Control: My Standard Success, My Modern Ambition

Like the leads in a romantic comedy, Shaheen Soorani and Control found each other just in time to keep his Pro Tour train going. Today he shares his success in Standard and his ambitions for the archetype in Modern ahead of SCG Baltimore!

I’ve had a pretty eventful last few weeks. Just when I thought the tank was empty, I was able to launch across competitive Magic in that same beat-up control vehicle that I refuse to sell. In my last article, I discussed what it means to play control, how other archetypes were letting me down, and my decision to play the game with Team Control from here on out. I was rewarded with a strong 11-5 finish that very next day at Pro Tour Ixalan.

Pro Tour Ixalan wasn’t filled with the control-friendly metagame that I expected. There were enough Ramunap Red decks to make any Grixis mage sweat. I made it no secret that my chances were grim if faced against the forces of evil more than a round, or two. I ended up playing against Temur five times, four in Day 1, and once Day 2. Those were the easy rounds, with a couple of early losses from my own hands. Misplaying and a bit of nervousness left me vulnerable enough to lose twice to the easiest matchup out there. I had to rallym and rally I did, defeating it the next three times I played against it. I managed to put myself able to make it to Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan with a 4-1 record or better in the final five rounds of Standard on Day 2.

I played a super-awesome guy in the first of those rounds, but unfortunately for him, his Temur Energy deck was not stopping me today. In the second Day 2 Constructed round, my opponent played a Plains with a Duskborne Skymarcher on Turn 1.

I thought I was dreaming, but after a light pinch I realized that this deck was a pretty powerful option for this tournament. There were ten players battling with the deck and all of them made Day 2. Sadly for my very nice opponent, he didn’t have much of a shot against the Grixis Control brew before him.

Hour of Devastation wiped him out easily in both games, leaving me feeling pretty good about my chances. A couple more Temur Energy decks and I’d be in the next Pro Tour! As I prepared for my next match, I heard my name called to the feature area. In about ten minutes, I was swept by Ramunap Red easily, wiping that grin right off my face. Now I had to win out.

In my last two must-win rounds, I was up against Ramunap Red and B/R Aggro. Competitive Magic can be exhilarating, but at the same time very stressful. Having a winning record at the Pro Tour again simply wasn’t good enough. I decided to play control because I believe it’s a powerful enough archetype in Standard to compete on the world stage. Winning these last two rounds meant more to me than just qualifying for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan; it was a statement to those who always doubt the validity of the oldest archetype.

Long story short, I defeated both aggressive decks on the back of Multiform Wonder to bring home the invite. Control forever!

Modern Times

This article was going to focus on Standard, but that format is on hold for me until the release of Rivals of Ixalan. Modern is now the focus for me and my Team Cardhoarder crew.

I have been guilty of spewing vitriol toward the aggro/combo format for quite some time, either with endless cries to unban Jace, the Mind Sculptor (which they totally should do) or the general lack of control’s viability for a multitude of reasons. Some agree with my stance; others believe the format is fine without decks casting Supreme Verdict at the top.

I respect the opposing side and I’ve learned to dig deeper to find a deck that can be competitive. This has led me to play decks like Grixis Death’s Shadow, Krark-Clan Ironworks, and a plethora of blue-based control decks that haven’t quite panned out. I am a control mage at heart and it’s my passion, but I have combo roots as well.

If there is a way to make control work in Modern, I’m going to put additional hours into the lab work to make it happen. The recent success I’ve had in Modern was with this U/B Control list.

I’ve completed two competitive Leagues with this list so far. The first run was a difficult 5-0 because all but one went to Game 3. The second League I finished with a 4-1 record, losing badly to Eldrazi Tron in the finals. I’m currently in the third League and I added two Ceremonious Rejections to the sideboard to help the Urzatron matchups without jamming four copies of Spreading Seas into the maindeck.

I’ve run Spreading Seas in every blue-based control deck in Modern and it has often been a disappointment. It takes too many slots and requires Ghost Quarter of Tectonic Edge to apply maximum pressure on the opponent’s resources. Often it didn’t impact the battlefield, caused me to tap out simply to dig for a threat, and thinned out my high-impact spells due to the slots they took up.

Spreading Seas can be a backbreaker to decks that lean on greedy mana, but the cost has been too high. The format is lightning-fast, causing two-mana enchantments that have little to no battlefield impact to become liabilities. Even against Eldrazi Tron, turning their utility lands into Islands doesn’t stop their onslaught in the slightest. There are always going to be situations where Spreading Seas does the perfect mana lock on the opponent while drawing you a card, but it isn’t frequent enough.

