It has been quite a while since control decks have been considered tier one in Standard. It remains to be seen if control can rise to the top now that the Standard format is shifting once more. Without Aetherworks Marvel, the early frontrunners seem to be Zombies, Mardu Vehicles and various black-green decks, which are all strategies we are fairly familiar with at this point. As for control, blue-red has been the color combination that has fared best lately, as cheap removal, counters and card draw alongside Torrential Gearhulk is a strong combination. Still, I have a feeling that Hour of Devastation is going to provide enough of an incentive to add black to the control mix as well.
Black already has cheap removal, some solid sweeper effects and planeswalkers, but we have yet to see anything like Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh. Just when it seems like Standard may not have insanely powerful, busted cards, Wizards has printed another one! Nicol Bolas, God- Pharaoh is one of the clear standouts in Hour of Devastation, and is going to best fit in a Grixis Control deck. The card is seven mana and costs three different colors, which means that you need a very specific deck to take advantage of it, but once it is on the battlefield it seems pretty amazing.
Let's compare Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh to a Modern staple seven-mana planeswalker, Karn Liberated. Both start at a similar amount of loyalty, six and seven respectively. Of course, Karn Liberated is easier to cast, but in many ways the two planeswalkers share similar abilities. Both can plus to exile cards from the opponent's hand, though Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh gets two cards out of the opponent's hand while not going up as much loyalty as Karn Liberated. Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh does have four abilities which is pretty crazy compared to three on Karn Liberated.
The first ability of Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh is unique, as there aren't too many ways to cast opponent's spells straight from the top of their deck. I have been dreaming about exiling an opponent's Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger with Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh, though unfortunately this is less likely to happen with Aetherworks Marvel gone. If the opponent has no cards in hand Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh has a useful plus effect, while Karn Liberated does not. The minus being able to go to the opponent's face means if you do cast Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh while the opponent is at seven or less life the game is just over.
I expect that the minus four on Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh will be used to kill an opposing creature a decent amount of the time. The control decks will not be actively trying to deal damage to their opponent, so the chance the opponent is actually at seven or less when Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh first hits play is fairly low. The final ability on Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh is the way to answer any permanent. While I don't expect the ultimate to be necessary in some games, there will be situations where you need to deal with an annoying card your opponent has on the battlefield. For instance, in Modern the opponent could have something like Ensnaring Bridge.
Overall, Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh is one of the strongest planeswalkers we have seen in quite a while, and it you can cast it I like it seems more powerful than Karn Liberated. Here is my current Grixis Control list in Standard:
This is a classic control deck with lots of weird numbers of certain cards. Many of the cards are key to the deck, yet there are only one or two copies. In many cases this is because you don't want to draw multiples of certain of them. Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh is one of the main incentives to play the Grixis colors, yet there are only two in the deck. I don't like having lots of a seven-mana cards without any mana acceleration. With cards like Gimmer of Genius and the fact we aren't casting Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh until late in the game, we become a favorite to draw the powerful planeswalker by the time we need to cast it.
By being Grixis, we have access to lots of different removal spells. It is pretty fun to be playing a deck with so many different removal options, as the opponent has a really tough time anticipating what to play around. If the opponent gets a planeswalker down we have Never // Return as a nice all-purpose answer to threats. Never // Return is also a nice mana sink for later in the game. The deck doesn't have that many win conditions so that Zombie Token can become a real threat. Of course, there are lots of cheap removal spells too.
Fatal Push is a card that current control decks aren't playing for the most part, as very few play black at all. Fatal Push is a good way of answering an early two-drop of the opponent's but turning revolt on isn't easy. Evolving Wilds is actually the easiest way to turn on revolt since the deck doesn't play that many permanents which will be leaving the battlefield. Magma Spray is the other one-mana removal spell, and having an easy out to Scrapheap Scrounger is still going to be extremely important for control in general.
It may seem weird to not have four Harnessed Lightning since we are so used to that being the most important removal spell, but once you have access to black there is less need to rely on it. I like having Cut // Ribbons as well because later in the game the life drain can be very important. Cut // Ribbons can combine with Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh to kill the opponent without ever needing to attack.
Bontu's Last Reckoning is a new and powerful card from Hour of Devastation that I'm trying out here. This is a three-mana Wrath of God, which means it needs to come with a drawback. Not being able to untap your lands is unfortunate on the next turn, so you want to use Bontu's Last Reckoning to answer the final threats the opponent has. The worst case scenario is Wrathing the board only for the opponent to play multiple creatures, and you can't answer them because your lands aren't untapping. Black-green decks are going to have nightmares playing against Bontu's Last Reckoning, as it is the perfect answer to Verdurous Gearhulk. There is also one Sweltering Suns as a cheap cycling sweeper we already know is good.
Beyond the removal package, any control deck should have counters and card draw. Glimmer of Genius is still the best card draw spell in the format, even without a lot of energy synergy, and it's actually the only card I think you want to play four of. Pull from Tomorrow requires lots of mana to be at its best. and there are already lots of expensive cards in the deck, so there is just one copy in the sideboard. We also have a couple copies each of the most important counters in Standard.
Casting double-colored spells isn't easy on a three-color mana base, so you will notice there aren't that many of them and no more than two copies of a card like Disallow. Disallow is a good versatile counter, but there are cheaper ones available that aren't as restrictive on the mana. Censor is a card players will expect to see out of control decks and are likely to play around, which is why I like having two of them. Being able to cycle Censor definitely comes up, and when you have access to it on curve it is usually very good. Negate and Essences Scatter are matchup-dependent so having both is nice, and you can board them out if necessary.
Then we have the win conditions. I am excited to be playing with The Locust God, and almost want to main deck the second one, even though you really don't want to draw two. Being able to cast a Glimmer of Genius while churning out flying insects seems great. We also have cycle lands, and of course the ability of The Locust God itself to create extra insects. The planeswalkers can be win conditions too, and there is one Ob Nixilis Reignited in an attempt to keep the curve down a bit. There are also two Torrential Gearhulks, which we know is great.
Many players think of Torrential Gearhulk as a card you want four or zero of, yet I am advocating for two. This deck is trying to leverage its planeswalkers, and not rely on creatures that are vulnerable to opposing removal. Torrential Gearhulk has been proven to be extremely powerful, yet we can only afford to have so many expensive threats. Dark Intimations can bring back a Torrential Gearhulk from the graveyard, and is another card that is exclusively available for this sort of strategy.
Sometimes we are going to need to rely on Wandering Fumarole to beat down. The mana base is a little unusual as there are only three Wandering Fumaroles. We also have access to up to eight on-color cycle lands, yet I am only playing five. The reason is to try to cut down on the amount of lands that come into play tapped, while also meeting all of the color requirements. This certainly isn't easy to do, as there are still more lands that come into play tapped than would be ideal. Still, I like having 27 lands especially with some of them being cycle lands to help prevent flooding.
The sideboard resembles what you would expect out of most control decks right now. The second The Locust God along with some other alternative win conditions can be found here. There are a couple of additional Transgress the Mind as another way to disrupt the opponent. The Dynavolt Towers are here as a way to ping down small creatures, and the opponent is very unlikely to have artifact removal after sideboard.
This is just one Grixis Control list, and is trying out some new cards from Hour of Devastation that look pretty impressive. Still, they aren't Standard-legal yet, and there are plenty more cards still waiting to be previewed. I do expect more Grixis Control lists in general moving forward though, as Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh is one hell of a Magic card.
Thanks for reading,