Sultai Control was my first attempt at control in the new Standard format. Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix seemed to be vital pieces to the Standard puzzle, but my experiences against devotion decks in the beginning of the Khans of Tarkir Standard format made me abandon ship quickly. Devotion died down little by little, but it was too late because I fell back to the dark master of creatureless control. I developed a spicy U/B Control deck that utilized both Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time with a full complement of eight fetchlands. The four off-color Flooded Strand gave me the delve strength to abuse the barely legal card draw package that only exists in Standard now.
The week before the Open Series in Richmond back in November, I decided to throw together an Esper Control deck I was toying with online and play a few matches with it. When the mana came together, I couldn't lose, destroying all green decks and U/B Control decks that crossed my path. Even decks like Mardu were huge dogs to the Esper machine, with Temur being the Achilles' heel. I piloted the deck to a smooth second-place finish, falling to a favorable matchup in the finals because of the risky mana. I only played lategame card draw, so I was dependent on hitting land drops through the massive scrying machine of twelve Temples.
This plan worked match after match, except when it counted the most. I finished in such a high place that I knew I couldn't abandon Esper Control and decided to use it for the first and last PTQ in my area. I again destroyed the competition, but that was no easy task. I mentioned the onslaught of powerful mages that descended into my small neck of the woods, but I managed to find myself in the finals again. It was game 3, just like the Open Series in Richmond, but once again, I fell to my own mana issues. Neither of these games had sketchy keeps either. Each game 3 had three lands, and I never got there with the correct colors or additional land drops.
I still held my Esper deck in high regard because I won so many matches, but what good is a deck that doesn't seal the deal? I think Esper Control is super powerful, super underrated, but has an inherent risk with the mana. I've tried adding a 27th land and even a 28th land, but at that point I began to question the white. Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Elspeth, Sun's Champion provide a one-two punch that will take down any foe, but is it worth it? I have determined, at least for now, that it is not. The win conditions in U/B Control are almost as good, and without the additional enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, some bright options open up.
I promised on Twitter that I'd provide you all with a U/B Control deck that has been dominant for me in live and online play. I haven't been losing those games to mana, and after sideboard, it has the feel of a lean, killing machine. The draws, the lands, and the flow of U/B Control are super consistent even with a slight drop in power level. Let's talk about the benefits of U/B Control and an explanation to some of the card choices:
Esper is Great, but U/B is Good Enough
Esper beats up the green decks, Mardu decks, and aggro decks in an easier fashion than U/B Control. I've been reminded in my battling that it doesn't matter how pretty the win is, and that is a huge reason why I've dropped the white from my control deck. This doesn't mean I'm retiring Esper or permanently playing U/B, but it's hard to justify a deck that has guaranteed losses embedded in its destiny. I don't care what changes you implement in Esper Control, like swapping End Hostilities for Crux of Fate, dropping all early spells (including Sorin, Solemn Visitor), or changing the manabase. The efforts of adaptation will be done in vain and just delay the matches that rob you of a victory you should have easily had. This scenario can exist in the world of two-color decks too, but those are few and far between.
U/B Control abuses Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. This little planeswalker was a valuable soldier in Esper but was too hard to defend. With all of the Temples, it was tough to fire anything off besides a Thoughtseize prior to casting it, which ended up not being enough defense most of the time. There were many times in testing where Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver couldn't even come down on turn 3 due to the additional tapped lands that were a necessity to the three-color strategy. U/B Control typically has a Thoughtseize/Despise and then a Nullify/Bile Blight in the first two turns to ensure the safety of the three-mana planeswalker. We all know the power of Ashiok in a world of Abzan decks, and it was just a matter of protecting it early on. With U/B Control, I do not sideboard out Ashiok against any matchup besides Mono-Red Aggro. I use the cheap planeswalker as the primary win condition and provide additional support with Prognostic Sphinx.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion isn't necessary for control victory. There are phases in Magic where if you want to win with a control deck, you have to play the win condition of the era. This was true for Elspeth, Sun's Champion of Khans Standard and Aetherling last year. With the printing of Silumgar, the Drifting Death and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, U/B Control has more toys to play with in the win condition realm. The Sorin + Elspeth combo was a super-fast way to close a game out, but that's not something I weigh heavily in my deck choice consideration. If you find yourself going to time often, then I suggest Esper Control still, as the flashy defeat of opponents at the hands of lifelink soldiers is great, but the methodical U/B Control victory gives the same match slip result.
I absolutely loathe Pearl Lake Ancient, and for that reason it's been retired to the sideboard. The lack of evasion, its worthless abilities against non-blue decks, and a price tag of seven mana earned it a bench spot rather quickly for me in testing. Pearl Lake Ancient is an absolutely must-have against control mirrors, however, so it'll always be included in my U/B Control lists. Trying to win the control mirror without it is a headache, but I don't sideboard it in against any other decks besides Abzan Midrange due to the amount of removal they still have after sideboard. It has been surprisingly easy to dominate without a dense amount of win conditions in the maindeck. I'm used to jamming planeswalker after planeswalker once the stabilization process begins, but I'm experienced in the reactive control game as well. This version of U/B is less reactive than most but is still a draw-go competitor.
The thing we can do with U/B that we couldn't do with Esper is use two-mana spells now. I've found myself cutting two-mana spells before all of the others in Esper Control because the game started on turn 3 the majority of the time. If I had to cast a spell on turn 2, then I'd be forced into a situation where I couldn't cast my spells on time for the rest of the game. My hands would contain two or three Temples with one untapped land at the most. This creates difficult decisions that can be avoided when a third color is dropped, which is the conclusion I quickly reached.
