Controlling Standard After Magic Origins Matt Gregory
I’ve already gone over some first impressions of a broad range of the new offerings from Magic Origins, so today I wanted to focus on what the new core set brings to my favourite archetype in the game – control.
Standard control decks have been on something of a downward spiral in recent months. Although both Blue-Black and Abzan control decks put up strong showings at the last Pro Tour, the emergence of the Den Protector/Deathmist Raptor package gave midrange decks the tools they needed to out-grind control decks whilst continuing to apply pressure. Esper Dragons never became the new Caw-Blade as some predicted – it ultimately lacked the tools to stymie the development of the green decks as well as finishing them off in time.
So what changes with Magic Origins? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t “everything” – but there are some significant upgrades to available to the existing decks which may allow control players to fight back against the green menace (full disclosure – I have absolutely been a part of that menace).
I spoke briefly in my last article about the power of Languish and how I expect it to dramatically improve control decks’ chances against various midrange builds. -4/-4 is pretty much exactly what tap-out control decks want to have access to as it can scythe down opposing creatures without killing off their own Siege Rhinos or Tasigur, the Golden Fangs. “Pure” control decks, along the lines of the Blue-Black decks that Shouta Yasooka and Adrian Sullivan played at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, would likely prefer to see the number scale up a little bit due to the same cards, but this shuts down what I expect to be a sufficiently large enough proportion of the field that draw-go players won’t turn their noses up.
Green-Red Devotion and other Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx decks will be forced to either dramatically slow their own development to play around Languish or risk having their whole board and game plan wiped away with a single card. Abzan Aggro decks could be pushed out of the format completely now that there’s an effective answer to almost the entirety of their creature base, including the previously problematic Rakshasa Deathdealer and Fleecemane Lion. Anyone showing up to a tournament with Elves, Blue Devotion, White Weenie or any other midrange or aggro deck which relies heavily on creature synergies will probably just be blown away by Languish. Even Monored may not always be fast enough to outrace it.
The downside to Languish is that it is, at best, a temporary answer to Deathmist Raptor – to the extent where I’ve been focusing my own testing mainly on playing them both in the same deck. The best way I’ve found so far of fighting that level of card advantage from an opponent is to have access to the same engine myself. I’ve been tuning my Sultai Control list a little more based on my best guess at the makeup of the upcoming format and here’s where I am right now:
2 Ultimate Price
2 Drown in Sorrow
1 Back to Nature
2 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
3 Disdainful Stroke
1 Reaper of the Wilds
2 Self-Inflicted Wound
Generic answers backed up by potent card advantage – pretty much exactly how a good control deck should look. I also like that by using the Megamorph package you get to be quite proactive when the situation calls for it – one of the draw-backs of playing a draw-go control deck is that you’re constantly reacting, and if you don’t have the correct answer for a card at the right point, you can fall behind surprisingly rapidly.
This is a part of why I think that true draw-go decks have failed to consistently perform at the top level. In order to effectively play an entirely reactive strategy, you need to have answers that are good against virtually all of your opponents’ cards. That hasn’t really been possible before. If you ran Ultimate Price as your preferred two-mana removal spell, you could lose to a single Fleecemane Lion. If you ran Bile Blight instead, you’d beat the Lion but lose to the Surrak, the Hunt Caller that followed it up.
That doesn’t even take into account the horrible clash of mana requirements created by the need to play some number of Bile Blights alongside Silumgar’s Scorn, and Dissolve next to Hero’s Downfall. When I started testing Blue-Black around the time of the release of Dragons of Tarkir, I gave up on the deck largely because I kept losing games to drawing the wrong mixture of spells and lands.
This, I suspect, may be changing though. You still have the option of playing three colours to have access to a broader range of answers (such as Sultai Charm in the list above), but now we also have Clash of Wills to provide a generic answer at two mana that doesn’t care which threat your opponent has dropped. That was something that Blue-Black was sorely lacking before.
Here’s my first draft of a Blue-Black draw-go control deck after Magic Origins:
3 Drown in Sorrow
2 Self-Inflicted Wound
2 Jorubai Murk Lurker
1 Perilous Vault
2 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
2 Disdainful Stroke
1 Dragonlord Silumgar
Here we have answers right the way up the curve that handle just about anything our opponents can reasonably throw at us. My belief that Abzan Aggro will be pushed out of the format is why I’m happy to run Ultimate Price as a two-mana answer that I think will be effective the vast majority of the time, and if that assumption is proven wrong we still have Languish to handle that, and Self-Inflicted Wound out of the board.
The absence of Thoughtseize from the list may raise eyebrows but this isn’t actually the kind of deck that really wants that sort of effect. Discard is much better when backed up by pressure, as you’re always trading down on mana and tempo when you use discard – this deck has no real pressure of any sort, nor is that the game it’s trying to play. I also feel that the inclusion of Clash of Wills reduces the need for other generic answers, especially ones that cost you life and have you tapping mana on your own turn. When you want to be casting a two-mana spell on your opponent’s second end step and a three-mana spell on your opponent’s third turn, you don’t usually have the space to open with a one-mana sorcery given the number of tap-lands you need to play to make the mana function.
Where Thoughtseize would still be great in these kinds of decks is in mirror matches, as being able to either steal your opponent’s win condition for one mana or take a counterspell to force through your own is very powerful. I could certainly see still wanting some number of discard spells out of the sideboard should draw-go surge in popularity again.
The main downside to playing Blue-Black in the early stages of the new format will I suspect be an uptick in the volume of aggressive red strategies created by the reprint of Goblin Piledriver.
