Making Control Work in Standard
While catching up with some of Europe's mightiest wizards last week, the idea of attacking Standard with a properly-tuned Blue-Red Control deck was discussed. The pros in Europe weren't the only ones thinking along these lines – on the other side of the Atlantic, we saw control decks in the hands of some of the best playing at Grand Prix Denver over the weekend. Admittedly, they didn't propel their pilots into the stratosphere, but it may be that we haven't yet found the optimal balance of answers against the format's questions.
The conventional approach so far has been to pair blue with red. However, this configuration has not been met with overwhelming success, and as a result dedicated control mages have sought alternatives, most notably in Approach of the Second Sun. Finding the best way to build a blue-based control deck is still very much a work in progress, however – just like it took a long time to find a stronger build of the God-Pharaoh's Gift deck, I don't think we've seen the final form of control decks in this format.
The Blue Cards
Before evaluating what is offered to the deck by each other color, let's examine the core of any control deck in Standard. Broadly speaking, the core blue cards in each list remain very similar, regardless of what they're paired with. Of course, there are slight differences, but the blue half of each deck is attempting to do more or less the same thing - answer threats with a suite of countermagic and draw cards with cards such as Glimmer of Genius. Blue's principal weakness, as ever, is resolved permanents. Red, white, and black all offer alternative solutions to this particular problem; let's look at the options!
Since the printing of Torrential Gearhulk, pairing blue and red has been the most orthodox flavor of control in Standard. Red offers efficiently costed removal, a nice energy subtheme and excellent sideboard threats – Tomoharu Saito is one of the many players who brought Blue-Red to Grand Prix Denver, and he hasn't deviated from this deck since Pro Tour Hour of Devastation.
Magma Spray is a key piece of one-mana interaction that efficiently clears early plays from aggressive decks, and the exile clause is crucial against cards like Dread Wanderer and Earthshaker Khenra. Harnessed Lightning scales excellently into the late game, killing off huge Glorybringers and Longtusk Cubs. Abrade is an all-star, tidying up most early threats while also taking care of the odd Vehicle. It can even snipe opposing Gearhulks!
Sweltering Suns is an excellent card, and a backbreaking play against Ramunap Red. At worst, it's a (somewhat expensive) cycler, mitigating the problem of drawing a dead sweeper. Kozilek's Return comes out of the board to clean up small creatures at instant speed, which is great against Zombies and critical in contesting Ramunap Red's turn-four Chandra – having to tap out on turn three on the draw is risky business, and Kozilek's Return lets you keep your options open.
An on-colour fastland in Spirebluff Canal is an excellent boon in a world where turn-one Magma Spray is a strong play, so Spirebluf Canal does good work for Blue-Red Control. Wandering Fumarole, however, is the real MVP of the lands. Hustling in for four once you've locked up the game with a grip of countermagic is no joke, and just like the valiant Celestial Colonnade in Modern, the old Wanderino lets you skimp on win conditions.
Red certainly brings the heat when it comes to the sideboard. Transformational sideboard plans, involving cards such as Dragonmaster Outcast and Glorybringer, are a great way to take advantage of the fact that your opponent may board out removal, and can tidy up a match after a prolonged game one. Additionally, narrow but high-powered cards like Chandra's Defeat offer further defend against Ramunap Red, which is a rough matchup where you can use all the help you can get.
Blue-Black Control hasn't yet been fully explored, and may very well be a South Pole waiting for its Roald Amundsen to be the first to get there. Then again, you may end up being a Robert Falcon Scott and get left out in the cold instead – maybe Blue-Black doesn't even have what it takes from the outset. This is a somewhat speculative list, but certainly warrants further exploration.
Fatal Push does a nice impression of Magma Spray and contests all the cheap, aggressive creatures in a very efficient manner, even if the revolt half of the card is never too relevant. As well as killing everything from Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet to Glorybringer, Grasp of Darkness offers an angle that Red struggles with – it's a clean, two-mana answer to Hazoret the Fervent. Finally, Never // Return gives Blue-Black Control a way to tussle with resolved planeswalkers - and if you end up clipping them over the earhole a few times with a 2/2, more power to you!
