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.
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.
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.
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