I've now played Bant Control to the Top 8 of two Grand Prix, with both tournaments being cut short for me by fast aggro decks.
Bant's Niche in Standard
In Charleston, I was knocked out by G/W Humans, which I feel is a good matchup so long as your deck has four Supreme Verdicts and the proper support cards.
This past weekend in San Antonio, though, I was convincingly destroyed by Tyler Lytle and his B/R Zombie deck, which is proving to be the best and most powerful deck in Standard. While the Zombie matchup isn't hopeless (I feel about 40-45% to win the match), I don't think there's a way to substantially improve the matchup for Bant without dramatically changing the deck.
So Zombies is a tough matchup, and Zombies is on track to become the format's defining deck. As strange as it sounds, though, I don't take this to be bad news for Bant at all.
Players will begin to show up at tournaments hoping to prey on aggro decks, and these players will likely enjoy a high level of success, as evidenced by Conley Wood's Top 4 finish with his Thragtusk / Huntmaster of the Fells Midrange deck. Bant will be there to gobble these decks up.
- 2 Armada Wurm
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 1 Borderland Ranger
- 4 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 4 Thragtusk
A simplified version of Standard might look like:
Zombies < Midrange < Bant < Zombies
In this scheme, I'd most want to be the Bant player since Bant versus Midrange is by far the most lopsided of the three matchups. Think of Bant as the scissors in our rock/paper/scissors game, except that if you throw with a real good flick of the wrist your scissors can beat rock anyway!
Bant vs. Midrange
To put it simply, Bant Control can't lose a game 1 to Midrange if it gets a decent draw. Such extreme claims are dangerous to make in MTG, but this is truly one of the most lopsided matchups I've ever encountered.
What makes it so one-sided? Zombies and G/W Humans are sometimes fast enough to win the game before Bant gets started with its end-game plan, but midrange decks aren't. Centaur Healer, Huntmaster of the Fells, and Thragtusk do nothing against Bant. These creatures attack for less damage than an end-of-turn Sphinx's Revelation gains.
The only way the midrange player can put on a reasonable clock is by playing out a bunch of guys, in which case the Bant player can generate both card and tempo advantage with a single board sweeper. What's worse is that Thragtusk does a stellar job of holding off midrange ground creatures. Two Thragtusks trade over the course of two long turns and still leave both players up five life, an undeniable advantage for the one who wants the game to go long.
What about the decks that have other goals besides attacking? Some midrange players turn to planeswalkers or Underworld Connections to try for a grindy game, but these plans are simply outclassed by large Sphinx's Revelations. There's a small window from about turn 4 to about turn 7 where these cards can do some serious damage, but if the game gets beyond that point, it'll be too late for generating small advantages.
Sometimes a powerful card like Rakdos's Return can steal a game, but Bant plays a healthy number of counterspells, so these desperate gambits depend on the Bant player not having the right answer at the right time.
Jund, Junk, Tokens, and U/W/R (though I don't count the counter-heavy U/W Flash in this category) are all easy matchups for Bant Control. I've figured out that its mostly game 1 that's so lopsided because Slaughter Games is legitimately a very good card against Bant and Duress can lower than chances of the Bant player "having the right answer at the right time." However, I still feel that the Bant player comes out on top when things go according to plan, and I'd be happy to play these matchups all day long, sideboard or no.
Maximizing the Value of Your Cards
At this point, I've given you a reason why you should consider Bant for your next Standard tournament, and I'd now like to discuss the game play of the deck.
At any given time, your goal is to survive and make your land drops. Ignore the opponent's life total in the early game. On an empty board, I'm likely to cast Amass the Components over Thragtusk just to ensure that I hit my land drops for the next few turns and am prepared with the appropriate answer when my opponent makes their move.
If you're not under pressure, X=4 is pretty ideal for your first Sphinx's Revelation. From my experience, this is a number where you're very likely to either draw into another card draw spell or be able to fight for a while with whatever other cards you draw into. Of course, if you have multiple Revelations in your hand, flooding out is not a danger, so you can feel free to cash in the first copy for three, two, or even one card.
All things equal, you should wait as long as possible to reshuffle your Elixir of Immortality since you don't want to draw it again and it has the potential to generate a valuable effect in the late game. The late-game goal is to cast a Revelation, draw into another Revelation, and then reshuffle. Until that point, I would only want to reshuffle if the density of Sphinx's Revelations is greater in my graveyard than it is in my library.
However, top priority is to not leave your Elixir vulnerable. Consider the matchup and whether your Elixir will be safest in play (watch out for Abrupt Decay!), in your hand (watch out for Duress!), or in your library (watch out for Nephalia Drownyard!).
Second priority is to use your mana effectively. For example, if my Elixir is in play against an Abrupt Decay deck, I will never want to tap out; in this case, I might reshuffle the Elixir earlier than normal so that I can tap out freely for Sphinx's Revelation. Similarly, against a fast red deck, I will also activate the Elixir whenever I have two free mana to avoid the situation where I tap out and die with the Elixir in play. This is unfortunately what happened in my semifinal match against Tyler Lytle since I never had two mana that wasn't needed elsewhere.
