I’ve typically written articles that identified the best control cards prior to a new set being released. This time around, I wanted to get weeks of additional testing before making the bold claims that you will see below. This article will not only identify the best cards for control enthusiasts in Theros Beyond Death, but it will also point you in the right direction for deck placement. These rankings take into consideration the power in the current metagame, as well as the potential a card has moving forward.
Predicting some heavy hitters of a new format is one of the more enjoyable activities of a strategy writer; however, intense testing after the full set release provides concrete data. Each card that I have identified below has been tested and approved by the Esper Professor. This rigorous process has pushed some cards that I thought were going to be format staples far down, or even off the list, while others have soared. That is the beauty of a healthy Standard and the effect a shifting metagame has on even the most powerful cards out there.
I had high hopes for Theros Beyond Death and I was not disappointed. There are new card advantage, removal, and game ending spells that changed the dynamic of control for as long as this set remains Standard legal. After a long slump in the control world, we are back in business thanks to these cards.
10. Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis
Crashing down from the mountaintop is Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis. After extensive play testing in Azorius and Esper Control, this planeswalker has not passed the four-slot test. Control has been missing a powerful, tap-out threat on Turn 4 for quite some time and it will continue to carry that burden.
Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis isn’t a bad card and it will always have a spot in a slow-moving Azorius Control deck as a one-of. Therefore it made the Top 10 list, as it has curve appeal in a slot that has no other options. The threats it produces are meaningful, but the negative loyalty each turn doesn’t do it any favors. At this point in the metagame, it lines up poorly against opposing planeswalkers and creatures. I’m happy I own a couple copies, but I would not expect it to be a three- or four-of anytime soon.
9. Temple of Deceit and Temple of Enlightenment
These two Temples come in at number nine, as their assistance to the mana base has propelled Azorius Control to new heights. Esper Control didn’t receive too much assistance, due to the twelve shocklands that come stock. Using those shocklands, Fabled Passage, the recent utility lands, and at least five basics, doesn’t leave a ton of room for Temples.
I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so thank you for completing the Esper shard’s mana requirements for future decks. When shocklands rotate, we will be very happy that the entire cycle came through. The viability of control rests in the mana base, as the spells stay relatively consistent throughout.
8. Erebos’s Intervention and Eat to Extinction
These removal spells were some of my preview home-runs, but quickly struck out as the format began to solidify away from the Gods. The requirement to exile a creature was removed from my deck builder’s guide when the community decided to not play any of the new indestructible creatures in Theros Beyond Death.
Erebos’s Intervention is still a very powerful card and will see play in Standard at some point soon. The second mode doesn’t have a great deal of appeal, but any choice built into a card is helpful. The secondary mode is paired with a wonderful, murderous life-gain ability, making Erebos’s Intervention very constructed playable. Eat to Extinction was going to be a long-shot, but still deserves to be in the conversation if destroying creatures doesn’t get the job done.
7. Ashiok, Nightmare Muse
I knew this planeswalker was going to be powerful and it did not let me down. There was a movement on social media to propel Ashiok, Nightmare Muse to the level of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, but I did not drink the Kool-Aid on that one. On the surface, it gets the job done on Turn 5, better than any other option out there but it turns out that it had a little hidden competition that we will be discussing towards the end.
The emergence of Mono-Red Aggro as one of the premier Theros Beyond Death Standard decks caused Ashiok to plummet out of favor. It’s a solid all-around card, but at five mana it doesn’t affect the battlefield enough to stave off an onslaught of aggression. In a slower format, this will be a staple for Dimir users.
6. Omen of the Sea and Medomai’s Prophecy
Some of these rankings have a shared title and it is because the cards are too alike to separate. Omen of the Sea and Medomai’s Prophecy are prime examples of cheap card draw that has made control successful in the new Standard. Although Omen of the Sea gets a little more love, Medomai’s Prophecy is the more potent option for tap-out control decks.
Omen of the Sea hits with flash, provides an easy avenue to hit land drops, and feels great with Teferi, Time Raveler later in the game. The additional Scry 2 is that small perk in the fine print that compelled me to play it over Medomai’s Prophecy in Azorius Control. If I were to play a control deck that actively applied pressure to the hand and the battlefield, rather than counter everything, Medomai’s Prophecy would be my weapon of choice. Drawing two cards for two mana is amazing and just requires a deck style that differs from the current Azorius Control builds today.
5. Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths
Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths has done nothing but climb the power ladder for me in these last few weeks of testing. There aren’t many control decks that call for a four-mana creature, but this powerhouse may change the rules on traditional deck building. It reminds me of the old Jace, Architect of Thought days, where I would sacrifice its life just to snag a couple land off the top of my library. Atris delivers those land drops better than the rest of the competition.
