Flow of Ideas – Introducing Sphinx Control in Standard

Read Gavin Verhey every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, October 8th – While all of my friends have been busy playtesting Extended and draft, I have been testing like mad for the upcoming LCQ in Austin. Ever since the spoiler hit, I have been working on Standard decks. Never have I turned down so many booster drafts in my life!

While all of my friends have been busy playtesting Extended and draft, I have been testing like mad for the upcoming LCQ in Austin. Ever since the spoiler hit, I have been working on Standard decks. Never have I turned down so many booster drafts in my life! I am fully intent on playing the best possible Standard deck I can find at the LCQ, and I am trying to explore every angle possible. With the upcoming StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Philadelphia this weekend, I would like to share with you my current number one deck. I’m not holding anything back: this is the deck I would play if I was LCQing this weekend, and the deck I think you should be playing at the StarCityGames.com $5K.

“Why share your best deck?” you might ask. After all, it seems a little strange for me to help out the same people who are going to be sitting across from me at the LCQ. Well, there are a few reasons, but most notably I think the format will have a radical shift after the $5K results come in. If I saved this deck for another week and a half, it might not be the right choice anymore. Even if it still is my top deck, I think it’s very likely that I would end up evolving the deck to reflect the post-$5K metagame anyway. I’m not trying to trick anybody here. I honestly believe you should be playing Sphinx Control — so let me give you my sales pitch.

Yes — that is 61. Before I go any further, let me say that I do not usually advocate 61 card decks, but I believe this to be a case where it is warranted. Much like Gabriel Nassif 61 card Five-Color Control build from Pro Tour: Kyoto, I found myself wanting somewhere between 26 and 27 lands, and you can’t really play something like Gargoyle Castle in this deck because your seven lands must always cast Cruel Ultimatum. By going to 61, you have 27 lands, but a slightly lower chance of drawing them due to the sixty-first card. Hence, a point where it statistically feels like slightly under 27 lands.

Now that I have that point out of the way, let me tell you about this deck. I knew that everybody would still be stuck in the five-color mindset after having Reflecting Pool for two years, when in reality there was little incentive left to strain your manabase to play all five. I felt two or three color control decks were the way to go, and so my very first reaction after the spoiler came out was to build a URW control deck. Paths, Bolts, Negates, Jace, Ajani, Baneslayers, Sphinxes — you get the drift. I played my URW concoction a lot and liked it, evolving the deck quite considerably, and it won a lot of games.

I liked my URW deck a lot, but as I spent time working on other decks —Vampires, Vampyres (R/B Vampires), Jund, Planeswalker Control, Mono Red, Warp World, Five Color, and Esper Control, to name only about a third of the decks I worked on — I eventually realized the simple truth that I think everyone knew all along: the best endgame spell in the format is Cruel Ultimatum, bar none. Baneslayer Angel doesn’t even come close. Control matchups hinge on the resolution of Cruel Ultimatum, and in many situations a beatdown deck will crumble to it.

Everybody is ready for Baneslayers, and so the huge upside you had from playing White is mostly resigned to Path and Ajani Furthermore, with Cryptic Command and Broken Ambitions rotating out, resolving Cruel Ultimatum has become a lot easier.

That’s when it clicked.

I hybridized the best elements of my UWR deck with Grixis Control, and began to rigorously test it. To my delight, the deck worked even better than I had dreamed. I felt like I could win every matchup. Swapping White for Black had done a number of things besides just fueling seven-mana sorceries. Not only did Black give me access to more quality removal, but I got to add arguably the biggest non-Ultimatum breaker in the control mirror: Haunting Echoes.

Before I go into card choice analysis, I want to comment on the format. The way I see the format, it’s full of random midrange and control decks, established control decks, and streamlined beatdown decks, with some weak combo decks. Right now their builds are too numerous to have established monikers and decklists, so I feel it’s better to build wide to be able to beat a variety of strategies than go narrow and lose to strategies that haven’t been as prevalent.

So, onto card discussion. I want to start, as anyone should, with the manabase.

The manabase color-wise is a fairly streamlined, but the main card I want to give mention to is Magosi, the Waterveil. Although I worry about playing more than one, this card is very good in this deck. You just play it, wait until they don’t do anything and you’re in a stable position (sitting on removal and/or countermagic), then give them a turn. While you can use Magosi to “double up” in a control mirror and force through something like a Cruel Ultimatum like Sam Black and others have suggested, it also serves a nice role with the Planeswalkers in the deck. While, granted, these two Planeswalkers are two of the less impressive ‘walkers to use Magosi with, it’s still a powerful interaction you should keep in mind. Besides that, all I have to say is that the manabase is superb, and to make sure you look ahead when fetching lands so you choose the ones you will need to have to cast Cruel Ultimatum.

