U/B Control And Playing More Clones

Patrick Chapin made Top 32 of Grand Prix Salt Lake City last weekend with U/B Control. He has an updated list with insights from the tournament. If you like control, try it out this weekend at SCG Open Series: Des Moines.

"It’s beginning to look a lot like Grixis…"

Another inquiry about Grixis? I wondered if the recipient of the text message I’d just sent read it to the tune of "It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas," as intended. The text messages, e-mails, and phone calls started really coming in at the beginning of the week before Grand Prix Salt Lake City. "Is it time to play Grixis?" they asked. "Break it?" Delver had its best week ever last week, and Grixis’s main claim to fame in 2012 has been that of a deck with one good matchup (an overwhelming one against Delver).

I hadn’t played any Standard since GP Baltimore a few weeks ago. That event was a definite no go for Grixis, as U/B Control was the big up and comer (an extremely difficult matchup to be sure). Now, however, Delver had recently hit all-time highs in popularity and U/B had largely been set aside.

The U/B Control players had (largely) moved on to Esper, giving them many of the same tools U/B had but with Lingering Souls instead of Drownyard. This made them better suited to fighting the new, diverse breeds of Delver. Of course, without Drownyard, they would be even-ish against Grixis (and would get slaughtered by U/B should they have to face someone that didn’t "get the memo").

I gave Michael Jacob a call and set to brewing a possible Grixis list. He liked Consecrated Sphinx and Wurmcoil Engine as primary kill cards, though Batterskull and Jace, Memory Adept were both good to keep in mind. We discussed Red Sun’s Zenith and how it actually seemed better than Devil’s Play at the moment. Strangleroot Geist, Geralf’s Messenger, and Grave Crawler were all really popular, good against control, and fantastic targets.

Whipflare was back to being excellent, as it’s just so good against Delver decks. It could be replaced by Ratchet Bombs, Day of Judgments, or Black Sun’s Zeniths (if one wasn’t red), but it was still the best of those against the blue aggro decks. Desperate Ravings was much better than Think Twice for all of the usual reasons, and Ancient Grudge was still very good, particularly at hitting both good Swords and Inkmoth Nexus.

Grudge would require a bit of Shimmering Grotto, but both MJ and I liked Pristine Talisman, which goes very well with the Grotto. Pristine Talisman is fantastic against Delver, as it forces them to overcommit into your sweepers. The lifegain is also much appreciated against durable threats like Strangleroot Geist and Gravecrawler, as well as burn decks gaining a little bit of popularity.

We concocted a list that MJ was going to try that (Thursday) night. The next day, as I made my way to the airport, I received word from MJ that the tests didn’t go well. It was too hard to win, and we didn’t have time to tune the list. He was just going to play Esper Control. I knew a number of my friends were also on Esper, so I did strongly consider it for myself; however, none of them were in love with their lists.

At this point, I was leaning U/B Control, despite it falling out of favor recently. Esper sounded like it could be ok, but I didn’t have experience with it nor was I confident that the Delver decks would adapt from last week. I discussed U/B with Reid, who had also been working with Grixis recently. I didn’t adopt Gitaxian Probe partially because the life loss seemed too relevant and partially because when I was a kid, we were beaten with a ruler at school if we couldn’t generally always tell what our opponents had in their hand by turn 5 anyway.

Reid’s an even bigger Memory Adept fan than MJ and I, but U/B seems like a deck that wants fives and sixes that can help it catch up when it’s behind (which is not Jace’s strong suit). I love him as a one-of in the sideboard to add an important dimension against Zombies, Delver, and control, but maindeck he isn’t quite right. That may seem like he comes in against a lot of people (which he does), but you’re taking out different cards each time. Wurmcoil Engine, Consecrated Sphinx, Blue Sun’s Zenith, Dissipate; lots of cards can come out for it.

The morning of the event, I was still not sure which colors I would play. My final piece of advice came from Dan Burdick:

"Play Grixis with eight Clones."