While Flaying Tendrils offers massive upside against Zombies, exiling their recursive threats and helping to power down their Diregraf Colossi, black really doesn't bring too much more to the table in this regard. This is the most glaring weakness in the Blue-Black Control lineup, and perhaps the reason it has never quite been able to run with the big dogs. The other removal options black opens up can't be ignored, but are they enough to excuse the lack of a real sweeper?
The Mana Base
Choked Estuary and Sunken Hollow combine with a high number of basics to ensure you have smooth and trouble-free mana, which is so important when playing cards like Grasp of Darkness alongside cards like Disallow. But that's not the best part of adding black to the mana base – the inclusion of Fetid Pools lets you jump on your bike and cycle away like Chris Froome. As anyone who has drafted Hour of Devastation (so basically everyone ever) can attest, cycling lands are absolutely bonkers and this is no less true than in a very mana-intensive deck like this.
A two-mana lifelinking 2/3 in Gifted Aetherborn absolutely demands an answer from both Ramunap Red and Zombies, and if they've gone ahead and sideboarded out all their removal, you're going to be in an excellent spot hiding behind your Gifted Aetherborns. When you're looking to go long, The Scarab God has got you – remember you can eternalize creatures from any graveyard, so feel free to jack that Thraben Inspector you nailed seven turns ago. Kalitas hits a nice sweet spot somewhere in the middle of these two, as a threat that's fast enough to contest aggro decks stapled to an engine designed to carry you into the late game.
White-Blue Approach of the Second Sun was the weapon of choice for many at GP Denver, including Hall of Famer Eric Froehlich, who put up a 11-4 finish. It didn't quite have the numbers on the weekend, but has a huge amount of potential given that it essentially seeks to ignore opposing gameplans and win an on an entirely different axis. These builds forgo Torrential Gearhulk entirely, which seems a bit bonkers at first blush – but there's a good reason. This deck seeks to get there with the durdliest card since the mighty Trading Post: Approach of the Second Sun. Despite it being glacially slow, Approach offers a unique type of inevitability that's very difficult for many decks to interact with, and further evolution could push it over the top.
Approach of the Second Sun isn't the only reason Torrential Gearhulk isn't the best fit for this deck – it's also the nature of the removal it's seeking to utilise. Outside of the odd bit of sniping with Blessed Alliance, this deck seeks to line up the crosshairs with Cast Out. Cast Out takes care of everything from Gods to planeswalkers to errant God-Pharaoh's Gifts (just be sure to cast it in their main phase, before going to combat!). Cast Out shares the same advantages as Sweltering Suns in that it cycles – and just for one mana, which can help you draw out of a loosey-goosey keep.
One of the principal reasons to play white is, of course, the mass removal, and Fumigate is just about the best Wrath of God effect we've had in half a decade or so. Assuming you can weather the storm until turn five, Fumigate offers you a few critical life points than can help you bridge towards the late game. Descend Upon the Fishermen is a nice piece of technology against graveyard synergies (I'm looking at you, Dread Wanderer and Scrapheap Scrounger), and delirium is definitely achievable given that you're cycling enchantments.
The Mana Base
You're not just cycling enchantments, however. Irrigated Farmland lends its considerable weight to the argument for playing white-blue. As we discussed, cycling lands are at an absolute premium in mana-hungry decks, and a welcome addition here. Another welcome addition is Blighted Cataract, which is highly playable in a deck without cards like Disallow or Grasp of Darkness. Even though you're not hiding win conditions like Wandering Fumarole in your mana base, turning your eighth or ninth land into two new cards is what is known in the business as Large Game.
Authority of the Consuls is a very intriguing option white brings to the table to combat the fast pace of today's Standard. Incidental life gain combined with neutering haste creatures makes this one-mana enchantment nightmarish for opponents who are looking to be aggressive. Additionally, Regal Caracal is a bleeding-edge bit of technology from the sideboard, pressuring opponents who chose to skimp on removal while also nicely padding your life total. This card attacks well, is excellent on defense, and it will still do a lot of heavy lifting despite perhaps no longer catching canny opponents by surprise (in that regard, I suppose you could say the cat is out of the bag.)
Control is not dead in the water – it might be splashing about and waving its arms for help, however. It seems that all the tools needed to contest the current format exist in the Standard cardpool, but pulling them together in the right way continues to be a challenge to innovators and brewers everywhere. What are your thoughts? How would you go about building a control deck in Standard, and which colors would you use? Get at me in the comments, and on Twitter.