The removal suite in this deck is quite plentiful, with four Lightning Bolts, four Wretched Banquets, and two Terminates, backed up by four Pyroclasms and three Chandras. I’ll get to Chandra in a minute, but let me talk about the others first.

Lightning Bolt is pretty much the premier removal spell for one mana, which also serves to nug your opponent if the game runs long and you ultimate Chandra. After that, though, you have a lot of other removal options. Originally, I had Agony Warps alongside Bolt and Terminate. Agony Warp does a lot of things very well, and often acts like a Lightning Helix. One thing it does not do very well, however, is kill creatures with four or more toughness. I kept dying to random creatures from the Jund deck with Jund Charm pumping their toughness, Malakar Bloodwitches, Broodmate Dragons, and so on. They usually only were able to keep one creature in play due to all of my removal, but sometimes that was all they would need.

Enter the rediscovery of Wretched Banquet.

The Banquet can both kill their one-drop, serving as a cheap way to deal with Goblin Guides and Vampire Lacerators, but it also kills anything left behind that I just can’t deal with. And, since Wretched Banquet is neither a demon nor a dragon, it can kill lifelinking White angels appropriately. The card had quickly fallen out of flavor previously due to the prevalence of token creatures, but with Sprouting Thrinax being the only popular 1/1 token creator left, think it’s going to be a key card in the new Standard. I tried Wretched Banquet out and immediately loved it, and I think it provides a very powerful effect for a very cheap cost. The one mana makes a huge difference. For example, a common play is turn two Courier’s Capsule, turn 3 Wretched Banquet, end step crack Capsule: a play you can’t make with Agony Warp and Terminate. The only big disadvantage I’ve found compared to Terminate is that it’s a sorcery so you can’t plug their Bloodbraid Elves or Ball Lightnings, but hey, you can’t have everything.

As far as Pyroclasm goes, two is the new three in the New Standard. That is, the toughness you have to be able to kill on a lot of important creatures is two or less as opposed to three or less. Pyroclasm is very effective, and without access to Day of Judgment, I think you absolutely need four. I tried out an Earthquake over one for some long game reach and a modifiable Pyroclasm, but the problem is that it puts you a turn behind busting two power creatures in the early game, and that’s often too crucial to forgo.

Chandra is probably the most under-respected Planeswalker. She is often a two for one, if not more. I mean, she can take down a Baneslayer Angel and stick on the board to continue having an effect. Think about that. She provides a win condition going long, and makes sure you don’t lose to beatdown if you hit a mana glut. In the New Standard, Planeswalkers are the best source of continual card advantage, and Chandra is no exception. Additionally, she’s another way to be able to kill big creatures if they’re banking on one big guy getting past your bolts.

Now, it’s no secret I like to draw cards. With this deck, I have quite a few card drawing spells, and I think they’re all warranted. A lot of your cards are one for ones, so by playing cards that draw you cards, you can maintain one-for-one spell parity with removing your opponent’s cards and not run out of action. A lot of people think there is a lack of good card draw in Standard. Well, as I show you this card drawing package you might begin to think otherwise. Cruel Ultimatum needs no introduction, we’ve partying with that guy for over a year now, but what about the other three sources of cards?

Jace is the best cheap source of card drawing available in the format. Four copies is perfectly legitimate considering how often he dies and how much I despise activating his +2 ability. Jace isn’t really arguable, but the rest of the card draw has some interesting choice behind it. Courier’s Capsule versus Divination is an interesting debate, but I feel Capsule is superior. While costing one more mana overall, the ability to play Capsule turn 2 and leave counter mana up in case they Blightning you turn 3, or being able to draw two cards and Wretched Banquet, are valuable. There are a number of things you can do with Capsule that you can’t with Divination, and there are a lot of game situations where the two mana and then two mana at instant speed has made a significant difference.

And then we have Sphinx of Lost Truths, the card which this deck is named after. This guy is simply absurd. At five mana, he’s very solid, with a body that can block most non-Baneslayer creatures and the ability to sift through three cards to find you what you need to survive or hit your land drops. His five mana mode is severely underrated, so don’t be afraid to cast him at retail. But with that said, at seven mana, he’s a total gamebreaker. There are many games where I have found his effect to be comparable to Cruel Ultimatum, as it is often the three cards off the Ultimatum which make the most difference. To top it all off, rebuying one of these guys off a Cruel Ultimatum basically seals any game. Three for one card drawing effects are hard to come by in Standard these days, and Sphinx of Lost Truths reminds just why draw threes aren’t freely abundant.

