Deep Analysis – Chapin versus Thompson on Cruel Ultimatum: Who’s Right?

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Thursday, November 27th – Five-Color Control players across the world have pondered this question since Shards of Alara hit the shelves: does Cruel Ultimatum belong in Five-Color Control? In the red corner, arguing that Cruel Ultimatum is necessary, we have Chapin. In the blue corner, arguing that the card is overhyped, we have Thompson. Who’s right? Richard investigates…

“I hate cards that do nothing except win the game in my control decks…I prefer White cards [like Story Circle] to playing something as unnecessary as Cruel Ultimatum.”
Gerry Thompson

“Even now, the controversy surrounding Cruel Ultimatum lives on, as some players claim it is a seven-mana ‘win-more’ card… It isn’t just a win-the-game card, it is a catch-up-when-you-are-behind card… I went on record long ago as saying that Cruel Ultimatum is The Truth.”
Patrick Chapin

Who’s right? To answer this question properly, we need to take a look at the cards in the context of their decks.

First, we have the quintessential Cruel Control build: the one that put the latest championship notch in Chris Woltereck belt.

In Gerry’s corner, we have less of a consensus list. It’s an entirely unfair comparison, but I want to use his most recent build even though he posted it with the clear disclaimer that he “threw together” the list.

Gerry joked that “In a perfect world, this is something that I would consider playing, although I am somewhat demented.” Nonetheless, the strategy has picked up a vocal minority of advocates, and examining it leads to some fundamental insights about the nature of control

By the way, I have no idea what OSA stands for, but that’s what I’ll be using to refer to Gerry’s proposed list. If it turns out that it’s like “Quick ‘n’ Toast” and is an abbreviation for something random (“Omelet Sounds Amazing?”), so be it.

1. Card Choices

Comparing the two decks, we actually see quite a few differences beyond the presence or absence of Cruel Ultimatum. As the Ferrett wrote up a too-often-neglected comparison tool for decks, I thought I’d use it for purposes of this analysis.

The first difference of note is the lands.

OSA has a 27th land in the form of Mistveil Plains, where Cruel Control had only 26 and no Mistveil. Gerry is a solid advocate of 27 lands in Five-Color Control builds, but does not seem to consider that extra land a deal-breaker (“If I were to play Five-Color Control, I would recommend at least 26 lands, and 27 if you value consistently making your drops.”), so I won’t dwell on it. With no Oona’s Grace to tear through the deck, it is no surprise that Cruel Control steers clear of Mistveil Plains.

At this point, full sets of Wrath, Kitchen Finks, Esper Charm, and Cryptic Command are never met with any surprise, and 3 Remove Soul is fairly commonplace. The differences in the other one-drops, two-drops, and three-drops, however, are interesting.

OSA Thunder:
4 Resounding Thunder
3 Jund Charm
2 Oona’s Grace
2 Story Circle

Cruel Control:
4 Mulldrifter
2 Condemn
2 Bant Charm
1 Negate
1 Pyroclasm

Oona’s Grace and Story Circle are both clearly late-game cards, but I list them here because they can be cast on turn 3 for some small profit. An important distinction between OSA’s late-game cards and Cruel Control’s is that OSA’s do not “rot in your hand” for nearly as long when drawn early.

As we will see momentarily, OSA has 3 Tidings for supplemental card draw beyond Esper Charm, while Cruel Control plays Mulldrifter. This actually surprised me, as Mulldrifter seems to fit better with Gerry’s goal of cutting down on early-game dead draws. (I assume he so rarely found himself Evoking Mulldrifter, he decided he would rather get four cards instead of two plus a Wind Drake for his five mana.)

Past the card draw and the late-game spells, we see 3 Jund Charm for OSA and 2 Bant Charm, 1 Pyroclasm for Cruel Control. This is the more bland spot removal slot; Gerry is opting for the three Instant-speed Pyroclasms (which, yes, also work well against Reveillark and have good synergy with Kitchen Finks, especially one that has already Persisted back onto the table) instead of one two-drop sweeper and two pinpoint removal spells. It’s been noted before that Five-Color Control is a deck whose maindeck must evolve with the metagame, and I think it’s fair to chalk these differences up to that. Gerry specifically cited Reveillark as his reason for trying out Jund Charm.

