Card Numbers In Control Decks – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge by Graeme McIntyre
As I write this article, it is the Friday afternoon before the Dundee PTQ. I’m basically sure of my deck list, which has some interesting cards. While we discussed the deck this week some interesting points came up about the number of each card in the deck, which made me think a bit about how people go about building their decks. This article will focus on the number of given cards in control decks, and it’s worth bearing in mind that combo and aggro both need to be thought about in different terms (both feature a lot more 4s generally, because they’re mostly just trying to be efficient). I’ll include my own deck for tomorrow’s PTQ to illustrate examples.
Building control decks is generally characterised by attempting to meet a number of conditions such as “must be able to disrupt the combo deck early”, “must be able to stop Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf and Liliana of the Veil”, “must be able to survive the early game against R/G”.
Obviously this becomes a pretty big list, and as such it is often better to think about it in more abstract terms like match ups, although it is important to remember that you’ll still be dealing with actual cards – e.g. even if you think that playing 12 removal spells will be key against Junk and that you’ll have a good match up as a result, if you don’t play a way to actually deal with Liliana of the Veil you will still lose a reasonable number of games.
Likely as not you will find that your resources are stretched pretty thin; once you have taken into account playing 26 land and some ways to win, you’ve already lost half your cards, and there are plenty of questions that you will need answers to. For this reason, often cards will need to cross over in their roles. So a Baneslayer Angel is both a threat, because it’s a five power flyer with first strike (e.g. it clocks your opponent in 4 turns, is hard to block, and harder still to block with parity, let alone favourability , and an answer to creatures because it has 5 toughness and lifelink (e.g. they won’t be bolting it out of the way, it won’t be trading in combat, and it’s going to gain back 5 life so the unblocked creatures need to be dealing your life total + 5 to expect to kill you).
[Card]Vendillion Clique[/card] is disruption (because of its enter the battlefield effect), removal (blocks out of nowhere due to Flash) and a threat (it can attack, too).
Often there will be tension between a card which excels at doing a particular thing, and its better-rounded counterpart (this is particularly true of sideboard cards, I feel). One example might be Spell snare vs Mana Leak. Where the former is a great card which counters a turn 2 Bob or Goyf even on the draw, the latter counters both of those, but only on the play and later in the game they can often pay, but it also counters Liliana some of the time, which Spell Snare will never do.
This is in part what informs my thinking on the following…
When to play 4
Exceptionally powerful, low to medium cost spells. These cards will likely be the backbone of your deck, in many respects the reason to play the deck. I would be surprised if I was playing a format where I wouldn’t want at least 4 good removal spells, and if there was a particularly strong one, I would think I would play 4 copies. The same goes for a really good counterspell.
A card like Squadron Hawk is a no-brainer – you play 4 because they’re good early and playing less makes the others substantially worse – but I would say a card like Delver of Secrets is pretty much in the same boat because it’s so much better on turn one and also because the inclusion of the card places constraints on the way the deck is built.
[Card]Augur of Bolas[/card] is in a similar position regarding the way it impacts on deck design, but it is also not drastically worse in the late game, so I could see playing less, although in doing so the card suffers some of the problems that Squadron Hawk does in that if you play less Augurs, you are probably also going to build the deck around them less.
Sometimes you might play 4 of a card because you particularly want it in your opening hand, which is particularly true of sideboard cards. Cards you play 4 of are generally pretty easy to work out – they’re the ones you wish you had 6 of.
When to play 3
These are good cards which are a little bit situational such as Mana Leak and Spell Snare. These cards are still great, but drawing a Mana Leak late in the game is a bit of a drag, as it will often not counter anything, and Spell Snare clearly gets a lot worse if you play against a deck (or a particular draw) where your opponent doesn’t cast 2 casting cost spells and you’re stuck with multiple Snares in hand.
Thoughtseize is a card like that because of the life loss i.e. if you’re playing against an aggressive deck, you will probably not want to cast a second one if you draw it, unless you can negate the life loss somehow. That said, the effect is powerful enough that if it wasn’t for Inquisition of Kozilek it probably would be a 4 of card because, as with Path to Exile, the effect is exceptionally powerful and the drawback isn’t severe enough to take away from the fact that you need to have access to this sort of quality in your deck. Discard spells in general suffer from the fact that they’re not very good in the late game.
