Innovations – The Last Control Player

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Monday, December 7th – In the current Standard metagame, Control players are suffering an Aggro battering. Those of us who love the Blue spells, spoiled by Cryptic Command and similar powerhouses from formats past, are turning to Naya and Jund in our droves. In preparation for the SCG $10K in St. Louis this weekend, Patrick Chapin – the self-styled Last Control Player – investigates this rather unsettling turn of events. [Warning: Contains Worldwake Spoilers.]

With the third day of the World Championships due to start, I sat down next to Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. As I detailed here, Wafo and I have a tradition of looking at each other’s brews before events, when we don’t work together directly. He is one of my absolute favorite deckbuilders of all time, and it is always a pleasure to see what he has created.

I always used to say that if there is one thing I have learned from Wafo-Tapa, it is that you can always play control. So often in playtesting, I find myself asking “What Would Wafo Do?” when facing a particularly difficult deckbuilding decision.

“Wafo, we’re a dying breed,” I said to him.

“Yeah,” the quiet Frenchman replied, shaking his head in agreement.

“We may be the last two. Everyone else has gone over to the other side, or they will after this tournament.”

At this point, Wafo blushed and laughed a little, but with a tinge of sadness. He asked to see my deck, and I show him the Thopter-Sword deck that I would go on to pilot to a 4-2 finish.

He smiled and said it looked good. I asked to take a look at his. He blushed again.

“What’s wrong? Is it top secret?”

“No, it’s just… embarrassing.”

He opened his deck box and slid a stack of cards towards me, the top card of which was… Progenitus.

I looked at him. “Wafo…?”

He laughed a little and shook his head. This really was the deck with which he was battling.

“Wafo… it’s come to this? Really?” I asked, as I fanned through his generic Hypergenesis list.

“I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t build a control deck. I gave up.”

And then there was one…

A piece of me died in that moment. It wasn’t just that neither Wafo nor I could build a dominating control deck (I mean, they are “okay,” but it has been a long time since we could break the format in that direction an average of 1.5 times apiece per season). It’s that Wafo and I had been the two that most strictly adhered to the idea that you can always build a control deck.

We have been able to correctly anticipate what everyone else would do, so, in theory, we should be able to build the best response to that. Of course, the proactive cards are so much better than the reactive ones… maybe it has come to the point that you can’t simply react. Don’t get it twisted; obviously decks with Cruel Ultimatum aren’t just reacting. In fact, they are merely using a bunch of bad reactive cards to try to live long enough to cast Cruel Ultimatum, which is one of the few good things going on for them.

Still, all those proactive decks have card advantage, cheap versatile removal, fat creatures, creatures with evasion, durable threats, mana disruption, other forms of disruption such as the stack or hand, Planeswalkers, token generators, Crusades, equipment, and direct damage. Their guys are Bloodbraid Elf, Baneslayer Angel, Putrid Leech, Sprouting Thrinax, Knight of the Reliquary, Wooly Thoctar, Steppe Lynx, Goblin Guide, Hellspark Elemental, Ranger of Eos, Wild Nacatl, Rhox War Monk, Great Sable Stag, Emeria Angel, Siege-Gang Commander, and more. That is a lot of frustratingly powerful creatures that attack from every angle.

Just think, when Worldwake drops in February, there will be a whole new cycle of Kird Apes (or creatures with the “Kird Ape Mechanic” … thanks MTGSalvation!)

This is crazy… or rather, maybe we are just crazy for fighting. In the words of Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor: “No one can fight the tide forever.”

So Wafo had tapped out. I can’t blame him. I myself saw the writing on the wall in Austin. At first I just wanted to go back to beatdown, but straight beatdown is the wrong way to fight these midrange cards and decks. I didn’t get to prepare for Worlds the way I would have liked, and while I am proud of the deck that I created, it is probably not the best way to fight this format.

