Choosing Your Control Deck In Standard

For all of you looking to beat Delver and Wolf Run decks, Reid Duke goes over the three best control decks in Standard: Grixis, Esper, and Classic U/B. Find out which one is best for StarCityGames.com Open: Memphis.

If you think that Grand Prix Baltimore and StarCityGames.com Open: Memphis are going to be dominated by Delver decks and Wolf Run Ramp, you ought to Think Twice! A blue and black-based control deck might be a perfect choice for this weekend, because it can be built to be favored against both of Standard’s most popular strategies while still having game against everything else.

Beating Delver

As a U/B-based control player, you can beat Delver decks because of your strength in the late game and the Delver player’s inability to clock you effectively. You should pack plenty of sweepers—multiple copies of Ratchet Bomb, Black Sun’s Zenith, and Curse of Death’s Hold at minimum—so that you can clean the board whenever your opponent overextends. On the other hand, if they play too patiently, you can pass back and forth gaining an advantage from your higher land count, stronger late game, and flashback cantrips. Generally, taking a hit from a Snapcaster Mage is a perfectly fair trade for a free turn to drop a land and flashback a Think Twice.

Beating Wolf Run

If Wolf Run has one weakness, it’s that it’s straightforward and predictable. If you have a counterspell ready for that turn 6 Titan, there isn’t much the Wolf Run player can do about it. Counterspells and efficient spot removal mean that you can answer your opponent’s threats easily while they may have a difficult time with yours. Counters and card draw are your bread and butter, but cards like Liliana of the Veil, Consecrated Sphinx, and Karn Liberated can also put away their fair share of games.

These days, Wolf Run has a second weakness where blue control is concerned. The deck has to put so much effort into beating Delver (the most popular and successful deck), that it’s unbelievably diluted against control in game 1. Consider Brian Kibler’s Pro Tour winning decklist:

Mr. Kibler’s main deck features 34 mana sources and nine removal spells. Huntmaster of the Fells and Inferno Titan are not so hot against control either (they’re lightning rods before sideboard), so that basically leaves four Primeval Titan and two Green Sun’s Zenith as must-counter threats in game 1. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the point stands that the more Wolf Run adapts to Delver, the worse it will inevitably be against blue control.

Choosing Your Control Deck

With Grand Prix Baltimore on the horizon, I’d like to devote this article to describing the pros and cons of the format’s blue and black-based control decks. I equally and fully endorse each of the three decks I’ll post today, depending on your personal preferences and play style. Note that today’s article does not need to be read in any particular order. In fact, I encourage you to jump back and forth between the decklists in order to compare and contrast.


I may as well begin where I left off earlier in the week. I piloted Patrick Chapin’s Grixis Control deck to a 7-2-1 record at Pro Tour Honolulu. Grixis is the single best control deck against Delver, as it has access to Slagstorm, Whipflare, and red spot removal in addition to all of the tools available to classic U/B. However, only one of my wins at the PT was against a Delver deck; Grixis has game against virtually everything and generally feels smooth, consistent, and powerful.

All blue control decks can make use of the graveyard, but Grixis has by far the best ability to fill its graveyard with useful spells. The red search cards—Desperate Ravings and Faithless Looting—already have more impact than Think Twice in terms of digging for what you need and perfecting your hand. However, they also have the not-so-small side effect of loading up your graveyard at a remarkable pace. Whenever you feel flooded or out of gas, you can usually just take a look at your graveyard and find a world of things to do with your mana!

Grixis plays out the most like a tap-out deck, which can be both a strength and a weakness in this format. I prefer to play one or two more win conditions (late game bombs) in Grixis because it’s nice to be able to discard them when you draw them too early in the game. This creates a situation where you can make full use of mana ramp like Pristine Talisman and Solemn Simulacrum, and you don’t necessarily need to base your game plan too much around permission.

Such a set-up gives Grixis excellent late game power and get-out-of-jail-free cards like Grave Titan, which can turn games around no matter how bad they look. Grixis doesn’t need an answer to every threat the opponent plays because when things go sour, you can simply rush to a six-drop creature and see what happens. The drawback, of course, is that you have fewer counters and answers, which hurts you against Wolf Run. Grixis can trade haymakers with Humans and Mono-Green all day long, but nobody wants to stand toe to toe against Primeval Titan Ramp.

Strengths: Best matchup against Delver and Tempered Steel; highest bomb count is very helpful against creature decks like Humans, green aggro, and black aggro; best card selection, lowest chance of getting mana screwed or flooded.

Weaknesses: Worst matchup against Wolf Run and classic U/B; lowest permission count and worst at playing draw-go; requires careful planning to make the best use of Faithless Looting and Desperate Ravings—this is not an autopilot deck.


