Playing Control In A Red Meta

It looks like the early Standard will be run by red, but Shaheen isn’t worried! He has the list to stare mono-red in the face with Islands and live to tell the tale! Control mages should check this one before SCG Indy!

After diving into Ravnica Allegiance Standard this week, I
immediately noticed some aspects that don’t bode well for the control decks
I enjoy playing the most. In Guilds of Ravnica Standard, I crafted
a version of Jeskai Control that utilized Treasure Map for Niv-Mizzet,
Parun, but didn’t contain the other midrange elements that my friend Adrian
Sullivan conquered a Grand Prix with. Control decks that seek to end the
game with just Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and/or Niv-Mizzet, Parun, will
have a tough hill to climb starting out.

I made this tweet after most previews were released and it’s aged quite
well since then. Standard is tough for good soldiers when there are four
Lightning Bolt effects, but somehow there are eight after the mega rotation
of Kaladesh. When Lightning Strike was printed, the red mages
rejoiced, and we got hit with a minor wave of sadness. Lightning Strike is
the epitome of the development crew’s ultimate vision of creating an
aggressive utopia where creatures battle and spells deal damage. Three
damage for two mana is Modern playable, so the power level in Standard is
exceedingly high.

Even with Lightning Strike and no Doom Blade or Mana Leak, the format was
in a pretty sweet spot. We aren’t far removed from the horrors of Mono-Red
Aggro’s dominance, winning back to back Pro Tours and ultimately having to
have two cards banned in order to allow both creature and control decks a
fighting chance. Mono-Red Aggro is the easiest archetype to keep under
control from an R&D perspective, with the main tasks being curve
consideration, power level of one-drops, and the efficiency of the burn
spells that aggro fans have access to. There are other obvious nuisances to
keep in mind, but if these key elements are the framework, this narrow
strategy can be balanced.

Having access to Lightning Strike and Wizard’s Lightning was fine for the
Standard that’s ending next week. Even though they had a handful of
powerful burn, the building requirements to keep a high Wizard population
was a fair drawback. There are some great Wizards in Mono-Red Aggro, but
not enough to keep your creature type unique to that strategy. The red push
died down heavily, mainly due to the weakness of Goblin Chainwhirler and
company against Wildgrowth Walker. Golgari Midrange, Mono-White Aggro, and
Jeskai Control all had pretty good matchups against them, making it tough
for decks with only Mountain as their basic land type. That momentary
plight is about to end with the release of Ravnica Allegiance next

Skewer the Critics is the card that will put red over the edge. It may not
be just a Mountain deck anymore, as Rakdos Aggro has all the tools to
provide intense pressure and a long reach to finish the job. It still
wouldn’t be possible without access to twelve Lightning Strike/Lightning
Bolt effects that make other creature decks look silly in the early game.
It may shock some of you that I want to stand up for our brothers and
sisters playing creatures, but it’s for good reason. The health of Standard
depends on the playability of aggro, midrange, and control. The reasons why
Memory Jar, Tolarian Academy, and Ramunap Ruins were banned were vastly
different from each other. The first two examples I gave happened back when
I started my Magic journey, making the third kind of a joke as the power
level of Ramunap Ruins and Rampaging Ferocidon are laughable in the history
of the banned list, but when red decks are too oppressive, the format
suffers badly.

It’s far too early to whine about banning something, as well as declaring
the format a red wasteland. There’s plenty of time to discover the perfect
Selesnya counter or a control deck with a painless manabase that can handle
the early onslaught of aggression. Any deck that we decide to launch into
the new format must be prepared for a metagame that will want to smash our
face with silly, little creatures, efficient burn, and a bunch of copies of
Light Up the Stage. This one-mana Divination may see play in older formats
because it has been absurd in Standard at the beginning, and I think that
one of these upcoming sets should allow the color wheel to return to
normalcy. This doesn’t mean we’re getting Brainstorm back in blue, but it
does allow the best card draw spells to come back to where they belong.

Where Do We Go From Here?

This breakdown of red-based aggro was not just a rant piece. When we’re
building a control deck with it in mind, we must change certain elements in
order to be competitive in the format. I was guilty of continuing to
struggle against Mono-Red Aggro with Grixis Control last year, and it
pushed me to jam Multiform Wonder in the sideboard in order to accomplish
the mission. It worked to some extent, which gives me hope in Ravnica Allegiance Standard. In a worst-case scenario situation,
there may be four copies of Lyra Dawnbringer in all my decks as well as
some copies of Cry of the Carnarium in the maindeck to halt the blitz
headed our way. There are many different ways to tweak the Esper Control
I wrote about last week
, but I did want to post a completely different model for those who lean
toward a more traditional take.

