"Just so you know...

"At the time of this writing...

"I am in the middle of a double PPTQ weekend. Well, no weekend is automatically a double PPTQ weekend (on account of if you simply win the first one there is no reason to play in the second one)...

"But in this case...gonna be a double for Our Hero."

I wrote last week's Make the Play Monday last Saturday night.

At the time I honestly had no idea that real life circumstances were going to put such a sweet cap on that double PPTQ weekend less than twenty-four hours later.

Because, if you hadn't heard already, I won on Sunday!

To the surprise of no one I ran it back with the UB Control that I designed with Patrick Chapin:

UB Control by Top Level Podcast

DECKID=1230059

The only change that I made to the deck was to swap out the one Treasure Cruise (you know from "Cruisin' for a Bruisin'") for a second Pearl Lake Ancient in the sideboard. The thinking was this: Treasure Cruise is slow [in Standard, anyway] but contextually quite powerful. I would tend to say Treasure Cruise is weak and slow in UB Control in Standard, but when you can control the context that ceases to be true. If you are only drawing it, say, against other UB Control decks, Treasure Cruise is just a one mana bomb.

That said, Treasure Cruise is an imperfect solution to a predictable set of problems. One school of thought is that you use positional advantage cards (including card advantage) to set yourself up for success over a long game. You draw lots of extra cards which include lands for late term land drops and proactive and reactive interactive cards like Thoughtseize and Dissolve. Your goal being to clear the way for one of your small number of threats with Thoughtseize, or to cover them from one of your opponents relatively narrow number of answer cards with Dissolve.

This is all well and good, and flexible insofar that it furthers the general agenda of a UB Control deck (which is to lay lands, build advantages, and do little else before actually trying to win).

OR...

...you can just set about trying to win the game directly.

If you are playing the slow game anyway, the best actual threat is Pearl Lake Ancient. Pearl Lake Ancient is kind of mediocre in the abstract, but if you're only going to play one kill spell, it's the right one to play in Standard (which is why we have exactly one in the main deck). Some people play a main deck Silumgar, the Drifting Death; I must admit I have thought many times about playing main deck Tasigur, the Golden Fang (because of reasons we'll get into later, like that he comes in every single matchup), but based on the structure of this deck, which is to play only one fatty boom boom, Pearl Lake Ancient must be the right one.

From just an "us v. them" standpoint, Pearl Lake Ancient is the most resilient solo threat in the format against removal (and of course permission). As long as you play with any modicum of patience, Pearl Lake Ancient is exceedingly difficult to kill once it gets going. Because it can get super big, it can kill quickly, and win fights against elite threats as well as getting out of the way of threats and answers big and small.

But this isn't just an "us v. them" game. The nature of control decks with sweepers means that it's an "us v. us" game as well. That is why Pearl Lake Ancient -- so long as you are playing with a deliberately narrow number of actual kill cards -- is better than options like Silumgar, the Drifting Death. You never accidentally Perilous Vault your own Pearl Lake Ancient like you might your own Silumgar, the Drifting Death. Ditto on desperate activations of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or the odd Crux of Fate (yes, in the PPTQ I won, I fired off the ever rare "kill Stormbreath Dragons" option on Crux of Fate. Lethal to the hexproof Silumgar, the Drifting Death, but no more than a butterfly's kiss to Pearl Lake Ancient).

When playing with targeted discard spells no slow and narrow kill bombs are ever really that safe, but of them all, Pearl Lake Ancient is the only one that can at least try to jump out of your hand.

All of that said, Pearl Lake Ancient can feel pretty expensive and blah unless, as we've said, you are controlling the context of the battle. In the games that no one is doing anything, just having another inevitable Pearl Lake Ancient can be much more powerful than drawing into your first one with the nth Ancestral Recall.

So that one card was the only change I made to the sideboard. The maindeck I thought was smooth as silk, and think the way Patrick and I went with this deck should be very much the template for UB Control going forward. While most UB Control decks share quite a few cards that are nearly set in stone -- four Dissolves, some large three or four count of Bile Blights and Hero's Downfalls, some appreciable number of Perilous Vaults and Crux of Fates, a few kill spells -- there is actually quite a bit to the essential bones of them that can disparately dictate how they play.

I am going to make the argument that the way that Patrick and I set this UB Control up is much better than some competing structures and hopefully you will end up agreeing (or at least understanding why we went this way, as reasonable Magicians).

One noticeable absence from our list is Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver.

Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver is potentially scary in two spots. One of them is the mirror. Depending on how your opponent plays, Ashiok can kill you or be irrelevant. But even when it ends up killing you, it has little to do with the merits of the card itself.

We said already that the way these decks play is to draw lots of cards in the effort of hitting land drops and building advantages to some future win state, despite having relatively few actual ways to win. Ashiok can disrupt the UB game plan in two ways.

The first one is that it can hit your relevant cards and you have no actual direct way to win. If Ashiok nugs you that first time and flips over Pearl Lake Ancient and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon...good luck winning the game. The opponent almost can't lose at that point. He can miss his next X land drops and fail to resolve any Dig Through Times and will still win. Why? It is all the Hero's Downfalls and Dissolves and Disdainful Strokes (and maybe Thoughtseizes, depending) in his deck against your one, poor, remaining Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Now this doesn't come up so often, but it comes up a nonzero number of times so you kind of have to have the possibility in the back of your mind so at least you are not surprised and flabbergasted in the rare cases it does come up.

That said, I don't think Ashiok is very dangerous from the standpoint of actually "getting you." You don't have enough creatures that it is ever really going to [-X] you (at least not in game one) and you have nothing else to throw your Hero's Downfalls at. It's probably going to get killed at some point before Mind Twisting you.

The real problem with Ashiok is that it queers the baseline game plan of the UB mirror. If the card were just Thought Scour it might win as many games. You see, when there are two decks, both likely to see a large portion of their decks, where both decks have more than enough ways to deal with all the [non-Pearl Lake Ancient] threats in the other deck...actually running out of cards suddenly becomes a thing. "Tome Scour your face, LOL" is suddenly deadly in a surprising and very real way...at least if you aren't paying sufficient attention.

Even if Ashiok didn't "get you" get you, a long library race where one guy has six more cards in his deck than the other might be the deciding factor.

Where Ashiok really shines, of course, is against midrange green decks. Flipping -- and then stealing -- the other chap's Courser of Krupix is what that card is mostly about. If you don't believe in the [-X] there is no reason to commit to a card that doesn't really affect the board, especially for matchups where you can expect to start out behind.

Patrick argued that this version of UB Control was ideal for midrange green (Read: Abzan Midrange and Abzan Control) metagames because of our combination of flexible answers and card drawing, and we didn't need Ashiok to make that so.

That said, while I don't really fear Ashiok, I respect it as a card the opposing deck might play that I don't, that gives him a measure of offensive flexibility that I don't necessarily have, and might consider using a sideboard card for it.


The Mana Base

I have looked at several UB mana bases recently, some with only one Radiant Fountain; some with as many as three Radiant Fountains.

Under no circumstances is any number other than four Radiant Fountains acceptable; and for that matter, four Radiant Fountains and four Dismal Backwaters.

The reason is the quality of burn cards in Standard, in particular the ones that deal four damage, like Stoke the Flames and especially Jeskai Charm.

Radiant Fountain completely blunts cards like Wild Slash and Magma Jet in a passive way, acting essentially as card advantage (which is awesome). But ends up being an actual necessity against big burn cards that you can't actually answer.

I never went into a sideboarded game with fewer than three Disdainful Strokes in my deck, and I usually tried to get in all four. Even the quick beatdown decks play with four Stoke the Flames, and you need to be able to answer that (and new buddy Outpost Siege) to compete.

Generally speaking we think of Stoke the Flames as being a higher quality card than Jeskai Charm...which is not surprising as it costs a full more mana! But in this matchup, Jeskai Charm is the more dangerous card -- you can't Disdainful Stroke it. If they cast it at you, it is basically Dissolve or bust, and they have way more things you want to Dissolve than just a few throwaway burn cards. Plus Jeskai Charm decks all play with Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise! So you have to assume that most if not all of their Jeskai Charms are going to resolve. So if you don't have access to lots of Radiant Fountains...

The Philosophy of Fire, you.

One thing that seemed initially attractive but I am glad I never became attached to was playing off-color fetch lands. Especially with Delve cards like Dig Through Time, Murderous Cut, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang having more cards in your graveyard "for free" seems awesome. Patrick kept me off of the extra Bloodstained Mire or so and I can't thank him enough.

Let me tell you from practical tournament experience against RW and Jeskai decks, every last life point can matter. In the Top 8 I had spent the first four turns of a game gaining control of the battlefield. I had it. Then on turn five I had the open to cast Jace's Ingenuity...but I had to break not one, but two Polluted Deltas to do so.

I grudgingly did.

I hated all five seconds of it.