Esper is a very appealing deck because you can cover all the bases. You get spot removal, no-questions-asked sweepers, answers to noncreature permanents, and the ability to exile things that could otherwise recur or undie.

White also provides access to an army of powerful planeswalkers: Sorin, Lord of Innistrad; Gideon Jura; and Elspeth Tirel. Planeswalkers become more powerful in multiples, giving this deck a super-friends feel, they live through your own Day of Judgments, and they’re also the perfect way to close a game against opponents packing Vapor Snag or Doom Blade.

Like Grixis, Esper also makes excellent use of its graveyard, and of all blue control decks, it may have the best Forbidden Alchemy. The reason is Lingering Souls, a card that’s off the charts in terms of both mana efficiency and card advantage. As an Esper player, you can cast Forbidden Alchemy, choose any of the cards you like, and pull two free flying creatures out of thin air to chump block, trade, or clock the opponent.

Esper has a huge variety of ways to defend itself and frustrate the opponent, and they all complement one another. Imagine a board with a planeswalker and two Lingering Souls tokens. An opponent who wants to kill the planeswalker by attacking it has to play out quite an army and send them all at the walker. At this point you, as the Esper player, could sidestep and let your planeswalker take the hit, leaving you with a high life total and two blockers for next turn, or you could chump block to keep it alive, clean up with a Day of Judgment the following turn, and take a dominant position in the game.

I’m of the opinion that Esper is the best of the control decks when everything falls into place. However, things can begin to go wrong if you don’t draw your cards in the proper mix. Esper’s cards are less powerful on their own, and there are fewer bombs that can win the game immediately from a topdeck situation. Facing down a large army, a Grave Titan out of Grixis may still turn things around, but a Gideon Jura can be little more than a fog.

An alternative way to build the deck would be to put more emphasis on bomb creatures and include a small Unburial Rites package. This would likely make the deck weaker against Delver because of its Vapor Snags and Phantasmal Images, but might up the overall power level in a helpful way.

Strengths: Day of Judgment makes for the best Humans and Mono-Green matchup; widest variety of threats and answers.

Weaknesses: Lowest bomb count; least consistent.

Classic U/B

Finally we come to simple, elegant U/B Control. U/B is nearly entirely instants, which is valuable for several reasons. U/B’s instants, like Esper’s planeswalkers, become better in multiples; you can hold up mana for a counter if you need it, a removal spell if you need it, and a card draw spell if you don’t need either of the first two. The opponent won’t know what to play around, and you’ll never be vulnerable. What’s more, it means that U/B makes the best use of Snapcaster Mage, which is among the format’s most powerful cards and further increases U/B’s ability to play draw-go, sitting back on permission, removal, and card draw.

As you might imagine, neither Grixis nor Esper can play the U/B control game quite as well as classic U/B can. Play lands, draw cards, answer every threat, and win at your convenience however and whenever you please. It’s the best against Wolf Run Ramp and has a colossal advantage in control pseudo-mirrors because of the uncounterable Nephalia Drownyard.

U/B has the most straightforward game plan, which is both a strength and a weakness. It’s simple and consistent, so there are fewer things that can go wrong. However, it also makes it the most straightforward to attack in sideboarding. Something like Thrun, the Last Troll, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, or Autumn’s Veil is little more than an annoyance against Esper and Grixis, but it hits U/B with its full anti-control potential.

Finally, there are some matchups where the U/B Control game plan simply doesn’t work. Some decks have undying, some decks have graveyard recursion, and some decks simply have too high a threat density for you, as a control player, to answer every single threat. Perhaps that’s why Lukas Jaklovsky found room for two Consecrated Sphinxes to put the game away against decks like these.

Strengths: Best Wolf Run and control matchups; most permission; rarely needs to spend mana on its main phase.

Weaknesses: Worst matchup against pure aggro; most attackable; slowest to put the game away.


I’ll be playing one of these three decks at Grand Prix Baltimore. If you want to beat Delver badly, go with Grixis. If you want to beat control badly, go with U/B Control. If you want something safe with no very bad matchups, go with Esper. However, I’m predicting a metagame with enough balance between Delver, Wolf Run, Control, and other strategies that none of these three options jumps out at me as a clear best choice.

I recommend choosing the deck that plays to your strengths as a player. If you like to create complicated boards and combat steps, maybe Esper with planeswalkers and Lingering Souls is for you. If you’re a thoughtful player who’s very good at planning and sequencing, maybe the card selection of Grixis will give you the best outlet for your talents. If you’re more like me, you like to have a clear game plan and stick to it, maybe classic U/B is your best bet. Whichever you choose, best of luck at your upcoming tournaments!