What Will Happen to Blue-Red Control in Ixalan Standard?
Where doth the torrent of Gearhulks blow?
If you are a control player who spends any amount of time playing Standard, and you haven’t already read Gabriel Nassif’s article “Blue Control Decks Post-Rotation”, I would highly recommend you give it a read. Eric Froehlich also tackled the topic of post-rotation Grixis Control recently, and other writers have also begun to jump on board.
All caught up? Good. Let’s talk Blue-Red Control in Ixalan Standard. UR has been my deck of choice since the Copycat days (which was my favourite matchup), and it’s been pretty consistent for me ever since. Naturally, I want to continue playing control in Ixalan, but it’s important to look at the data available, especially from the recent SCG Open Dallas, and make an informed decision.
First thing’s first, if you came here to read whether or not you agree with my conclusions, you’re going about things in a less than constructive manner. Also, keep an open mind and remember that control should always be reactive, so local metagames will definitely shape your decklist differently than say, my personal list or any list you may see at the Pro Tour. This article is more of a conversation I want to have with my readers, especially those interested in the fate of UR Control. The comments below and subsequent discourse are as much a part of this article as the body itself.
Unfortunately for anyone wanting to pop in, look at a decklist, and pop back out, we need to spend a moment talking about the threats we need to answer once Ixalan drops, and the most efficient answers we have to those threats with UR Control.
Alright, fine. I’ll give you a decklist before we get started. Here’s my pre-rotation UR Control list, tweaked a bit for my local meta.
UR Control – Pre-Ixalan
4 Aether Hub
4 Spirebluff Canal
4 Wandering Fumarole
1 Blighted Cataract
1 Fetid Pools
1 Canyon Slough
1 The Scarab God
3 Torrential Gearhulk
1 Chandra, Flamecaller
4 Magma Spray
2 Harnessed Lightning
3 Essence Scatter
1 Void Shatter
1 Hieroglyphic Illumination
4 Glimmer of Genius
2 Sweltering Suns
2 Hour of Devastation
3 Chandra’s Defeat
2 Incendiary Flow
2 Goblin Dark-Dwellers
1 Torrential Gearhulk
1 Bane of Bala Ged
Hey look, almost none of those cards are rotating! (Well, except for most of the sideboard…)
Now then, let’s look at the threats of a post-Ixalan world.
While a few archetypes are clocking out with rotation, there are some threats we’ll have to continue to deal with in the coming year.
Almost nothing that defines Ramunap Red is rotating. The biggest hits the deck is taking with rotation are the Red Deck Wins staples that are supplementary to the “you can’t block, you lose” and “lands are also Shocks” strategies that were pushed so heavily in the past year.
Against a perfect opening hand, it is definitely dodgy to try and beat Ramunap Red with UR Control. It’s not impossible, but you can’t just sling burn spells and hope for the best. For example, Sweltering Suns is often an automatic win against a developed board, but if your opponent follows up with Hazoret the Fervent and you’re tapped out, you’re basically toast. Depending on what your opponent is planning, you’re probably better off trading spell-for-spell until you can back up a sweeper with a Negate, Essence Scatter, or Censor (por qué no los tres?).
Remember: As you are learning how to play a particular deck, first you learn how to play your hand, then you learn how to play your opponent, then finally, you learn how to play your opponent’s hand. (No, not in the Emrakul, the Promised End kind of way.)
While black and white both have some tools to offer against Ramunap Red such as Fatal Push, Cast Out, and Fumigate (Bontu’s Last Reckoning isn’t really an option here), it’s not an impossible matchup. Hazoret and stray burn spells are the biggest concerns.
Energy Archetypes (Temur, 4c, RG)
I have personally had the pleasure of piloting RG Energy with a playset of Glorybringers. I was testing it out for a friend and after making a few tweaks (including some sideboarded Cast Outs), it easily took down a local FNM on my second attempt. Far more impressive was Autumn Burchett’s recent win at England Nationals with 4c Energy (UBRG), sporting a powerful mix of varied threats and versatile answers.
While all variants of the energy archetypes are powerful and can quickly take over a game with a single threat, I still view this as a favourable matchup. Unless your opponent lands a Prowling Serpopard and your hand is full of blue spells (which has happened to me, but Serpopard isn’t seeing much play right now), it’s a fairly straightforward matchup: kill what you must, counter what you can’t, set up your opponent for a sweeper whenever possible.
Granted, Fumigate is definitely useful for control players worried about the size of the threats energy archetypes can pump out, and hexproof shenanigans. I don’t personally believe black has anything to offer the matchup that red and blue can’t already handle, unless you’re hoping to catch Bristling Hydra alone with a Doomfall.
