How Cavern Of Souls Helps Control

What effect will Cavern of Souls have on control? Dedicated Control Mage Shaheen Soorani tells you how this card really affects control and how he thinks the Standard metagame will evolve. Prepare for SCG Open Series: Madison!

When a new set is released in Magic, I do the same routine each time…sift through the card pool in search of cards that will help and cards that will be a threat to general control strategies. Avacyn Restored (AVR) has a few goodies that will be staples in the upcoming season and once Scars of Mirrodin rotates out in September.

Looking at the new set as a whole, I am disappointed in the lack of countermagic and card draw. My biggest pet peeve is the absence of a two-mana Venser target that isn’t Ichor Wellspring. We had Wall of Omens and Spreading Seas ripped away from us too early and had to suffer a drought where one of the coolest planeswalkers was neutered. I don’t think anyone has ever said that Venser was too good or that a two-mana cantripping permanent would break the format. However I am more inclined to play U/B (and now Esper) than U/W because of it.

Having four two-ofs with Venser gives U/W enough reach to steal games away from a more powerful counterpart in the control versus control battle against U/B, but I’m afraid it is hard to justify using him especially now with Tamiyo breaking out into the scene. I don’t mean to rant on about printing or reprinting a card… It’s too late for that now, but I wanted to explain why I shy away from U/W still. I will take some time during this article to comment on the “format-warping” POWER of Mana Leak (sarcasm :D), as well as attack the Cavern of Souls threat in Standard and older formats.

Here are some cards to keep an eye for control (in no particular order):


Of course Tamiyo is number one on the list for cards that are going to enter the control realm and decide matches with a flip of an ability switch. The ability to draw a ton of cards and have the planeswalker reminds me of a Garruk, Primal Hunter but better because Tamiyo survives through it. Also, the synergy with Lingering Souls and Gideon is too much to ignore.

At any point you can drop this monster and draw a card for every little Sorin and/or Lingering Souls token or take advantage of a large-scale attack by an opponent into a +2’d Gideon to dig easily for the Wrath of God. Writers on SCG have done a good job describing the power of Tamiyo so I won’t go into each scenario where she is powerful, but just know this is a card you will want to have at least two of in your collection to insert into most blue control decks.

One disadvantage of Tamiyo is that it is not the greatest against the control mirror compared to a Jace or Venser. The reason why Tamiyo is superior to those cards in general is that it is never a dead card and I don’t see myself boarding it out in any match. Another disadvantage is that pesky five-mana tag. I wish it was slightly weaker and landed in the four-mana column, but at five we have to make some tough choices.

Curse of Death’s Hold is going to be more important than ever in this new format, so I upped that back to three prior to AVR and that is the slot that Tamiyo has to share. Extensive testing will reveal the exact numbers that work the best, but at this point it is three Curses and one Tamiyo.

Bonfire of the Damned

I always look for the opportunity to try a control strategy that doesn’t use the traditional colors, and this red card is very exciting. At worst it kills tokens and Delvers for a small mana investment, and at best it completely one-sided Wraths your opponent out of the game. My definition of a good miracle card is one that isn’t dead when drawn naturally. Cards like Ponder create an environment that allows cards like these to increase in power ten-fold.

Control decks have to have access to Wrath affects and I don’t feel that Slagstorm does the job fully, but this card gives an out to bigger creatures later in the game for the red deck. I’m not sure if switching to red is viable for the control strategy, but this card combined with a few oldies can create a potent, defensive attack on the wave of aggressive decks that will follow in the upcoming months of Standard.

Pillar of Flame

This appears plain at first impression, but I love this card. The fact that it removes a creature from the game and it can hit players makes it a powerful spell. I usually have a very high bar for a red card entering the ring of my favorite new cards, but I won’t ignore raw power. This card kills flipped Delvers, Thalia, and Strangleroot Geist for a drop of mana…so good! Strangleroot Geist has been an infuriating addition from Dark Ascension, so any card that easily deals with it immediately lands a spot in my like column.

I have a feeling that this card has even more beneficial scenarios that will make it an all-star in almost every matchup and is the main reason why I hit the pad and pen with red ink this time around. You can see where this article is heading with a focal point on some of the new red cards, but trust me I am not ditching Esper just yet. The last time I dropped a Mountain on the battlefield was in a Time Spiral block PTQ, and it was Mono-Red Control. It will take more than a sweet removal spell to push me into that camp.


TERMINUSSSSSSS. What a cool card! It follows the same guidelines of defeating undying annoyances and has the opportunity to be done at the low, low cost of one mana. The catch is (isn’t there always one) you can’t time it as often as you like with the miracle mechanic and sometimes it might just be too early for the epic destruction. With that being said I think it is a great card, especially being only one more mana than Hallowed Burial (of which I was also a huge fan).

Of course, decks back then did not have flipped Delvers on turn 2 attacking you or three Strangleroot Geists going for your throat…so this card will take some trial and error to be sure about its timeshare with Day of Judgment and how often the miracle mechanic can pull you out of the grips of defeat. After testing it out in a small-scale tournament recently, the additional mana isn’t as much of a set back as you would think.