These two versions of Esper Control play out vastly different from one
another. Both fit my preferred playstyle, but the goal of the newest
version is something I have been very excited to achieve. In testing, Esper
Angels has felt much stronger against red-based aggressive strategies in
comparison to my original Esper Control list. This is to be expected with
less shocklands, a more consistent wrath effect, cheaper spells, and some
lights-out creatures at the end of the curve. Lyra Dawnbringer and Seraph
of the Scales are both very killable, but they have not met their demise
often in this control shell.

Thought Erasure has played a huge part in ensuring the safety of the mythic
Angel’s entrance in both the middle and end of my matches. Usually I would
snag the general, most threatening card out of my opponent’s hand, but that
dynamic has changed with the addition of VIPs that need protection. I often
take their answer to Lyra Dawnbringer and proceed to take over the game
with the other control weapons at my disposal. Thought Erasure is still the
number one reason to dip into Dimir and remains the best way for a control
deck to interact with any matchup. I have yet to sideboard out one copy,
and I don’t plan on doing so with what I’ve seen in Standard so far.

Dovin, Grand Arbiter was a nice addition in the original Esper Control list
when battling against the old decks that would roam the top tables. When
landing the early planeswalker against Golgari Midrange, Izzet Phoenix, or
Jeskai Control, it would take over the game very quickly. These decks are
still here, but they will all take a backseat to the new players that are
crashing onto the scene. Red-based aggro punishes us for tapping our mana
prior to turn 5 with anything that doesn’t kill or counter their threat.
Even though Dovin, Grand Arbiter protects itself, it’s just too weak
against the heavy burn decks and those that decide to go wide with
creatures. I must admit that I respect the flavor involved with Rakdos
barging into a calm, respectful metagame and messing everything up! This is
what these red folks do, and it is up to us, lore and all, to maintain
order from the control perspective.

I love Notion Rain as a card draw spell, and it saddens me that I won’t be
able to show you all the power of it when I attend one of the first
Standard events. If red-based aggro didn’t receive a one-mana Divination
and more Lightning Bolts, it would absolutely be in any Esper Control list
I pilot in Ravnica Allegiance Standard. In the meantime, I’m using
Thought Erasure, Search for Azcanta, and 26 lands to ensure I get to land
number five. I also have one copy of Treasure Map in this Esper Angels
list, which helps get the job done as well.

The beautiful side effect of a red wave in the upcoming format is the
absence of Carnage Tyrant. Green players would have to be out of their mind
to run a bunch of six-drops in their maindeck, which gives us the leeway of
having our answers in the sideboard. The maindeck of most players will
respect the aggressive nature of Ravnica Allegiance Standard,
making our midrange matchups easier in the process.

With the smoother manabase, Kaya’s Wrath moved to the sideboard and was
replaced by Ritual of Soot. In a format with a bunch of cheap creatures,
Ritual of Soot will get the job done most of the time. There should be
fewer giant creatures that cost more than three roaming the battlefield,
and it makes our Lyra Dawnbringer plan much more effective. It’s tough for
control decks to run fragile win conditions that fall to their own removal,
and I’m still going to push for an Esper Control deck with four Kaya’s
Wrath in the maindeck at some point, but I’ll have to wait for a few weeks
while the format evolves to address its aggro problem. Just as Mono-White
Aggro was pushed off the throne, red-based aggro will have the metagame
gunning for its seat. When that occurs, Kaya’s Wrath is going to be the
sweeper the format fears.

There are some small tweaks that must be done in any deck when you want to
ensure victory over decks that contain burn. Moment of Craving is our best
answer in the early game to deal with threats while padding the life total
in the process. It has been a passable removal spell against Golgari
Midrange as well, making it less of a dead card than some would expect.

Cast Down is still the head removal spell in charge on turn 2, but having
that split covers our bases when addressing the different threats we may
face. There are legends that roam the multiverse, and Cast Down will not
take care of business there. Lucky for us, Judith, the Scourge Diva has
only two toughness and falls to Moment of Craving as easily as most of her

The sideboard still looks close to the original list because I haven’t been
able to predict the exact metagame that we will be facing next week. I
never put hours of thought into a fresh format’s sideboard until I have the
data to confirm my suspicions. At this point, the cards in each sideboard
help defeat the decks of old, with a few new choices that I believe will
pop up. Expect some updates on social media as I get into countless hours
of Ravnica Allegiance Standard on Magic Arena this weekend.