While the loss of Thraben Inspector, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Archangel Avacyn greatly hurts Vehicles, powerhouse cards such as Heart of Kiran, Toolcraft Exemplar and Scrapheap Scrounger are still around. The heart and soul of what made Vehicles work was essentially Kaladesh block constructed with a splash of Gideon tribal.
In the past, simply casting Sweltering Suns and going to IHOP to celebrate wasn’t enough to beat Vehicles. There were still those pesky vehicles that essentially gave each new creature haste and couldn’t be killed unless you had the exact correct instant in your hand. Holding up Harnessed Lightning with no extra energy? Too bad, here comes Heart of Kiran for 4 damage.
Fortunately, the absolute best card in Hour of Devastation, hands down, no questions asked, is Abrade. (Leave a friendly comment below with your opinion on Abrade and why it is or isn’t the best card of 2017!) With Gideon, Ally of Stolen Games leaving the picture, Abrade will hopefully shore up this matchup adequately.
Yes, Winding Constrictor is still a deck and Walking Ballista is still good. This archetype comprises a much smaller chunk of the current Standard metagame, but might end up exploding with the +1/+1 counters subtheme of Ixalan. Be prepared for a matchup similar to that of 4c Energy, capable of explosive starts, varied threats, and huge board states.
Knowing how to answer each threat is important here: what do you counter, what do you kill, what do you put off until the next sweeper? Black definitely offers some great tools against GB Constrictor, especially Fatal Push, Unlicensed Disintegration, and Bontu’s Last Reckoning. Once again, white brings Fumigate and Cast Out to the table, but Solemnity is heavily underrated here as well. Either colour is worth consideration if Constrictor becomes a problem again.
Finally, we have the dreaded control mirror. Depending on how the Standard metagame shapes up after Ixalan, control mirrors will either become a regular occurrence (Pro Tour Kaladesh, for example) or quite rare.
What one needs to be concerned with most is varied threats in the control mirror. UR Control tends to follow the traditional “land-go” control formula, with a little variance in the way of The Scarab God, The Locust God, or the occasional planeswalker. Land-go mirror matches tend to heavily reward player skill, while playing against a Superfriends deck (a control deck that plays a high volume of planeswalkers) might become a bit hairy.
Against Superfriends or other control-style decks that have strong, varied threats, there’s a steep learning curve on which threats to prioritize. If a planeswalker sticks, it demands an answer within 1-2 turns. Losing Wandering Fumarole hurts immensely, so a Gearhulk or Scarab God has to come down at some point to deal with it. If Superfriends becomes a popular archetype, Dynavolt Tower may also end up picking up in popularity.
Superfriends’ biggest weakness is threats that are landed after tapping out for a planeswalker, and well-timed reactive spells. Of the control archetypes, Superfriends routinely has trouble with hyper aggressive strategies like Ramunap Red.
The Archetypes of Ixalan
The interesting thing about Ixalan’s effect on the archetypes of Standard isn’t so much what it has to offer preexisting strategies, but rather which of the four pushed tribal archetypes will end up at the top, and how many iterations of each theme will pop up.
Out of the four Ixalan tribes, Vampires seems to be the weakest. At best, it’s an aggro deck with some life drain. Don’t expect vampires to pose a threat by themselves until Rivals of Ixalan. Some individual vampire cards might fit nicely into preexisting archetypes.
While Merfolk definitely have some better tools than Vampires, including access to Opt and Spell Pierce, I expect the full-on tribal theme will also become stronger in Rivals of Ixalan. There is potential for a control-heavy tempo deck in the meantime, so try not to get blown out by Spell Pierce.
Out of the low to the ground archetypes of Ixalan, Pirates appears to be the biggest threat for control. The likes of Hostage Taker and Admiral Beckett Brass are going to make things extremely messy. Pirates also have access to Spell Pierce, which is going to muck up the math when trying to resolve a sweeper card. Unless you’re about to have something taken away by Beckett, it might be worth it to wait an extra turn to cast your sweepers.
On face value, Dinosaurs looks like it will be a force to be reckoned with in Standard, EDH, and potentially Modern. Casting Gishath, Sun’s Avatar as early as turn 4 is possible, albeit unlikely without the perfect hand. Still, several dinosaur creature cards have the potential to tip the scales or win a game outright and should not be underestimated.
It might be the case that Dinosaurs takes too “long” to ramp into its biggest threats, or that its threats are large enough that simply allowing one to go unanswered is game over.
Before we draw our final conclusions, let’s take a look at some of the primary threats we’ll need to be aware of with UR Control.
Jace, Cunning Castaway
Any 3 mana planeswalker that’s halfway decent will see constructed play. Jace can quickly take over a game and will need to be answered as fast as possible.
Judge’s Familiar is a good card, and Siren Stormtamer is going to make things difficult if we don’t plan ahead.