The two-mana spell that I slammed in my first U/B Control deck was Nullify. Nullify is easily my favorite card in the deck, stopping heroic creatures in one match on turn 2 and a deadly Stormbreath Dragon in the next match on turn 5. The new(ish) Essence Scatter hybrid is definitely a card that acts as Doom Blade of old, dealing with creatures early and later on for the price of two mana. If I was on the play every match, then I'd never cast a Bile Blight again game 1, but because of that I had to create a two/two split. Bile Blight is a card that causes disappointment after disappointment, but after you Nullify a Siege Rhino and Wingmate Roc, you'll want to play the full four. Even in the control mirror, it stops Silumgar, the Drifting Death easily. I don't know many control opponents that want to take a Nullify with one of their precious Thoughtseizes, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.
The Spicy Ones
It's hard to be unique when playing the most popular control deck out there, but you all know me well enough by now. You know that I won't play Divination or Jace's Ingenuity on the principle that they're terrible cards. I've made a career flying by my colleagues that are tapping out on turn 3 to draw two cards and know by now that the slow method can get you killed. Jace's Ingenuity is another one of those disappointments that won't land in a Soorani 75 as long as Treasure Cruise is around. The instant aspect is the only debate those in favor of it can spout, but with all of the fetchlands, early disruption, and Nullify/Bile Blight package, Treasure Cruise might as well be an instant. I rarely have to pay more than four mana for the banned powerhouse.
If Concentrate was legal, I'd play it over Jace's Ingenuity and not think twice about it.
At this point, it's the duty of control players to find ways to abuse Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time. These cards are simply too good and need to be utilized fully. I have two copies of Treasure Cruise in the deck currently, and it's been fantastic. The 27 land allows for redundant interaction early on, removing creatures and keeping the board safe, then eventually chaining card draw easily. I can see a third Treasure Cruise making the deck at some point, but with Tasigur, the Golden Fang being a two mana 4/5 on turn 3 half the time, I want to give him some time in the limelight. I have nothing against anyone who wants to jam Divination, Jace's Ingenuity, or other mediocre card drawing spells, but in this part of town, we go big or go home. Use the good stuff.
Why doesn't anyone play Silence the Believers?! This card is absolutely amazing in every matchup besides the control mirror. It is the best possible answer to Ashcloud Phoenix, slays Wingmate Roc and its buddy, acts as a board sweeper against all of the green decks as they try to play around Crux of Fate, can be cast on their turn and is always a surprise, and the list goes on and on. It's one of those cards that I always wanted to include in Esper Control, but Utter End was necessary to keep a maindeck answer to artifacts/enchantments that could be problematic. Silence the Believers is a card I abused at Pro Tour Journey into Nyx and is a card I've never forgotten about since. It was the glaring benefit of being only U/B Control at that tournament and needing a card that exiled creatures against the R/G Aggro menace. This in conjunction with the early removal package makes Crux of Fate almost obsolete. The reason why I'll always pack sweepers, even in formats that don't have the rush abilities, is because I have to keep the community honest. Treat Silence the Believers as a mini Perilous Vault or Crux of Fate in the majority of situations.
This next piece tends to be on the unpopular side in the U/B Control community. I don't think Perilous Vault is good at all. I played them originally, and without having Crux of Fate it was an absolute necessity. With the mere existence of a board sweeper in black, midrange and aggro decks have been holding back regularly. For this reason I've even dropped one of the Crux of Fates to the sideboard, using spot removal and countermagic to help keep the battlefield calm and clear. It's worked exceptionally well, and I've rarely had a moment where I wish I had a Perilous Vault. There have been awkward times where a random black or red enchantment has caused a massive headache, but it's not worth using the heaviest mana investment card option we have. I maindeck Thoughtseize, bring in Negate/Disdainful Stroke, and use win conditions typically unaffected by enchantments or artifacts, so Perilous Vault isn't a necessity. I have one in the sideboard still to have that one out to a messy board, which can be dug up via delve spells being cast one after the other. It's another card that I never want game 1, and I only bring it in against decks that have a large combination of planeswalkers and creatures. What U/B Control really boils down to is the power of the card draw and the consistency of the mana. With a deck that flows this well, we don't need clunky cards like Perilous Vault to hold us back. If there were no Ashiok, Nightmare Weavers, Silumgar, Drifting Death, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang accompanying us, I may reconsider my stance on the most perilous of vaults, but I recommend giving things a try without it, and I guarantee you'll never want to go back.
The sideboard contains all the necessary pieces needed to swap out the duds for studs. Prognostic Sphinx comes in whenever Crux of Fate leaves. I originally had a Liliana Vess in the sideboard, but it just wasn't doing what I needed it to do. If I'm tapping five mana against any slower foe, I want it to be a Prognostic Sphinx over anything else. The two more Bile Blights help seal the deal against aggro decks. Additionally, four copies of Drown in Sorrow and an additional hard removal spell in Murderous Cut don't hurt when stomping the aggro menace. The remnants are cards that help cap off some numbers, like the three additional counterspells, the un-killable win condition that is only meant for decks of equal sluggishness, and the fourth board sweeper that enters the maindeck to run enemy creatures into the ground.
This take on U/B Control needs a little bit of practice to get used to its flow. The choices you make with Dig Through Time are much more difficult than those with Esper Control. You can't just slam two broken planeswalkers into your hand and proceed to crush any matchup. With U/B Control, the choices are often mediocre in comparison, and the right decision has to be made. Practice with this build and prepare to dominate your opponents on the way to high finishes in your future endeavors.