Innovations – Another Anatomy of a Control Deck

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Tuesday, December 16th – After a sterling start and a 5-1 Standard performance, the wheels fell off Patrick’s Worlds wagon when the field took up the forty-card decks. Today, Patrick brings us the deck he played to 5-1, a Cruel Control build developed by himself, Manuel Bucher, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, and the Ruels…

As I write this, I am sitting in my hotel room in Memphis. The World Championships ended a few hours ago. Team USA took the team title, and American favorite Jamie Parke represented, narrowly dropping to Anti Malin in an exciting final match.

I ended up 53rd, after conceding my last round. I was out of contention and played a friend (who ended up in the 20s). Not a bad showing, but definitely disappointing after such a strong Standard performance (yeah, draft will do that to you).

This is not my tournament report, though. Maybe I will do that next week. There were certainly a lot of crazy adventures and good stories to tell. The PT itself, including Extended. The Top 8. The Team event. The ICameToGame Invitational Tournament (in which Finkel and I met in the finals). The gang attack on a local hotel while we were in it (seriously)!

However, this is not that tournament report.

This is an article on anatomy of a real control deck.

I tested for this event primarily with Manuel Bucher, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Olivier Ruel, and Antoine Ruel. In the end, this is the Five-Color Control deck we ended up running (everyone was within two cards, I think).

I piloted our deck to a 5-1 finish in the Standard portion of Worlds. Manuel went 5-1, Olivier went 4-1-1, Antoine finished 3-3, and Wafo had a rough day at 2-4. While I think there is little doubt that Gabriel Nassif Mono-Blue Faeries build was the best performing Extended deck, I think that the above list is the way to play control in Standard.

I can’t promise that it is the best deck in the format, but I think it is the best way to play Five-Color Control, and it offers some interesting ideas that may be of use to you. If you have been having trouble making control work recently, give this build a go. It is a lot of fun, and very effective.

Manuel Bucher came back to Michigan with me after Grand Prix: Atlanta and hung out at my place, testing and having a good time for 3 or 4 weeks. Michael Jacob and Brian DeMars also helped us test the deck. We both knew early on that we wanted to work on Five-Color Control, as the strategy took advantage of so many powerful cards that we enjoy and can be customized to beat whatever you want.

In this case, we predicted that the field would be dominated by Faeries, followed by Black/White Tokens, followed by WW and WW/r, then Five-Color Control, with everything else being far behind, but lead by Demigod Red.

Demigod Red had been far more popular at States, but Manuel and I believe that the Token deck we had seen would overtake it in popularity, as it is a very solid deck with a lot of play, and it happens to crush Demigod Red.

We were committed to producing a list that crushed Faeries and tested well against the rest of the field we expected. We also had found that Cruel Ultimatum was powerful enough that you could make a number of “sub-optimal” card choices as far as the majority of match-ups go, instead pre-sideboarding against Faeries. The thinking was that if we just select enough cards that are good against Faeries, Cruel Ultimatum will pick up the slack versus almost everyone else.

I think it is interesting to analyze why we chose the cards that we did, as they may not be the conventional choices for this archetype. Five-Color Control is a deck that you must constantly adapt to meet the metagame, to come up with technology for which your opponents are not fully prepared.

To begin with, let’s look at the creatures. You might say that the four Mulldrifters are fairly standard, but you have to remember, lately, there have actually been a number of people advocating cutting them entirely. While I would tend not to criticize people for trying the unconventional, I do feel strongly that it is a severely flawed approach to take them out of this deck.

First of all, you can debate Tidings versus Cruel Ultimatum all you want, but you can’t cut both Cruel Ultimatum and Mulldrifter, throw in a few Tidings, and think you are drawing enough cards. Second of all, Mulldrifter is simply more powerful than Tidings.

Mulldrifter is not just a two-for-one. It is a two-for-one that lets you buy a third card for two mana. A 2/2 flier is certainly worth a card in today’s Standard, especially considering it starts in play, as the two mana not only buys you the extra “card” but also puts it into play for you.

