By Myles Miller
Welcome back to the Battleground weekly article segment! We hope you had a great Thanksgiving holiday, however you chose to spend it. We took a week off from articles, but I’m going to make it up to you with a segment that’s a bit longer than usual.
If we’ve never met in person before: Hi. My name is Myles, and I play control. I like Islands, I have very strong opinions about the best art for Counterspell (it’s the Signature Spellbook printing, not close), and have a Jace tattoo on my right forearm. I’ve also been playing some form of blue/white or blue/white/black control in standard for the better part of the past two years. And so my goal here today is to pass on some of my knowledge of the control archetype, with some help from examples pulled from my matches at Grand Prix Milwaukee 2 weeks ago.
I’m first going to discuss the biggest threats of the format: every deck in Standard has cards that can be difficult for control to handle. A successful control player is one who recognizes how threatening a certain card is and responds accordingly, rather than just using counterspells and removal spells indiscriminately. After that, I’ll share a few examples from my experience at the Grand Prix, where I played at least 1 match against just about every popular archetype in today’s Standard format.
Here is the deck I played at GP Milwaukee. Take a moment to look through it, then I’ll break down how these cards combine to make my opponents miserable.
Planeswalkers (4) 3x Moment of Craving
4x Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 2x Negate
Enchantments (3) 2x Golden Demise
2x Search for Azcanta 4x Sinister Sabotage
1x The Eldest Reborn 3x Chemister’s Insight
Lands (26) 2x Ritual of Soot
4x Watery Grave 4x Vraska’s Contempt
4x Drowned Catacomb Sideboard
4x Glacial Fortress 4x Thief of Sanity
4x Isolated Chapel 2x Lyra Dawnbringer
1x Detection Tower 2x Disdainful Stroke
1x Field of Ruin 1x Negate
4x Island 2x Invoke the Divine
3x Swamp 1x Ritual of Soot
1x Plains 1x Dawn of Hope
Spells (27) 1x Profane Procession
1x Fungal Infection 1x The Eldest Reborn
2x Cast Down
2x Essence Scatter
Knowledge is Power
The most important tool of a successful control player is knowledge: knowing what your opponent is likely to play, what decisions they are likely to make, and how you are most easily able to deal with their threats is an essential part of the control archetype. I played against 5 different types of decks at Grand Prix Milwaukee, all of which are very popular in the current Standard format. I’d like to analyze each matchup and describe what the threats are in order of severity. Let’s start with the ones I played against the least amount of times and work up the list.
Selesnya (green/white) Tokens – 1 match
Top 5 threats: 1. History of Benalia 2. Legion’s Landing* 3. Trostani Discordant 4. March of the Multitudes 5. Emmara, Soul of the Accord.
I only played against this deck once in all 15 rounds of the Grand Prix, and I’m thankful for that. This matchup is not an easy one because the opponent’s ability to make multiple tokens without spending much mana can quickly overwhelm the board, regardless of what Answers I’m holding. History of Benalia is Public Enemy #1 in this contest because for the price of 3 mana and 1 card, your opponent gets 2 creatures and a powerful power and toughness boost. If left unchecked, it’ll create a 2/2 on the first turn, create another 2/2 on the next turn while the first attacks for 2 damage, then make those tokens big enough to attack for a combined 8 damage. That’s 10 damage out of one card, half your life total! Legion’s Landing has an asterisk because it’s not the front of the card that’s scary, but the back side. If it flips, your opponent can keep making 1/1 tokens to slowly pick away at your life total, and it becomes a land which is significantly harder to remove than an enchantment. Trostani Discordant, March of the Multitudes, and Emmara, Soul of the Accord all follow this trend of creating multiple Questions out of just one card, making it easy to overrun your Answers.
Jeskai (blue/red/white) Control – 1 match
Top 5 threats: 1. Niv-Mizzet, Parun 2. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 3. Crackling Drake 4. Expansion//Explosion 5. Banefire
It’s a mirror match! Sort of! Jeskai is an extremely popular deck right now, the fact that I only played against it one time was remarkable. Niv-Mizzet is an important part of your opponent’s gameplan in this matchup, since his text box includes the phrase “can’t be countered”. If left unchecked, Niv-Mizzet will give your opponent a lot of extra cards and give you a lot of damage to your life total. Expansion//Explosion pulls double-duty in a control mirror match. The Expansion half of the card allows your opponent to cheaply copy your draw spells and counterspells, and Explosion serves as a huge source of card advantage and potentially lethal damage. Lastly, Banefire can deal immense amounts of damage in the later stages of a game, and it also contains the text “can’t be countered”. You see how this is an issue.
Boros (red/white) Aggro – 2 matches
Top 5 threats: 1. History of Benalia 2. Adanto Vanguard 3. Legion’s Landing* 4. Experimental Frenzy 5. Banefire
Threats #1 and #3 have already been discussed, but there’s a newcomer between them: Adanto Vanguard is a nightmare for control. For the low, low price of 2 mana, your opponent can attack for 3 damage each turn with a creature that can only be removed by a few specific cards. If you have a Cast Down or a Ritual of Soot in your hand, your opponent will happily pay 4 life to keep this threat around. Experimental Frenzy allows your opponent to keep playing cards directly from their deck, which makes it easy to flood the battlefield with new threats, while you are limited to just the cards in your hand. This deck is the reason my list contains 2 copies of Golden Demise as a way to stave off a flood of aggressive creatures.