Monored has always been a headache for control and that doesn’t really change, even if Clash of Wills helps to some extent. You do get good sideboard options but the difficulty has always been avoiding being within burn range by the time you stabilise. Exquisite Firecraft amplifies that problem as having spell mastery active is likely trivial for any Monored player, and uncounterable burn is a real issue. At least it isn’t entirely clear that it’s a card which will see extensive play. The “burn range” problem is why I’m bringing in Jorubai Murk Lurkers for these match-ups as well as Drown in Sorrow – I’ve never liked Murk Lurker very much as tapping 2 mana to gain 2 life isn’t a great deal in a world where Atarka’s Command sees play, but staying at a healthy life total is probably essential enough that you have to run it over and above the Radiant Fountains.
If I have a reservation about draw-go control right now, it’s that whilst we have all the answers and card draw we could ask for, Blue-Black really lacks a good finisher. Let’s take a look at some of our current options:
Most of these either turn on our opponent’s otherwise dead removal, are hideously slow, or in the case of Sphinx’s Tutelage, possibly just terrible. There will be times you need a resilient way to close out a game quickly, which is why I’ve opted for Pearl Lake Ancient to begin with, as it’s the fastest of the hard-to-kill win conditions we have, but it’s not a card I’ve ever been in love with. Once you start playing Pearl Lake it can easily tie up your mana turn after turn as it keeps being bounced back to keep it alive, and there is a real cost to sending three lands back to your hand. Silumgar, the Drifting Death has always been too slow (and too counterable) for my liking but might well end up being better as at least it’s tough to get rid of once it’s on the board. To say I’d love to have access to Nephalia Drownyard in Standard right now would be a massive understatement. Hell, I’d gladly accept a Stensia Bloodhall if I was offered it.
The obvious solution would be to go back to splashing white for Dragonlord Ojutai, but the non-bo with our own Languishes combined with turning on our opponent’s makes me wary of that as an option. An interesting possibility is splashing red instead for Keranos, God of Storms – it’s pretty hard to kill and while it would require cutting Perilous Vault, it’s not the worst answer to Deathmist Raptor in its own right. They keep coming back, Keranos keeps gunning them down again.
Keranos isn’t a quick kill condition but it controls the board effectively while it chips away at our opponent’s life total, which makes the lack of a quick close more acceptable. It does rather awkwardly switch on the otherwise stone-dead Dromoka’s Command so I’d likely want to keep in one Pearl Lake Ancient if I went down that road, but otherwise it’s definitely something I plan on trying out.
I did try out some first drafts of Blue-White control to see how that worked out but I left the archetype unconvinced that a classic draw-go control deck is feasible. The new two-mana removal spells in Magic Origins – Swift Reckoning and the returning Celestial Flare – gave me hope that there might be enough good removal for the deck to have a chance, but the new spells just don’t solve White removal’s issue of being very situational. You have the same access to counterspells but the difference between a Hero’s Downfall, which always kills its target when you want it to, and a Banishing Light or Celestial Flare, which can only deal with threats at preordained times, is significant.
Even if Blue-White doesn’t work as a pure control deck though, there is some opportunity to take advantage of some intriguing new cards in those colours. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy has a lot of inherent power but isn’t the easiest to use to its full potential. A control deck aiming to play primarily at instant speed will struggle to get the best use out of Jace’s Snapcaster Mage impression given that it only works at sorcery speed. A more tempo-oriented deck that can make better use of the flashback effect might not be very excited by a 0/2, even if it does function as a Merfolk Looter.
Somewhere in there though, there’s a combination of two proven tournament-level cards tacked on to a planeswalker that can tick right up to six loyalty whilst protecting himself (and you). That’s a lot of good abilities on one card at a very low mana investment. After writing recently about the powerful synergy between Ojutai’s Command and another new two-drop, Harbinger of the Tides, I’ve been looking at the possibility of control/tempo hybrid shell that used all three cards and aims to operate not so much along the lines of draw-go but the old Flash decks that ran creatures like Augur of Bolas and Restoration Angel to generate advantage at instant speed.
1 Disdainful Stroke
2 Hallowed Moonlight
4 Arashin Cleric
2 Surge of Righteousness
2 Valorous Stance
This is a little less creature-heavy than I’d say was ideal but we can’t help it that Restoration Angel isn’t in the format. The idea is to use Harbinger of the Tides and Swift Reckoning to make attacking as awkward as possible for our opponents, letting us to stall the game until we can take over the board with the combination of Jace, Telepath Unbound, Narset Transcendent and End Hostilities. Planeswalkers that are hard to remove via combat but start snowballing card advantage if left alone combined with cards that punish an opponent for attacking or overextending on to the board means that it should be possible to effectively lock opponents out of the game through raw volume of card advantage whilst remaining at a relatively safe life total.
Mercifully for control players who don’t want to play Black, Stormbreath Dragon does seem to be on the decline, but that would remain a major problem card for Blue-White if it came back in numbers. The lack of generic answers available to White also means that some games will simply be lost due to the removal spells you have failing to line up well with your opponent’s threats. For every game you win thanks to Valorous Stance, you would likely lose one to the fact that you aren’t playing Last Breath instead. That’s a fact of life for White control decks going forward and if the format ends up being especially wide open, it may prove hard to find a winning balance of removal spells.
The other flaw with playing a non-black control deck is simple – no Languish! I really do believe that Languish will redefine the format. It could easily force non-control players into playing more and more expensive threats in order to run a creature base which can cope with a Languish, and that itself is playing right into the hands of a dedicated control deck. Besides, if it comes to the point where Languish no longer reliably sweeps up opposing creatures, we can always just fall back on Crux of Fate without feeling bad about it. I can really see Standard becoming a heaven for control players until the release of Battle for Zendikar – and I’m definitely not complaining about that. Until next time, I hope you enjoy being in control.
Community Question: What Magic Origins card do you think will make the most impact on Standard?
Thanks for reading,