So Terminus huh? I guess I was right when I said that a one-mana Wrath of God would make waves in Legacy and allow U/W hard control to finally (re)claim a share of the metagame. In the last few weeks at least there has rarely been a Top 8 of any big Legacy event without someone tapping into the raw power that comes from combining the miracles mechanic and cheap library manipulation in the form of Brainstorm and Sensei's Divining Top. Being able to clean the board for cheap (and often at instant speed) has even allowed the once feared but lately ignored Counterbalance-Top lock another day in the sun.
After all Counterbalance shutting many decks out of resolving spells and Terminus punishing those same decks for committing a lot of threats to the board before the lock can come online puts the opponent between a rock and a hard place—exactly where you want them to be.
As a result many players have been wondering how to adapt to the new juggernaut and how to rain on U/W Control's parade. This article is for all of those among you.
As one of the people that helped put U/W Miracles on the radar and an avid U/W hard control player I feel ideally positioned to give advice on how to deal with the deck. I know what I hate to see on the other side of the table after all.
The Nature of the Beast
To beat something you first have to understand it. So let's take a look at what U/W Miracles looks like and how it works. Check out these two sample decklists of the two main variations of it we've seen pure control and the Stoneforge Mystic hybrid:
While the deck started out as a pure U/W deck lately most players that eschew Mystics use a light red splash like Joe does mainly for the Red Elemental Blasts (or Pyroblasts which end up being largely the same thing) to help out in the mirror and against Show and Tell based decks. Even being able to Engineered Explosives for three can have a lot of value.
In discussing the deck I'll usually refer to the pure control list simply because that's what I have the most experience with though the presence of Stoneforge Mystic changes surprisingly little in how games with the deck play out. You mainly trade in a more overwhelming finisher for one that can steal some games early if the opponent misses on spot removal and sacrifices raw power for resilience to board control like Pernicious Deed or Terminus.
U/W Miracles is a control deck in a very traditional sense. Its main goal is to keep the game in a balance that ensures it doesn't die reducing the opponent's options and angles of attack until none are left. This is usually done by controlling the board and the stack early before establishing a long-term card advantage engine (Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top or Jace the Mind Sculptor) to pull ahead. Once that position is reached some way to end the game will eventually show up be it Jace's ultimate Entreat the Angels or simply utility creature beatdown with Cliques and Snapcasters in the proud tradition of winning the game with
Mountain Goat Gorilla Shaman like we did in old school Vintage control mirrors.
The deck can focus on this reactive game plan because Terminus gives Legacy control decks an angle of
attack defense that hasn't been available for years: card advantage and tempo neutralization by board sweeper.
The miracles plan operates under very simple assumptions—keeping the opponent neutral while making land drops and raising card quality will allow its wielder to take over the game eventually. Accordingly its cards fall in a small number of categories:
Library manipulation: This usually boils down to Brainstorms and Sensei's Divining Tops but can sometimes include an Enlightened Tutor or two or a few additional cantrips such as Ponder and Portent. These cards are integral to the deck's strategy for two reasons. First they make it possible to run late game cards such as Jace and Counterbalance (because they can keep those cards out of your hand when they aren't useful yet).
Secondly they allow you to actually win the long game. As there are few viable cheap card advantage options in Legacy making sure your card quality will overcome your opponent's in the long run thanks to Top and cantrips is the best available option to secure long game advantage for control decks.
And finally these cards allow you to abuse the miracle mechanic. Without Brainstorm and SDT a card like Terminus would be much too unreliable to actually use as your creature control tool of choice. Brainstorm (and Jace to a certain extent) helps to turn miracles that were drawn too early back into live cards while the Top both allows you to float miracles for when you need them and to turn them into instants thanks to its tap ability.
Early defense: There are two different layers of early defense in your typical U/W Control deck creature removal and stack-based control elements (aka countermagic plus Vendilion Clique). Their role is simply to allow the deck to survive until library manipulation and powerful end game threats come online. Terminus is obviously the most powerful of the bunch against a wide variety of strategies (those using creatures as threats) simply because you can usually set up a Terminus by turn 3 to 4 which will negate any early game gains the opponent might have made.
