You know I would never leave y'all hanging right before the release of a new set! After discussing some of the heroes and villains printed in Ixalan, I began to assemble what I thought would be the top control deck of the new format. U/B Control scored some huge upgrades from the new set that had me thinking The Scarab God would lunge across the finish line as the best win condition for my favorite archetype.
It did accomplish that, but that's not the point! I was really hoping to drop the blasphemous color, red, and move into a purer control strategy. I am always hesitant to add a third color if there isn't a dire need to, but sadly there is.
On-curve removal is one of the most important traits of an effective control strategy in Standard. In older formats, curves are easy to manufacture correctly. One has cheap removal, card draw, and win conditions as far as the eye can see in Modern and Legacy; however, in Standard we do not have the luxury of a card pool that deep.
Losing Grasp of Darkness is a heavy hit to control's stability for those hoping to play something out of the box. U/R Control obviously lost nothing with rotation, except the creature-lands.
I must be honest with you all: Wandering Fumarole was mediocre anyway. The threats have become too large and the loyalty of the planeswalkers too high. Wandering Fumarole not having the ability to punish the arrogant Chandra, Torch of Defiance player makes it a glorified Highland Lake.
I played a great deal of Leagues and finished 11-4 in a GP a few weeks ago, and I rarely activated it outside of the control mirror. Freeing us from using these creature-lands invites in the wonderful cycling duals that allow us to be more liberal with land count during deckbuilding. I have been extremely impressed with the power of cycling duals and I'm happy that they complement the new wave of Ixalan mana fixing.
Grasp of Darkness was the key removal spell for control decks outside of U/R that were clinging to relevancy. The absence of a powerful battlefield wipe and weakness to artifacts is only off-set by the ability to keep a battlefield clear consistently. Casting Fatal Push into Grasp of Darkness into another spell was the avenue for consistent victory.
That two-mana removal spell was technically replaced by a travesty of a card.
I don't like to use the term "unplayable," but this card brings it out of me more often than it should. Walk the Plank is a super-sweet card in terms of flavor and an absolute D- on the power level scale. Whenever the word "sorcery" is on a removal spell, panic sets in. Just picture it: for one more mana you can remove any creature or planeswalker and make a Zombie later in the game!
That card sees zero play outside of Brennan DeCandio brews and maybe a one-of in a deck that has only black mana sources in it.
Never // Return has all the makings of a powerful utility card for control, but the sorcery speed set it to a bulk rare. This is not the case for Vraska's Contempt, which is a phenomenal Magic card. It may not be as powerful as Hero's Downfall was, but the exile, lifegain, and partnership it has with Torrential Gearhulk make it a spell to be reckoned with.
As with Never // Return, you will not see this mage forcing creatures in Constructed to Walk the Plank, but instead I'll continue to harness the power of lightning to deal with my foes on the battlefield.
We are so far from Pro Tour Ixalan that I am throwing my Plan A list out into the public! I hope my colleagues of Team Cardhoarder don't mind, but the people deserve a great starting point with the new Standard. This list should look very familiar to that of the old Grixis Control list that both Ari Lax and I piloted to an 11-4 record at GP Washington D.C.
The first major change you may notice is the manabase. As I briefly mentioned, Wandering Fumarole is out, and more cycling is in! I have two copies of Drowned Catacomb that have been great in testing most of the time. Playing four copies of Aether Hub can put a strain on the new lands, but the Spirebluff Canals need a little backup in the multicolor land department. The number of colored sources for blue and red decreased slightly, but there is a new spell in town to help ensure that second red source for Hour of Devastation arrives.
It may alarm some of you when you see three copies of Opt. I have worked with a few different builds where I cut a land, a removal spell, or a Torrential Gearhulk. There will be four copies of Opt in the maindeck eventually, but I really need to see how the metagame develops to make that decision. There is a world where aggressive decks become extinct, which would lead to a removal spell being shaved off. The opposite reality could hit us and one copy of Torrential Gearhulk bites the dust. Opt has been great in the deck and will become a staple of blue-based control for quite some time.
