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Alexander Shearer – The Immortal Engine and the End of the Rainbow

Versatility always comes with a cost.

For over half a decade now, my utility knife of choice has been a Benchmade McHenry & Williams 710 that I picked up toward the latter end of grad school. It’s a robust knife that has lasted through years of using it for everything from breaking down boxes through levering open metal flanges that have rusted shut – not the recommended good care and handling for a knife. It’s a lovely, well-designed knife that is very good at doing exactly one thing – cutting.

Back when I was in the Boy Scouts, I owned a fairly typical Swiss Army knife. It was awesome; with a knife blade, a smaller blade, scissors, and a bunch of other tools – many of which I couldn’t identify. One of them may have been a fish scaler. It could do a lot more than the Benchmade, but wasn’t particularly fast or good at any of it. Notably, it fell apart after a few years of use, but let’s not push a metaphor too far.

A little while ago I talked about my new approach to the PTQ season. As a quick refresher: I want to make sure I have two archetypes with which I have practiced and am comfortable. In Extended, this has led me to explore my control options as an adjunct to my tendency to gravitate toward more midrangey aggro builds.

That, in turn, has led me to one fundamental question – what kind of control deck do I want to run?

Today I’m going to review my personal comparison of the Vivid and U/W Control options: how they led me to make the choice that I did, my build, and some tips and guidelines on potential matchups.

The Vivid facts

So why pick Vivid Control?

By “Vivid Control” I mean the deck you may also want to call 4CC, 5CC, or Reflecting Pool Control – basically, any deck that loads up on Vivid lands, filter lands, and Reflecting Pools. If you’d like a good overview of a Vivid Control build in action, I’ll point you to Zaiem’s two part article on running Vivids to great success in a PTQ.

In making a decision between Vivid Control and the other main option I was considering, I decided to carry out that most basic of exercises and tally up a “pros and cons” list for each archetype.

Here’s how it shook out for Vivid Control.

All the best cards

When we spoke last week, Zaiem gave this concise explanation for why he liked playing Vivid lists. The comment is essentially true – the Vivid plus Pools mana base supports ridiculous juxtapositions like playing Cryptic Command (1UUU), Volcanic Fallout (1RR), Great Sable Stag (1GG), Sunblast Angel (4WW), and [card]Cruel Ultimatum[/card] (UUBBBRR), all in the same deck.

Although it’s not as free as all that – notice the emphasis on blue to support the core suite of blue action spells – this flexibility means that you can legitimately duck around making tough decisions between options and instead focus attention on your curve and stocking your deck with awesomeness.

”Enters the battlefield tapped…”

Ah, the downside.

This is a slow deck. In Zaiem’s take, for example, twelve lands enter the battlefield tapped. That’s a good 44% of the deck’s lands, and it means that you will spend a lot of time, especially in the early game, either being one turn behind or choosing to play an untapped land at the expense of spending a future turn in that “one turn behind” state.

This is viscerally apparent when you’re facing down fast aggro, especially on the play, and your response to that first-turn Goblin Guide is to play a Vivid land and get ready for another punch in the nose next turn. It’s ugly. Less obviously, you can also end up a turn behind on Cryptic Mana, sticking your Jace, or any other tempo issue between dueling control decks.

Tectonically active

The corollary issue with the mana base is just how vulnerable it is to land destruction (LD). In a sense, this is simply another aspect of the tempo issues associated with the mana base – if many of your lands come in to play tapped, it’s especially easy to rob you of the chance to use them even once by applying LD.

More than that, however, the deck can end up in the position of losing access to one or more colors as a consequence of opposing LD. Consider the following set of lands that a Vivid Control deck might have in play by turn four:

 

Right there, you have access to two lands that can produce any color of mana, and two that can, between them, produce any combination of black and blue mana.

Now, imagine that your opponent’s fourth turn involves hitting that Vivid Marsh with Tectonic Edge. Now your mana base only makes black and blue mana, locking any number of Volcanic Fallouts and Great Sable Stags in your hand.

