There is a lot to love about Ixalan, but one of the things I absolutely love is the way it plays upon history: the conquistador versus Aztec/Inca elements make for intriguing imagery. This is especially made more intriguing by the feathered Dinosaurs and their aesthetics with the Humans of Ixalan. As a stealthy (read: white-looking, like Louis CK) Mexican-American, I'm always partial to anything that evokes classic iconography of Mesoamerica, and as a former child, I'm partial to anything that involves Dinosaurs. Win-win!
Towards the end of the Pre-Ixalan era, I was pretty solidly focused on U/R Control decks, despite the power that was clear of things like The Scarab God and U/B Control. Friends of mine, like Zac Elsik, were trying to convert me over to "the dark side," but I remained essentially faithful to the U/R core that I'd been playing for months.
This faithfulness was mostly predicated on a lack of truly extraordinary standouts in U/B Control that had any pedigree in their results.
Well, by now, there have been more than a few top finishes with U/B Control. I'll focus on two:
Robin Dolar's win at GP Turin and Hall of Fame member Gabriel Nassif's finish in the Top 4 of French Nationals with essentially the same deck cements something important:
The U/B Control deck is likely to be a powerful force in the upcoming metagame.
The big reason is that the deck is wildly powerful, and is losing almost nothing. It loses some mana – Choked Estuary and Sunken Hollow – but at least gets to replace them slightly with Drowned Catacomb. It loses a fair number of sideboard cards, but some of those – like Summary Dismissal – are likely not that big of a loss when cards like Eldrazi are leaving the format as well.
Robin Dolar's list loses:
Gabriel Nassif's list loses:
First, what does it mean to have such a small set of losses to the deck?
One of the most important things is that you have a core deck that is incredibly dangerous right at the beginning of the format. While the format will get more explored and refined in the coming weeks and months, it is fairly reasonable to suggest that the 34 spells that these two decks are running is, roughly, 85% secure.
The control core based on countermagic is deeply difficult for decks to overcome right now. Cards like Tireless Tracker and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger are going away; Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will be no more; and the quiet threat of creature-lands will largely depart. While the red aggro decks will only suffer a little pain with the departure of Falkenrath Gorger, the world has suddenly shifted quite nicely for controlling decks.
Losing Grasp of Darkness is big deal, but as for the rest of it, it is painless. This is not an irreplaceable series of losses. In the purity of two colors – blue and black – there isn't a neat replacement for Grasp of Darkness, but the end of the world isn't here.
There is no solid, excellent replacement for Grasp of Darkness. Ultimately, your two-mana options that are "pure" removal aren't great, but they exist:
We could stretch and included Gifted Aetherborn as among the "removal," but I prefer not to indulge that sophistry. Another choice, still slightly stretching, but not absurdly so, is to run a tiny touch of bounce; Consign // Oblivion is a real potential choice, and as a player who has run Disperse to success in the past, it's one that I can fervently get behind.
Replacing Flaying Tendrils really begs the question: what are you hoping to accomplish? Do you truly need this sweep spell? Exiling an Earthshaker Khenra is great, but the card still leaves behind creatures like Kari Zev, Skyship Raider, as well as other threats.
There are a few options. Yahenni's Experise is not an unreasonable card. There aren't great follow-ups to play for free, though you can sneak Oblivion into being a free cast on the back of Consign. Bontu's Last Reckoning is an option, though not one I'm particularly excited about for a control deck. Baral's Expertise, while more expensive, can shift into a Glimmer of Genius or Hieroglyphic Illumination. These cards aren't particularly exciting, but they do exist.
A part of what has me excited is casting this card. While expensive, the two life is a huge boon, and in a land of Gods and embalm, this card seems particularly exciting. Many people seem to think that four mana is too much, but I can tell you from experience with Commit that having a pseudo-Hero's Downfall was worth it, even at four mana. Gaining two life is significant, as Radiant Fountain will attest, and even if you lose the pseudo-counter of Commit, that lifegain can be devastating.
There are a few other cards that stand out as well.
Opt takes me way back in time to old decks like Chevy Blue. I don't know if now is the moment to make a "Xerox"-style deck, but if it is, blue has Censor and Hieroglyphic Illumination as ways to begin that plan. Such a deck would likely need a card to gain permanent control of a game with – The Scarab God seems like a reasonable one – but would likely need a drastic redesign to make use of the heavy card-draw.
