Matchup Tactics – Standard U/W Control vs. U/B Control

Friday, December 3rd – When Kibler claimed Standard was a format run by Jace, he wasn’t kidding! Gavin and Max test a Jace head-to-head in this control matchup. If you’re going to face Jace this weekend at the SCG Open / Invitational, read up!

Welcome to another edition of Matchup Tactics, featuring Max McCall and Gavin Verhey. This week is all about the particulars of the brawl between the two sides of Standard format control.

In one corner is the deck which has comfortably taken the position as the control player of the format: U/B Control. First rising to notoriety in the hands of Nick Spagnolo, this carefully crafted archetype has wriggled its way to the top of the Standard metagame.

In the other corner is the “newcomer,” Kyle Sanchez U/W Control deck. It feels strange saying U/W is the Standard deck scrabbling for position after months of Standard dominance, but the former titan had fallen out of favor.

Which deck has the upper hand in the control mirror? Let’s find out.

But first, a few notes on the feedback from the last article.

The major complaint was repetition in sections. Gavin would say something, followed by Max saying the exact same thing. We brainstormed ways to fix this. The first was to write together in a joint fashion, but some initial problems stood in our way. Aside from the weirdness of having to read the “we” pronoun over and over, whenever we disagreed on something we would have to have yet

section detailing our disagreements. Writing with a joint voice also ends up in a weaker article because you end up losing something between all of the compilation and deleted lines.

As a result, we came up with the format of this article.

Instead of us each playing both sides of the matchup, we each chose one of the two decks and played solely with that deck. Max will be covering the U/W side of the matchup, and Gavin will be covering the U/B side of the matchup.

Additionally, after the Goblin Ruinblaster incident last week, we may change the sideboards (and occasionally maindecks) of the decks we play with to obtain more valuable data if some card feels very off or there’s something we wanted to try. We’ll make sure to tell you what we tried and how it impacted the matchup if we do.

Some of you wanted videos. Though it’s not happening in this particular article, some short, bonus video segments may be possible in the future.

Finally, several of you asked for win percentages. We didn’t want to include them, but because of the demand, we caved. We’ll begin to include win percentages, but the caveat is that you shouldn’t take them as the end-all be-all. Some testing sessions you might lose more games than you win and still feel like you’re ahead in the matchup, and vice versa. Use them as another tool to understand the matchup, but don’t take them to mean everything. You can find them at the end of the article.

With that out of the way… The decklists we started with!

Pregame: The U/W Perspective (Matt)

The matchup seems abysmal. The U/W deck doesn’t have enough lands. It has seemingly infinite blank removal spells. He even has more Jaces than I do, although I can kind of try to contain his with creatures, and I have so many removal spells that I can defend mine pretty easily. Of course, if I get shown Doom Blade at basically any point, it can be rough. About all the U/W deck has going for it is Spell Pierce main, which means that U/W can be slightly more aggressive in the early game. I suppose that having Wall of Omens helps out against random Trinket Mage beatdown. After sideboarding, things seem pretty reasonable; I have a few more counters than Gavin does, and he doesn’t have any Duresses.

Pregame: The U/B Perspective (Gavin)

On spells alone, the matchup feels pretty even. Kyle’s deck has a lot of removal and some deadly Spell Pierces. However, I predict that I’ll often be able to break away on my land count. We have the same number of lands, but I have two Chalices and four Preordains. Additionally, I can out-attrition Kyle’s deck in the long game thanks to Elixir of Immortality. After sideboarding, neither of us really pick up that much, so I predict it’s going to come down to a good, old-fashioned, land-playing duel.

Pre-board games: The U/W Perspective

Weird. The best cards in a blue mirror have Jace in the type line! Who knew?

Okay. Whoever has Jace in play is winning. By a lot. You’d think that the corollary to this is that if neither player has Jace in play that you’re more or less tied, but that’s not actually true. In the late game, whoever has more cards in hand and lands in play is winning, but that’s probably a function of that player having had a Jace in play for a while.