Mid game utility: To ensure a smooth flow of answers and the necessary flexibility to adapt to different kinds of opponents a hard control deck needs some answers that are more flexible than what the early defense package can provide. Counterspell and Oblivion Ring deal with most cards an opponent might throw at you and thereby allow the deck to bridge nicely through the mid game into the late game. Snapcaster Mage just doubles up whatever type of card from the two categories above you need more of in a particular game granting flexibility through redundancy.
Late game threats: And finally there are the cards the rest of the deck serves to enable: Jace the Mind Sculptor Entreat the Angels and Counterbalance. Counterbalance is the weakest of the three simply because the lock doesn't work particularly well against a number of archetypes. Luckily those are usually decks that are really soft to cheap instant speed Wrath effects (with the exception of Show and Tell). In a similar vein most decks Counterbalance can beat don't care too much about being Wrathed (nice coincidence) with the exception of RUG against which both Terminus and Counterbalance are excellent.
Jace is Jace and I'm not sure how much we need to talk about the power of the Mind Sculptor. He takes over the game through card advantage and Terminus is the perfect tool to make sure he is dropped onto an empty board—the kind of board he excels on. One thing to note is that Jace isn't just a game-ender in U/W Control; he's also a backup way to get miracles online. Playing Jace as a way to get that much needed Terminus where it belongs (on top of your deck) plus a Fog is a totally valid line of play in this deck.
Entreat is the ultimate win condition for a deck like this. Once control is established you make land drops tap your Top during the end step and make five Angels—voila combo style instant win. While that is the preferred way to do it Entreat can perform as soon as three or four lands are on the table. A lot of decks have trouble fighting through a couple of 4/4 flyers which means an early Entreat should give the deck the breathing room it needs to take over the game later on.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Now that we've taken a close look at how the deck works it's time to recapitulate where the deck is strong and where it is weak. I'll give you a list:
- Powerful tempo neutralizing plays against creatures.
- Solid stack control.
- Powerful late game threats in Jace and Entreat.
- The ability to lock the opponent out with Counterbalance.
- Strong library manipulation tools leading to high card quality.
- Synergistic tools that cover weaknesses.
- Flexible answers.
- Extremely resilient basic-heavy mana base.
- Only conditional ways to gain card advantage (Terminus Counterbalance and Jace).
- Relatively few answers to noncreature permanents once Spell Pierce is offline.
- Practically no answers to lands.
- Glacially slow clock meaning the deck needs to have inevitability in matchups it wants to win.
- A significant number of clunky late game cards.
- High mana requirements to work at peak efficiency.
- Overreliance on Sensei's Divining Top (needed to ensure late game superiority and to get both the miracle engine and Counterbalance working).
You beat a deck in two ways: by attacking its weak points or by neutralizing its strong points. Doing that can happen in the three basic areas of tournament Magic: in game during sideboard and maindeck construction and when choosing which deck to play. Let's go over all three areas one by one.
There are a few questions you need to ask yourself when playing against U/W Miracles the main ones being:
Can I beat Counterbalance/Top?
How do I minimize getting hit by Terminus?
Can I stop/beat a Jace?
How long can I wait before Los Angeles will get me?
Playing against U/W Control and winning asks you to perform a balancing act with imperfect information. What you need to do is to apply enough pressure to threaten to kill them before Jace or Counter-Top take over the game while holding back enough resources to redeploy instantaneously once Terminus has popped.
This particular approach is difficult for a lot of Legacy players unsurprisingly so. After all when is the last time a Wrath of God variant was actually playable in Legacy? With no experience playing through or around this kind of effect it's easy to understand why a lot of players struggle with it at the moment.
Deciding if you should ration out your threats to try to pull Terminus' fangs or if you should cry "Hail Mary!" and go in guns blazing is very context dependent. It depends on your deck's capabilities your vulnerability to their late game threats (especially Counterbalance) your hand and the actual game state. There really isn't much you can do to learn how to play the matchup correctly other than playtest playtest and then playtest some more. I'll try to provide some guidelines anyway.