Be aware of the seven-card maximum hand size when you play Bant Control. One nice thing about Elixir of Immortality is that you can play it at your convenience, saving room for one extra card in your hand. Be careful of flashing back Think Twice with a full hand since it'll force you to either discard or cast a spell on your main phase, which is often not ideal. This is also a strike against playing a large number of Divinations because you'll simply have to discard if you cast it on turn 3 on the draw.
In control mirrors, a "my-turn Revelation" is significantly weaker than a "your-turn Revelation" because of the fact that you'll discard immediately when you play it on your own turn. Being constantly aware of the value of your own and your opponent's Revelation at each point in the game is an important skill and will help inform your decisions about when to tap out and when to hold up mana.
Many people have suggested Reliquary Tower, but it's not worthwhile. For one thing, in any kind of normal matchup, you've already won the game by the time you're discarding from large Sphinx's Revelations. More importantly, sometimes you need to discard in order to reshuffle with Elixir. If you can't discard, you're more at risk of decking yourself. Keep in mind that if you ever make a Tamiyo emblem that you can never discard from hand size, but the ability to return a card from your graveyard to your hand is optional.
Not Maximizing the Value of Your Cards
Here comes the fun section where I give you my blessing to play loose and sloppy! Bant Control doesn't run on small margins—not in the slightest—and many games will play out in a way where you don't have to maximize the value of your cards. If you know you'll be able to resolve a Sphinx's Revelation soon, you can and should spew off your cards at the first opportunity.
Now of course, even though some of the plays you make will appear loose and sloppy in terms of general MTG values, your decisions will never actually be loose and sloppy. When you're getting less than maximum value from your cards, you're doing so in order to stall your opponent or improve your short-term board position.
An example is Wrathing away your own Thragtusks; I love Wrathing away my own Thragtusks! Say my opponent has two or three ground creatures and I can choose between casting Thragtusk and casting Supreme Verdict. General MTG principles might say to use the Verdict first so that my Thragtusk can come down afterwards and have a chance of dominating the game. But in this deck, that's not Thragtusk's job at all. Instead, I would play the Thragtusk, which will force my opponent to spend removal on it, play more creatures, or slow down; any of these three cases is very good for me in the situation where I have a Supreme Verdict and am buying time for a Sphinx's Revelation.
Similarly, Dissipate can often be used early, even on cards that don't appear game changing. You can always find more Dissipates when you get to the late game, and casting them early is a good way to get to that late game. The existence of Cavern of Souls is another good reason to cast them early since you may not even be able to counter what you want to when the time comes. Just try to think of the most devastating play your opponent is likely to make at each point in the game; if and only if you can't beat it some other way, hold onto your Dissipate.
Don't worry about attacking. No more than one game in a hundred will actually be a damage race with Bant Control, so you shouldn't attack if it means putting a single point of your own life total at risk. Often, time on the clock is more valuable than the opponent's life total, and sometimes I won't even make the physical effort to tap my creature when the game is shaping up a certain way.
Be very aware of the clock when you play Bant Control. Play as quickly as you can without being careless and be willing to concede early if it looks like you can't win.
Once the game gets to a certain point, stop worrying about playing perfectly and worry about finishing the game. Just grab the first available lands to cast your spells; don't worry about tapping your Islands and leaving your dual lands up, like you might otherwise. At a certain point, taking time on decisions like that is more likely to cause a draw than to prevent a loss.
Matchups and Sideboarding
Thirty mana sources is a lot, and I often sideboard one out. I cut a Farseek against blue decks and a Cavern of Souls against non-blue decks. The exceptions are the pure mirror match and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben decks, against which you want as much mana as possible.
Always leave in at least one Supreme Verdict because it's a part of the plan for locking up the late game. You also never know what surprise creature your opponent might have in their sideboard.
Keep a bare minimum of card drawing in your deck to make sure you don't flood. Four Revelation and two Think Twice is the bare bones minimum, and you should only go that low if you're bringing in other high impact cards like Sigarda.
It may seem strange to sideboard out Elixir against a red aggro deck, and indeed I would leave it in against Mono-Red or a burn-heavy build of Zombies. However, this matchup is more about board control than your life total, and Elixir doesn't contribute to that at all. The main problems are Falkenrath Aristocrat and their other big spells, which is also why I don't overdo it on ground defense like Centaur Healer.
Bant Control (Mirror Match)
Feel free to play Restoration Angels over one or two of the Thragtusks if they're particularly heavy on planeswalkers. It's very rare to win this matchup with damage, but Thragtusk is the best answer to opposing Thragtusks and you don't want to leave yourself too vulnerable.
This plan presumes a deck that's pretty reliant on planeswalkers and Collective Blessing. If they have stronger aggressive potential, feel free to cut some of the permission.
U/W and U/W/R
Sideboarding here depends on their exact list. Until you know that they don't have Runechanter's Pike, you should bring in Pithing Needle. Until you know that they don't have Geist of Saint Traft, you should leave in three Supreme Verdicts on the play and four on the draw. Leave some Azorius Charms if they have both Thundermaw Hellkite and Runechanter's Pike. There are few hard and fast rules in this matchup.
Always remember the primary game plan, which is to play for the long game. Have faith that you'll win as the game drags out and it'll make all of your decisions more clear-cut.