Last weekend, I played in the StarCityGames.com St. Louis Open Series and finished in 19th place in Standard, with an 8-2 record. I had four different basic lands in my deck and had the capability to flashback Ancient Grudge out of the sideboard. Five-Color Control in Standard? Preposterous you say? It might be more viable than you think…
For those of you who pay attention to the Magic Online Daily Event decklists, showcased here, you may have seen a player by the name of DarkestMage tearing it up with a similar list. That player is our very own Michael Jacob, possibly one of the most underrated deck-tuners in the business.
If MJ posts an article or MTGO video, you should pay attention. He only writes when he has something to say, and chances are that the material he's presenting is profound. I consider it an honor and a privilege to work with him, and he did most of the work on this decklist.
We started with our U/R/W Control deck from Worlds. We wanted access to Ancient Grudge, and he wanted Forbidden Alchemy. Naturally, we wanted to flash them back, and went to work on the mana base. Traveler's Amulet is a much-maligned card, and when Wanderer's Twig was printed I wouldn't have been caught dead playing it, either. However, current Standard doesn't give us much to work with.
Amulet, and cards like Shimmering Grotto, might not have gotten much attention in the past, but that's only because much better options were available. Having a Vivid Creek sure would be nice, but hey, restrictions breed creativity, right?
This is what I played, while MJ's only difference was -1 Traveler's Amulet, +1 Forbidden Alchemy.
I can only imagine what you might be thinking while looking over that decklist—so many one-ofs, an overly ambitious manabase, and seemingly wild and crazy card choices. I'm going to go ahead and assure you that, despite looking incredibly random, each card was selected with firm logic and hours of testing on MJ's part.
To begin with, you need to understand that we felt like the manabase was good enough. In fact, if you ask MJ, he'll tell you that the main issue with the deck is being mana flooded, not screwed. You can cast the vast majority of your spells off a single blue-white dual land. Your next order of business is finding the red mana you need to cast Desperate Ravings. After that, everything should be coming together, as you usually don't need black mana until much later.
The game plan is find, resolve, and keep a Sun Titan in play. With Alchemy and Ravings you are tearing through your deck, all the while dropping goodies into your graveyard for Sunny Boy to bring back. The combo with Phantasmal Image is still present and does a good job of presenting your opponent with several must-kill threats, typically all in one turn. In the meantime, you're controlling the game with counterspells and cards that interact with creatures.
Desperate Ravings is the backbone of the deck. Cutting Ravings for Think Twice is heresy, and you will not come close to repeating our results if you do. Some people may be risk-averse, and therefore not want to play with Ravings. That, I understand. However, once you play with Ravings enough and figure out that yes, there are times you don't cast it when you have the opportunity, you will learn that Ravings is doing exactly what you want it to. Only when you are in the worst of spots will you give Ravings that one-in-seven chance to potentially screw you.
If you need lands, if you need interaction, if you need a threat, then Ravings is there for you. If you're in a situation, such as turn 5 with land and Sun Titan in hand, you probably don't risk casting it there. Sun Titan will likely win you the game, therefore there is no reason to take that risk. If you do jam Ravings at every possible opportunity and lose your best card as a result, that isn't Ravings' fault—that's yours.
Ravings digs deeper than Think Twice and can turn a handful of lands into pure gasoline. Think Twice will never be able to do that. In addition, Ravings fills the graveyard with good cards, which is also a good thing. We have Snapcaster Mage and Sun Titan after all! Ponder is likely better than Think Twice as a whole. You don't gain card advantage, but the selection is not to be overlooked, especially when you have a couple shufflers like Traveler's Amulet.
MJ wanted an Alchemy in every game, so he played four. He also wanted one less mana source, as he was always getting flooded, but I wanted twenty-five plus two Amulets, which are effectively lands. I typically err on the side of caution with control decks. It's much easier to win when I'm flooded than screwed, so I'll play one more mana source than normal. The inverse is true with beatdown decks, and I'll cut a land from those.
