It's that season again! New cards are being released every day and some of them are even blue spells under three mana. These are the types of previews that really bolster my control resolve, so today we are going to get excited about some control heavy hitters from Ixalan. For those who follow me on Twitter, you know what cards have triggered excitement, as well as disdain. For you all, this article will be a reinforcement piece that explains why I think the card helps (or hurts) control in the upcoming Standard format.
The Nice Ones
The most important previews of a new set that releases when old sets rotate are the lands. We are losing creature-lands as well as Battle and Shadow lands, but luckily, we are bailed out by a powerful reprint cycle. These checklands are best suited for control decks, which aren't punished heavily by having one tapped on turn 1 but typically manage to have them untapped every other turn.
Mana fixing for Standard control decks carries a considerable risk of lands that do us no good the turn they are played. Battle lands required two basic lands, which was fair, but checklands require only one type, which make them more powerful. Control decks typically run between 26 and 27 lands, which creates even more opportunities to draw a cycling land or a basic, allowing us to play each one of these untapped. More aggressive decks tend to play more copies of the fastlands, run a lower land count, and require their early mana to enter the battlefield untapped. These lands even see play in Modern, as reliable sources of colored mana without the damage or enters-the-battlefield-tapped risk.
These three cards bring immense joy to my soul, bringing me back to days where we had time to tap a bunch of mana to do remarkable things. A card like Ixalan's Binding in the past would have made me jump for joy, but four mana at sorcery speed puts this card in the fringe category. I added it to this list of sweet cards that help control decks, because I don't think that Cast Out will run this non-cycling version completely out of business. If I were to play a white-based control deck, I would play at least one copy, maybe two, because it is such a powerful effect. Cast Out would be run as a three- or four-of, with the obvious one-mana cycling failsafe attached. Enchantment removal has been getting safer to play as we progress through the recent formats, and the exit of Eldrazi expands that reality.
Primal Amulet and Thaumatic Compass land in the same category due to their mana cost to cast and activate. Primal Amulet has a sweet ability on the front side, making your spells cost one less, and an even sweeter ability on the flipped side, copying your spells. This is a card I made fun of my buddy Ali Aintrazi for getting too excited about, which he deserved! Abrade is still too good of a card and we should build with that in mind. I know there is a nasty burn spell back in the format, but the playability of Abrade will not drop because of it.
The same Ramunap Red decks need hard answers to Vehicles and other artifacts. Midrange will play a couple for insurance, and control lives off removal spell diversity. For that reason, Thaumatic Compass loses some ground, yet isn't as risky as Primal Amulet. The two-mana artifact fits more easily into the curve of control decks and turns into a busted land in the late-game. Maze of Ith is a card to be feared, and because Thaumatic Compass flips in the end step, control can sneak it out with ease.
These black cards have probably forced my hand for when Ixalan is released. These cards are the ones I am most excited about so far. Vraska's Contempt is everything that we could ever want in a hard removal spell. Exile, creatures or planeswalkers, and there is even a lifegain clause at the end! I love universal answers, and even when it wasn't popular to run Anguished Unmaking, I found myself breaking those norms regularly. There is no worse feeling for a control mage, outside losing to Ramunap Red, than to see a permanent hit the battlefield that can't be answered. Black now has the tools to do it effectively. This, joined with Doomfall and Fatal Push, give black enough ammunition to be the main color of control for the future.
Hostage Taker and Vona, Butcher of Magan have me working on my Esper Control manabase already. The Scarab God is the king of control now. There isn't a strategy that I will entertain soon that doesn't include this God in the battle plan. The Scarab God is on a different power level from the rest of Standard, so count me in. This leaves us with the usual U/R/b, U/B/r, or U/B/w. Hostage Taker fits into all three of those archetypes easily. This is another preview that feels more powerful than the cards around it. I already enjoy a nice Fiend Hunter, but adding artifact removal as well as Control Magic to the mix is enough to get the proxies flowing early. The synergy between Hostage Taker and The Scarab God is one to be admired.
The final card that breeds excitement is Vona, Butcher of Magan. A five-mana 4/4 creature with lifelink and vigilance was already good enough for me to use, but wait, there's more! It can destroy anything for the steep price of seven life. Typically, that wouldn't be an activation I'd entertain, but the card has built-in ways to regenerate that lost life. Most of the time, this creature will be attacking with removal flying from behind it, gaining life for the owner, and making the opponent miserable in the process. The Esper Professor may be coming out of retirement for this one.
Okay, okay, get it out of your system! Many years ago, I made outlandish claims about the weakness of one-mana cantrips in Standard control decks. I even did this after losing in the finals of an ancient Open against my boy Christian Calcano:
I must admit, this one the gravest mistake of my professional career.