I didn’t realize he wasn’t joking…

I wasn’t sure at all what victory conditions to play, but all ten of the people I asked agreed on Consecrated Sphinx, making him an easy choice. Looking back on the event, two Sphinx was definitely right. Most people really don’t have that many ways to deal with him, and the people that do are usually beat by Drownyard. The big exception is Zombies, which is why I used a Wurmcoil Engine as my third. Wurmcoil Engine is much better than Grave Titan, as it fights Geth’s Verdict (in response) and Tragic Slip better, as well as being less deadly to have Cloned and winning more races. Attacking or blocking even once with Wurmcoil is usually game.

I still prefer Go for the Throat to Doom Blade, but I prefer a mixture to all one way. Even though there are more Zombies than Inkmoths, two Throat against a Nexus or two Doom Blade against Zombies is much worse than one of each against both. Tragic Slip was mostly a holdover from previous builds, but I’m not a huge fan of it right now.

The bigger issue facing the game, these days, is what happened to Doom_Blade_Guy? My hope is that he’s lying in wait, just waiting for the Avacyn Restored spoiler season to really jump off. Additionally, we can only hope the new Avacyn (8/8 for  eight with flying, vigilance, can’t be Doom Bladed, and gives all of your creatures protection from Doom Blade) doesn’t deter him.

In the meantime, all we can really do is our fair share of the Doom Blading. If you’re just relying on everyone else to play Doom Blades to keep the Hero of Bladehold population under control, I’d like to remind you of a little thing called the social contract. Do you realize over half of all players don’t Doom Blade at all in Constructed tournaments? I played Doom Blades at GP Houston, Pro Tour San Juan, US Nationals 2010, Pro Tour Amsterdam, Grand Prix Atlanta, Pro Tour Paris, Worlds San Francisco 2011, and Pro Tour Dark Ascension. Are you doing your part?

The mix of Liliana and Tribute was fine, even if Tribute ended up being slightly better. I erred on the side of a Liliana being in, since Pristine Talismans and Wurmcoil made the lifegain less important. In retrospect, neither was as good as Phantasmal Image. Liliana is just so mediocre right now unless you’re playing Lingering Souls or Zombies.

Curse of Death’s Hold is still good. It’s just such an important tool for combating Delver decks, Lingering Souls, Moorland Haunt, and more. Celestial Purge is a real issue, and opponents don’t just fold to it; but you can still use it well. First: avoiding relying on Grave Titan, Bloodline Keeper, and the like helps. If your only real black permanent is Curse, you can save it as a 187, killing at least one guy on the way in.

Then, even if they draw Purge, you still get ahead. Trying to overload Purge is hard because they can Snapcaster it so easily. As for the possibility of getting punished for tapping out, you just have to play more conservatively. While I used to board counters out against Delver, now I board more in. We have to try to stop Batterskull, Consecrated Sphinx, Jace, and Sword of Feast and Famine.

Pristine Talisman was excellent for me all weekend. It’s important to play at a quick pace and not let the game get too slowed down by opponents who are slow at writing down life totals. A good method I use is to announce the lifegain from Talisman before I do whatever I’m about to do (whether play a spell or take a turn after gaining a life on their end step). This way, they’re writing down my life total while I’m doing something else, saving time. It’s important to be careful to not open ourselves up too much to Ancient Grudge when deciding on things like Batterskull, more Talismans, or another Wurmcoil.

I know most people play a mixture of Drownyards and Ghost Quarters, but Drownyard always seems so much higher impact. I considered Buried Ruin, but with two Talismans and four Drownyards already, I couldn’t really afford another colorless maindeck land. In fact, in retrospect I would’ve liked one more Swamp, moving the fourth Drownyard to the board. I’d cut a Swamp and a spell for two Talismans, but it should’ve been a colorless land that was cut. I was hoping the one Ponder would be enough to smooth that over, but I don’t think it was.

Dead Weight was a Michael Jacob suggestion that I was real happy with. Being able to hit a Huntmaster, Diregraf Ghoul, or any of the Captains was very useful. Sure, it can’t be Snapcastered, but a single Deadweight is unlikely to stick you with zero good targets. Basically, the times it was better than Tragic Slip felt worth it.

Sever the Bloodline was fantastic, and it’s possible that we want two. I would maindeck it in the future if I couldn’t play with Phantasmal Image. Karn, on the other hand, was terrible. Obviously I played against zero control decks so he looked worse, but the vast majority of control matchups are just going to come down to the Drownyards anyway. Besides, Jace, Batterskull, and Blue Sun’s Zenith provide plenty of backup roads to victory.