Over the course of that long game, I Dig Through Time'd enough to get all four of my Radiant Fountains and knocked my opponent's hand to a single Abzan Advantage at one point.

And.

I.

Still.

Lost.

...to an eventual flurry of Jeskai Charms and Wild Slashes I couldn't interact with.

Exactsies.

Now there is no reason to "live in fear" of these sorts of threats. But if you are going to be successful with UB Control it is helpful to understand the context of the format, and what you can do to mitigate your own vulnerability (and it starts with the mana). Just say no to Bloodstained Mire!

That is where Opulent Palace comes in. This was even the topic of a recent Make the Play Monday!

Opulent Palace is strictly worse than Dismal Backwater in this deck... And still effective for the purposes of fixing your mana given a deck that wants to Bile Blight on turn two and Dissolve on turn three.

Plus, every time your opponent mistakes you for Sidisi Whip on turn one, an angel gets its her wings.


The Card Drawing

Initially Patrick wanted to play with Treasure Cruise but I thought that would be too slow.

I am very glad we went with Divination as the "catalyst" card drawer in this deck. You really need something to get the deck moving from its glacial starting Standstill.

All other things held equal, the first Jace's Ingenuity is better than the first Dig Through Time, and it is quite possible the nth Jace's Ingenuity is better than the nth Dig Through Time (unless you are specifically digging for, say a Radiant Fountain). Why? Isn't Dig Through Time a more powerful Magic card?

It is.

BUT!

Jace's Ingenuity at five is just cheaper than Dig Through Time at not-five. Dig Through Time is a powerhouse for its possibilities, but on its face it costs eight mana. If the opponent didn't give you something to interact with, the first Jace's Ingenuity is almost always cheaper than the first Dig Through Time and gets you 50% more cards to boot!

When siding out one expensive card drawing spell to accommodate snipers, I started by cutting one Jace's Ingenuity but eventually came to the conclusion it was better to side out one Dig Through Time.


Story Time

I last played on the Pro Tour in 2006, which was close to ten years ago at this point.

Going into that Pro Tour I had won multiple PTQs in a year, and was generally pretty decorated at the local level at the same time. I had made the finals of one New York State Championship before winning the next one outright (this was back when States were nine rounds of Swiss and there weren't big "televised" tournaments to watch every week). I qualified for and Top 16'd the Northeast Challenge (essentially the Open Series of its day, though sponsored by TJ's Collectables instead), et cetera.

And that PT in 2006? I went 11-3 against elite opposition.

If it had been an individual Pro Tour I would probably have been Top 8.

Sadly, it wasn't.

It was teams.

And then I had my own team to worry about!

In November of 2006 I had my second child and just couldn't put the same level of time into my own play that I had for the first ten years of the Pro Tour. I could still design Pro Tour winning decks or take down the odd $5000 Max Points tournament when one came to town, but with two small children I just couldn't travel to tournaments every weekend any more.

It would be disingenuous to say that I didn't try at all but I think that I averaged fewer than one PTQ per year for the next nine years (which is obviously going to put some pressure on a guy's chances of actually qualifying), along with maybe three total Grand Prix.

The advent of the PPTQ system changed things for me somewhat this year, and I decided if there were going to be multiple chances to potentially qualify, right here in New York City, I might as well give it a go. The travel concerns are obviously much lessened, plus my kids are a bit older and don't need me breathing down their necks every minute of every weekend any more.

The first PPTQ up I played Abzan Control in a field of mostly Abzan Control. The cutoff was 3-2 and I was able to muster only 2-3.

Yuck!

Disappointing, actually.

No problem, though, right?

I decided to give Abzan Control another go, and this time went 0-2.

Was it just me? Was it the deck? Was I just not good at Abzan?

I had played against Siege Rhinos in something like five of the seven rounds I had tried so far, which led my podcast partner Patrick Chapin to conclude that whether or not Abzan was for me or not, it was not the best angle at the metagame. He and I spontaneously brewed the UB Control list I eventually played here, and I went into the double PPTQ weekend armed with it.

I improved to...

1-2

And went home.

Went home and wrote the article referenced at the top, that is.

I flirted briefly with the possibility of switching decks, but decided that if I had one more swing at bat, my chances were unlikely to get better if I changed at that point.

My records, to remind you:

2-3
0-2
1-2

...or, 3-7

But perhaps a very Batman 3-7.

The Sunday PPTQ tournament at Montasy in NYC was packed!

It was six rounds of Swiss, and tougher, ultimately, than the first PTQ I had ever won (which was also six rounds of Swiss, and a two slotter).

