Innovations – Cruel Control for States

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Friday, November 7th – Faeries. Kithkin. Five-Color Control. The so-called Big Three. However, the biggest of the terrible trio could well be the one powered by Vivid lands and Reflecting Pool. Today’s belated Innovations sees Patrick deliver the perfect primer on the archetype going into States this weekend. If you’re looking to play this deck, or merely looking to defeat it, this article is unmissable.

We are but one day away from the State Championships, back by popular demand. If Berlin was the unveiling of new Extended, States promises to be the unveiling of the new Standard, helping define the parameters of what is hopefully the least ridiculous Constructed format for Worlds (only a month away!).

Six weeks ago, I made the bold claim that Cruel Ultimatum would change everything. I was met with a great deal of skepticism, and many took shots at me for putting my neck on the line, but that is just how I felt about the card.

It has been a month and a half, and now the evidence is starting to mount. Five-Color Control is the deck to beat, and the old shell of Quick n’ Toast with its Makeshift Mannequins has fallen out of favor, being replaced by Cruel Ultimatum as the core to build the rest of the deck around.

… Cue the Chorus…

I like Cryptic Commands
They like me…
They look so good…
Like Blue instants should…

I can’t keep my hands, my hands off the Cryptic Commands!

I am of the opinion that the only truly Tier 1 strategies in standard are based on Cryptic Command. Are you combining Cryptic Command with Bitterblossom? With Reveillark? With Cruel Ultimatum? Those are all valid questions, but whether or not to play Cryptic Command seems absurd.

Rather than spend a lot of time trying to convince you of this point, let me sum up my position with the fairly simple position of no matter how you are using Cryptic Command, you are typically getting better than 4 mana worth of value out of it. For instance, let’s say you counter a Colossus and draw a card. Your opponent spent four mana. You spent four mana. You drew a card, which is easily worth two mana.

As you know, I happen to favor Five-Color Control over Faeries or Reveillark, though I certainly respect both and feel that in order to win with Five-Color, you should keep both of these decks in mind, as well as Mono-Red and Kithkin.

My latest take on Five-Color Control, and the build that I recommend for this weekend, is as follows:

The first thing you may notice about this build is that it continues to depart from traditional Toast by taking the controversial step away from Kitchen Finks, not even replacing them with Fulminator Mages like some others, such as Evan Erwin, have done.

Kitchen Finks is easily the most powerful creature printed this year, and one of the twenty strongest creatures of all time, but I am starting to feel that it is not correctly positioned right now, at least not for Five-Color Control.

See, the card is intrinsically amazing, but let’s look at the actual tactical applications.

How is it against the Five-Color Control mirror? Well, it used to be a solid role-player that did not get sideboarded out.

However, now that Condemn and Bant Charm are the order of the day, it is difficult to extract much value from a Kitchen Finks. No matter how you slice it, if your Finks gets Condemned, you are losing a lot of value.

What about against Red decks? Kitchen Finks was designed to hose Red… however, Red decks have evolved. First of all, True Master Saito helped spearhead the movement towards Red decks that were built to beat the Finks. Players like Michael Jacob adopted a creature base headed up by Demigod of Revenge, Ashenmoor Gouger, Stigma Lasher, and Figure of Destiny, all of which can rumble profitably with a Kitchen Finks.

In addition, the burn used by Red Mages is tailor-made to beat the Fink. First came Puncture Blast, giving Red Mages hope to beat the Fink with minimal loss of value. Now, with Magma Spray industry standard, it is just not realistic to count on a Fink to gain much edge against Red decks. Even if you gain 2 life, the loss of 2 mana on the Magma SprayKitchen Finks trade is a losing one when you factor in how much damage the Red creatures will deal during the effective “Time Walk turn” that Red will gain.

When playing against Red decks with this build, the most important strategic theme to keep in mind is that the game is all about Cruel Ultimatum as life gain. As such, you MUST not get Stigma Lashed. Do any and everything possible to avoid getting Lashed.