I tried Wafo’s deck to see what I could learn from it, preparing for the State Championships., and eventually decided that, while I liked its consistency, it just wasn’t powerful enough. With States just a couple of days away, I built a version of my Four-Color deck from Worlds, tuned with some additions courtesy of Wafo Grixis. It performed well in playtesting, but the thing that really bothered me is that if my match-up against Paulo Vito Damo Da Rosa playing Jund was 52% (totally hypothetical), then my match-up against random guy at FNM was about 56%. There aren’t many ways for him to do anything wrong in the games.

Jund is one of the most scripted decks I have ever seen, and is was mind-numbingly frustrating to lose such a percentage of games to players that I felt like I should be able to “outplay.” The reality was that they were “outplaying me.” They were playing Jund.

I decided that I was not going to play a deck that did not crush Jund. I tried Spread ‘Em, but I felt that it was too inconsistent and too gimmicky. If I was going to play that kind of strategy, I would rather play Michael Jacob Dredge deck, which is the best deck that no one is playing.

If you are feeling adventurous, I highly recommend MJ Dredge. It takes some practice, but it is quite powerful, and no one plays Relic of Progenitus. It was disappointing when word got out about Shota’s deck, since it is obviously so similar, but MJ still managed to run an older version of this deck to a record of 4-2 on his way to a 14th place finish at the World Championships last month.

Remember to crack fetchlands in response to the Crab’s landfall ability. If you don’t respond to your own ability, you might accidentally mill all your land, and besides, if you thin your deck of one more land, that is an increase in the percentage that each card you mill will be an unearth creature.

The exception to this is if you suspect they may have removal. Then you should wait until their upkeep, which will force them to waste mana on their own turn responding to your fetch. If they kill the Crab on your endstep, you can respond with the fetchland to ensure both mills.

Cycling is free if you plan on using Crypt later in turn, and it even produces mana with Fatestitcher. Remember, the whole idea is to cycle a bunch, mill yourself when you can, then set up a turn where you unearth a bunch of random dudes and an Extractor Demon. You bash with them all, and if that doesn’t kill your opponent (which it often won’t), you mill yourself a bunch more with the Extractor Demon, which sets up the next wave.

Obviously Crypt of Agadeem is fueling the mana for this operation, and a stream of Rats and Specters attacks your opponent’s hand so that they are unable to mount an offense. The biggest weaknesses (aside from dedicated hate like Relic) are Baneslayer Angel, LD, and really fast aggro decks, though there are a lot of important choices made to shore up these weaknesses. As a matter of fact, a lot of people assume you lose to Jund because of Jund Charm, Thought Hemorrhage, and Goblin Ruinblaster, but the truth is that people don’t max on these cards anymore. The deck is designed to work around them, such as just playing Specter after Specter and not caring about Jund Charm on the yard.

Multiple Crypts don’t do much, as extra lands beyond the third (which is needed to use
crypt) bring back Fatestitcher, acting as a second Crypt on the turn that it matters. This comes up when you have a choice of playing a second Crypt or a fetchland with Crab out, with the right play usually being to fetch.

When you sideboard, make sure to only Spreading Seas Red sources, as this is your primary defense against Goblin Ruinblaster. The main deck Malakir Bloodwitches are a little surprising, but MJ said he got sick of sideboarding them in every round. Just board them out against Jund, you know? They are primarily for Baneslayer Angel / Wall of Denial / Ajani Vengeant, and as a secondary win condition against Thought Hemorrhage. Besides, sometimes you play against a random Mono-White, White/Green, Naya, or Blue/White deck, and they just can’t beat a Bloodwitch.

The Immortal Coils are a little surprising to most people, but they are actually a brilliant answer to Mono-Red and, to a lesser extent, Boros. You drop the Coil turn 4, and it is like you just gained 20 life or more. On top of that, you can essentially tap it and “pay 2 life” to draw a card. Anyone that has ever played Crumbling Sanctuary knows just how powerful this type of effect can be. Obviously you can’t do it if they have Jund Charm or Relic, but Mono-Red or Boros Bushwhacker is usually not going to be able to go after your graveyard. Actually, the biggest thing you need to watch out for is someone that plays Unstable Footing, as it stops damage from being prevented by the Coil.

