Control decks in general are in a tough spot in Standard at the moment. Personally I love playing any type of deck that is going to win a very long and drawn out game, but to do that it is necessary to take advantage the correct set of tools for the early game, as any control player already knows. This past weekend aggressive decks dominated, as Green/Red Aggro, Abzan Aggro, and other various aggressive decks are trending in popularity. The question becomes "is this because people think the control decks are bad, or is playing an aggro deck more in a player's comfort zones?"
Personally, I think it's a combination of these two things that allowed the aggro decks to have such a dominating performance at the open in Syracuse. With that said it is possible to create control decks with a pretty straightforward game plan, or a version with many different options in terms of actually closing out the game. At the Invitational control did rise to the top, with Sultai Reanimator and Abzan Control meeting in the finals.
While completely different strategies both decks have the same engine of Satyr Wayfinder plus Sidisi, Undead Vizier to gain card advantage, and have creatures to play, which are capable of also creating a clock on your opponent. This take on control is very different than a traditional Blue/Black Control deck, as not only are control decks not required to rely on countermagic to win, but in these green decks there are many more win conditions than simply relying on two or three win conditions. There are a couple reasons why this is very important.
One of the biggest problems with Blue/Black Control is the lack of quality win conditions, so that there are games where an opponent can actually answer all of the win conditions in the Blue/Black Control deck. There aren't very many cards that impact the board at all. The other issue is that all of these win conditions are very expensive which makes hitting every single land drop an absolute necessity. Satyr Wayfinder is the perfect utility creature, as it helps bridge the mana gap. Most of the time it will find a land, it can block, but its main purpose is filling up the graveyard and being a creature to sacrifice to Sidisi, Undead Vizier.
Let's take a look at Reid Duke's Sultai Reanimator list:
While Reid is playing a control deck he still has his own engines with both the traditional Whip of Erebos to rebuy his creatures and the new Sidisi, Undead Vizier toolbox. While he plays a number of one-ofs it feels like there are more copies because of the ability of Sidisi, Undead Vizier to find any of them in a pinch. Reid doesn't need to rely on Counterspells, because he is able tap out on his own turn a lot of the time and by playing high toughness creatures it is easy to prevent an opposing assault on the ground.
Reid's deck is able to go bigger, and Sylvan Caryatid is very well-positioned as a creature that is also a mana accelerant. Against Monored Aggro being able to block an early Zurgo Bellstriker is great, as a lot of the Monored Aggro decks are moving away from pump spells like Titan's Strength which can punish that sort of a block. This isn't a new deck, but it is a deck that does take a certain amount of playskill and repetition to get the hang of. It is necessary to not only know which one-ofs to search for but also which are good in certain matchups. Some of the one-ofs come out after board, and there are also a bunch of one and two-ofs in the board, as sideboarding isn't an easy task.
The Jacob Wilson deck is one that I have a feeling more players will be comfortable picking up for an event, as Abzan Control has been a big deck for as long as Khans of Tarkir has been in the format. Jacob has altered the deck to make it more controlling though. Originally this deck was named Abzan Midrange, but in its current form it is now considered Abzan Control. What caused this shift? Well the fact that there are two big Abzan decks in the format makes one being control and the other being aggro a bit simpler. At one point the Abzan Control deck started playing End Hostilities, which may have been the card that pushed the deck towards being called "control," as Sylvan Caryatid got cut. Even though Jacob's deck doesn't maindeck End Hostilities his version is more controlling than previous versions.
We see the Satyr Wayfinder and Sidisi, Undead Vizier package to go along with one-ofs trending. This Abzan Control deck doesn't use this engine quite as well as the Sultai Reanimator deck does, but churning cards into the graveyard does make Tasigur, the Golden Fang easier to cast. We see a bigger top end here, with Garruk, Apex Predator. The sideboard also has a ton of flexible options, which is what helps make Abzan Control so versatile.
