Lately I've been on a quest. It's been my all-consuming goal to find the perfect control deck for Standard so that I might recommend it to you my readers. But Standard's a tough format and my adventures have been fraught with peril. What's worse how will I even know the perfect control deck when I find it? Maybe like the Holy Grail angels will carry it to me in sleeves of white samite. But it's equally likely that I'll have to do all the work for myself.
Step One: Be a comfortable favorite against U/W Delver.
... I don't have a Step Two yet because I haven't gotten that far. Yes my quest has proven more difficult that I'd expected. However a knight who keeps his faith cannot be defeated easily! There's still hope for beating Delver as I've found three wildly different approaches that are each able to fight it quite well.
The three decks I'll share today are all thoroughly tested and I'd be comfortable registering any of the three if there was an important tournament tomorrow. Each is solid against the field as I'll explain in more detail in their respective sections. Each hovers around 50/50 against U/W Delver depending on the pilots and the builds of Delver.
Fighting Delver with Pristine Talisman
The appeal of U/R Control is its smooth mana and the way Pristine Talisman combines with Ancient Grudge and cheap sweepers to protect you against the Delver deck. A challenge that U/W presents to control players is that all of its threats must be answered in different ways. A turn 1 Delver requires a different answer than a Geist of Saint Traft which requires a different answer than a stream of Moorland Haunt tokens. The exception is that Whipflare and Slagstorm take care of them all which is why I'm thrilled to be playing so many copies in any deck that can support them.
Against many of your draws it's simply unrealistic for Delver to beat you with creatures so they'll have to base their game plan on a Sword of War and Peace and risk being blown out by Ancient Grudge. I've found that one Grudge maindeck a second one sideboard a Ratchet Bomb and the two Karn Liberated are a comfortable number of answers to Sword of War and Peace. The card can be slow and gives you plenty of chances to kill it. That said though it will certainly beat you if you let it go unanswered.
My suggested decklist is 61 cards as I haven't been able to make any cut without leaving the deck to vulnerable in one area or another. However I haven't been disappointed with the list as it is. 26 lands and three Talismans seemed like slightly too much mana for a 60-card deck but perfect for 61. Having more cards means more options more flexibility in your discards and makes the job that much harder for an opponent who's trying to deck you!
Building around Pristine Talisman is tricky. On the one hand you want to make good use of the mana acceleration aspect of the Talisman; on the other hand expensive spells are risky propositions against Delver decks. For starters your opponents are sure to have four copies each—or should I say eight because of Snapcaster Mage—of Vapor Snag and Mana Leak. They may have more permission beyond that they may have Celestial Purge or Phantasmal Image and they may have trump cards like Jace Memory Adept to punish you for tapping out.
I tried quite a few combinations of win conditions for U/R Control and this is what I found to be perfect. Inferno Titan isn't particularly scary to have Cloned as you don't have weenie creatures to be mopped up and a single attack from the true Titan can kill a Phantasmal Image copying him. He at least has some impact when he's Vapor Snagged which makes him very appealing compared to Consecrated Sphinx. Finally having just two Titans as your only red permanents should make your opponent indifferent about sideboarding in Celestial Purge or leaving it on the bench.
Running two Karn Liberated warrants some skepticism as many players (myself included) have suggested cutting him entirely from U/B Control. While he's certainly not exciting against Delver he's at least very safe as they can't undo his damage with a Clone or a Vapor Snag. If you can resolve him on an empty board he'll do the job reliably which is exactly what this deck needs at that point in the game.
Against the rest of the field you'll be happy to have two Karns. He's undeniably excellent in control mirrors and against midrange and beatdown decks the acceleration from Pristine Talisman puts him over the top. The red sweepers are brutally efficient at controlling swarms of weenies so having Karn to take care of larger problem permanents like Titans planeswalkers and equipment is just what the doctor ordered.
Though Blue Sun's Zenith cannot officially "win" the game it's an excellent bomb in this deck as your goal is to make your land drops every turn and perhaps even add to that with Pristine Talisman. The Zenith can be a threat on its own or can be bait to resolve a Karn (they'll never expect the second copy). I always bring in the second copy of Blue Sun's Zenith in control mirrors and against Delver.
Consecrated Sphinx and Batterskull are so good against the beatdown decks that I wish I could maindeck them. Aided by the card fixing of Faithless Looting a turn 5 Sphinx off of a Talisman is an easy way to beat R/G Aggro. Unfortunately I don't view either Sphinx or Batterskull as maindeckable cards as long as Vapor Snag decks maintain this level of dominance.
Fighting Delver by Doing Nothing
U/R Control has many advantages in the war against Delver. However spending time on the deck made me frustrated with how challenging it is to close a game against Delver particularly after sideboard. They have a seemingly endless amount of permission along with Images Snags and Purges. All of those things combined make me wish I didn't have to bother resolving a threat!
