One Step Ahead – U/B Control In Both Formats

I set out for SCG Nashville with one goal: Play flimsy U/B do nothing control decks in both formats and try to win as few matches as possible. (Not really.)

I set out for SCG Nashville with one goal: Play flimsy U/B do nothing control decks in both formats and try to win as few matches as possible.

OK, well maybe that wasn’t my goal, but it certainly happened.

For Standard, I wanted to play a Draw-Go deck with as few win conditions as I could afford. Dissipate, despite being only slightly better than Cancel, is actually very good in the format. As long as you have enough hard counterspells in your deck, building a control deck that can lock the game up tends to be easy.

The easiest part of control decks is physically winning the game and signing the match slip. I think we can all agree that gaining control in the first place is the difficult part. The second hardest part is probably maintaining that control, especially with the various angles of attack most decks have today.

Back in my day, they used to have creatures, usually paired with either burn spells or counterspells. In U/G Madness vs. Mirari’s Wake, if U/G drew two Circular Logics and an aggressive curve, it was tough to beat. With Psychatog vs. R/G, Tog would usually stabilize at ten life, and the R/G deck would struggle to burn them out before Psychatog went lethal.

These days, a control deck has to fight crazy permanents like Shrine of Burning Rage, Koth of the Hammer, and manlands. It’s not like back in the day where you could load your deck with removal and lifegain to beat red decks, or removal and Duresses to beat Fish decks.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that not only are those permanents tough to remove, but they are also insane! How many turns can you let a Koth stay alive before you are dead? Two? That’s a sick clock, and one that not even the mighty Wild Mongrel could compare to.

Even if you sweep their guys with a Day of Judgment, they can easily peel a Koth and be right back in it. That wasn’t the case before. If you stabilized, that meant that you were stable. The game was effectively yours as they were close to drawing dead.

I’ve had several games in Legacy and Standard where I get my opponent to no hand and no board with a fistful of removal, and still died. What happened in those games, you ask? Well, they probably drew a spell that “destroy target creature” didn’t beat.

One of the many problems with playing answers instead of threats is that there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers. If you have Divine Offering in anticipation of their Shrines, but all they’re drawing is Hero of Oxid Ridges, you’re dead. If you have Swords to Plowshares and they draw Jace, you’re dead.

The great thing about Dissipate being good is because when you get into those positions, what you really need is something that answers everything. A hard counterspell will typically do that, but after you cast that Day of Judgment, do you really have counter mana open for their sandbagged Koth? Chances are you don’t.

However, when you get into those situations where you can Day and still have Dissipate mana available, it feels very nice. Sometimes after you Day of Judgment on turn four, they don’t have the follow-up Koth. At either point, you are a heavy favorite to win. You just can’t stop the top of the deck.

Both Legacy and Standard decks I played are wildly similar, despite their formats being very different. I’d sculpt a game plan, execute it, and put them down to nothing, but end up losing convincingly. It’s frustrating sometimes, but that’s just how things are. You either need to kill them with a gigantic monster before they can recover, or lock it up somehow. Neither option is very realistic.

In Standard, Grave Titan is likely the best finisher, assuming you’re not milling yourself into a Sun Titan shopping spree. When you add these six-drops to your deck, it becomes more unstable. A Grave Titan in your opening hand is never a welcome sight. Sometimes they kill you with some threat before you even get a chance to cast the Titan. In that game, it was a virtual mulligan. You may as well have started off with six cards.

I hate that. I don’t like mulliganing, and I definitely don’t like virtually mulliganing because this fattie only does something when I’ve managed to stabilize. They don’t feel necessary. If I had another answer or card drawer, I probably would have stabilized without the use of a six-drop, so why play them at all?

I wanted to play this:

The “glaring” weakness that nearly everyone pointed out is that I wouldn’t have enough time to finish three games. Honestly this sequence doesn’t take very much time:

Draw, land, go.

Kill or counter that. Done?

Untap, draw, land, go.

Kill or counter that. Done?