As long as you do not get Lashed, you will typically inevitably reach a point where you start casting Cruel Ultimatum, and this will win the game for you quickly. The life gain combined with insane card draw, and the fact that you Mind Twist the Red mage, make it very difficult for them to even fight you in any reasonable way.

If you get Lashed, then Cruel Ultimatum will not assure victory, as they will often be able to topdeck a burn spell to put you away. Okay, you know not to get Lashed if you can help it, but what if you do get hit? Then what? Well, in games like this, you are going to have to get a little lucky, so just play as though he doesn’t have the nuts, since you can’t beat him if his hand is good anyway. Try to save Condemn for Demigod if you can, but just try to get out a victory condition and win as fast as possible. If you get Lashed, you are going to get burnt out around turn 8 or 9 anyway, so you have to win fast.

Another important tactic to employ is Esper Charm as pseudo-life gain. If you have not been lashed, it is often better to just draw cards digging to Cruel Ultimatum. However, if you have been Lashed, it is often irrelevant if you draw 10 extra cards. Once you hit zero, you are dead. As such, Esper Charm to knock an Incinerate and a Flame Javelin out of your opponent’s hand can be crucial.

Sideboard in Runed Halo and Broodmate Dragon, also considering your permission base. Jace is pretty bad, and Resounding Thunder is easily cut.

Back to Kitchen Finks. How is it against Reveillark? Well Kitchen Finks beatdown is loose against Lark for a couple of reasons. First of all, they don’t actually beatdown in this match-up, since you actually have to play as the control deck, surviving the onslaught of Knight Captains and Finks, or alternatively Fulminators and Scullers, depending on the build of Reveillark.

Maybe you can’t beat down, but at least the Finks is a blocker. Right? It is admittedly not at its worst in this role; however, it should be noted that this plays right into the Reveillark player’s game plan against you.

Reveillark used to have huge edge over Toast decks of old since it had better inevitability, leading the game towards a position where it would just keep playing five mana “Win-The-Games” until one stuck.

Now, however, Reveillark doesn’t have the tools to completely “Win-The-Game” by resolving a Lark; it merely gains great value. Add to this the fact that Five-Color Control has effective seven mana “Win-The-Games” that Reveillark doesn’t have many answers to beyond sticking a Lark and trying to keep up the value battle.

As a result, the name of the game for Reveillark, now, is to try to get into a tap-out war with Five-Color, hoping to keep the initiative. Five-Color has great ways to gain card advantage as well as great ways to stop opposing threats. However, if it taps out each turn, the Reveillark player will be free to do the same. This favors the Reveillark player, as they have far fewer reactive cards.

The key for the Five-Color Control player is keep the tempo of the game such that you never overextend until you can crush the Reveillark player with a Cruel Ultimatum that you know will stick.

With 4 Mulldrifters, 4 Esper Charms, 4 Cyrptic Command, 2 Jace, and a Nucklavee supplementing the 3 Cruel Ultimatums, you have no shortage of sources of card advantage. Cards like Remove Soul and Negate can help gain a lot of tempo by trading with cards that cost several more mana.

Tactics vary depending on the build of the Lark deck. As I see it, the primary divide in archetypes for Lark are U/W Peebles style with Knight Captain of Eos, Mistmeadow Witch, Mirror Entity, and Tidings, versus U/B/W with Fulminators and Tidehollow Scullers (so called “anti Five-Color”).

First, let’s address Peebles style. BPM has been on top of his game lately, and has been a top source of Standard technology over the past 8 months. His area of specialty is certainly U/W Lark, as it is a strategy that he has championed longer than almost anyone and has stuck with it through thick and thin.

His latest build can be found here. This deck is incredibly anti-aggro and appears slanted towards the type of field one may expect at States, though I suspect that Five-Color will be more popular than I think he anticipates and is worthy of a little more consideration. Still, a few of the card choices, such as Tidings, are particularly nice in this format, often serving as Reveillarks 5-7.

