Assembling Control Decks With Amonkhet

Control decks have had a rough time of it lately, but Adrian Sullivan sees hope on the horizon! Will Essence Scatter and other Amonkhet cards get control mages back to doing what they love best? He puts all five colors under the microscope to find out which can best get the job done!

My absolutely favorite card from Kaladesh may be a surprise to many of you. It is this fairly innocuous little critter:

While I’ve always felt that cards like Cobblebrute were wildly undervalued (and misunderstood!) in Limited, I loved Terror of the Fairgrounds for the gloriousness of its flavor.

“Consider this a high alert, people. Permission to destroy on sight. Either we take it down or it’ll take down the Fair.”

—Pav, gremlin watch

After not one but two full blocks of world-wrenching, high-stakes, heavy Magic storyline, especially with the weight of the Eldrazi turning gothic horror to cosmic horror, it was refreshing that the “Terror” of this card was that it would ruin the Fair! There was a lot of text to Terror of the Fairgrounds, but it was all flavor, which added even more joy to me for the card.

In Aether Revolt, my favorite card came down on purely the opposite side of the coin.

It almost feels like a letdown that there is so much rules text that they can’t fit in any flavor text! While this is a powerful, albeit harder-to-use, Limited card, one single word in the rules text, a word otherwise absent from all of Aether Revolt, lifted my spirits immensely.


At least for me, there is no way not to see that name and not think immediately about “CONTROL” in big capital letters. Whether it is because of the card Cruel Ultimatum that is so clearly mimicked by Dark Intimations or even Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, the train of thought that it sent me down built up a kind of excitement quite opposite from Terror of the Fairgrounds.

Terror of the Fairgrounds gave me the joy of the Vorthos, a rare pleasure for me. Dark Intimations gave the Spike side of me pleasure, particularly since I think that the options on hard-to-build decks is going to open up soon, especially for anyone who likes to play control decks in Standard.

So, while I have a feeling Nicol Bolas won’t be showing up until the set following Amonkhet, Hour of Devastation, I do feel like there is going to be a lot happening in Amonkhet that is quite favorable to anyone wanting to do control. As of the time of this writing, less than half of the set has been revealed, so it isn’t necessarily the case that aggressive decks won’t gain so much that control decks aren’t still playing second fiddle, but I remain optimistic.

The Constraint (Still)

While it is not the case that every deck that attacks is sporting it, from the standpoint of a control deck, the format still warps around this card:

Dealing with this card is so difficult, any control deck has to be actively considering the card. However the deck is built, this card can be a huge part in singlehandedly tearing the control deck in half, and this will continue to be the case once Amonkhet is out. The solutions are either to be able to consistently neutralize the card or to quickly go over the top of it, neither of which is necessarily simple.

Victor Fernando Silva’s Temur Dynavolt deck is a great example of just having an abundance of answers.

This deck, and its less successful but more color-pure cousin U/R Dynavolt, are basically the only real counterspell-based control decks that have any full impact on Standard. Since I’m interested in discussing that classical counter-control, I’ll start at blue but then move from there through the Dynavolt Tower deck colors of red and green before shifting at last to white and black.

Amonkhet Blue

While it isn’t an extravagant card, the first place that needs to be visited is the return of a powerful counterspell, Essence Scatter.

I’ve wanted this card to be available for a while. When I played Esper Demons in Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar in Milwaukee, I ran Horribly Awry as a concession to my needs for more actual-factual countermagic that was cheap and hit creatures. If I could have had Essence Scatter, I would have jumped up for joy to play it.

Now, though, Scrapheap Scrounger does loom large. Whether in Temur Dynavolt or U/R Dynavolt, Horribly Awry has been a regular presence, and it has also shown itself to be generally very reliable, with only a few matchups where it is dead weight. Silva showed that the presence of Void Shatter didn’t change his desire to play yet more Horribly Awry.

Since basically no one is hunting for the fourth Horribly Awry, I don’t expect Essence Scatter to actually make that much of a splash. It can counter the various Gearhulks, it can counter Archangel Avacyn, and it can counter large Walking Ballista, but otherwise it doesn’t feel like it makes much of a difference. Sure, it is great to counter an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, but by that point the damage is already done.

Essence Scatter could end up being played, but my guess is that if it is, it will only be in decks that have an abundance of other cards that will mess with that aggravating Scrapheap Scrounger.

So far, this is the real card that feels like it is going to be making a splash for a control deck.

Triggers like this have nearly always managed to make the cut for a controlling deck. That Drake Haven gets to also trigger on discard is a huge extra bonus. More importantly, though, as a specifically blue card, it also will mean that it fits all that more neatly into the counter-control shell. This is a natural fit as well, since counterspells generally encourage a player to end their turn with mana up, leaving opportunities to expend mana on cycling and discard cards at the ends of turns where you don’t have to react.

In this way, Drake Haven is a lot like a Dynavolt Tower in that it provides a steady stream of returns. Talrand, Sky Summoner had its day in the sun now and again, and Drake Haven seems like a much more dangerous engine for 2/2 blue Drake creature tokens with flying.

If counter-control exists, there will be varieties employing this card to success.

A lot of people are going to be excited about this card, but unless the format ends up having a large amount of relevant active one- and two-drop spells, this card won’t be a card making a splash in control, though it may have a home in some other archetypes. Like all of the rest of the blue cards I’ve seen revealed thus far (including Kefnet the Mindful and Trial of Knowledge), it will be underwhelming as a maindeck card for counter-control.

Amonkhet Red

The red of Amonkhet looks particularly aggressive, but that doesn’t mean that some of the early cards aren’t appealing to a controlling mage.