I wish I could tell a more interesting story, but that's not how the rounds went.


Round One - RW

I was fortunate and won the roll.

Winning the roll is a really underrated element of the game, and I think that more should probably be written about it.

Control on beatdown, winning the roll lets you Bile Blight his first Seeker of the Way; then Dissolve his Goblin Rabblemaster; then draw cards or Disdainful Stroke his next play or three, stabilizing without a single bead of sweat.

In the same spot, losing the roll you might be as low as 11 at the point that you stabilize (where you are tapped out by the way) and you have to directly answer every single burn spell he casts for the rest of the game, terrified to ever tap out to draw cards.

Sideboarded, my opponent played Mastery of the Unseen, which I had not played against previously.

I played Tasigur, the Golden Fang back, and we got into an interesting duel of permanents that generate card advantage for about the same mana activation cost. This is a fight that vastly favors Tasigur, as he has a 4/5 body instead of, you know, not a body. I just let my opponent accumulate threats for a while and then mopped them up with Drown in Sorrow two or three times, getting a good whack in with Tasigur.

Eventually I had too many cards, reset the whole board with Perilous Vault, and rode a hand full of gas to the 1-0

Sideboarding against RW you basically have to be mindful of his early game must-answer threats (Soulfire Grand Master, Seeker of the Way, and Goblin Rabblemaster). You also don't want to get behind Outpost Siege because then he is basically you, but the faster you (this is awful for control players). That puts a lot of pressure on your sideboarding.

I went like this under the theory that I had to answer every Outpost Siege, Stoke the Flames, and planeswalker / dragon he might play, while Drown in Sorrow was a Plague Wind for me. Tasigur comes in always.

+3 Drown in Sorrow
+2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
+2 AEtherspouts
+1 Silumgar, the Drifting Death

-1 Perilous Vault
-1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
-1 Thoughtseize
-1 Crux of Fate
-2 Murderous Cut
-1 Jace's Ingenuity
-1 Pearl Lake Ancient


Rounds Two, Three, and Four - Abzan Aggro

We picked UB Control because we thought Abzan Midrange was going to be popular; sadly I never got the "soft" Abzan...only the one that gets your answer with Thoughtseize and farts a million sweet threats onto the battlefield.

All these matches were close, but I won all the rolls!

This is how I sideboarded:

+2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
+2 AEtherspouts
+2 Disdainful Stroke
+1 Silumgar, the Drifting Death

-1 Perilous Vault
-1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
-1 Thoughtseize
-1 Crux of Fate
-1 Murderous Cut
-1 Dig Through Time
-1 Pearl Lake Ancient

I realized at some point that you want the first Jace's Ingenuity more than the first Dig Through Time.

You can cut some of the maindeck ways to win given you are siding in a ton of ways to win (that double as card advantage) right back.

The head scratcher for some people is AEtherspouts. Why cut sweepers like Perilous Vault, Ugin, or Crux of Fate for AEtherspouts?

AEtherspouts is an awesome answer to what Abzan Aggro in particular tries to do. They have cards like Fleecemane Lion that live through both point removal and Crux of Fate; and cards like Wingmate Roc and Rakshasha Deathdealer that encourage them to attack with lots of guys and spend lots of mana in service to attacking with lots of guys. Plus, they have cards like Nissa, Worldwaker that change the complexion of their threats (while also dodging Ugin's primarily defensive ability).

All these things make AEtherspouts awesome. AEtherspouts can make the opponent poor, make the opponent manascrewed, and make the opponent frustrated at what he might be stuck drawing, all at once.

But most importantly, it buys you time.

Time and card advantage together make a dangerous combination.

Just stay over four life, or seven life; and your Disdainful Strokes are going to basically guarantee that if you don't lose in combat, you don't lose at all.

At no point in Magic history has Thoughtseize v. Divination been an attractive card for card matchup for the black mage.


Rounds Five and Six - Intentional Draws

I had first seed locked going into Round Six, so my opponent toyed for a moment with playing (he would still make Top 8 if he lost, while I could only lose top seed if I lost with nothing to gain). Luckily he chose to get food instead.

Ergo, I had play locked for the entire Top 8.

Meaning, I had play for the entire tournament. I won all four of my Swiss rolls, remember.



Quarterfinals - Jeskai

I won this one 2-1 but really it felt like it should have been 3-0.

In Game One I finally Dig Through Time'd into my Pearl Lake Ancient with all four Radiant Fountains on the battlefield. My plan was to play Pearl Lake Ancient at the end of his turn, then immediately return all my Radiant Fountains just for the re-play action (and possibly re-playing the Pearl Lake Ancient main phase).

