Blue-Red Control is Back in Standard
Finally, the time has come and we can play Hour of Devastation in Standard! I don't expect the format to change an incredible amount, but decks that were already top decks gained new tools from Hour of Devastation are particularly scary.
Enter Blue-Red Control. Expect to see a lot of it in the coming weeks, as it may be the deck that has gained the most.
So what did Blue-Red Control pick up? The first card I want to talk about is Abrade, my pick for the card that will have the largest immediate impact on Standard. Being able to kill a creature or vehicle is the type of versatility that removal has been lacking, and for only two mana Abrade does it all. Before, players had two-mana removal like Dissenter's Deliverance or Natural Obsolescence that only destroyed an artifact, and these cards were not as main-deckable as Abrade.
Vehicles has been so good for the past few months that even a card like Natural Obsolescence saw main deck play as players got desperate for good artifact removal to stretch. Finally we have it, and Vehicles is not happy about Abrade entering the format. Blue-Red Control has been one of the best matchups for Vehicles for a while, but is no longer the case.
Being able to destroy a Heart of Kiran that hasn't been crewed is pretty important, as a lot of times the Vehicles players will only crew their Heart of Kiran if they want to bait out a Harnessed Lightning, in order to resolve something like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Of course there are other decks that can play Abrade too, but it does mean red decks in general will have artifact removal in the main deck that is also good against non-vehicles decks.
In fact, we have been seeing more and more Spell Queller recently, and this is yet another way to answer that card. Black-green decks have Winding Constrictor and friends, so the two-mana instant speed deal three damage part of Abrade is still going to be used more than the destroy an artifact part. The sick part is that if the opponent does play a big creature there is a good chance it is a Gearhulk… and of course Gearhulks are artifacts too! Every Standard player should pick up a playset of Abrade; the card is now competing with Harnessed Lightning for the best two-mana red removal spell.
Hour of Devastation
It turns out there is more than one format-defining red card in the new set! Hour of Devastation is a sweeper that I am extremely excited about. Before now there wasn't really a good answer to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar for control decks. If Gideon entered play early in the game, the control deck was essentially helpless.
Now the opponent can play Gideon and make a token, only to have their whole board dismantled by Hour of Devastation. Being able to deal with both creatures and planeswalkers with one card is huge. The format is likely to slow down because Hour of Devastation is so strong against any deck with small creatures, it happens to be great against Zombies too, even though that deck doesn't play many planeswalkers.
We are entering a new age of Standard where the sweepers are much better, and as a result control decks are the natural place to turn to. Not only does the format slowing down mean Blue-Red Control is going to be better because games will tend to go longer, it also happens to be the best natural fit for Hour of Devastation. What other big decks are going to want to play the card?
We have talked about the most important two cards for Blue-Red Control already, but that doesn't mean there aren't other cards in Hour of Devastation that are also worth considering. Tragic Lesson could end up being a role player here. We have seen Anticipate a lot in control decks, and having a way to draw two cards at instant speed is nice. In order to transition from the midgame to the more expensive game winning spells, you need cards like this.
Unfortunately there is a drawback on Tragic Lesson that will stop it from seeing more play, and that is either returning a land to your hand or discarding a card. It would be cool to return a land with Tragic Lesson that has a beneficial comes-into-play trigger, but there aren't any of those in Blue-Red Control. Divination saw a good amount of play in White-Blue Control decks a while back, and that wasn't even instant-speed card draw.
When playing Tragic Lesson on turn three, you are never going to want to return a land to your hand, so it isn't pure card advantage. However, there is often an easy card to discard, if there isn't then you have a really good hand already. Oftentimes there will be a removal spell, conditional counter, or excess land that can be easily pitched. Overall I'm not sure Tragic Lesson will end up making the cut in Blue-Red Control, but it is a good way to ensure you hit land drops to get to play cards like Hour of Devastation and Torrential Gearhulk. In the end, I expect Hieroglyphic Illumination or Supreme Will to make the cut over Tragic Lesson, but it's worth considering.