This U/B Control list thrives off hand disruption. Inquisition of Kozilek must be the starter, but Thoughtseize is an easy card to put in after Game 1 and the aggression coast is clear. Pair these with Snapcaster Mage or that Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy cameo, and you can take down any of the combo or control decks out there.

Fatal Push is the new addition that makes this deck even possible. Without Fatal Push, the black removal was subpar at best, which made U/B Control an impossible choice in Modern. I tried it with Doom Blade and Victim of Night, but Modern is too quick to have all the removal in the two-mana slot. Fatal Push works well with the nine fetchlands, but it is rare for an opponent to have a threat that costs more than two anyway. The Modern creature package is either full of one- and two-drops or massive creatures that must be countered. The two copies of Victim of Night are for creatures that escape the icy grip of blue and make it onto the battlefield. It is the best removal spell outside of Fatal Push because of its lack of limitations. Murderous Cut may be a better card, but Logic Knot and Tasigur, the Golden Fang have priority over the graveyard contents.

Opt has replaced Serum Visions and I couldn’t be happier. Serum Visions and Snapcaster Mage make an embarrassing couple in a deck that doesn’t want to tap out often. A flash threat that pops in during an opponent’s end step has been outstanding so far. Before Opt, a Snapcaster Mage had to be held for a possible counterspell, and when the opponent did something that didn’t require the use of that counterspell, we wasted an entire series with inaction. Opt has delivered as a better option for control decks, but Serum Visions is still the king combo cantrip.

The new planeswalker rule has got me all fired up, as you all can tell. There is one copy each of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Jace, Architect of Thought in this deck. This is clearly not some complicated algorithm or exquisite display of deckbuilding. It is a dream on paper to one day have both iconic figures glaring across the battlefield at the opponent in unison.

Although I haven’t had the pleasure of this interaction coming to life yet, Liliana hasn’t let me down. Liliana of the Veil and Liliana, the Last Hope are both very powerful planeswalkers in Modern. One serves as a combo killer, while the other picks away little creatures with ease. I’m not sure which is better at the point, but I think Liliana of the Veil has more upside in a deck with heavy discard after sideboarding. If it turns out that Liliana, the Last Hope is the hero of Modern control, I would switch the count in favor of her.

The only card I truly miss from white-based control is Supreme Verdict. Damnation is not Supreme Verdict and I have been punished a few times over the years when trying to resolve sweepers against blue enemies. Decks like Grixis Death’s Shadow, Merfolk, U/W and Jeskai, and Bant Company have counterspells to punish players who try to kill all the creatures the old-fashioned way. These decks don’t make up a significant portion of the metagame usually, but it is still likely that you’ll face one or two in a large tournament.

Consume the Meek has been an exciting addition to the sideboard and I have been looking for a way to fit another in. It’s an instant-speed battlefield sweeper that annihilates all threats and is impossible to see coming. The new Humans Aggro deck that has been taking Modern by storm is routed by this card and the Meddling Mage that named Damnation never saw it coming. I could go through the list of decks where Consume the Meek is strong, but that is pretty much all of Modern.

Modern is still run by the aggro kingpins and occasionally a shifty combo/big mana player steals the spotlight. It’ll take more unique cards like Consume the Meek to help control break through the Tier 1 ceiling. Night of Souls’ Betrayal is another hate card that hits a variety of decks in a big way. Using creative cards like these is necessary because they close out the game, and that is easily the biggest weakness that control has in Modern.

The win conditions that are typically summoned by blue mages cost way too much mana to realistically use. Consecrated Sphinx, Grave Titan, Wurmcoil Engine, and Aetherling are all epic options from U/B Control’s past, but they have that one pesky trait in common. Six mana in Modern feels impossible to achieve against most decks, which forces control players to play weaker win conditions that cost much less.

Tasigur, the Golden Fang is effectively one mana and is much easier to resolve and protect. It has difficulty closing the game out on its own, so the spells that surround it must be on point. When falling behind in old Standard or Extended, these big mana win conditions could shift the scales back to the control side, but in Modern it is too difficult to amass the resources to ever summon one of these immaculate beasts.

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is a card that still sees fringe play as a one-of in U/W Control decks. The reason why a card so powerful doesn’t see much play or help make the case for control in Modern is the mana cost. The day the format slows down, or our hero is unbanned, is the day we will rejoice. Either having our own four-mana win condition or being able to have a few turns to churn out a six-mana one would make a world of difference for control’s success in Modern.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to work on this U/B Control deck, as well as the other blue-based control decks, to give us a fighting chance in this unforgiving format. Good luck in Baltimore this weekend, my friends!