Tapout Control

Pro Tour Amsterdam finalist Brad Nelson writes about why tapout control is a good strategy to play in the first week of Standard after set rotation and shares list to start from.

Wisdom begins in wonder. –Socrates

The days of old are coming to an end as new life is birthed from the Gods of Theros.

That is all the Vorthos you are getting out of me for a very long time. Obviously Theros is rich in flavor, but I could really care less right now. I’ve spent the last month trying to get a leg up in Standard and have nothing to show for it besides 66 Qualifier Points on Magic Online for a MOCS I won’t even be home to participate in! Karma is a . . . can I even say that word, Cedric?

Bonus points to anyone who knows why 66 is a relevant number to me.

All I know is I’m so happy that Innistrad and M13 are rotating out. Innistrad was easily my favorite block of all time and I thank everyone who had a helping hand in its development, but all good things must come to an end. I will always love you, Innistrad, but the Gods have cometh!

So where do we begin? Theros is not entirely spoiled yet, making it very difficult to go really in depth with what Standard is going to look like. Some very powerful cards have been spoiled, but the nuts and bolts for these engines are still a mystery. Instead of speculating, I’m going to talk about something I have wanted to write about for years:

Why I love tapout control!

"What is tapout control?"

Tapout control is a type of control deck that tends to be much more proactive than the more traditional variations of the archetype. Instead of trying to react to every play the opponent makes, tapout control decks often try to overpower opponents with tons of removal, planeswalkers, and creatures. Tapout control decks have the ability to attrition out aggressive decks but often are able to control the game just long enough to start slamming game-ending spells. For reference, these are the last two tapout control decks I built post-summer rotation.  

"But you always say you hate control!"

This is true! I am not the biggest fan of the traditional control decks that get played. I am, however, a fan of being proactive. There really is only one time of the year that you can be proactive and be a control deck, and that is right after a new block rotates in.

My greatest skill in this game is my ability to metagame in Standard. I put a lot of time into researching and preparing for specific tournaments and always strive to find the one angle I can exploit. This is the main reason why you see me playing rogue strategies at many of the events I go to.

This is not possible when a new set just rotates in. There’s no metagame to exploit. You can speculate what the metagame will be, but for the most part it’s just random. Players show up with whatever they feel like. The only thing that most of these decks have in common is that they all tend to be fairly proactive.

It’s difficult to not bring a proactive strategy to the table during this time. No one really knows what people are going to play, so it’s difficult to have all the answers. It’s much easier to simply present the problems and be proactive.

Since the format is so up in the air, it’s impossible to have sideboard cards to interact with fringe strategies. Most aggressive decks hedge in these scenarios and play cards that can be boarded in the highest number of matchups. They also tend to lean towards having more removal than necessary in the sideboard since there is such a wide variety of creature archetypes and so little control.

Even the control decks tend to bring more removal than necessary. The threats are so varied, making it almost impossible to know exactly what you’ll face. Too many counterspells can be the demise of any deck trying to win with Sphinx’s Revelation in an open format. Dedicated control tends to be tapout control’s toughest matchup, but that isn’t even true during this period of time since most dedicated control decks are playing way too much spot removal. It’s easy to sneak powerful planeswalkers or other threats into play and eek out advantage that way.

All of this boils down to not wanting to be too wrong. There is no way to figure it all out during the first week of Standard since there are just too many things people are trying. Instead of trying to figure it all out and have answers for everything, you can take the other route that is available by playing extremely powerful cards and trying to go over the top of every opponent. Even if you bring the "wrong" cards to the tournament, they are still very powerful spells that can sometimes get there. You also have access to catchall type effects that allow you to have a high number of good cards in an array of different matchups.  

So let’s put this theory to work when looking at all the information we have so far about Theros Standard.

There are two things you want to look at first when initially researching a new small Standard.

1. How Fast The Format Is

The most important thing to figure out is what the fastest deck in the format is. It’s crucial to discover this deck and play against it. It’s extremely likely that it will be found and written about, making it very appealing for the masses to play. Any deck you build should be able to interact with this deck and have a good matchup. If you can’t find a deck that can do this, then it’s probably correct to call it a day and join the party yourself.

That said, I already think that deck has been discovered. Obviously things will change a little since Theros isn’t entirely spoiled, but we have a rough shell to start with.

