"[Reid] seems like a man who is going to be Farseeking an above-average amount of the time. He's probably gonna want us to go get some Overgrown Tombs and Breeding Pools in control decks."
-Patrick Chapin in July*
Patrick Chapin: a man who knows me better than I know myself. I couldn't say that I'd ever played or seriously been interested in playing a green-based control deck before in my life. At the time his Farseek comment struck me as odd.
Well Patrick's obscure prediction from three months ago had slipped my mind until this week when I finally set my sights on new Standard. And guess what... I want us to get some Hallowed Fountains and Temples Gardens into control decks.
But I'm getting ahead of myself! I'm not Patrick Chapin and many of my readers aren't either. I myself had to go through a long and rigorous process before I came to this revelation. Today I'd like us to walk through this process together and by the end hopefully everyone will understand why I want us to put Hallowed Fountains and Temple Gardens in control decks.
We're gonna consider the challenges that Return to Ravnica Standard is likely to present and the best ways we can approach them. Step one though is to recognize what tools are available to us.
The top priority for any control deck is its end game. If we fail to make the end game strong enough everything else falls apart. What's the point of protecting yourself making your land drops and preparing to face every possible threat if you're still able to flood out and lose once you get to the late game? If we have a strong late game and a weak early game we might have a mediocre deck. If we have a strong early game and a weak late game we have a deck that doesn't work. We have nothing. Let's be sure to avoid that.
One way of course to have a strong late game is simply to load up on powerful cards. Here's my list of the most appealing "finishers" for a control deck in new Standard. These are the cards that will allow us to pull ahead as the game drags on or close things out once we establish control.
Staff of Nin
Entreat the Angels
Sigarda Host of Herons
Gisela Blade of Goldnight
Sorin Lord of Innistrad
Garruk Primal Hunter
Huntmaster of the Fells
Vraska the Unseen
Jace Architect of Thought
Jace Memory Adept
Tamiyo the Moon Sage
Sphinx of the Chimes
Nicol Bolas Planeswalker
Chandra the Firebrand
Liliana of the Veil
Liliana of the Dark Realms
That's a lot to work with particularly in terms of planeswalkers—like Jace and Tamiyo—and creatures—like Lone Revenant and Niv-Mizzet—that can generate value each turn they stay on the board. We'll have to postpone any final decisions about finishers though until we consider other aspects of the deck and what the format is going to demand out of a finisher.
It's certainly possible that some kind of ramp or planeswalker midrange strategy will be competitive in Return to Ravnica Standard. A deck like that could use early game defense and a large collection of the above cards to take over a game. For today though what we're interested in is blue control. Card drawing is an extremely valuable part of any deck that's geared for the long game. Not only does it help us to tighten our grip on the late game and prevent us from flooding out but it also helps us to smooth out our draw in the early turns and find the answers we need to survive. This format has a plethora of good card draw options so I'm confident that blue control is a good place to be.
Sign in Blood
Amass the Components
Jace Architect of Thought
Jace Memory Adept
Between the life loss and the color-intensive mana cost I don't envision a blue deck wanting Sign in Blood. Jace Memory Adept is worse than Jace Architect of Thought for anything besides a dedicated mill deck and playing more than four copies would be very extreme. Diabolic Revelation is generally worse than Sphinx's Revelation for a deck that has access to both blue and white.
After scratching those three off the list we're left with nine card draw options of—in my opinion—comparable power level. Some are new cards some are old cards that we're used to seeing and some—Divination and Amass the Components—are old cards that we aren't used to seeing. Those cards used to sit on the sidelines and watch their instant speed cousins get all the glory but that no longer needs to be the case. Between the printing of Cavern of Souls and the rotation of Mana Leak the incentive to play permission is at a low point and that reduces the need for instant speed card drawing.
I believe there's a lot of flexibility in which card draw spells we can choose and a lot of it will depend on a given deck's mana curve. It's worth noting that white red and black all offer playable card draw spells but that there's already enough in mono-blue that card draw alone won't be a strong draw towards any of those colors.
The final key ingredient for a control deck is a good board sweeper. With the brutal efficiency of creatures in modern Magic we won't have the time the cards or the mana to defend ourselves using only spot removal.
Here we finally feel ourselves being pulled towards a color other than blue. Red has one-sided sweepers that are immensely powerful for a deck that plays its own creatures. In exchange though they're overcosted for a pure control deck. There are no Pyroclasms no Whipflares and no Slagstorms as cheap ways to help us get to the late game. Aside from the unimpressive Rolling Temblor red's sweepers can't even handle a Geist of Saint Traft very well!