Not losing a few bucks on Preordain, but failing to realize the power of cheap deck manipulation then. That error is well behind me and I know Opt is the real deal. It's not a card that's going to revolutionize control in Standard, but it will help level out some of the inconsistencies with the early game. Hitting land drops should be an issue of the past when running four copies of Opt, Censor, and cycling lands in any control deck moving forward. Opt also allows us to move down to 26 lands, play one less copy of a few big-mana spells, and guarantee that no Torrential Gearhulk goes spell-less at end of turn.
Standard isn't the only thing that is boosted by Opt's reprint. Serum Visions in Modern control decks? See you later! I know that this has been a hot topic on social media, but this is as slam-dunk as it gets for traditional control players. If you are still one of the few brave souls in Modern that challenges foes to do battle with Islands and Plains, Opt is the card for you. Here are the reason why Opt is better:
It is an instant. Sorceries suck. I know I am the Expensive Sorcery Master, but that name arose from a different time, a time where mages slung giant spells at each other, determining the winner by the resolution percentage. Standard now, and especially Modern, give no quarter to those tapping mana on their own turn. Opt being an instant is huge, providing end-step information collection, keeping mana open for reactive spells, and making Snapcaster Mage a much less embarrassing play. Playing a Celestial Colonnade on one and not being able to cast Serum Visions stings, because Mana Leak is the safest bet. Your opponent then casts a turn 2 Noble Hierarch, not worthy of the Mana Leak's time, and the turn is saved by instant-speed deck manipulation.
You scry before you draw. Preordain is obviously a better card because it scrys two before you draw. They banned that card. The trade-off between instant speed and one scry is minimal. This doesn't mean Opt is better than Preordain in any world, but they are much closer than Serum Visions could ever dream of being. Scrying before drawing is the biggest perk of any cantrip, and control needs this order of operations the most. Drawing a Serum Visions later in the game is great, but Opt is better. The additional scry is not worth the stinker that had to be placed in your hand most of the time.
Scrying is great, but Modern has a ton of fetches. Fetchlands and Serum Visions are an odd couple. Often, you'll take the one card needed and are unable to snag the second decent card because of shuffling. In Standard, Glimmer of Genius is amazing because you never shuffle your deck. Those bad cards stay on the bottom forever. These older formats don't have the luxury of keeping the library order the same for very long.
To end my thoughts on this, I want to make sure we all remember my opening comment. Opt is better than Serum Visions for control decks in Modern. I fully expect to see combo decks running Serum Visions until the end of days. Those decks are on an exact mission by turn 4, which makes seeing more cards more valuable than anything else.
The Not-Nice Ones
This reprint is a disaster for control. Temur will casually drop a Bristling Hydra on turn 5 and bash in with their Whirler Virtuoso and two Thopter tokens after we had dispatched the Longtusk Cub the turn prior. Don't worry, heroes, because this Hour of Devastation has arrived!
No, it hasn't. Spell Pierce has been a thorn in the side of control decks from tempo and aggressive blue decks for years. It's very like Treasure Cruise, which had the appearance of a control staple but was much deadlier in aggro decks. When it was printed, I mentioned that Dig Through Time was the blue bomb release, where Treasure Cruise was the red version. Keep playing Negate and forget about this one, my friends.
These two cards are easily the scariest of the new set for control players. Carnage Tyrant is something that we can build our defense around, prioritizing Doomfall effects. The six toughness of this creature renders Hour of Devastation useless, so the sideboard must pack some hate for this hexproof monstrosity.
Shapers' Sanctuary is a card that has given me night terrors since the day it was previewed. When an aggressive opponent draws a few cards from Bomat Courier, Rogue Refiner, or the rotating Tireless Tracker, I feel the game get out of reach. This one-mana enchantment takes that to a whole new level. I hope that control is so under the radar that this card sees zero play in sideboards worldwide. Control depends on its ability to keep a stable battlefield while out-resourcing opponents, and Shapers' Sanctuary could destroy that plan before it even starts.
These new enrage creatures are more of a nuisance than a killing blow to control strategies. The power of Harnessed Lightning, Magma Spray, Abrade, and other damage-based removal spells drops significantly if these cards gain popularity.
I think Ripjaw Raptor and Ranging Raptors are both very good cards, but there is a chance that the old sets that remain continue to dominant Standard. U/R Control, Temur Energy, Ramunap Red, and a host of other decks lose very little with rotation. If these new cards do break it, then we must shift to a B/W removal strategy that doesn't involve dealing damage. That is a format that I can still get behind!