There are a lot of good counters in Standard, but none quite like this one, which teams up perfectly with Censor to provide flexibility. We have counters that are good early in the game and can be cashed in for a different card when they become bad later. This means control decks are more likely to get to later stages in games overall.
Supreme Will is a card I expect to be main-decked in Blue-Red Control. It turns out Impulse is better than Anticipate, and Mana Leak is better than Censor, the downside being of course that Supreme Will does cost one more mana than both of those cards. We are now talking about the same mana cost as Disallow. Control decks need hard countermagic once the game goes long, so Disallow won't be leaving the deck anytime soon, but there is some room for maneuvering to have a mix of both Supreme Will and Disallow.
Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign
This card is flashy, and looks powerful enough to see play. The issue is that it is competing with Torrential Gearhulk, and in this deck Torrential Gearhulk is going to be better most of the time, as being able to play it at instant speed is a big deal. This means we are talking about whether playing a fifth six-mana card is worth it. I remember players asking if it would be worth having a fifth Torrential Gearhulk if you could play one in Blue-Red Control, and this basically poses the same question.
The fact that we are also adding a five-mana sweeper to the deck in Hour of Devastation, makes me think there is no room for Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign. Paying attention to your mana curve is very important. If control decks start to move more towards operating at sorcery speed, then I could see Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign being very good, but that time hasn't come yet.
The Locust God
The Locust God suffers from the same problem as Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign. Personally, I could see wanting a single copy of this card in the sideboard as win condition, or even one in the main deck depending on the metagame. Alongside Glimmer of Genius, the Insects certainly multiply faster. I wouldn't say The Locust God is straight-up worse than Torrential Gearhulk, and it is definitely one of the sweetest card in Hour of Devastation, but in Blue-Red Control at this mana cost are highly contested.
Sideboard Options in Hour of Devastation
Kefnet's Last Word is an extremely powerful card, as paying one less mana for a Mind Control that can also take artifacts and enchantments is a big game. Of course, not being able to untap those lands during your next turn is also a pretty major drawback for a mana hungry deck like this one. Kefnet's Last Word is at its best as a sideboard card because players will be taking out removal versus you. After sideboarding, when you can take an opponent's Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, they are unlikely to have Fatal Push or Grasp of Darkness still in their deck.
Kefnet's Last Word is a high-risk, high-reward card, it will be at its best if you can take a big threat of the opponent's that would otherwise be difficult to deal with. Think about even troublesome permanents like Bounty of Luxa, and this is the best enchantment removal in Blue-Red Control. Besides Kefnet's Last Word, I do think Jace's Defeat is worthy of sideboard consideration if the format ends up being full of blue decks. However, right now it doesn't seem better than a card like Negate, which comes in more often.
These are cards that look like they have potential, but I advise staying away from. Riddleform appears to be a cheap creature when you want it, and a way to make sure you draw well later because of the ability to scry, and even though this deck does have many ways to turn Riddleform into a creature, the ones it does have are mostly on the opponent's turn. You can't control when you make Riddleform into a creature if you are triggering it by playing a counter.
The most glaring problem with Riddleform though is that it turns on removal like Fatal Push that would otherwise be very bad against you. Bloodwater Entity is another option similar to Riddleform that isn't high-impact enough to be a sideboard option, so these are threats that I would stay away from.
My Recommended List
This list resembles what Blue-Red Control looked like before Hour of Devastation, but has plenty of new hits to enhance the strategy. I ended up squeezing in one copy of The Locust God in the main deck, though I could see that not being correct. I do feel pretty strongly about all of the other new additions in this list though.
Blue-Red Control was popular when Aetherworks Marvel was around, and then dropped off a bit. The reason was that this deck was traditionally pretty good against Marvel, but weaker against the rest of the field. The new additions mean that Blue-Red Control is much better set up versus the entire field, and it should return to the metagame stronger than ever.
Thanks for reading,