Let’s Talk About Control

Conventional wisdom says not to play a control deck in an unpredictable Week 1 metagame. Why does Jim Davis think that wisdom is wrong?

We need to talk.

Look… I get it.

There’s a ton of fancy new Boros rares to cast with your original Ravnica copies of Sacred Foundry (to show that you’ve been there since the start, even if you started playing Magic during Zendikar). Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice has a lot of words and big numbers on it while curving perfectly with Tajic, Legion’s Edge, and yes, everyone is starting to realize how good Swiftblade Vindcator is as well.

Or maybe you just love tapping creatures, and you’re ready to listen to my Team BCW teammate Ross Merriam shout from the rooftops that Selesnya is the best guild in Guilds of Ravnica. You’re all about Emmara, Soul of the Accord snowballing out of control, pairing Llanowar Elves with the many exciting tools you’ll be casting off Temple Garden.

Or maybe you just love the Golgari stench of death, building up a huge graveyard with Glowspore Shaman and Stitcher’s Supplier and feeding a huge Charnel Troll. Perhaps Todd Anderson’s Dimir Spybugs are catching your fancy? Or even some sort of Izzet spell-based Crackling Drake concoction inspired by Ari Lax?

Yes, I understand!

There’s a ton of exciting new stuff happening in Guilds of Ravnica!

And as such, it makes total sense. There’s a ton of new toys and people want to play with them. So we see tons of decklists: Boros Aggro this. Selesnya Tokens that. Mono-Green/Golgari Beatdown this. Blah Blah Midrange that. However, y’all are forgetting about something mighty important if your plan is to win a Standard tournament in the near future.

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is still here.

The Scarab God is gone.

Hazoret the Fervent is gone.

Heart of Kiran? Scrapheap Scrounger? God-Pharaoh’s Gift? Chandra, Torch of Defiance? Torrential Gearhulk?


Pretty much every pillar of the old Standard format is gone, with the exception of Goblin Chainwhirler, who lost almost all his friends. However… Teferi, Hero of Dominaria remains.

Now look, I get it. I can hear you screaming through the other side of the screen:

“Hallowed Fountain isn’t in this set!”

You’re right.

We don’t get Azorius until Ravnica Allegiance in 2019.

I’m here to tell you it doesn’t matter.

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is one of the best planeswalkers ever printed, and the majority of the Azorius Control core either remains or has suitable replacements:

Before we talk about what Azorius Control looks like in the new format and how it lines up against potential Week 1 decks, we need to take a quick look at what Azorius Control no longer has to deal with.

Bomat Courier was one of the most annoying cards for Azorius Control decks, as it came down far before countermagic was an option and could do serious damage in the card advantage department before it got swept up in a Settle the Wreckage or Fumigate. A lot of the Azorius Control deck’s removal is situational, meaning the Bomat Courier player could pick their spots well and make life very annoying for the Azorius Control player.

Furthermore, when it comes down to it, the format doesn’t really have many good one-drops at all. One-drops are the bane of slower control decks, and the few that exist now aren’t that scary. More on that later.

While getting to Syncopate a Turn 2 Scrapheap Scrounger on the play was a great feeling, it sure made Essence Scatter and your other counterspells feel foolish. Scrapheap Scrounger also laughed at true sweepers like Fumigate while affording its controller the ability to keep it out of the way of Settle the Wreckage when the time came. On top of all that, it hit hard and had essentially no drawback.

With both of those nuisances out of the way, let’s look at the cards people are really excited about from Guilds of Ravnica:

“Okay, so that’s a lot of good nonblue cards, Jim. Why is this good for control?”

As with many multicolor sets, a lot of the cards get to go crazy on rate in exchange for the downside of being “hard to cast.” Huge numbers, piles of abilities— from Lightning Angel to Loxodon Hierarch to Loxodon Smiter to Siege Rhino, that’s just how multicolor sets work. The result is an environment full of awesome three- and four-mana cards.

The end result?

Cheap counterspells end up looking really, really good.

With everyone futzing around with their tapland manabases and trying to play lots of pushed multicolor cards, that means it’s much harder for them to get in under your counterspells. It also means that your removal and mass removal effects do a great job at mopping up. Without one-drops to keep them honest, counterspells are great.

Furthermore, the only exceptionally good one-drops in the format are Llanowar Elves and Pelt Collector. Both these cards are not only weak to mass removal, they’re played in a deck that is historically weak to white-based control in (mostly or completely) Mono-Green Aggro. Steel Leaf Champion projects to be a big card Week 1, so being good there is a great place to start.

So we’ve got one of the best planeswalkers ever printed being ignored, most of the major threats of the old format gone, and a new format populated with midrange multicolor durdle cards… sounds like it’s time to get to work.

It’s really quite impressive how many new cards slide right in where the old cards left off.