Day of Judgment is a fantastic turn 4 sweeper, but more often than not you tend to sandbag it for a few turns, take a few more hits to compel more board committing plays by your opponent, and then take out the team in one fell swoop. Using your life total and mind tricks has been the name of the game for control players when preparing for the board sweep, and this card allows the same result of a Wrath of God but better in many scenarios.

I mentioned the undying creatures that are dealt with easily, and let’s not forget the pesky Moorland Haunt land that is completely weakened by dudes going to the bottom of the deck. This card gets a lot of hate and I understand that six mana might as well be ten for some people when it comes to playability, but after using this card I realize that sometimes you just need to Hallowed Burial your way out of a loss instead of destroying a Thrun or slightly wounding a Geralf’s Messenger.

Angel of Jubilation

The card name is self-explanatory to describe my feelings when resolving it against Birthing Pod. I know the Magic community as well as WotC can’t help themselves when it comes to Anthem affects, so here is a super sweet one. The Anthem is my least favorite part of the card, but it makes those Lingering Souls tokens absolutely absurd and simultaneously makes Birthing Pod not a deck.

The card is fair costed at four and some damage might have already been done, but the fact that Birthing Pod can’t be used at all and they can’t even cast their off color Phyrexian Metamorphs make me jump for joy. If I had a dollar for every time I lost my cool on Magic Online after a sick Birthing Pod loss I’d have at least ten dollars, and that is unacceptable. I think this card has a lot going for it for a fair cost, and if I ever drop back to two colors or an easier splash third I would add him to my arsenal in a heartbeat.

Temporal Mastery

Yeah, yeah…this card. I dislike the creation of a card like this. By card like this I am referring to those that once spoiled all of us to feel obligated to play it or have to develop a strategy against it. Mana Leak does lose power because of the Cavern of Souls’ entry into the format, but using it on a Time Walk on turn 3 doesn’t seem too bad.  

Delver decks drool over a card like this when it works properly, and I see Noxious Revival combined with Thought Scour for some other cool interactions. Noxious Revival also works well when the spell is countered and allows for another perfect setup. The use of Ponder and miracles is a no brainer, but besides that it needs to be one of those rips to give the benefit that early blue decks desire or it’ll sit in your hand for the duration of the game in most cases.

I think this is a mandatory one- or two-of in control decks as well because we also have the power to set it up. Writers have given this card love for weeks now, and my opinion on the card is very similar to theirs. I would have preferred this card to have not been printed, but like we like we always do in the Magic community we will survive. I will go through my thought process in further detail throughout the article on the playability of this card, but I don’t see this card dropping to ten dollars anytime soon.

Righteous Blow

This card was a necessary print for those interested in playing a lower curve U/W Control deck. Since we are running Esper currently I am not jumping for joy over the situational shock, but it does take care of a flipped delver and nowadays that is hard for a one-mana card to do. Since we have access to black spells I don’t mind waiting one more turn for the Doom Blade, but U/W is stuck with Ratchet Bomb to do all the work and that responsibility is too heavy a burden for a three-of.

Righteous Blow gives those control players who like cheap answers like Tragic Slip a white equivalent, and I think that is always a sweet R&D creation. Gotta look out for my control brothers, even if they are on a slightly different page.

Cavern of Souls

Once the card was spoiled the Twitterverse exploded with ranting, raving, confusion, and general anger when the last line added a “can’t be countered” clause. As far as the playability and use in a control deck, I feel that midrange strategies in Legacy, Modern, and Standard will gain some advantage with a few of these in their arsenal. The decks I normally create use a very small amount of actual creature spells, so in those situations I am not eager to snag four of the upgraded Boseiju.

If control decks still plan on packing a decent counterspell package, then I see this land helping push through a Titan, Sphinx, or random other bomb. But if the number of counterspells dwindles then Cavern might be a wasted slot. This card will be much more of a staple for aggro decks and decks in older formats, but let’s talk about the immediate impact of the card on Standard.

How Cavern of Souls REALLY affects us…

Cavern of Souls is a devastating blow to the super aggressive strategy. That sounds like a bold/crazy statement, and I will explain further. Even if you don’t find yourself playing against the card since it was printed, some people will be using it so people will have to adapt their strategies…especially us control wizards.

Control players assume aggro decks will run this land to push through Huntmasters, Geists (Strangleroot and Saint Traft), Hellrider, and whatever other monster they want to easily maneuver into play. This obvious use of the card makes us subtract countermagic and add more removal/mass removal. The more removal control players add the more we feel the urge to swap to a more “tap out,” proactive control deck, and that is exactly what is going to happen.

More control players will go back to a Sun Titan / Phantasmal Image plan that enjoys tapping out turn after turn for its bombs. Also players that have been piloting my build of Esper the same scenario will come out, and we must adapt with a more aggressive battle plan. Hopefully you are still on board with my theory and the next logical step in the progression of Standard.

