Khans of Tarkir. Whatever else it is, it's a new Magic set, so it looking great is pretty much a given.
Succumbing to the allure of shiny new cards and brewing new decklists is also an inevitability for any Magic player worth their salt. Everyone has at least a bit of a brewer inside of them, if not a full brewery.
The first decks I want to brew? Control decks! Based on the look of things control may have an uphill battle, but I won't go down without a fight!
The Full Motion Picture
Standard: the final frontier. These are my brews of control decks in Standard. My eighteen month mission: to explore strange new cards, to seek out new decks and new strategies, to boldly build what no man has built before.
What will a fledgling Khans Standard look like? This is always the first question that needs answering when building a control deck, which sometimes makes bringing control to one of the first few tournaments a risky proposition.
At a glance, aggro looks powerful and resilient to hate. Mono Red, Black, and White all the have the tools to be successful. Aggressive one drops have never been better. The next obvious deck is Mono-Green Ramp with potential splash colors, and it's almost guaranteed to see a good deal of play thanks to Green having some powerful options even beyond the pushed Elvish Mystic, Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix package. After that, there is plenty of room for wedge colored aggressive and midrange decks of all kinds. What's unclear is how well any of these strategies will match up against the powerful Theros fueled mono colored decks. Even more uncertain is if a control deck will exist at all.
Control decks won't have the luxury of being spoiled and regularly bailed out by Sphinx's Revelation and Supreme Verdict anymore. The interesting thing is that even with such powerful cards available, control strategies were by no means dominant (I know, I know, it won the last Pro Tour). So what is control going to look like when all its best options have essentially been nerfed or removed completely?
Well for one thing, the composition of control decks is going to be crucial. Answers will need to be precisely correct for the metagame. Do the right answers exist? Yes. Are there enough solutions for a diverse format? Probably not. Control might only exist as a solution to a very limited slice of the metagame.
What specific tools do we have available for building a good control deck in Khans Standard?
The Search For Spot Removal
Spot removal in this Standard is rather expensive and situational. There is no Doom Blade. The Charms and Hero's Downfall are powerful options, but the two drop slot is lacking. Bile Blight seems difficult to cast when you're trying to play three colors and a bunch of tapped lands. Murderous Cut seems excellent but not in multiples, and it is rarely castable on turn 2.
Trading removal one for one doesn't look like a winning proposition. Dealing with cards like Nissa, Worldwaker, Genesis Hydra, or Courser of Kruphix is almost always going to result in a loss of card advantage. Dealing with Goblin Rabblemaster, Soldier of the Pantheon, or Bloodsoaked Champion is usually going to result in a loss of life by the time you cast your removal spell.
The Wrath of Khan
Well, if spot removal can't be heavily relied upon, what about mass removal?
End Hostilities is what it is. A five mana Wrath with a very minor upside that punishes bestow (and equipment? Yippee). Five mana is a lot when you're being beatdown by 2/1s for one. If you're on the draw and your opponent leads on turn 1 Solider of the Pantheon into two more copies of Solider of the Pantheon on turn 2 you have taken exactly twenty damage before you play your fifth land. End Hostilities won't be a build around me strategy in the same way four mana wraths are.
Drown in Sorrow and Anger of the Gods are both good situational board sweepers. They suffer a great deal from not being able to kill Courser of Kruphix. They shine against the aggro swarm decks but are more a liability than anything else against midrange.
Fated Retribution is good in theory by being able to sweep up pesky planeswalkers. Nissa, Worldwaker is particularly vulnerable in certain scenarios. In practice though Fated Retribution is very slow, and you'll more likely be near death from a Nissa before you can cast it.
The Voyage Home
Is there any way control decks can suffer through the early game and reliably dominate the late game by solidly over the top of midrange and aggro?
Treasure Cruise really impressed me when I first saw it. I tend to be optimistic when it comes to delve cards and almost always imagine casting them with a full graveyard.
Then I saw Dig Through Time and could almost imagine a time where the pain of losing Sphinx's Revelation didn't hurt so bad. The effect on Dig Through Time is a little better than drawing three cards outright. Jace's Ingenuity seems particularly outclassed in a side by side comparison since by turn 5 you should be hard pressed not to have three cards to delve away. This completely discounts the times in the super lategame where your graveyard is packed, and you can chain multiple Dig Through Times for as little as two blue mana each. Another boon for Dig Through Time is that there should be less reliance on hitting land drops every turn for control decks, since it isn't essential to cast a big Revelation anymore. Card selection should be king, finding your lategame bombs to close out the game and ditching a bunch of useless Thoughtseizes to the bottom of the deck.
Dig Through Time is very good. It even has the potential to show up in Modern, especially Sultai Control where all the fetchlands and cheap removal fill the graveyard up very quickly. The only thing holding it back in Standard is that Blue is a very weak color right now and might not have the necessary tools to support it. It also doesn't play too well when you draw multiples in the early game, or with other delve cards.