Classic U/B Control dodges the win condition problem altogether as you can simply sit back on your Nephalia Drownyards and kill your Delver opponent no matter how may Dissipates and Phantasmal Images they're holding! The two Jace Memory Adepts are perfect compliments to this game plan as they provide a fast clock when supported by other mill. They cannot be Cloned or Purged and are significantly easier to resolve because they cost five mana instead of six or seven. It's also not to be ignored that five mana to "destroy target opposing Jace" is a quite useful effect in post-board games.
I'm not a fan of Pristine Talisman in U/B Control. For one thing my suggested list doesn't include Karn Liberated or six-drop creatures to accelerate into. I feel that if you want to use that approach you need not even bother with Nephalia Drownyard and would be better served using the shells of one of the other decks in this article. U/B also doesn't have the tools to keep equipment off the table as easily as Ancient Grudge decks so the opponent can always find a way to turn the tables whether you're at twelve life or 24. Perhaps most importantly though U/B Control players don't want to be spending mana on their main phase when they can avoid it. Passing the turn with all of your lands untapped gives you free rein to counter spells flashback Think Twice cast Forbidden Alchemy or activate the all-important Drownyard.
U/B Control has what it takes to beat Delver and it has plenty of other benefits as it mercilessly slaughters non-Drownyard control decks. However classic U/B's weakness is simply its lack of powerful cards. Today I've been making it out to be an advantage to not have Titans in your maindeck and I feel that overall it is one. However it also means that you have no get-out-of-jail-free cards. If you cannot answer a certain threat you're likely to lose to it since nothing in your deck can really go over the top. U/B's sweepers do basically the same thing that red and white sweepers do but they do it in a slower or more mana intensive way.
U/B Control has what it takes to do well in Standard right now but don't expect free wins. Expect to have to play your best and stay sharp for the entire day.
Fighting Delver with Lingering Souls
I'd fought hard. Trying first U/R and later U/B Control I'd battled for hours upon hours but I couldn't defeat the beast that was terrorizing the countryside. My weapons and armor were broken my fingers bloody from vainly trying to continue the fight; I stumbled away a beleaguered a knight uncertain how I could go on with my quest.
I did the only thing I could do—the only thing anyone can do when they face such an insurmountable challenge—I fired up StarCityGames.com to get advice from my favorite columnist!
Unfortunately there wasn't a Reid Duke article out that day so I had to see what Gerry Thompson had to say about the Delver matchup. He explained to me that Lingering Souls is among the best cards against Delver out of a control deck referring to it as "a removal spell triple Time Walk or win condition."
My initial testing with Shaheen Soorani's list restored my faith in Standard and gave me hope that I might yet complete my quest. Lingering Souls was all Mr. Thompson has promised it would be and the three maindeck Curse of Death's Holds got me out of some sticky situations. The mix of spot removal Liliana of the Veil and Day of Judgment seemed perfect to handle every threat my Delver opponents could present.
Although GerryT's article was titled "Fighting Delver" the overall tone was one of frustration. Like me Gerry was fighting the good fight but it's becoming harder and harder for anyone to deny Delver as the best deck in the format.
Of the three decks I've posted today Esper Control has the strongest game 1 against Delver. However the problems that the other two decks face after sideboarding are even more extreme in Esper's case. It leans quite heavily on black permanents making it vulnerable to Celestial Purge. It has to force the action and try to resolve a threat because it cannot play a draw-go game as well as the other two decks can with their abundance of instant speed card draw. Forcing the action in post-board games is often a losing proposition from my experience.
However with the strong game 1and the efficiency of Lingering Souls I'd still be willing to take the Esper side in a match against Delver. Access to Day of Judgment and Gideon Jura also gives Esper some appealing advantages against the rest of the field and Liliana of the Veil is simply an incredible card no matter what's going on in the metagame.
There are a few things about Mr. Soorani's list that I would change to improve the Delver matchup. For one thing Sorin Lord of Innistrad and Consecrated Sphinx are unreliable win conditions against Delver and might be swapped for two copies of the very potent Grave Titan and some more early game action. His sideboard was constructed at a time when U/B Drownyard Control was a major player but at this stage of the game I see no need to devote sideboard slots to Geist of Saint Traft. There are a handful of things that could replace them but I'd like to see at least one copy of Divine Offering to help make sure nothing slips by your Lingering Soul's tokens with a Sword of War and Peace.
Continuing the Quest
Where only the Delver matchup is concerned I loved Lingering Souls but didn't particularly value any of the other white cards in Esper Control. Moving forward my goal will be to experiment with a Lingering Souls splash in a U/B Control or Grixis shell.
The knight Sir Palamedes devoted his life to searching for the Questing Beast which King Arthur saw once in a dream. Who knows if such a beast ever existed or if the knight was searching for something that he could never find. Either way the quest gave his life meaning and came in large part to define him.
I for one would like to think that Sir Palamedes did find the Questing Beast. Maybe it happened one day when he was an old man or when a new Magic set was going come out soon and nobody would care anyway... Either way he shouldn't have felt like his time was wasted as oftentimes the search is more important than finding what one's looking for.