The Pro Tour has come to a close and with it has come some definition to Standard. While old foes such as Monored Aggro and Abzan are still very much around and not going anyway, we also got to see our first taste of Esper-Dragon Control and Blue/Black Control. This is especially relevant because control has essentially been a non-factor for the past six months or so while midrange and aggro have been duking it out.
Often, when I look at an Esper Control shell, I see a near-perfect blend of cards. You have your mass removal brought in from white, along with some Disenchant effect and possibly some additional spot removal. Black brings the majority of the spot removal and then key hand-disruption that is crucial in control mirrors. Blue brings countermagic and card advantage to the table, as always. Together these three things make for a control deck that can take all comers with the right draw.
Realistically though, in order for a control deck to survive in this environment, it needs to be able to beat the aggressive/midrange decks of the field and then have a game plan against opposing control decks. They naturally have a plan against control themselves just by relying on hand disruption and countermagic, but other color combinations could come up with a better, more specific plan to win these match ups.
I found it fairly difficult to justify playing Sultai or Abzan control when Esper was available just because of the card quality you pick up. While I am sure there are good Abzan control and Sultai control decks out there (we even saw one in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour), whenever I would build one, I would wonder why I was not just switching green to white or blue and playing Esper.
I wanted a reason to be something other than Esper and so exploring two color deviations made a lot of sense. If I was Jund Control or Temur, for example, I would have two entirely new colors to draw from and theoretically could Reshape the face of the deck. Esper with green is not where I want to be but rather an entirely new shell altogether.
Going red/blue/green does provide us with a lot of tools that other decks simply do not have access to. Sarkhan Unbroken is perhaps the loudest of these incentives as its mana cost is quite difficult to pull off outside of possible five-color shells and then Temur itself. Other tools include stuff like Kiora, the Crashing Wave and even the newly printed Dragonlord Atarka.
We still have access to a sweeper, which is pretty important for any control shell to survive right now. Anger of the Gods is the defacto sweeper as it is quite efficient and cheap enough to be effective against the most aggressive of lists. In addition, it happens to keep Courser of Kruphix alive, which is arguably the main reason to go green in a control shell.-->
But there are actually quite a few sweeper alternatives to at least look into. If nothing else, the sideboard likely wants some sweepers that deal with four toughness, for example. AEtherspouts has seen increased play now that control decks are a thing and while it does a job, I am not the biggest fan. Too often I find an opponent playing around it in a way that actually sets me behind. Especially when your other sweeper is conditional, it feels too easy to play around AEtherspouts when you can send your small guys over and over. That said, some opposing decks will simply not be able to play around the card due to the nature of their deck, so perhaps a copy or two in the board is a possibility.
One new sweeper that has me pretty excited is Volcanic Vision. Obviously this one comes with some deck building restrictions to it, but assuming we are running Treasure Cruise or Dragonlord's Prerogative, we should be able to muster up enough instants and sorceries to have a legitimate Plague Wind on our hands. This could only be used to supplement other sweepers as it is far too slow to stop aggressive decks on its own.
There is also a small argument to be made for Seismic Rupture. While it does not clear away as many threats including some things like opposing Sidisi or Deathmist Raptors, it also does only two damage which means you can keep your Sylvan Caryatids alive through it as well. While I find this advantage to be too small compared to it not hitting all of the important threats such as Fleecemane Lion, there could be metagames or lists where the reverse is true.
Once we have a sweeper nailed down, we really can almost just plug and chug the rest of the deck using conventional control shell-building. We need some card advantage, some spot removal, and some Counterspells, along with a win condition of some kind.
For card advantage, we get quite a lot. Sarkhan and Kiora both provide us with the ability to Tome across multiple turns while Treasure Cruise and Prerogative give us a burst of new cards to work with. Even Courser of Kruphix does its part here as one of the better card advantage engines in Standard.
For spot removal we get the typical red removal of Lightning Strike, but thanks to the last two sets, blue and red have means to deal with bigger things too. Reality Shift is a nice way to take down big dragons and Whisperwood Elementals alike. Roast is the new toy that gives red a cheap way to deal with Siege Rhino and Polukranos, creatures that typically give red big problems. Kiora also steps in here a bit and locks down single threats pretty well.