The fact that Mulldrifter makes your Cruel Ultimatum an eleven-for-one instead of a ten-for-one is kind of irrelevant, though as a victory condition it helps ensure that you don’t need random guys like Rhox War Monk or Kitchen Finks.

The most important thing, though, is that continually drawing extra cards is what we want to be doing. We want so badly to draw extra cards, we even play Courier’s Capsule, which I will get to in a minute. We feel that the only cards in our deck better than Mulldrifter are Cryptic Command, Reflecting Pool, and possibly Vivid Creek. That places it even above Esper Charm and Cruel Ultimatum, which are unreal good.

There are some who say they don’t want to tap out on their own turn. I respect that, and while that is an important point in many formats for many control decks, we view our deck as something of a “Tap Out Control Deck.”

You probably remember Tap Out Control best from the Michael Flores style of control decks that control the game for a while, then start doing incredible things that may leave itself open for a turn, but since it is doing something more powerful than anything you may answer with, it doesn’t care. Then, when you do untap (alive), you have such a commanding position that the other person can rarely come back.

Tap Out Control decks don’t work when people are comboing off on their turn, but that doesn’t really happen in today’s Standard.

I think too many people are too focused on making Five-Color Control fit some model in their head of what a control deck should look like. A control deck should look like what it needs to look like to win.


– You aren’t going to get penalized if you have the audacity to tap out or play cards that win the game quickly.
– You don’t need to control every aspect of the game all the time.
– With powerful cards like Wrath of God and Cryptic Command, you don’t need every card in your opening hand to survive till turn 7.
– You don’t need to wait to win on turn 30.

Most of all, you should remember, your deck doesn’t actually have to do or be anything. All it is supposed to do is win. The reason we even bother to refer to this as a “control deck” is because at the beginning of the game, one player tends to be “warmer” and the other “cooler.” The warmer player is the aggro deck, the cooler player is the control deck.

This perspective allows one to properly view the initial field of battle, as the warmer player has the burden of having to win before the cooler player reaches Phase 3. On the other side, the cooler player has to not die long enough to reach Phase 3. The Flores term Phase 3 is explained here, and basically means the so called end game.

While you may feel you are doing well if you make it to seven mana with Five-Color Control, you don’t actually win by default. You have to actually have some sort of Phase 3 action to finish things off, otherwise there are too many ways you could still lose. Some people prefer Oona, some prefer Resounding Thunder loops; whatever you use, you should use something, as if you don’t it can slip away too easily.

Anyway, the reason I say it is important to remember that a control deck doesn’t actually have to be a lock deck, but rather a deck that survives to Phase 3, is because we play plenty of cards to buy us time and help us avoid death. This lets us drop Double Dragons and Cruel Ultimatums which, even though they tap us out, are far better than anything the opponent could possibly do.

I have been on a bit of a tangent, so I have to get back to actual card choices… I just wanted to help explain why it is okay to play with sorcery speed cards. Remember, your “theme” is not as important as winning.

The Plumeveils are a choice that will put a smile on many people’s faces. We used to use Kitchen Finks, but came to find that the format was just too hostile for them these days. Don’t get me wrong, they are one of the best creatures in the history of the game, but they are poorly positioned right now.

Red decks use Magma Spray, and all 4/4s and Wither. White decks use Unmake and first strike. Control decks use Condemn, etc. Really, he is only good against Faeries. Now, I am all about pre-sideboarding against Faeries, but if we are going to play a card primarily for Faeries, can’t we do better than the Finks?

Some people arrived at Rhox War Monk, as he is even better against Faeries than Finks right now. However, War Monk has almost all the same drawbacks against other decks as the Finks. What to do? Manuel B came up with the same answer he has twice before. Plumeveil.

Plumeveil is a pet card of his that he likes to “innovate” every couple of months. The key to Plumeveil is that it is better against Faeries than Rhox War Monk, plus it happens to be very well positioned against most other decks.

Against Faeries, it is sort of like a Cloudthresher. It is an instant speed weapon that stabilizes the board and buys you time to outdraw your opponent. When you play a Rhox War Monk, they just Sower it and you are looking awkward. When you play a Plumeveil in combat, you get a guy to start with, plus, if they Sower it, you don’t get attacked back.