Legendary creatures and Planeswalkers often fall into this category as well, because you can’t have multiple copies in play at a given time. The card would need to be truly exceptional to make up for this (Jace, the mind sculptor springs to mind).
When to play 2
Often win conditions will fall into this category, as you have a good bit of time to draw into them. Cards which are not great in multiples, or are good in some match ups but poor in others are also in this category. Second rate versions of cards you wish you had 6 of also reside here.
Supreme verdict is a bit like this in Modern, although I’d comfortably play 3 Wraths in most Standard environments, 4 in some. It gets you out of trouble in a way which few effects can, it generates card advantage, and it deals with a broad range of creatures. It also sucks against combo, often only gets one guy (creatures are just insane these days and often need wrathing on their own), it doesn’t kill man lands and it’s a Sorcery. You can’t clog your deck up with too much stuff like this in Modern, or the really fast aggro decks will have you signing the slip before you play your 4th land and the combo decks will just laugh at you.
Expensive card drawing spells also normally fall into this category. They’re pretty horrific to draw in the early game, where they simply sit in your hand for 6 to 8 turns. Beyond that, you typically won’t need to resolve multiple copies of a card like that to win the game.
Cruel Ultimatum was the reason the 5 colour control decks of its time were called Cruel Control. It was insane when you cast it, totally reversing a bad board position, or breaking the back of a struggling opponent … all for the low, low cost of UUBBBRR. This card was awesome, but realistically how many times in a game do you need to Raise Dead, Diabolic Edict, Mind Stab, Concentrate, Whitesun’s Passage and Lava Axe in one go *more than once* to win a game?
Sometimes you’ll need to fit in some slightly indulgent card because it covers a lot of ground (as mentioned above) like Detention Sphere. These sorts of cards are fine to play a couple of precisely because of their versatility, but they are far from powerful, and they’re a bit over costed. A good aggro deck will punish you for playing too much stuff like that, but you *do* need to be able to deal with a very diverse range of threats as a control deck.
When to Play 1
A Silver bullet you can tutor for off another card ,like Trinket Mage into Relic of Progenitus, is a good example. Here you play one, because you have another card which you probably have multiple copies of which can go and get it, and it’s pretty narrow in its application. Another case might be that you have a number of removal spells, all of which are conditional, so you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Instead playing 3 Tragic Slip, 2 Doom Blade and 1 Ultimate Price,you might also just play 1 each of two different threats for the late game, offering you slight diversity – e.g. you might play a creature and a Planeswalker, meaning they might need a Doom Blade or a Negate.
4 Path to Exile
4 Mana Leak
3 Spell Snare
3 Cryptic Command
2 Vedalken Shackles
2 Detention Sphere
1 Sphinx’s Revelation
3 Wall of Omens
3 Vendilion Clique
3 Restoration Angel
2 Snapcaster Mage
2 Wall of Denial
1 Baneslayer Angel
1 Consecrated Sphinx
Path to Exile – I played 4 because there are a number of creatures in the format that you absolutely need to kill, and Path is amazing for this. They get a land, which is a pain and it makes your Mana Leaks worse, but the consequences of a number of creatures in Modern hanging around are far more substantial than this.
Mana Leak – I’d have considered playing less if it wasn’t for Liliana of the Veil and Geist of Saint Traft both of which are a bit of a nightmare especially in the early game, so I wanted to have a Mana Leak when people cast those against me.
Spell Snare – I’d have considered going to 4 given the way the metagame is going, but it’s still pretty bad against the combo decks game one and can often be less than stellar vs U/W/R. Loads of amazing cards cost two mana in modern, though, and this card is definitely one I want to see early and often, especially on the draw.
Wall of Omens – this card is pretty good against early aggressive guys, stopping you getting rolled. It’s not a card I’m happy to see against combo, especially on the draw, and draws where you cast multiples are a bit on the clunky side. That said, they’re good, smooth out the decks mana, buy you breathing room early in the game, and combo with Restoration Angel.
Vendilion Clique – pretty much invaluable against combo, but also very useful against U/W/R, where being able to take their cards is better for you than them, and being able to legend rule theirs suits you better than them too (as they are the aggressor). They are legendary, though, and increasingly bad against mid-range, which is now playing Lingering Souls.