Finally we have 4 Resounding Thunder for OSA and 2 Condemn, 1 Negate for Cruel Control. Besides Tidings, I see this as the most experimental part of Gerry’s deck. He is using a (slightly overpriced) early removal spell as a win condition! In GT’s own words: “If [you are] playing against Faeries, you can either get in some early damage with Finks and their own Thoughtseizes, or just cycle two Thunders. I’m not claiming it’s easy, but it’s not impossible either.”

With Mistveil Plains in the deck, Gerry’s Thunders give him total inevitability. As soon as he digs to the bottom of his deck with Oona’s Grace (and in a 3-Tidings deck that routinely gets out twelve or more lands in the late game, he can dig pretty quickly), it’s all over. No deck in Standard can handle that many consecutive uncounterable six-point blasts to the face.

The loss in efficiency becomes apparent when looking at what Cruel Control plays in those slots. Condemn is the most efficient removal spell between the two decks, and Negate is among their precious few two-cost spells. OSA skips out on both in order to fit, essentially, the early-game equivalent Puncture Blast without Wither. If OSA were to ditch the Thunders for more efficient cards, have to resort to an exclusive Kitchen Finks beatdown policy to win its games.

Finally we come to the critical difference: the top of the curve for the two decks.

OSA Thunder:
3 Tidings

Cruel Control:
2 Cruel Ultimatum
2 Cloudthresher
1 Nucklavee

This is the difference in philosophy right here. The clunkiest Big Spell draw OSA can mange is drawing up to three five-drops (which are really not central to the strategy; Gerry could have put Mulldrifters there instead if he’d felt they were appropriate), whereas Cruel Control features an equal number of six-drops plus a couple of bonus seven-drops. In exchange, Cruel Control can quickly end a game using Ultimatum and Cloudthresher, or even Nucklavee beatdown, while OSA will almost invariably take much longer to win.

One last note on card choices: I want to repeat Gerry’s disclaimer that the build he posted was thrown together as an experiment, and should not to be taken as a Gerry Thompson Approved decklist to go run out and play as-is. As it is experimental, I’m not going to consider the specific card choices as all that germane to the discussion (Tidings over Mulldrifter? Jund Charm over Bant? 4 Thunders over three or two or even just one? You get the idea), except to note that the necessity of including Thunder to give the deck a realistic win condition does make OSA’s removal suite less efficient than Cruel Control’s.

2. The Case for Cruel Control

If the propensity of Ultimatum advocates (and strong finishes of the deck) is any indication, the vast majority of control players seem to favor the Big Finisher approach. After all, control decks have been ending their games with big spells for ages, and Five-Color Control takes long enough to win games even when it is packing both Ultimatum and Cloudthresher.

Although technically not a spell that will actually kill the opponent, the game is just about a foregone conclusion if it resolves. As Chapin put it, “How can you not establish control? You damage their board position, you Mind Twist them, and you drain them for five, which should go a long way towards ensuring that the four new cards you have are enough to win.” The only game I’ve ever seen someone lose after resolving a Cruel Ultimatum involved the opponent dumping two Wilt-Leaf Lieges into play for free.

So why play Ultimatum over something like Cloudthresher? Consistency of finish. Though you’d easily prefer the 7/7 against Faeries, any deck with a Bant Charm or Crib Swap can foil an endgame based around Big Thresh, not to mention the fact that a lot of aggro decks can simply race it. Ultimatum puts most opponents in the ground, and nothing short of a miracle will let them dig their way back out.

Really the only (non-Wilt-Leaf-Liege) matchup where the opponent can survive an Ultimatum is a control mirror, where the seven-mana behemoth is still miles ahead of any other acceptable maindeck finisher I can think of. Even Oona keels over to a Wrath or Remove Soul; Ultimatum demands specifically Cryptic Command, or maybe Negate if you’re playing it.

