The weekend's Grand Prix gave us a welcome change of pace in Standard – the utter dominance of Goblin Chainwhirler was meaningfully challenged, and a wider diversity of decks were seen in the Top 8 of both GP Singapore and GP Pittsburgh. While covering GP Pittsburgh, one deck archetype in particular struck me as being exceptionally well-positioned. Throughout the entire weekend, blue-black decks were making powerful plays with high-impact cards and demonstrated a very robust presence within the Standard field.
This makes sense from a historical perspective. Blue-black decks will almost always have access to the best card draw and the best removal – this means that predicting a specific metagame becomes less important, as you will generally have the tools you need to deal with any given threat. Between countermagic, point removal and card advantage engines, blue-black decks can (theoretically, at least) hustle and bustle against more or less anything.
In this specific Standard format, high-powered general answers such as Vraska's Contempt give you game against decks of all kinds, and powerful draw effects like Glimmer of Genius and Arguel's Blood Fast help you find these answers consistently. Additionally, blue-black decks can be easily configured to beat more or less anything, as they consist of individually powerful threats and answers that don't rely on synergy. This means adjusting the deck's overall thrust is very easy.
What is perhaps a little less easy is deciding upon which direction to take the deck in the first place. There are two general schools of thought: play a proactive game with Blue-Black Midrange, or a reactive game with Blue-Black Control. Today, we're going to examine the strengths and weaknesses of both archetypes and discuss which flavor of blue-black is the most appropriate for today's Standard format.
Playing a proactive game with blue-black is all about sticking an early threat and backing it up with meaningful disruption – the classic midrange gameplan we've seen countless times before. More specifically, this deck is all about landing and defending an early Glint-Sleeve Siphoner or even a Champion of Wits before later transitioning to "bigger" cards like The Scarab God or Torrential Gearhulk, utilizing countermagic and removal all the while to Press the Advantage. Oliver Tiu had an excellent weekend with his midrange deck, making it all the way to the finals of GP Pittsburgh.
Given the success of the deck this weekend (it also made the Top 8 in Singapore in the hands of Ryo Okamoto), you might think it's a terrific pick moving forward. Not so! At present, being proactive with the cards in this list is not the best approach. The Standard format is naturally hostile to many of the angles this deck looks to fight on. For example, relying on Glint-Sleeve Siphoner is a real liability in the face of Goblin Chainwhirler, and there are too many exile effects for The Scarab God to be at its best.
The Scarab God has been a powerhouse threat in Standard for quite some time, but between Vraska's Contempt, Doomfall, Magma Spray, and Scrapheap Scrounger, opponents have too many options to minimize the impact of Scabby G. For that reason, relying on it as a proactive, game-ending threat doesn't quite hit the mark.
Additionally, this deck has a horrific matchup against the other permutation of blue-black. Blue-Black Control wants to play decks like this all day long and, as we'll discuss, Blue-Black Control is poised to surge further forward as a real force in Standard. For that reason, and despite the results we saw from Blue-Black Midrange this weekend, it might be a better idea to play a more reactive game.
Further down the spectrum, we have Blue-Black Control. Doing away with small, cheap creatures, this deck seeks to play a classic one-for-one control game before putting opponents in the ground with massive game-ending threats. Using powerful, universal answers to the questions Standard currently poses, Scott Matthews snagged a spot in the Top 8 of GP Pittsburgh with his take on the archetype this weekend.
The two most important cards in this deck also happen to work together exceptionally well, and set the deck up with a very strong and resilient gameplan against more or less anything and everything in the format. Vraska's Contempt in conjunction with Torrential Gearhulk will repeatedly deal with essentially every threat an opponent can put forth.