However, in the early game, if neither player has Jace in play, then the U/W deck is losing. The U/B deck has Trinket Mage for Everflowing Chalice and Preordain to keep mana coming, but the U/W deck runs out of lands pretty fast if it doesn’t have Jace in play. This means it’s virtually impossible to hold up a spare three for Mana Leak or play multiple spells per turn without Jace, so if the U/B deck just hangs out and refuses to tap out, it’s pretty hard for the U/W deck to actually get anywhere.

This means that the U/W deck actually has to be pretty aggressive with Jace most of the time. If you don’t have enough lands to make it up to five or so mana, you’re going to have to just shove your Jace in. If U/B doesn’t have Mana Leak, great, now you have Jace and you’re probably going to win. If U/B does have Leak, well, that sucks. If they have a Jace along with Leak, then U/W is probably going to lose, but if they don’t have Jace, you’ll probably end up bashing large animals into each other until someone peels a Jace or runs out of removal.

Beating Jace is pretty difficult for the U/W deck. The cheapest threat U/W has to attack Jace with is Baneslayer Angel. It turns out that when you tap out for some five-drop when your opponent is drawing two cards a turn, things don’t go too well for you. U/W’s best hope is to try to resolve Gideon Jura and attack. U/B will probably have a Doom Blade, but hopefully that will clear the way for your Celestial Colonnade to get through and kill Jace. This plan basically falls to pieces in the face of Tectonic Edge, but there’s a reason that whoever had Jace in play basically won every game.

Games where no one has Jace are remarkably similar to the games where your opponent has Jace; you battle with manlands and white mythics, and U/B comes back with Persecutor and Consuming Vapors. The U/W deck is actually somewhat favored in a fair fight if it has enough lands, and no one has Jace going because Gideon is a solid trump to all of U/B’s threats. Still, between Tectonic Edge, Doom Blade, Day of Judgment, and so on, these games take quite a while to finish, and so someone usually finds a Jace and wins before the grinding attrition war finishes. 

Pre-board games: The U/B Perspective

As Max laid out, one thing really matters: Jace. Whether small Jace or big Jace, whoever has him active is controlling the matchup. You must deploy your own carefully and avoid your opponent winning the Jace war.

Max already explained most of the interactive details, and I agree with him. Gideon Jura is a fairly problematic threat, playing a land every turn is crucial, and the games end up being bouts of attrition. Instead of repeating everything he said over and over, I’ll try and focus on a different angle that pertains specifically to the U/W deck. Namely, when to cast your spells.

What’s important to know is that the U/W deck has both Mana Leak and Spell Pierce. You never want to walk into either one unless you either have to or can accept trading your card for one of theirs.

I never want to trade a Jace for a counterspell unless my hand is stocked up on Jaces. Often the U/W deck has to run out Jace early so it can hit its land drops, so there’s no need to run Jace into a potential counterspell before turn 5 or 6. Wait for them to tap out, and then make your Jace move. Their own play will often be a Jace, and ideally you’ll have a Mana Leak set for their play. You want to make sure you can pay for an opposing Spell Pierce in this instance as well.

If you don’t have a Mana Leak, and their Jace resolves, in this small opening you still have options. If you can Roil it back and play a Jace of your own to put them on the back foot, that’s fine. Otherwise, you can hopefully just fire back with a Tar-Pit attack on your turn.

There are times where it’s correct to be aggressive with your Jaces, and you need to be able to evaluate the plan your hand wants you to take. However, it’s almost always right to be defensive as long as you have a single defensive card to back it up.

There are times where you can try to be aggressive by running out Jace with Mana Leak backup, but the problem is that if they have two counterspells, you just gave them a perfect opening to land a Jace or Gideon of their own. When you have countermagic, generally play defensive.  