Among the best arguments for playing a big, splashy finisher like this (in the absence of many small utility creatures that can come together to finish as an army) is a format’s propensity for comebacks. Consider Extended, a format where you can utterly savage a Storm combo deck’s resources and then watch it resolve Ad Nauseam on its own end step, in response to your own draw spells, then go off next turn. A format where a Cranial Plating can transform a board of insignificant dorks and Blinkmoth Nexi into lethal monsters, or a couple of topdecked Tribal Flames can strike you down even when you’ve butchered every creature to hit the table.

In such an environment, the very goal of establishing total control is risky. Tezzeret control decks play Engineered Explosives, Pithing Needle, Vedalken Shackles, Ensnaring Bridge, Chalice of the Void, and Trinisphere – all in conjunction with Academy Ruins. The potential to go for total lockdown is there, but it’s unrealistic; if the deck did not happen to include so many finishers incidentally (Trinket Mage, Tezzeret, Shackles, and Vendilion Clique are all qualified win conditions when backed up by such artifact firepower working to suppress the rest of the opponent’s deck), it would not be the type of deck that could get by with a couple of Gaea’s Blessings and an Urza’s Factory. Too many decks would steal victories out from under its nose.

Standard doesn’t have as many comparable topdecks – Demigod comes to mind, and maybe Bitterblossom, but not much else cannot be solved by a generic sweeper or a counterspell in hand – so that argument is tougher to make here. Still, the format does have some propensity for topdecked comebacks despite a mostly-established control of the game, so closing the door to that remains a selling point of Ultimatum and the like.

The final argument in favor of Ultimatum is one that Patrick articulated plainly in the first article he wrote about the card: “Everyone that doesn’t win by turn 6 needs to have a plan to deal with this card.”

Unlike true win-more cards, you can be very far behind on turn 6, then untap and swing things completely around on turn 7 with a resolved Ultimatum. Granted, due to the heavy Cloudgoat Clachan syndrome (that annoying occurrence where the final land drop you need to resolve your bomb comes into play tapped) of the Vivid-powered Five-Color Control decks, it is often more like turn 8 or 9, but Hang On Till Ultimatum Comes Online has been a successful tactic in many a game this season.

3. The Case for OSA

Naturally, this is the tougher case to make. Why does Gerry hate cards like Cruel Ultimatum? He elaborates: “Early on, when you’re fighting off aggro rushes, your win condition is going to just rot in your hand.” It’s hard to argue with that particular fact; every deck since the dawn of time to play expensive cards and no accelerants has encountered this situation.

If I have a hand of four lands and three copies of Cruel Ultimatum, I am probably going to die before I can make it to the late game and cast any of them. If, instead, I have four lands, one cheap answer, and two copies of Ultimatum, my odds are still pretty awful… but a bit better. If I have four lands, two cheap answers, and one copy of Ultimatum, things are not looking so bad anymore. Finally, if I have four lands, three cheap answers, and zero copies of Ultimatum, I have the hand (of the three) with the best chance possible chance of surviving to the late game.

If I play no expensive finishers like Cruel Ultimatum in my deck, I will never have any hands like the first two. I will never draw a card that “rots in my hand early on,” because I will not play any.

Midrange Control does not subscribe to this philosophy. A Midrange Control deck does not really aspire to take complete control of the game; rather, it wants to control the game to the point where a big finisher can overcome whatever the opponent has going. You counter some stuff, maybe Wrath some stuff against aggro, then you drop a Keiga or a Guile or what-have-you, then you win because the big guy you played is too much for the opponent to deal with.

As you move closer and closer to “pure” control, you see fewer finishers and more control elements. Even Cruel Control, for example, is all the way down to four or five expensive spells that it will to use to end most games. OSA simply takes this to its logical endpoint, cutting all the way down to zero expensive spells with which to end the game.

There are a few natural counterarguments to the proposition that an OSA-type strategy is feasible. One argument is that Cruel Control is superior because it has been putting up more high-profile finishes.