...but he got me with two Jeskai Charms. I just had no Dissolve.

I got kind of lucky in Game Three. He let my Dig Through Time resolve and then tried to play his one card ( Dig Through Time) at the end of my turn. At which point I had mana open for Disdainful Stroke.

Also at one point his board was Outpost Siege + Keranos, God of Storms and he whiffed on Keranos damage. If he had gotten me for that three (before my Perilous Vault cleared the board) I would have had to play from four life, which is rough versus a deck with Strokes and Jeskai Charms.


Semifinals - Abzan Aggro

I played my friend Roman Fusco for the second time in this event.

(Shout out to Roman Fusco!)

Roman got me in the battle of sideboards.

In the Swiss he Reclamation Sage'd my Perilous Vault, so I sided both out in the Top 4; obviously he was smart enough to have no Reclamation Sages in his deck with this slight advantage.

Games one and three were close (those were the ones I played and won). He smashed me in the middle game. Card advantage got through multiple Thoughtseizes though.


Finals - Jeskai

There was only one notable line in my entire tournament, and it was if not the final play of the tournament, the most important line.

My opponent, Caupolican Lopez, was probably the most decorated player in the event, having played in the World Championships some years earlier. He was on fire -- or at least as on fire as I was going into the last match.

I had a great draw v. his average draw in game one, and weathered his burn spells just well enough.

Game two I had all Jace's Ingenuities and Dig Through Times and he got me with actual cards.

Game three Caupolican and I entered the stretch with him way ahead on life and me ahead on cards. He played a late game morph, which I figured to be Ashcloud Phoenix.

I had Disdainful Stroke in my hand, so playing that as a morph was ingenious.

I took some licks but drew eventually into my one Silumgar, the Drifting Death.

Silumgar is obviously one of the only cards that stabilizes me there, as it is flying, capable of living through battle with an Ashcloud Phoenix, plus has some other relevant text.

Unfortunately I was way behind on life and Silumgar only hits for three.

Luckily, Caupolican was fading and fading and fading.

On the pivotal turn he had about nine lands in play but nothing relevant in hand.

I had only a Hero's Downfall but played Temple to scry into a Bile Blight. If I played my cards right I could potentially kill the Ashcloud Phoenix for good...but at only five life, I would have a maximum of three turns and was still dead to basically any burn card.

I looked at the morph in play and looked at Caupolican's many lands and looked at my dwindling life total.

"Attack."

He scribbled three life down.

I passed.

Will he?

"At the end of your turn, flip up Ashcloud Phoenix."

From the crowd, a groan.

I marked down two life.

"It's dead."

Huh?

"When he attacked you must have known something was up!" shouted a voice from the crowd.

"Silumgar's -1/-1 ability."

The judge, decorated Level 3 Eric Smith, picked up my Drifting Death and confirmed my reading of events.

Ashcloud Phoenix flipped back to morph-mode. I immediately Hero's Downfall'd it.

Neither of us had anything.

Caupolican faded for the nth time.

I drew my Bile Blight and swung.

Topdeck...fade AGAIN!

Heroes?

Dissolve!

Mother loving Dissolve!

Finally he drew a spell that mattered. "Lightning Stri--"

"Dissolve that!"

And just like that, I'm qualified!

//

...for a Pro Tour Qualifier.

You see, for as exciting a journey this has been for me so far, I'm not even back on the Pro Tour yet.

I've been calling it "halfway there" but Patrick corrected me.

"Good enough is never good enough. You taught me that. You've got to shoot for at least winning the Pro Tour! You're maybe one quarter of the way there, not halfway."

Says the guy who won a Pro Tour last year.

With friends like these!

To be continued.

LOVE
MIKE

Post Script:

I think you still want access to all four copies of Thoughtseize, but as you can see from my sideboarding, I brought in Disdainful Stroke as often as I could. I would swap one for one.

In addition I never brought in more than one copy of Silumgar, the Drifting Death; even against RW or Jeskai Tokens decks. I would consider making that a single Negate (which gives us some Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver resistance). This would leave us at:

DECKID=1231507

Enjoy!

The line in the finals probably seems more dramatic than it really was.

I know my opponent was beating himself up about it.

But as he didn't draw anything meaningful over the next two turns, if he had just waited on the Ashcloud flip, I still had Bile Blight and Dissolve coming. Meaning I could have still won...probably just on one life instead of three.

But at the time? Yeah. Felt hella exciting.

Wish me luck!

To be continued.