If you’re used to this style of deck, and you can figure out on the fly what’s threatening you, your turns shouldn’t take very long. Most of the low or medium-level control players assume that since they are playing control, they have the right to take a lot of time. After all, their deck is supposed to be “slow,” isn’t it? Your matches will take a few turns—that much is for sure, but that doesn’t mean you should further compound the problem.

Over the past five years, I probably average one unintentional draw per year. I’m not LSV or PV fast, but I don’t play slowly. There’s no need to. Once you play enough with your deck, you should know instinctively what’s threatening you.

Understandably, some players like to take their time, and that’s fine. Typically, I’m compensating for my opponents who think more than I do, rather than rely on intuition, and that’s fine as well. If someone were to play a tap-out style U/B Control deck, I’d be fine with that as well.

My peers all mentioned the deck’s inability to close games, which got me thinking about the theory behind it. I built a tap-out U/B deck, and it looked solid. After thinking about it, U/B Tap-Out actually seemed better positioned than U/B Draw-Go. It made me sad to put down the exact style of deck that I love to play, but I’m not really one to pick and choose my deck based on what I like playing. I like whatever wins (see: Valakut).

This is what I came up with:

Some things may look a little strange—three Snapcasters, Pristine Talisman, and a sideboard with a bunch of unplayable cards?

RDW and Solar Flare are the two big decks in Standard. Against RDW, I want to be a tap-out deck. Counter or kill their first two threats, cast a Grave Titan, and you should be well on your way to victory. Against Flare, tapping out is very dangerous. Against them, I’d rather build up incremental card advantage and Snapcaster/Dissipate all their spells. I think that most of the games, you are going to beat them down with two-power dorks.

Red is more dangerous and is certainly the deck you can’t give away any edge to. If you start down a game because you went with the Draw-Go route, you aren’t favored to win the match. However, having a sick sideboard against Flare means that you are still in it.

Birthing Pod and Tempered Steel were concerns. I wanted to fit a second Steel Sabotage, but couldn’t make room. I wanted everything else in my sideboard more. Tempered Steel is still a powerful deck, but Birthing Pod is on the decline, and few people are playing both. Those are probably the next best decks that exist though.

Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy provide a strong engine, but I’m of the opinion that they don’t quite fit in this shell. I considered Divination or some other form of card drawing, but I knew that this engine was “better” and played well with my post-board Solar Flare plan. Against RDW and Tempered Steel, I often sided out my Think Twices and two Forbidden Alchemies. Assuming things are going well, I would use my mana every turn against them and wouldn’t have a chance to cast those cards.

Ratchet Bomb is a “good” card, which is to say that it’s not bad. It’s just not up to snuff with what’s going on in the format. Of course I’d like to have Oblivion Ring and considered splashing just for it, but I wanted to keep it “pure” and play straight U/B.

Vs. RDW, Chandra’s Phoenix, Koth of the Hammer, and Shrine of Burning Rage are the cards that give you issues. You can counter all of those cards, but typically, you are tapping out to deal with the threats they have already presented. Eventually, a Koth will sneak through.

With no Creeping Tar Pit, Koth is a huge issue. I turned to Witchbane Orb to solve these problems. If you’re facing down a Koth, you probably want to wait until they use his ultimate before you play it; otherwise they’ll keep hitting you with Mountains. Since you now have hexproof, they can’t burn you to bring back their Phoenixes, which was what sold me.

The main issue here is that I’m presenting things like Pristine Talisman maindeck, so they are going to have Manic Vandals or Ancient Grudge. Things seemingly get worse when I’m sideboarding Batterskull as well, but for the most part, I’m trying to overload them on things they must kill. I’m keeping in my Mana Leaks, and they could just not draw their three Manic Vandals or however many Ancient Grudges they want to board in. It seemed like the best plan. The other option was splashing for Oblivion Ring or becoming a U/W deck that splashed for Forbidden Alchemy.

Pristine Talisman was a little piece of technology bestowed upon me by underrated deck designer Ben Dempsey. He was talking about a U/W Control deck that played four and how he’d end several games at over 30 life, and it was intriguing. I decided to give two a try in my tap-out deck, both because I wanted an accelerator and a source of life gain.