Looking three cards deep is a powerful dig. On top of that, opponent miscues have led to lucrative deals, while leaving an able-bodied threat on the battlefield. Esper Hero champions this card with style and will continue to do so as long as they both remain legal. If I decide to go with Esper Hero this weekend, you will see me enlist four of these legendary creatures with confidence.
4. Shatter the Sky
I admit that I was one of the first to complain about Shatter the Sky on social media. It wasn’t that I thought it was going to be unplayable in Standard. This protest was completely from a principled stance that sweepers should return to the penalty-free, four-mana sorcery that their ancestors once were. It is outrageous that we have had banning after banning, overpowered creatures like Questing Beast that require miniature print to fit all of the abilities in one text box, and there’s still someone out there that thinks Day of Judgement is too powerful for Standard.
Shatter the Sky is going to be good enough to handle the daily business of destroying all creatures for control users. After my limited protest, I quickly acquired four copies and plan on using them until Day of Judgment returns to us. In the meantime, be prepared to give your Questing Beast’s controller an extra card prior to its destruction.
3. The Birth of Meletis
The Birth of Meletis was a card that was barely on my radar. When it was first previewed, I was already writing up a different spell that piqued my interest. I made a few public comments about it and thanked the research team for a Wall of Omens reprint that I knew would see some play. This card deserves to see all the play, not just some.
Azorius Control depends on removing all creatures from the battlefield due to the weakness of its removal spells. Even with Shatter the Sky in the format, there needs to be some early-game interaction to stave off the quick bursts of damage in the early turns. The Birth of Meletis does that better than any card I’ve seen in the modern era of Standard, dishing out an 0/4 Wall and a couple life points. Producing a Wall and gaining two life isn’t enough on its own, but it adds a Plains to boot.
Guaranteeing land drops is one of the most important attributes any card can give a control deck. I usually depend on the kindness of Thought Erasure, pitching a non-land with the surveil trigger and crossing my fingers. That is a dangerous life us control players live, but we do not have much choice without powerful cantrips existing in the format. The Birth of Meletis has made Azorius Control viable on its own and will continue to see play in any deck that can handle playing five basic plains.
2. Elspeth Conquers Death
Elspeth Conquers Death is such a powerful control card, it’s embarrassing that I overlooked it during preview season. At first, I had one copy in each of my control sideboards. I figured it would act as The Eldest Reborn, torching control players for tapping out. It turns out that it’s good against just about everything and deserves multiple maindeck slots.
Elspeth Conquers Death is the answer-all that control has been missing ever since Teferi, Hero of Dominaria left us. The second ability on the departed planeswalker gave us hope whenever the opponent resolved something that was too difficult for our removal to handle. That problem haunted me in Standard these last few months, as the universal answers were too weak to depend on. Elspeth Conquers Death not only handles any mid- to late-game threat, it also produces tremendous advantage.
The second ability on Elspeth Conquers Death is the weakest one, but it still hinders an opponent’s response to the inevitable third ability. Making each non-creature spell cost two more can be a nuisance, but returning a win condition, with a bonus, back from the graveyard is a knockout. I can’t imagine playing Esper Control, Esper Hero, or Azorius Control without at least three of these Sagas in it, which makes it one of the best control cards we’ve seen in a long time
1. Dream Trawler
For the number one slot, was there ever a doubt? Dream Trawler is not only the best card control received in Theros Beyond Death, but it is also the best card in Theros Beyond Death Standard. Baneslayer Angel and Prognostic Sphinx were merged in some sick experiment, creating this magical Sphinx that came to rule the format. It’s the best creature win condition since Aetherling for control and I mean no disrespect to my boy Dragonlord Ojutai.
Lifelink and evasion are the first two abilities that must come equipped to a control win condition, because of the never-ending power creep of aggressive creatures in Standard. Creature-based win conditions must have some element of life gain in control decks and Dream Trawler easily delivers. Providing five life when attacking is no joke and I will gladly pay the six-mana price-tag that it requires.
The other abilities are arguably more important and make it the best card going right now. Drawing an extra card every turn when it attacks makes winning a forgone conclusion, as the opponent gets buried under card advantage. Producing two cards a turn, while continuing to keep life totals high is exactly where I want to be in any of my control decks. But the most important feature of Dream Trawler is hexproof, which is usually the bane of our existence. This time we get to use the annoying mechanic to our advantage and the masses will suffer under the boot of control, at least for a few months. Decks have already tried to incorporate maindeck answers to Dream Trawler and most of the time they fall flat.
Dream Trawler is the win condition we all have been waiting for and Theros Beyond Death absolutely delivered.