There have been many Magic developments over the last few weeks, which made this a difficult article to craft. I want to dive right into the bannings and discuss the futile attempt to fix Modern by removing one splinter from that festering wound of a format.
That was my initial desire, but then I was overcome with the need to brew!
Aether Revolt is fully revealed and the two biggest threats to control's viability have been permanently removed from Standard. Emrakul, the Promised End is a card that I fell in love with back in the Jace, Vryn's Prodigy days, but in recent times has become a huge nuisance for any mage aspiring to play some expensive sorceries. B/G Delirium is a naturally easy matchup, because it falls into the midrange dependency on value creatures…but the opponent having access to a Mindslaver attached to a 13/13 body made it nearly impossible to win those grindy games outside of an early Transgress the Mind with a little luck.
Now, with the Eldrazi force absent from Standard, B/G Delirium will no longer be a matchup to worry about with any control variant. Decks that continue to battle with Grim Flayer will still be very competitive, maybe even the best strategy to deploy, but control will feast upon them.
The banning of Emrakul, the Promised End isn't even the most exciting Standard change. I knew they were going to ban some cards in Modern after the emergence of Frontier, continued criticism from every professional corner, and the people rising up against it, but I had no idea they were going to drop a bombshell on Standard. Standard has been relatively safe from cards getting chopped; however Emrakul, the Promised End created some of the most infuriating games when arriving onto the battlefield as early as turn 4.
No, the real shock in this announcement is the removal of Smuggler's Copter and Reflector Mage. These two cards were on no one's radar for a potential ban and I still am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the reasons given to us.
Reflector Mage is a card that is an absolute nightmare to play against when creatures are the primary tool for creating battlefield presence. The card is historically powerful, forcing deck designers to take that into consideration when choosing what creatures to run. Cards like Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Mindwrack Demon were liabilities to cast into a likely Reflector Mage, so expect to see their playability increase with the banning. Reflector Mage is honestly a card that I've never been too afraid of for obvious reasons, but the impact for control players is significant. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is a card that has playability even in Modern, so with its best answer banned, I will personally utilize this more in all of my control decks. It is still tough to have creatures that don't have enter the battlefield triggers in the main deck though, because removal against control in the first game should be relatively dead. Expect to see our Vampire friend in sideboards of each black deck moving forward.
The banning that shook the metagame the most is easily Smuggler's Copter. This card singlehandedly killed control in Standard, and now it is gone. Smuggler's Copter made planeswalkers, outside of aggressive decks, unplayable, along with sorcery-speed removal. Cards like Ruinous Path were necessary evils, because an unchecked Gideon, Ally of Zendikar led to more control losses than Goblin Guide.
Having to play these three-mana sorceries put me in situations that make me look very silly, like having a 3/3 artifact Vehicle crewed by a Thraben Inspector bash my face in while I stare at a spell that can't interact. Sorcery removal became so bad in Standard these last few months that I completely abandoned these spells in favor of a flash control strategy. Not having access to guaranteed planeswalker removal and battlefield sweepers put me on a very long losing streak, pushing me into B/G Delirium, unfortunately. Those days are over.
Yahenni's Expertise is a card that I raved about for 30 seconds before I realized that Smuggler's Copter makes sweepers weaker than they've ever been. With the artifact two-drop gone, Yahenni's Expertise becomes the premier battlefield sweeper of Standard. Even cards like Fumigate become playable again, because Selfless Spirit decks shrank by 75%. Without Reflector Mage and Smuggler's Copter, W/U Flash crumbles entirely. B/G Delirium is strong enough to handle the banning of the singleton Emrakul, the Promised End, but W/U Flash depended on those early drops to keep a cheap threat up and an answer to early enemy threats.
Smuggler's Copter reminds me of Bitterblossom in old Standard. It was a turn 2 play that requires an immediate answer, and if that didn't arrive, the game was often too difficult to win for Team Control. This banning hits every aggro deck in the Standard Multiverse, Haunted Dead / Prized Amalgam graveyard strategies, and even poor U/W Panharmonicon. There are a ton of other decks in the middle tier that are affected as well, but the clear winner is control.
I have written many articles that ask WotC, and the readers, to picture the formats where each archetype was accounted for. This goes for Standard, Legacy, Extended, Modern, Pauper, Cube, or any format you can think of. Those formats were the best, and I think Standard is heading in the right direction. Smuggler's Copter wasn't an oppressive card for the format as a whole, but it did eliminate aspiring control players from keeping the balance that is truly needed for format health.