Blue Line Pro

The other alternative I was considering, in fishing for control builds, was U/W (blue/white) Control. It has been another reasonable player on the control side in pre-Besieged Extended. As I’ll discuss below, I was not especially excited about trying to pilot the other U/x control deck that has been bumping around the top tables in Extended PTQs.

So how did our pros and cons stack up for U/W Control?

Smooth mana, smooth tempo

The obvious core strength of U/W Control is a reliable, smooth-flowing mana base. Whereas Vivid Control is a horrid abomination of mismatched color requirements and even Jund has to warp its mana base to try and shoehorn in Demigod of Revenge, the needs of a U/W Control deck are relatively gentle. You only need white or blue mana, and most of your cards require just two of a given color.

On top of that, there’s significant support for the U/W mana base in Extended right now. Here are your major mana-fixing options:

 

Of these, only one – the Colonnade – necessarily enters the battlefield tapped. The others include two conditional tapped lands and the amazingly effective Mystic Gate.

The upshot of all this is that you frequently don’t have to make any kind of special decision about how you sequence your lands – that is, the order in which you play them. For many, many games with U/W Control, the decision tree starts with “play that Colonnade on turn one” and then proceeds smoothly from there.

The upside to this, of course, is the mirror image of the downside to Vivid’s tempo issues. You don’t have to get punched in the face as many times before your deck turns on, and you typically get at least one use out of each land even if you are being hit by LD.

On solid ground

The U/W mana base also tends to be more resistant to efforts to disrupt it via LD.

There are, of course, the tempo issues I just mentioned. In addition, however, you have the fact that it runs a non-trivial number of Basic lands (and fetches, which are effectively Basics for our purposes here). So, you dodge Goblin Ruinblaster and Tectonic Edge right there.

You also have a deck that is pretty happy to have an Island, meaning that Spreading Seas is not nearly as obnoxious as it might be for anyone else.

We trade in flexibility for…flexibility?

Flexibility in card choice comes at some costs beyond the ones I talked about for Vivid Control. Notably, when you’re planning on casting Cruel Ultimatum and Sunblast Angel off of the same lands, your mana base must be laser-focused on being able to cover that full range of mana needs. Given this requirement, lands that are so gauche as to produce no mana of any color pretty much can’t ever make the cut.

The U/W deck, in contrast, has a lot of room to work with here. You mostly need U, W, UU, or WW, with occasional forays into UUU and extraordinarily rare instances of WWW. With such relaxed color needs, you can afford to have some of your lands just cough up colorless mana, giving you access to such hits as:

 

You could even get creative and pack some lands that produce off-color mana, which is, for your purposes, effectively the same thing:

 

Play some of the best cards

The downside is that this deck is never casting a Cruel Ultimatum. Or a Lightning Bolt. Or Great Sable Stag out of the sideboard. We have to content ourselves with whatever goodies we can find in our two-fifths of the color pie, with an artifact garnish.

Choosing “two” over “many”

After thinking my way through all this, I chose to play U/W Control. Why?

Here’s my reasoning:

A preference for tempo

Basically, I hate getting punched in the face any more than I have to.

Although I’m not irrationally attached to my life total and I’m not averse to trading life for other advantages in the game, I do like to maximize my buffer when I can. If I can buy myself an extra turn – whether by keeping my life total higher or just acting a turn sooner – I will select that over many other options.

My basic perspective on Magic is that many of the fundamental operations in the game are, for me, about generating and executing a plan that seeks to limit the range and likelihood of negative outcomes, while maximizing my chance of winning. Or, more succinctly, it’s all about buffering against chance. An extra turn, bought one way or another, is a huge buffer against chance.

So, given the choice between the deck that has four lands that come in tapped and the deck that has twelve to fourteen of the suckers; I pick the one sporting four almost every time.

Are “all the best cards” that much better?

The other major consideration was how much I’d miss those “best” cards.