White is the place to be here. Supreme Verdict is high in the running for best board sweeper ever printed and it comes at a very nice spot on the mana curve. Terminus and Planar Cleansing have powerful and unique effects that could potentially be very useful under certain conditions also.
The New Standard Metagame
Now we know our assets and our options. Still though we're just shooting in the dark unless we can get a rough outline of what threats we'll be facing.
If there's one sure thing it's that Zombies will be a top deck right out of the gates. It's an easy port of a successful deck that already exists in Standard and Block Constructed; it loses almost nothing and has some potentially big gains in shocklands and Lotleth Troll. Zombies is not difficult to beat with a control deck but we will definitely definitely lose to Zombies unless we build with it in mind.
Thragtusk is among the best cards in Standard and is the single best card against Zombies. It's good in a wide range of decks and is easily splashable. If there's a second sure thing it's that there will be plenty of Thragtusk decks in new Standard commonly with Restoration Angel as well. What Thragtusk means for control is that we cannot run on thin margins; it's very difficult to grind out Thragtusks with Divinations and removal spells. There's no good way to handle a Thragtusk so the best approach is to build a deck that doesn't care about it. We want an end game that goes completely over the top of Thragtusks and Restoration Angels.
Though Delver in its current form will no longer exist Geist of Saint Traft is another of the format's best cards and mana fixing is good enough to ensure that it will still see plenty of play. Supreme Verdict Rolling Temblor legend rule and blocking with something like Huntmaster of the Fells are the best answers to Geist.
There will be decks built around every legal planeswalker (sorry not you Tibalt). Pithing Needle Oblivion Ring Detention Sphere Planar Cleansing (though not in combination with the first three) and permission are the best answers to opposing planeswalkers. Creatures and burn can be acceptable too.
There will likely be some sort of Bant Midrange deck Miracles Mono-Black Control and Tokens all in various incarnations.
We need not worry about all of those decks (in fact blue control will have a colossal inherent advantage against many of them) but we do need to respect a couple of the unique and deadly threats of new Standard.
- Geist of Saint Traft
Zombies can be brutally fast; we'll need relevant early plays. Zombies do not like to stay dead; we'll need Terminus or removal that exiles creatures. Zombies has reach in the form of burn; we'll need life gain.
Blue and white provide a good start with Terminus Detention Sphere Jace Architect of Thought and Sphinx's Revelation offering a nice shell. It's lacking in the "relevant early plays" department however so that's what we should look for in a third color. Red offers Pillar of Flame and green offers Farseek. With Pillar being the format's most efficient early game removal and Farseek being the single best way to smooth out U/W's mana curve I'd rate the two as roughly equal additions to the control shell. The tiebreaker is that where red can offer some interesting but less-than-crucial card draw options green offers Thragtusk which is the best way to stabilize against Zombies and other beatdown decks.
Black offers some appealing fringe options but nothing indispensable and nothing that would improve the Zombie matchup (other than maybe Sorin Lord of Innistrad) so we can set the color aside for the time being.
The shell of our deck should look like:
Winning the Game
The final question to answer is that of how to officially win the game. Jace Tamiyo and Sphinx's Revelation do a nice job of pulling us ahead in the late game but they can only actually kill the opponent in very roundabout ways. Because of Zombies' reach and Thragtusk's persistence we should look for a trump card that can drop the hammer on an opponent who just doesn't want to give in.
This is where we'll really miss M12 and Scars of Mirrodin block. The Titans are gone Consecrated Sphinx is gone Wurmcoil Engine is gone and Karn Liberated is gone. What we have left is a bunch of midrange planeswalkers and value creatures. Sure Olivia Voldaren and Niv-Mizzet Dracogenius will dominate if they stay on the table for a few turns but they lack the ability to immediately swing a game that something like a Grave Titan had.
Entreat the Angels is the most powerful win condition available and it's downright insane if you can miracle it at the right time. I believe it would be possible to make a dedicated Miracle deck like Alexander Hayne's Pro Tour-winning Block Constructed deck but that's a job for another day. For an ordinary control deck using Jace and Sphinx's Revelation as card draw an unacceptably low number of the cards we see will be under miracle conditions. Given that Entreat is overcosted and unexciting.
