Modern Horizons 2 has been the most control-friendly set I’ve seen in many years. Return to Ravnica, home of Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation, was the last set that put control players on the edges of their seats during preview season… until now. Preview after preview, it seemed that the developers decided to improve the greatest archetype with high-powered spells and unbelievable reprints. The set is full of goodies for enthusiasts of other strategies, but Celestial Colonnade received the biggest tier bump of the bunch.
It was difficult to identify the set’s Top 8 control cards due to the raw number of cards I’m testing. I’m an avid Stoneblade (Azorius and Esper) and Esper/Azorius Control supporter in the Modern format, all of which are undergoing major changes with the release of Modern Horizons 2. Before unveiling the best control cards of the upcoming set in power order, I wanted to give a nod to the honorable mentions that may breach the metagame boundary soon.
These are sideboard all-stars in the making. Depending on the strength of graveyard strategies, Sanctifier en-Vec and Dauthi Voidwalker could break out in Modern control decks. The reason why they’re underdogs at this point is the existence of Rest in Peace, Surgical Extraction, and Grafdigger’s Cage — a pile of cheap ways to destroy any opponent who depends on their graveyard for victory. The advantage of these creatures is the collateral hate that Sanctifier en-Vec has against Boros-based strategies and the endless possibilities Dauthi Voidwalker can provide a control player who nabbed an expensive spell. The strength discussion will include the fragility of creatures versus enchantments, artifacts, and spells, but the upside of their additional abilities and provided pressure is clear.
8. Break the Ice
Break the Ice will ruin the day of Urzatron players for the foreseeable future. I will have no remorse casting it with regularity.
Control players in Modern have had a love/hate relationship with big mana decks for a decade now. In the beginning, these decks were unbeatable and tormented us to no end, but times have changed. Field of Ruin let control players drop Tectonic Edge and Spreading Seas for a free hate card in their manabase. Things have become more difficult again, with Esper Control not having the luxury of playing a colorless mana source. Even with their additional disruption elements, Mono-Green Tron can be a tough matchup for control decks without the land destruction.
Black-based control players will include Break the Ice in their sideboard strategies from here on out. I don’t see this dynamic changing unless big mana decks completely drop out of the metagame. In the early-game, it takes out a land before it can do any damage. Even on the draw, control players can now take out a land before the powerful haymakers fall. With Snapcaster Mage, this effect is repeated, locking up the mid-game in favor of control again. I would spend some time discussing the late-game; however, I will let you all read the overload on Break the Ice instead.
7. Dakkon, Shadow Slayer
Many of you may be alarmed that this Esper-colored planeswalker is this low on the list. Its ranking merely displays the strength of control cards in Modern Horizons 2. When my all-time favorite shard produces a three-mana planeswalker that barely makes the cut, life is good for control mages. Dakkon, Shadow Slayer is a powerful late-game planeswalker with early-game application. When cast on Turn 3, it cannot withstand exiling a creature without losing a lethal amount of loyalty. This dilemma resolves itself later in the game or with an activation of the first ability.
The ultimate of Dakkon doesn’t impress me, but I see why it had to be mediocre from a card-design perspective. The way this planeswalker is built allows for an immediate ultimate when it arrives on the battlefield on Turn 6. Putting an artifact from your hand onto the battlefield is an unimpressive feat for a traditional control deck; however, there are some interesting artifact-based strategies that would make a better home for it. In the meantime, I may find myself dropping in a Kaldra Compleat (produced by a fallen Stoneforge Mystic).
6. Riptide Laboratory
Lands that enhance control decks rarely let me down. I go through quite a bit of pain and anguish when cutting beautiful control spells from my deck, which is the inevitable process when adding new cards from a recently-previewed set. Field of Ruin was an auto-include when it showed up and only took out a few basic lands with it from my Azorius Control builds. Riptide Laboratory is a similar new addition, requiring minor manabase sacrifices while providing tremendous upside.
The best control creatures happen to be Wizards, making Riptide Laboratory an automatic inclusion in many control decks. Vendilion Clique and Snapcaster Mage are the gold standard in that category, both of which create a nightmare scenario for opponents when paired with this reprinted land. Having the power to control what cards an opponent draws each turn with a single Vendilion Clique will be quite enjoyable from our side of the table.
Many of you may have Vindicate much lower in your rankings, but it will play a dominant role in Esper Control moving forward. Universal answers are tough to come by in Modern, outside of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Depending on your five-mana planeswalker to tuck away an unbeatable threat for a couple of turns is a tall order, especially in matchups with blue disruption.
Each control deck is running four Snapcaster Mage these days and for good reason. The control spells in Modern are outrageously powerful, especially with Counterspell joining the fray. Vindicate handles any threat needed, while reserving the graveyard slot for an eventual return with Snapcaster Mage. This is how we operated in Legacy before Council’s Judgment joined us. Vindicate is not a huge downgrade from that and it opens the door for vital land destruction options against big mana decks that may foolishly pop back up. This will not be a four-of, but it will see continued play in Esper Control.
