Thirst for Knowledge – Cruel Control for a New Standard

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Series Comes to Nashville!
Wednesday, November 4th – This week I’m going to switch gears back to Standard, a format that has been admittedly a little stale for me the past few weeks. The problem is that Jund has literally been the only deck people seem to want to play since Zendikar was released, with the rest of the crowd battling with fringe decks like Mono-Red and Vampires…

This week I’m going to switch gears back to Standard, a format that has been admittedly a little stale for me the past few weeks. The problem is that Jund has literally been the only deck people seem to want to play since Zendikar was released, with the rest of the crowd battling with fringe decks like Mono-Red and Vampires. My Cascade Control list was working fine for a good while, but over time we began to see more and more of the Pyromancer Ascension decks taking off, and clearly a cascade list that focuses on gaining card advantage with Maelstrom Pulse and pals probably isn’t going to do too well against a deck sporting both countermagic and Cruel Ultimatum. So, as always, back to the drawing board.

Cruel Control has been attempted many times since the latest set came out, but it hasn’t posted very strong results as of yet. Still, there is hope for the archetype. In fact, there is a tremendous amount of. It’s basically like this: had Jund not been playing Anathemancer pre-rotation, would Five Color have ever honestly lost to it? The answer is definitely in the “absolutely not” range, and that’s a good indication that casting Cruel Ultimatum and Esper Charm side-by-side is still not only viable, but downright silly.

So the Jund deck that is terrorizing Standard plays zero copies of Anathemancer, but they typically do play Goblin Ruinblaster. Ruinblaster is the obvious choice for their sideboard because it’s far more effective against the other decks than Anathemancer would be, and so the decision is fairly easy for them. However, Ruinblaster is about a million times easier to deal with than Anathemancer, and a simple counterspell (even a slow one, like Double Negative) can neutralize it. Counterspells have been more or less absent from this format as a whole, but they’re still surprisingly effective if you approach them correctly. Double Negative, in particular, is such a brilliant spell that it’s a wonder that we haven’t used it much up to this point. Obviously it’s no Cryptic Command, but it’s a versatile and game-breaking spell against cascade spells. It makes the games versus Jund actually fair, which in and of itself is reason to play four copies. Negate and Essence Scatter are awful, but at least they’re only two mana and can address a lot of the problems a deck with a slow manabase will have in the first few turns.

Before we get in too deep, it’s important to think about what we’re trying to accomplish. Cruel Control has always played the “best” cards, and as such we should see exactly what those are. Obviously first and foremost is Cruel Ultimatum, and that readily locks us into blue, red, and black. In those colors we get blue’s countermagic, Terminate, Lightning Bolt, and Jace Beleren. That gives us a very healthy amount of answers and card-drawing, but we’re still going to need more. Terminate and Bolt are among the best of the best when it comes to removal (in the game even, not just Standard), but they don’t do much against Sprouting Thrinax. And, to tell the truth, you need to be able to beat Sprouting Thrinax. The best solution to that creature is certainly Celestial Purge, but Path to Exile would also be a great choice that isn’t a do-nothing against decks without red or black permanents. White also gives us Ajani Vengeant and Esper Charm, two cards we’ve learned to love in the archetype and certainly wouldn’t turn away. Lastly, white allows us access to Day of Judgment, the one card I missed the most when playing Cruel Ultimatum in non-white control decks. It may be slightly inefficient against Jund decks, but it’s very strong against Vampires and other beatdown strategies.

Green, sadly, sucks. Well, at least for our deck — we don’t really want to be cascading, and we also don’t want to need RGB on turn 3 to drop a Thrinax of our own or have to splash just for Maelstrom Pulse. The only real reason to play Green would be to play Great Sable Stag, but there’s virtually zero incentive to do so. With no Faeries in the format, what’s the point? Green seems pretty awful in our control deck, as the only control card in that color that I’d even want to explore would be Nissa Revane who is clearly out of place in our deck. So quite quickly, green is out.

Blue, Red, Black, and White. Now comes the challenging part: making the mana work. There are no filter lands, and certainly no lands that make this work without entering the battlefield tapped. That being said, we’re looking at being a turn behind (on average) for most of our spells. This isn’t necessarily the end of the world, as one can’t expect too much more out of a deck playing all the spells that we’re attempting to play, but it is relatively distressing given how fast the format is. What it does mean, though, is that we’re going to need to take care in building the deck to ensure that we have enough to do in the early turns (that is, playing more Lightning Bolts over Terminates so we can deal with creatures before turn three). That shouldn’t be too big of a problem, but it’s something to keep in mind. Moving on, let’s look at the lands we need to play.

