Removal and Countermagic - The State of Control in Standard and Modern

It’s no secret that I’m a control mage at heart.  Occasionally I dabble in combo decks or tempo decks, but my passion in magic is simply saying "no" to my opponent.  With this knowledge in mind, I figure it’s no secret what type of deck I’ll be playing in a few weeks at the MTGadept Representationals, so I’ll run you through the two decks I’m playing for Standard and Modern.


Standard:

Blue-Red Control is far and away the deck that gained the most from Hour of Devastation.  The cards Abrade, Supreme Will and Hour of Devastation have given Blue-Red some serious gas to cover up all the holes it had in its strategy.  A huge problem for the deck has been resolved planeswalkers, with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in particular, turning empty board states into lost board states.  Hour of Devastation is one of the best board wipes printed in standard for years, and this is the best deck for it.

Some people have been trying to play Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh in Grixis shells or simply by splashing black in UR control just for Bolas.  But despite his individual power, his abilities only make him powerful on an empty board.  If you’re facing down even just two or three creatures, he may just be a seven mana removal spell.  This isn’t something I want from a seven mana planeswalker.  Resolving a planeswalker like this should win you the game in at least 75% of matches and Bolas simply doesn’t do that.  For this reason, I’m not playing him.  I’ve had some people suggest playing him in the sideboard and relying on Aether Hub and one or two cycling lands to cast him.  I don’t mind this plan, because there are definitely some matchups where him is powerful, such as the ramp and control matchups.  Still I prefer other sideboard cards in those matchups which don’t require me to make sure I have black mana available off of my hubs.

So why am I playing this deck?  Well aside from the fact that I’m just always playing control, Blue-Red has all of the tools necessary to beat every deck in standard.  At the time of writing, it is currently the 3rd most played deck on MTG Goldfish, beneath UW Monument and Mardu Vehicles.  The Vehicles matchup got a lot better with Hour of Devastation and Abrade, and is now a relatively favourable matchup.  UW Monument is a difficult one as it depends on how the cards matchup.  You have all the tools to beat them, but you have to draw those tools at the right time, otherwise an out of control monument could be the end of you.  Thankfully, Spell Queller doesn’t hit Hour of Devastation, otherwise I would argue that this is a bad matchup.

Some other strategies that I would consider unfavourable would be the RG Pummeller decks (If they resolve a Hydra or Pummeller), Ulamog decks and Gift of the God Pharaoh decks (which isn’t putting up results but have run into quite a few times on MTGO).  I don’t think that it’s worth playing Crook of Condemnation just for the pharaoh decks as they barely take up any of the meta game, but if it increases in popularity we may have to play Crook.


Without further ado, here is my list for UR Control at the moment:

Maindeck:
3 Abrade
3 Censor
1 Chandra, Flamecaller
3 Disallow
2 Essence Scatter
4 Glimmer of Genius
4 Harnessed Lightning
3 Hieroglyphic Illumination
3 Hour of Devastation
2 Magma Spray
1 Negate
2 Supreme Will
4 Torrential Gearhulk

4 Aether Hub
1 Irrigated Farmland
6 Island
6 Mountain
4 Spirebluff Canal
4 Wandering Fumarole

Sideboard:
1 Chandra, Flamecaller
2 Dispel
1 Dragonmaster Outcast
2 Magma Spray
2 Negate
2 Summary Dismissal
2 Sweltering Suns
3 Thing in the Ice


The mainboard is pretty stock standard, the only thing that stands out is the mainboard Chandra.  I added the Chandra as an additional win condition and board wipe.  The Zero ability, while rarely used, is also useful if you’re being flooded with useless cards.  It’s a resilient threat.  While Torrential Gearhulk is fantastic, with the rise in the number of Abrade being played in decks, I wanted a threat that was resilient and didn’t care about removal, Chandra offers the best of a quick clock, board control and card advantage, with a relatively high loyalty.