Finally we have Negate. Originally I started with four because I never wanted to get hit by Blightning and I always wanted to have an advantage in control mirror, but I just found too many times when my hand was choked with Negates against a deck like Vampires and I would die with two Negates still in my grip. I moved the fourth to the board, but could see maindecking all four once the metagame becomes more streamlined. I originally had Double Negative, then I moved them to the board before they disappeared entirely. The one mana makes a huge difference, especially when on the draw.

There are a few cards notably absent from this deck; most notably, Bituminous Blast and Blightning. Blightning simply did not fit anywhere; it’s a glorified Mind Rot in this deck. The three damage seldom matters until it no longer actually matters, and it’s a horrible draw later on. Bituminous Blast, however, is a different story. While obviously a very powerful card, at five mana I would honestly often rather cast Chandra or a Sphinx. Not only is it a nonbo with Negate, but most of the time they only have one creature in play anyway, and since the majority of cards I am going to hit are removal spells, it’s only really at its best when it hits a Capsule or Jace. At that rate, I would rather just have Terminate. It’s not about making sure you can have card advantage on turn 5, it’s about surviving to reach that point, and a cheaper removal spell does a better job at accomplishing that.

Now that I’ve ran through the card breakdown, here is how I have been sideboarding for most of the major matchups with some advice for each matchup. One thing to keep in mind is that, at a point so fresh in the season, the contents of each archetype may vary. While this is how I have been sideboarding against what seem to preliminarily be the three most popular decks, you may want to change how you board slightly depending on cards they may or may not have.

Five-Color Control, and other 3+ color control decks with a lot of non-creature spells

-4 Wretched Banquet, -4 Pyroclasm, -2 Chandra Nalaar

+4 Countersquall, +1 Negate, +2 Liliana Vess, +2 Haunting Echoes, +1 Magosi, the Waterveil

There are numerous plans you can go on in this matchup. You can board in a LD plan, a burn plan with Anathemancers, a discard plan, or, what I believe is the best way to go, the bottleneck plan. With four Negate and four Countersquall after sideboarding, it’s ridiculously hard for them to resolve any of their important spells. Haunting Echoes is a complete matchup-breaker, and Liliana Vess is a proactive piece which forces them to make plays. Liliana can also be Scepter of Fugue, but I prefer Liliana because she is less mana intensive overall. I also bring in an extra land because one of the few ways you can lose is to get mana screwed, and if I’m going to bring an extra land in the control mirror, it might as well be a Magosi.

A lot of people might say Thought Hemorrhage is better than Haunting Echoes, but I actually prefer Echoes. Hemorrhage is good if you want to be proactive, but I would much rather sit on my countermagic, trade off for a few spells, and then Echoes half of their spells.

Although I am sideboarding in a ton of cards, this matchup actually isn’t bad at all. There are just a lot of cards you can take out against control, but few you want to take out against beatdown.


-2 Courier’s Capsule, -3 Pyroclasm, -1 Sphinx of Lost Truths

+2 Terminate, +3 Essence Scatter, +1 Negate

It’s very important you can Negate their Blightnings and Thought Hemorrhages, so I bring in the fourth, even though it’s bad against fast starts. Hemorrhage on Cruel Ultimatum is very bad for you, and discarding two is always an issue when trying to maintain card parity.


-3 Negate, -1 Courier’s Capsule, -1 Sphinx of Lost Truths

+2 Terminate, +3 Essence Scatter

Their small guys are really easy to deal with, but make sure to save your all-purpose removal spells for Vampire Nocturnus and Malakar Bloodwitch. This is a really good matchup. The only ways you can normally lose is an unanswered Nocturnus or a Mind Sludge out of the builds that play it. Against those builds and the B/R “Vampyres” deck, you may want to keep Negate in.

Additionally, there is a mono red deck that is picking up popularity, but every one seems to be different. Some are goblins themed, others burn themed, others are just Sligh beatdown decks. If it’s burn heavy, then being in your Negate and Countersqualls. Otherwise, just bring in additional removal.

I believe Sphinx Control is the deck to be playing right now, and I am in a quest to keep improving it and hear others’ opinions. If you play with it, whether at the 5k this weekend, at a local tournament, or just some practice playtesting games, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can e-mail them to me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com, or post in the forums. I’m looking forward to hearing from you! If you have any questions about Sphinx Control, feel free to post them in the forums and I’d be happy to answer them. I’m looking forward to reading your responses!

Gavin Verhey

Team Unknown Stars

Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else