For many who’ve played Magic for a long time, the word “control” strikes fear into their hearts. Their spells always get countered, their creatures get swept away in a blinding flash of light and chaos, and nothing they do seems to matter. Control decks are there to put you in a stranglehold, disrupting on multiple fronts until they can land a haymaker or beat you in some weird way. Control decks have been around since the beginning and I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.
But something about those decks has changed. In Standard specifically, control decks have lost their luster. No longer are they using Absorb to counter your clutch threat. Censor or Sinister Sabotage, spells you’ll often see in Pioneer, just aren’t cutting it. And most of that is due to Teferi, Time Raveler.
How can one card so singlehandedly and fundamentally change a format?
Around this time last year, Absorb was great, and I would have considered it one of the best cards in the format. However, when Teferi, Time Raveler showed up to wreck the place, it left us with a gaping hole where counterspells should be. Do you know how badly Flash decks just decimate junk like Fires of Invention? But when they happen to land a Teferi, Time Raveler, all that gets thrown out on its head.
The current Standard format is what it is: an arms race to do the most broken thing and hoping your opponent doesn’t interact with you too much. Ramp and Fires and Cat/Oven and Embercleave and on and on. In a world where everyone wants to tap out every turn and use every single mana, and where Teferi, Time Raveler exists, tap-out control should be the direction we move to next. In fact, I’d argue that the current builds of Azorius Control are more tap-out than traditional control. Tapping out turn after turn for bigger and better threats and answers is exactly what they do, from Teferi and Narset early to Dream Trawler and Elspeth Conquers Death late.
Looking over the new set, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, it feels like we might have to kick things up a notch!
Of the new Ultimatum cycle, this one really speaks to me. As someone who’s played Warleader’s Helix in Standard before, I know a good removal + lifegain spell when I see one. Oh, and did I mention you get to draw five cards?
The obvious comparison here is to Cruel Ultimatum, a card of similar cost and power with similar abilities and affecting the game in a very similar way. However, the big difference here is that Inspired Ultimatum can target, and it can target a wide variety of choices. Where Cruel Ultimatum couldn’t quite kill the opponent’s biggest threat, you did get something back from the graveyard and forced them to discard some cards.
On the whole, Cruel Ultimatum will likely go down as the better card, but who cares? This one is different, but it’s certainly still powerful and fills a similar role. The tough part now will be building a new archetype around it, or finding a home in something that already exists!
Tapping Out in Standard
I think the easiest place to put this card is a singleton in the sideboard of Jeskai Fires. As a deck that wants to tap out every turn and doesn’t mind a good seven-drop in the sideboard thanks to Fae of Wishes, this is the perfect card to get you back into a game where you’re flooding badly. There are enough off-color threats seeing play out of the sideboard for Fae of Wishes that you might be able to argue that a different Ultimatum would be better in this spot, but I could also see a world where you side in Inspired Ultimatum because it has some merit to physically casting it.
If it doesn’t fit in Fires of Invention, that’s fine too. That deck has gone through a multitude of iterations that vary greatly. At some point, it was full of planeswalkers, but now we’ve figured out that you should actually be playing a bunch of big dumb monsters and giving them haste! Turns out my first build of the deck featuring Ilharg, the Raze-Boar and Cavalier of Flame was on the right track! If the Fires of Invention deck wants Inspired Ultimatum in the maindeck, that’s a significantly different Fires of Invention deck.
What about a different direction entirely?
- 4 Hero of Precinct One
- 4 Elite Guardmage
- 2 Kykar, Wind's Fury
- 4 Bonecrusher Giant
- 4 Brazen Borrower
- 2 Dream Trawler
This style of deck centers around Hero of Precinct One, but Jeskai hasn’t always been the best for multicolor spells. As you can see, the best removal spell we have that’s multicolor is Justice Strike. Lucky for us, removal is only good against a few decks in the format, and we have creatures that double as our removal / interaction!
This deck can survive for a long time, which means good news for Inspired Ultimatum, because we’ll likely have time to cast it. With that said, this format is pretty bonkers, so there’s a good chance that Inspired Ultimatum isn’t enough by itself. We do have a lot of ways to interact with the opponent, and quite a few payoffs for doing so. One in particular I want to examine a bit more closely is Kykar, Wind’s Fury.
It might not look cool all by its lonesome, but when you start making some flyers and threatening to cast Inspired Ultimatum a turn or two early, you start to really feel that tingle. When you realize that Inspired Ultimatum needs three red mana and Kykar randomly makes red mana, you get that sensation in the pit of your stomach. And when you realize that it triggers with a ton of cards, including Brazen Borrower and Bonecrusher Giant, it all starts to come together.
While Kykar, Wind’s Fury is a little slow, the rest of your deck is there to buy you time. Your opponent’s removal will likely be overloaded from having to kill Hero of Precinct One, which means a mid-game Kykar might just go the distance. While 1/1 flying Spirits aren’t what they used to be, this deck can put the extra mana to significant use.
