Positive EV – Control, and Sarkhan the Mad

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Philadelphia June 5th - 6th
Thursday, May 27th – Control Mages appear to be on top of the heap in Standard, but Manuel Bucher believes that the New Control ain’t like the Old Control. He discusses the archetype today, and shares his thoughts on the under-appreciated Sarkhan the Mad, a card he feels is screaming to be built around.

The Pro Tour is just a few days away. Unlike previous Pro Tours, I am already pretty sure of the deck I’ll be sleeving up for the event, and I am happy with my choice (or as happy as you can be before an event, I guess). For the previous major events in which I played, I moved away from casting spells that draw cards and destroying all the creatures in play, and moved towards semi-aggro or aggro decks. This evolution is not random, and is simply based on my changed view of Magic.

Creatures get more and more powerful, while non-creature / non-planeswalker spells stay at the same lever, or even get slightly worse. There’s Vendetta/Terminate as reprints, which are some of the most powerful targeted removal options. Day of Judgment is worse than Wrath of God, and most countermagic is simply awful.

Since I started playing Magic, I’ve always enjoyed drawing more cards than my opponent. In particular, I love having access to more cards than my opponent. So it is no surprise I played control the majority of the time, and that Teachings in Time Spiral Block Constructed might be my favorite deck of all time. For the past few sets — maybe since the release of Lorwyn — control has not had access to the most cards. Planeswalkers, Man Lands (which “cast a spell” whenever you have the mana), and a slew of four-mana 3/2s with value (Ranger of Eos and Bloodbraid Elf) give creature players access to more cards (and we can count the Planeswalker abilities as cards), alongside better ways to fight those particular cards. This is one of the reasons I’ve been moving towards playing beatdown in any format I am touching (yeah, I never play Vintage). In addition, both playing with and against beatdown seems to be more complicated nowadays. While you might pump your Putrid Leech all the time when you face a control deck, against other creature decks you have to think about using the Leech’s ability very carefully. Both pumping and not pumping the Zombie at the right moment might easily cost / win you the game. Expecting what your opponent might reveal with Bloodbraid Elf is also more important when you are playing guys yourself, and putting yourself in the best position, not only against the elf but also against the card it is revealing, are not the easiest decisions. If you add Man Lands to the board, you see complicated game states very often, while the games that include a control deck usually don’t create such game states. This wouldn’t be important if the majority of the players you are playing against were playing perfectly, but since there are only very few (if any) players that play the majority of their games perfectly, forcing your opponent to make mistakes, or to enter a guessing game in which it is difficult to make the right decision, is winning games on its own. And forcing your opponent to make those mistakes is very important in a game that is as luck-dependant as Magic. So for me, the control deck has to be much better than the decks that generate a complicated game state in order for me to play it. I expect that forcing my opponent to misplay will win me more games than a slightly more powerful deck, and I am pretty sure that the best beatdown deck right now is better than the best control deck, in both Standard and Block Constructed… But I guess that Grand Prix: Washington disproves this, and Pro Tour: San Juan will probably do the same.

In Time Spiral Block Constructed, the majority of the action you had was instant speed, or could be at instant speed (the Pacts). Nowadays, the majority of the action now is sorcery speed in the majority of decks, trying to overwhelm your opponent’s strategy. Rare versions of decks using a lot of counterspells have trouble fighting all the card advantage that beatdown has available. Beatdown, somehow, is also better suited against whatever new your opponent might play. All your cards are so powerful that you can place any strategy in trouble, while modern control builds don’t have access to good counterspells, and the majority of library manipulation is not very good (yeah, aside from Jace). In control, it’s hard to have good solutions against both random strategies, the best beatdown decks in the format, and a decent match up in the mirror. (Gideon Jura, however, is a step in the right direction here.

Answering the majority of the threats has become a lot more difficult. Sure, Oblivion Ring deals with majority of guys and can also wax a Planeswalker, and any instant-speed spot removal can deal with Man Lands and the majority of the creatures. But you need to draw the right mix, or overwhelm them with big spells, to win games. I am happy that a deck like Blue/White Tap Out Control is Tier 1 in Standard, since I wasn’t able to find a decent control strategy for the last Pro Tour, and without a deck like this, the format would be one-sided and boring.