It is a removal spell for their Conclaves and Mutavaults and Scions that doesn’t target. It is too big for their Agony Warps alone. It lives through Red sweepers and Cloudthresher. It trades with Mistbind Clique, most of the time. It is a fine play during your own upkeep, when you are being Cliqued. It even protects your Planeswalkers quite nicely.

Against Faeries, the best thing about it is that you can play it during their turn to force them to either take a big loss and lose the ability to attack you, or tap out own their own turn, leaving you free to do something deadly. The whole dynamic changes when you can continue to play devastating cards during the Faerie player’s turn, then untap and play game-winning threats.

Outside of the Faeries match-up, Plumeveil is a well-positioned defensive card. It trades with Figure, Gouger, Demigod, etc. It is an excellent answer to White Weenies, Mutavaults, Spectral Procession tokens, War Monk, and so on. It is just an all-round great card for what is currently being played in the format.

The only place you really suffer is against Planeswalkers, as it does not have the option to attack them, like Finks or War Monk do. Still, Plumeveil is vital to this build, and will force the format to evolve.

Cloudthresher is pretty standard, as it is so good against Faeries. The important thing to remember is that there is no reason not to access to four after sideboarding. It is just too good against them. It is also well positioned to deal with Spectral Procession, and it helps against Planeswalkers (keeping them off Ultimate or being a surprise attacker). Once in a while, you even get to blow out a Demigod of Revenge.

The other thing to remember is that after sideboarding you can adjust your deck to better fight what your opponent is playing. If Cloudthresher is not that good against them, bring in another Broodmate Dragon instead. In my experience, anyone that Cloudthresher is not good against gets utterly destroyed by a Broodmate.

Regarding Broodmate Dragon, how can you not love this guy? He is better than an 8/8 flier for 6, as he is divided up between two bodies so as to dodge Condemn, Unmake, and so on. He can block two creatures. He is a fast clock. He dominates the board, almost like Keiga, in the sense that he takes over and there are few good ways to beat him without giving up value.

We put two maindeck as he is fantastic against decks with Demigod of Revenge or Unmake. White Weenie, Demigod Red, B/W Tokens, he crushes them all. He isn’t great against Five-Color Control or Faeries, but we have other cards for those match-ups.

Broodmate is strange in that he looks so insane on paper, but then many people don’t use him. When you try him, you will find he is every bit as good as he looks. Remember, his token is just Red, so it can be killed by Terror. This can be important when you are deciding which dragon to send into the fight.

I think a fourth in the board is a very real option, but you can only play so many expensive cards. Still, you can play a lot more than 0-1, as some people think. You don’t need more than one card to win with, but you want to draw this guy.

Broken Ambitions has been selected over Remove Soul and Negate purely for the Faeries match-up. We found that it is too important to be able to answer both Cryptic Command and Mistbind Clique to play either one or the other. We just want all of our cheap countermagic to be able to answer both. Broken Ambitions was the solution. Don’t be afraid to sideboard out Brokens for Negates or for non-countermagic. Remember, it is primarily for the Fae match-up. It isn’t that important against most other players, and you can often shave one or two.

The Courier’s Capsule gets a lot of funny looks from people. I remember when Wafo first told me about it in Berlin. He had played in a team event where each team could only play 4 of each card. One of his teammates was playing Mulldrifter, so he used Courier’s Capsule instead. He said it was surprisingly playable (though not as good as Mulldrifter).

I tried it for this tournament, and found that I really liked it. You can play it turn 2 when you usually wouldn’t be doing anything anyway. Then, at your leisure, you can break it to draw two cards when you have the extra mana. This way, even though you are paying four mana, you are doing it at times you weren’t going to be using the mana anyway.

We don’t have more as it doesn’t work with Broken Ambitions as well as it would with Negate or Remove Soul, but we are considering dropping the Liliana for a second Capsule.