Mono-Red Aggro got a significant upgrade in Forge[/author]“]Purphoros, God of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]. This card might not be as aggressive as Hellrider, but it has some serious staying power. Not only is it fairly easy to get enough devotion to turn him into a creature, but his abilities are also superb if the game goes long. I expect great things from this card for its entire duration in Standard.

2. Fixing

It’s crucial to know what the mana is going to look like. We don’t know what the land cycle from Theros is going to be yet, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume they aren’t better than Guildgates. This means that the aggressive decks may only have shocklands for "good" fixing.

This makes it very difficult for the true beatdown decks to be multiple colors. Not only is the mana mediocre, but they will also have to ignore the powerful devotion spells that Theros provides. This means that the most aggressive decks will be monocolored, making them very susceptible to mass removal outside of the Gods they worship. Outside of Mono-Red Aggro, we will probably see Green Stompy and White Weenie type decks pop up.

Mono-Green Aggro by Brad Nelson

4 Experiment One
4 Elvish Mystic
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Kalonian Tusker
3 Scavenging Ooze
4 Witchstalker
4 Reverent Hunter
3 Bow of Nylea
2 Nylea, God of the Hunt
3 Kalonian Hydra
1 Garruk, Caller of Beasts
20 Forest
4 Mutavault

Two-color aggressive decks are possible, but I expect them to be roughly two turns slower than their monocolored counterparts. These decks will also probably lean more on the side of midrange than pure aggro.

G/W Midrange by Brad Nelson

3 Experiment One
4 Elvish Mystic
4 Voice of Resurgence
4 Fleecemane Lion
3 Scavenging Ooze
4 Loxodon Smiter
4 Advent of the Wurm
2 Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice
4 Archangel of Thune
4 Selesnya Charm
4 Temple Garden
4 Selesnya Guildgate
9 Forest
7 Plains

Midrange and control decks can get away with playing Guildgates since they are not under pressure to play too many spells in the early game. Even though any tapout control deck I build will be three colors, I have a hunch that three colors might be rough. Not only does it mean you have to play a high number of shocklands and Guildgates, but it will also be subject to many of its lands catching fire.

Good thing there’s a card to the rescue!

Now this is exactly what a hexproof creature should look like! Finally Wizards figured it all out and gave the good guys a hexproof creature. This card does the opposite of its predecessors and actually encourages interactive games.

This card might be the missing link for decks that would suffer without Farseek or other mana acceleration. Not only can it block some of the early creatures in the format, but it fixes and ramps at the same time.

This is not a deck we should expect to play against week one, but it’s a good starting point. The last thing we need to do is figure out what the most damaging cards people might play against us are. This is the short list:

Rakdos’s Return
Sire of Insanity
Domri Rade
Burning Earth
The God Cycle
Stormbreath Dragon
Hammer of Purphoros
Underworld Cerberus
Xenagos, the Reveler

The list goes on and on, but for the most part it is clear that permanents are the major issue moving forward. This makes me really want to focus on ways to deal with them. Detention Sphere is the first thing that comes to mind. This card cannot stop hand disruption, but those tend to be the hardest cards to beat. The best way to fight these strategies is to have enough proactive elements to be able to get on the board before these cards get online.

Here is the first draft of a tapout control deck I would start working on.

It looks very similar to what Team StarCityGames played at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. Bant Control tends to be a good strategy for open environments since it relies heavily on proactive cards, which is perfect for week one. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion fits perfectly into the strategy. Not only does this planeswalker help kill the larger creatures, but it also creates a steady stream of creatures that can either block or finish the game. The card also holds its own against Assemble the Legion until a Detention Sphere can be found.

One of the more interesting things I want to explore is the interaction between Lavinia of the Tenth and Progenitor Mimic. This became a combo with the change in the legend rule. If you play Progenitor Mimic and copy Lavinia of the Tenth, you will lose the original copy of the card but get another trigger, stopping any aggressive deck in its tracks. Upon upkeep, you simply choose to keep the Progenitor Mimic copy of Lavinia but still get the come into play effect. This permanently locks out an aggressive deck from attacking (or blocking) as well as the planeswalkers they’re playing. I don’t know exactly where this combo should be, but I have a feeling we’ll see it sooner or later.

That’s all I have about tapout control this week. I will be sure to revisit this theory when we get closer to Theros being entirely spoiled.

P.S. Has anyone made a Joan Osborne joke about Theros yet?