There is a ton of synergy here which might not be readily apparent. There are some situational one-ofs, but you tear through your deck at an alarming speed if you've drawn a single Alchemy and Ravings. It's not uncommon to be in a situation where you need to reset the board, or you have the board on lockdown, but you want to gain some life to take away their outs.
End of turn, flashback Alchemy, untap Ravings, discard my Day of Judgment or Timely Reinforcements if you get “unlucky,” then Sun Titan back Snapcaster Mage. There are times where it doesn't matter what zone your important card is in, because you'll be able to access it.
Conrad Kolos calls this “cardboard advantage.” You might be getting card advantage off a flashbacked Ravings or Alchemy, but the true strength lies in having access to cards in both the hand and the graveyard, which at times is like an extension of your hand. More cards in more zones, like having a Scalding Tarn instead of a dual land when you have Life from the Loam, allow you to gain advantage, and this deck does that very well.
Because of all the cards you see, it makes sense to play varied answers. You might not want Day of Judgment against everyone. Hell, you might not want it against Mono Red, Wolf Run Ramp, or control decks, all of which are big parts of the metagame. However, sometimes you find yourself in a situation where they've resolved back-to-back Inferno Titans, and you need to find an answer.
We considered playing a singleton Inferno Titan over a Sun Titan, just because it seemed like we would want a varied "threat and answer" all rolled up in one card. Sun Titan doesn't always dominate the board, like when they have an active Moorland Haunt with some tokens. There are clever answers available if you're willing to look, and if MJ is anything, it's clever.
Ratchet Bomb helps Sun Titan do a good Inferno Titan impression, and that's an effect that we need. Elesh Norn is another way to keep token hoards down, and she also allows you to break through board stalemates, such as in the Sun Titan mirror.
Similarly, Pacifism allows Sun Titan to do something that it normally couldn't do, which in this case is “kill” a hexproof creature. Phantasmal Image is also great at that, while Pacifism is better at a few other things, like stopping Hero of Bladehold or Chandra's Phoenix. It has the added benefit of being good with Timely Reinforcements, has them make one less Moorland Haunt token, and allows you to rebuy it with Titan after a Day of Judgment.
The Unburial Rites plays a huge part in making the Elesh Norn “work.” We knew we wanted black mana to flashback Alchemy, so we added a Swamp in addition to the Grottos and Cliffs. Traveler's Amulet is doing work here. The Swamp effectively making colorless mana rarely matters, and flashing back Alchemy for seven instead of eight (off a Grotto) is very relevant sometimes.
Once we have a Swamp, playing a singleton Unburial Rites is effectively a “free” splash. We'll have the mana to cast or flash it back just by doing what you would normally be doing. There's also the off chance you Alchemy into fattie plus Unburial Rites, and get to K.O. them much earlier than expected.
Dissipate is another one of those situational one-ofs. Sometimes you've got the board presence but need insurance against their topdecked Devil's Play or Day of Judgment, and Mana Leak isn't gonna cut it. Having another counterspell isn't the worst either. You just can't afford to play multiples of them, lest they start clogging up your hand.
For removal we have Gut Shot, which is still the premier removal spell of choice. There are Delver of Secrets, Stromkirk Nobles, and Birds of Paradise in the top Standard decks, and you're going to do much better against them if you are able to kill them on sight. Doom Blade is still a fine card, but if Gut Shot kills almost everything you want to be killing anyway, then you should be playing the cheaper card.
Oblivion Ring is our catch-all against enchantments, artifacts, planeswalkers, and Titans. Without the ability to answer something like Shrine of Burning Rage or Angelic Destiny, our deck wouldn't work. That weakness is one of the reasons I feel like Five-Color Control is better suited to the metagame than something like Grixis, which has no such luxuries.
