A Beginner’s Guide To Playing Blue Control In Magic: The Gathering
One of the things I always loved most about Magic, and part of the reason why the game has become so successful, is that there are many, many different ways to play. Whatever kind of player you are, whether you prefer fighting in creature combat, slinging spells or playing a long and grindy game, there is almost always a deck to suit you – and if there isn’t, you can make one!
One of the reasons why Magic: the Gathering is such a diverse game is due to the establishment of the “colour pie” – five different types of coloured mana which all represent very different play styles. By mostly (Phyrexian mana, I’m looking at you) keeping the colour pie intact and each type of mana different from the others, and ensuring the power level of each colour is balanced, Wizards have managed to cultivate a game in which many different styles of play are competitive.
In this article, I will be introducing Blue mana in depth. Blue is the colour of illusion, deceit and control – although it can be used to assist in powerful combos when combined with other colours. For mono-blue though, in general, its main purpose is to prevent the opponent from furthering their game plan, gain card advantage, and then beat them when they have run out of resources. It is all about knowing what your opponent might do and being able to play carefully to stop them doing it, and it is totally different to most styles of Magic in that you will rarely play creatures, or rarely even play cards on your turn in some cases.
For the purposes of this article, I am focusing only on mono-blue cards – mainly because if I tried to include everything blue can work well with, or playable blue/X cards, we’d be here all week! Thankfully, there are more than enough blue cards to talk about. In fact, historically, blue has been the most powerful colour – the only three coloured cards in the Power Nine are all blue, and arguably the most powerful planeswalker ever printed is blue too – however, in recent years, Wizards have attempted to change this by reducing the power level of the cards it has access to.
So What’s Playing Blue Control All About?
When playing blue control, your main game plan is to use counterspells to stop your opponent casting their creatures, and bounce spells to send them back to their hand and cost them an extra turn to re-cast them. It is all about keeping your opponent behind you in terms of number of cards in hand, by drawing more cards than them, choosing which cards you draw through deck filtering and then slowly wearing them down. When your opponent run out of cards, you can safely cast your own haymakers, or continue to play the control game and mill their library away in the process. It is a very grindy and intensive way to play, due to the length of the games and the amount of thinking involved, but it can be very rewarding to win after a marathon match. Though blue is generally better as a supportive colour, usually paired with red, white or black, there have been strong mono-blue decks in the past and it can be a viable archetype in some formats.
Whether you plan to play blue in Standard, Modern, Commander, Tiny Leaders, Pauper, or Kamigawa block constructed, there are always the same few elements which are strongly affiliated with the blue section of the colour pie, and which will be strong influences on the way you play the game. Here, I will discuss them and provide examples of some of the best spells that blue has to offer in each format.
One of the most common uses of blue mana is for deck filtration. You will see this in almost any deck running blue, in any format – the ability to search through your deck and see three or four cards at a time in order to not just draw cards, but draw the right ones. Historically there have been some very powerful blue cantrips which have seen play in every format they are legal in.
These are well-known as the premier deck-filtering spells in Eternal formats. Ponder allows you to see three cards on top and order them in any way you’d like to draw them – and then draw the best one for good measure – or at worst, lets you shuffle away everything bad on top of your library and gives you another shot at finding what you need. Brainstorm goes one further and allows you to draw three, then put the worst two cards from your entire hand back on top of your deck and potentially shuffle them away if you control a fetch land or another way to shuffle your library. Dig Through Time was so powerful – being able to look at SEVEN cards and take whichever two you like, usually for UU – that it has been banned in every 60-card format except Vintage (where it’s restricted), although if Commander players are taking notes, this should be an automatic inclusion in your deck. It’s simply bonkers.
Preordain is another spell which is frequently seen in Eternal play. Again, the ability to see what’s on top of your deck and decide to keep it, or not, before you draw is very powerful. For this reason, along with Ponder, Preordain is banned in Modern, as it would allow combo decks that run blue to look through too many cards, find their combo pieces sooner, and they would become too dominant. Instead, Modern players run the strictly inferior, but still pretty good Serum Visions – wherein you draw a card blindly first, and then Scry the top two – it allows you to set up your draws for next turn, but you can’t use it to get what you need right away. Even though it’s not as powerful as the other cards, Serum Visions still sees widespread play, which goes to show how integral card filtering can be to your game plan.