Deciding between #5 and #4 of my list was tough. Subtlety is a much more powerful card than Vindicate in design, but I think the latter will better-fill a void that control has had in Modern for a while. The upside for Subtlety is there and it may outshine Force of Negation as the go-to free blue spell of the format (however, that seems unlikely). The problematic spells that control must fend off while tapped out are typically noncreature. The playability of Subtlety rests in the strength of creature and planeswalker spells, as well as the control deck’s ability to naturally deal with them.
Karn Liberated required a Force of Negation when tapped out. Luckily for Subtlety, it can answer that, and similar threats, in the same fashion. The upside of Subtlety is when it’s cast for four mana, producing a threat at the same time. Therefore, Snapcaster Mage is so good and the cards that simply give a card flashback see very little play. Creating pressure, while providing disruption, is exactly where control decks want to be in the older formats. Right now, players are still comfortable with older builds of control, lightly including the spells newly released on Magic Online. As the metagame evolves and adapts to Modern Horizons 2, I would not be surprised to see Subtlety’s stock significantly rise.
Another difficult decision, Damn hits the list at #3, narrowly losing based on application. Damn’s color requirements set it firmly in the Esper Control column, needing double black for the removal and double white for the sweeper. It’s a superior card to any sweeper out there when compared head-to-head, which should make it a slam-dunk for the control team. The issues arise in the spell’s color, or lack thereof, compared to Supreme Verdict.
Subtlety and Solitude require sacrifices when needed in a pinch. Not having enough blue and/or white cards to pitch to these free spells will cause significant losses, more than having a slightly weaker sweeper. Damn is a better card than Supreme Verdict nine times out of ten, even though both get the job done against aggro when needed. The versatility of having a two-mana removal spell that can turn into a sweeper must be weighed against having fewer on-color spells to remove. I envision Esper Control decks leaning on Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Esper Charm while using Damn to its full potential.
Solitude will be the most-used of the mythic Elemental Incarnations by a significant margin. Grief may be the most powerful in theory, but none can defeat Solitude on its application in the Modern metagame. There are aggro, midrange, and control decks that will all want multiple copies to join their ranks. Azorius Control was singlehandedly resurrected by the free Swords to Plowshares after losing favor to Esper Control and its superior, black-based removal.
Fatal Push, Drown in the Loch, and Damn remain strong reasons to consider Esper over Azorius for your control needs. Solitude and Path to Exile put up a fighting chance, one that was unwinnable before Modern Horizons 2. I tried every white supplemental removal spell in the book, and they were all very bad. Oust partnered with Path to Exile the longest, although no one was fooled. Black had way better removal, but now the power level difference is minor. Solitude will be a three- or four-of in Azorius Control decks, winning games where Path to Exile was unavailable or would cause the opponent to ramp too early in the game.
The interconnectivity of my top list intrigues me. Solitude as a four-of requires Supreme Verdict, making the perfect home Azorius Control. In Esper Control, Solitude will see very little play since the alternatives are so strong. There’s no shortage of supplemental black removal, especially with the inclusion of Damn. Esper Control is stacked with power, while Azorius Control maintains the mana consistency and additional room for free spells. Solitude made a mess of things for control fans, potentially leading us away from the excitement of three colors to a trusty two-color model. Time will tell, but there’s one spell that wears the crown from Modern Horizons 2, with no controversy attached.
For those shocked by this one, you do not know me very well! Counterspell is the undisputed champion of control cards from Modern Horizons 2, landing a starting spot in every deck from now until the end days. It’s a four-of in Esper, Azorius, and Stoneblade Control for me, replacing the mediocre alternatives we have been forced to play with for all these years. I was the first to use Logic Knot in competitive Modern play; I will gladly put it right back in the bulk box where I found it.
Counterspell changes the dynamic of control decks in a few ways. The first is uniformity, prompting deck builders across the world to play four copies and very few supplemental options. I still have a single Dovin’s Veto floating around Azorius Control builds of mine occasionally, but it ends there. The rest of the blue disruption control decks are packing includes Archmage’s Charms, Cryptic Commands, and some combination of Subtlety and Force of Negation. This will be the foundation for control decks of all types moving forward.
The other dynamic Counterspell provides is raw power. Control gets significantly stronger by having Counterspell over the weaker alternatives. The initial reaction of “it’s not much better than Mana Leak” is preposterous. Anyone who has played a bunch of Mana Leaks in Modern over the years know how bad it is, which is why it became a one- or two-of for much of its time there. It was not universally adopted as a stock counterspell because it was worthless in the late-game. Counterspell is great on Turn 2, and every turn after that.
With these huge upgrade thanks to Modern Horizons 2, control has the tools to dominate for quite a while.