After diving into Ravnica Allegiance Standard this week, I immediately noticed some aspects that don't bode well for the control decks I enjoy playing the most. In Guilds of Ravnica Standard, I crafted a version of Jeskai Control that utilized Treasure Map for Niv-Mizzet, Parun, but didn't contain the other midrange elements that my friend Adrian Sullivan conquered a Grand Prix with. Control decks that seek to end the game with just Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and/or Niv-Mizzet, Parun, will have a tough hill to climb starting out.
Shaheen Soorani (@shaheenmtg) January 9, 2019
I made this tweet after most previews were released and it's aged quite well since then. Standard is tough for good soldiers when there are four Lightning Bolt effects, but somehow there are eight after the mega rotation of Kaladesh. When Lightning Strike was printed, the red mages rejoiced, and we got hit with a minor wave of sadness. Lightning Strike is the epitome of the development crew's ultimate vision of creating an aggressive utopia where creatures battle and spells deal damage. Three damage for two mana is Modern playable, so the power level in Standard is exceedingly high.
Even with Lightning Strike and no Doom Blade or Mana Leak, the format was in a pretty sweet spot. We aren't far removed from the horrors of Mono-Red Aggro's dominance, winning back to back Pro Tours and ultimately having to have two cards banned in order to allow both creature and control decks a fighting chance. Mono-Red Aggro is the easiest archetype to keep under control from an R&D perspective, with the main tasks being curve consideration, power level of one-drops, and the efficiency of the burn spells that aggro fans have access to. There are other obvious nuisances to keep in mind, but if these key elements are the framework, this narrow strategy can be balanced.
Having access to Lightning Strike and Wizard's Lightning was fine for the Standard that's ending next week. Even though they had a handful of powerful burn, the building requirements to keep a high Wizard population was a fair drawback. There are some great Wizards in Mono-Red Aggro, but not enough to keep your creature type unique to that strategy. The red push died down heavily, mainly due to the weakness of Goblin Chainwhirler and company against Wildgrowth Walker. Golgari Midrange, Mono-White Aggro, and Jeskai Control all had pretty good matchups against them, making it tough for decks with only Mountain as their basic land type. That momentary plight is about to end with the release of Ravnica Allegiance next week.
Skewer the Critics is the card that will put red over the edge. It may not be just a Mountain deck anymore, as Rakdos Aggro has all the tools to provide intense pressure and a long reach to finish the job. It still wouldn't be possible without access to twelve Lightning Strike/Lightning Bolt effects that make other creature decks look silly in the early game. It may shock some of you that I want to stand up for our brothers and sisters playing creatures, but it's for good reason. The health of Standard depends on the playability of aggro, midrange, and control. The reasons why Memory Jar, Tolarian Academy, and Ramunap Ruins were banned were vastly different from each other. The first two examples I gave happened back when I started my Magic journey, making the third kind of a joke as the power level of Ramunap Ruins and Rampaging Ferocidon are laughable in the history of the banned list, but when red decks are too oppressive, the format suffers badly.
It's far too early to whine about banning something, as well as declaring the format a red wasteland. There's plenty of time to discover the perfect Selesnya counter or a control deck with a painless manabase that can handle the early onslaught of aggression. Any deck that we decide to launch into the new format must be prepared for a metagame that will want to smash our face with silly, little creatures, efficient burn, and a bunch of copies of Light Up the Stage. This one-mana Divination may see play in older formats because it has been absurd in Standard at the beginning, and I think that one of these upcoming sets should allow the color wheel to return to normalcy. This doesn't mean we're getting Brainstorm back in blue, but it does allow the best card draw spells to come back to where they belong.
Where Do We Go From Here?
This breakdown of red-based aggro was not just a rant piece. When we're building a control deck with it in mind, we must change certain elements in order to be competitive in the format. I was guilty of continuing to struggle against Mono-Red Aggro with Grixis Control last year, and it pushed me to jam Multiform Wonder in the sideboard in order to accomplish the mission. It worked to some extent, which gives me hope in Ravnica Allegiance Standard. In a worst-case scenario situation, there may be four copies of Lyra Dawnbringer in all my decks as well as some copies of Cry of the Carnarium in the maindeck to halt the blitz headed our way. There are many different ways to tweak the Esper Control deck I wrote about last week , but I did want to post a completely different model for those who lean toward a more traditional take.