The Cruel Ultimatum That Pioneer Needed
As far as Standard is concerned, the big Ultimatum effects are flashy, but they’re nothing we haven’t seen before. Standard has been a wild place for the last year or five, but Magic’s newest format Pioneer has been wanting a big control finisher like this for a while now.
Will Inspired Ultimatum become the go-to finisher for Jeskai Control? Definitely not. There’s no guarantee that this card will be remotely playable. After all, seven mana is enormous, and in Pioneer counterspells are actively good because of the heavy combo metagame. But if something like Dig Through Time should be removed from the format, it could open up some serious space for other strategies to come through.
Will one of those strategies be Jeskai Midrange? It isn’t something we’ve seen before or really even asked for, but now I kinda wanna see it. Just think, you tap out every single turn to cast a bigger and better spell. At the end of it all, you and your opponent are both out of gas. You need to peel something to get you back in the game! What’s that? Inspired Ultimatum off the top of the deck! That’s the game!
I can see it now, Randy Buehler highlight reel and everything. Five damage. Five life. Five cards. What a way to spend seven mana!
The finisher is now Inspired Ultimatum, but the more important question: “What does the rest of the deck look like?” Well, I’m pretty confident the decklist starts with “4 Supreme Verdict.”
This version looks a lot like the Azorius Control decks we’re currently seeing in Pioneer. The rough thing about that deck is that the removal, frankly, sucks. The only good removal spell in the entire deck is Supreme Verdict, which is hands down the best sweeper the format has access to. Adding another color might complicate stuff a little, but we also have some new tools in both the early-game interaction and late-game closeout.
I’m excited to try this card out in a number of formats, but the toughest part will undoubtedly be finding the right surrounding cast that lets you live long enough to cast Inspired Ultimatum while simultaneously allowing you to still be enough in the game that it either puts you ahead or catches you back up. Seven mana is a large amount, but it isn’t unheard-of. I’ve cast six-drops in the format with regularity, though that’s usually on the back of some powerful ramp effects. Might be you need some ramp to go along with these huge spells.
It’s also important to understand that red is the dominant color in this equation, which means you might end up with some mana problems either casting this card or casting the other spells in your deck in order to support the outrageous casting cost. I mean, adding a triple-red spell to your Azorius Control deck isn’t exactly easy.
As for Modern or Legacy, I don’t think this is really the place for such an expensive spell, but I could see a world where Burning Wish grabs this thing in some Omniscience shell. Who knows? Modern has also gone through some serious changes over the last few years, so I think anything could be possible. Cards that cost seven mana rarely have an impact on older formats unless they cheat on mana somehow. And if we’re cheating on mana, there are certainly some better cards to be playing at the seven-mana slot.
Pioneer is the place for this card to shine, but finding the right home is paramount. All your pieces need to be working toward this one purpose. The Cruel Ultimatum decks of old systematically dismantled you, but left themselves low-ish on resources. Patrick Chapin even went so far as to play actual Divination in one of his builds just so he could hit his land drops and make up for that lost card advantage by killing your opponent’s creatures that generate two-for-one value.
The removal in Pioneer for Jeskai isn’t exactly busted, but it’s probably good enough. Teferi, Time Raveler keeps your opponent’s battlefield mostly clear while drawing a card. Things that interact and draw cards are huge for a deck like this because you need to be pressing toward that seven mana constantly. Inspired Ultimatum should be your ticking time bomb. It should end the game or put you so far ahead that you could win with virtually anything. Castle Ardenvale is in all these decks for a reason, and that’s because it’s technically a win condition when you might otherwise run out! In this deck, it’s actually our primary win condition, though we could maybe squeeze one or two other ones in there if necessary.
This new set brings with it some really powerful cards. After the last year or so, I’m a little wary of such power, because I know what it’s capable of. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve been on the front lines for years, watching as they’ve had to ban this and that to make things balanced and fair. Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths is pushing even those boundaries. We’ve got plenty of draw engines and expensive payoffs, and the format already had some good enablers like Fires of Invention and Wilderness Reclamation.
What deck I’m truly excited for is Mono-Blue Flash. It’s going to come back in a big way, and my next article will focus on how I’d build it for the first wave of Standard tournaments. But what are the cards I’m most excited to try out? What will revitalize the archetype?
I needed another cheap threat and another closer. But what’s really going to make the deck shine is Sea-Dasher Octopus. You have to understand that we’ve not seen a card like Sea-Dasher Octopus in a very long time. It slices. It dices. It’ll take your mom out to dinner on her birthday. I can’t wait to try it out and I bet you can’t either! Emma Handy wrote an awesome article last week on this little eight-legged friend, so make sure to check it out if you haven’t already!