This card is incredibly intriguing. After flipping to Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, this seems like a card that could positively bury someone, but you'd need to be heavy in the spell count; where Opt is likely a zero- or four-of, Search for Azcanta is somewhere between zero and two.
Is Spell Pierce the new Dispel? I don't think so. It might not even make sense in the sideboard, but it is still a potent weapon to win a counterspell war, which may be relevant in a world where Approach of the Second Sun could rise as a control archetype.
This seems like a reasonable card, but the thing I like most about it is ramping my mana. Is it worth the investment? Potentially, but I think it is a little dubious.
On the other hand, I do think it might be reasonable to run Thaumatic Compass. The trigger for Thaumatic Compass to flip is not so terribly difficult, and Spires of Orazca is a really powerful controlling ability – though better in a deck running sweeping removal like Fumigate.
This is a wildly powerful card, and the reverse side is absurd. However, it doesn't seem to me that U/B Control is necessarily looking for this card.
Other cards from Ixalan like Duress, Sword-Point Diplomacy, and Hostage Taker all seem reasonable as sideboard cards for certain matchups, but for the most part, the biggest card that you'll see included from Ixalan is the land reprint, Drowned Catacomb. Stable mana is a huge deal for a controlling deck, and in this new Standard featuring red aggro and other decks, that will be no exception.
I have some conclusions that I've held for a while that differ a bit from many control players of late. I've been a fervent proponent of "Four Censor, every time," but also, I'm of the opinion that Glimmer of Genius is not as good of a card as Hieroglyphic Illumination. My dedication to "only" three Torrential Gearhulk has been seeing more adoption as of late, but it is one I'm still quite confident in.
My current build of U/B Control wrapped up all of these thoughts into this little package.
Of all of the choices in the deck I'm trying to come to grips with, the most important one is whether or not I have enough control elements at low stages of mana. Walk the Plank and Consign are not all that many cards, even if Essence Extraction and three Vraska's Contempt are in the mix. I'm inclined to think that I likely need another cheap removal spell, if not two. I'd happily consider another Walk the Plank or a first Trial of Ambition, though I'm not so sold on more Consign unless I find room for a Yahenni's Expertise in the main as well.
The Scarab God is a special kind of absurd. You're basically going to win nearly any game you haven't already lost if you get to untap with it. In a way, this actually makes me think that the card I want to cut is perhaps that third Torrential Gearhulk in favor of another removal spell, though perhaps the right answer is just to acknowledge that Search for Azcanta is slightly too cute with a payoff that takes too much investment to really be worth it.
I'm actually quite sad to only have two Commit in the entirety of the 75, not to mention zero copies in the main 60. One of the reasons that I've generally loved Commit is that the Memory side of the card can utterly undo anyone's attempt to "run you out" of cards to finish the game. That strategy is actually a fairly valid one, but it struggles versus Memory and completely fails if two copies of Memory are in the mix.
The singleton Metallurgic Summonings is an old standby for me; it might not be at all necessary in a world with The Scarab God performing a similar function, but the card is just wildly powerful and comes from an entirely different angle. Time may tell that the pair together are unnecessary, but at this early stage, I'm still trying out both and fairly happy.
Duress. Is this card the original monster of the control matchups? Yes, Thoughtseize is the better card, but Duress was a critical element to so many counter-plans over the years, and I expect to see this card being played more and more. I'm starting at three and only have one of them as a Doomfall because I'm still finding myself wanting a little bit more to fight off the aggressive decks.
This card is a monster versus the aggressive decks, and it makes otherwise problematic cards like Bristling Hydra and Carnage Tyrant seem more manageable. While Ramunap Red and Temur Energy can both get rid of Gifted Aetherborn, it is nice to demand that they do so, and The Scarab God bringing one back later as a 4/4 is a nice bit of business. This card gets supplemented by other lifegain from Essence Extraction, which may seem like overkill to some, but I view it as closer to insurance. More testing may indeed indicate that fewer copies are necessary, but for now, I'm going with the pessimistic view.
After spending last week ruminating on the potential of numerous planeswalkers sharing a subtype, it makes me sad that there are no planeswalkers in this list. I'll miss Jace, Unraveler of Secrets a lot. Yes, that was Modern and this is Ixalan Standard, but even so, I feel the sting of it.
At the end of the month, Ixalan will be here! I can't wait to see if The Scarab God can make a Carnage Tyrant dance! If you're looking for a Constructed deck for those first weekends, I definitely recommend U/B Control.