The Icy Grip – Playing Control: The Basics

Wednesday, January 12th – Shaheen Soorani is the U/W Master, so suit up his latest decklist (0 Preordains) and come to SCG Open in San Jose! Soorani teaches you to eat, think, and breathe like a control player.

Greetings again, fellow mages! I’m starting off the New Year with something a bit different in flavor. Most of my previous articles have involved building, metagaming, and tweaking strategies for U/W Control decks. Today however, I’m going to speak a little bit about how to

the deck rather than how to build it.

Knowing how to play your deck is perhaps the most important part of Magic. It’s what separates 0-2 drops from Top 8s, men from boys, the frustration of loss from the exhilarating feeling of being a champion. No matter how unbeatable a deck is, it takes the right plays and a little intuition to take it to the top. So, with that in mind, today’s article will focus on how to play U/W Control rather than how to build it. At the end of the article will be a little quiz. This quiz will be designed to stimulate conversation and will not have any true “correct” answers. For the purpose of this article, this is the decklist I’m currently using.

So we’re ready to play U/W Control and win ourselves a PTQ or SCG Open, and we have our finely tuned U/W Control deck. What now? Let’s start with what you should know for every match in every competitive tournament. There are four simple rules.

Rule 1:

Never trust your opponent!

I cannot stress this enough. While there are very few real cheaters out there, Magic is an extremely complex game, and people forget minor rules constantly. You must always watch your opponent and make sure that he or she is playing the game by the rules. This brings me to my next rule.

Rule 2: If you ever have any doubt about something, call a judge!

Not sure the exact wording on that Asian language card? Call a judge! Not sure how some two-card interaction works? Call a judge! Not sure how your opponent still has seven cards in hand when you Mind Twisted him last turn? Call a judge! Judges are your friend, and their job is to keep the game fair and balanced.

Rule 3: Before each game, shuffle your deck until you feel it’s randomized, then shuffle it two more times!

This goes for your opponent’s deck as well. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve watched an opponent mana weave or “shuffle” his deck whilst leaving the same seven cards at the top. When an opponent presents his deck to you, it’s your duty to shuffle it.

Rule 4: Come prepared!

Bring a few dice for planeswalkers and determining who goes first. Bring a pad and paper, so you can keep

life totals and any other useful information during the match.
Do not

trust your opponent to keep such a vital statistic as the life totals by themselves. Now that we have the very basic rules for every match, let’s look at some generic strategy.

Pop quiz: What’s the first thing you should do when your opponent says “your turn?”

If you said untap your lands and draw, you’re incorrect. If you said examine the board state, your hand, life totals, the amount of time in the round, and any other known information, you would be correct. You should always be aware of the world around you. Say your opponent tapped out and is at seven life with no flying creatures. Many players will forget to stop and look at the board state. Those same players would miss the fact that they have two Celestial Colonnades ready to kill their opponent that turn and would instead play a nice, juicy Jace, the Mind Sculptor, only to lose the game two turns later when the opponent topdecks the perfect spell. Games are won and lost by who makes better use of the information available to him. How many cards are in your opponent’s hand? What are the life totals? Does your opponent control any manlands? If you don’t know the answer to these, chances are you’re not going to win. Let’s look at some more detailed strategies for certain archetypes you’re likely to see in the format.

Let’s start by looking at the deck that dominated the Standard portion of Worlds, U/B Control. How do we play against a deck that plays at a similar tempo and, more importantly, has a similar number of planeswalkers and threats as us?

The answer is simple. Resolve Jace 2.0 and protect him to win the match. Control mirrors aren’t won quickly; they’re won by card advantage and by who can keep their threat on the board. In this matchup, that threat is Jace 2.0. Often, the optimal play is to stall until turn 6 with Ratchet Bombs, Tectonic Edges, and Jace Belerens and then can cast Jace 2.0 with either a Mana Leak or a Spell Pierce to make him stick. After that, you simply Brainstorm/fateseal your way to victory. The cards that should worry you in this match are Duress, Preordain (sarcasm), Creeping Tar Pit, and opposing Jace 2.0s. Luminarch Ascension makes game 2 and 3 an easier win for you.