Kopala, Warden of Waves
In the ongoing saga of mana cost issues, Kopala is going to do its best to preserve the tempo of Merfolk tribal. Targeted removal is difficult with Kopala in play, and expensive board wipes have the potential to get tagged with Spell Pierce. These two spells will go hand in hand for the next 2 years.
Ashes of the Abhorrent
Ashes may never see play in the maindecks of Standard, but it is a potential sideboard card against any deck playing Torrential Gearhulk. Abrade unfortunately comes up short against enchantments, so you’ll need to get creative if Ashes becomes a problem.
Lovers of hand disruption rejoice: Duress is back! Prepare to have your hand picked to pieces. On the play, Spell Pierce will be vital to protecting your hand. On the draw, you’re losing Glimmer of Genius and have to hope your Torrential Gearhulk doesn’t get hit with Harsh Scrutiny before you can cast Glimmer from your graveyard.
Speaking of Spell Pierce (only this entire article), while control players might sport a 2-2 split of maindeck/sideboard copies of Spell Pierce, you can expect tempo/aggro players to pack anywhere from 2-4 copies, waiting for you to tap out for a removal spell.
Gishath, Sun’s Avatar
And with that, we’re left with Dinosaurs. Obviously there are more than two threatening dinosaurs, but if I were to pick those most likely to run away with a game, Gishath is near the top of that list. With haste, a big body, and the ability to cheat out multiple dinosaurs, you’ve gotta hope you’re not dead from Gishath’s first swing and you have a board wipe in hand.
Now we get the crux of the matter.
Up to this point, nearly every threat is answerable with the cards available to blue-red. Aside from casting two damage-based sweepers in a single turn, or double-blocking with Gearhulks, or having a developed board stolen by The Scarab God, we straight up can’t answer Carnage Tyrant.
How Did Control Do at SCG Open Dallas?
I originally started this article the week of the Ixalan prerelease, but pushed its completion so I could include results from the SCG Open Dallas and Standard Classic. So then, how did Control do at both events?
At SCG Open Dallas, two UW Approach decks made it to the Top 8. David Thomas and Jim Davis played mostly similar lists with some variation. Similarities include classics such as Glimmer of Genius and Fumigate. The main difference with Ixalan is the addition of Search for Azcanta, which is a great card draw engine on its own, but also helps dig for Approach of the Second Sun (twice). The only creatures in the deck are sideboarded Torrential Gearhulk and Regal Caracal.
Looking at the Standard Classic in Dallas, 1st place went to Zac Elsik with Grixis Tezzerator, which might seem like a control deck except Zac is a madman who loves his fringe cards and artifacts. I can appreciate that. Michael Villaviencio made it to the semifinals with Grixis Control, which is almost card-for-card the pre-Ixalan UR Control list with a playset of Vraska’s Contempt.
Are Fumigate and Vraska’s Contempt just that good? That’s the question we’ll have to seriously consider moving forward. UR Approach doesn’t need creatures to win games (though it can, after sideboarding). Grixis Control is basically the classic UR Control list with the support of Contempt and some powerful sideboard options.
So, Does Blue-Red Control Have a Place in Ixalan Standard?
All of the above leads to two possible solutions: Increase the density of threats in UR Control (for blocking, and winning, which is important so I hear), or stop playing blue-red.
No, I don’t mean stop playing UR Control entirely. You may have noticed a common theme throughout this article: white and black have a lot to offer control, and while up to this point we haven’t necessarily “needed” this help, threats like Carnage Tyrant may force us to reconsider this position. Yes I get it, Carnage Tyrant didn’t really do much this past weekend. It doesn’t have to. Against a developed board, Carnage Tyrant is mediocre. Against a Control deck that doesn’t find an unconditional sweeper, it might as well be the entire deck. It wins on its own.
Some will turn to Grixis to gain access to Vraska’s Contempt and Bontu’s Last Reckoning. Others (like myself) are strongly considering a small splash of white for Fumigate (and while we’re at it, Cast Out and possibly Ixalan’s Binding) because it solves most of our problems in one fell swoop. Perhaps I’ll end up deciding UW Approach is strictly better because its win condition is resolving a single spell (twice). Perhaps I’ll decide Torrential Gearhulk is too good to pass up.
One thing is for certain. If Carnage Tyrant sees any amount of play in Standard, even as a spicy sideboard option, UR Control will not be viable. If its unplayability against literally every other archetype out there means it slowly gets shaved out of most decks, the flexible and straightforward nature of UR Control may become more attractive than a 3-colour land base or reliance on a double-sorcery wincon. Time will tell.
Thanks for reading! I hope you made it all the way to the end, because this turned out to be far longer than originally intended. I hope the blue-red mages out there found this helpful, so share your thoughts below and I look forward to continuing the conversation as we figure out the new metagame!