Control In Modern & Standard

Shaheen Soorani talks about the U/W Control deck he played to eighteenth place at Grand Prix Richmond and provides an updated Esper Control list for #SCGLA.

I’m back baby!

It’s been so long since I’ve had butterflies in the old stomach about an upcoming Pro Tour. The last invite-only Wizard’s event I played in was Worlds in San Francisco, which feels like ages ago. I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have because apparently it’s difficult to qualify in the new system where DCI rating doesn’t exist. I sat comfortably in the Top 10 composite ranking worldwide for many years and used that to propel myself into the life of a pro and loved every minute of it. Being able to travel the world and compete in high level Magic tournaments really gave me a euphoric feeling, and when it all stopped, I really felt like retiring from the game.

As luck would have it, StarCityGames.com decided to try this Open Series thing with tournaments pretty close to where I live, and I decided to give them a shot. SCG had 5K tournaments and Duels for Duals prior to the Open Series, but nothing on a scale that would be able to get a tired old mage back in the limelight. The Open Series changed all of that, and I began grinding for points, money, and notoriety with my wacky control decks. SCG Invitationals and Opens provided me with years of competitive Magic like the Pro Tour, and the thought of retirement left my mind as quickly as it came. Being known as the “SCG guy” is pretty awesome, but now I have a chance to earn a few bones on the Pro Tour once again.

The best part about my experience at Grand Prix Richmond was being able to earn an invite to the Pro Tour with my own brew and post the only control deck that performed well in the top decks. I’m a little salty that WotC called my deck U/W/R Control, and I’ll be sure to send an angry tweet their way with my disapproval. That aside, today I’ll be discussing my experiences at the GP, talk about any changes I would apply to my U/W Control deck, and provide all of you with the updated Standard Esper Control list that has taken me to success on Magic Online.

Modern Is One Wild Format

I was a huge fan of old Extended, and it was definitely my format of choice. If I had the option of a Standard PTQ or an old Extended “Win a Mox,” the decision was a no-brainer! I had my doubts about Modern until Richmond, and now I realize that it’s pretty close to the format I held near and dear to my heart. Like in old Extended, I preyed upon Affinity from start to finish. Out of the thirteen rounds in Richmond, I faced Affinity seven times and only lost to it once. When I played against my buddy K.C., for the entirety of games 2 and 3 I failed to find a Supreme Verdict or Cryptic Command for the loss. The reason why I mention that is because I want to emphasize how good the matchup is. If Affinity continues to be the main aggro deck, U/W Control is a shoo-in for success.

What makes the Affinity matchup so good? The answer is everything! The combination of Snapcaster Mage and Path to Exile can win on its own, and we also have Supreme Verdict, Spell Snare, Cryptic Command, Gideon Jura, and Detention Sphere. Spell Snare was an all-star all day because the scariest cards from Affinity happen to cost two. It’s really hard to lose to Affinity’s weenie creatures without Cranial Plating assistance, and having so many answers in the main is really helpful to foil that plan. The one-of Repeal also played a major role in defeating the robotic menace, and against the rest of the field it allowed many rebuys of Snapcaster Mage shenanigans.

Affinity is in a weird spot against U/W Control because if they don’t have access to Cranial Plating in play, the only other option is to clutter the board with dorks in order to overwhelm spot removal and planeswalkers. This opens them up to our six ways to sweep the board and end the game on the spot. Cards that are typically good against control, such as Etched Champion, are quite weak against the game plan of my version of U/W.  

In my win-and-in round, I sat across my opponent with one simple request, which was to just play an Ornithopter on turn 1. He strayed away from that play and landed a Mox Opal and a Glimmervoid after a mulligan and passed the turn. I usually try not to get too excited when a great matchup arrives at the most important time; however, this start from him provided me with a tunnel to Pro Tour Journey into Nyx. He played his next spell two turns later, and as we shuffled for game 2 he acknowledged that this matchup is a nightmare for him. For those who don’t think matchups are everything, they’re right, but they still are quite important. Game 2 was even less close than game 1, as I resolved an early Stony Silence and followed it up with Baneslayer Angel.

Baneslayer Angel is nearly unkillable in the matchup since the new hotness is Galvanic Blast and not Shrapnel Blast. The first strike on the Angel provides an impenetrable wall when trying to play defense, and the lifelink quickly puts the game away. Some people after my last few articles asked why I don’t use Batterskull, and this matchup is one of a few reasons. I spoke to a few of my Affinity opponents after playing, and they told me stories about how their opponents played Batterskull and the Germ had no shot at stopping the ground army coming their way and cards like Etched Champion completely trumping it. Besides, who leaves in removal against U/W Control anyway? Stick with the myth, the (wo)man, and the legend of Baneslayer Angel.

Affinity was all over the place on both days, but I did battle against a few other decks as well. I fought against two Pod decks, three RUG Twin decks, and two U/W/R Midrange decks. The first round I played against a R/W Burn deck, which isn’t as prevalent as the ones mentioned previously. My other loss was to U/W/R Midrange, and that is one funny story. Before this tournament I wasn’t a huge fan of Modern, and I hadn’t played any games of it in recent times. These two facts were instrumental in me misnaming cards with Meddling Mage in the early rounds.