Both of these cards have the potential, with their haste, to be able to take out a planeswalker. Especially with Glorybringer, this can be a big deal, as you can imagine a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or a Saheeli Rai being killed outright. Beyond that, though, both Glorybringer and Hazoret the Fervent have the ability to control the table in other ways, too. Exerting Glorybringer can be a big deal in clearing a table, and activating Hazoret the Fervent completely stops Saheeli Rai from going “full copycat.” Either card can also rapidly end a game, and that can be a powerful trait for a control deck to have, being able to pivot if need be.

Both of these cards feel most likely to be in the sideboard of a counter-control deck, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make the leap to a maindeck with the proper support.

Amonkhet Green

Green is a strange color for Temur Dynavolt, so looking for cards that might expand that strategy feels like a rough task in Amonkhet‘s green cards. So far, in all of it, nothing stands out as a card I’d want for that particular strategy.

However, one interesting card that could be a part of its own, new path is Trial of Strength. The only in the Trial cycle to actually make a creature for a Cartouche to be put on, if you pair the card with some other powerful green creatures that are already seeing play like Tireless Tracker, I could picture Trial of Strength (barely) making the cut. The deck that would be made would certainly be far down towards an aggro-control style, but that is still intriguing. It doesn’t seem like this path is incredibly likely, but it does feel worth thinking about.

Amonkhet Black

It is in black that we first see a real chance for new possibility.

Finally. If you’re like me, you’ve heard countless players hungry for a card that did anything like this in Standard. As a cycling card, it might even see maindeck play, especially in decks that happen to have any cycling triggers. This card might singlehandedly make U/B and Grixis Control playable, simply because of the answers it gives to otherwise problematic cards.

When we see U/B(/x) control decks running a full four copies of this card in the near future, that will be “normal.” This is an entirely respectable finisher, but aside from that, for it to have cycling lands is in the realm of “great.” You need a sufficient amount of cycling and discard for this card to work, and so it even helps support other copies of itself.

A well-timed triggering of this card will render powerless an army of Felidar Guardians, no matter how many there are. As a huge, flying body, it can threaten planeswalkers like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar while also providing a powerful blocker on defense. Against any opponent who no longer is in a threatening pose, it can end the game quickly.

Like Drake Haven, this card will be all over for counter-control decks (and other kinds of decks, for that matter).

Even without a Cartouche, this card is a potential option as a Constructed removal spell if it is working in support of other powerful removal. Just having enough fast, effective removal can be all you need to enter a mid-game versus some decks, and some players will find this is the option they want or need.

While this card can’t simply automatically replace Transgress the Mind, it will put people to the question of which card they more want for their deck or sideboard. While the answers may vary from deck to deck, this card is clearly immediately going to be in the mix.

This card is definitely in direct competition with Yahenni’s Expertise. With the upside of Riches, this card certainly has a higher full potential, but for the card to work, Rags will have to be sufficient. The answer to that question will depend on the metagame, but I would be unsurprised for this card to be regularly a part of what is considered for the control-deck toolbox.

Amonkhet White

Let’s start with the one everyone disagrees on.

Is it the best thing since sliced bread? Or is it wildly unplayable?

Well, when I think about this in a control deck, I immediately start thinking about it in another context entirely:

While Gideon of the Trials can’t hold down a land, it can utterly devastate creature-based strategies when it is combined with mass removal. Gideon of the Trials demands that the opponent play out more threats, and if they don’t, the card is perfectly capable of just locking down whatever threat is out there.

In addition to facilitating a control strategy with the +1, it can also end the game as a 4/4 or forestall the end of the game with its emblem. In many ways, this makes the card a control-deck all-star, especially since that emblem can be used with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.

A lot of players have evaluated this solely on the strength of the card in conventional aggressive or midrange strategies, and they are likely correct in viewing it as insufficient, even with how well it plays with Heart of Kiran and other cards. In a much more controlling deck, though, I think this card is going to see a lot of play alongside Fumigate and even Descend upon the Sinful.

Speaking of Descend upon the Sinful

The new flash-y Oblivion Ring deserves mention, despite its high price, because of the wonderful versatility of the card. Getting rid of a planeswalker is important, especially certain planeswalkers like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Not having a proper answer to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Scrapheap Scrounger was always a huge blow against control decks, and this card can answer both… and anything else.

When you add to that the power of cycling just to get rid of it if you aren’t in the market for inefficient removal (or if you’d rather make a 2/2 blue Drake) and also add in the ability to empower delirium for Descend upon the Sinful, I think it is clear you have a real hit in Cast Out.

This reprint might not be a huge deal if it weren’t for what appear to be a reasonable number of powerful outlets for cycling to pay off. Without the aforementioned Drake Haven and Archfiend of Ifnir, this card would likely not be good enough, except perhaps as a sideboard card; with them, I think it will be in the mix of cards people consider as their 60 cards quickly fill to the brim.

Wrapping Up

When we add onto this the cycling duals, we have yet more evidence that the format could be quite friendly to controlling strategies. Allied counter-control strategies get the big wins, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see enough reasonable mana for Grixis, Esper, or Bant to emerge, not to mention simply U/W or U/B. Cycling a land for two mana is likely too slow for anything that isn’t at least as controlling as a solid midrange deck, but the cycle is a welcome addition for pure control, which can feel safe padding its land count even more now.

There are still so many more cards to be covered, but already, I feel like the possibilities for what we’ll be able to do in Standard are opening up. I don’t know if I’ll be able to cast Nicol Bolas in the near future, but I do expect to be able to forge the kind of control deck that I’ll be excited to play. I’m excited to see even more previews so we can have even a better sense of what will soon emerge!