U/B Control In Standard

Michael Martin visits U/B Control once more, taking a look at its role in Standard and its strengths against the top decks of the format.

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, we can only change how we play the hand.”
– Randy Pausch, “Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon”, who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer a month before his September 18, 2007 lecture

Good morning folks; no, that quote has nothing to do with my topic today, though I plan on writing that on my pad during my next event before every round, as it’s especially profound, even in a greater life context, but also as it pertains to how we play out our events.

No, today I’m going to expound a bit more on my article last week. I left off at both an inability to solve the puzzle that was the mirror match for U/W Delver and a puzzling quandary as to what colors I should play in a control deck in the current environment.

Well, I can say that I will not be playing U/W Delver at my next event (which looks like it’ll be the Star City Games Open Weekend in Washington, DC, as I can’t make it to GP Orlando). First, I just can’t figure out the mirror match to a level where I’m comfortable. I’m winning more of the mirror, but not enough for me to like the prospects of playing it round after round.

And thanks to one Mr. Gindy, that’s exactly what I’ll be facing.

(On a side note, there’s part of me that wants to say “told ya’ so!” in regards to my prediction that half of the top eight in Atlanta would be U/W Haunt decks, but anyone who was paying attention to Magic Online results will probably ridicule this as an obvious statement and not really a prediction.)

So, once again giving into my unnatural (and probably irrational) fear of mirror matches all day, I continued looking into straight U/B control. I had a few people in the comments last week come up with some ideas for splicing a third color, namely red for a Grixis Control deck, but here’s my issue with that concept.

Adding a third color does something I don’t want to do: add a third color. Seriously; once you add a third color, you’ve basically committed to not having any utility lands whatsoever. The problem here is that Moorland Haunt is such a good card, and Ghost Quarter is about the best thing you can do against it.

With Grixis, you’re hoping to grind them out using Geistflames and Olivia Voldaren, but the issue with the former card is that U/W Haunt decks have a ton more creatures than you have Geistflames and Olivia suffers from the problem of: 1. Being a creature (i.e. Vapor Snag is a real card) and 2. Being a legend (Phantasmal Image is a real card). You’re also going to be on your back foot early, meaning you’re going to have to throw out a Hail Mary Olivia Voldaren, which sucks if it gets Mana Leaked.

Now, that isn’t to say that Grixis doesn’t beat U/W. To the contrary, I don’t think it’s a bad matchup at all. I do feel that I have all of the tools that Grixis has in U/B Control while also being much better in other matchups.

Someone in the comments also made the suggestion to run Slagstorm over Black Sun’s Zenith, as, in the comment poster’s opinion, Slagstorm is much better right now. I disagree completely; on three mana, you’re going to kill pretty much everything in U/W Delver anyway with Black Sun’s Zenith, but you can customize your sweeper output. By that I mean, what if your opponent rips a Hero of Bladehold late game? How bad is that Slagstorm going to look later in the game when your opponent rips Inferno Titan? Thrun? Primeval Titan? Phyrexian Crusader?

The thing is, Black Sun’s Zenith still does all the same work on three mana against the decks where you need an early sweeper (U/W Haunt decks mostly) but also steps its game up against bigger decks like Wolf Run Ramp. Sure, casting an eight mana Doom Blade for that Inferno Titan is probably the least optimal thing you could have done, but isn’t it better than sitting there dead while staring at that Slagstorm in hand?

While playing against Matt Eitel running the U/W Delver Tempo list, we were splitting Game 1 almost evenly. There were some games where I would grind him out of cards and options and others where I just wasn’t able to (like the game where I was at 15 late game, he had one spirit token and no cards in hand thanks to Liliana, and rips Runechanter’s Pike to put me at two life. Guess that card really is good!).

The games I was winning usually involved Liliana of the Veil, as the Delver decks really don’t have much in the way of card advantage and Liliana can grind them down pretty well. Once you have them in topdeck mode with an active Liliana, you’ve essentially won the game. Just watch out for a topdecked Snapcaster with Midnight Haunting in the yard.

However, the matchup wasn’t as good as I would’ve liked for it to be. Obviously post-board I was bringing in more answers, but I didn’t like the Game 1 split. Matt suggested I maindeck Curse of Death’s Hold, which I’d previously considered and dismissed, responding to him with “I don’t want to start maindecking hate for a deck that isn’t Jund/Caw-Blade dominant. It’s dead against Control and Wolf Run and pretty much anything else, so I’ll just keep it in the board.” (Yes, you over there thinking that my comment was ridiculously wrong, don’t fret; I’ll admit the error of my ways soon enough.)

So after some more games in which I didn’t really feel overly favored, we played some Standard at FNM (this may be in reverse order, I don’t really remember if FNM or our playtesting came first, though it’s irrelevant to my story!). I was paired against an exchange student from Japan named Akira who, according to Matt, is an incredibly solid player. Akira was also incredibly modest, so I couldn’t find out exactly how solid he truly was, but every decision was meticulously thought out and I didn’t see anything he could have done wrong, so I’m inclined to believe Matt.