One of the major breakthroughs we had during testing was when we decided to try an experiment. Manu decided to stop destroying Bitterblossom with Esper Charm!

I know, take this in for a minute. We don’t destroy Bitterblossom with Esper Charm!

Yes, even if we are on the play and it is turn 3 and there is nothing they can do!

We want to draw cards so badly that we would rather have Counsel of the Soratami than destroy a Bitterblossom!

Yes, of course there are exceptions, but you will almost surely think that many of the situations you find yourself in are those exceptions, when in reality it is only correct to destroy Bitterblossom (against Fae) with our deck about 2-4% of the time.

When you destroy a Bitterblossom, you don’t just spend three mana to their two. You don’t just give up two cards to their one. You also turn all of the other Bitterblossoms in their deck into great cards, instead of dead cards.

If you try destroying every Bitterblossom you see, you will often run out of gas. This is not the fight you want. If you just embrace the Bitterblossom, you will find that it is certainly still their best card, but your win percentage will go up. No question it is hard to fight Bitterblossom, but trust me. Try not destroying the Bitterblossom.

Try it.

It will take a leap of faith, and it will be hard at first. You may lose a number of games while getting used to it. You will still lose a fair number just because it is their best card. However, you will win more, with tight play.

Everyone doubts this at first. Everyone.

I knew the logic and watched Manu’s play results for a long time, and I still did it wrong (i.e. destroyed Bitterblossom) at least 25 or 30 times before I just let go of my preconceived notions.

Once you see how important to us it is to draw extra cards, it starts to make sense that we are willing to play Courier’s Capsule. We actually think it is good against Faeries! Drawing two is better than destroying a Bitterblossom! (This is not necessarily true for all Five-Color Control decks, but it certainly is for ours, and it’s probably true for more people than not).

I see a lot of people talking about sideboarding out the Capsule. That shows a lack of understanding of the deck. You will only rarely sideboard it out, as it is part of your engine. I think in all of Worlds I only sideboarded it out in one game of one match.

Pyroclasm is selected over Firespout because of Figure of Destiny and Stigma Lasher, plus there are just no three-toughness creatures we care about, for the most part (and Plumeveil cleans up the mess). Pyroclasm having to hit ground creatures doesn’t matter as we have no Finks, and when we board in Shushers we board out Pyroclasms.

Terror is selected over Condemn, as it is far better against Faeries. This is another case of Cruel Ultimatum picking up the slack. The theory is that often they will be close to as effective as one another, but Terror is much better against Faeries, where as the people who you wish you had Condemn against will just lose to Cruel Ultimatum anyway.

Esper Charm and Cryptic Command need no explanation beyond “don’t destroy Bitterblossom” and “use Cryptic Command as a Time Walk to buy you time to Cruel Ultimatum.” In the mirror, one of the most important plays is bouncing land.

Wrath as a two-of is fine, since it is actually not good against Fae, Demigod, or Five-Color. Also, we draw more cards than anyone, so we can usually find it.

Ajani Vengeant is an interesting tactical weapon. You can play a different sort of game when you draw it and it does a lot of things. It is removal, life gain, an answer to Planeswalkers, a victory condition, card advantage, an Icy Manipulator, and more. I think it is possible to play two, maybe instead of the Liliana, who was the only card we were not happy with.

Ajani is also the best card in the mirror, and we love sideboarding more against that, as well as Red, Planeswalkers, and more.

Liliana was a little underwhelming and should probably go. We put her in to replace Jace, but neither is really what we want. If you do use Liliana, you should tend to use the discard ability unless you are getting Cruel Ultimatum.

Cruel Ultimatum is a card that I am not going to spend much more time on today. Suffice it to say, it is vital to this deck. Only one person opted to play Five-Color Control without it at Worlds. Gabriel Nassif, Mark Herberholz, and everyone else who piloted Five-Color Control agreed with us that it is too good not to play.

This does not prove that playing Cruel Ultimatum is better than not… however, if every single Pro who plays Five-Color Control is in favor of it (save one), that is certainly something to consider. Sure, there may be a few people who don’t like Cruel Ultimatum, but those are the people who don’t play Five-Color Control.

