Pro Tour Amonkhet was a wild ride for Team Lingering Souls. As cards were previewed, my teammates and I crafted what we thought would be the best control option for the new format. The two weeks of play testing occurred in a format without Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Felidar Guardian. We anticipated both top tier decks being removed from Standard, and we were very optimistic of U/W Control's viability. The new control tools overperformed against what was left after these hypothetical bannings, but sadly that feel good moment was short-lived.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar survived the announcement, putting control decks on the endangered archetypes list. When an opponent resolves a planeswalker against a control mage, the incremental advantage game begins. Usually these powerful permanents put threats out or produce card advantage, both make winning from the control side very difficult. There were many games where a resolved Elspeth, Knight-Errant prevented me from stabilizing, or a Jace, Vryn's Prodigy took me to value town repeatedly. I have never been a fan of a Planeswalker when on the receiving end, so I've always tried to build decks that utilized their full potential. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar takes that classic planeswalker advantage and multiplies it tenfold. It's very powerful on the play against aggressive decks, strong on turn 4 versus the midrange foes, and it completely eradicates a control opponent the second it hits on most turns in the game. With its existence in the format, Team Lingering Souls had to pivot to a more aggressive strategy for the Pro Tour last weekend.
We decided on B/W Zombies for Nashville, which placed one of our souls into the top 8. Chris Fennell played the deck the best, and was rewarded with a near undefeated record in the Standard portion. Finishing 9-1 in Constructed, Chris dominated the field of Temur Aetherworks and Zombies easily until his quarterfinals match.
- 2 Binding Mummy
- 4 Cryptbreaker
- 4 Diregraf Colossus
- 4 Dread Wanderer
- 4 Lord of the Accursed
- 4 Wayward Servant
I eagerly watched him battle in the top 8, and even though he lost, I was very happy with the event for a few reasons. The first reason was the top 4 finish by our team, which qualified me for the next Pro Tour in Kyoto, as well as guaranteed Gold status for my teammate, Travis Woo. The second reason, and the most exciting one, is that Mardu Vehicles was completely shut out of a top finish. The scariest deck in Standard before the event, and the only one that plays the most feared planeswalker in the main, didn't even make it into the elimination rounds.
U/W Control was a deck that I was unable to resurrect successfully. Immolating Glare is at its worst point, unable to remove Cryptbreaker, Relentless Dead, or any of the Marvel creatures until it's too late. Cast Out is still a great card that I would play in a control deck over Anguished Unmaking, but the other white spells are not effective enough against the top two strategies from Pro Tour Amonkhet. Luckily for all of us, the black removal is still very powerful. Grasp of Darkness and Fatal Push are both premier removal spells against Marvel and Zombie decks.
The cycle lands, Pull from Tomorrow, and Commit, all made a two-color, blue-based control deck possible. Mardu Vehicles was the only obstacle standing in the way for these consistent, but slightly low-powered control decks from having tournament success. My biggest concern moving forward is that Mardu Vehicles isn't a fringe deck now because of one bad tournament. People are still going to play the deck at Grand Prix, the SCG Tour®, and even at our local game stores. The matchup is still grim, with the U/B win percentage hovering around thirty percent. The U/W Control decks, with Immolating Glare and Approach of the Second Sun, stabilized the matchup at about forty percent but can't compete with the rest of the metagame. U/B Control has been able to dominate Zombies, winning easily pre-sideboard, and still heavily favored after sideboard. The matchup against Temur Aetherworks is great, Sultai Aetherworks a little worse, and B/G Energy is maybe the best matchup we can hope for. Let's look at the U/B Control list I'm battling with this weekend in Montreal:
This deck is a bit on the wilder side, but has been tested thoroughly. I mentioned that Team Lingering Souls felt that control would be at a dominant position in Standard if the two top decks at the time, Saheeli and Mardu Vehicles, were eliminated. A banning of the best deck, and a weak performance at the highest stage for the other, paved the way for this U/B Control list to be revisited. Even though I've altered it considerably since then, this list packs the same punch against slower aggro decks and Marvel. I want to discuss the card choices and the reasons why I dropped a few of the most popular control pieces.
Censor is a card I had high hopes for since it was previewed. I have played a hundred games or so with the improved Force Spike, and I've determined that it is much weaker than I initially thought. Players are aware that the card is played, which helps and hurts us at the same time. Since I've cut Censor from my control lists, players are still taking their time to resolve key spells to not get blown out. After a full game, they realize I don't have it in my deck, but often the damage has already been done. When I was playing a playset of Censors in each of my control decks, I often cycled them, praying to hit a land time after time. It took a dozen MTGO leagues for me to realize that Anticipate is the card that should be in that curve slot instead. It doesn't counter on two, but it does hit land more often, reach Yahenni's Expertise when being run over, and is a much better top deck in the late game. Censor didn't disrupt the opponent's curve on a regular basis and was too often a Whispers of the Muse without kicker. Since adding Anticipate, Torrential Gearhulk has improved, Zombies got a Yahenni's Expertise on time more often, the control mirror has become more favorable, and the deck runs smoothly. Anticipate isn't an exciting card, but it plays an important role in reactive control decks.