Chris Pikula and I are buddies, so we had a little chat after he witnessed me mess up royally in my loss to U/W/R Midrange early on day 1. I didn’t know there were two different types of U/W/R decks, and I assumed my opponent was playing something close to the list with which Shaun McLaren won Pro Tour Born of the Gods. I lost game 1 after a grindy battle in which I didn’t see any Geist of Saint Traft and only saw an army of Restoration Angel. After that long game I mentioned how lucky it was for him not to hit a Sphinx’s Revelation even though I lost to Celestial Colonnade beatdown. He told me that he wished he had drawn one and had me fully convinced he had it in his deck. Why would I assume otherwise?

Game 2 I slammed a Meddling Mage and named Ajani Vengeant because if he had untapped and played one on turn 4, I would have been blown out. Later in that game I resolved a Meddling Mage and named Sphinx’s Revelation, knowing that card was the only one that could get him back in the game. I steadily beat him down with two copies of Meddling Mage, and even though I saw Geist of Saint Traft before he conceded, I thought it was technology from the sideboard.

In the third game, I cast Meddling Mage, Spell Snared his Remand, and named Ajani Vengeant again. When it resolved, he provided looks and sounds of frustration to give the appearance of a great play by me. He played me like a fiddle. To not break the habit, I played another Meddling Mage naming Sphinx’s Revelation in the middle of the game and then topdecked the last Meddling Mage naming Lightning Helix.

Finally I named a card in his deck—thank the heavens!

Nope, he boarded them out.

That would be five Meddling Mages and a grand total of zero cards in his deck prevented from entering the field of play. I might as well have named Black Lotus, and game 3 came down to him topdecking a Cryptic Command to not die to a Baneslayer Angel, which meant that if I had named any card in his deck, I would have easily won. If you want to see me getting picked on by the Meddling Mage himself, check out my Twitter feed!

The other opponents I faced were handily defeated by Gideon Jura and Elspeth, Knight-Errant. I played a fun match against my friend Chris with RUG Twin on camera during round 11 if you want to watch the deck in action. Normal Twin decks have a much better game against U/W Control, but luckily the flavor of the tournament had a bunch of Scavenging Ooze, Tarmogoyf, and Sword of Feast and Famine. The power of Gideon Jura and Elspeth, Knight-Errant against those decks is tremendous, allowing for a rock solid defense against the aggro plan and a powerful win condition.

Supreme Verdict is also fantastic against RUG Twin, allowing me to safely remove all the threats from the battlefield with ease. The inclusion of a full counterspell suite combined with four copies of Path to Exile and three copies Snapcaster Mage gave me ample defense against the instant speed combo as well. I didn’t lose a game to the RUG Twin decks I played, and the sideboard of Meddling Mage was pivotal to that success. When I played against Valentin Mackl, after dispatching a Batterskull with a Detention Sphere, a Meddling Mage ensured that the Equipment would no longer be a threat.

The Pod players I faced were caught very off guard by the Standard cards with which my deck came equipped. I wouldn’t say the Pod decks were easy to defeat, but the matches were decided by cards like Detention Sphere and Supreme Verdict game 1.  Supreme Verdict is just a fantastic card against them since it is able to prevent the aggro rush plan that comes when Birthing Pod isn’t available. Gavony Township makes the aggressive Pod assault plan viable, but Supreme Verdict is the great equalizer.

The other great card in the matchup game 1 is Detention Sphere. They often slam Birthing Pod when they’re Mana Leak proof, and you’re able to casually untap and remove it from the game. They have access to Abrupt Decay and a one-of Qasili Pridemage game 1, but the lack of card draw in Pod gives you a decent shot of dodging their answers. The sideboard provides an unnecessary amount of hate, which will be amended in the next section. Cards like Grafdigger’s Cage and Aven Mindcensor provide a headache for your opponent that is tough to repair. They have answers, but like any nonblue deck, they don’t have ways to defend their answers like we do. The planeswalkers in this matchup are also absurd with a little backup, and when you add it all up, the matchup is pretty good.

I’m not going to spend any time reviewing my match against R/W Burn, but I will tell you that I played Baneslayer Angel and he died.

A Few Changes For U/W

Even though the deck ran very well, there are a few changes I’d make after many rounds of Modern. These are the cards I would cut and why.

One of my favorite cards and one of the most powerful planeswalkers in the history of Magic has to go. There were a few situations where Jace Beleren was great, but I boarded him out in nearly every match throughout Richmond. Jace Beleren is key to providing card advantage in a deck like mine, but turn 3 resolution on a clear board is nearly impossible.

In my theorycrafting and articles prior to this one, I thought the early Spell Snare, Path to Exile and Mana Leak could pave the way for Jace Beleren dominate, and in a couple matches he did. But in the majority of my matches, he cantripped before dying to a Lightning Bolt or a dork on the ground. I’m a pretty stubborn control mage, but I would have to be blind to continue to jam Jace Beleren in such a fast format. So as much as it hurts, he has to go.