4 Rupture Spire – Not surprisingly, we’re going to have to play four of these. While they’re far, far off from Reflecting Pool, Rupture Spires can actually make even the shakiest manabases work pretty well given it literally produces any color of mana. The downside is that, unlike the other tapped lands, it doesn’t allow you to have mana open on turn two to play Path to Exile or Lightning Bolt. That’s an issue, but since we’re only talking about four lands in the deck it’s less of a problem than it initially appears. Furthermore, it’s pretty worth the extra work because being able to reliably cast spells is a very nice thing to be able to do. Naturally.

4 Arcane Sanctum — Blue and Black are very important to the deck’s mana, and Esper Charm is a spell we want to be able to play on turn 3 as often as humanly possible. Arcane Sanctum does a fine job of that, and I don’t think I’d ever argue playing any less than four.

3 Crumbling NecropolisCruel Ultimatum is these three colors, and Double Negative needs Red mana early, as does Lightning Bolt. We don’t need four because of the next land…

2 Jungle Shrine — Though it doesn’t produce Blue, Jungle Shrine gives us early Red and White mana, which not only lets us fire off Paths, Purges, and Bolts, but also Ajani and Day of Judgment later in the game.

2 Scalding Tarn, 1 Marsh Flats, 1 Arid Mesa — Fetchlands are kind of awkward in a deck with such few basic lands, but you’re going to need them in order to consistently hit your colors. This configuration I saw in one of the lists in Team Revolution’s forums, and I found it worked better than what I had been working with (3 Tarns and 1 Mesa). I never liked playing the one Swamp, but after shuffling up it seemed much more intuitive than I had initially expected. Because I changed the fetchland configuration, I also had to scrap my original mana, and I ended up liking this one better anyway.

2 Glacial Fortress — There let us cast Day of Judgment and also serve as dual lands that might not enter the battlefield tapped. Whee!

4 Island, 2 Mountain, 1 Plains, 1 Swamp — Goes without saying, yeah?

So that leaves use with this manabase:

4 Rupture Spire
4 Arcane Sanctum
3 Crumbling Necropolis
2 Jungle Shrine
2 Glacial Fortress
2 Scalding Tarn
1 Arid Mesa
1 Marsh Flats
4 Island
2 Mountain
1 Swamp
1 Plains

Blue: 19 lands
Red: 14 lands
Black: 13 lands
White: 15 lands

With this manabase, you’re going to be able to play most of your spells on time and efficiently. The biggest issue is going to be playing Cruel on turn 7, as with 4 Islands, 1 Plains, and 2 Glacial Fortress it isn’t too hard to imagine a situation where you’d have too much blue or white to keep you off of Cruel mana, but this deck will have the means to stall until turn 8 or 9 to effectively “win the game” anyway.

Next, we need to decide how we plan to win the game. Baneslayer Angel jumps out as the best choice, as it simply ends games with two swings most of the time, but considering how much hate Jund has packed into it sideboard for her these days it might be better to try something else. Patrick Chapin suggested Sphinx of Jwar Isle a while back, and I think he was correct about that card: it ends the game just as quickly, but it also blanks all the removal in the opponent’s deck. Knowing the top card of your library is also pretty cute, but I’m definitely more interested in the 5/5 shroud bit.

A 5/5 flier is nice and all, but that won’t do it on its own. We’ll need four Cruel Ultimatums as well, as that way we can even play one Sphinx and still be fine. I realize that playing a single win condition is a bit risky, but I think it’s okay given that we’ll have four ways to retrieve it as well as Lightning Bolts and Ajani Vengeant. Chandra Nalaar is also a card that I think is absurdly strong in the current format, and so adding her into the mix makes it pretty clear that we aren’t going to need more than one Sphinx to win games. We’ll also be able to draw it fairly consistently, as with eight draw spells in addition to Cruel it shouldn’t be too much of a chore.

Double Negative will be headlining our counter suite, but that’s really a given. It may be a tad slow, but it’s such a strong card that you won’t even notice. Negate is important, but we aren’t going to need four until game 2 when we’ll be staring down Blightnings from even the control decks. I think two or three maindeck is enough, which allows room for Essence Scatter if we’d like. Essence Scatter is probably just worse than a removal spell in the current Standard, but I’m not opposed to countering Thrinax rather than being forced to throw a Bolt at it. In this case, the miser’s Scatter is at least justifiable. Blightning is a maindeck card in Jund, and as such I could see wanting to play three Negates over the miser’s Scatter, but it’s hard to tell how often one would be drastically better than the other.