Fumigate is a card I've hated since its arrival in Standard. I often played it due to lack of other options, but that has changed. Both the Mono-Black and B/W Zombie decks require a critical mass of creatures to kill. Flaying Tendrils is extremely ineffective at dealing with the Zombie hoard because one copy of Liliana's Mastery thwarts it immediately. Yahenni's Expertise, however, gets through those pumps easily. I know some are worried about multiple lords being present at the time of our sweeper, but that isn't ever the case.
Playing a control deck gives a few perks, and one of those is the ability to kill a creature every turn with ease. The number of times a Yahenni's Expertise didn't wipe the battlefield against Zombies in testing is in the low single digits. The free spell off it is rarely utilized, but if you're one of those lucky mages with a Liliana, the Last Hope in your hand, it's a very happy day. The best thing about this sweeper is that it's great against Marvel decks as well. The Temur deck, probably the most popular of them all, contains ten to twelve non-Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger creatures. Each of the creatures die to Yahenni's Expertise, and that is super important for U/B Control's viability argument. Often against these decks, they are stopped from ever resolving an Aetherworks Marvel, but they eventually slay us with an army of Thopter tokens from a Whirler Virtuoso.
She's back and better than ever! Liliana, the Last Hope is the most powerful control Planeswalker in Standard today. The mana cost is the key; and how easy it is to protect her is the secret strength of U/B Control. Her ultimate is deadly, and if executed correctly there are no amounts of Eldrazi that can save anyone. Most games against Marvel start off the same, resolving a Liliana, the Last Hope on turn 3 to neutralize a Servant of the Conduit. I've had them untap, play an Aetherworks Marvel, and the remainder of the game I prevent their energy count from rising with counter magic, hand disruption, and a little ingenuity. Sometimes we are even luckier, resolving a Liliana, the Last Hope with a Negate in hand on a battlefield kept clean by a removal spell or two. Whatever the scenario may be, this planeswalker has been very impressive in testing against the top combo deck of the format. Lilliana, the Last Hope is obviously ridiculous against both versions of Zombies. She is even more powerful than she looks on paper, creating a nearly un-killable threat in the early game, or gracefully entering the battlefield on the back of a Yahenni's Expertise. The only time I've boarded her out in testing is against Marvel, and that is only one copy on the draw. Liliana, the Last Hope may be living up to her title in this Standard…for control players at least.
The win conditions of U/B Control, or any control for that matter, have been at the center of controversy for months. My teammate Donald Smith Jr. and I have tried every configuration you could possibly think of. We concluded then, that Torrential Gearhulk no longer is the four-of juggernaut that would save control decks in the late game. Glimmer of Genius is a very powerful card when the energy it utilized, but fairly embarrassing for control decks trying to dig for answers and advantage. Hieroglyphic Illumination is a draw-two that is acceptable to run because of the cycling attached. Pull from Tomorrow is the card draw spell of the future, and it will replace Glimmer of Genius completely in the upcoming months. This revelation only applies to decks that don't use energy effectively, so U/R Control decks will still enjoy a Glimmer of Genius or two, but the rest of us are out. Pull from Tomorrow rips the advantage violently out of your opponent's hand, and drops it on your doorstep. Just like the Sphinx's Revelation of old, draw X spells used later in the game result in an easy victory. The best part about this new draw X is that it can be used early to hit land drops if need be. I'll often burn one on turn 4 to keep the lands flowing and the spells casting, which leads us to play four.
With the power and reach of this card draw, the win conditions can be trimmed. This helps avoid those clunky control hands that we end up with from time-to-time, and prevents a loss on turn 6 when we miss that land drop while holding three Torrential Gearhulk. I'm sure most of you automatically noticed the copy of Sphinx of the Final Word in the main deck, which was a not a typo. Running out of win conditions against Marvel decks is real, and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger sometimes cannot be prevented from seeing the battlefield. This hexproof powerhouse seals the games against those decks that pack unstoppable removal. It also easily survives our sweeper, blocks most threats, and deals lethal damage quickly. Since decks aren't running To the Slaughter or Blighted Fen, Sphinx of the Final Word has been a stellar win condition in the main deck. It replaced the third Torrential Gearhulk, and I couldn't have been happier with the results.
The only danger for U/B Control, or any control for that matter, is a possible return of Mardu Vehicles. Zombies and Marvel are both favorites against the former Standard dominator, so that may be farther in the future I hope. The issue is that some people will still play Mardu Vehicles at big events, so you may have to just get lucky and dodge that matchup. It isn't impossible to win, but the odds are not in your favor. One of the spicy sideboard cards I included to help against Scrapheap Scrounger is Complete Disregard, which has been surprisingly strong. U/B has always had a hard time with recursion. I think that this deck has a real shot of disrupting the two best decks in the format, if Mardu Vehicles stays in the shadows.