U/W Control And Tron In Modern

The people’s control champion is back to talk about the Modern season and the best weapons control has at its disposal! Check out his sage-like advice before #SCGKC!

I still never regret gearing up and becoming a road warrior for the Open Series. The lengthy drive to Baltimore used to be easy, but as I’ve aged I’ve noticed a decline in my road trip stamina. The length of the voyage – combined with a recent trip to the dentist – could have derailed my plans to give old Esper one more shot in Standard before rotation, but here I am, typing up this article in the passenger seat of Daryl Ayers’ van. I decided to go to the dentist for the first time in five or six years and the doctor informed me that I have quite a few things to get done. I had my back two wisdom teeth cut out 48 hours ago, a few deep cleanings before that, and a scheduled gum graft. As your official control enthusiast, I highly suggest you guys make regular dental visits and checkups in order to avoid this type of sticky situation. Now I have a few pain killers, sleeved up control decks, and the drive to achieve victory. That is good enough, I hope. 

In the last article I discussed the different M15 cards that could make their way into eventual control decks, but at the moment Esper doesn’t have any room for cards from the low-strength core set. Stain the Mind is one card that made its way into my list for the weekend, along with a singleton Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth to help defeat the control mirror. These minor changes to the sideboard and mana base are not yet enough to give a “post M15” breakdown of the metagame, and in any case the new flavor-of-the-month around the world is Modern which will be the topic of today’s article.

The last Modern GP was another personal near-miss to top 8. Back in the old days, a record of 13-2 was an easy lock for top 8, and maybe even first or second seed. Those days are long gone now with the popularity boom of competitive Magic that has occurred in recent years. The popularity of Modern, Standard, Legacy, and every format in between continues to increase.  This bodes well for anyone who is reading this article in the long run. This suggests that Magic is not going anywhere and neither is competitive play. ‘ve had this competitive itch ever since I tasted the top 8 of a regionals tournament back in 2003, and that feeling hasn’t come close to dissolving yet. The opposite effect has occurred; I find myself wanting more and more to stay competitive in each format, to continue to polish the control archetype across the board, and to remain relevant in the tournament scene – and with you guys! This is the biggest reason why I try to streamline my articles to a particular audience and work to walk across the finish line with like-minded control mages. I got a great compliment this weekend at SCG Baltimore, where an aggro player came up to me and thanked me for continuously peddling the control archetype and that it has helped him thoroughly. I thought he was pulling my chain, but he explained to me that his Magic Online success, as well as live tournament success against control decks, has a lot to do with getting into our heads. He even referenced a few things that I’ve said throughout the years and it did make a lot of sense. I have a lot of ideas in the world of Limited, Cube, and general Magic theory, but I feel that the work I do here at SCG is the most beneficial working toward that ultimate goal: putting control decks at the top tables. 

This upcoming tournament in Boston is a new target for control dominance. I wrote an article a while back on Modern U/W Control and gave a breakdown of the expected metagame, what cards were duds, and ideas on replacing the stinker Jace Beleren. Today’s article is going to revisit that list and try to provide a backup list that is near and dear to my heart.

The list hasn’t changed much, but with my lucrative run on Magic Online in the Vintage Masters drafts I was able to purchase the deck online and test more thoroughly. The areas that I have been tinkering with are the slots for Serum Visions and Detention Sphere, the manabase, and the sideboard. The sideboard is outdated and was never really solidified into an optimal fifteen, but there are a few cards that are absolute winners. Cards like Last Breath, Baneslayer Angel, and Grafdigger’s Cage have been absolutely amazing in the matchups they’re intended for. Last Breath is a much better option than Dismember in the deck because the four life is just an unreasonable price to pay against any deck that calls for additional removal besides U/R Twin.  The exile effect on Last Breath helps against the multiple Pod creatures that have graveyard implications, either immediately through persist or in the future with Reveillark. Being able to nuke your Snapcaster Mage against Mono-Red for a four life burst, exiling their Unearth creatures, or even having an additional out or two against an early Goblin Guide is exciting as well. Last Breath is a spell that can dispatch a Dark Confidant, all of U/R Twin’s win conditions, and even an early Tarmogoyf because in the real world (not Legacy), he’s not always a 4/5 on turn 2. There are quite a few non-believers in the Last Breath camp, but trust me when I say it’s been quite good in actual games. 