At its core, this deck is seeking to cast Vraska's Contempt as many times as possible. Contempt is a no-nonsense answer to everything from Teferi to Hazoret, being one of those rare cards that shines in basically every matchup. Obviously it's excellent against all the high-end threats in the red decks, removing Chandra, Hazoret, and Rekindling Phoenix, but it doesn't stop there. It's odd to have a removal spell that is still excellent against control, but Contempt ticks that box by exiling opposing Teferis and Gearhulks.
Torrential Gearhulk is an incredible card, and it's at its best in this deck. Despite its obvious power level, Gearhulk is actually pretty mediocre in white-blue decks, given their reliance on instant-speed enchantments for removal; you can't flash back a Seal Away or Cast Out. Blue-black decks are a much better home for Torrential Gearhulk, as it can flash back everything from Fatal Push to Cast Down to Vraska's Contempt. Blue-black decks are the best Torrential Gearhulk decks.
A good mix of countermagic and instant-speed removal serve as window-dressing for this two-card combination. This specific list also includes quite a few copies of The Scarab God, which I can't say I liked. As mentioned, TSG just doesn't get the job done as it used to, and I'd be trimming extra copies of it to include the full playset of Torrential Gearhulk instead.
Despite the broad differences between playing proactively and reactively with blue-black, when lining up the 75 cards in either lists, they're often quite close to identical. Usually, midrange decks play controlling cards in their sideboards, while control decks play midrange cards in their sideboards. This allows a more transitional approach to be taken to games two and three, and will keep opponents guessing as to how they'll need to respond.
This is something of a simplification, but broadly it's true enough; it's not unusual for control decks to include a playset of Glint-Sleeve Siphoner in the board, for example. Assuming this is generally true, therefore, the question then becomes which approach is the better game one deck. I would suggest that it's playing reactively rather than proactively, especially with the prevalence of Goblin Chainwhirler, but I very much like things like access to the full four post-board Siphoners.
Sideboarding with either list will often involve many of the same cards – Negate, Duress, Doomfall, etc. The more proactive you're being, the more you want to lean on discard effects, and the more reactive you're being, the more you want to lean on counters. Duress is, obviously, a terrific sideboard card that can come in in a wide range of matchups, but it will do its best work when part of a proactive gameplan.
Consider this situation. You cast a midgame Duress, and see an opponent with two copies of Chandra, Torch of Defiance. If you're playing proactively and have a threat out to contest the board, no worries - take one Chandra and deal with the other with your board presence. If you're playing reactively, however, that Duress doesn't solve the problem – they can deploy the Chandra next turn and your range of options to deal with it becomes very narrow.
Instead of tapping out for hand disruption, a reactive gameplan will be better supported with greater reliance on countermagic. In the above situation, if that Duress were a Negate, your opponent will waste four mana and an entire turn to trade their haymaker against your counter and won't advance their position. Playing a reactive game means trading one-for-one, obviously, but doing it on your terms with a robust suite of countermagic is the best way to achieve this rather than tapping out for sorcery-speed clunkers like Doomfall.
Playing reactively with blue-black cards is, I believe, the better approach to take in the current Standard format. There is too much built-in Hostility towards the best cards in the midrange deck in today's Standard format – it's better, therefore, to fill your deck full of powerful, flexible answers like Vraska's Contempt, Disallow, Cast Down, and Commit // Memory and be ready for anything.
Despite control being the better pick, it's not all upside, unfortunately. Blue-Black Control has a pretty ordinary matchup against White-Blue Control, as White-Blue still has serviceable removal against you (it's still possible to Seal Away a Torrential Gearhulk) whereas you go in with dead cards like Fatal Push. I suppose the winning strategy, then, is to not draw them. How's that for actionable advice?
All in all, casting Vraska's Contempt is one of the most powerful and effective things you can do in Standard today, and doing it multiple times – upwards, even, of four time thanks to Torrential Gearhulk - is a terrific way to win games. For that reason, I'm excited to see what the future of Blue-Black Control holds for the Standard format. If nothing else, we can all agree that it's nice to see a non-Chainwhirler deck getting it done!
- Riley Knight