In terms of Sideboard, we have extra countermagic, notably Summary Dismissal for Ulamog decks, which are by definition, terrible match ups.  The Sweltering Suns and the Things in the Ice are for aggressive creature decks such as Zombies and Mardu.  TiTi is also useful in the Pummeller matchup.  Magma Sprays come in against Scrapheap Scrounger and Zombies.  The only card I’m unsure on is the Dragonmaster Outcast.  This card is obviously powerful, but it’s essentially a six-drop creature that doesn’t do anything unless you untap with it.  The beauty of it is that since it only costs 1 mana, it’s easy to hold countermagic up after casting it.  So I believe it should be good enough in any grindy matchups such as BG or Control mirrors, but it could easily be another copy of Chandra or some other Planeswalker such as Jace, Unraveler of Secrets.  All in all I feel pretty confident playing UR Control in Wellington, as I feel it’s most versatile deck in the format and it has the answer for anything that can come at it.


So on to Modern.  In my opinion, Modern is in a fantastic place right now, with no decks really taking over the format.  Online, Affinity is putting up the most results at about 10% with Grixis Shadow following close behind at 9%.  However, you really can take Affinity’s results with a grain of salt, because its win rate is completely dependent on how many people are ready for it.  For this reason I’m agreeing with the majority of the community in saying that Grixis Shadow is the best deck in the format.  This is obviously no surprise to anyone but I love that there is a completely ‘fair’ deck by Modern standards, running at the top tables on a regular basis.  It’s the sign of a healthy metagame in a format that’s been notoriously hard to balance and I hope that it continues to hold true for the many months to come.

But I’m not playing Grixis Shadow, because I’m a control mage and I also hate playing discard spells.

I’m playing Blue-White Control. While not the only deck I play in modern, it’s basically the only one I ever take to high-stakes tournaments.  It’s what I’m most familiar and comfortable with.  However, I’ve been having some issues deciding on the type of build I would like to be playing.  As many pro players will tell you about all eternal formats, it’s better to play a decent deck that you are comfortable playing, than playing the best deck which you aren’t too familiar with.  I think to some extent this also holds true for the way you build the deck as well.  I have two builds for UW Control right now, one which I would consider the ‘best’ version, and the other which has a playstyle I’m more comfortable with.


Here is the ‘Best’ version I have come up with and have been testing online a lot.


Maindeck:
1 Blessed Alliance
1 Condemn
4 Cryptic Command
2 Detention Sphere
1 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
2 Gideon Jura
1 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Mana Leak
1 Negate
4 Path to Exile
4 Serum Visions
2 Snapcaster Mage
1 Sphinx's Revelation
4 Spreading Seas
4 Supreme Verdict
1 Think Twice
1 Timely Reinforcements

4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Flooded Strand
1 Ghost Quarter
2 Hallowed Fountain
6 Island
3 Plains
1 Polluted Delta
3 Tectonic Edge

Sideboard:
1 Celestial Purge
1 Disenchant
2 Dispel
2 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Negate
1 Pithing Needle
3 Rest in Peace
2 Stony Silence
2 Timely Reinforcements


UW Control is always a highly meta-dependent deck, and the best build fluctuates regularly.  In my experience, the best part about playing UW Control is that it is never terrible in Modern.  It may not be the greatest deck in the world, but it is rarely poorly positioned in the metagame.  But the deckbuilding side of UW Control is one of the most important aspects of playing the deck.  Copying the latest and greatest list from MTGO will NOT immediately convert into wins, because those lists change daily, and also those lists are made by people who prefer to play the deck in a specific way, therefore it may not actually be the best build, but be the best for that player.

But looking at the top decks on MTGO, such as Affinity, Death's Shadow variants, Eldrazi, Tron and Burn, Spreading Seas is an amazing card in this metagame and cannot be overlooked.  I actually hate this card, and I hate playing it, but I cannot deny its strength right now.  As I mentioned I have two builds.   So what’s good about this version?  Well it plans on winning using Colonnades and Planeswalkers, which are highly resilient threats.  This version is more spell-based than my other version, which is more creature-based.  In terms of non-win condition cards, both lists are almost the same.  The main difference comes from the focus on the way we choose to win.  Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Gideon Jura are so effective at winning the game, whilst also annoying our opponent by locking up the board.  The mainboard Timely Reinforcements helps to catch-up in the early game, especially on the draw, and a full playset of Supreme Verdict kills everything playable in Modern.  Supreme Verdict is our premium card against Grixis Shadow and Eldrazi, as well as other grindy creature-based decks such as Abzan Company.