If you want to run these sorts of cards in your Standard deck, the best card that is currently legal is Anticipate. It costs one more mana than the more powerful versions, but it can be cast at instant speed, so you can be sure that your opponent won’t counter it, or hold up mana for something else and then use it at the end of your opponent’s turn if you don’t end up using it. It lets you see three cards and pick the best one to keep, while putting the two you don’t need on the bottom of your deck to clear the way for your next draw step. If you are planning on running blue control in Standard, this card should definitely be included.
Counterspells are the best way blue has to defend itself, and also the main reason why blue mainly plays instant spells that can be cast on the opponent’s turn. While being able to look through your library is great, in the end, if you’re being beaten down every turn by your opponent’s creature, eventually you will run out of life total. Countering your opponent’s spells is the best way to make sure that you can’t die before you gain control of the game.
Two iconic spells of this type, Force of Will and Daze are both mainstays in Legacy and Vintage play. This is because they are both essentially free – you do not have to spend any mana to cast them, and therefore you can afford to tap your mana on your turn to cast your threat, and still be safe in case your opponent tries to take advantage of you tapping all your mana to try and force out a big threat of their own. Daze is much better earlier in the game, and normally used as a ‘gotcha!‘ card when an opponent isn’t being mindful of it – it can quickly become useless later in the game when most people will have more mana to spare, but can be very good on turn 1 or 2 if they are trying to get a threat down early before you build up mana for your other counters. Of course, spells like this are rarely printed anymore, as they are simply too powerful for most current formats.
Counterspell is the go-to, generic identifier of this type of card. UU, Counter target spell. Classic, simple and very flavourful. Even though it can be quite a hefty cost to keep double blue mana up, it is a very effective way of making sure that your opponent’s combo piece won’t resolve, as it’s a hard counter that offers no way out. Counterspell, though, has also been deemed too powerful for Modern and Standard formats at the moment, and therefore hasn’t been reprinted in a Standard-legal set in a long time. Instead, Modern players enjoy the use of Mana Leak, which, like Daze, can be really useful early on in the game to counter early threats – and most threats in Modern will come on turn 2, 3 or 4. This makes it very playable and most Modern decks that run counterspells will have copies of Mana Leak in their 75.
In Standard, your choice is a little more limited, but there are cards out there that will do the job, if you are intent on building control. Scatter to the Winds is a generic “Cancel variant” (Cancel being the current benchmark for an acceptable Standard-playable counterspell) which also has an upside if you are casting it late in the game. The others are all variations on the more powerful counterspells seen above, but the way they are balanced is by restricting what they can counter. Negate sees play in a lot of Standard sideboards, as does Dispel, as recently there have been some very powerful spells that they can counter (cough, Collected Company), and generally they can be useful tools against other control decks to protect your threats from kill spells or counter their counters.
……The less said about this, the better.
Of course. The best three words to see on any Magic card: “Draw a card.” Blue does this better than any other colour, and as the game plan of the blue control mage is to win through card advantage, it both furthers your own agenda and provides you with more answers to stop your opponent.
Ancestral Recall, one of the Power Nine, is hailed as the best card-draw spell of all time. For a single blue mana, drawing three cards, and at instant speed, is absolutely insane by today’s standards. There hadn’t been anything close to its power level printed in years, until Khans of Tarkir came along, and with it a revisit to the Delve mechanic, and suddenly there was Treasure Cruise. Much like Dig Through Time, it’s very easy to fill up the graveyard, particularly in Modern and Eternal formats, and usually you’ll end up casting it for just U. Needless to say, when burn decks started splashing blue for this card, Wizards put it where it should rightfully be, on the ban list in every format except Commander and restricted in Vintage. Ancestral Recall is sadly only playable in Vintage, but Treasure Cruise is still permitted in Commander, and if you are running blue, guess what, you should be running this.
Many years after Recall was first printed, Wizards printed two more cards that, unlike Treasure Cruise, managed to capture the spirit of the original spell without being too good. Both playable in Modern, Ancestral Vision and Visions of Beyond can be excellent card advantage in the right decks. Ancestral Vision was recently taken off the ban list and hasn’t yet had a massive impact on the format, although it does show up in control decks across the board – if you cast it on turn 1, having three extra cards on turn 5 can easily tip the balance of the game. It also sees play in Legacy in combination with Shardless Agent, as it can be cast for free from Cascade and result in instant card advantage. Visions of Beyond is generally playable only in Storm-esque combo decks which will quickly fill their graveyards, but has recently seen play in some Modern lists which are built for control, as a late-game way to restock.