In the tournament itself, I faced:

4 Naya Pod (2-2)
2 Delver (1-1)
1 Spirits (1-0)
1 R/G Aggro (1-0)
1 B/u Zombies (1-0)
1 W/b Tokens (1-0)
1 Mono Red (1-0)

That isn’t a great field for standard U/B Control, but the lifegain from Talisman and Wurmcoil helped a bit. Additionally, most of my problems revolved around Strangleroot Geist. Phantasmal Image was absolutely phenomenal at fighting them, however. The ability to copy Strangleroot Geist then die and come back as a Thalia or Thrun or Huntmaster or Blade Splicer is just mind-blowing. There’s no better card against the Geist, and I want to move them to the maindeck.

They’re good against almost everyone anyway. Between Geist of Saint Traft, flipped Delver, Titans (followed by Go for the Throat), Geralf’s Messenger, and more, we’re rarely going to be short of good targets. The only two decks I faced where the Images wouldn’t have been great were Tokens and Mono Red, and against both of them it still would’ve been fine (copying a Doomed Traveler isn’t always bad, and my opponent played Mirran Crusader). If nothing else, you can copy your Snapcaster Mage.

If I were to play Standard this weekend, this is the list I would run:

The only changes to the maindeck are turning a Drownyard into a Swamp and replacing Tragic Slip, Liliana, and Blue Sun’s Zenith with Images. Image serves as early removal, making swapping out two removal spells fine. Blue Sun’s Zenith is a fourth expensive spell that tries to win the game, and we probably only need three maindeck (due to how many less people play Drownyard than they used to). Besides, sometimes you can just win with Images! 

Losing Slip makes us more vulnerable to Nexus, especially with no Ghost Quarters main, but I’ve added a Ghost Quarter to the sideboard to help take advantage of all of these Images being able to copy Primeval Titan. No, Liliana doesn’t really matter for Thrun and Geist of Saint Traft due to having tons of Images (which actually work better against people with Moorland Haunt tokens and Stragleroot Geists, messing up Liliana).

Stoic Rebuttal in the sideboard instead of Dissipate was an Andrew Cuneo suggestion to combat Surgical Extraction. I almost pulled the trigger before the event but decided to play it "safe" rather than risk not being able to exile Unburial Rites. During the event, Dissipate was targeted by Surgical Extraction over and over, convincing me it would’ve been better to just play the Rebuttal. I don’t board it in against Gravecrawler or Chandra’s Phoenix anyway.

Phyrexian Metamorph in the sideboard is just the start. I know I want at least five Clones, but I’m not even sure it isn’t right to play more. Dan Burdick is never going to let me hear the end of this.

Before GP Salt Lake City, Paul Rietzl had predicted the Top 8 to contain Jesse Hampton, myself, a woman, and that all eight players would be American. Amusingly, all four of his predictions missed by exactly one. Jackie Lee finished 11th for the second week in a row (bringing her to a 3rd, 11th, 11th, 13th, and a Top 32 in her last seven Grand Prix). Jesse Hampton and I were also just one win out of Top 8 to our infinite sorrow. As for Americans in the Top 8, there were only seven…

The top 8 breakdown looks like this:

4 Delver
Wolf Run Ramp
R/G Aggro

Major props to Shahar Shenhar (armed with Delver) who walked away with the title, his second this season. Also, big ups to Tom Martell with yet another big finish (dude has been on fire for the past year and a half) and Michael "ShipItHolla" Hetrick for putting up his first premiere event Top 8.

What does this mean? Well, it certainly is additional evidence that Delver is still king. As I said, Clones are absolutely bananas right now. Even if U/B Control isn’t your thing, I would strongly consider playing more Clones in just about everything. Delver? Play more Clones. R/G Aggro? Play more Clones. Zombies? Play more Clones. Any control deck at all? Play more Clones. I’d even like to see Clones in Humans!

Grand Prix Salt Lake City may have marked the end of Grand Prix level pre-Avacyn Restored Standard, but there’s still the SCG Open Series on the horizon and the Avacyn Restored spoiler season is finally under way. I’m super-pumped about Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, but I’m also looking forward to a month without traveling (especially with tons of new cards to explore coming our way soon). See you Monday!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"