For comparison, here’s the list I’m more comfortable playing:


Maindeck:
1 Blessed Alliance
1 Condemn
4 Cryptic Command
2 Detention Sphere
2 Dragonlord Ojutai
1 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
1 Gideon Jura
2 Negate
4 Path to Exile
2 Restoration Angel
4 Serum Visions
2 Snapcaster Mage
1 Spell Snare
4 Spreading Seas
3 Supreme Verdict
2 Wall of Omens

4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Flooded Strand
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Glacial Fortress
2 Hallowed Fountain
5 Island
1 Minamo, School at Water's Edge
3 Plains
3 Tectonic Edge

Sideboard:
2 Baneslayer Angel
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Celestial Purge
1 Disenchant
2 Dispel
1 Pithing Needle
3 Rest in Peace
2 Stony Silence
2 Timely Reinforcements


Or for a more direct comparison, here are changes in numbers from list one to list two:


-1 Jace, Architect of Thought
-1 Sphinx's Revelation
-1 Gideon Jura
-2 Mana Leak
-1 Timely Reinforcements
-1 Supreme Verdict
-1 Think Twice
-1 Polluted Delta
-1 Island

+2 Dragonlord Ojutai
+2 Restoration Angel
+2 Wall of Omens
+1 Spell Snare
+1 Negate
+1 Glacial Fortress
+1 Minamo, School at Water's Edge

Sideboard:
-1 Negate
-2 Geist of Saint Traft

+1 Supreme Verdict
+2 Baneslayer Angel


Essentially, we are increasing the amount of win conditions in our deck, as well as the speed of those win conditions, at the cost of our ability to gain raw card advantage.  This means that compared to list one, we have a worse matchup against any Death’s Shadow or GBx matchup.  We also incidentally have a worse matchup against Eldrazi because our cards don’t quite line up as well.  On the flip side, we can win quicker, which is better against any decks that beat us late game, such as Tron and Combo such as storm or Ad Nauseam.  We also have a slightly better matchup vs. aggressive decks such as Burn, Collected Company decks, and Affinity.  The Burn matchup in terms of the resource fight isn’t that much better than normal, but having the ability to win quicker gives us more of an edge.


So, the specific things that bug me about playing version two are the following:

  • Wall of Omens isn’t great at the moment, as it’s useless against affinity, bad against Titanshift/Tron and Combo decks, and doesn’t properly block creatures in Grixis Shadow or Eldrazi.  On the flip side, in the matchups that it’s good, it’s incredible, and it’s never dead in game one anyway because it still draws a card and can potentially save a few life points.  It’s just that it’s not as good as it used to be.
     
  • Spell Snare hits almost nothing of value in Grixis Shadow, Tron or Eldrazi.  But it’s amazing in almost every other matchup.  We just hope we don’t draw it in the bad ones.
     
  • Removal is at an all time high, so Dragonlord Ojutai and Restoration Angel aren’t as resilient as they used to be.  However the number of Path to Exile in the format has dropped quite significantly since the adoption of Fatal Push, and Push does not kill Ojutai.  We also still have the Elspeth/Gideon backup plan so not all is lost.
     
  • Due to a lesser amount of card advantage, we are much weaker against control decks than we would be if we used list one.  However the only control deck performing well is U/W Control so I think I’m pretty happy to sacrifice this.


All in all there are pros and cons to both builds and I think I’m leaning towards playing the Dragonlord Ojutai version given that I’m more comfortable playing with Ojutai and Resto Angel, being able to turn the corner significantly quicker than other builds.


What do you guys think?  Is there anything I haven’t thought about? Let me know in the comments.  Also, don’t forget that there’s more than just the title trophy on the line.  We have many side events all weekend, such as the Standard, Modern, Vintage and Legacy trophies, as well as awesome friendly events such as chaos drafts, on demand drafts, commander pods and Limited 2HG!


Haven’t qualified for the Title Trophy?  Never fear!  We’re running Last Chance Qualifiers for the trophy on Friday all day on demand, and even if you’re qualified already, you can win up to two byes by coming first in LCQ Pods!
 

Look forward to seeing you on LCQ weekend!

 

-Written by Rhody Nilon