The best turn to cast it is probably turn four with a Mana Leak or Doom Blade, and using that to ramp you into Grave Titan. Turn three Talisman plus Dismember is fine as well. Other than those sequences, Talisman doesn’t curve out particularly well in the deck, which was kind of an issue. Often, it would take your whole turn, and for little gain. Against decks without burn, I didn’t mind siding them out, but it was still a fine card. Going forward, I would probably consider playing more and building my deck a little differently.

My tap-out strategy was fine, but very hit or miss. It was one of those decks where you needed to curve out in the correct way in order to have a shot. Based on that, I think I would rather play RDW, which is far more powerful when you’re curving out correctly. Clearly they are doing different things, but they both rely on having specific draws. Naturally, RDW is a better deck when it’s operating out of sequence, whereas the U/B deck is very awkward.

The removal suite could probably be whatever you want it to be. I liked Ratchet Bomb as a catchall, not necessarily a sweeper. Black Sun’s Zenith was my sweeper of choice, although it was very awkward on the draw vs. Stromkirk Noble. The difference between Doom Blade, Dismember, Go for the Throat, and Victim of Night isn’t all that important.

Round one, I faced off against my sworn enemy: Red Deck Wins. I managed to stabilize game one, except he had a Shrine that was slowly ticking up. I dug with Forbidden Alchemy but couldn’t find a Ratchet Bomb in time. Finally, I found a Pristine Talisman while on ten life, and his Shrine was on nine.

I played Talisman and passed the turn, while he ticked up his Shrine. He launched it at me, and I gained a life, which surprised him. I flashed back Alchemy, found a Grave Titan, and passed with Titan in play and Dissipate in hand. He untapped and launched two burn spells at me.

Game two, I played some removal, a Talisman, a Titan, and he was dead. Easy as that.

In the final game, I kept Sorin’s Thirst, Witchbane Orb, Grave Titan, and land. I figured that if I drew any other spell that interacted, I was probably in business. Instead, I drew all lands, and he curved out perfectly. Maybe I should have mulliganed?

That match set the tone for the weekend. I think I played well, especially in the Talisman vs. Shrine situation, but sometimes it just didn’t matter. It just wasn’t my weekend.

I lost a few more matches but defeated another RDW on the way. After that, I dropped to play the Legacy Challenge with a U/B Snapcaster Mage deck. Cutting Tarmogoyf is something I wasn’t sure about, as he seems like the glue that holds the entire deck together.

Once you cut Tarmogoyf, your stranglehold over random creature decks vanishes. If they have a couple Kird Apes bothering you, you really need Tarmogoyf to give you that virtual card advantage. Without a giant blocker, you’re pressured to kill every single threat they play. As a solution, I came to Tombstalker, but he was a little on the slow side.

So I decided to play Dark Ritual to power him out.

Did you find the Dark Rituals? You should probably click on the card you don’t recognize, in this case, Mental Note.

Not only does it make Tombstalker cost three less, making it potentially castable on turn two, but it also fills the graveyard for Snapcaster Mage. While there is some tension between delve and flashback, you should think about it in a different way. With all the cheap spells, you are filling your graveyard for profit. Snapcaster and Tombstalker both take advantage of a full graveyard, so you should focus on filling it.

I played the challenge with the full four Mental Notes because I wanted to gauge exactly how much I liked them. They were fine, but I wanted the third Jace back in the deck, which I had to cut to make room.

The main change I made from last week, aside from cutting Tarmogoyf, was to also cut Hymn to Tourach. I’ve explained why I don’t think Dark Confidant is very good right now, and I especially think that now with Snapcaster Mage effectively giving control decks more removal spells. You just need to be interacting in the early turns.

If they play one-drop, two-drop, and you cast Hymn, you fall so far behind in tempo if they have any follow-up that your card advantage doesn’t matter. That’s where Tarmogoyf is supposed to come in and hold the fort, but without those, and no good sweepers, you’re just dead.

Spell Snare seems better than Hymn to Tourach right now. The format is revolving around two-drops, and Spell Snare banditizes their tempo. Counterspell is a solid backup and makes up for the lack of disruption that Hymn provided. The combo matchup becomes a little worse, and I definitely want the Hymns in the sideboard.