If your opponent does land a threat, what’s crucial is that you play so he cannot land another. One threat you can often overcome after a little work. However, the moment your opponent has any combination of Gideon, Jace, Baneslayer Angel, and Sun Titan on the battlefield, you’re almost assured to lose because it becomes tremendously difficult to deal with both. You can’t ever give them that opening.

For example, in several situations when Gideon was attacking me, and I was at twenty with Doom Blade in my hand and two lands untapped, I’d take six and then Doom Blade in the end step. I can’t afford to Doom Blade Gideon, have it get countered, and then have the opponent follow it up with something like a Jace.

Finally, try to avoid taking any “calculated risks” that might end up with your opponent resolving Jace. For example, you can never cast turn 2 Chalice on the draw for fear of being Jaced out and losing. Similarly, but less obvious, you cannot cast Chalice on turn 3 in case your opponent Mana Leaks it, then untaps and casts Jace. Trading Mana Leak for a Chalice at one is often not a great play, but since whoever resolves Jace first puts the other player on the back foot, that play is one the U/B player should always make.

In summary, play carefully. Think about not only what’s going to happen right now, but what’s going to happen on both you and your opponent’s next turn.

Post-board games: The U/W Perspective

I have a pretty good rant about this below, but Kyle’s board plan of -4 Wall of Omens +3 Negate +1 Jace Beleren is pretty bad; the U/W deck is already short on lands, and cutting vital cantrips is pretty miserable when the other guy gets more counterspells, and it becomes even more unlikely that you can just slam down a Jace on three and have it stick. I’d cut the Ratchet Bombs and Into the Roils for Negates and Jace. Ratchet Bomb is pretty much only ever good when you get to blow up an Everflowing Chalice on two, and even then, it’s still not that good.

After boarding, it becomes a lot more important to make it up to four or five lands for Jace plus Spell Pierce or Jace plus Negate, and if your opponent just sits there hitting land drops while holding up mana, it’s pretty hard to get anywhere.

If the other guy brings in Memoricide, it’s hardly the end of the world. Memoricide is pretty much just a worse Jace; he’s going to name a planeswalker, and you can counter it, and now he’s tapped out, and you have a planeswalker. Bonus points if you don’t counter it, and he names the wrong Jace. Now, if he had Duress, you’d be in trouble, because suddenly he’s playing multiple threats per turn very quickly, but Duress isn’t exactly stock these days.

Post-board games: The U/B Perspective

There are really only six cards from McKenzie’s sideboard worth mentioning for this matchup: Memoricide, Negate, and Nihil Spellbomb.

The Negates are an auto-include as they hit Jace, Gideon, and opposing countermagic which is what matters for the most part.

Memoricide is a card a lot of players swear by. I feel it’s one of the most overrated cards in Standard for the amount of play it’s receiving, and it certainly didn’t do anything in this matchup. While taking away all of your opponent’s big Jaces may be alluring, often these elaborate fantasies don’t play out as well as you’d like. What happens more often is you set up some convoluted spot to cast it in the midgame, manage to resolve it, and nothing happens. You’re down a card and four mana. I wouldn’t call that a fair exchange for weakening your opponents draw steps, especially since the U/W deck is often the Jace aggressor.

But what then of the Nihil Spellbomb? I actually like it. If what matters is finding your best cards, having a cycling card in your deck is perfectly acceptable. Plus, in some mystical fantasy world, maybe you can even turn off your opponent’s Sun Titan. I know Max disagrees – we debated over it for a while – but I have been perfectly happy with the Spellbomb.

That made my sideboarding plan as follows:

 -2 Consuming Vapors, -1 Frost Titan
+2 Negate, +1 Nihil Spellbomb

Why Frost Titan? He’s actually fairly weak in this matchup. It’s never that hard for your opponent to deal with him, and you often cannot afford to tap six mana for it. Leaving only seven ways to deal with Persecutor may sound worrisome, but once they’re at zero, the U/W deck can’t ever really attack into a Persecutor. You should be able to draw an Into the Roil or Jace, the Mind Sculptor with plenty of time to spare.