Consider, once again, Zaiem’s list from his recent PTQ experience:

Vivid Control (by Zaiem Beg)

So, of the cards in this deck that I can’t play in U/W Control, which ones do I really wish I had access to? As far as I’m concerned, the only card in Zaiem’s seventy-five that I’d like to have access to (that I don’t in U/W) is Esper Charm. Drawing two cards as an Instant for three mana is sweet, even without the Charm’s other modes. It really is one of the most exciting aspects of playing Vivid Control.

But that’s like…four cards. One playset of Charms.

I don’t particularly care for Cruel Ultimatum as a finisher in Extended, nor do I want to run those green sideboard cards…or even those Fallouts.

So, for my play style, there aren’t a lot of “best” cards I’m missing by stepping away from the Vivid Control archetype.

No Faeries?

The astute observer will notice that I’ve sidestepped one of the better-known and more effective control decks in the format.

I don’t like Faeries.

Not that I think it’s a bad deck – it’s clearly a very powerful deck. However, Faeries is also a great example of a deck that functions via relaxed stability, like a modern high-performance fighter aircraft. If the control system – that’s you, for Faeries – makes a misstep, the craft pitches wildly out of control, often into an uncorrectable tumble. Faeries is a deck that, in expert hands, beats opposing decks that are full of threats that Faeries has little to no way to address under most circumstances.

This careful, tricky dance of countermagic, tempo, and deciding when you can ignore a threat or must handle it…it’s not my thing. Since it’s not, Faeries wasn’t even in the running.

No deck is powerful in isolation, after all.

The Immortal Engine

Having decided to go with U/W Control, I playtested a series of options and eventually settled on my current list, which I’ll discuss a little bit today.

U/W Immortal Engine

 

That immortal engine thing

The snappy deck title, which loaned itself to today’s column title as well, comes from my playtesting observations over the last week revealing that Immortal Elixir is even more ridiculous than I remembered.

Although the deck as you see it now has both [card]Brittle Effigy[/card] and [card]Elixir of Immortality[/card] in the main, for much of the playtesting the main deck had the Elixir as the sole [card]Trinket Mage[/card] target.

Basically, the Elixir kept demonstrating its amazingness in all sorts of matchups.

Against aggro, you gain 5 life and recycle all that removal to crush your opponent that much more.

Against Faeries, your life keeps grinding upward while [card]Bitterblossom[/card] eats theirs…and, of course, you recycle your spells so you can keep liberally burning spells on their countermagic and in killing the flying hordes.

Against opposing control decks, there’s that recycling spells thing again, as well as the added bonus of not losing to decking – something that can have surprising relevance in an otherwise stalled matchup.

The full range of Elixir shenanigans may merit its own article someday, but in the meantime, remember some basic principles.

First, unless you’re finding some other critical solution, don’t cast a [card]Trinket Mage[/card] if you have Elixir on the field. Use Elixir first, then cast that mage and find the Elixir. That’s 90% of what Team Trinks is there for.

Second, use your Trinket Mages like Vengevines. Attack into one-for-one trades. Block liberally. Get them killed…so you can cycle them back into your deck with Elixir, so you can search up Elixir again with a [card]Trinket Mage[/card]. Repeat as many times as your opponent lets you.

Third, remember that Elixir gives you a free reshuffle for your Jaces.

The significant value I place on Elixir in this deck is reflected in the backup sideboard copy. It’s there to make sure you can search up a second Elixir if, through misfortune, you should happen to lose one to a counterspell from a Faerie opponent, or a Thoughtseize out of Jund.

Some card choices explained

Before I end this week’s journey into U/W Control as an Extended option, I’ll comment on some of my specific card choices that may seem a little less than obvious.

Path to Exile — Path is an obvious card, of course, but running four may seem like overkill. Only, it’s not. Path is there to permanently deal with Jund’s Demigods, Naya’s Vengevines, and that pesky Mistbind Clique that always tries to crash your party during Upkeep. Sure, you’re giving them a land. Whatever. They lost something way more valuable.