Being straight U/B is very nice. Without the necessity for BB and G, you don’t have to play all dual lands. Playing four basics is easy. If you’re not trying to play the attrition game with Hymn to Tourach, Wasteland becomes a little worse because they aren’t as strained for resources. I’d much rather have Mishra’s Factory that combines with Snapcaster or Vendilion to provide a solid clock. They also play the Tarmogoyf role vs. small creature decks.

Creeping Tar Pit is awesome. Being a dual is cool, and it doesn’t get Choked, which is a very good card right now. Unblockable is a very underrated ability, and the opportunity cost is so small. I’m surprised that more people aren’t playing them.

Riptide Laboratory is just plain adorable. Snapcaster Mage has lived up to the hype, and by extension, so has Riptide Laboratory. If using Snapcaster to rebuy one removal spell is good, so should blocking and doing it again. I’m only playing one because it’s not my main plan. It can’t be because of how fast the format is, but it’s something to look forward to in the late game.

There’s a little more tension between Ancestral Vision and Snapcaster Mage, in that you can’t flash it back. However, these blue decks full of cheap counterspells and removal need some way to keep the cards flowing. Gaining minor value from Snapcaster isn’t enough, Hymn-ing them isn’t good enough, and Jace can be too mana intensive. Ancestral is still very good in Legacy.

I went 3-1 in the challenge after playing against four mono-blue decks. High Tide was super easy, and Merfolk was kind of close, but I still felt favored. In game three in one of my matches, I did lose to a mulligan to four.

I was on the play and Thoughtseized him, taking his only spell, leaving him with Island, Island, Wasteland. My Creeping Tar Pit seemed valuable, so I played an Island next, hoping to induce a Wasteland activation.

It worked, but he also played an Aether Vial. Silvergill Adept drew him into a second Wasteland, and his draw step provided him with a third. My Snapcaster Mage blocked a Lord of Atlantis, but a fourth (!) Wasteland set me back to just an Island.

A Coralhelm Commander later and I was dead.

But how’d the real tournament go?

Round one I faced off against Dave Thomas. He’s Asian, therefore super smart, was playing Dredge, a very powerful deck, has done well with Dredge in the past, and we made a bet that if he made top eight, he would pass his physical copy off to me, and I would have to play it in the next Open. He also started the Wendy’s food chain.

Needless to say, I was intimidated.

Game one wasn’t close, as without Tarmogoyf, I have no real shot of winning a fair game. My opening seven had a Leyline in game two, and I was able to counter a few Echoing Truths and play Jace. In game three, my hand had


Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Force of Will



He was on the draw, so Thoughtseize would Time Walk him if he was on the draw-plus-discard plan. However, his hand was so robust that he was able to fight through my two disruption pieces and start dredging. I was conceding on turn three, even though I Dismembered my own Mishra’s Factory to kill some Bridge from Belows.

After that, I beat a Cephalid Breakfast deck and lost to Brian Kibler Junk deck. Kibler had no hand and three mana to my four spells, and I still lost. He’s so dreamy.

Overall, my weekend was not very good, as I also lost playing for top eight in the draft challenge. Thankfully, I can live vicariously through my friends. In this case, I’m referring to Bobby Grave, who made top eight with my Legacy U/B deck, and others like Brian Braun-Duin, Chris VanMeter, and (dare I say it?) Todd Anderson who made some top eights. Nice job, boys!

Standard is wild and crazy. I don’t think these Solar Flare decks are as good as the results indicate. Flare seems like an easy matchup for U/B. I think Nihil Spellbomb goes a long way, which Caleb Durward seemed to also realize.

Thankfully, Brian Sondag crushed the tournament with his Wolf Run deck, and now we have three pillars of the format. There are so many other ideas that I need to try out. 4c flashback, Mono-Black Infect, U/W Blade, Wolf Run Ramp, and hell, even RDW are decks that I’m considering playing for States this weekend. I’m in Virginia now, so look for me in Richmond!