It wouldn’t be a preview season without a list of top control cards for competitive play.
If you are like me, picking up these cards ahead of time is essential. This has been the case since many of the new Standard-legal cards have become staples in older formats. When a freshly printed card sees play in Pioneer and Modern, you’d better believe that its value will skyrocket. Even when a card does not see extensive play in older formats, like my pal Lier, Disciple of the Drowned, there is a solid chance that its value will increase as time goes on.
Standard was relatively abandoned when I picked up my twenty copies of Lier for seven bucks a pop; now it lists for thirteen. This is not because of its Modern and Pioneer explosiveness, but due to the power level of this control legend. It will see some play in Commander, and probably a resurgence in one of the formats close to Standard, but the value is tough to explain beyond those factors. If control cards keep getting buffed, I will make sure to have my stack ready to roll.
The Neon Dynasty Example
The best example of recent examples of control stock increases is with Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. I identified March of Otherworldly Light; Otawara, Soaring City; and The Wandering Emperor as staples in multiple competitive arenas. I am no genius with this list, as many players reading this also knew well ahead of time.
Not every set will have slam dunks like these that change the landscape of older competitive formats; however, the floor is high enough to take a risk on these control staples. The entry price will be low, especially on many of the lands, and it is safe to say that they will see play. If they do not break on the competitive scene, the fallback of Commander and Cube keeps prices for many of these cards afloat.
Beyond the value game, I want to be prepared to craft something with the newest technology, and control is the easiest landscape in which to do that. The sweepers, disruption, most of the mana, and the planeswalkers are already covered by previous sets, with just a few modifications from new additions. This is how Azorius Control has remained dominant for so long: getting little buffs here and there from recent sets that continue to push the power level envelope.
So what are the top potential control cards from Streets of New Capenna? Here’s my Top 8.
#8: Unlicensed Hearse
Let’s start with a surprise.
If graveyard presence is a thing in the newer formats, this hate card gives some unique upside that is new to control. Unlicensed Hearse lands on Turn 2 and gets to work, removing any two cards from any graveyard. This ability could even target the controller’s graveyard, allowing the secondary ability to kick into gear in the late-game. Each card removed makes Unlicensed Hearse grow in power and in toughness, making it a win condition late. Removing two cards a turn adds up swiftly, especially when used against decks that provide targets early on.
This is a sideboard card to consider, but I am not convinced that it is necessary in the first week of the new Standard, or if it is powerful enough to replace the one-cost options that already exist in older formats. Still, I love the flavor and design of this card, enough that it sneaks into the eighth slot of the top control cards of Streets of New Capenna.
#7: Whack and Knockout Blow
There is not much to say about these two spells, except that they will be format staples whenever white- or red-based aggro decks get out of hand. The effect that they produce is outlandishly good, sending creatures with four toughness to the shadow realm.
Knockout Blow requires a creature to be in combat, but it rewards the controller with two life. Both removal spells will make it into my sideboards in any format where relevant aggro decks tend to dominate. They are not as good as Celestial Purge or Aether Gust, but they’ll make control’s life easier against the incoming blitz strategies.
#6: Obscura Interceptor
Obscura Interceptor is a good old-fashioned gotcha card, joining the crime family of other flash control creatures that ruin opponents at instant speed. When this creature was first previewed, I had glorious memories of Notion Thief and the devastation it wreaked in response to opposing card draw. Obscura Interceptor will not create many blow-out situations like that, but it will be a consistent thorn in the side of midrange decks that spent their Turn 4 (and above) on a single spell. It enters the battlefield, sends a spell back to the opposing player’s hand, and presents a four-power body with lifelink. This card is the total package, a maindeck inclusion that has a high floor in most matchups.
Since Obscura Interceptor has lifelink, it provides automatic game against early creatures that threaten your life total. If the opponent casts a spell before combat, Interceptor enters and returns the spell, leaving behind a powerful blocker. Post-combat, it also defends against opposing spells while threatening a return attack with lifelink. This card is one of the most exciting ones out of this set for control enthusiasts, especially with its reasonable cost. We have seen sweet five-mana spells with similar effects in the past, but this is another home run in card design. Now all we must do is get Wizards of the Coast (WotC) to excite the population about Standard again, to see Obscura Interceptor shine.
#5: Nimble Larcenist
I am always looking for ways to pull one over on the mirror or slower midrange decks. With each new set, there are cards like Nimble Larcenist that intrigue me on that front. Disruption attached to creatures is one of the oldest ways to get ahead in a slow matchup.
Nimble Larcenist provides potent disruption, exiling an artifact, instant, or sorcery from the opponent’s hand. It also has a decent size and ability, providing a two-power creature with flying for three mana. With the improvement of three-color manabases on the horizon, cards like this will receive immediate viability. The inability to cast spells in my Esper Control brews kept me up at night. Once it appeared that Azorius Control would be the only viable route for control players in the newer formats, but Esper’s time has arrived.