Nowadays, Magic is really fast, and it is hard to find reasons why you want to survive the early turns and start casting big spells. It’s not Counterspell fighting Volcanic Hammer anymore; nowadays, you have to fight Lightning Bolts with Cancels.

In the end, it is also important to enjoy the deck you play in order to have success, and fun, especially over a long period of time.

One type of card that gives beatdown players a bigger edge than in the early days of Magic is the Planeswalkers. For obvious reasons, they will always be better suited in beatdown decks, and easier to fight for them than against them. One of the Planeswalkers that has attracted my attention lately is Sarkhan the Mad. I really wanted to make the card work for the upcoming Pro Tour in San Juan. The short version? I wasn’t able to do so. There are several reasons for this. Unless you already have a board presence, you won’t be able to either protect him or gain an immediate big advantage, which is unlike the majority of the other excellent Planeswalkers. Not having an ability that adds loyalty counters to the card also really hurt the card, keeping it from being incredible. One of the Planeswalkers’ big edges is that if you have several turns with them, your opponent is very unlikely to win, and you can eventually cast a big Ultimate ability which always ends the game. With Sarkhan, not only doesn’t your opponent have to deal with the card (since it will eventually deal with itself), the Ultimate ability can also be easily stopped by a removal spell. And if it doesn’t get stopped, it is threatening a Lava Axe. The majority of my work with the card was with Green, to both accelerate into the mad Planeswalker and to get some guys that we can sacrifice (Growth Spasm and Overgrown Battlement are the best examples). Even when I had, in theory, a powerful draw where I cast Sarkhan on turn 4 with one of the above accelerator creatures, it was usually far from winning games against any deck I played. Even the most popular control deck (Blue/White) didn’t have a lot of trouble against that start. Both their Planeswalkers would easily fight the Dragon token, and then your Planeswalker would eventually die by himself, while theirs (Gideon Jura or Jace, the Mind Sculptor) need an immediate answer from you if you want to win the game. Against aggro decks, especially Mono Red (which is one of the popular aggro decks in Block), it is difficult to gain use of the Dragon-generating ability, since you don’t want to use it when your opponent has mana untapped, when a Burst Lightning could easily kill your action immediately. Also, once again, having the Planeswalker on the board is no threat to the beatdown player at all. He doesn’t need to be attacking it, and usually can kill it whenever he wants since it is really hard for you to have him survive with no defensive ability at all, and a suicidal card advantage ability.

Instead of building a deck around Sarkhan, the other possibility is having the Planeswalker as a supporter in a deck that is already there. The most obvious choices in Block seem to be Mono Red and Vampires. While Vampires already has a ton of good late-game drops to choose from (Malakir Bloodwitch, Mind Sludge, and Sorin Markov, among others), it is hard to justify a splash for a less-than-excellent card that doesn’t have a lot of synergy with the deck. Mono Red could profit from the Black splash, since it would give you the possibility of dealing with Kor Firewalker. But the color fixing would really hurt your tempo, as all the dual lands enter the battlefield tapped, and you don’t have any Red/Black fetch lands. That fact alone would lead towards a deck that is built around Sarkhan.

As the Grand Prix in Washington DC is proving, the card can definitely have a support role in some decks (and I am actually surprised to see it in Jund; I am still not convinced that it is better than Garruk Wildspeaker in the deck). But as it’s a card that screams “build around me,” it is disappointing.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Control deck built around Sarkhan the Mad doing very well at PT: San Juan. But time will tell. If you’re player that is not playing the event, and wants to spend some time playing an interesting Constructed format, I would suggest you take a look at Zendikar/Rise of the Eldrazi Block Constructed. From what I’ve seen of the format so far, it seems like you could do a lot of good things, and there are tons of options in all the popular decks. I hope the Pro Tour doesn’t prove me wrong, and that we don’t see one deck steamrolling everything in its path. Unless it is the deck I’m playing, of course.

Thanks for reading, and wish me luck at the Pro Tour!

Manu B