The technology, like so much filthy technology, was accidentally conjured up by Vintage superstar Brian DeMars. One day I had been smashing MJ with Red aggro decks, and he was looking for sideboard options, and DeMars half-jokingly suggested Immortal Coil. Now, keep in mind that in that same conversation he suggested at least three really, really bad ideas, but that is an area of specialty for Brian. He thinks of the crazy, bizarre stuff, the stuff that most people are afraid to let themselves imagine out of fear of people thinking they are fools. That sort of fearless outside-the-box thinking is uncommon and invaluable.

Where do you think the Pro Tour winning Riptide Lab that Remi got from Manu (that he got from LSV, that he got from me) came from?

You would be well served to look around your local game store to see if anyone there might be a brilliant deckbuilder, an inventor of unlikely technology. Someone that perhaps isn’t totally dominating the tournament scene, but someone that could have a gift that could be a great asset, with a little help.

The newest aspect of this deck is the maindeck Bloodwitch action, although if you don’t think they are right main in your metagame, feel free to sideboard them all. It was partially because of the emerging popularity of Bloodwitch (as well as the need to better combat Boros) that I added a bit of Red to my Mono-White Control deck, which is what I wish I had played this weekend.

Our match-up against Jund? That part is good, no question. Our Mono-Red is pretty awesome too. Vampires? Sure, got that. The problem? Other White decks… but seriously, it is not even that bad. The problem is that we really, really need more card draw. I have never seen a deck that needed a Divination so bad. Literally: “1WW, Sorcery, Draw 2” would be unreal.

I have scoured the spoilers. What choice do we have, save add a third color? Carnage Altar? It does combo with a few things, but man, that seems like maybe trying too hard…

Regardless, I recommend giving this beast a try, as it can be fun to beat the tar out of Jund without resorting to Howling Mines. Besides, most of the things that beat this deck are things that no one plays, since this format seems to be an demonstration of the Naya-Jund Spectrum (Mono-Red, Mono-White, Mono-Green, Boros, G/W, Jund, Naya, etc) with only a few Turbo Fogs, Summoning Trap, Fools (erm, I mean Control players), and so on.

Why do I think this deck has real potential, beyond just good playtesting results? One of the problems with some of my control decks recently is, as Ben Rubin put so well, “You are really good at building decks that beat the gauntlet.” The unspoken implication is that they are so tuned to beat the specific gauntlet decks that they are riddled with inherent flaws when forced to take on all comers, including strategies that had not been tested a thousand times (hence taking losses to decks like Valakut), plus they may have positive win percentages against most of the decks, but the inherent failure rate of the mana makes them akin to Dredge at times.

True Dredge is a perfect example of a deck that’s win percentage is fantastic, but has a failure rate that many consider unacceptable. All those tournaments playing Next Level Blue instead of Dredge to avoid this, and for what? What have I become?

We used to joke about Tron, calling it Blue Dredge, since it was this strange deck that pretended it was a Blue deck. In reality it was a queer sort of combo-esque deck that had nut draws that no one could beat, but a huge failure rate. My Four-Color Control deck in Standard is actually eerily like this, as its “nut draw” beats everyone, but it has a bad failure rate.

My unbeatable nut draw? The right mix of answers. I have all the answers, and if I draw the right ones, you are kold, because honestly, whatever you are doing is still not as good as Cruel Ultimatum. My failure rate is obviously somewhat tied to my mana, but even more than that, there is this new complication of having so many reactive cards that are all limited. You have a Steppe Lynx or Goblin Guide? Bolt that. You have a Baneslayer Angel or Wooly Thoctar? Terminate. Sprouting Thrinax or Ball Lightning? Wall of Denial. Siege-Gang or Conqueror’s Pledge? Earthquake. Flashfreeze is great against most decks. Same with Ajani Vengeant. I mean, I’ve got answers to every type of deck, and these are versatile answers that are good against a number of threats.