Search for Azcanta is the second-sweetest card in the deck. One of my favorite spells to have in my opener, it helps you develop the perfect gameplan. Milling one card seems like a weak ability, but I always felt powerful when my Oath of Jace would trigger for that mighty one, placing a worthless removal spell on bottom against the enemy control player. That required a planeswalker; this gets the scry going immediately. The downside is that it's legendary and weak against aggressive decks. I had two copies in the pilot build of this deck, but it didn't test well. One copy has felt like the perfect number, and if it flips against midrange or control, they are in deep trouble.
Hostage Taker is the perfect print for control decks in Standard. I plan on shifting to a U/B/X Control strategy when the removal suite improves, and this creature helps make it that much more viable. U/B Control has historically been dominated by artifacts. The color wheel of old didn't allow this archetype to have a say against powerful artifacts or enchantments, but we live in a different world now. Not only do we get to have an answer to a Heart of Kiran, it becomes our property as well!
Abrade is still being utilized in Grixis Control, but I personally would rather take than destroy. Hostage Taker also deals with most creatures and is a house when used by The Scarab God at instant speed. This Grixis deck, like many other control decks, doesn't have the luxury of running a ton of creatures. The deck still must synergize with Search for Azcanta and Torrential Gearhulk, and line up well against opposing removal. For that reason, Hostage Taker remains a one-of.
The only other changes to the maindeck are the numbers of certain spells. Opt has allowed us to drop a few spells down, as well as a land. This 26-land control deck has mana screw and flood protection. Three copies of Opt, four copies of Censor, and Search for Azcanta help build the mana without missing a beat, while the five cycling duals give possible spells in the late-game. Hour of Devastation has been decreased to two copies; I found myself sideboarding one out often, so two feels like the right number. Zombies has also been eradicated from the format, so fewer maindeck battlefield wipes are required. The metagame development will soon reveal to us if Sweltering Suns or additional mass removal will be necessary for this build of Grixis.
Dark Intimations is good! (Did I read your mind? I know there are nonbelievers out there that I still must convince.) This mini-Cruel Ultimatum seems rough on the surface, but it's an absolute blowout against the decks it comes in for. Ari Lax saw the light and will testify that this card is the truth against any decks with a Forest, other midrange decks, and poor, unsuspecting control players. Without Dragonmaster Outcast, the card weakens some, but there are still plenty of creatures to revive in the late-game.
The Whirler Virtuoso, Magma Spray, Chandra's Defeat, and Multiform Wonder are still for that knucklehead red deck running around. The painful truth about Grixis Control is its weakness to Ramunap Red and we must arm ourselves to the teeth if we hope to defeat it. I went 1-2 against it at the Grand Prix and my victory came solely from sideboard cards: nine cards that give us a fighting chance (30%, to be exact). I'm hoping that the new set gives rise to more midrange decks that feast on Ramunap Red, because without that happening, we are in big trouble.
The good news about these sideboard cards (except Multiform Wonder) is they are useful in other matchups. Magma Spray comes in to deal with Scrapheap Scrounger, Whirler Virtuoso is helpful in the control mirror, and Chandra's Defeat has the mighty planeswalker that it slays in the title. I still hope that the format is hard on the Ramunap Red folk, and if it is, the sideboard will change significantly.
The last notable mention in the sideboard is Jace, Cunning Castaway. This three-mana goofy planeswalker made the cut due to the absence of Dragonmaster Outcast. I never leave home without a way to punish my fellow control mages when paired, so Jace, Cunning Castaway answered the call.
Any planeswalker is tough for control to deal with, but a three-mana one is brutal. Unlike Gideon, Champion of the Trials, this planeswalker's ultimate occurs in three turns. Just like Liliana, the Last Hope, our blue buddy's final ability effectively ends the game. Mmultiple copies of planeswalkers can only be answered by one popular removal spell, Hour of Devastation, but sadly that five-mana sorcery doesn't line up well after sideboarding. Negate, Censor, Supreme Will, Disallow, and Torrential Gearhulk all throw a wrench into the battlefield-sweeper answer.
This is the not the first build I've used with the latest set in mind, but it is the build I am most confident with. I have a sleeved Magma Spray and Opt next to me that I desperately want to fit in the deck, but that's what happens when very little of the top control rotates. This is a good problem to have and I look forward to the new Standard.