In the weeks since Pro Tour Shadows Over Innistrad, Standard has seen two major innovations: Four-Color Rites and Grixis Control. Maybe it's unfair to say that Grixis Control is a post Pro Tour innovation, as it did achieve a record of 8-2 at the Pro Tour in the hands of Oliver Tiu. Despite this fine performance, Grixis Control overall left virtually no footprint on the Pro Tour landscape. Since then the deck must have found some heavy duty boots, as its footprint is everywhere. In fact, it has managed to secure a Top 8 berth in every Grand Prix event since the Pro Tour.
What is it about Grixis Control that lets it thrive in this Standard where other control decks have failed? White-Black Control has proven itself, but every other control strategy aside from Grixis that has made an appearance has failed to stick around. Esper control strategies had momentum post rotation, with Esper Dragons losing none of its Dragon core, but the color combination failed to post consistent results. Similarly, various Black-Green Control strategies were tried, but none saw lasting play.
In a world of transient control decks, Grixis and White-Black stand out. By analyzing the similarities between the two consistently successful control decks of the format we can try to put our finger on what it is that pushes them past the level of occasional isolated high placings to the top tier of the metagame, and we can use that knowledge to guide us as we explore the frontier of this Standard metagame.
White-Green Tokens has dominated this Standard format. At the heart of the success of White-Green Tokens is the strength of Planeswalkers in the format. The boards clog consistently, which makes dealing with Planeswalkers via the combat step a nontrivial proposition. Traditionally, formats like this keep Planeswalkers in check with burn spells, but the burn in this format is far too weak for that. Targeted Planeswalker removal is at a premium, and both Grixis and White-Black Control play plenty of it. For Grixis the spell of choice is Ruinous Path, while White-Black Control gets to play Anguished Unmaking as well. In the late game, Dragonlord Silumgar is another powerful anti-Planeswalker weapon that Grixis has access to.
It makes a lot of sense that Planeswalker kill spells are important in the format, but a lot of less successful control decks play them too. Indeed, nearly every control deck to see even a modicum of success in this Standard has played Ruinous Path. What are Grixis and White-Black control doing differently? If you think of these Planeswalker removal spells as a kind of insurance plan then the answer lies in duration of coverage. All of these decks play somewhere in the range of 3-5 spells that flat out answer a Planeswalker. This is enough to provide early game coverage against opposing Planeswalkers. But with Dig Through Time gone, it's not enough to ensure these decks will have a Planeswalker answer in the mid to late stages of the game. The card selection in Standard is simply not good enough to allow control decks to easily find their answers when White-Green slams their second Planeswalker. And let's be real: White-Green will have a second Planeswalker. (After all, they play eight.) Grixis and White-Black both have tools other control strategies lack that allow them to extend their ability to deal with Planeswalkers to the mid and late game.
White-Black's tools come in the form of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Sorin, Grim Nemesis and Secure the Wastes. Note that White-Black gets to use its copies of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to Assassinate opposing Planeswalkers despite the boards in this format being clogged due to having access to Languish to clear the way. Grixis gets to use Goblin Dark-Dwellers as Ruinous Path copies four through sevem, allowing Grixis to consistently have an answer to the second and third opposing Planeswalker of the game. Further, resolved Goblin Dark-Dwellers are excellent at pressuring Planeswalkers, even on stalled boards. Menace plays much better here than it might seem, requiring three blockers back to guarantee the ability to block through a single removal spell.
The redundancy offered by Goblin Dark-Dwellers also means that Grixis is free to 'waste' an early Ruinous Path on a creature in a matchup that revolves around Planeswalkers, a luxury that other control strategies do not have. Grixis also plays Dragonlord Silumgar and Kolaghan's Command to recur both the Dragonlord and Goblin Dark-Dwellers, and possibly to ship a final two points at a Planeswalker. All in all, it is really hard to stick a Planeswalker against Grixis Control.
Compare this to Esper Dragon's method of mid-game Planeswalker control: Dragonlord Ojutai. Unlike Goblin Dark-Dwellers, Dragonlord Ojutai needs to have already been on the field in order to remove a Planeswalker. But we gave White-Black credit for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, which also needs to have already been on the field, so maybe it's unfair to knock Dragonlord Ojutai too harshly for this requirement. No, the real problem with Dragonlord Ojutai in the role of Planeswalker exterminator is that it requires using Esper's cards in a way that doesn't further its main game plan. When Gideon, Ally of Zendikar takes down a Planeswalker, White-Black is executing its plan perfectly, removing creatures to Clear a Path and then using the combat step to clear away yet another permanent. Ditto for Goblin Dark-Dwellers out of Grixis. But when Esper uses Dragonlord Ojutai to attack a Planeswalker, they are losing their hexproof dragon on blocks and not even getting to Anticipate. Sometimes Esper is far enough ahead that this suboptimal use of cards doesn't matter, but in close games it will always feel miserable.
The era of the do nothing control deck has long since ended, at least as far as Standard Magic is concerned. Nowadays, the idea that even control decks have to have some kind of proactive plan is widely accepted. None of the control decks that have seen mild amounts of success ignore this concept -- they all have solid proactive plans. Esper Dragons wants to use Dragonlord Ojutai to stay in control of the game, Esper Walker control wants to use Planeswalkers to pull ahead while answering the opponent's plan. Even the Green-Black Seasons Past strategy has a clear goal: loop Dark Petition and Seasons Past to bury the opposition in cards.
The reality is that being able to proactively take control of the game isn't enough in this format. Grixis and White-Black Control take the proactive requirement a step further and their construction clearly shows a strong preference for proactive cards that impact the game immediately. Of special importance are the cards that are both control tools and proactive, game ending threats. Sorin, Grim Nemesis and Ob Nixilis, Reignited out of White-Black both answer a permanent immediately and then stick around, threatening to continue to heavily impact the game. Grixis plays the full playset of Goblin Dark-Dwellers and uses them to do exactly the same thing: remove a permanent while providing a lasting threat. These threats aren't Dragonlord Ojutai level in quality, but this format puts more emphasis on immediate impact than resiliency. Sure, the first Goblin Dark-Dwellers will hardly ever win the game for Grixis the way the first Dragonlord Ojutai can for Esper. But it will go a long way towards ensuring that Grixis manages to gain control of the game by impacting the board right away while also forcing opposing resources to be diverted to deal with a 4/4 Menace roadblock.
In the end, what this means is that Grixis and White-Black Control play by the rules of the format: tempo is king. Spending four or five mana on a card that will not have a meaningful effect on the game until next turn is not something you can realistically do and survive in this format, and Grixis and White-Black don't run any cards that play out in this way. Further, their cards aren't situational and don't demand mana be constantly left up in order to work. They are very much in the tap-out control camp and seek to enter a tempo fight with opposing decks. The less successful control decks try to change the rules of the format, to reactively answer threats until the midgame and then impose their uninteractive win condition on the game. The problem is that the card selection is too weak to make up for the inherent tempo loss of a control-gaining strategy that is inherently reactive. Sometimes it will work out, but consistent success is not in the cards.
The big takeaway here for me is that four and five mana plays in this format need to do something immediately. The line seems to be drawn for four mana spells at netting one creature (either making one or removing one) with additional future equity, and for five or more mana spells at netting two creatures. Control decks need to give more thought to how they plan to deal with Planeswalkers in the mid game, before they have gained firm control of the game but after they have likely been forced to use their dedicated Planeswalker answer.
Also, with these thoughts in mind, Pia and Kiran Nalaar seems criminally underplayed right now. Something to consider.
Thanks for reading,