So where do we go from here, my control friends? There isn't just one route to choose, but we have to start somewhere. With the biggest nail removed from the foot of control, the power of sorceries has skyrocketed. My natural reaction is to deploy a series of the most expensive sorceries; however, the new king of the hill is Torrential Gearhulk. If Torrential Gearhulk is the chosen one to lead control to glory, then we have to appease it with the best instants Magic can deliver. This directly clashes with a card like Yahenni's Expertise, though, because we want to really produce a valuable three-costed spell that impacts the battlefield after removing our opponent's threats.
Option 1 – Tap-Out Control (Esper)
Most of you all know that I love a good tap-out control deck, and I'm willing to slam spell after spell to force my opponent to blink first. Liliana, the Last Hope is the obvious choice to cast with a Yahenni's Expertise, which goes into a more tap-out strategy. I plan on running a couple of these planeswalkers in any black-based control deck, but would employ a full playset here. The best part about building a tap-out control deck in this new Standard is being able to play four Oath of Jace once again. Oath of Jace allowed me to hit land drops into my on-time battlefield sweeper nearly every game. There isn't anything better in Standard that fills that exact role for control, and it happens to cost the perfect amount of mana. Playing an Oath of Jace prior on three gets you to that fourth land, or the Yahenni's Expertise itself, or playing it free off of the sweeper allows for a well-executed plan for the late game.
I have had a lot of success with Esper Control that uses this tap-out style of play as well as a built-in delirium engine with Oath of Jace. Now that Emrakul, the Promised End has been eliminated, some may question the desire to have delirium. Descend upon the Sinful is an absolute house against any midrange or even aggro deck without help from powerful Vehicles. Descend upon the Sinful is significantly worse without a guaranteed 4/4 Angel being left behind after resolution, however. This style of deck would have to run a couple of Torrential Gearhulks in order to hit the creature/artifact types as well as rebuy a couple of powerful instants that would be in the list. This also gives me an excuse to sleeve up Take Inventory again, because I really love the interaction with Oath of Jace, and now we finally have time to sit back and draw some cards. “Languish” is back, and better than ever, to punish aggressive decks that attempt to punish us for drawing some cards in the early-game, so build your battlefield presence with confidence.
Option 2 – Jeskai Control
The banning shock came right after we discovered the recreation of Splinter Twin in Standard. I'm not going to spend too much time discussing the viability of it, because many of my colleagues have already done so ad nauseam. The combo is real and very powerful, so we have to either get on board or be ready to defeat it. With Smuggler's Copter and Reflector Mage gone, my initial build of Jeskai has been obliterated, so it's back to the drawing board for me. The only direction that this deck can go in is full-on control, which would focus on card draw, surviving, and an easy turn 6 win. There are those obvious draws that grant an easy kill on turn 4, but people are going to be prepared for that right at the start. All of my deck lists that I have drafted after the banning announcement are U/R-based with a small white splash. I want to give you all the framework that I'm using to build this deck in preparation for the upcoming Pro Tour.
My deck will include:
Option 3 – Flash Control (U/B)
This third option will be the one I am likely choosing to battle with when the SCG Tour® visits my stomping grounds of Richmond, VA at the end of this month. I owe it to my friend Torrential Gearhulk to run three or four copies, which would take place in a deck that follows this strategy. The instants in Standard are pretty good, and with the emergence of Fatal Push, it just got a whole lot better.
Fatal Push is a card that will make a huge splash in Modern and Legacy, but it's still going to give a boost to control in Standard. Killing two-drops is the old-format strength of the card; however, in Standard, we have to build a deck that is capable of enabling the Revolt mechanic. This involves using more Evolving Wilds, Blighted Fens, creatures that warrant removing, and possibly even a slight artifact theme with Tezzeret the Schemer making an appearance. I know our new U/B planeswalker friend would prefer to be in a tap-out control deck, but it does serve a purpose in flash builds. Having that small boost of mana allows for Torrential Gearhulk ahead of schedule, alongside enabling Revolt for the Fatal Push to occur.
There are many angles that a deckbuilder can take when making the best version of U/B Control, which makes me unsure of the best path. At this point, I'm going to lean on sacrificing my lands to have the one maindeck copy Fatal Push handle high-end creatures. Since we don't have to worry about Smuggler's Copter, my initial U/B Control list nudged three copies of Fatal Push to the sideboard for now. If there is an emergence of aggro that overwhelms Yahenni's Expertise, then I will definitely reevaluate the mana curve.
Even though my lists were made obsolete by the bannings, I wanted to leave you all with one list to work with for now. This is my most up-to-date U/B Flash list and I wish you all the best with whichever path you choose.