The first thing to note is that if they have Sensei's Divining Top in play every additional turn counts for much more than if they don't. Given enough time to sculpt they will find what they need so you need more pressure if they don't have Magic's sweetest time waster going. As weird as it sounds if they have their best Terminus enabler online you need to play into Terminus a little bit more than if they don't.
If your deck is vulnerable to Counterbalance a Top in play means you need to be very aggressive and even if they don't have it you have to keep the pressure up. Throw out a medium-sized first wave to force a Terminus and once that's happened dump whatever is left and try to kill them. If they have the second Terminus chances are they'd have Counter-Top locked you soon anyway.
If you can play a reasonable game even if their lock is online commit four to five points of power to the board preferably in one to two bodies. The more creatures you deploy the stronger Terminus gets but if you only have a single guy out a Swords to Plowshares suddenly becomes a full Time Walk and Jace can effectively protect itself with his Unsummon.
Why four to five power? Well four to five damage a turn is usually enough to kill them before Entreat becomes available and to threaten a Jace even through a minimum of defense so they need to react in some way. Wait until they Wrath then rinse and repeat until they run out of Wraths.
Once they reach the five-mana threshold you need to increase your clock even if it means having to play into Terminus a little more. The simple truth is that the clock is now ticking because of Entreat and if you take too long to deal with them the Angels will just race you.
Hamper their mana development if possible and force them to play spells to stay alive. Every mana they spend is a mana they can't use to dig for answers. It may seem enticing to hold Stifle back to counter the miracle triggers but you're generally better off with a hamstrung opponent than one who only has to find another Brainstorm Jace Terminus or Entreat to take over the game.
In general be very conscious of the mana they have available. If their only source of white is a fetchland they haven't cracked yet Wasting it in response to a Top flip or during upkeep the turn after they've Brainstormed will often throw a wrench in their plans. The same is true for their second white source if Entreat is a factor.
Stopping Sensei's Divining Top should be your priority. Name it with Cabal Therapy take it with Thoughtseize and use Force of Will to stop it. That card is the lynchpin of the deck so try your best to make sure they don't have access to it. With it they'll draw what they need when they need it. Without it they'll draw Jaces and miracles at inopportune moments miss land drops and hit countermagic the turn after it was needed.
Kill Jace as soon as he turns up. Even if they're at a low life total or you have to throw away significant resources to do so allowing them to untap with a Jace is generally a bad idea because once he gets going they will be able to protect him and deal with almost anything you can throw at them. It seems like this should be common knowledge by now but I still see people letting Jace live when they're more than a turn away from killing their opponent. Don't.
As mentioned these are just some rough guidelines and you'll have to learn exactly how you need to play the matchup through testing but if you insist on going in blind (or are forced to do so due to time constraints) they should still prove helpful.
There are a lot of cards that can be run both maindeck and sideboard which help against U/W Miracles yet the truly effective ones will attack their weaknesses or protect against their strengths. The easiest way to understand what these cards should be doing is to look at the options for two top tier decks so that you can find cards that perform similar functions in whatever it is you are playing.
Canadian Thresh aka RUG Delver
Nimble Mongoose – Your threat of choice. They have few ways to interact with it and he threatens Jace like a boss.
Sylvan Library – They have few ways to catch up on actual card advantage and no way to pressure your life total. Use it aggressively.
Sulfuric Vortex – Hard to deal with threat; it being in play essentially gives you inevitability.
Sylvan Library – Just look what I said for RUG. You even have Knights that get Swordsed to draw a couple more cards.
Equipment – Any piece of equipment will allow you to provide major pressure without overextending into Terminus. Sword of Light and Shadow and Sword of Fire and Ice are particularly effective because they also allow you to refuel. Note that a Teeg with a Sword of Light and Shadow is usually game over because they can't kill it.
Pithing Needle – Shuts of Top and Jace. Yes that's really good enough.
Armageddon – They need mana and play lands.