Jacob's deck has some creatures in it but can also win games with one of the big planeswalkers. Reid's deck wins the game in quite a different fashion. Here is the Abzan Control deck:
Reid's deck also plays a ton of creatures in it, though most give you some sort of value. While not a new deck this version of Sultai Reanimator gained a lot of tools from Dragons of Tarkir. Dragonlord Silumgar is great in this deck, as you only need to play one copy, but against the decks that don't have much removal for it you almost always search for it with Sidisi, Undead Vizier. Against the token decks you can go find the other dragon, Silumgar, the Drifting Death. Sultai Reanimator is the kind of deck that can do very well against a wide open field, because of how many tools it has access to. Beyond this it gets to play the card Whip of Erebos which gives you an extra reason why Satyr Wayfinder is good.
So these decks have been successful but really are hybrid control decks, not the types of control decks we are used to. With that said that doesn't mean the decks with Counterspells are bad; they just need to be updated. Currently Esper Dragon Control is one of the new exciting control decks of the format. Here is Shaheen Soorani's list:
This is how I expect control decks to adapt; by playing Silumgar's Scorn to go along with a suite of Dragons, you not only are adding more hard Counterspells, but the win conditions are better. The dragons having hexproof is super important, so it is important to not attack with Dragonlord Ojutai until you have Counterspell backup for opposing removal spells. Four Dragons is actually plenty as in this type of deck you can't play too many win conditions, and cards that don't flip off of Narset Transcendent. Beyond this, not only does the deck have Dig Through Time, but now it gains Anticipate to help you find at least one dragon in order to turn Silumgar's Scorn into Counterspell.
The deck is essentially all about counters, as there are eight hard counters, and many ways to find them. The only way this deck loses is against aggressive starts that get under the countermagic. This is why it is so important to have a lot of removal to go alongside the counters and card draw. The mana isn't great with Bile Blight, but that's okay because Ultimate Price may be better in a metagame full of Red/Green Aggro. There are also some control decks that have been seen playing less Crux of Fate, but this one has three copies. Remember that in this deck it is a one sided wrath, as all of your creatures are dragons.
This deck has a lot of new cards from Dragons of Tarkir, and each is very important. Many players have had a tough time evaluating Narset Transcendent, but this is the type of deck that can really benefit from the planeswalker. In order to play her you really want twenty five plus cards to hit off the plus one, which this deck is able to do. The Rebound may not be at its absolute best here but copying a Hero's Downfall, Crux of Fate, or card draw spell isn't too shabby. With both Narset Transcendent and Anticipate there is no longer a need for additional card drawing like Jace's Ingenuity.
The sideboard here is very straightforward and also well-constructed. The decks that are inherently bad matchups are what the sideboard is dedicated to. The fastest deck in the format is of course the worst matchup which is Monored Aggro. Shaheen has gone ahead and committed four Drown in Sorrows to accommodate for this matchup. The other tough matchups are the tempo decks that can hurt you with a very aggressive draw. The main decks in this category are Abzan Aggro and Red/Green Monsters, which is why Encase in Ice is such an important sideboard card. The rest of the board is more or less singletons but each of these cards can be absolutely great in the correct matchup.
For the die-hard Blue/Black Control players that don't want to switch things up too much, and just stick with the battle proven shell of the two color control deck, I would recommend the list Christian Calcano proposed. Here it is:
Calcano knows just how important land drops are for this deck, as he is still playing 28 lands to go along with four Anticipate which can help find them. This is intriguing because most other versions of this deck play less lands. However Calcano has added a Haven of the Spirit Dragon which can also get back one of the win conditions: either Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Silumgar, the Drifting Death. Beyond Anticipate this deck hasn't changed too much from what Blue/Black control was before Dragons of Tarkir.
While I like the maindeck quite a bit I find the two copies of Perilous Vault stand out a bit, and can do a lot of work. Most blue/black decks have gone down to one Perilous Vault, but this is the way to take annoying enchantments off the board. I expect Calcano to update the sideboard a little bit, and perhaps add Encase in Ice to shore up the Red/Green and Abzan Aggro matchups.
Overall control decks are obviously changing quite a bit, but because many people are having difficulty optimizing their builds of these control decks, the aggressive decks are able to capitalize. With that said the tools are there for control to succeed, and I expect the Pro Tour this coming weekend to showcase that.
Thanks for reading,