Divination is the general current day go-to benchmark for how good a card draw spell is. Three mana for two cards is reasonable by current standards. Though it’s not anything special, it’s always okay, and sometimes good. Mulldrifter has long been hailed as a great card in Limited and Pauper, and was playable in the Standard of its day, being a Divination at worst and at best, a Divination with a 2/2 flyer attached. Sometimes with flicker spells it can be even better, becoming a constant source of on-board card advantage, and can be a definite inclusion in formats like Commander.
These Standard-legal card draw spells are the current iteration of Divination. Catalog is the same spell with a slight downside, unless you are running Madness spells in which case you can use it to discard them for extra value. Comparative Analysis is probably better in other decks, however, if you cannot surge it, four mana for two cards becomes very expensive, so again you will need to build your deck around being able to cast a cheap spell beforehand in order to make it a Divination equivalent.
Glimmer of Genius is slightly different and potentially slightly better – not only does it allow you the benefit of Scrying 2 before you draw, so you get some amount of card selection, but in a deck running energy cards you will get the bonus of 2 energy as well. This could well be something to consider if you are trying to brew a blue control deck in Standard, as although it’s more expensive than the other two cards, you’ll be getting more benefit from it if you can find cards that synergise well.
Great. But How Do I Win?
While these are the three main ways in which blue will play the game, you need an additional element – a win condition. It’s all well and good filtering all the way through your deck and finding as many cards as you’d like, but sooner or later you are going to have to find something that wins the game. In most cases, blue is a supporting colour and therefore the win conditions will be found in the other colours it is being combined with – Gurmag Angler, Fevered Visions, Nahiri, the Harbinger, Celestial Colonnade, Monastery Mentor, etc. However, there are win conditions in just blue as well, even without running many creatures at all.
So what are they?
Sometimes an element shared with black, particularly in the Dimir-themed cards perpetuating the Ravnica blocks, mill is blue’s primary win condition on the colour pie. Its intention is simply to put the whole of the opponent’s library into the graveyard bit by bit, until they don’t have any cards left and lose on their draw step. This is usually a very slow win condition and can sometimes be problematic, as you have to continue to counter every threat throughout the game until the last possible card, but when done well, it can be powerful.
Though there are currently no blue mill cards played in Legacy, there has been a Modern blue deck which utilises mill as a win condition. Cards like Mesmeric Orb have a constant presence in the game and if your opponent is playing something with a lot of creatures, you can combine it with cards like Cryptic Command to keep yourself safe while also tapping their board and making Orb better. Archive Trap and Hedron Crab are both results of the abundance of fetch lands in Modern – your own fetch lands will trigger your Crab twice, and your opponents’ allow you to play Trap for free. All in all, mill isn’t a tier one deck archetype in Modern and due to its speed it probably never will be, but it’s out there and playable if you’re willing to try to build it.
These two enchantments play more into the Commander-style decks which have synergy between card draw and mill. Sphinx’s Tutelage was, for a time, somewhat playable in Standard. By playing on the fact that blue will draw a lot of cards and using that as a direct win condition as well as a route to more card advantage simultaneously furthers both areas of your game plan. Having said this, mill is generally an unpopular strategy in Commander, due to the size of the decks which make it much harder and the propensity to be targeted and killed if you accidentally mill someone’s favourite card.
Taking Extra Turns
This is a part of the game that is almost entirely under blue’s jurisdiction. Taking extra turns is great fun and can allow you to do some very busted things if you have the right setup.
As before, we start with the most powerful version of this mechanic – Time Walk. Another of the Power Nine, and once again banned/restricted in everything, this card is incredibly powerful for its mana cost and can lead to some wins in Vintage where the opponent doesn’t even get a turn before they die. No subsequent extra-turn card has come close to being this powerful.