Restoration Angel – good with all the low end creatures in the deck, and simply put, one of the finest creatures ever printed. A 3/4 creature with flying and flash for 3W would be good on its own, but clearly this deck is built to make good use out of it, both through its own creatures, and through the interaction with Shackles and opponents creatures. That said, there are times when drawing multiple 4 casting cost creatures early isn’t ideal, and I am certainly comfortable with playing 3.
Cryptic Command – Speaking of fine cards, Cryptic Command offers a wide range of utility, allowing you to put games away by tapping their guys, offering tempo by bouncing their stuff, drawing you cards and countering spells. Obviously a pretty astounding card, it is none the less 4 casting cost in a format which can severely punish sluggishness.
Vedalken Shackles – very powerful card which grinds creature heavy decks to a halt, while also pretty much defining control match-ups. It’s even good against Pod and Twin. There is diminishing returns on casting them though, so you don’t want to draw more than one, and it’s also not amazing in certain match ups.
Detention Sphere – as previously discussed, this card covers a lot of bases, but is fundamentally pretty average. They’re something of a necessary evil.
Snapcaster Mage – if a deck’s spells are good, then Snapcaster will no doubt be decent too. He combos with Restoration Angel, and allows us to cast more Paths and Spell Snares, as well as the odd late game Cryptic Command. He can be a touch slow, though. 2 is enough for him to augment the deck without risking much in the way of cluttering draws. It’s sometimes OK to cast him to trade early, but I wouldn’t want to do too much of that.
Wall of Denial – this was a Supreme Verdict until last night. This card is pretty effective at blocking the most recent Green-base deck’s threats- Loxodon Smiter, Thrun, the Last Troll and Tarmogoyf, as well as Geist of Saint Traft. The deck actually plays a fair number of creatures, and often the Junk deck would require a Wrath to kill one of theirs, so Wrath was looking pretty unimpressive. Additionally, against a lot of the aggro decks Wrath is a little slow. Wall is quicker, doesn’t kill my guys, and doesn’t die to removal.
Sphinx’s Revelation, Baneslayer Angel, and Consecrated Sphinx – the deck was a bit short on slots, and I really wanted two cards that drew cards, as well as two big threats. The Sphinx is a compromise of the other two cards, allowing me to sort of condense 4 cards into 2.
4 Leyline of Sanctity – this card is a lot better when you make it for zero before turn one. For the decks its good against (Scapeshift, Gifts, Burn, Eggs and U/W/R) it turns off a lot of cards, and they’ll seriously struggle to win, so I’m ok with drawing a second if it comes to it. They’re drastically less good if you can’t put them into play on turn zero though, so you need to do your best to have them in your opening hand. As such, I’m playing 4.
3 Damping Matrix – the match ups where I want these cards aren’t the end of the world so long as I have a good card to draw against them, so I definitely don’t need 4. In fact I considered playing 2 but I’m a little worried about my Affinity match up now that I don’t have Wraths, so I played 3.
2 Aven Mindcensor – this card is good again Pod and Scapeshift, but I already have cards for both of these decks. Birthing Pod is the major concern in that deck for this one, and if I have a little bit of extra hate against it, I think that match becomes pretty comfortable. It’s also a card I can put in over my more expensive creatures, where appropriate, and conveniently I have two of those as well.
2 Negate – these function as the 5th and 6th sideboard card against various combo decks, as well as being a decent card against other control decks, and decks which are not on my radar. I’m very keen on playing at least 2 of these in most formats.
2 Gideon Jura – I wanted a dedicated card against Junk, and combined with the Walls of Denial and the lack of Maelstrom Pulse in the current Modern metagame, I think this guy fits the bill pretty nicely (i.e. he is nearly impossible to kill, and a massive headache).
1 Dismember, 1 Timely Reinforcements – I was going to play two of these against Twin and junk, but I think if I play one and one I can probably afford to pay the life against the aggro decks to some extent. I suppose these are a little loose, and I expect that these are the most likely card to change in my deck, but I am ok with them as they are for the reasons I’ve said.
Well, that was another big article. I considered not discussing the deck itself and just discussing the subject in abstract terms, but I think the deck serves as a useful example. Anyway, that’s it for this week.