The Super Aggressive

Since control decks will move to a more “tap out” style of play, the losers in Standard will be the true aggro decks that may or may not even run Cavern of Souls. Red decks will run into more Timely Reinforcements, four to five Wraths with Ratchet Bomb maindeck, and a heavy planeswalker suite from people like us. Delver is still powerful and probably gained a little bit, but let’s be honest…how good has Mana Leak been for us anyway? It is a fantastic card, and I hate to cut it from the deck now and when it isn’t reprinted in M13. But it may be time to give it a break.

I board out Mana Leak against most matchups, which might make you think we should’ve cut it a while back. The reason to keep it around is because the green matchup becomes so difficult without Mana Leak, and if you’ve read my material before you know I do not enjoy losing to any Forest deck. Cutting Mana Leak in this most recent incarnation of Esper Planeswalkers has made us vulnerable against Primeval Titan but stronger against the more aggressive G/R builds.

Midrange Decks

G/R Aggro is another deck that gets a tougher matchup against most control decks because of the shift away from countermagic. Normally Pod, Geists, and Zeniths get there against us, but with Terminus and Day of Judgment both in the maindeck with some other goodies geared to shoot down drops one through three we have found new life.

Life also gets slightly tougher for Delver in the control matchup for the same reasons mentioned prior. It is hard to believe, but did the land that was printed to save aggro help it to an early grave in the few remaining Standard months before rotation? I believe so. This is not the first time a card that is printed does more harm than good because all hate turns towards it.

This is not as bad as Stoneblade getting Batterskull after it just won a Pro Tour or Faeries getting Ancestral Visions; this is a card that doesn’t directly increase the potency of the midrange decks and instead makes them more resilient to the use of counterspells as a primary interaction. Cavern does, however, make the mirror match a bit tricky, and these Delver decks with a bunch of silly Spectral Flights might be here for good. Again, that is good for us and bad for them.

Why so scared?

So how does Cavern of Souls hurt us? I’ll give you two words: Primeval Titan. That fella is the only guy I am scared of, and if more people play Wolf Run Ramp than expected I suggest adding two more Doom Blade instead of the Mortarpods in the main. If Primeval isn’t running around ravaging the countryside in your area, then stick to Mortapod because it is awesome.

Mortarpod has saved me countless times the last month or so I’ve been using it, but with new, scary cards come new responsibility. I completely understand if you want more help against the land-fetching Giant. Doom Blade does job similar to the one Mana Leak did because we are still packing three Curse of Death’s Hold. A Doom Blade followed by that does the same job that Mana Leak did before.

Other instances of Cavern of Souls hurting us will be far and few between because, like I said earlier, we already boarded out Mana Leak against all the decks that would ever use that nuisance of a land. For all of you U/B Control players, however, it might be time to put Black Sun’s Zenith to rest.

Red control here I come! One day…

Pillar of Flame is so good. Did I mention that already? I might have that opinion on repeat throughout the entire article, but I hope most of you agree with me. It is bad when one card makes me want to toss my entire Esper investment away, but thankfully it isn’t enough.

Olivia Voldaren, Bonfire of the Damned, Pillar of Flame, Snapcaster Mage, and Desperate Ravings add up to a pretty powerful Grixis deck. I think black is a must in these troubled times with access to not only Liliana of the Veil but Curse of Death’s Hold. A deck without Curse is a deck I will not pilot until the tokens, Delvers, and Inkmoths are all gone. That being said, can we rock some Grixis?

I’m not ready for a drastic change, but some of you might be. It’s a mighty leap into another world, but luckily for you it still uses the Icy Grip strategy to lock down aggro all the same. After this upcoming PTQ in my area and the SCG Invitational in Indy, I’ll take a much more serious look into the world of red control if my results are less than stellar. Cards that would go into this type deck and how many would look something like this:

Pillar of Flame (4)
Bonfire of the Damned (1-2)
Olivia Voldaren (2)
Desperate Ravings (4)
Black Sun’s Zenith / Slagstorm (3)
Doom Blade / Go for the Throat (2-3)
Forbidden Alchemy (2)
Ratchet Bomb (3)
Inferno Titan / Grave Titan / Consecrated Sphinx
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage (1-2)
Liliana of the Veil (3)
Chandra, the Firebrand (1)
Snapcaster Mage (2)
Karn Liberated (1)
Curse of Death’s Hold (3)

There are a few others you could include like Talismans and more removal, but those cards and the numbers that followed are ones that I have been dying to throw together in the same deck. If Lingering Souls doesn’t help me achieve victory, I am sure that Pillar of Flame will. If any of you throw together something like this and give it a shot, hit me up on Twitter and let me know your results. I appreciate it!


Ok, ok, stop yelling at me! Here it is…

The matchups for this deck haven’t changed much with the new set. We still have a great shot against Delver, and smart playing results in many more wins against that menace. Against the aggro decks our game has gotten better, and that goes for Zombies, Mono-Red, and Naya variants.

The only pain in our ass will be Wolf Run Ramp, and even that matchup is not unwinnable….just not as easy as the Mana Leak, Doom Blade, and then Curse plan. The format is still pretty open, and the only piece of advice I would give to my favorite people (you guys!) is watch out for Zealous Conscripts. That guy is scary.

Thanks for reading, and the next article will have a more detailed focus on Esper as I get ready to face the most recent threats at the SCG Invitational next month.


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