As a reasonable criticism of OSA, this is about on par with arguing that Gerry Thompson Has Cooties. If a deck does well over a season, that means it is a solid deck. Nothing more. It by no means implies that it is the optimal build, that similar lists are incapable of doing better – it just means that this particular build is solid. The fact that Cruel Control has won so many prizes means you will be hard-pressed to argue that it’s garbage, but it has absolutely zero bearing on how good Gerry’s proposed deck might or might not be in comparison.

The second argument is that it takes too long to win with the deck in timed play. I might have bought into this before Time Spiral Block, but not anymore. Just before that tournament, Gerry convinced me to cut every win condition from my Mystical Teachings maindeck except for a single Urza’s Factory. Even with Gaea’s Blessings, it seemed a bit on the loony side at the time, but I went 5-1-1 at that PTQ and only missed Top 8 on tiebreakers. I even won several matches that went to three games.

There were two factors I hadn’t accounted for. One, people scoop. I don’t think I had to actually attack a single opponent for lethal damage with Factory tokens. All I had to do was start activating the thing with a grip of cards in my hand to prompt the concession. Five-Color Control works similarly; as soon as you start going nuts drawing cards with Oona’s Grace while Story Circle is in play, the opponent is going to see the writing on the wall pretty quickly.

Not everyone scoops, though, which brings me to the second factor I hadn’t accounted for. You can play the late game quickly. Though the early and midgame often demand some complex decisions for any control player, once you hit that groove, that point where most opponents will scoop, you should be in a familiar state and just about on autopilot.

Since the opponent has not scooped, you should first figure out why that is. It’s almost always either (A) he’s got a creative out here – in which case you should figure out what it might be and alter your usual automatic plays accordingly – or (B) he doesn’t see the writing on the wall yet or (C) he’s trying to stall you out – in which case you call a judge right away.

You’ll be using Oona’s Grace to cycle through your lands on end step (keeping mana up for counters if need be), putting cards on the bottom with Mistveil Plains, and passing each turn very quickly.

If you still find yourself unable to play quickly enough – I’ll say I certainly surprised myself at that PTQ – honestly, you may want to work on that. If you are unintentionally drawing your way out of tournaments with a slow and methodical deck, chances are you are either getting more unintentional draws than you should when you play any deck, or you are often finding yourself forced to speed up your rate of play in game 3 beyond what you are comfortable with. (I know this was once a common problem for me.) Training yourself to be comfortable playing at a faster clip in general will help you avoid those situations even when you’re playing a “normal” deck.

Having said all that, there is a line to be drawn here. If you cut Resounding Thunder, you must resort to Kitchen Finks beatdown to carry the day. I would not be surprised to learn that this would cross the line between “deck can actually kill the opponent within the time constraints of a round” and “really not happening, even if you play quickly.”

If that doesn’t do it, taking this a step further (and assuming you don’t actually want Kitchen Finks in your deck) by removing all creatures from the deck would probably sink you. Yes, you can win by recycling your deck with Mistveil Plains while filling your hand with all four Cryptics and Esper Charming the opponent on every draw step so that he never gets to resolve another spell before he is decked, but at that point you might not even finish a single game, let alone a round.

With Thunder, though, simply digging to the bottom of your own deck is enough to consistently secure victory. I do think it’s interesting to note that this is true even if you play only one or two Thunders (you might want to add an extra Mistveil if you do this, so that you don’t deck yourself if you need to cycle multiple times – though obviously if you have time you can just win three points at a time instead of six), but playing all four gives you a way to kill the opponent well before you actually dig to the bottom of your deck.

4. Pro and Con

To sum up the previous sections, here are the things that don’t matter (or, perhaps, shouldn’t matter) in the consideration of which strategy to pursue:

1. The fact that Cruel Control has done well has zero bearing on whether or not an Ultimatum-free list might be better.
2. Most support card choices, like Tidings versus Mulldrifter, or Jund Charm versus Bant and Pyroclasm, are made independently of the choice to play Cruel Ultimatum or a more extreme control deck.
3. Finishing rounds on time should not be a problem for you in a deck with 26-27 land, 1-2 Oona’s Grace, 7-8 bonus card draw spells, and a guaranteed kill within a couple turns of digging to the bottom of the deck.