As for removal, a good mix of Path, Purge, Bolt, and Terminate is in order. Path is a fantastic card, but the problem is that it puts the Jund decks on Ruinblaster mana a turn before you can reliably deal with it, and so I’d rather stick with Purge and Bolt in game 1. Terminate is pretty essential at dealing with cards like Malakir Bloodwitch, so I’d recommend a few of them maindeck and maybe even more post-sideboard. Ajani Vengeant and Chandra take center stage as your best late-game removal, and both even double as win conditions. How nice!

Jace and Esper Charm do what they do best — draw you cards. They’re as efficient as ever, and I’d of course want to play four of each. Jace is slightly weaker than he has been given that we often won’t be able to protect him well, but even if he draws you a single card he holds off potential damage and digs you toward your Cruel Ultimatums. It certainly could be worse.

All things considered, we’re left with this:

A quick guide to sideboarding:

-2 Terminate
-2 Celestial Purge
-1 Essence Scatter
-1 Lightning Bolt
-1 Island
-1 Glacial Fortress

+1 Obelisk of Alara
+1 Ajani Vengeant
+2 Negate
+2 Identity Crisis
+2 Magosi, the Waterveil

You’re going to need to keep Day of Judgment in so that you don’t just lose to their Sphinx, but otherwise taking out all the spot removal (save Bolt, as it also hits Ajani and Jace) lets you bring in more win conditions and additional Cruel Ultimatums (a.k.a. Crisis).

-4 Jace Beleren
-2 Day of Judgment

+4 Flashfreeze
+2 Celestial Purge

This match-up should be fairly easy. They can win if you’re out of answers to multiple Ruinblasters, but you have lot of tools to beat Blightning and Ruinblaster and Double Negative does a number on cascade. The strength of this archetype lies in its ability to beat Jund and have good game against the control decks as well.

Pyromancer Ascension:
-2 Terminate
-4 Lightning Bolt
-1 Essence Scatter
-2 Ajani Vengeant

+2 Negate
+4 Flashfreeze
+2 Identity Crisis
+1 Obelisk of Alara

It’s reasonable to keep Ajani in for this match-up, but in my experience he tends to die very quickly and tapping out that early leaves you open to some bad beats. Purge remains in to mise hitting Ascension, the card you just can’t beat. In general, you’re the better control deck, and if you stop them from getting that card into play (or online) you’re going to win. Magosi is fairly useless in this match-up because you’re never going to be “draw-go” with them, but cards like Crisis and Obelisk allow you to be proactive against them.

-4 Jace Beleren
-2 Negate
-1 Double Negative

+4 Flashfreeze
+2 Celestial Purge
+1 Day of Judgment

-4 Jace Beleren

+1 Negate
+1 Day of Judgment
+2 Celestial Purge

Both Vampires and Bushwhacker are fairly straight-forward and easy match-ups, but they are distinctive to play against. Versus RW, you’ll want all of your Flashfreezes, but against Vampires you need Negates for Mind Sludge. Both are very susceptible to Day of Judgment, however, and so it’s important to bring the additional one in for both match-ups.

Cruel Control may not be the absolute best deck in the format, but it’s much stronger now than it was a month ago due to the number of Jund decks and “creatureless” decks (i.e. decks that hate Negate) running around. Moving forward, it might be necessary to play a second Sphinx over a Cruel if you find yourself not finding it very reliably, but in my testing I was usually able to find it in time without much of a problem. The thing is, ninety-percent of the time when you win with this archetype you aren’t attacking with your finisher until you’ve Crueled once or twice anyway, and generally that will be enough to find your finisher and get into the red zone. Chandra serves as a very efficient finisher though, too, as after you’ve ten’d them with Cruels is becomes pretty easy to get her to eight counters to seal the deal. It’s also not too bad of an idea to play an Obelisk maindeck, but the problem is that it can be Pulsed, and the idea was to blank as much of Jund’s removal as humanly possible. Still, with or without the second finisher added to the deck, Cruel Control is shaping up to be a real contender. The mana is slow, and the wins themselves will be slow, but they’ll come. Lots of them.

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
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