The thing is, he is just going to keep playing two-for-ones, three-for-ones, and four-for-ones every turn, hoping to win a drawn-out battle where your one-for-ones are eventually too much of a liability and your card drawing can’t keep up. The most important part of this battle is the conflict between your counterspells and his big threats, Tidings and Reveillark.

If you are stuck trading your Negate with his Runed Halo and your Remove Soul with his Sower of Temptation, you will surely crumble will he starts playing his five-drops. However, if you are disciplined and save your hard counters for Reveillark, Tidings, and Mulldrifter, he will eventually start to spurt out of gas.

His Sowers, Captains, Finks, Wraths, and Mistmeadow Witches all provide virtual card advantage if you play incorrectly. However, Five-Color can just play defense, and the majority of ways he would use these cards to gain card advantage will be ineffective.

If you let him start drawing cards with the three cards from above, he will just keep drawing into more cards that draw into more cards. The problem will get worse and worse, and you will eventually be forced to race with Cruel Ultimatums. If you can stop him from getting going, he will just be drawing off the top.

His random Knight Captain beats are not so scary when we play with cards like Pyroclasm and Wrath of God. Assuming we can slow the stream of Tidings and Reveillarks and Mulldrifters, eventually the game will go long enough that we will cast Cruel Ultimatum and have a winning position.

The key aspect of Cruel Ultimatum in this match-up is as a Mind Twist. It is vital to try to knock out the entire hand of the opponent. If you leave him with even a single card, it will be a Lark or a Tidings and he will undo much of what you have done. To this end, you should look to Esper Charm the Lark player during his discard phase, knocking his hand to a point where you can completely take it out.

If you can successfully Ultimatum away your opponent’s entire hand, he will be defenseless for the most part and winning will become academic. Eventually Nucklavee recursion, Cloudthresher beats, or incremental direct damage will finish him off.

If you are playing versus a Sculler/Fulminator build, it is much more of a struggle to keep pace with the Lark player. The biggest key here is making sure you do not get stuck unable to play spells. The loss of Tidings on their part makes tapping out less of a problem. However, this type of Lark player will have many more threats that you just can’t stop early.

Drawing cards with weapons like Jace is extra important here, as you are battling over your resources (lands and cards in hand) rather than just raw card advantage (Knight Captain and Tidings).

The most important card to sideboard in is Remove Soul, as it is just the best counterspell in the format against Lark strategies. No matter when you play it, it is huge value, not just on mana (typically five for two) but also in that it counters almost all of their best weapons.

Slight adjustments can be made as well, with cards like Condemn (which are typically very weak against the card advantage creatures in a Lark deck) being replaced with cards like Cloudthresher or Firespout depending on what sort of a build the Lark player has.

Broodmate Dragon is also a nice weapon out of the sideboard, as you have plenty of bad Condemns, and after sideboarding it can just randomly win games against a Lark player who just boarded out their Wraths. This card is just fantastic on its own, and out of the board can be a nasty surprise as most of the cards that beat it get sideboarded out when people initially board against us.

It is important to note that Cloudthresher is just a weak victory condition against many players. Look to sideboard it out against just about everyone except people with Spectral Procession or Bitterblossom, except when you just have nothing better to play than a random victory condition. It can be decent versus Mulldrifter Sower decks as a random guy that can get a little value, but against random Bant decks or the mirror, the last thing you need is a Cloudthresher.

Why are we even playing it? Let’s talk about that for a minute. You see, the biggest threat to us as Five-Color players is Faeries. You can’t just play 4 Esper Charms and think that means anything against Faeries. At the end of the day, Bitterblossom is still totally insane, and even if you can trade an Esper Charm for it, you are spending three mana (and the second best spell in your deck) for it, often with them up a token.

There are a variety of ways to combat Faeries, but it is always a difficult task. The major problem is that their disruptive is extremely frustrating for us, particularly when they are building a board with Jace or Bitterblossom.

This build of Five-Color Control has the max of Esper Charms (and just so you know, Esper Charm is by far the second best card in this deck, and anyone who doesn’t play 4 Esper Charms in their Five-Color deck is confused. It is miles better than almost anything) giving us help against the Bitterblossom. We also have Jace of our own, as well as Resounding Thunder to try to cut our losses as far as Jace out of Fae goes.