I didn’t realize how good the Pod matchup was with just the core of the maindeck. The only advantage of Aven Mindcensor is the splash effect it has against Scapeshift and Tron. The other matchups where you might think the Bird is decent it really isn’t. Having one toughness makes its ability against decks with burn terrible, and there are only a few other decks that actively search their library. I loved the idea of having a hate bear sideboard, and Aven Mindcensor fit the mold to assist in beating down players that think U/W Control is creatureless after game 1. The sideboard needs a bit more room to handle decks that are bigger threats and players in the metagame, but if G/R Tron ever becomes popular again, Aven Mindcensor is fully necessary.

Grafdigger’s Cage is probably enough to handle the graveyard decks. Rest in Peace is pretty good against Storm and obviously devastating to any combo deck from the graveyard, but two slots dedicated to those are good enough. Just like Aven Mindcensor, I know they are unnecessary, but what goes in their place is up to you. Metagames in Modern and Legacy wildly vary from location to location, and there is no one size fits all mentality for sideboards. A big mistake players make in Eternal formats is using a list without considering what decks are played locally. An example would be if no one plays Storm in your area, then you should definitely drop Ethersworn Canonist. Sideboards are made to be modified, so be sure you do some research to determine what cards would be the best fit.

The rest of the deck operated very smoothly, and I don’t think it needs to be tweaked much. The win conditions in the form of planeswalkers, the counterspells in the maindeck, the removal included, and the mana base seemed near optimal to me. There has been a lot of buzz about the low land count of 24, but having the three Serum Visions and a generally low curve makes the number feel right. If this is the first Modern article of mine that you’ve read, then you’re probably wondering why I don’t play Sphinx’s Revelation. I took the time to explain it both here and here, so feel free to brush up on your Rev knowledge.

I Want Some Esper!

This article was going to be just a rundown on my experiences in Richmond, but I’ll never leave my loyal readers hanging without my latest control technology. I’ve been tearing up Magic Online and doing well in local IQs and other tournaments with my current incarnation of Esper Control in Standard. A few things are different about this Esper list than the last few, and if you’ve liked my Facebook page (hint: the link is in my bio at the bottom of this article), this list will be very familiar to you.

I’ve temporarily retired form playing countermagic in the maindeck and rely solely on the power of Thoughtseize to take care of business. Thoughtseize is easily the best card in Standard in my opinion, and the only right number to play in the main is four. It serves the same purpose as counterspells, but at the cheap price of one mana and on a very proactive level. Commentators refer to me as a “tapout control specialist,” and I don’t want to let them down. I’ve always been more comfortable tapping out for my threats, answers, and spells, and Thoughtseize fits the mold much better than Dissolve in the majority of situations. I’ll board out a Thoughtseize or two against the fast creature decks, but otherwise I’ll keep in the full count to help defend the powerful spells that strike fear in the hearts of my opponents.

This doesn’t mean we can win solely off of Sin Collector and Thoughtseize, so you’ll notice that I’ve included four counterspells in the sideboard. The reason why it is a diverse split is because the two copies of Gainsay are great against Mono-Blue Devotion, the Negate is awesome against Mono-Black Devotion and some rogue decks, and the Dissolve is sweet against Monsters decks. Even though each counterspell has a perfect matchup in which to be brought in, they are all great against the mirror, so all four come in. I’m a huge fan of this split, and it has helped me tremendously in the diverse world of Magic Online.

I’ve also said so long to Aetherling. Since U/W Control is the hotness and Esper Control is on the decline, Obzedat Ghost Council is just better than Aetherling across the board. Even though it doesn’t auto win, it is unkillable for a U/W Control player and much easier to resolve. It costs two less effectively and can drain and win without even attacking.

The amount of times I resolved Aetherling against U/W Control game 1, especially without countermagic, was staggeringly low, but the amount of Obzedat Ghost Council that have hit the battlefield is impressive. Picture a game 2 with four copies of Thoughtseize; three copies of Sin Collector; four counterspells; three copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa; two copies of Obzedat, Ghost Council; and a devastating army of planeswalkers against the mirror match. I’ve taken down a lot of game 2s and 3s with this control mirror strategy.

The rest of the list is pretty standard, and you’ll probably get caught up on the three copies of Sphinx’s Revelation, 26 lands, and the Gild. Gild has been sweet and does what I want it to do, which is kill any guy and ramp. The amount of times I’ve played Elspeth Sun’s Champion on turn 5 and a Sphinx’s Revelation for an extra card is plentiful (I’ve played a lot of matches!). The land and Sphinx’s Revelation count are not changing for me any time soon, and I love opening hands that aren’t filled with multiple Stroke of Genius effects that are basically mulligans if I don’t survive. I know how good Sphinx’s Revelation is, trust me; however, too much of a good thing can be bad!

I’m looking forward to the upcoming SCG Invitational in Charlotte and preparing a powerful sideboarding and metagame breakdown for a tournament I’ve had a great deal of success in. I also want to mention that I’ve caved, so you’ll see a Legacy list with True-Name Nemesis. I’ve betrayed the Lingering Souls community and will work on getting your forgiveness in the near future. Good luck my friends and see you next time.