I will not rehash the argument here. If you are interested in more on the card, check here or here.

The most important feature of the sideboard are the 4 Vexing Shushers. These guys are absolutely unreal against Faeries. Yes, we were scouted, so many people left in Agony Warp against us, but it is still insane.

When we have Shusher and they don’t have Warp, we destroy them. It is an uncounterable cheap threat that we play on a turn we normally wouldn’t play anything. It beats down and forces through our game-winning cards.

When they have Warp and we don’t have Shusher, it is like they mulliganed.

When they have it at exactly the right time, they are still paying two mana to stop our two mana card, breaking even. However, they have live two mana plays and our two spot is usually empty, so it is a free roll for us, not to mention sometimes you counter the Agony Warp (protected by Shusher).

Our plan against Faeries is so good, we literally want to play against it every round. Shusher is just an absolute nightmare for them. Not to mention he attacks Jace!

The rest of the sideboard is just more of the maindeck. There is spot removal, countermagic, bombs, Planeswalkers, and sweepers. It is so important in this deck to sideboard effectively. You really do tune your deck each game to have the best answers to your opponent’s strategy.

Here are some basic sideboard plans, though remember to adjust these based on specific card choices from your opponents.

Faeries when you are on the play:
-2 Wrath, -2 Pyroclasm,-2 Broodmate Dragons, -1 Ajani Vengeant, -1 Liliana
+4 Vexing Shusher, +2 Cloudthresher, +2 Negate

Faeries when you are on the draw (though depending on build, you may want 1-2 Negate):
-2 Wrath, -2 Pyroclasm,-2 Broodmate Dragons, -1 Ajani Vengeant
+4 Vexing Shusher, +2 Cloudthresher, +1 Firespout

W/B Tokens:
-2 Terror, -0 or -1 Ajani Vengeant, -1 Liliana Vess, -1 to -3 Broken Ambitions, -0 or -1 Cruel Ultimatum
+1 Firespout, +1 Broodmate Dragon, +1 or +2 Negate, +0 or +1 Cloudthresher, +0 to +2 Condemn
(This one really depends on the feel of the previous game)

WW or WW/r:
-2 Terror, -2 Broken Ambitions (though you can cut an extra one on the draw), -1 Liliana Vess. On the play, maybe cut a Thresher.
+1 Firespout, +1 Broodmate Dragon, +1 Ajani Vengeant, +3 Condemn

Five-Color Control (assuming their deck is more standard, like Jamie Parke’s build):
-2 Terror, -2 Plumeveil, -2 Broken Ambitions, -2 Wrath of God, -2 Broodmate Dragon
+4 Vexing Shusher, +2 Condemn, +2 Ajani Vengeant, +2 Negate
Also, consider keeping in a Dragon, cutting an extra Broken, cutting an extra Plumeveil, or adding another Condemn. It is such a battle of wits, boarding for the Five-Color mirror. Don’t be afraid to board two of the Shushers out game 3 if you wreck your opponent with them game 2. Even if you are keeping your board plan the same between games, make it look like you are sideboarding so that they don’t know the contents of your deck for sure.

Demigod Red:
-2 Terror, -1 Broken Ambitions, -2 Wrath -1 Cloudthresher
+3 Condemn, +2 Ajani, +1 Broodmate Dragon
If they have Bitterblossom, you can keep the Thresher in and cut another Broken Ambitions, or possibly a Courier’s Capsule.

This article is already running pretty long and I have a twelve-hour drive ahead of me. I think I am going to take off, but I will pick back up next week with more on this deck, as well as an actual tournament report that includes a deck breakdown for my Extended deck.

Please feel free to ask me any and all questions in the forums regarding this Standard deck. If any of the card choices still don’t make sense, ask away. If you want sideboard plans against other decks, let me know which ones. If you are not sure how to go about playing specific match-ups, I would be happy to help.

Thanks again for reading. I hope this information is useful for you. See you guys next week!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

PS: Congratulations Jamie, Paulo, Frank, Mike Jacob, Cheon, and Black!