Of All Strategies, Why Control?
Blue is a powerful color in today's Standard. There's a reason why Mana Leak is typically the most played nonland card in any given tournament. It's the single best spell against Wolf Run Ramp and provides a much-needed answer to problem cards like Geist of Saint Traft. It does all that while being easy to cast, excellent in the opening hand, and useful in virtually every situation in every matchup. But permission being powerful is old news. Part of what makes blue control especially appealing right now is the ability to pair it with instant-speed card draw.
Playable instant-speed card draw hasn't existed in Standard since Esper Charm and not in large quantities since Time Spiral block, where control was frighteningly close to unbeatable. With Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy, control players can pass the turn with mana open and an answer ready and still progress their game if the opponent doesn't force their hand. Such an ability means you never leave yourself open to danger and tighten your grip on the game with each passing turn.
In building U/B Control for Grand Prix Orlando, I came to appreciate many other benefits of the archetype. Mulligans are infrequent; mana screw is rare and can often be overcome; and I would only flood if I had done a poor job in deck construction or sideboarding.
Today, though, the main appeal of playing control has little to do with the available card pool and much to do with the trends in the metagame. While there are dozens and dozens of playable strategies in Standard, there are only a few that are seeing significant play! Seventy-five percent of Orlando's top decks after day one were Moorland Haunt aggro or Wolf Run Ramp. Control players have it easy when they know to prepare so heavily for a small handful of predictable, attackable strategies. Consider Patrick Chapin's player profile and his response when asked about his Grixis Control deck, “Only good matchup is Delver, which is fortunately half the field.” That was enough to reach the finals of a Grand Prix!
Whether or not Mr. Chapin was being modest about his concoction, the point still stands: a control deck that beats Delver can go far, and the sky's the limit for one that also has game against Wolf Run, Humans, and the rest of the field.
Of All Control Decks, Why U/B?
As much as I've raved about control decks that use Mana Leak, Think Twice, and Forbidden Alchemy, I would not recommend a white-based control deck. Relying on large sorcery-speed cards like Oblivion Ring, Day of Judgment, and planeswalkers means playing right into the hands of the blue aggro decks. They need only to drop some early pressure and back it up by well-placed permission to take an easy win. Worse yet, some builds can set up devastating turns by producing an end-of-turn creature and hooking it up with a Sword or Runechanter's Pike.
U/B Control is not vulnerable in those ways. My recommended decklist (below) can often play entire games without casting anything larger than a Ratchet Bomb on its main phase. It has tons of instant-speed removal to avoid being hit by an equipped creature and packs the variety of answers necessary to fight Moorland Haunt aggro.
If I had to give one single reason for sticking to U/B instead of choosing a different combination or branching out into a third color, it's Nephalia Drownyard. The land can provide either card advantage by milling your own flashback spells or a win condition by milling the opponent to death. It plays perfectly with the plan of using mana at the end of the opponent's turn.
The standard control decks that we're used to generally use six-drop creatures like Consecrated Sphinx or Titans to close out games. However, a single large creature is simply not an effective way to win a game against the Delver of Secrets aggro decks. A Sphinx or a Wurmcoil Engine does nothing but eat a Vapor Snag, which the opponent will nearly always have drawn by the sixth or seventh turn. Even worse, they could be Phantasmal Imaged and then bounced! Even when all goes according to plan and a creature sticks, they aren't particularly good at blocking the creatures out of the Illusion decks.
The final strength of U/B over other control decks is that the win conditions are built in. Nephalia Drownyard is free and doesn't even take up a nonland slot. Jace, Memory Adept, which is a key player in my suggested decklist, is primarily a card advantage engine but also becomes a quick way to end a game once you feel secure in your position.
The creatureless configuration has the not-so-small side benefit of giving you a colossal advantage in control mirrors. Not only will they have a dozen dead cards in game one, but Jace and Drownyard are difficult to answer and easy to use compared to clunky six-drops. I would never play another control deck because I'd be too scared to come up against U/B!
Last month, Pat Cox wrote an excellent primer on the archetype. I agree with his card evaluations and strongly recommend his article. Rather than repeat him, I'll focus on the differences between our decklists.
I've deviated a little from the traditional land base of U/B Control, which is typically twenty-seven lands with two or more Ghost Quarters. It came as a shock to me when I first picked up the deck how much trouble I had getting my colored mana. After all, people have the guts to play three- and four-color control decks! I soon realized, though, that the cost of adding a color had less to do with the number of sources of each color (since there are so many dual lands available) and more to do with lands coming into play tapped, which is painful in a different way.
In my initial testing, I was thrilled with the deck but unhappy with the mana; I felt I was only losing when I got color screwed, but that was happening far too often. Eight dual lands and seven basics is not enough to ensure that your opening hand will provide you with access to that color of mana. I changed my manabase, and I stopped losing (at least when I played well). My solution was twofold: trim the number of colorless lands and shift the emphasis away from black mana.