Baneslayer Angel versus Batterskull is a debate you can find in the comments of the last Modern article I wrote, but again I’d like to firmly state that Baneslayer Angel has more upside.  Grafdigger’s Cage is a better hate card in Modern than Rest in Peace because of the existence of Birthing Pod variants. There are no true graveyard based decks that are heavily played and even though it has some splash damage against Tarmogoyfs and U/R Storm, the damage it causes your own Snapcaster Mages isn’t worth it in those particular matchups.

A few cards that have fallen from grace in the sideboard are Aven Mindcensor and Ethersworn Canonist. The fact is that Storm is simply not that popular. There are way too many powerful decks in Modern to sacrifice two sideboard slots for, especially when those creatures are pretty terrible against everything else. With four Spell Snare, the ability to keep in Snapcaster Mage due to Cage over Rest in Peace, and the inclusion of some other sideboard cards that have effectiveness in multiple matchups, I think the Storm matchup isn’t too terrible even without a Rule of Law effect. The fact of the matter is that Tron decks are picking up steam and that matchup is absolutely atrocious. The sideboard plan against Tron has to include some ways to interact with their manabase–besides getting lucky with an opening hand Stony Silence! That’s where Surgical Extraction comes into play. Graveyard decks aren’t popular, but the combination of Surgical Extraction and Snapcaster Mage is very powerful. Having the ability to remove all copies in response to persist/undying, nuke a spell targeted by an enemy Snapcaster Mage, stifle Storm’s graveyard shenanigans, or eliminate all copies of a vital spell after countering an earlier attempt is very powerful. None of those apply to Tron decks of course–except with a little help from Tectonic Edge. This creates a two-card Sowing Salt, which gives our two color strategy the best shot in defeating a control opponent with a mana engine powered by Urza. The reason why the matchup is so terrible is because our counterspell, draw/go, planeswalker plan is not effective when they can produce a ridiculous amount of mana and cast an equally ridiculous amount of spells with it. Cards like Spell Snare and Mana Leak might as well be discarded later in the game, and they are only semi-effective against G/R Tron, since that variant acts more combo than the others. If you are paired against Mono-U Tron or U/W Tron, you need to be able to undo their mana advantage to have a shot, so permanently disrupting their mana base is the best way to achieve this.

Surgical Extraction is also a dagger against decks that require a specific piece or two to slay an opponent such as U/R Twin and Storm. The ability to counter an early piece and then remove all of the copies after a draw step provides a weapon that most opponents will never see coming.  Combine that with the power of Snapcaster Mage, and you have the tools to remove vital pieces and as a result turn one of these powerful combo decks into a pile of cantrips and nothing else. In Legacy, you’re able to take full advantage of the power of Surgical Extraction because of the assistance provided by hand disruption. Even though there isn’t any hand disruption in U/W Control, the cards hit the graveyard naturally from our excessive counterspells, mass removal, and simply through normal play from the opponent’s side. As if that wasn’t enough, Surgical Extraction even does work in the control mirror. Not only does it throw a wrench into the opposing Snapcaster Mage’s plans, but it also breaks symmetry by removing their vital control elements while leaving yours intact and gives you valuable hand information. I toyed with the idea of a third Surgical Extraction, but without hand disruption you can find yourself in awkward situations where you feel tempted to remove all of your opponents Serum Visions from the game instead of using the spell optimally. 