Spreading Seas — This card impacts so many decks in Extended, the number in the main just kept rising as I tested out variations on this deck. It can hamstring “complex mana” decks such as Vivid Control and Jund. It also directly attacks the game plan of Valakut combo, both by hitting Valakuts and by knocking out early sources of green mana, which buys you time to set up your defense against Scapeshift and friends.

Oonas Grace — Remember this card? Right, from Lorwyn block 5CC. Turns out it’s still a solid one-of in a control deck, letting you cash in lands for action when games go long. I don’t think I’d want more than the one, but it’s a very powerful card advantage tool that I’ve really enjoyed having access to.

Glen Elendra Archmage — More Lorwyn all-stars! The Archmage is another surprisingly effective multirole card. With one on the field, Valakut decks have trouble going for the Scapeshift kill, and opposing control decks have to deal with a sort of mini-planeswalker with a counterspell ability. On top of that, they block…twice.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor — I began with four copies of Jace, but as it happens, that’s too many for this deck in Extended, at least right now. As formats grow larger and gain access to more efficient cards, the ability to just toss in four of a good card decreases. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I do know I ended up drawing Jace in lots of contexts where he wasn’t useful in testing…and dropping to three solved that issue.

Sunblast Angel — The top of my curve is my favorite wrath critter. Sunblast beats out other wrath effects by dint of coming attached to a win condition – and one that’s kind of hard to remove, at that (she lives through a Flame Javelin and all manner of Bolts). Also, “tap all your dudes with Cryptic, my turn cast Sunblast” is just dirty.

Day of Judgment — …doesn’t show up in the deck. Weird, right? Although Day might be a good choice against Elves, most other aggro and midrange opponents in Extended are better dealt with via point removal, at least for the early-to-mid game. I’ve found that the combination of Paths, Leaks, and Finks (and, after boarding, Condemns) does very well in stifling the opponent’s game plan progression. Sunblast can then fly in to bat cleanup, wiping the board after your opponent has overextended in an effort to defeat your abundant point removal. Elixir of Immortality also gives you room to execute this strategy, since you can take an additional hit or two that you might not otherwise be able to afford.

Clarity in two colors

Our deck choices often boil down to aptitude and personal preference.

Here, I’ve picked tempo, resilience, and mana base flexibility over spell selection and maximizing raw spell power. I believe these choices maximize my strengths, in turn maximizing my likelihood of success and how much I’m going to actually enjoy playing with it.

What about you? U/W Control? Vivid? Faeries? Do you even like control in Extended right now?

Let us know all about it in the comments.

***
magic (at) alexandershearer.com
parakkum on twitter

22 thoughts on “Alexander Shearer – The Immortal Engine and the End of the Rainbow”

  1. Yeah, you gotta really be afraid of all those tectonic edges running around in extended right now. RUG shift plays a few, but usually not too many, faeries has these sweet LD cards against you, but your plan involves casting 3-mana cards against them so they’re not as big a deal as they would be if, say, stag didn’t exist, and yes, UW has them, where they are a legitimate concern, but it seems like 5cc should be favored there anyway because of its excellent proactive disruption in thoughtseize (tell me if I’m wrong).

  2. Give explore a shot in your 5cc it also allows you to bump up you amount of lands, to fight all the land destruction.

    It may seem clunky at first but this deck is begging for it. It accelerates your slow draws, and sifts through your deck to draw relevant spells. It also is a huge in advantage in hmmm any control mirror.

  3. I wonder why we don’t see more decks with 4x Fulminator Mage and Goblin Ruinblaster in the main. Seems pretty amazing in today’s meta to just ponza your opponent.

  4. The description on the front page about this article is extremely misleading.

    Also your UW deck looks terrible against Faeries.

  5. I’m not necessarily opposed to playing UW right now, but I am curious as to what your plan is for Faeries. You lose all of the cards that are considered good vs Faeries from 5cc, and you gain seemingly nothing. It would seem ill-advised to play a deck that falls even harder to the most popular deck in the format than 5cc does.

