishing the job on turn 8 as it can with its explosive nut draws. In the end, it was Tempered Steel that took down Shouta Takao’s U/B Control deck and stopped him from being Japanese National Champ.
The Tempered Steel matchup could be cracked with some hard work and creativity, but there is, perhaps, a bigger problem with the sniper game plan in Standard. Caw-Blade, even when it doesn’t stick protection from black threats, has a greater ability to spill out creatures than U/B has to answer them. In the past, Caw-Blade was a winnable matchup because U/B always had the hope of sticking Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Now, there’s no way of reliably coming up with enough answers to stop the onslaught of Squadron Hawks and Blade Splicers.
U/W cannot answer threats like U/B can because the spot removal in white and blue is inefficient and situational. The saving grace, however, is that U/W doesn’t need to answer every threat in the same way that U/B does. U/W Control employs the “bunker” game plan, which is about board control and involves powerful planeswalkers generating advantages while the opponent struggles to contain them. The U/W player sets up a situation where they have multiple planeswalkers behind Walls of Omens. The opponent has to decide where to attack without knowing where they’ll be blocked, where they’ll be foiled by instants like Condemn or Into the Roil, and where they’ll simply be sidestepped and waste a whole turn killing an unimportant planeswalker. When things go well, U/W can hold off entire armies in this way. All of that is not even to mention the ever-looming threat of Day of Judgment to clean the boardâ€”clean, that is, except for U/W’s planeswalkers.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor, naturally, was excellent in U/W Control. Unlike U/B, however, where he was the key player, Jace was only one of many powerful planeswalkers available to U/W. The Super Friends still hold regular meetings, even with him gone. Also unlike U/B, Jace Beleren really shines in the bunker game plan. He fits U/W’s curve well, being able to come down right after a Wall of Omens or right before a Day of Judgment. More importantly, because of U/W’s late-game power and its ability to handle creature swarms, the +2 ability is a profitable move. Imagine a creature deck facing Wall of Omens and Jace Beleren. Beleren ticks up each turn, helping U/W to tighten its “icy grip.” The opponent can send his creatures at him, but one gets blocked by the Wall, and Jace takes a few damage while the player takes none. The opponent has to think twice about using the extra cards he’s drawing, because any creatures he adds to the board can die in the collateral to a Day of Judgment.
U/W has the best late game of any non-combo deck. In most matchups, you can feel confident of winning as long as you’re surviving. This means that you can sometimes make unfavorable trades, like using Into the Roil without kicker, just to keep your life total high or to maintain control of the board.
Perhaps the biggest appeal of U/W is Day of Judgment. Quite frankly, it’s the best card in the format right now. It answers many things that can’t otherwise be contained like Grave Titan, Avenger of Zendikar, and countless more uncommon cards. Many of Tempered Steel’s hands have virtually no chance to beat you if you have Day of Judgment, and the same goes for many of the format’s fringe decks. Without Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Lotus Cobra decks ramp into an Inferno Titan only to find themselves set back to nothing but a few lands. Birthing Pod decks sit with their namesake card and debate whether to upgrade their Raging Ravine to a Birds of Paradise.
U/W Control is slow to win the game and can’t interact as much as it needs to in some matchups. You have to tap out frequently and don’t have any way to see the opponent’s hand. In particular, the Splinter Twin matchup is a nightmare. Ramp decks, while beatable, are certainly not as easy matchups as they are for U/B.
U/W is also less redundant than U/B. Some hands lack early defense, and you simply die before you even get inside the bunker. Other times you find yourself with Wall of Omens and Day of Judgment against decks that don’t need to attack to win. Opposing planeswalkers and Consecrated Sphinxes can be difficult to answer.
There’s a general trend of black, and Go for the Throat, declining in popularity while white, and Oblivion Ring, are gaining. Consecrated Sphinx has therefore replaced Wurmcoil Engine as the win condition of choice. However, it’s nice to have one tank in the deck, whether Wurmcoil or Grave Titan, to seal the deal when you’re ready, or to save you against a creature swarm.
I cut Spreading Seas for a while, but it plays a necessary role, especially against Tempered Steel. As I mentioned in the “Weaknesses” section, you can often trade one for one a bunch and then die to Inkmoth Nexuses. Having four Tectonic Edge and two Spreading Seas would be about perfect against Tempered Steel, but I believe that it’s a card that should be played in four copies (and maindeck rather than sideboard) because of the chance of color screwing opponents.
Five days ago, I never would have recommended a Go for the Throat for maindeck, but I’ve noticed a sharp decline in Tempered Steel on MTGO lately. Nonetheless, you need a plan. Vampire Nighthawk is a much needed speed bump against Tempered Steel and all aggro. It’s certainly a lightning rod, but if you can clear the way with discard, he’s a gamechanger. Even if it is killed right away, you only spent three mana and maybe ate a Dispatch that would have gotten your Wurmcoil Engine. Nighthawk is the key card against Tempered Steel, because it allows you to ignore the annoying little Memnites and Inkmoth Nexuses and save removal for Steel Overseer. The game plan is to take Tempered Steel and Dispatch with discard, kill Overseers on sight, stall with Nighthawks, and finish with a six-drop. Consume the Meek off the sideboard certainly doesn’t hurt either. That plan doesn’t work all the time, but I no longer despair when my opponent leads with a Signal Pest.
Sweepers are a subject of controversy in U/B. I prefer to play to the strengths of the sniper game plan and leave the sweepers on the sideboard for the matchups where they’re absolutely necessary. Consume the Meek is the best sweeper because it’s an instant and therefore answers the terrifying Shrine of Loyal Legions. It’s also devastating to have a big Black Sun’s Zenith countered at sorcery speed, and Caw-Blade, Puresteel Paladin, and often Tempered Steel play blue. Ratchet Bomb, in the context of the sniper strategy, typically trades one-for-one but is inconvenient compared to spot removal. From my experience, the fact that it answers Shrines doesn’t make up for it being slow and bad.
If you absolutely need to play sweepers in your maindeck, you might as well play U/W Control with Day of Judgment. And please, please play four copies.
Just as I maindeck no sweepers in U/B, I maindeck no true spot removal in U/W. Into the Roil is a card that I’ve been very happy with. It’s almost as good as Condemn for protecting planeswalkers, provides a good answer to opposing planeswalkers, Shrines, Swords, and Tempered Steel, and provides at least a small weapon against Splinter Twin. I choose Spell Pierce over hard counters because U/W’s late game is so good anyway that my main concern is getting there. Spell Pierce is surprisingly excellent against Tempered Steel as it deals with the threats that circumvent Day of Judgment. They don’t have the time or land count to play around it, and it’s great to start interacting with them right from turn one.
Spreading Seas is necessary for the same reasons it is in U/B, but it doubles as a combo with Venser. Experience has led me to play two Wall of Omens to complement the Spreading Seas. It’s the right number to make Venser and Sun Titan reliable, but not to get bottlenecked with low impact cantrips.
I need to end on a grim note. I’ve put quite a bit of time and energy into both of these decks, and while they’re competitive, I haven’t been able to bring them back to their former glory. I rate them both as solid tier two options, but each has a bad matchup, and they lack the overall consistency that they had with Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Of the two, U/B is the better deck, but it would take a braver man than I to play it in this field full of Caw-Blade and, to a lesser extent, Tempered Steel. If I were to play blue Control tomorrow, I would use my recommended U/W decklist.
I’ll be keeping U/B and U/W on my list of options depending on the twists and turns of the metagame. However, if you’re a control player at heart, both remain valid options. There are still those who carry the torch both online and in real life, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of them take a trophy whether it’s this weekend, or a month from now.