Observe & Report

Harry Corvese tells you why he’ll be sleeving up U/W Control for the Standard portion of the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas, Nevada this weekend.

Philadelphia Airport

The view from the corner of the Philadelphia airport where I have chosen to deposit myself is quite spectacular for a man of my interests. I’m a people watcher. Actually, I’m an observer, and people just so happen to be the most interesting subjects to observe. So it’s with great pleasure that I sit here (or anywhere really) watching life pass me by in its many forms. Whether I see a mother corralling her child or a man making storage use of both of his shirt’s breast pockets, it all serves the greater purpose of provoking my thoughts.

I’m sure that this has something to do with why I enjoy playing control decks so much. There’s no better spot from which to observe your opponent than behind a wall of cards. Not coincidentally, there’s also no better subject for observation than an opponent riding the rollercoaster of their draw step. The storylines are tremendous and filled with heartbreak, joy, and complete and utter indifference. The best part is that my ability to discern the meaning of what I observe has a direct impact on my ability to win.

And I love winning almost as much as I hate losing.

Imagine my excitement then when I saw William Jensen playing in Dallas-Fort Worth what was quite clearly the latest installment of Andrew Cuneo’s control deck. 

Nothing screams "Andrew Cuneo" quite like an Elixir of Immortality.

In the final hours of Friday evening before Grand Prix Albuquerque a few weeks back, I attached myself to a conversation between Cuneo, Huey, and Owen Turtenwald. In the process I got my first look at what would become the U/W list for #GPDFW, and I’m still kicking myself for not jumping on board right then and there. The first time I saw U/W was after I had been eliminated from the last Invitational while watching a feature match between Max Tietze and Reid Duke. Max defeated Reid, who was playing Esper Control, and I remember being impressed with how smooth and simple the U/W plan played out. As with all Magic game plans, the devil is in the details, and I had just finished losing in a series of hiccups with my own version of Esper. 

The next day I won the Standard Open after settling on an Esper list I was more comfortable with, and complacency set in hard. I was a winner, my deck was still legal, and I didn’t give U/W another thought until I saw Cuneo’s deck sheet. At that point it was all too easy to brush that off as information that I couldn’t catch up on in time for it to be effective, but I sold myself short. I had been observing Cuneo’s control strategies ever since I saw this beauty in San Francisco two years ago:

And even had some success with it myself:

Andrew made some fun of me for playing a single copy of White Sun’s Zenith, which he referred to as "training wheels" for players who couldn’t follow the formula for winning the game that he’d spelled out in the deck’s design. I imagine that he’d extend a similar reprimand to anyone attempting to junk up his current list with an Aetherling or another copy of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. You know what, while I’m here speculating, I also imagine that the one Elspeth currently residing in Andrew’s deck is something of a necessarily evil that he silently curses every time she shows up in the first fifteen cards of his library. You can also see that I didn’t even play the Elixir of Immortality—what a fool I was.

But if the devil truly is in the details, then the beauty of Andrew’s designs is their simplicity. 

The fundamentals are clear:

Lesson 1: Your opponents will be doing things. It is your responsibility to answer every single thing they do until they have no more things that they can do. Once this is completed, you need to begin answering the things that they could potentially do until you have an answer to every conceivable thing that they could possibly do. Then the game is over.

Lesson 2: In order to achieve the goals set out in Lesson 1, you will need two things: lands and cards. Do not keep a hand without enough lands. Do not keep a hand without a way to get ahead on cards (Supreme Verdict counts in certain matchups). You want your lands to come into play untapped and without damaging you so that you can cast your spells on time and without being dead. You also want to manage your drawing of cards so that you rarely if ever have to discard due to hand size. I imagine that the most powerful wizards are able to navigate their games in such a way that they never have to discard to hand size and always have seven cards. This is living the dream.

Lesson 3: Elixir of Immortality is "inevitability" in a single card. Once you have mastered Lessons 1 and 2, you will learn the power of Elixir of Immortality. The inconspicuous little artifact literally means that you cannot lose the game to some unconventional means unless the Elixir finds its way into your graveyard for good. You may notice the Buried Ruins included the Elixir plan back in 2011, but don’t mistake this for a sign of fragility. The reason they were included at the time was to fight the presence of Nephalia Drownyard. These days it really is quite difficult to get the Elixir with a Thoughtseize or win a counter war over a one-mana spell, making things much safer than they used to be.

Lesson 4: Winning the game. Technically due to Elixir of Immortality, the deck doesn’t actually need a way to win the game. However, due to such factors as the round clock, the Elixir mirror, and the possibility of losing game 1, a smattering of things that can do lethal damage to the opponent are included. A single Elixir plus Mutavaults equals infinite Mutavaults. A single Elixir plus Elspeth equals infinite Elspeths. As things come to pass when your opponent has nothing at all, a Mutavault is more than enough to produce a kill, and an Elspeth is simply egregious.


There is something sacred about a Las Vegas hotel room the morning after your first night out with the depraved and viscous animals that run this town. As I push the button that slowly opens a blackout curtain hiding the wall of windows behind my desk, the sun of the early afternoon falls upon my laptop. Only a few hours remain before my deadline for this article, and I am reminded of the Fear and Loathing this town has seen in its past.

"Every deadline was a crisis . . . No doubt it has something to do with a deep-seated personality defect or maybe a kink in whatever blood vessel leads into the pineal gland, but I couldn’t imagine—and I don’t say this with any pride—but I really couldn’t imagine writing without a desperate deadline." –Hunter S. Thompson, The Paris Review, Fall 2000

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I am sleeving up U/W Control this weekend for the Standard portion of the SCG Invitational. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to chat with some players about what changes should be made to a list that has recently become public, but the prospect of registering the same 75 as Huey from last weekend is very real. It seems like Counterflux would play a very large role in a control mirror involving Elixir of Immortality, but I’m not sure what changing the deck to play red cards would do to the other matchups in the format. 

For Legacy, I plan to play the Sneak and Show list from my last article with an additional copy of Misdirection over a Spell Pierce and two copies of Gitaxian Probe over the Preordains. I was not very impressed with Preordain at Grand Prix Washington DC last month and like the sound of Gitaxian Probe in theory, so eventually I will sit down—possibly with a Venn Diagram—and determine which of the two cards is better and why. 

For now, though, it’s time for the second night in Vegas . . . where the real fun begins.