The problem is that all of the answers have spots where they don’t work. You draw the wrong answers, you will be stuck with a Bolt against Blightning, or Flashfreeze versus Bloodbraid Elf, or Wall of Denial versus Broodmate Dragon, Terminate versus Garruk, and so on. It is certainly not just Jund either. All these decks attack from so many angles that it is easy to find yourself in a position where you don’t have the right cards to match up against theirs.

In a way, I played Blue Dredge at States this weekend. While there is a lot of play to the deck that I piloted, a lot of people always overlooked the play involved in Dredge. Dredge is a tough deck to play. So is my Four-Color Control deck. The difference?

Dredge is inherently good against everything.

My Four-Color Control deck is good against whatever I plan for, as long as things line up okay.

That is an important distinction. This is not to say that you can’t play a reactive deck. It is just that I have come to realize the problem with Blue in Standard, and it is not the lack of good countermagic.

No good countermagic? You have obviously not played Flashfreeze lately. Besides, Traumatic Visions, Negate, Essence Scatter, Bant Charm, Countersquall, and Double Negative are all “okay.” That is not the problem. We don’t have busted cards like Force of Will or Cryptic Command, or even Mana Drain (heh), but the countermagic we do have would be serviceable if we had some good way to manipulate our library.

Mike Turian asked me how R&D should go about designing Blue cards that make Blue able to compete without totally taking the entire format over all the time. I didn’t know how to answer him at the time, but now I do. The reason Blue totally takes over is because they keep getting cards like Cryptic Command, Fact or Fiction, Mind’s Desire, Mystical Teachings, Careful Consideration, and more. Those cards are really powerful in Standard. What would it take for Blue to be able to compete without taking over? If people want to draw extra cards, make them play Divination, or Mind Spring, or Jace Beleren. If they want to counter spells, make them play Negate or Essence Scatter or Flashfreeze. But if they want to smooth out their draws, they are going to need a little help.

It is no secret that Blue card draw is pretty bad these days (compared to how good we had it with Mulldrifter, Cryptic Command, Fact or Fiction, Tidings, Gifts Ungiven, Stroke of Genius, Opportunity, Thirst for Knowledge, Thoughtcast, Compulsive Research, Concentrate, Careful Consideration, Mystical Teachings, etc). The thing is, it is not really the card draw that is the problem. If we had good enough card draw, we could solve the problem with brute force, but the real issue is library manipulation.

With such a variety of powerful threats demanding the appropriate response immediately, what a Blue Mage really needs isn’t some overpowered card draw spell (like Fact or Fiction, or Bloodbraid Elf). What a Blue Mage really needs is…


That’s right. If you ask me what Blue is missing, I say Impulse. Give me 4 Impulses and I would revolutionize the format. Brainstorm would certainly do the trick as well. If you think I wouldn’t be Brainstorming and shuffling with Fetchlands and Traumatic Visions… well, you would probably be right, since Brainstorm plus Bloodbraid Elf would be downright stupid. Still, you get the idea.

Careful Consideration!

The problem with asking for Careful Consideration is that the powers that be want to veto this sort of thing right now, because it is too strong a “card drawer,” when the real strength is in the library manipulation. That is the real reason Sphinx of Lost Truth is so good right now (albeit in bad decks). Having the wrong answers at the wrong times is why control “isn’t viable.”

Maybe the answer to Standard control is to try Ponder, but I gotta tell you, Ponder doesn’t feel like the right type of library manipulation. I would really rather use that two mana I held up for Negate/Essence Scatter/Flashfreeze, and I would really rather it be an instant.