Speaking of Into the Roil, Max said I should cut them, but I highly disagree. They’re actually pretty sweet. Beyond drawing you a card kicked, they reset Journeys to Nowhere, can protect your Persecutors, and can pick up opposing Jaces so you can lay your own. Overall, I was very happy with them.

If you were to sideboard more cards, such as more Negates or Duress, the next card to go would be the other Frost Titan, followed by a Trinket Mage.

Lessons: The U/W Perspective

Like I said earlier, in game 1, if you don’t have lands, you probably need to run your Jace out and hope the other guy doesn’t have Mana Leak. After sideboarding, that’s not as true; he has Negate to fight Jace as well, and you have more counters and hard counters so you’re not quite as vulnerable to being behind a couple of lands. It might be worth it to try to peel a fifth land so that you can play Jace + counter in the same turn.

Mana Leak and Spell Pierce become blanks in the late game, so you usually want to force some action in the midgame, so that you can trade Leak and Pierce for value. The only real exception: I don’t fight over Everflowing Chalice for one, but I pretty much always counter a Chalice for two.

Remember that your opponent is trying to trade off his Mana Leaks too. If you can get him to Leak your Jace Beleren and then Leak some five-drop, his hand will hopefully be all Negates when you play Sun Titan and recur Jace Beleren.

One key to maintaining Jace advantage is to make sure that you can contain Creeping Tar Pit with Tectonic Edge and Condemn. If you can use a non-Condemn removal spell on, say, Abyssal Persecutor, do so.

Do note that if you Journey to Nowhere a Persecutor or a Trinket Mage, your planeswalkers are never truly safe; U/B can end step an Into the Roil to free their man and kill your planeswalker.

I always Brainstorm with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It’s particularly important to Brainstorm once it resolves to make sure that you get value in case the other guy has Jace of his own, but trying to fateseal the other guy out is time-consuming and quite difficult unless you manage to lock them with one or no cards in hand. Of course, if the other guy has Tar Pit in play, you’ll want to +2 Jace on the first activation, so that you don’t just trade Jace for Tar Pit. I recommend fatesealing yourself, because it’s hard to know what your opponent is looking for on turn 4.

I follow similar rules with Jace Beleren, but I wanted to note that it’s occasionally right to just leave Jace Beleren in play at one counter without activating him. There are some spots where U/W has Jace and is ahead, but mana is tight, or something, and Jace’s +2 might give U/B a runner-runner draw to break free. However, just cashing in the Jace is pretty risky if U/B has a Jace in hand. In these situations, hanging out with Seal of Jace isn’t necessarily all that bad.

Lessons: The U/B Perspective

Many of the things Max just said can also apply to U/B. For example, I would almost always recommend Brainstorming with Jace unless they have a manland, leaving Jace on one is often correct (though I feel I was +2ing more often than Max was), and you want to maneuver into situations where your Mana Leaks are effective. To avoid reiterating what Max just said in depth, I’m going to focus on a different lesson: when to cast Jace.

The casting Jace survival guide

Situation: Opponent is tapped out at any point of the game and has no threats available. Should you cast Jace?

Answer: Yes, you should. This one is a no-brainer.

Situation: It is turn 3 and you have Jace Beleren/turn 4 and you have Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Your opponent has played a land every turn and has all of their lands untapped. Should you cast Jace?

Answer: No, you shouldn’t. If your opponent has Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, or Negate here, you may end up being put on the back foot if they resolve either Jace next turn.

Situation: It’s turn 5 and you have Jace Beleren/turn 6 and you have Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Your opponent has played a land every turn and has all of their lands untapped. You also have Mana Leak in your hand. Should you cast Jace?

Answer: Probably not. Thinking you have counter backup here is folly because your Mana Leak doesn’t actually counter anything. You can pay for a Spell Pierce, but not for Mana Leak. Your plan folds to a Negate. Hold Jace for now.

Situation: It is turn 5 and you have Jace Beleren/turn 6 and you have Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Your opponent has played a land every turn and has all of their lands untapped. You also have Negate in your hand. Should you cast Jace?