Ghost Quarter, to put it simply, is a horrible, horrible card. How often are you winning by so much that you can afford to voluntarily put yourself down a card and back a turn? The best way to use it is to leave it untapped to threaten an opponent who might want to spend his whole turn using Kessig Wolf Run on an Inkmoth Nexus—mutually assured destruction—but to never actually use it. It's much better to use spot removal to take care of Inkmoth Nexus and sweepers to keep Moorland Haunt in check than it is to make Ghost Quarter a part of your primary game plan. I trimmed them one at a time and never regretted it.
I upped the number of Islands in the deck because you can often keep an opening hand without black mana, since you can use Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy to draw into them. However, you can rarely keep a hand without blue mana. The shift towards blue mana meant sacrificing Liliana of the Veil from the maindeck, but that was no great loss, since Tribute to Hunger is better in many situations and is much easier on the manabase.
Most U/B lists split their Drownyards evenly between maindeck and sideboard, but I opted to play three main (twenty-eight lands) because milling is my plan A win condition. Nevertheless, I still sideboard down to twenty-seven against aggressive decks.
I could devote next week's article entirely to Ratchet Bomb (I won't), and I still couldn't fully explain how good it is in today's metagame. The U/W aggro decks are filled with threats that cost 1-3 mana, making the Bomb a perfectly reasonable solution to any card in their deck. What's more, it takes care of cards that U/B would traditionally struggle with, including Invisible Stalker, Geist of Saint Traft, and equipment. Flip cards and tokens have a converted mana cost of zero, which makes Ratchet Bomb a two-mana Wrath of God in many situations.
What's more, Ratchet Bomb can tick to three counters to kill an Oblivion Ring or slightly higher to kill a planeswalker out of an opposing control deck. You can leave it on zero counters to protect against Midnight Haunting or White Sun's Zenith and tap out with impunity. The greatest thing about Ratchet Bomb is the way you can “plan ahead.” It's better than an instant because you can invest the mana whenever you want and get the effect for free at a later time. You can match an opposing equipment and leave it there until the opponent invests mana to equip. You can tick it up to three when you plan a big turn with Karn Liberated or Volition Reins to take away Oblivion Ring as an out for the opponent.
Finally we come to the leading actor, Jace, Memory Adept. Jace is both card draw and win condition, and all three of his abilities are incredible in this deck. A planeswalker that starts at four and has a useful plus ability is a nightmare for anyone who's trying to attack with lousy 1/1s (which is everyone). When a control mirror goes long, you can play him and mill for ten, and even if your opponent has an answer, it's often too late, as it's now that much easier to finish them with Nephalia Drownyard.
Though milling is this deck's win condition, it's best not to think of it as a “mill deck.” You should typically take full control of the game before you begin attacking the opponent's library. A common way to use Jace is to draw a card three times, until he has seven counters, and then start milling the opponent. You can use the ultimate as a finisher (it's two turns worth of milling ten) or use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card in case the opponent plays an unexpected threat that you need to answer by drawing twenty cards.
Sideboarding is relatively straightforward, as most matchups only require minor changes. However, I'd like to make special mention of a few cards.
Curse of Death's Hold is unbelievable and is a real reason to play U/B Control. Ben Stark and others had success with maindeck Curses, which is a completely reasonable way to build the deck. It's not far from a one-card win against the most popular deck in the format—Delver—and is also quite powerful against Humans, especially when combined with Ratchet Bomb, which can kill Honor of the Pure. Other applications come up all the time. Over the course of GP Orlando, I brought it in against an aggro metalcraft deck, Puresteel Paladin, and a U/W Snapcaster + Midnight Haunting control deck.
The six-drop creatures are liabilities against Delver and control, but that doesn't take away from the raw power of the cards. In many matchups, Consecrated Sphinx is a faster and easier way to close the game than milling. Specifically, certain aggro decks like W/u Humans and Mono Red have too much reach to be easily locked out, and a giant creature that can end the game is a very welcome addition.
The largest risk in sideboarding is going too low on “business” cards. There were a few times when I trimmed the number of Forbidden Alchemies, but you should really avoid doing so whenever possible. You can swap around the finisher cards, but always be sure to leave in enough to close a game. For example, if Blue Sun's Zenith and Jace come out, make sure the Consecrated Sphinxes come in, and Karn stays put to support them.
I was thrilled with my decklist in Orlando and am only considering some very minor changes. I finished with four losses, and in three of them I can point to clear, costly mistakes, and in the fourth maybe I could have won with different sideboarding. That said, I encourage anyone who picks up the deck to tweak and fine tune depending on metagame changes and personal preferences. With this type of deck, it's really about finding a way to play each matchup that works for you.
When you factor in its strength in the pseudo mirrors, I feel confident saying that U/B is the best control deck in Standard. That said, control players have their work cut out for them with such a hostile format full of difficult-to-answer threats. The U/B Jace Control deck I offered today won't provide a lot of free wins. It's not likely to have the highest overall win rate in a typical testing gauntlet, either. But those aren't necessarily the things that lead to tournament wins.
U/B is easy to make mistakes with, but nobody should be scared to give it a try. Simply realize that it requires care and focus to play well. It's the deck that will best reward practice, focus, and skill. In my opinion, it's the deck that will make a skilled pilot most likely to take first place in a large tournament. Enjoy it!