Unfortunately, the above are what I hear being talked about most often in discussing the two decks. Here are the actually relevant concerns, as I see them:

1. A prerequisite for playing an extreme control deck like OSA is that that the format does not have a strong propensity for topdecked comebacks in the face of otherwise total control of the game.
2. Decks that play uber-powerful cards like Cruel Ultimatum benefit from being able to adopt a strategy of Hang On Til the Big One Drops, which can steal wins in games where establishing control is infeasible.
3. More extreme control decks sometimes need to include less-efficient card choices (Thunder, in this case) in order to provide a realistic path to victory.
4. By excluding expensive finishers, these extreme control decks can minimize their early-game dead draws, which is the part of the game where control decks most often lose.

As to Point Number One, I think this Standard format is one in which the propensity for topdecked comebacks is sufficiently low to allow an extreme control deck to work. There’s really just Demigod – which is easily kept under wraps with Story Circle – and Bitterblossom, which can be dealt with using a counterspell right away, or a Story Circle plus periodic sweepers to keep the mana commitment reasonable.

Points Three and Four are generic benefits that flow from either strategy, and I personally tend to predict OSA’s upside will lead to more victories than Cruel Control’s… if OSA is capable of winning nearly every game in which it reaches the late game.

The critical questions, then, are (1) is it capable of winning nearly every game that goes long, and (2) how much does the inefficient removal spell Resounding Thunder hamstring its ability to get to the late game?

Answering those two questions depends a lot on what supporting cards surround these two win conditions. You could run Doran over Finks and perhaps Mulldrifter over Tidings, and might not even need to play Resounding Thunder if you can get away with that supporting package. You could also build OSA to be oriented so much towards the early game (cutting Oona’s Grace, Story Circle, etc.) that it starts to fizzle out in the late game rather than establishing total control. You could also go too far in that direction, maindecking four Story Circles and Oona’s Graces so that even though you always have cards to cast in the early game, they often won’t come together to put you in the driver’s seat. Your mileage with either strategy will vary considerably based on how you make these decisions.

The conclusion I draw from all these points is that, since the environment can support an extreme control deck like OSA, it all comes down to whether or not someone can actually find a build that accomplishes the goals of the extreme control strategy.

Jund Charm and Tidings might be solid choices that Cruel Control could benefit from as well, or they could be holding OSA back. Four copies of Resounding Thunder might be just the trick to let the deck finish on time, or they might be unnecessary inefficiencies in the deck’s removal suite. Maybe Five-Color Control loses more games because it fails to establish control than it does due to being behind in the early game, so Ultimatum is compensating for a critical deficiency. These are the types of things I would be debating if I were a Five-Color Control enthusiast, not whether you can finish rounds on time or whether Cruel Control’s success precludes a challenger to the Five-Color Control throne.

So who wins? Patrick or Gerry?

Frankly, I haven’t logged nearly enough testing hours with the many potential configurations builds of both decks to stand behind one or the other conclusively. If you skipped the whole article just to hear my answer, I’m sorry to say you missed the point – but I’ll go ahead and arbitrarily pick GerryT for you. I should caution that I’m only picking him because (A) he’s the underdog, (B) he has lent me cards way more often, and (C) Chapin utterly destroyed me in a dance-off last year. (I was hospitalized for awhile, and am only recently approaching a full recovery.)

Hopefully, although I did not answer the question directly, I put you on the path to making the decision yourself in a more informed and constructive way.

By the way, for those of you wondering how I got it the comparison tool to compare Cruel Control against OSA Thunder, I hacked the CGI parameters. (Keep quiet, you fellow webheads – it makes me sound cool if people don’t know how simple that is.)

See you next week!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
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