Without Kitchen Finks to beat with, we are very vulnerable to these sources of card advantage and have to go to great lengths to try to cut our losses in these areas. As long as you can keep Jace and Bitterblossom of the table, your intrinsic game plan is far superior to the Fae equivalent.

You have much more card draw, plus they have a surprisingly hard time with the card Cruel Ultimatum. The raw card advantage is over powering and the five-point Drain Life is crushing. All you have to do is keep Jace and Bitterblossom off their side of the table. No small feat, I know.

Jace is not the end of the world, as your cards are just better than theirs so you can at least race the draw. What do you do, though, when they do have Bitterblossom and you don’t Negate it or Esper Charm it?

These games are very challenging game 1, with a common tactic being trying to draw enough cards that you can stay more or less in control of the stack, if not the board. Then, every few turns, a sweeper buys you more time. The goal is to make a game of things as long as you can until you can get to a point where you can Cruel Ultimatum or Resounding Thunder the Faeries player, to pull ahead in the race.

The maindeck Cloudthresher can randomly win games, but it is really after sideboarding that we regain lost ground, boarding in the max of Threshers, as well as another Dragon. This makes us much more aggressive at attacking the Faeries player’s life total.

You should board in cheap counters like Negate and Remove Soul to gain much needed tempo. All the two-mana counters you can manage are amazing versus the Fae.

Basically, against a typical Faeries player, you should look to sideboard like this:

+3 Cloudthresher, +1 Broodmate Dragon, +1 Negate, +2 Remove Soul

-2 Wrath of God, -3 Condemn, -1 Nucklavee, -1 Pyroclasm

It is reasonable to not sideboard in the second Dragon, instead keeping in the second Pyroclasm, when you are on the draw.

It is also reasonable to keep in another Condemn, as Negate is not at full strength when you are on the draw. On the play, the ability to counter Bitterblossom is amazing, but on the draw, you may need the extra defense against Vendilion Clique, Mutavault, and Mistbind Clique. (Though it is still nice against Jace and Mind Shatter)

It is also possible to cut a Cruel Ultimatum. While the card is awesome against Faeries, it loses some of its bite after boarding on account of their Thoughtseizes and the ability on their part to follow your Ultimatum with a Mind Shatter. Like with Reveillark, it is so much better to knock all of your opponent’s cards out than not. However, against Faeries, this is somewhat more difficult as you can’t typically use Esper Charm as a discard spell, plus they slow-play their hand more anyway.

Winning the first game is always challenging against Faeries, and you are somewhat of an underdog, but you should be totally in the driver’s seat after sideboarding, so fear not. Besides, if you win game 1, the whole match is kind of a free role. Just remember that after sideboarding, they gain weapons like Puppeteer Clique, Mind Shatter, and Thoughtseize. All can be played around, but you must be constantly mindful, as you will have countless opportunities to punt matches against the Fae.

It is of the upmost importance against Faeries players that you have a good poker face. They have a lot of tricks that can gain them small edges if they know what you are up to. If they always have the read on your when you have cards like Remove Soul or Cloudthresher, they can make your life much tougher by the timing of when they play their key cards. You must be diligent regarding the protecting of information.

On the flipside, you must be on the look for when the Faeries player is leaking information. If you can tell he has a Cryptic Command in his hand, you can often play around it well, assuming he isn’t taking over the board with Bitterblossom or Jace. In general, however, don’t play around his tricks. When he has them, he will have them anyway and he will get value one way or the other.

The more important factor is his ability to play around your tricks. He often can, so don’t let him know what they are or when they are about to happen. For instance, occasionally spend 3-5 seconds thinking during his attack phase even when you don’t have a Resounding Thunder, but remember that this is only effective if there is a reasonable chance that this is how you would behave if you actually did have it.