Izzet (blue/red) Drakes – 2 matches
Top 5 threats: 1. Niv-Mizzet, Parun 2. Murmuring Mystic 3. Arclight Phoenix 4. Crackling Drake 5. Goblin Electromancer
I, thankfully, did not see any copies of Murmuring Mystic in either match against this deck. The Izzet Drakes deck relies on cheap spells that draw cards, so if your opponent gets a 1/1 creature token for each of these spells? It can get out of hand very quickly. Arclight Phoenix can be dangerous because of its ability to return from the graveyard multiple times. Without a Vraska’s Contempt to get rid of it permanently, it might take several Answers to deal with just one copy. Goblin Electromancer makes the list not because it does much damage, but because of the benefit it provides to the rest of your opponent’s deck. When their cheap spells become even cheaper, it’s not difficult for your opponent to draw and cast more spells than your Answers can keep up with.
Golgari (green/black) Midrange – 7 matches
Top 5 threats: 1. Carnage Tyrant 2. Vivien Reed 3. Doom Whisperer 4. Vraska, Relic Seeker 5. Find//Finality
That’s right. Seven times. The good news is that I only lost 2 of these matches. Carnage Tyrant is the number 1 threat to any control deck. It can’t be countered, it can’t be targeted, and it hits really, really hard. My deck has a few answers in the form of The Eldest Reborn and Detection Tower, but if we could always draw the card we wanted Magic would be a very different game. Vivien Reed draws creatures, so the longer she stays on the battlefield the more problems your opponent can create for you. Doom Whisperer also hits hard, and since we have no creatures to attack with, your opponent can activate that surveil ability as many times as they’d like to ensure they find the best cards to draw against you. Jadelight Ranger also helps smooth out your opponent’s draws, and the Find half of Find//Finality can bring back creatures you’ve already had to deal with, allowing your opponent to ask even more Questions while you start running out of Answers.
The Right Anwers
Knowing what Questions your opponents will be asking is the most important part of playing control, but using the right Answers can separate the best from the rest. Some of the spells in my deck are very specific, such as Fungal Infection which is only good against low-toughness creatures, while some can handle just about anything, such as Sinister Sabotage or Vraska’s Contempt. The secret to doing well with a control deck is knowing when to use certain spells for certain threats. I’m going to describe a few situations I faced during Grand Prix Milwaukee, and demonstrate why some Answers are more correct than others.
Example 1: Izzet Drakes
Your opponent is having a pretty good turn. They’ve cast enough spells to bring back 2 copies of Arclight Phoenix from the graveyard at once, which are now both attacking you. As you can see below, you have several options to deal with this sticky situation. Take a moment to think about how you’d play out this turn before scrolling down to see what I did.
What I did on this turn is: nothing. I took 6 damage from the Arclight Phoenixes, then on my turn used Golden Demise to clear the board. Using one Answer to deal with 2 Questions is the reason for cards like Golden Demise and Ritual of Soot. This way I have the single-target removal available in my hand to use later.
Example 2: Boros Aggro
This game is getting out of hand quickly. You’ve taken a few hits and the threats just keep piling up. You’ve just drawn for turn and played a land. Do you ue a removal spell this turn to take less damage from your opponent’s next attacks? Or bide your time and pass the turn and see what happens?
The only point of damage that matters is the one that brings you to 0 life. You still have some life to work with, and waiting a turn to get the most value out of your board wipe after History of Benalia creates its second token is worth taking a bit more damage. Ritual of Soot should be able to clean up anything else your opponent adds to the battlefield, with the sole exception of Adanto Vanguard. But by holding on to the Moment of Craving, you can take care of that on your opponent’s turn before ruining their day on yours.
Example 3: Golgari Midrange
Your opponent just played their 5th land, then cast one of their deck’s most potent threats: Doom Whisperer. With a whopping 6 power and an ability to surveil that your opponent can use multiple times, this is definitely a Question you have to Answer, and fast. As usual, you have a couple different ways to do this:
Vraska’s Contempt is a great card, but there’s a reason it’s not the best play here. If Doom Whisperer is allowed to resolve, your opponent can pay life mutiple times to surveil and ensure they draw something good. So a counterspell is the ideal answer. Essence Scatter is of course an option, but I don’t think it’s the most correct choice. The card I went with is Syncopate, for one big reason. Syncopate exiles the card that it counters, which is extremely relevant in this matchup. The Golgari Midrange decks rely on strong creatures, and use Find//Finality or Memorial to Folly to buy those creatures back from the graveyard. If Essence Scatter is used on this Doom Whisperer, it’s likely to come back later to be cast again. Permanently removing a massive threat like Doom Whisperer is probably the best way to go.
With those quick looks into how Standard’s most popular decks are asking Questions, take a look back and see if you can pick out which cards in my list of 75 are meant to deal with which threats. There are a lot of different Answers, some more specific than others, but it’s important that every card in a control deck serve a purpose in at least one matchup. Do you have a card in mind that might be worth including? Drop a comment and make a case! Do you have questions about a certain matchup or different ideas on how to handle the situations I mentioned? Start a discussion below! Thanks for reading.