I have been having a hard time with control decks in Standard. No, I don't mean beating them. I seem to be doing that just fine. I mean playing them. I just can't seem to find a build of control that I'd feel comfortable to bring to a tournament. UB Control and Esper have been proven to be viable control decks with lots of success on the Pro Tour and Open circuit, but each of those decks have their own problems including some unwinnable matchups.
UW Control was a deck that I thought could be very good, but after trying out a couple of different builds of UW, I didn't feel comfortable with that deck either. UW Control had a lot going for it, but the biggest problem was that the early removal was bad. There's Last Breath and Nullify, and those cards can be terrible if drawn at the wrong times. Last Breath can't deal with Fleecemane Lion or Mantis Rider, and Nullify can be played around pretty easily. The late game of UW was excellent, but getting to that point was the challenge.
A few weeks ago, a UW Control deck managed a second place finish at SCG Minneapolis.
This build of UW was very similar to lists that I have put together, but the one major difference is the inclusion of Devouring Light. I didn't really consider playing Devouring Light in my UW control decks before, mainly because it's double white and pretty easy to play around. The double white is the biggest issue. When you want to play spells like Nullify and Dissolve as early as possible, it's really hard to cast Devouring Light on turn three. Four Tranquil Cove and four Temple of Enlightenment make it a little easier, but the list still plays a split number of Islands and Plains along with three Radiant Fountains, so you might end up having mana issues more often than not. Devouring Light is more of a turn four or five play which is totally fine. The only problem with this is when a creature such as Mantis Rider sneaks through. If it's able to hit a couple of times while you are setting up your Devouring Light, the damage has already been done.
The other three mana removal spell in the deck is Banishing Light. This spell's sorcery speed really hurts you, especially when you need to hold up countermagic. Sometimes you can't even play this until turn five or six so that you can hold up a counter in the same turn. Regardless, it can Remove any non-land permanent and one of your only ways to Remove a Planeswalker, so it's extremely vital in this deck.
I really like the Wingmate Rocs in the sideboard. Not many people realize that Nyx-Fleece Ram can attack and trigger raid. That combined with Brimaz gives you an alternate game plan after sideboard, which I like.
I really wanted to play a control deck with better cheap removal spells. UB Control plays some of the best spot removal spells in the format but it's missing that reset button. I found Perilous Vault to be way too slow and using two whole turns to clear the board seems bad when End Hostilities is in the format.
Red is the other color with access to cheap removal. Lightning Strike is really good right now, and Magma Jet, while it can't kill everything that Lightning Strike can, can still hit mana creatures and Goblin Rabblemaster. The scry is also pretty important for control decks.
Frank and I put together a Jeskai Control deck over the weekend based on these factors. The list has gone through many changes throughout our testing and here's what we arrived at:
It's pretty obvious why some of these cards are in this deck. A lot of these cards are standard staples such as Lightning Strike, Magma Jet, End Hostilities, Dig Through Time, and many others. We have been playing with these cards for months. Some of these cards are not so obvious and require an explanation.
Steam Augury is a unique card. It's clearly worse than Fact or Fiction, but that doesn't make it bad. I thought this card was great when it was released last year and assumed it would be a Standard staple, but it turned out that there was no point in playing this card over something like Sphinx's Revelation. Now that Revelation's gone, Steam Augury doesn't seem that bad anymore. I have been very impressed with it in this deck so far. There are a lot of redundant cards and usually you will get what you want with it.
For example, if you really need to kill a Planeswalker with three loyalty and you reveal a Lightning Strike, a Banishing Light, and three lands, you're going to be able to kill that Planeswalker and get a couple of lands as a bonus. Now, what if you reveal a Lightning Strike, a Banishing Light, a Dig Through Time, another Steam Augury, and a land? Not only will you be able to kill the Planeswalker, but you will also be able to refill your hand. The key to playing Steam Augury is to have a plan in mind, know what you're looking for, and have an idea of what your opponent thinks you're looking for. Once you recognize these things, you will know how to split the piles optimally.
Steam Augury also works very well with Dig Through Time. Casting Steam Augury will put at least three cards in your graveyard and you will rarely have to cast your Digs for more than two mana.
Mindswipe is often a hard counter with an added bonus of being able to kill a Planeswalker or deal your opponent some damage. Late in the game it can even be a game-winning spell. It's not uncommon to have ten or more lands in play and between your opponent's fetchlands and Thoughtseizes, a couple of Mindswipes can outright kill your opponent. Once the game goes long enough and you have control, you can Lightning Strike and Magma Jet your opponent so that Mindswipe can be lethal. There are only two copies in the list because it's not something you want to draw a lot of, but having two can allow you to kill with them. You will usually be able to find them with Dig Through Time or Prognostic Sphinx when the time is right. Even if you can't kill your opponent with Mindswipe, it's still another Counterspell. Spells are expensive these days and you're not going to have a problem countering something with Mindswipe.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion
While Elspeth is technically a win condition, you're not going to be able to win with her very often. Elspeth is most often used as a board Stabilizer and a way to buy you time until you are able to play a more reliable win condition. The problem is that there are so many answers for Elspeth in this format and you just can't counter everything. Every deck has answers to Planeswalkers and I'm fine letting my opponent's Utter End resolve and use the tokens to block while I am setting up for something better.