Answer: In general no, but it depends on what’s in your hand. While your countermagic actually does something here, you don’t want to get ruined by double counterspell into Jace. The flip side of this is that if your opponent has Negate and a Jace of his own, then he can cast Jace next turn and Negate your Negate. However, that also means he’s choosing to be ruined by double counterspell.

What tips the choice toward yes? If you have another Jace in your hand, I’d usually go for it. If he doesn’t have double counterspell, then even if he trades with your Jace next turn, you can play another. If he does, then you can kill his Jace on your next turn, and your opponent is down two counterspells. 

Situation: It’s late in the game. Your opponent has a Celestial Colonnade and is tapped out/has no cards in hand. You have Jace, the Mind Sculptor in your hand and plenty of lands but no other spells in your hand. Should you cast Jace?

Answer: Absolutely. You have to play it and leverage Jace to your advantage despite his Colonnade. If the game has progressed in a way that you can bluff Doom Blade, you might be able to get away with Brainstorming. Otherwise, +2. If he attacks it down to one next turn, that means you can Brainstorm with mana up to cast the spells you draw. Whether you should target yourself or your opponent with his +2 ability really depends on what position the game is in. If your opponent’s hand is full of cards, target yourself, but if you feel they’re low on gas it’s worthwhile to target them.

Situation: It’s late in the game. Your opponent has a Celestial Colonnade and is tapped out/has no cards in hand. You have Jace Beleren in your hand and plenty of lands but no other spells in your hand. Should you cast Jace?

Answer: Yes. I’d play it and immediately go +2. You have to dig to something that helps construct a game plan, and your opponent is likely going to spend your next turn killing it anyway. If you play it and go +2 followed by -1, hopefully you’ll find the pieces you’re looking for.

Situation: Your opponent has Baneslayer Angel/Gideon Jura and is tapped out. You have Jace, the Mind Sculptor in your hand but no other spells. Should you cast Jace?

Answer: Yes. Once again, you have to cast it to try and string together a plan. If it’s a Baneslayer Angel on the other side of the table, I would -1, bounce the Angel, and then Brainstorm the next turn when all of your lands are untapped. If Gideon Jura, I’d immediately Brainstorm and dig for a Doom Blade.  

Situation: Your opponent has Baneslayer Angel/Gideon Jura and is tapped out. You have Jace Beleren in your hand but no other spells. Should you cast Jace?

Answer: Yes, for similar reasons as above. I’d play it and immediately go -1. Cycling and gaining five or six life isn’t exactly the pinnacle of Jace’s abilities, but you have to find an answer soon or you’re going to lose to that threat.

Situation: Your opponent only has U untapped. You can cast Jace but will have to tap out to do so. Should you cast Jace?

Answer: This entirely depends on my opponent’s actions this game. You just have to mentally reconstruct his plays and try to figure out if he has Spell Pierce or not. In the dark, I would hold Jace. While strictly on odds it is favorable, it seems highly unlikely your opponent would open a Jace window for you. This screams of a trap to me. It could also be a bluff, but I think that’s less likely. Your opponent will seldom create a bluff early on that would be this hampering if you call it.

I tried to cover as many situations as possible, but this guide is by no means exhaustive, nor is it always correct. This guide is just that: a guide. Many of the situations highly depend on what has happened so far in the game. My best advice is just always to think about everything your opponent has done so far this game and think through what will happen if you cast your Jace now.

If you have any specific questions please ask them of me in the forums, providing as much detail as possible.

Closing thoughts: The U/W Perspective

I was on a lot of tilt while I was playing the U/W deck for the article. First off, the U/W deck is built wrong. There aren’t enough lands. There aren’t even any Preordains to ameliorate the fact that there aren’t even enough lands. At least all of the people cheating their land counts in Legacy have infinite cantrips to make up for it. The U/W deck has, um, Wall of Omens.