Next we can look to Gisela Blade of Goldnight as a trump card. No army of any size is going to stand a realistic chance against Gisela. However Zombies has plenty of removal Oblivion Ring and Detention Sphere are sure to be popular cards and there's still the dreaded Zealous Conscripts. Turning on these cards feels like an unacceptable liability.
We could try to fight the good fight with Armada Wurm or Niv-Mizzet or any of a dozen other things but I have one more idea that might just be crazy enough to work.
Why Win the Game at All?
This idea can only be possible because of the existence of Sphinx's Revelation. Simultaneously generating massive card advantage digging deep into your library and pulling yourself out of reach of creatures and burn represents everything a control deck wants to be doing in the late game. Most importantly though is the fact that each progressive Revelation becomes more powerful until there comes a point where no amount of lucky topdecks from your opponents can possibly keep up with you.
By recycling removal permission and Sphinx's Revelations we can ensure victory 100% without officially having to kill our opponent.
Elixir of Immortality allows us to recycle our deck and ensures victory as the game drags on. Importantly it does so while only taking up a single slot and having no adverse impact on the mana curve. Elixir is also a reasonable card in its own right as a cheap source of life gain that is very welcome against Zombies. Note though that we need not officially deck our opponents and we're not in trouble if the Elixir gets countered or destroyed. We will most commonly win by repeatedly clearing the board and attacking with an uncontested Thragtusk. We can also win with Jace's ultimate by pulling a powerful card out of the opponent's library. Elixir is just there as insurance.
The general game plan for the ultra-late game is to tick up planeswalkers and repeatedly clear the board. The time to crack Elixir of Immortality is the turn before a big Sphinx's Revelation if and only if there's another copy of Revelation in the graveyard. The goal of course is to use one Revelation to draw into another.
An annoying side effect of the Elixir plan (although I certainly won't lose any sleep over it) is that it reduces the value of flashback spells. We should omit Snapcaster Mage since flashing back our most powerful spells will only weaken our deck as we reshuffle. Think Twice is not ideal for the same reason but it fits the mana curve so well that we should make an exception for it. If we were able to free up one or two slots Divination would be the next card to add.
While I could see time becoming an issue for this deck in a tournament setting I do think things would be manageable. An opponent who elects not to concede in the face of repeated Sphinx's Revelations for ten will put himself at risk of losing the match 1-0-1. Even if things go awry our sideboard packs a number of heavy-hitting creatures that can steal a game in a timely fashion.
Shocklands are bad for a deck like this since we want all of our mana available every turn after the first but we also cannot afford to take damage from our lands. A few copies are worthwhile simply to increase the value of Farseek.
As previously mentioned the value of permission is at an all-time low but for a deck that wants to lock up the late game like this a small amount is integral. Essence Scatter isn't embarrassing but Cavern of Souls makes it unreliable and the real reason for permission is not creature decks anyway. As the main purpose is late game insurance the extra mana on Dissipate over Negate is not a major problem so we should favor the more powerful and versatile permission spell at least in the maindeck.
Azorius Charm is a relatively weak card but in these colors we have slim pickings in terms of cheap removal. In my (limited) testing an early flipped Delver was one of the biggest problems for this deck and having one extra way to reset it is welcome. Azorius Charm also represents an instant speed answer a way to cycle towards Sphinx's Revelation and a potential source of life gain by giving Thragtusk lifelink.
The sideboard is pretty general with the goal of being able to handle the threats of a diverse field. With Phantasmal Image gone the hexproof legends skyrocket in value and have the potential to steal easy games from opponents who sideboard out their sweepers. They also serve as great ways to pressure planeswalkers and a way to adjust our game plan according to the round clock.
So that's the process by which Mr. Chapin's prediction has come to pass—the process by which I find myself today recommending a Farseek control deck. Return to Ravnica Standard still has plenty of time to evolve and perhaps to surprise us but I do believe that this is an archetype that has potential. At worst it's a good jumping off point for anyone interested in pursuing control.
* http://www.starcitygames.com/events/120729_buffalo.html (32 seconds in)
I am Rakdos. I'm extreme and uncompromising. I want power for the sake of power and no amount will ever be enough. I refuse to be shackled by rules and I have no interest in acting the way people think I should act or playing MTG the way people think I should play MTG. In game my goal is to put my opponent's back against the wall and give them no room to breathe. I deprive them of resources wait for them to stumble and finish them quickly.