Give me Impulse! You can keep your Counterspell, your Sower of Temptation, your Mistbind Clique, your Mulldrifter, your Daze, your Capsize, your Time Spiral, your Tinker, your Propaganda, your Lord of Atlantis. All I ask is Impulse. I don’t mind if all the Blue cards are bad. Just let me get the bad Blue card that I want, when I want it! Jace, the Mind Sculptor? See that is what I am talking about! I don’t want a powerful midrange card, I want Impulse. Oh wait, that guy hasn’t been spoiled yet. Never mind, forget I said anything. Just read the story, and you will see what the deal is with Jace, now that Liliana has helped corrupt him.

Once you go Black…

By the way, major props to Professional Events Services, as they ran a great tournament: the Michigan State Championship that drew an incredible 252 competitors. From the sound of it, attendance was absolutely phenomenal across the country. Organizers fought for States this year, and the community came out and supported the events 110%. This may be partially a residual effect of the Zendikar = Happiness, but it is also a statement by the community that this tournament series matters to them.

This is what I played.

As I said in my article last week, if I didn’t play Grixis, it would probably be to play Four-Color, and this build is the convergence of Wafo Grixis with my Four-Color Control from Rome. Is this a good deck? Absolutely. It is definitely solid, but it is not busted, so it is not defining any formats anytime soon. In fact, I wish I had played W/r or Mono-White.

Rather than rehash the strategy for such a deck, I would refer you to the linked article above, detailing strategy for both Wafo Grixis and my Worlds deck which have been merged here.

Is this article more “I am giving up Control, playing beatdown, blah, blah, blah?”

No, because it is not that I am giving up Control. The truth is that I don’t have it to give up, not now. I am not looking to force a particular Constructed strategy in the months to come, and if Control ends up being the best, so be it. Still, with Worldwake on the horizon, I am going to start with mid-range decks, perhaps being just a little bigger than everyone else.

Maybe I’ll end up hyper Aggro. Maybe I will end up Combo. Maybe I will stay mid-range, or maybe Control. I encourage you to do the same, as sometimes getting a little out of your comfort zone does you a lot of good. Looking to force a particular type of strategy would leave me open to the same trap I have been in, and most likely worse at playing it.

Smother is confirmed to be in Worldwake? Man, this would make the mana so much easier in… Wait! That isn’t what Smother is for! The Vivid Land free-roll is over, and it is time to man up and return to responsible deck building, where different cards are for different decks (rather than the all-consuming “Vivid Creek Deck”).

So how does one try to branch out from the archetypes they have been playing? How do I know I won’t end up thinking control is the best that I have?

For starters, Michael Jacob has been in my ear for a while now, and although he is a completely irrational crazy person that is totally out of touch with reality, he does have some valuable perspective. Enough of the things he has prophesied in the past year have come to pass (Sign in Blood, Master of the Wild Hunt, return of Terminate, Dredge, Grim Discovery, Siege-Gang Commander, Borderland Ranger, and much more) that I believe he has a reasonable grasp on the directions that the physics of the game have taken. Besides, if ever there was a master of a format without Blue cards, it is MJ, heh.

The point of all this is to look for a standard, a measure to determine if you are on the right track. In this case, while I expect MJ and I not to see eye to eye on a lot of things initially, we end up on the same page. The times that I do not end up agreeing with him, he generally ends up agreeing with me. This may sound like no big deal, but you would be amazed at how many people are never able to reach an understanding with teammates that they play with all the time. MJ and I have about as radically diametrically opposed styles as they get, but we are definitely on the same wavelength.


If I could backtrack a little, I wanted to share another deck that caught my eye this weekend. I am not sure where it originated, but Evan Erwin was shipping this list out, picking up pilots such as David Williams, just before States began.

Forsythe always joked that R&D will make us like Cancel by the time they are done. I am not sure how everyone that piloted the deck ended up, but I know Williams made Top 8. Evan Erwin should be proud.

Maybe Control isn’t dead after all…

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”