I’ve also run into a snag in the sideboard building stage. There are simply too many matchups I want to improve upon, and that has unfortunately led me to a seventeen-card sideboard. The list above is the fifteen that I will be running next weekend, but I really like Hushwing Gryff as a two-of in the sideboard as well. If there are a few cards that you would change the quantity of, I would highly recommend including the hate flyers into the mix. There are a lot of people that aren’t huge fans of Meddling Mage, but I love the card. My bias towards the superhero Chris Pikula pushes me into the camp that he’s an auto-include. If I’m playing U/W Control, then I will be playing Meddling Mage. If you don’t enjoy using the card against the control mirrors then I would cut them for two Hushwing Gryffs and a random one-of hater for U/W/r and similar decks. The one-of Disenchant I’ve added has been amazing against Pod, Affinity, Storm, and to a lesser extent, U/R Twin. I loved having the one-of in Legacy, and after trying it in Modern it has been just as good. Disenchant effects are ones you don’t want to draw in multiples, so the one-of is perfect, and Snapcaster Mage always allows an extra use if needed. I increased the number of Stony Silence from two to three to help battle against Tron variants and add additional insurance against Affinity.  The only times I’ve lost a game to Affinity postboard is from an enemy Blood Moon, so I increased the basics from the last list by one, resulting in six total. The only other change I’ve made to the maindeck since the last article is an additional Detention Sphere

The cards that are legal in Standard have been the most powerful game-winners for me in recent testing. Detention Sphere goes the distance against every matchup as a permanent removal spell.  Even against Jund that packs Abrupt Decay, Detention Sphere is a fine early removal spell, even if it may one day fall and return a Tarmogoyf. More often, I have drawn one later in the game and dispatched a Liliana of the Veil that was getting close to a detrimental ultimate and proceeded to win the game. Jund has been my easiest matchup online besides Affinity thanks in part to the banning of Deathrite Shaman. Detention Sphere against every other deck in the format is at worst a removal spell and at best the only maindeck weapon against a resolved Cranial Plating, Blood Moon, Birthing Pod, or enemy planeswalker. It also has a much higher surprise factor since it’s not yet a commonplace inclusion in control lists. The small synergies between Detention Sphere and the Cryptic Command/Repeal package is something that occurs more often than one would think as well. Supreme Verdict and Wrath of God have, of course, been phenomenal as well. The format has a feel similar to Legacy, but the power resides in creatures here and not spells. Board sweepers rule in a world dominated by cheap, efficient creatures, so hop on board! The combination of mass removal and Snapcaster Mage is something that I haven’t had the pleasure of doing prior to Modern. Every time I tried to rebuy a Wrath effect in Legacy, it met an unfortunate counterspell by some Delver of Secrets player. In the current system you have the freedom to cast these spells with enough firepower from the support U/W cards to gain heavy advantage against the aggressive decks. A Supreme Verdict or two against Affinity, Birthing Pod, Merfolk, Jund, RUG Twin, or any deck with even a few creatures can slam the door in the face of your opponent easily.

There are some of you that aren’t a fan of the tap-out planeswalker approach in Modern and that’s okay. My original control-deck love in a format that was very similar to Modern was U/W Tron. The first breakout tournament I almost had was Worlds in 2006, where an unfortunate miscalculation on tiebreakers landed me in ninth place after an intentional draw with the eventual champion Makihito Mihara. I would love to say I don’t regret the decision, but it’s one of those that can haunt you for quite a while.

The deck that put me in the position to make a run for the World Championship was U/W Tron in the old Extended format. I went 5-0-1 with it, and it looks oddly similar to the Tron decks of today’s Modern world. The win conditions vary slightly, but Mindslaver was the card that was used to put enemies to sleep then, and it still does in the Mono-Blue Tron lists now. Karn Liberated has overshadowed the power of the turn-stealing haymaker, but it warms my heart to still see people playing the old combo. My deck from Worlds even included multiple Solemn Simulacrums which are a staple in a few Tron builds today. The alternate deck that I am proposing to you guys will sadly not be using either of those cards, primarily because the existence of Gifts Ungiven gives us an easy way to nab wins even without Tron assistance. With the banning of Deathrite Shaman, Gifts Ungiven is just too good to not take advantage of. The beauty of U/W Tron is that it doesn’t need to win with the Gifts package; it can fall back on the big mana options that are available. 

I am dead set on my U/W Control deck for the upcoming GP in Boston, but I helped sculpt this Tron deck as a reliable option for my control brothers and sisters that enjoy the more powerful weapons. Good luck to all of you that are playing in the PTQs or in GP Boston, and be sure to show your opponents the power of Standard-legal cards!