Basically all of these options either attack their weaknesses by punishing them for needing a lot of mana being slow to finish the game and being too reliant on Top or are hard to answer with the tools the deck has available—or mitigate their strengths—by devaluing Terminus getting around Counterbalance or locking them out of their late game. Those are the things you want your cards to do against U/W Miracles. Keep that in mind when looking for options for your own maindeck and sideboard.
Finally if you're really sick of miraculously losing you can decide to play a deck that is just plain well positioned against them. Those are usually decks that naturally get around U/W Control's defenses and/or take inevitability away from them. Let me give you two prime examples of decks that do that.
- 4 Gempalm Incinerator
- 4 Goblin Lackey
- 4 Goblin Matron
- 3 Goblin Piledriver
- 4 Goblin Ringleader
- 1 Goblin Sharpshooter
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 3 Mogg War Marshal
- 1 Siege-Gang Commander
- 1 Skirk Prospector
- 1 Stingscourger
- 1 Tuktuk Scrapper
- 1 Krenko, Mob Boss
I've been playing quite a bit of Goblins lately and that's what I've been most happy with so far. (Yeah I know—creatures? Well it does draw a ton of cards and is incredibly flexible so I hope you'll forgive me for straying from my roots.)
There is basically no deck that beats up on U/W Miracles like Goblins. Cavern of Souls Aether Vial and the Ringleader/Matron draw engine make sure you never run out of steam while they will at some point end up without a Terminus. The heavy creature presence makes sure they can't Jace you successfully. The only way the U/W deck will take a game is by hitting a big Entreat early enough which doesn't happen regularly especially against Ports and Wastelands.
Obviously they could be ready for you and have access to ridiculous bombs that shut you down (Moat being the most backbreaking one). If that's the case in your metagame take a page out of Max Tietze's book and replace the black splash I've been using to deal with combo with green for a few Krosan Grips in the board. Those take care of your enchantment problems quite nicely. You even get to run the much more mana efficient Tin Street Hooligan instead of the Scrappers for your trouble.
If you'd rather join the dark side to beat U/W Control instead of jamming "fair" creatures the Manaless Dredge deck Michael Keller (Hollywood on mtgthesource.com) has been running successfully lately could be exactly what you're looking for.
With a totally non-interactive game plan of draw-discard-dredge (don't forget to put your opponent on the play every time you can) most of U/W Control's cards might as well just be blank cardboard giving you total inevitability. The only spells you're casting are Cabal Therapy and Dread Return after all and as those usually come with a bunch of Zombies attached (courtesy of Bridge from Below) you don't really care too much if they are countered. Spot removal is only a minor annoyance but with the number of cards you
draw put into your graveyard every turn there are bound to be more. Ichorids don't even stick around to get Terminused without a Top.
As long as you take care not to put all your Ichorids into play at once if they can instant draw on your turn they really can't do much to avoid being eaten by a horde of Zombies hungry for some juicy control player brains game 1 and the deck is resilient enough to graveyard hate (well at least the graveyard hate people actually play) to generally pull out one of the two post-board games against the slow grindy U/W deck.
There are other decks that can play this game of stealing inevitability from U/W Control to make the matchup terrifying for the latest control deck on the block. Cloudpost Ramp for example simply starts to hard cast Emrakul for the win every turn with frightening consistency against such a slow and Wasteland-less deck.
U/W Control's End?
Does all of this mean that U/W Miracles is suddenly a bad deck? No absolutely not. It remains a very powerful versatile deck that will leave its mark on Legacy at least if I get my say. However there are ways to adapt to it—Todd Anderson showed us how to do it for RUG at the last SCG Invitational—and I think it's important for the necessary techniques to become common knowledge.
After all where's the fun in winning if all I do is crush unprepared opponents that don't know how to deal with what I'm bringing to the table? And make no mistake: U/W Control is still what I'll be playing when it counts. I just love me a good control deck too much and Wizards has finally seen fit to give me one. How could I resist?
Nonetheless I hope this will enable some of you to deal with the new old menace of U/W hard control a little better. One last request: if you would be so kind as to forget everything I said today when you see my name next to yours on the pairing sheet I'd appreciate it. Thanks for reading!
Until next time—make sure they need more than a miracle!