Glimmer of Genius was a delight, and no sooner does it leave us than a new Inspiration variant joins the fray.

Chemister’s Insight is of course very similar to Glimmer of Genius, giving the control deck an instant speed-draw two for it to use in the mid-game after one-for-one’ing its opponent to death. While Glimmer of Genius gave us more careful control over the cards we got, Chemister’s Insight trades in that ability to be much more useful in longer games.

There will always be matchups where you don’t need certain cards, as that’s just the nature of a control deck. Chemister’s Insight lets you upgrade those cards into more copies of Inspiration! You don’t really need that Cleansing Nova against the control mirror, nor do you need that Negate against your Mono-Green Aggro opponent. Chemister’s Insight lets you make that exchange. It also lets you go a little heavier on lands so you never miss a land drop, with the ability to cash the land in for more cards later.

It’s important to recognize the deckbuilding differences between the two, but Chemister’s Insight is an easy stand-in for Glimmer of Genius.

Cleansing Nova is definitely a lot worse than Fumigate was, as Fumigate was the best five-mana Wrath of God variant ever printed, but thankfully the format just became much less hostile to Wrath of God effects. Gone are Hazoret the Fervent, The Scarab God, Scrapheap Scrounger, and Heart of Kiran, meaning white doesn’t need to lean as hard on Settle the Wreckage.

With a lot of possible Convoke and token strategies down the pipeline, having a mixture of Settle the Wreckage and true mass removal spells will be crucial. It’s not quite Fumigate, but it gets the job done.

While the previous two are probably slight downgrades, Sinister Sabotage is a pretty significant upgrade to Disallow. The ability to dissuade planeswalker ultimates is nice, but as we’ve seen from Dissolve, adding some card selection to your counterspell is fantastic. We’re not doing much with our graveyard here besides Search for Azcanta, but that’s not nothing and Sinister Sabotage is great.

The loss of Cast Out is pretty big, as the instant speed effect was huge. Being able to leave up countermagic and then cast Cast Out end of turn was big game, as was being able to cycle it when it was worthless. Furthermore, Cast Out created a great problem for opponents trying to play around Settle the Wreckage.

Still, we need a way to answer resolved permanents, so Ixalan’s Binding and Blink of an Eye get the job. It’s important to remember that these are just extra copies of the effect; our main and best Banishing Light-style card is Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Finding the right numbers on these cards will require more testing.

With Torrential Gearhulk gone and Teferi having a few more natural predators (Assassin’s Trophy and Conclave Tribunal), we can’t just rely on the Teferi tuck-loop to win pre-sideboarded games.

As such, Lyra Dawnbringer steps in as our threat of choice. Lyra Dawnbringer is often seen in Azorius Control sideboards but stays out of maindecks because your goal is to blank removal spells. Thankfully Lyra dodges a good amount of the format’s removal anyway and the two best new removal spells also hit Teferi, so it’s not like you’re blanking them either way.

There’s no denying that Lyra is also just an intrinsically powerful Magic card, and while it’s not completely on-plan, sometimes you’ll just slam it on Turn 5 and win the game.

No, it doesn’t cycle. No, it doesn’t help Glacial Fortress.

Get over it. You need to cast your spells.

Speaking of countering Siege Rhino, look who’s back!

Disdainful Stroke is a great little counterspell, always gaining you excellent tempo and stopping something truly scary. And did we mention how well it plays with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria? It’s likely the deck wants some number in the maindeck, but without a solid picture of the format, it’s a hard call to make. Regardless, having Disdainful Stroke back is a treat.

It’s not a Guilds of Ravnica card, but Mystic Archaeologist is a fantastic card out of the sideboard. Much like Azure Mage or Fathom Feeder before it, Mystic Archaeologist is king in your control matchups. Removal comes out, Mystic Archaeologist comes down on Turn 2, and you ride it to victory. Don’t sleep on this one.

Because sometimes you’ve gotta apply pressure.

If you want a chance of beating Bant Nexus or other heavy control decks, having some way to apply pressure is critical. History of Benalia does a great job of that, allowing you to spend some mana early and then leave up countermagic for the rest of the game while you apply pressure and force your opponents into action.

Controlling Week 1

The common axiom for Week 1 Standard is to “play something proactive” because “there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers.”

Somehow, that rarely stops me.

The big thing about Week 1 Standard is usually that people are very focused on what their own deck is doing rather than what their opponent’s deck will do. Because of this, they may not be considering how well their deck lines up against counterspells or mass removal spells, instead just focusing on making sure their deck functions.

People want to play their big new spells. Don’t let them. We’ve got a format ripe for Essence Scatter and Settle the Wreckage to thrive, so take all those dumb gold creatures out to pasture.

Oh, and make sure you remind them that Teferi, Hero of Dominaria hasn’t gone anywhere.