While all of these cards are legal in Modern, they very rarely see any play. The mana cost involved is generally too high for such a fast format unless you have a deck specifically built to do it, but even these sorts of decks are simply too slow. In Commander, these cards can be all-stars; Time Warp is an oft-included card in many blue decks as taking an extra turn on turn 14 of your three-hour game can be very useful. While Temporal Mastery had a lot of hype on its release, it is generally not as good as its counterpart because unless you draw it at the perfect moment, you’ll end up spending a lot more mana on it than you really want to, and thus lessening the effectiveness of the extra turn as you have a lot more setup.
Like Temporal Mastery, Temporal Trespass was hailed as the new Time Walk when it first appeared on the spoilers, with everyone convinced it was going to be bonkers. However, it turned out that while Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time met and exceeded expectations, this card simply wasn’t as good as everyone thought. While the Delve cost wasn’t so much an issue, the UUU part just wasn’t playable in the Standard of its day, as for that mana cost there were much simpler and more efficient plays to be made. However, it remains a good card in Commander.
In Standard now, there is potential for the taking-turn card to be playable. If this is the sort of thing you like, there have been recent lists using this card along with haymakers like Rise from the Tides or Crush of Tentacles. The decks ramp out quickly, then take extra turns to set up for their big finish cards. Although since Kaladesh these decks have lost a few elements and will need reworking, there may still be a chance for this card to see more play before its rotation.
Or, to be more accurate, Planeswalker. I nearly got the whole way through this article on Blue mana without mentioning Jace once, can you believe it?
Arguably the best planeswalker ever printed, this Jace was intended to be the “ultimate” blue planeswalker. He combines control of the board and your opponent’s draw steps with card selection and a near-instant win condition that involves exiling your opponent’s entire library. Quintessentially blue in every aspect, and very, very powerful. He acts as a win condition for many decks in Legacy and Vintage, and sees play in most blue control lists, as he’s normally too good to omit. This card’s power level is simply through the roof. It was the first card to be banned in its own Standard since the artifact lands in 2005 (alongside Stoneforge Mystic), and nothing has been banned out of Standard since.
A mention should go to Tezzeret, as this card has seen Vintage play in the Vaultcast and artifact-heavy decks. This planeswalker is rarely a win condition on his own (although he can be), but acts as a powerful tutor which uncounterably puts artifacts onto the battlefield, or untaps your mana rocks so you can make even more powerful plays. He has to be in the right sort of deck to see play, but where he fits, he is a must-kill or must-counter threat.
And we’re back to Jace.
This version has only recently rotated out of Standard, but while it was legal it saw massive amounts of play and spiked to over $100 at its peak. For two mana, it gives you card selection, filtering away the worst spells, and also fills up your graveyard for Delve cards; it can be transformed as early as Turn 3 in Modern and Legacy, and copies of this card have been seen floating around control and combo lists in both formats. When transformed, he provides defence against your opponent’s board, flashes back the best spells in your graveyard or provides a win condition all on his own. This is a very powerful card and one which I expect will see more play as time goes on, now that its time in Standard is over.
So to wrap up…
Honourable Mention: Delver of Secrets
It would not be possible to write about blue without including one of the most influential blue cards of all time. Though Delver of Secrets does not inherently fit into any of the usual “blue” archetypes on the colour pie, it has single-handedly warped formats since it was printed. “Delver”, the deck archetype, is now played in Modern, Legacy, Vintage, and Pauper, and was played in Standard when it was legal as well. This efficient and cheap creature when combined with the right build and the kind of deck filtering available allows you to, nine times out of ten, have a 3/2 flyer on turn 2 which will put a serious clock on your opponent and can be a win condition in its own right. It is rare to see Delver played in mono-blue strategies outside of Pauper, which is why it hasn’t already been mentioned, however, this iconic card has put so many decks on the map that I felt it necessary to showcase it here.
So, that about wraps it up – the main playstyles of blue, what sort of spells you can expect to cast during a game and how you can win. Of course, as mentioned above, this article is entirely about mono-blue spells, and when combined with other colours, blue can provide powerful support in almost any two- or three-colour deck, enabling you to filter through the chaff and find what you need. There are very few combo decks around that don’t run blue; this should give you an idea of how powerful the colour can be, if you can play it well.
Whether you are a new player choosing a deck for the first time, a veteran looking for a new Commander list or a seasoned player looking for improvements to make to your Constructed deck, I hope this article has been enlightening, and happy brewing!
Community Question: What is currently your favourite blue spell, and why?
Thanks for reading,