In addition, if you know for sure that you are going to Resounding Thunder his Mutavault, think about it for 3-5 seconds so as to better sell it when you are bluffing later. If he doesn’t know you play Resounding Thunder, don’t let him know, as it will better increase the odds that he will let his life total drop to 6 or less. If he does know, then put the fear into him that you may have it at any moment so as to get him to play more aggressively, setting up better Pyroclasms and Cloudthreshers.

Faeries may be the most challenging match-up you face in the entire tournament, but stay cool and remember above all else to guard your hand. As long as your opponent doesn’t know what you have, and you don’t play your cards with much fear of what he can do, you should be able to race quite well after sideboarding.

Don’t get Mind Shattered!

What about the Kithkin match-up? This one is easy. First of all, they can’t realistically beat Cruel Ultimatum. Just hang out, surviving, eventually you will cast Cruel Ultimatum and punish them for playing around your sweepers. If they play out their hand, Pyroclasm and Wrath will destroy them. If they slow-play their hand, though, they will be devastated by Cruel Ultimatum, particularly the Mind Twist combined with an Edict and lifegain.

There are not many tactics to keep in mind in this match-up beyond setting up Cruel Ultimatum. Be aware of Reveillark after sideboarding. Try not to let them trigger a Heights if you can help it. In general, draw cards with Esper Charm unless you can Mind Twist the Kithkin player entirely.

Sideboard in Firespout, Wrath, and Plumeveil. Other adjustments are possible depending on opponent’s build. Also, Changing Negates to more Remove Souls is reasonable. Look to cut Cloudthresher, Jace, and Resounding Thunder (although depending on what kind of a game you want to play, it is perfectly acceptable to keep in 1 Thresher, 1 Thunder, 1 Runed Halo, etc. Remember, you don’t want your opponent to be able to anticipate your strategy.

When you sideboard, take out 3-4 cards and make it seem like you are sideboarding differently, even if you keep your deck the same. You want your opponent to not know if you have the same tricks as last game. This works even better if you are actually changing 1-2 cards so that you actually are different, but your opponent doesn’t know by how much.

The article is already pretty freaking long, but I would be remiss if I did not say a few words about the Five-Color Control mirror. This match-up is a struggle, no question, but this version is particularly well suited for it game 1, as it features maindeck Jace as well as more Cruel Ultimatums than most people play, as well as no Finks to waste draws.

After sideboarding, you bring in more permission and spells like Resounding Wave, which you use to punish an opponent who isn’t doing anything. The key is to just keep playing land and not do anything. Your defense will easily be too much for an opponent to break through, and the winner will be the person who successfully Cruel Ultimatums the opponent.

Resounding Wave is an incredible tactical weapon, as it is effectively an uncounterable instant speed cantrip Rain of Salt. Bouncing 2 Vivid Lands can be crippling. The additional countermagic will help keep the Mulldrifters from drawing the opponent cards, and are just much better than cards like Pyroclasm. The best use of Negate is to counter your opponent’s Cruel Ultimatum, or force yours through. Beware of Memory Plunder!

If you suspect your field will be overrun by Five-Color decks, make room for another Resounding Wave in your sideboard. It is your best weapon for the mirror. Remember, if you get a chance, bouncing a Vivid Land on turn 3 is a sick play if you are on the play.

Cutting Sweepers and Condemns is reasonable, but you need to keep Resounding Thunder in to deal with Jace. Plus, it is hard to win with creatures, so winning with Cruel Ultimatum and Resounding Thunder for 6 is the primary plan.

I hope this guide is useful to you this weekend. If you are planning on playing Five-Color Control in some form or another, consider what you can learn from this build, even if you play a different one. For instance, isn’t it interesting how often Remove Soul and Negate are great? Maybe the right way to build Five-Color Control is with a lot of both…

If you are not playing Five-Color Control, hopefully this guide will help you fight them by showing you what they may be planning on doing to fight you. In my experience, you can’t outdraw the Five-Color decks, so the best way to beat them is with tempo. Cards like Negate are just amazing.

Good luck this weekend. See you next week with my PT: Berlin tournament report. Talk about a crazy trip! Congratulations, LSV! You are the man!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”