These two versions of Esper Control play out vastly different from one another. Both fit my preferred playstyle, but the goal of the newest version is something I have been very excited to achieve. In testing, Esper Angels has felt much stronger against red-based aggressive strategies in comparison to my original Esper Control list. This is to be expected with less shocklands, a more consistent wrath effect, cheaper spells, and some lights-out creatures at the end of the curve. Lyra Dawnbringer and Seraph of the Scales are both very killable, but they have not met their demise often in this control shell.
Thought Erasure has played a huge part in ensuring the safety of the mythic Angel's entrance in both the middle and end of my matches. Usually I would snag the general, most threatening card out of my opponent's hand, but that dynamic has changed with the addition of VIPs that need protection. I often take their answer to Lyra Dawnbringer and proceed to take over the game with the other control weapons at my disposal. Thought Erasure is still the number one reason to dip into Dimir and remains the best way for a control deck to interact with any matchup. I have yet to sideboard out one copy, and I don't plan on doing so with what I've seen in Standard so far.
Dovin, Grand Arbiter was a nice addition in the original Esper Control list when battling against the old decks that would roam the top tables. When landing the early planeswalker against Golgari Midrange, Izzet Phoenix, or Jeskai Control, it would take over the game very quickly. These decks are still here, but they will all take a backseat to the new players that are crashing onto the scene. Red-based aggro punishes us for tapping our mana prior to turn 5 with anything that doesn't kill or counter their threat. Even though Dovin, Grand Arbiter protects itself, it's just too weak against the heavy burn decks and those that decide to go wide with creatures. I must admit that I respect the flavor involved with Rakdos barging into a calm, respectful metagame and messing everything up! This is what these red folks do, and it is up to us, lore and all, to maintain order from the control perspective.
I love Notion Rain as a card draw spell, and it saddens me that I won't be able to show you all the power of it when I attend one of the first Standard events. If red-based aggro didn't receive a one-mana Divination and more Lightning Bolts, it would absolutely be in any Esper Control list I pilot in Ravnica Allegiance Standard. In the meantime, I'm using Thought Erasure, Search for Azcanta, and 26 lands to ensure I get to land number five. I also have one copy of Treasure Map in this Esper Angels list, which helps get the job done as well.
The beautiful side effect of a red wave in the upcoming format is the absence of Carnage Tyrant. Green players would have to be out of their mind to run a bunch of six-drops in their maindeck, which gives us the leeway of having our answers in the sideboard. The maindeck of most players will respect the aggressive nature of Ravnica Allegiance Standard, making our midrange matchups easier in the process.
With the smoother manabase, Kaya's Wrath moved to the sideboard and was replaced by Ritual of Soot. In a format with a bunch of cheap creatures, Ritual of Soot will get the job done most of the time. There should be fewer giant creatures that cost more than three roaming the battlefield, and it makes our Lyra Dawnbringer plan much more effective. It's tough for control decks to run fragile win conditions that fall to their own removal, and I'm still going to push for an Esper Control deck with four Kaya's Wrath in the maindeck at some point, but I'll have to wait for a few weeks while the format evolves to address its aggro problem. Just as Mono-White Aggro was pushed off the throne, red-based aggro will have the metagame gunning for its seat. When that occurs, Kaya's Wrath is going to be the sweeper the format fears.
There are some small tweaks that must be done in any deck when you want to ensure victory over decks that contain burn. Moment of Craving is our best answer in the early game to deal with threats while padding the life total in the process. It has been a passable removal spell against Golgari Midrange as well, making it less of a dead card than some would expect.
Cast Down is still the head removal spell in charge on turn 2, but having that split covers our bases when addressing the different threats we may face. There are legends that roam the multiverse, and Cast Down will not take care of business there. Lucky for us, Judith, the Scourge Diva has only two toughness and falls to Moment of Craving as easily as most of her comrades.
The sideboard still looks close to the original list because I haven't been able to predict the exact metagame that we will be facing next week. I never put hours of thought into a fresh format's sideboard until I have the data to confirm my suspicions. At this point, the cards in each sideboard help defeat the decks of old, with a few new choices that I believe will pop up. Expect some updates on social media as I get into countless hours of Ravnica Allegiance Standard on Magic Arena this weekend.