Nimble Larcenist will join Obscura Interceptor in the Momentary Blink club. Cards that allow us to repeat these effects will see increased play. Yorion, Sky Nomad would have loved to see these cards in Standard, and hopefully a similar effect is right around the corner. In the meantime, the enters-the-battlefield effects of these cards are impressive enough on their own. There is even a Charm that returns Nimble Larcenist to the battlefield at instant speed, adding further synergy to the greatest three-color combination in the game.
#4: Obscura Charm
The preview of Obscura Charm marked the beginning of the recent Esper Control frenzy. The control caucus approves of the power level of this spell, even with the first ability not being a traditional effect. Returning a multicolored permanent with mana value three or less demands building around it. I would not play Obscura Charm without having something to target; luckily, there are plenty of options.
Beyond Nimble Larcenist, my first thought was Niko Aris, a card that I still enjoy playing that many have passed over. It is still a planeswalker that removes a threat from the battlefield and produces card advantage, even though the creature combat mode goes unused. With the influx of control creatures that have great enters-the-battlefield abilities, it is time to reconsider all the possibilities with Niko Aris and get them into the lineup.
The other modes of Obscura Charm are staples of competitive play, countering spells and destroying threats. It is not the most effective tool against creatures in the late-game, but it does take care of business at the start. There will be instants or sorceries to counter later, or a wonderful resurrection target in the graveyard, if the removal aspect is not there. Obscura Charm will be a staple in Esper Control in the newer formats, and I hope to see it splashed around in the older ones. I remain committed to Azorius Control in Modern and Pioneer, but all about Esper Control in Historic and Standard. These great Esper-colored cards, combined with new mana-fixing, will influence plenty of two-color loyalists to the dark side.
#3: Tainted Indulgence
Many of these cards will see play in newer formats, yet struggle to find an immediate home in Pioneer and Modern. That is not the case for Tainted Indulgence, a Dimir-colored card draw spell tailor-made for competitive play. It draws two cards, only requiring discard if there are not five (or more) mana values in your graveyard.
Even the discard is rarely a drawback in the control decks of older formats. With Dig Through Time still legal in Pioneer and plenty of graveyard options in Modern, discarding a card can be a benefit. Tainted Indulgence costs only two mana and is an instant, checking all the possible power level boxes.
In the newer formats, this will see play in many decks that have access to blue and black. Chart a Course, a card with a similar effect at sorcery speed, saw extensive play. It was only blue to cast and had a different requirement for discard, but I will selfishly trade all that in for the ability to cast it at the end of my opponent’s turn. That immediately takes Tainted Indulgence from a card for a specific archetype to something any control deck would love to include.
#2: Void Rend
If I were a member of the Play Design team, Void Rend would have been the card to appease me in a heated debate over the Depopulate debacle. Luckily for us, there are plenty of powerful sweepers for me to continue with control’s business. Void Rend is the card Esper Control needs in the newer formats, providing a clean answer for most threats that hit the battlefield. It costs three mana, is an instant, and has no restriction beyond its Esper-colors requirement. I wish it exiled instead of destroyed, but I guess that would be too powerful. As it stands, Void Rend is good enough to be the staple removal spell for Esper Control in the newer formats, while being a solid option for those venturing out into Pioneer and Modern.
In addition to its universal application, Void Rend also cannot be countered. This will be a huge boon for it in the older formats, as counterspells increase in power level. In Standard, not many folks are countering anything. Even with the lack of blue disruption there, Void Rend will be a defining removal spell that handles everything thrown our way. Hero’s Downfall was a control staple in its own era, doing work at three mana when the accepted cost was always two before it. Permanents have become more powerful since then, but so have the support spells that will help keep the battlefield clean around spells like Void Rend. For those who have had the pleasure of casting Farewell, you know exactly what I am talking about. Control is great in competitive play now, with cards like Void Rend opening the viability of new color combinations.
#1: Raffine’s Tower
Choosing the number one spot was not a difficult decision. Raffine’s Tower has singlehandedly made Esper Control viable. Without it, this list would look much different, and I would continue to champion only two-color solutions for the newer formats.
The impact of Raffine’s Tower extends well beyond Standard, as it will replace all my current Triomes on the first day. Having access to black mana, especially over red, opens new doors. Jeskai is wonderful, but we know what the true control shard’s colors are. The removal and disruption that black spells provide trounce those of red, and Raffine’s Tower is exactly what we needed to make it a possibility. Using this land, the amazing spells listed above, and a little ingenuity, we can put Esper Control back on the map in competitive play.