There are a couple decent card draw options, but how do we close out the game? Left to their own devices aggro decks in the format are very resilient and are capable of mounting a comeback. It's not hard to semi-stabilize and still lose thanks to the power of Goblin Rabblemaster, bestow, or Bloodsoaked Champion. So what benefits do we actually get for dealing with our opponents threats and surviving early on?
Probably falls into the category of looks better than he is. Very shiny and stylish, but why haven't you just cast Nissa and killed them already?
Very powerful at completely grinding whatever is happening to a halt. Still it suffers from costing seven, and it isn't unreasonable to imagine being overrun by a bunch of little dudes anyways.
Matches up well against plenty, and it's nice if you can dump it in the yard, however it is a very expensive investment before it actually does anything.
Kind of clunky but will get the job done eventually come hell or high water. This is really the type of finisher I want to avoid in control decks since it is slow, doesn't actually gain card advantage, and can still be disrupted by removal that would ideally be dead otherwise.
Come on! Friggin' Courser of Kruphix kills this thing!
You know you're thirsty when Stormtide Leviathan is starting to look like a tall drink of water. In all seriousness though, it's possible that this is a card in certain matchups where your opponent isn't going to have removal or fliers and it outright wins the game.
Seems about as useful as his cousin Frampt. Which is to say, not useful at all. Give the people what they want Wizards: an aggressively costed, tournament staple Leviathan! Inkwell Leviathan doesn't count and Kederekt Leviathan only counts in Momir.
We come to our last hope. Planeswalkers. Most notably Elspeth, Sun's Champion but Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, Jace, the Living Guildpact, and Kiora the Crashing Wave all finish the game eventually as well. Elspeth is positioned much more poorly than she was in Theros Block Constructed. The format will be fast enough that her six mana casting cost will be prohibitive, and three 1/1's won't necessarily be enough to stabilize. There are also more strong cards that matchup fairly well, if not outright profitably, against her, most notably Nissa, Worldwaker and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. The rest of the lot are not exactly the cream of the Planeswalking crop and appear to be situationally good rather than universally. Lastly, they all suffer the same fate to Hero's Downfall, which is that it trades fairly well against all the control-centric Walkers.
Once again, control mages had it easy with Sphinx's Revelation. Your card draw spell would generate enough advantage incrementally that it would virtually win the game no matter what was in your deck once you were casting it for ten. Khans didn't actually give us a nice expensive bomb to work with, all the good cards are just super undercosted. There aren't as many reasons to play the waiting game. I would even go so far as to suggest that the waiting game sucks, and you should instead cast some Hungry Hungry Siege Rhinos.
Now that we know what we have to work with and we're fully aware that control strategies might not be so hot during the start of Khans Standard, what would some traditional control shells looks like?
The mana is actually quite good for straight U/B Control and some amount of Radiant Fountains go a long way to offsetting the life loss from Read the Bones. This list suffers from the classic "can't close" problem and would likely need more Prognostic Sphinxes, or a similar finisher to close out the game. Despise is a great dredge enabler and is a way to efficiently deal with all the super powered creatures and planeswalkers. It also plays nicely with Thoughtseize early on, and it's possible Despise might start appearing more regularly in maindecks.
The Mardu shard gives us access to Drown in Sorrow, Anger of the Gods, and End Hostilities, which all in all sounds like one very eventful storyline for a night out. Mardu suffers from not really wanting to play the control role, and more specifically, a lack of card drawing.
Reminiscent of the BUG control decks that the superteams piloted to success at Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx (now featuring more actual bugs). Sultai combines the two best colors right now (Black and Green) with the worst color that has too much pride to go anywhere (Blue).
The first few delve cards will always be great, and I recommend you sprinkle delve cards in every deck you can. The issue will be finding the right balance, since drawing too many delve cards at once can cause hiccups to your gameplan.
Sultai Ascendancy is a card that caught my eye early. It essentially guarantees you draw gas the rest of the game and fills up your yard with delicious delve fodder for the rest of the game. It's possible there's room for a deck with four copies of Sultai Ascendancy and four copies of Dig Through Time for all the card selection. It might be overkill in conjunction with Courser of Kruphix but definitely worth investigating further.
I'm hesitant to introduce Kiora to Goblin Rabblemaster, I doubt they'll see eye to eye.
Hero's Downfall, Thoughtseize, Sylvan Carytid, Courser of Kruphix. Four of the top four best cards going into Khans all in the same deck. If there is a control deck that survives the rotation, bet on some form of Sultai.
Reports of My Death Have Been Slightly Exaggerated
Is control dead? Not yet. Traditional control decks may be taking a backseat in the coming Standard season though. The focus towards "all creatures, all the time" has never been more pronounced. Aggro creatures are very good. Midrangey creatures are very good.
It will take time to learn how control decks will fit into the upcoming format. It's possible if the format gets overloaded with midrange and midrange/control removal style decks traditional control decks may sneak back into the metagame.
You can expect the coming Standard season to have lots of combat and interesting decisions and hopefully not too many people throwing Genesis Hydras at each other.
What do you think? What breakout strategies will emerge? Will control decks survive the rotation and what cards will push control towards being viable?