Positive EV – Control in Standard

Claim your territory at The 2009's State and Provincial Championships!
Tuesday, November 17th – Aggressive strategies abound in the current Standard format, on the broad back of Jund. With no Reflecting Pools around, it seems that multicolored Control is not an option… or is it? And if multicolored Control has indeed fallen, does Control have any other tricks up its ample sleeves? Manu investigates…

Worlds 2009 is being held later on this week in Rome. The format that people will prepare most, including me, is Standard. As you probably know, I have been trying to find the best control deck in the format. There are several reasons to play control, and I tried to optimize my decks to take advantage of these reasons.

First of all, it is very hard to include all the good control cards in a deck right now. It might have been possible for the entirety of last year, thanks to our access to Vivid Lands and Reflecting Pools, but if your “Vivid Lands” produce only three colors and your “Reflecting Pool” enter the battlefield tapped, and even require a mana to stay alive, your manabase becomes very slow, clunky, and fragile. Therefore, I don’t think it’s possible to have a deck that includes Baneslayer Angel, Day of Judgment, Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt, Esper Charm, Cruel Ultimatum, and something to fight Planeswalkers. The most obvious control approach is WUr, supporting the above in-color cards with Ajani Vengeant, Mind Spring, and some of the usual counterspells (Negate, Essence Scatter, and Double Negative). The deck is able to win any matchup, but the majority of the metagame has the edge. You are not happy to face any of the three major decks: Boros, Jund, or Eldrazi Green.

Emeria, the Sky Ruin
I cannot post our list for this deck, because a friend of ours is very likely to play it at Worlds. The Mono-White deck can support a ton of removal to be able to deal with very fast starts from Boros and the early game of Eldrazi Elves. Dealing with the late game of the latter deck is far more difficult. Both Planeswalkers and Eldrazi Monument are difficult to handle, and you don’t have enough of your most obvious answer: Oblivion Ring. Emeria, the Sky Ruin — the main reason to run the deck as Mono-White — is fantastic against Jund, and it wins a ton of games pre-board. In post-board games, the majority of Jund decks will destroy that plan with Goblin Ruinblaster and so your main reason to run this deck is not good enough to justify playing it. If you cut the Emerias and add another color to the deck, it doesn’t help a lot either. Emeria is the major card advantage engine, and you need to be able to get ahead in cards against Jund. Blue’s most obvious sources of card advantage, Divination and Mind Spring, are just not that good in a format as fast as this.

Still, we tried to build a UW deck, and have a deck where Mind Spring is awesome, but the deck was not able to compete against Ranger of Eos or Eldrazi Green.

If you missed any of the articles telling you why to run Magosi, the Waterveil in such a deck, I will recap the positives in a few words. It is very useful to ensure that your opponent can’t throw down a game-winning threat like Eldrazi Monument or Garruk Wildspeaker. It is pretty harmless to give your opponent an extra turn after you sweep his board with Day of Judgment and have Negate back-up. Obviously, you won’t be able to abuse this mechanic in every game, but in the scenarios in which it arises, it is game-winning.

Therefore, with the extra turn allowing you to power out a huge threat and then untap for protection, you would love to add Cruel Ultimatum to such a deck. Speaking of which…

Cruel Ultimatum
We all know how powerful this card is. In many of the Control decks, the manabase required to cast the Ultimatum is pretty mediocre, and often you can’t cast it with seven lands because you want to be able to support cards like Day of Judgment, Baneslayer Angel, or Path to Exile. In addition, post-board games can get pretty awkward if your opponent is boarding in Goblin Ruinblasters. Playing on Magic Online, we found a Cruel-Ramp list that optimizes casting Cruel Ultimatum, and ends up having a fine matchup against most variants of Jund.