Our sideboard was great for the event. Going in, U/W Humans was basically the only deck we were sub 50% against, so we added more Day of Judgments and a Combust, which was Snap-able, for Hero, Crusader, and Abolisher. In the end, that didn't save me, and Humans knocked me out of the tournament at 6-1.
Ludevic's Test Subject was the “secret tech” from last week's article. MJ was super-high on the card. Against Wolf Run Ramp decks, they have very few answers. It should be noted that a hit from the 13/13 and another attack, even if they chump with a Titan, is 20. MJ has been known to prefer clean win conditions, such as Urabrask, the Hidden into Inferno Titan in his RUG Pod deck from last season. Those situations come up more often than you think, and it's very nice to deal them a quick 20 rather than leave them at 2 and give them a chance to come back.
Also, against Doom Blade decks like U/B Control and Solar Flare, Test Subject is a great target for Sun Titan. It makes it so that they can't just Doom Blade all your Titans. You're forcing the issue, which is exactly what you have to do in those matchups. Sun Titan for a Phantasmal Image is great and everything, but if they have Doom Blade mana then you're left with nothing. Eventually, we cut a Test Subject to fit in more removal, but playing two wouldn't be completely out of the question.
The control matchups are pretty interesting. From MJ's experience, Surgical Extractioning their card-drawing meant that you could easily outdraw them and eventually win the war of attrition. Surgical knocking out their Leaks, Dissipates, and Doom Blades was very relevant, depending on what you needed them to not have. Snapcaster Mage made it even better.
Having varied threats like Jace, Memory Adept and Test Subject was relevant against their Extractions as well. Jace is also great against Doom Blade decks, since you can typically force through a threat, but you need something that won't just die immediately. Sometimes you need to Surgical their Unburial Rites, as giving those decks a full graveyard can be rather dangerous, but you have the answers.
Ancient Grudge is the perfect answer to Shrine of Burning Rage. Trading one-for-one with Mono Red's threats is often a losing proposition, especially against those with only twenty land. They will draw more threats than you have answers as the game goes on, so having a card that is synergistic with Ravings and Alchemy while also having the potential to two-for-one them at a cheap cost is perfect.
Celestial Purge and Timely Reinforcements are the other keys to unlocking the Mono Red matchup. Purge deals with almost anything, from Koth of the Hammer to Chandra's Phoenix to Stormblood Berserker. Often you will kill their first few threats, but the threat of being burned out still looms, which is where Timely Reinforcements comes in. Sometimes you get a few guys off it as well, but mostly it's in there for gaining six life.
Flashfreeze and Negate round out the counter suite. I wanted another Dissipate, but MJ pointed out that it's the first thing they Extract, so overloading on those isn't a good idea. Negate seemed like a similar but different card. Initially, I was worried that it wouldn't be very good against Iyanaga's Wolf Run deck, as he only had two Zeniths, but MJ pointed out that they were likely siding in Garruks and/or Autumn's Veil, so I felt a lot better about it.
Snapcaster in the board may look strange. Some might say, “What, do you side that in against decks where you want to flashback your spells?!” In fact, that's exactly it. Maindeck, we don't have many things we want to flashback other than the occasional Gut Shot or Mana Leak. Using Snapcaster to flashback Alchemy on the cheap shouldn't be overlooked either.
Once you sideboard in matchup-specific stuff like more counterspells, Celestial Purge, and Combust, Snapcaster truly becomes good. Aside from those times, you don't want to draw too many Snapcasters, so we're only playing two maindeck.
Hopefully that wall of text explains the cards choices, and the amount of thought that went into each and every card. As I said, I went 8-2 in the tournament, defeating a wide variety of decks, and losing to U/B Control and W/U Humans. Going in, those were the two we feared the most but didn't expect to show up in great numbers. We were right on both counts.
There are a number of changes we are trying for the Invitational this weekend, but I can almost assure you that our deck will contain some number of Shimmering Grottos.