  6. The problem with Mage/Ruinblaster is that they “do nothing” without a legitimate threat on the board, and other decks just have stronger early threats than Red decks.

  7. love the Immortal Engine. I tried the same in standard Caw-go, but i ended up making it a bit too cute. still, it’s awesome.

  8. I assumed the u/w list had stuck in a good amount of testing against fairies… is your plan literally to just win an attrition war via recycling spells through Elixir?

  9. Well, I’m still testing, bur I’ll play a resourceful aggro deck (as in the kind where your hand doesn’t end to fast…) that can beat faeries. If I can’t build one, then I’ll just play faeries.

  10. It’s not that bad against Faeries. Game one is hard but doable and postboard Wall of Reverance helps a lot.

    But it’s still not a good matchup, especially with only 2 Walls in the board.

    Would have been great if you found space to include a 1-of Oran Rief 😉

  11. The new face of 5CC post besieged is UW control?

    That’s like me writing an article on mono-red burn post besieged.. but the article is about a janky green deck with giant growth effects as “burn.”

  12. I can see how your deck is good, and, frankly, I will agree that it is probably a better choice than vivid control, but the choice is still clearly faeries. However, I wouldn’t want to play one of the curent “stock” faeries lists, because they have several problems:

    1. not enough 4-ofs: Now there are some cards that just aren’t made to be four ofs, (like vendilion clique), but 3 spellstutter sprites? That card is the business! 3 mana leak? and you call yourself a control player? Really? Play with 4 ofs and the deck becomes a consistently synergistic engine.

    2. No scion of oona: Paulo Vitor plays Scion of Oona in his faeries list, and he and sam black are the two most famous “faerie authorities” of all time. Remember in point 1 when I referenced synergy? It’s a lot easier to counter higher CMC spells with stutter sprite or have champion targets for MB clique, even when you don’t have blossom (and if you have blossom, you should be winning anyway)

    3. Overloading on removal: Removal isn’t all that great. Why do you want 6-8 dead cards in your main deck against one of the more popular decks in the format (Valakut)? You don’t. Post-besieged, this is easier. Just play go for the throat main and call it a day. (And for all that removal you aren’t playing, you stick in Scion of Oona, as per point #2.

    I’ve had good success at PTQs playing a faeries list that follows these rules.

  13. If you favor Sunblast Angel because of the body attached, would Phyrexian Rebirth be better for it when it’s legal?

  14. The “immortal engine” was main for blue white in standard for about two weeks, before the field figured out that elixir doesn’t really stop anything. It smooths out the late-game, I’ll give it that, but it doesn’t really help ENOUGH. If a game does go long, then you should have already beaten aggro, and if it’s going long in the control matchup, then you were not a tight enough player. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve been running UW for the entire legality of Scars. Post Bloodbraid Elf shenanigans. Piece, and I hope you get the list more tuned up, because as of now, my standard list could probably get you 60/40.

    Wes

  15. Thanks as always for all the replies. I hope everyone’s been enjoying the PT coverage this weekend. I’ve been so not thinking about Standard, I have to admit to being surprised to see Sword of Feast and Famine being such a house…which has me wondering about it over in Extended.

    Naturally, the Faeries matchup is the big question about this week’s deck, and maybe I’ll have a chance to talk in more detail about sideboarding and play paths for different matchups in a future article. Jin and Neon are pointing in the right direction — your game against Faeries is attrition.

    In game one, the key cards against Faeries are:

    Elixir of Immortality
    Path to Exile
    Mana Leak
    Oona’s Grace
    Trinket Mage
    Cryptic Command

    The Paths are there to keep you from losing turns to Mistbind Cliques, and then you want to play very conservatively with your countermagic, keeping in mind the actual number of counterspells they have. I think Faeries, in particular, is a deck that leads to opponents experiencing The Fear. But the deck really doesn’t run all that many counterspells, and if you remain aware of its ability to switch into “attack you” mode, then you won’t make decisions that leave you too open. From there, it’s a matter of cycling Elixir if you can, and then doing something like eventually sticking a Sunblast Angel and beating them up.