The deck has really good results against most Jund variants. They are very unlikely to deal with all the threats you are throwing at them, and all their removal spells don’t have a big impact on the game. As the deck doesn’t stand the heat of Boros, or the insane amount of creatures Eldrazi can produce in the early game, the sideboard includes cards like Pyroclasm and Earthquake to deal with those archetypes. Sadly, the Jund matchup gets a lot more difficult in post board games. They usually have a fair mix of Duress and Thought Hemorrhage instead of blanks. Overall, the deck is a lot of fun to play, and it has a fair amount of equity against the metagame. Sadly, “a fair amount” is just not good enough for a deck to be played.

Another approach to the Cruel Ultimatum strategy is Robert van Medevoort’s Cascade Control deck from the Zendikar Game Day. The Cascade engine lets you be able to fight against Jund, and with Maelstrom Pulse you have a good solution to Eldrazi’s major threats. Without being able to defend yourself in the early game, as you don’t have access to any removal spell in the first few turns — and therefore you don’t want to play Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile, as your first land enters the battlefield tapped anyway — you have a lot of trouble against Boros. And, as with any deck running Rupture Spire, you don’t want to face any Goblin Ruinblasters in post-board games. If you haven’t seen the list yet, I think it’s a very interesting approach to Control in the format, and definitely worth trying.

I tried the Cascade deck from the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Nashville earlier this month, but I couldn’t figure out how to win against either Boros or Eldrazi Green. Therefore I don’t think it has a place in the metagame… even though it might be the most effective deck for fighting Jund.

As you can see, a lot of the Control decks have a very strong creature base, which is not the best approach for Control in Magic. The creatures, and the cards supporting these (mainly Planeswalkers), are so much stronger than most non-creature tools that Control has on offer. If you want to run cards like Baneslayer Angel, GW decks are much better at supporting the card than any Control deck, as you are playing other threats which your opponent has to handle, and you allow them to run out of removal before you cast the game-winning Angel.

In conclusion, it is simply too difficult for the Control deck to deal with all the threats people are offering. The majority of decks have Planeswalkers, which are hard to handle in a Control strategy. A lot of the beatdown decks have much better card advantage engines than your own. Jund has a really good Cascade engine, supported by Blightning and Garruk Wildspeaker. I am positive you are able to build tons of Control decks that beat Jund in the first game, but your edge usually drops a lot in the post-board games. Goblin Ruinblaster, Duress, and Thought Hemorrhage make your life miserable. Boros is running Ranger of Eos, which gives them a late game plan against which you have a lot of trouble fighting, and the third big deck in the format — Eldrazi Green — has a ton of Planeswalkers and the Eldrazi Monument itself. I would be very surprised to see a Control deck rise to the top of the Standard standings at Worlds. And I would be very interested to see what we missed in the archetype to make it good enough to compete with Boros, Jund and Eldrazi Green.

A deck that is fairly popular on Magic Online is Crypt of Agadeem Unearth. There are several deck lists, mainly focusing on Cycling guys, Hedron Crab, and Unearth guys. It is a matchup you are very unlikely to win if you don’t have any graveyard hate in your sideboard. If you don’t know the decklist, I am sure you won’t have trouble finding it… as this is only a side note, I won’t post it in this article. The possibility of facing that matchup is pretty much the nail on the Control coffin for me, and therefore I won’t be running Control in Rome. I am really happy with my actual deck choice, and for the first time this year I have a really good feeling about my deck. More about that next week!

When I was writing about Zendikar Limited with Olivier, in the first article we were discussing White and Blue cards, and I mentioned that I wasn’t drafting White very often. This changed a lot when I wanted to get some practice with White, and thus I forced the color in a fair amount of Magic Online drafts. The main difference between the ranking I have now and the one I had in the article is Kor Skyfisher. The card is much better than I assumed, and it is even higher in my ranking right now. I don’t think I would pick any of the commons over it, and I am unsure if it’s better than Shepherd of the Lost or Kazandu Blademaster. I hope I don’t get in that situation at Worlds…

Thanks for reading!

Manu B