Akira was playing Wolf Run Ramp in the flavor of the World Champion list. We split the first two games (he poisons me in one game, I mill him out the other) and the third comes down to about turn 20 or so where I’ve killed three of four Inkmoths, two of his Primeval Titans, and two Thrun, the Last Trolls. The other Inkmoth was presenting lethal, but I had 10 mana and both a Forbidden Alchemy and a Virulent Wound in my graveyard (allowing Snapcaster Mage to also be an out). So I waited until he went for it and played Alchemy, seeing the error of my ways.

You see, I should have considered my outs before passing the turn. What are my outs?

Snapcaster Mage
Virulent Wound
Doom Blade
Ghost Quarter

I’ve used a Quarter already, meaning I have two left. If I’d thought this out before passing, I would have used the Alchemy main phase and dropped the Quarter, probably winning the game as I’d started milling him out already. (Let that be a lesson to all you prospective control players; make sure you consider all outs before waiting until the opponent’s turn to do something. Sure, instants can be played during their turn but they don’t have to be.)

Anywho, I’ve digressed. I ended up dying to an Inkmoth Nexus with a Ghost Quarter in hand. That’s the point to all of that.

I ended up going a measly 2-2 on the night, though the other loss was probably unavoidable with the way he curved out with his G/W Tokens (Viridian Emissary-Blade SplicerHero of Bladehold-Gavony Township) when I was holding a Black Sun’s Zenith. I was on the play, so the turn before he drops the Township (it wasn’t in play before turn five), I had the option of Zenithing for three and wiping everything except the Hero away, leaving the Hero as a 0/1. I’d be curious to hear if you guys feel I should have Zenithed anyway (I had no other removal) and dealt with the Hero later.

After FNM, I went back and started surfing Magic Online for Modern lists, as I’ve begun my descent into the world of Modern; however, on my way to the Modern section, I happened across some of the most recent Standard results listings and decided to make a minor detour.

I happened across a couple of lists; one of which was Luis Scott-Vargas U/B Control and also Pat Cox most up-to-date version of U/B Control.

Both of which were running maindeck Curse of Death’s Hold.

Which got me thinking; why am I not running the card again?

Earlier this week, I happened across Shaheen Soorani article talking about his U/B Control list and how he feels very favored in the U/W Delver matchup because of Curse of Death’s Hold in the maindeck. (Well, obviously, you’re running four of those things!). Nothing new there. However, what convinced me was actually a little snippet he adds when talking about the Wolf Run matchup. When I’d first considered the match, I thought about how Curse is a very dead card against Titans and Thrun. For some reason, and don’t ask me why, I didn’t even consider the fact that it shuts off Inkmoth Nexus (Matt insists he told me, but if he did, he must have muttered it under his breath, as I swear I never heard it!).

Of course! A resolved Curse will essentially win you the Wolf Run matchup!

I know that sounds like a bold statement, but hear me out. Once you’ve shut off Inkmoth Nexus as a mode of attack for the Wolf Run player, their scariest card (Primeval Titan; don’t fool yourself, Thrun isn’t scary against the current build of U/B Control) is nothing more than a six mana 5/5 trampler. Come on, U/B control eats dumb beaters like that for breakfast!

Once you turn their deck into a bunch of six-mana 5/5’s and four mana 3/3’s, the matchup becomes remarkably simple.

That was it. That was the selling point for me. Between the U/W and Wolf Run matches, Curse was definitely In like Flynn.

The other issue? Actually winning the game against the U/W Haunt decks. Against pretty much anything else, Nephalia Drownyard would go the distance after you’d ground them out.  Against Haunt decks, you had to make sure to remove their Haunt before you could even begin to Drown them out. Unfortunately, your other “wincons” cost six mana and were perfect targets for Vapor Snag. Now, if one resolved and stuck, you won, but that happening once in every six games was optimistic at best. Post board, they can even bring in Phantasmal Image to copy your weapon of choice.

You know what can’t be Vapor Snagged, costs six, and wins you the game against Delver decks?

Sorin Markov.

You know what else can’t be Vapor Snagged?

Karn Liberated.

Seriously, when I was going over different options for going (essentially) creatureless, I was thinking about cards like Batterskull, but even that can be vulnerable to Vapor Snag. I’d read Sorin Markov in a list in (I think) a Kibler article talking about how it could be good against Delver decks. After thinking about it, of course it’d be good! Sorin’s Thirst every turn? Essentially six starting loyalty? Invulnerable to Vapor Snag?

Sign me up!