    The sideboarding can look like this:

    +1 Elixir of Immortality
    +2 Wall of Reverence
    +1 Wurmcoil Engine
    +1 White Sun’s Zenith

    -1 Brittle Effigy
    -4 Spreading Seas

    The second Elixir is a big deal, since it means you can recover the first one if it ends up being countered. The Walls are also helpful, since they eat Faeries (unless Scion is out – another point for Harrison) and can block even Mistbind Cliques indefinitely…all the while gaining you life while their Bitterblossom bleeds them out.

    @weise — Many of the successful Faeries builds actually have extra Tec Edges in the sideboard. More generally, there’s just enough LD running around that I don’t want to run afoul of it. However, the big concern remains the default tempo of the 5CC deck, and whether that consistent one-turn hit is paid off by the power level of the cards I gain access to. Since I’m not so excited by those cards…

    @Hutchworth — Good grief, yes. I was surprised and amused to see a blurb that was pretty much the exact opposite of where I went with the article. Of course, I’m not actually saying 4/5CC is /bad/ right now, as it’s not. My real point is that it doesn’t suit me. What you’re seeing here is the essence of a conversation Zaiem and I had last week about our choice of control decks in Extended. His choice is 4CC, and he’d stand by that because it works well for him — and I think if you read his articles on the topic, they bear it out.

    @DemonDuck — I think it may be just that much more effective in Extended. I’m not sure exactly what confluence of differences makes that so. It may be that your opponent’s deck is often winning on a narrower margin in Extended, either due to how their builds work or due to the fact that you have more powerful tools like Cryptic Command. In that context, “gain 5 life, recycle some stuff” is remarkably powerful.

    Now that I think about it, that’s probably the case. In Extended, we’re not seeing games won so often on dueling haymakers (like Frost Titan staredowns), so buying back 25% of your starting life total, repeatedly, is a solid deal.

    @Jackson – Yes, yes it is. It may well be my single most satisfying purchase in the past decade. That’s actually my knife in the opening picture, which is why the black anti-wear coating is so worn off the blade.

    @Neon – I actually tested the Oran-Rief. It seems as if it should be awesome, but it didn’t end up doing a whole lot for me, so I eventually cut it back out again.

    @mrmath – Notably, I don’t write the blurbs. Normally, Zaiem does the front-page copy for my articles, but as he’s off on the Magic Cruise /and/ Luis is off PTing, we’ve had guest editorial this week.

    @Harrison – I agree that Faeries is a very powerful choice. Unfortunately, perhaps, it’s also a style of deck that I have not been able to become good at, so I’ll leave it for other folks to pilot. I also agree on Scion, from the perspective of fighting against the deck. The ability to massively increase the deck’s clock is important, especially if an opponent (like me) is going to try to attrition you out and let your Bitterblossom kills you.

    @Chris – No, for two reasons. First, the Angel flies. Second, you can bounce your own Angel with Jace or Cryptic and reuse it.

    Actually, there’s a third reason – the Angel is always a 4/5, whereas if you use Rebirth to kill one or two opposing creatures, your token is tiny.

    @Wes – I think without it your game against Faeries is much worse. As for being a “tight enough” player…it’s possible that I’m not as good at gauging subtle countermagic choices (say) as you are. It’s also possible that I’m better at attrition games than you are, and the build is focused that way. I figure this is big-time YMMV territory.

  16. I really like most of your points. When you keep talking about reshuffling your spells to reuse them, I think the point is overstated. While you do shuffle back a group of cards that will be predominantly spells and not lands, unless your graveyard is big enough to significantly alter the ratio of spells to lands you are still bound by one of the fundamental rules of magic-you only draw one card per turn. Now I do like that it gains you life and wins incrementally in that way, I just think the shuffling spells back is less significant except for tutor targets and anti-decking.

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