Once we get to Counterspells, we have a tough choice to make. Ideally, I would love to run Silumgar's Scorn somewhere in here as having access to literal Counterspell is just extremely powerful. Even as an awkward Force Spike, it will still handle many things during the midgame when mana is of a concern. Making this choice means we need support both from our mana base, allowing us to cast a double blue spell, but also from our creatures. Without a decent number of dragons in our deck, we simply lose out on the awesome power boost of Scorn. While I don't think we need a million dragons, I do think we want some. Beyond that, typical Counterspells like Disdainful Stroke, Negate, Dissolve, and Swan Song are all viable options between main and side.
We get a bunch of win conditions almost incidentally just by utilizing planeswalkers and Courser of Kruphix. I do think we could use a couple of spells that go over the top of an opponent though. Dragonlord Atarka kind of does everything we want here. It provides us with a few expensive dragons to sit in our hand and fuel Silumgar's Scorn. It certainly is a strong win condition as an 8/8 flying, trampler. And it also provides us with a secondary sweeper to back up Anger of the Gods except we gain the utility of killing planeswalkers, which is big for a deck without Hero's Downfall and Thoughtseize to otherwise handle them.
Here is where I initially arrived when putting this all together:
I basically used all of the key cards and needs that we discussed above with a few interesting ones added to fill out the list. Clever Impersonator is one, for example. I feel like his stock goes up with a higher count of big beefy dragons and planeswalkers running around. It is also another four-drop which is a key curve point due to being able to cast them on turn three off of Caryatid.
Our maindeck can and often will struggle against control whenever we are not able to proactively land a threat. If we are on the play and have access to Courser of Kruphix or an early Sarkhan Unbroken, then sure, we get to pull ahead simply by posing the threats faster than they can answer them. If, however, we have a draw that contains just a few too many Sylvan Cryatids and Lightning Strikes, we can easily lose just due to a bunch of dead draws.
Our board looks to address this though with quite the shift in how many threats we bring to the table. Thus far online, most of my sideboarding against UB or Esper control has looked something like this:
-4 Anger of the Gods-2 Roast-2 Reality Shift-2 Lightning Strike
+4 Mistcutter Hydra+1 Keranos, God of Storms+2 Negate+1 Swan Song+1 Dissolve+1 Stormbreath Dragon
While the Stormbreath began as a cute sideboard card to grab with Sarkhan's ultimate, it has actually been a decent one-of as a threat in match ups like this. Ten cards is quite the switch from what we had before as now the number of dead cards we have is going to be much less and the number of threats we can produce much higher. This last point is important because ultimately we want to land the first threat and then protect it with countermagic while we stockpile more, whereas the slower control decks want to hold off your threats with countermagic while they await a deployment of theirs much later.
Temur has some very strong arguments to be made in its favor. The strength and versatility of its sideboard is perhaps the most promising, but the list does not end there. I think that the biggest thing holding a control deck like this down are a few weak match ups that unfortunately are quite popular right now.
Looking at a deck like Monogreen Devotion, for example, you can quickly see where Temur might have issues. We have no mass sweeper for their expensive threats so while we might be able to chop down a few early mana creatures, when the Arbor Colossus and Polukranos of the world come down, we are back to one-for-one'ing at best. It is possible that having more Reality Shift and Roasts is a way to combat that though I worry that losing all of our direct damage opens us up to being weak to the likes of Xenagos and Ashiok.
Figuring out what weaknesses I am ok with having in order to pick up strengths other places is very much where control lies right now. Esper gets to approach the format best from a sort of generic sense, so it will continue to be the big control deck for a while, but having access to a more robust sideboard is a valuable asset so long as you can predict the format correctly and aim it appropriately.
I am attending a Standard tournament this upcoming weekend and will be exploring decks to play all week long. This is something I put in some hours with this weekend, but it will almost certainly evolve. Hopefully when I return, it shall be with good news! Thanks for reading!