Prognostic Sphinx is your primary win condition. It's very hard to kill and easy for us to protect. It's also great on defense as it can block most of the format's most popular creatures, specifically Siege Rhino. Once you have stabilized the board, a couple of hits from a Sphinx will get your opponent in range for you to Mindswipe them out, and the Sphinx does a pretty good job of finding the Mindswipe with its scry 3 ability.
Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
I like having another five-drop win condition in the deck that isn't Prognostic Sphinx. Drawing two Sphinxes early is pretty miserable, but at least Sarkhan can do other things if you are not in the position to win the game yet. You won't win with Sarkhan often but there will be times where you will use Sarkhan to kill a guy and then ride him to victory.
Pearl Lake Ancient
Pearl Lake Ancient is not my favorite win condition in this deck but I really think you need him. One problem that Jeskai Control has is that once you cast a couple of Steam Auguries, you end up running out of cards pretty quickly. If your most of your win conditions end up in the graveyard due to Steam Augury, you're going to need a way to end a game with something that can't be killed. Pearl Lake Ancient does this perfectly. Once you are at that point where you are getting low on cards in your library, you'll have enough lands in play to be able to protect him. I'd never want to draw more than one and I would hate for this guy to show up early, so one is the right number.Sideboarding and Matchups
This deck is pretty good at being a control deck against any deck that isn't a control deck. Once you get paired up against another control deck like UB or Esper, you're going to need another plan. They play more Counterspells and card draw than us, so they will usually be able to win counter wars. We play more creature control than they do, which means that we will have more dead cards than them. This is where our transformational sideboard comes in. When we play against other control decks, we board in these:
2 Negate1 Disdainful Stroke4 Mantis Rider3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
In place of these:
3 End Hostilities2 Anger of the Gods2 Magma Jet3 Banishing Light
We are cutting the do-nothing removal spells for aggressive, proactive creatures and more Counterspells, essentially transforming into a Jeskai Burn deck. Usually this will be a huge surprise to our opponent who will likely be cutting his board sweepers and most of his spot removal spells with the anticipation of playing a control on control mirror match. Game three the opponent will likely board back in more removal spells but with eleven counters in our deck, we are still pretty favored.
One thing to keep in mind is what kinds of threats your opponent is playing. If they are playing Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, you're going to want to leave Banishing Light in your deck for example.
One of Jeskai Control's best matchups is green midrange. This includes Abzan, Green Devotion, GB Constellation, RG, and Temur Midrange. We are so favored here that we really don't need to sideboard much. I'll board in the one Disdainful Stroke for sure, and the Negates if they have a lot of Planeswalkers. If they play Goblin Rabblemaster, I'll board in the Magma Sprays, but overall you really don't need much help here.
Another excellent matchup for this deck is Jeskai Tempo. We play a lot of the same spells that they play but we have plenty of ways to deal with their creatures and counters to stop their burn. After sideboard the matchup gets even better with Nyx-Fleece Ram, Magma Spray, Resolute Archangel and Negate. I don't like the End Hostilities or Anger of the Gods in the matchup because their creatures need to be dealt with right away and End Hostilities is much too slow. Anger doesn't hit anything that Lightning Strike doesn't, so I'd rather have the cheaper, instant speed spell. The last cards I would cut are the Pearl Lake Ancient and a Steam Augury. Games won't go long enough for you to cast the Ancient and Steam Augury can be slow against a deck like this.
Mardu Midrange is a decent matchup, but not nearly as good as Jeskai or green midrange. Mardu's threats are really good on their own so they are not going to get blown out by End Hostilities or Anger of the Gods. The most important spells against them are Disdainful Stroke and Negate. They have a lot of hard to deal with permanents that you just need a counter for, like Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Sarkhan the Dragonspeaker. The main edge we have is that we have actual card draw while they are relying on spells like Hordeling Outburst and Planeswalkers to gain card advantage, so we have inevitability if the game goes long.
Monored is about a 50/50 matchup that really comes down to how much removal you draw. We have plenty of late game cards that do absolutely nothing in the matchup and if you draw too many of those early, you will lose. The large number of lands that come into play tapped don't help either. In this matchup I like the transformational sideboard of:
1 Resolute Archangel3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos2 Nyx-Fleece Ram4 Mantis Rider2 Magma Spray
In place of:
2 Disdainful Stroke4 Dissolve1 Pearl Lake Ancient2 Prognostic Sphinx3 Steam Augury
We are bringing in cards that interact with their creatures and double as win conditions over spells that we just don't have the time to cast. It's a great plan against them, but the matchup is still pretty scary.
The last matchup I'd like to discuss is Jeskai Ascendancy. I think the matchup is great if you play correctly. You have to play this game very slowly and never tap out. Anger of the Gods is great in the matchup and after sideboard, the three additional counters help a lot too. Just be aware that one tapout to cast a Sphinx or Elspeth can give them the window they need to win, so as long as you don't do that, you should be fine. You have to be very patient in this matchup.Wrap Up
Overall I have been pretty surprised with how well this deck has performed in testing. When Frank and I threw this deck together, I didn't really know what to expect. The deck looked like a significantly worse control deck than UB (we were playing Perilous Vault in our first build). After playing some games and figuring out what worked and what didn't, I have to say that I'm impressed. While I'm not convinced that Jeskai Control is the best control deck in Standard, it has lots of potential.
Thanks for reading.
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