As I thought more about it, I didn’t mind the card in the control matchups, even though it wasn’t as good as, say, a resolved Consecrated Sphinx. It’s a six-turn clock (less if Snapcaster is involved) if that’s what you’re looking for, or a Mindslaver on a stick. Now, I’m not saying I keep it in for control, just that it’s not a dead card by any means. Even against Wolf Run decks, it can help keep a resolved Garruk Relentless in check (I know I’m reaching; however, if you’re able to grind them down and drop a Sorin on their face, you can still ramp up to Mindslaver levels, which will obviously wreck them if your other spells haven’t.)

Since I’m already close to being essentially creatureless, I don’t want a random Consecrated Sphinx either. Karn Liberated will take over games single-handed, so we go with that option.

This is what I would have played this past weekend in Orlando; I’m sure this list will change a bit after the results from Orlando come in, but this should be close to my 75 regardless:

I don’t usually post sideboards, as they’re metagame specific, but I think that I can go ahead and post this one. I’ll also include a quick sideboarding guide for you guys.

U/W Delver:

-1 Blue Sun’s Zenith
-3 Dissipate

+2 Curse of Death’s Hold
+1 Virulent Wound
+1 Batterskull

In this matchup, we’re trying to grind them down to where they’re topdecking with no board presence. We bring the Curses and a Virulent Wound in over our three Dissipates. Batterskull is better than Blue Sun’s here as an alternate win-con, as the life gain is relevant and we shouldn’t have to worry about Vapor Snag post-board. Similarly, Sorin’s Thirst is better than Doom Blade here.

We keep in Karn, even though he’s expensive, since it’s another way of removing Moorland Haunt, which is incredibly relevant.

Wolf Run Ramp

-3 Virulent Wound
-1 Sorin Markov

+2 Curse of Death’s Hold
+1 Tribute to Hunger
+1 Doom Blade

Virulent Wound is seemingly good at keeping Inkmoth in check, but we’re not really worried about Inkmoth until there’s a Kessig Wolf Run and a ton of lands to go with it. Which means we’re not worried about it early. Since we’re bringing in Curses here, there’s really no need for Wounds. Tribute is another way to ensure Thrun doesn’t randomly durdle his way to beating us, and since we’re just playing against Titans after we shut off Inkmoth, we bring in the last Doom Blade. I considered bringing in the last Liliana of the Veil, but being able to cast Tribute at instant speed helps when they leave up mana to activate Inkmoths, since you can cast Tribute end of their turn, untap, and activate Liliana.


Keep that in mind; when they have Thrun and an Inkmoth, be careful not to walk into giving them the option to just activate Inkmoth.

Black Sun’s Zenith isn’t spectacular here, but it gives us another out to Thrun while also being able to kill random titans late game, so it stays in. It also circumvents Autumn’s Veil as well.

Control (Esper mostly):

-2 Curse of Death’s Hold
-3 Virulent Wound
-1 Sorin Markov
-1 Black Sun’s Zenith

+2 Surgical Extraction
+2 Negate
+2 Nephalia Drownyard
+1 Volition Reins

We have so much to remove here, it’s a bit difficult to have space in the board to bring cards in, as Control mirrors aren’t overly common, so it’s hard to justify dedicating this much space to the match. However, I think we managed pretty well.

Curses and Wounds are just bad here, and Sorin isn’t spectacular, though I could see keeping him in if you didn’t have enough sideboard space dedicated to the matchup. Black Sun’s isn’t great either, but it is a way to keep you from decking yourself in addition to Blue Sun’s Zenith and can kill off any pesky Snapcaster Mages that are giving you issues.

You bring in Surgical Extractions, which are amazing if they’re on Unburial Rites. Since your plan is to mill them out, Surgical gives you a great counter to Rites as well as a way to remove countermagic. If you’re removing something other than what they’re casting Unburial Rites on, wait until the end of their draw step, as you gain a small chance to hit an additional card in their hand.

You want to hit every land drop in the “mirror”, so everyone at this point is boarding in lands, and I like that plan. You also bring in Volition Reins to steal whatever it is they’re doing. Be cognizant of Oblivion Rings though.

An aside: Grixis Control is popping up as well. Don’t worry; you should win this match hands down. The only “problem” would be Olivia, as she can’t be Doom Bladed, but you have plenty of ways to kill her off and you don’t run creatures for her to steal. Otherwise, they’re running burn and Slagstorm, you’re running Nephalia Drownyards, Lilianas, and Karn.

There are other matchups, obviously, but here are the three you should mainly test again in your gauntlet. I’d be very surprised to not see a U/B Control deck in the top eight of Orlando, as there are some really good players running the deck right now. Here’s what I’m thinking (once again, this is being submitted on Friday, so any and all predictions are legit):

1 U/B Control
3 U/W Delver Tempo
1 U/W Humans
1 Esper Control
2 Wolf Run Ramp

Until next week, good luck guys!

Michael Martin

Shoctologist on MTGO

@mikemartinlfs on Twitter