The next deck we’ll examine is your typical aggressive decks in the form of B/R Vampires, R/W Landfall Aggro, and Kuldotha Rebirth. The main goal of these decks is to beat you to within burn range with their creatures and finish you off with direct damage. A simple yet effective strategy and the bane of many inexperienced control mages. You won’t beat these decks quickly.

However, our deck has many tools designed to make this fight easier. Our main goal against creature-based aggro decks is to stall the game as long as possible while keeping our life total as high as possible to avoid random kills. Ratchet Bomb and Wall of Omens are your best friends here. In this match, throw everything you can at your opponent in the early game; do whatever you can to
keep the board clear of creatures.

Without an army of creatures, aggressive decks look pretty silly. Day of Judgment on turn 4 if you feel like it will stop their assault. You’ll always win in the long game because of quality cards such as Gideon Jura, Sun Titan, and Baneslayer Angel. Most games are simply a question of “will I live to turn 6?” Sideboarding is also very simple with Kor Firewalker being the answer to almost every aggressive strategy.

The third set of decks that you’ll likely battle against consists of the various builds of Primeval Titan ramp. These decks win by accumulating a large amount of mana or lands and killing you with a threat that’s very difficult to deal with (Valakut and large colorless creatures). While the aggressive deck is faster than you in that it plays plenty of threats, this deck is faster than you in that it will play much more expensive late-game threats that are simply too difficult to deal with.

While we have maindeck answers to every threat in the format, we cannot hope to have these answers in our hand ready to play each time the threats show up. So in these matches, our objective is to slow our opponent down as much as possible while we search for our answers. This means wrathing away two Overgrown Battlements, Tectonic Edging Eye of Ugin and Valakut, and sending Joraga Treespeaker on a Journey to Nowhere as soon as humanly possible. It also means holding a blue mana open to Spell Pierce a Summoning Trap on turn 6 or when you Mana Leak that pesky Primeval Titan. Keep your opponent off his mana, and you’ll emerge victorious.

Now that we have some basic strategies, let’s look at some scenarios and see what the boards think.

1.            You’re playing against Kuldotha Rebirth aggro. Your opponent has four cards in hand and a Goblin Chieftain in play with two Goblin tokens. Your opponent is at fifteen and has killed Gideon Jura with his attack. He says “go” with five lands untapped. You’re holding a Journey to Nowhere, a Mana Leak, a Gideon Jura, a Baneslayer Angel, and a Wall of Omens, and you have six lands on the board. What do you do?

2.           You’re now playing against U/B Control. Unfortunately, they followed your strategy and resolved a Jace 2.0 while Spell Piercing your Mana Leak. This opponent then fatesealed you and left the card on top. You’re reasonably sure that it’s a land because you have eight out already. Your opponent is at eighteen life. All is not lost however because your opponent only has one card in hand, no creatures except for two Creeping Tar Pits and three mana open. You have one Tectonic Edge untapped, and your hand consists of Jace 2.0, Jace 2.0, Mana Leak, Sun Titan, Day of Judgment, no Preordains, and a Seachrome Coast. You’re at four life. Your opponent ends his turn. What do you do?

3.           You’re now playing against Mono-Green Eldrazi Ramp. This opponent has out no creatures other than a Joraga Treespeaker with one level counter on it. He has three Eldrazi Temples and a Forest in play however and a full grip of seven cards. You have two mana untapped out of five and are holding Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, Day of Judgment, Tectonic Edge, Baneslayer Angel, and Jace 2.0. You have only basic lands and a Jace Beleren in play with two counters. Your opponent taps out to cast a Primeval Titan. What do you do?

That’s all for this article, folks. I hope you learned something and contribute some solutions in the message boards or via email to the problems I’ve presented you with. As always, I welcome any comments. Until next time!