Control In A Volatile Standard

Control thrives on predictability, but Guilds of Ravnica Standard is far from predictable! Shaheen Soorani updates Esper and Jeskai Control for a volatile metagame.

Standard has been quite a challenge to keep up with these last few weeks. New formats are typically this volatile in the beginning, but this Standard has put its predecessors to shame. Magic Online is the culprit for sure, allowing people to swap multiple cards, even an entire deck, at a moment’s notice.

The key to control’s success is a stable metagame that is filled with predictable elements. The more variables, the less effective the slower strategies are. This isn’t the case when the format is dominated by midrange decks, but that isn’t the world we are living in currently.

The professional world may infer that Golgari Midrange decks are the best, unbeatable, easily adaptable to take on the rest of the metagame, and the only Tier 1 deck in the war. This is simply untrue. Golgari Midrange may be the most played deck on any given competitive League, but there are many other decks out there that consistently hand it losses and have high finishes. I think the Golgari cards are fantastic and it is clearly a powerful strategy, but it has weaknesses.

Just like control, Golgari Midrange will thrive on a settled metagame. There are many different configurations that are equally competitive and that is what makes it such an attractive option. The issue is the versality and choice, in which making a wrong deckbuilding decision can derail your tournament. The deck can specifically be built to deal with control and the mirror, but then get routed by aggressive strategies. There is a metagame possibility where fliers rule and are nearly impossible to beat by the hands of Golgari. Izzet and Mono-Blue have shown us the power of synergy without a big dollar sign attached.

It’s been quite some time since Standard has been this wide open and it has been a fantastic experience thus far. Even though it has been a frustrating swap between Esper Control, Dimir Control, Jeskai Control, and then back to Esper Control, I’ve played great games of Magic in the process.

You may have noticed I said I’m back on Esper Control in that last sentence. Magic Online as a testing vehicle is a blessing and a curse for the reasons discussed prior. Going into three competitive Leagues, having issues with particular strategies, and then jamming another competitive League with an entirely new deck is the age we are living in. Magic Online has been around for a very long time, yet it was never as conducive to professional testing before.

Back in my day, we had to walk fifteen miles uphill in the snow to figure out the best deck in Standard. New formats kicked in the week before that respective Pro Tour. Magic Online also was on a delay with releasing new sets, making us wait a month for the new cards to be Standard-legal in the digital world.

Those two elements caused Standard to be much more of a mystery for the pros to investigate, but the world has changed for the better. Now all of us, the content creators, professionals, casual online folks, FNM champions, and a plethora of other segments of the MTG community, are discovering the next Caw-Blade. Due to this brave new world we live in, I wanted to post updated Esper and Jeskai decklists for you all and discuss in which circumstances one would be better than the other. With GP New Jersey this weekend, Standard is a priority for many of you reading today.

The beauty of creating content more frequently is I can walk back a statement in a timely manner, or double down when it happens to be spot-on. The initial reason for my dive into Esper Control was the speculative power of the removal spells that I’d have access to. Black-based removal was and still is king if you can justify the supporting colors. I found out quickly that Cast Down is effectively Doom Blade in the current Standard, regardless of which deck takes the lead in any given day. I was pressing the buy button as quickly as possible, signaling all my control allies to get at least three copies in their Esper Control main decks. The optimal number to have access to in Game 1 is four, which was close to my original thoughts.

Cast Down kills a ridiculous amount of the format’s threats from Turn 2 through the end of the game. I knew there would be some legendary creatures running around but had no idea that the number would be in the single digit percentage out of the total Standard creature metagame. This brought me a high level of happiness…until the mana for Esper Control wasn’t cooperating in my first League of testing.

I believe I was too quick to give up on it, because after revisiting it and applying a few tweaks, the mana base is smooth as butter. I conferenced with fellow Esper Control enthusiast Jonathan Rossum and he told me the mana was passable for him; however, I have found that it can be much better than that. The basics needed to be increased, the Field of Ruin had to exit, and the sluggish Guildgates had to go. With these changes, the mana has been phenomenal with the amount of early surveil and Search for Azcanta backup. This euphoric mana Renaissance of Esper Control has even led me to some questionable sideboard choices that may send some of my most loyal customers running for the hills.

Mono-Red Aggro is a problematic matchup for Esper Control. Game 1 is almost a giveaway due to the power of Risk Factor and the lack of a fast clock. I’ve noticed some players incorporating Revitalize into their control decks that have access to white, but I found that to be a Band-Aid on the red wound that we all suffer from.