Kyle’s position on Preordain is that “[Preordain is] not an actual spell, and a fair majority of the time it’s just a Sleight of Hand, despite having the potential to dig you three cards deep. I understand the concept of wanting to set your game plan up as early as possible, but why not just play cheap one and two-cost spells instead that can counter many of the troublesome starts that people have.”

The problem with playing a bunch of cheap spells to have early game interaction is that now you have all these copies of Journey to Nowhere and Condemn and Day of Judgment and sometimes your opponent is another Jace deck and you draw all white spells and get crushed. Or, worse, you’re playing against some Fauna Shaman deck, and you draw all Condemns and no Judgments. Worse yet, you draw Ratchet Bomb. Ever.

Playing Preordain would also help out on the ‘there aren’t nearly enough lands in this deck’ front. I mean, I get it; you have Wall of Omens and a bunch of copies of Jace and so now you can feel very clever by cheating your land count because now your Celestial Colonnade/Tectonic Edge deck won’t flood out going long in the format dominated by Mana Leak. That’s neat. But sometimes your opponent is also a Jace deck, and he goes first and plays a Jace on three, and now you’re getting blown out by the legend rule and the fact that you don’t have any lands in your deck!

You can play around with a hypergeometric distribution calculator to see the probabilities of drawing a given number of lands by a given turn. With twenty-five lands, for example, assuming you’re on the play, you are 67.5% for a ten-card sample to have four or more lands in it. Or, put another way, in one of three games, you’re not actually going to be able to cast Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Neat.

I mean, sure, when you play four Walls of Omens you can sort of fudge the math a bit and pretend like you have twenty-six lands. Now, when you say that you’re using Wall of Omens to dig for land, you’re more or less obligated to keep the two-land hands with Wall of Omens in them, especially when you’re on the draw. What’s your move when it’s turn 2 and you don’t have a third land in the mirror? Tap for Wall of Omens and just lose on the spot to a Jace Beleren? Say go and hope that you can play Wall on three and hold up Spell Pierce?

(And aren’t you boarding out Wall of Omens in a lot of control matchups…?)

The deck would be much better with 27 lands and four Preordains, cutting Ratchet Bombs, Into the Roils, a Spell Pierce, and probably a Journey to Nowhere.

Closing thoughts: The U/B Perspective

If you want to have a better control matchup, I can’t help but suggest adding another land. The games U/B was losing were often due to falling behind on mana. For similar reasons, you could play another Jace. However, I recognize that you’re not only facing control decks, and you can’t build your deck with just control mirrors in mind.

There were several times I wanted to Trinket Mage for Chimeric Mass, but I don’t think you need to have one. Beyond that, I was actually fairly happy with the maindeck. I never really had any issues with the cards themselves.

As far as the sideboard goes, if you predict the control mirror becoming popular, I might look to sideboarding a fourth Jace and some copies of Duress or a similar way to force threats through and remove their Jaces. However, there isn’t really a ton you want to cut in the first place. Overall, I’d say McKenzie has a pretty solid build here.

The percentages

Somewhat surprisingly, the final percentages of the matchup were dead even at exactly 50% for each deck both pre-board and post-board. We both expected the U/B deck to end up ahead, but in the end that’s not how it turned out.

However, that statistic could be read a little differently. In case you doubted our clamor about Jace’s role in the matchup, you could read that percent at 50% U/B, 50% U/W, and 100% Jace. Okay, well really it’s something more like 97% Jace because there was a single game where U/B had Jace active for five turns, drew all lands, and lost, but otherwise the player with the last Jace standing won every single game.


Thanks for reading, everyone! Please post any feedback you have in the forums. We’re continuing to improve this column with the help of your feedback, and as you can see, your comments have already made a difference from last week. Let us know what you did or didn’t like, and we’ll try to take your comments into consideration in the future.

Good luck from either side of the matchup!

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com

Gavin Verhey
Rabon on Magic Online, GavinVerhey on Twitter, Lesurgo everywhere else