Game 1 can be a good matchup for control decks, but the amount of change the main deck would have to undergo is simply not worth it. This mediocre Renewed Faith isn’t what we want to be doing with our precious two mana and only serves that specific matchup. Against the midrange decks, Mono-White Aggro, the control mirror, blue tempo decks, and pretty much the rest of the format, the more powerful cards at Esper’s disposal need to be employed to defeat them.

Lyra Dawnbringer is ambitious for a deck that contains nine white sources. Let me tell you, my friends, it has worked out quite well so far. It is rare for you to be able to resolve the reborn Baneslayer Angel on Turn 5, yet that is usually for the best. This iteration of Mono-Red Aggro doesn’t kill quickly after sideboarding. It is a very grindy deck, starting with some pressure but dealing the lion’s share of their damage with the late-game package.

Experimental Frenzy has been the official game-changer for the archetype, allowing them to play the late-game as well as we can. This was taken from them a while back, when they lost the ability to burn us out with their manabase. That threat is back, but much easier to answer.

Mono-Red Aggro players have access to four to six answers for Lyra Dawnbringer, but four copies of Thought Erasure weaken their ability to destroy our glorious Angel. Hand disruption, countermagic, and eight ways to interact with an early creature to keep the life total high give us the edge in sideboarded games. Before I added Lyra Dawnbringer, I was 60% to win Games 2 and 3, but I was always down a game. That number has increased since and I have been mauling my burn-wielding opponents in the post-sideboard games.

The double white seems greedy, because it is. I would have called you crazy if you tried to summon this creature weeks ago with a manabase I believe was flailing, but that is just another aspect of this new Standard.

The rest of the sideboard is straight forward outside of the Nezahal, Primal Tide. I have found most control opponents on the side of Jeskai Control these days, which Chromium, the Mutable is not very strong against. Mass removal embarrasses our Dragon lord but doesn’t even scratch our giant Dinosaur friend. If the control decks begin to drop red and get back to their black-based roots, Chromium, the Mutable will be back in favor as our one trump card from the sideboard.

Thief of Sanity has been amazing and continues to punish the control mirror opponents when they fail to leave in the appropriate amount of removal. I’ve been a slight underdog to my control brethren in Game 1 due to my density of removal. The sideboard is the conduit to flip the matchup well into our favor and it has. Even though Game 1 is tough, I do win about half the time with well-timed Thought Erasures and a heavy dose of The Eldest Reborn. Even though the enchantment is all over Standard, most of your opponents will not play around it Game 1 from the Esper Control sideline.

The maindeck has changed quite a bit since we last met. Ritual of Soot has picked up steam, being almost as good as Deafening Clarion from Jeskai Control. This is the perfect four-mana response to a game that has possibly gotten out of hand and it is strong against every deck outside of the control mirror. Every black-based control deck should be running The Eldest Reborn, and I have upped the count to two to answer the increased Carnage Tyrant sightings.

I had one Detection Tower in the maindeck over the Treasure Map, but I found that I’ve been able to keep the battlefield relatively clear and then force my opponents to sacrifice their large Dinosaur consistently. If you are nervous about the uptick in hexproof creatures that never should have been printed, enlist the power of Detection Tower in your Esper Control list. I do not think the swap hurts the deck, though I have been impressed by the Treasure Map mana-fixing ability. Often I have my second white source come from that nice Treasure and the card advantage is nothing to scoff at either.

Although I’m back on the Esper Control train, the Jeskai Control list is strong. I do not necessarily think one is better than the other, but each has a metagame that it was destined to rule. Esper Control has a much easier time with Golgari Midrange, making it the obvious option at this moment. Jeskai Control is still strong against the midrange infestation of Standard; however, it sometimes can fall behind with subpar removal.

On the flip side, Jeskai Control has an easier time with Mono-Red Aggro and has more powerful spells in general. Expansion is a fantastic spell and offers the control wielder many opportunities to end the game in a fiery blaze, where Esper Control is banking on the concession from a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria lock.

Sweepers are better in Jeskai Control, but the spot removal is unbelievably good in Esper Control. This creates a stalemate in the “Best Control Deck” championship and forces us to make the right choice based on the enemies we see. Keep both handy and prepare for a fun, if bumpy, Standard ride.