Generally speaking, I try to avoid working with exceptionally toxic chemicals.
DANGER! MAY BE FATAL IF SWALLOWED. HARMFUL IF INHALED OR ABSORBED THROUGH THE SKIN. CAUSES SEVERE IRRITATION TO EYES, SKIN AND RESPIRATORY TRACT; MAY CAUSE BURNS. MAY CAUSE ALLERGIC SKIN REACTION. MERCURY COMPOUNDS AFFECT THE KIDNEYS AND CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM. BIRTH DEFECT HAZARD. CAN CAUSE BIRTH DEFECTS.
Those last two lines seem redundant, but maybe that’s just me.
This week, I’m going to talk about slapping poison counters on your opponent. It’s not another Limited article, nor will I be talking about blue-green infect in Standard.
Nope. This week, we’re rolling out the big guns. It’s Skittles time.
The power and peril of U/B Control
The fortunes of U/B Control builds have waxed and waned a bit in the last few weeks depending on the relative abundance of ramp decks such as Eldrazi and Valakut and more robust fast aggro decks like Vampires. They’ve been piloted to good finishes in some big events, and in general has a lot to recommend them.
I’m inclined to think that various U/W builds may be stronger overall, but that’s irrelevant for me because the cutoff in effectiveness between the two is very close, and in many ways I find the U/B builds much more fun to play. Which, of course, means I’m likely to play them more effectively as well.
Before I launch into my peculiar choice of finisher, I thought it’d be fair to touch on some of the highs and lows of U/B as your choice of control deck.
The primary upside of U/B Control is that it can, if you want it to, murder the heck out of the ramp matchup. Whereas U/W builds have to get by with run of the mill countermagic, U/B has access to all manner of disruption. I lean toward Duress and Memoricide, but Inquisition of Kozilek has its place as well. This offers the significant upside of letting you simply eviscerate your ramp opponent’s game plan. It doesn’t actually matter if they have Summoning Trap if you’re exiling their Primeval Titans instead of countering them.
The deck also has access to Creeping Tar Pit, which remains one of the most effective Jace killers in Standard. “Unblockable” is simply so much more powerful than any other form of evasion. Add to that the fact that Jace can’t unsummon a dormant Tar Pit and you have a creature that U/W and U/R/G decks only wish they had access to.
You also, if you’re of a mind to run tutoring three drops, have access to Trinket Mage and all it brings along for the ride. This is one of the major drivers for me to play U/B, as I adore tutoring, love silver bullets, and have a special place in my heart for highly functional two- and three-drops.
Finally, there’s the often-underrated advantage of having many of your key spells be “faster” than their U/W analogs, by dint of being Instants:
Where U/B stumbles
Of course, the tremendous upside to Day of Judgment, Condemn, and Journey to Nowhere is that they deal with pretty much everything you’d ever care to deal with. As so many of us have learned to our dismay, you can’t Doom Blade an Abyssal Persecutor and you can’t Consume away a Frost Titan. In exchange for their tithe of slowness, the U/W players get far more general answer spells.
So it goes.
This is one reason I appreciate Trinket Mage. It goes some way toward correcting for this problem.
That’s our background for U/B Control, and its general position in the current Standard environment. With that stage set, let’s take a look at my curious approach to rounding out the U/B deck to my taste this week.
Bringing the blight
So how did I end up with the King Timmy Value Card as the big finisher for the U/B list I’m writing about this week?
Let’s take a quick peek in at the philosophy of control, then I’ll talk about why I need to go get some poison counters before the next big Standard tournament.
The high-level philosophy of control
As I was foraging in my mind for tidbits of metaphor to use in discussing control, I discovered an analogy that has stuck pretty firmly, at least for today. Speaking very broadly, if an aggro deck is a striker, a control deck is a grappler.
A “typical” fast aggro deck in the vein of Boros is like the fast-moving striking, darting in and out, putting value punches into the opponent’s body and head, wearing them down until something connects solidly and they take the opponent down.
In contrast, a “typical” control deck along the lines of U/B control is the more calculated grappler, willing to wait and hold position, stifling the opponent’s opportunities for attack, and then finally so limiting the opponent’s ability to respond that they can acquire a choke or arm bar to end the match.
Yes, it’s a crude analogy. Sometimes, the grappler does a beautiful double-leg takedown and the opponent is out half a second after their head bounces off the mat. But in general, it holds – the traditional control deck, even as bomb-oriented as they are these days, wants to hem the opponent in and remove their ability to act, and then kill at leisure.
Except, of course, you can never afford to kill at leisure, because another feature of contemporary Standard decks is that they topdeck awfully well.
I’d rather you have 10 life instead of 20
Last week I was playtesting U/B Control builds as a way of making sure I didn’t write a thousand articles in a row featuring Fauna Shaman, and I found myself pondering the finishing moves available to these decks.
Very generally, we have these cards:
They are all good cards, they all have their merits. But there are always more cards than we remember, so I took a trip over to Gatherer and found this guy:
Yes, Skithyrix, the King Timmy Value card (KTVC) of Scars. He sees basically no play in any real-world Constructed format, and nonetheless still holds his price, because he’s the awesomest infect card in the set.
I figure Timmy cards are awesome, rather than “good” or “the value.”
But once I found myself staring at Skithyrix, I had a thought. I’m building a control deck. It might be nice to win with just a few swings. Let’s review our KTVC’s qualities:
These are not insubstantial things – which is a flowery way of saying, “You know, Skithyrix is a good card.”
At six mana, he swings in immediately. At seven mana, he regenerates – and if we review a lot of the removal available in Standard right now, we see that very little of it gets around regeneration.
Finally, he competes admirably with opposing bombs. Sure, block (or swing into) that Abyssal Persecutor. You regenerate Skithyrix, and they now have a 2/2 flyer that still says they can’t win the game.
So, kills in three swings, hasty, regenerates, wins bomb fights. Sweet.
But wait. There’s more.
Once I set myself on the path of thinking of Skithyrix as a real option for my U/B build, I brought up three lists of cards in Gatherer.
I fairly quickly decided that I didn’t want to build more infect into the deck. A U/B Control deck tends to run 4-5 bomb creatures as finishers alongside Jace…and realistically, none of the other infect critters are suitable bombs. But four Skithiryx is plenty.
I pulled up the proliferate cards because I thought Skithyrix might want some backup, something to add inevitability to the poison finish. This gave me one key card for the list, which I’ll explain below.
Once I had proliferate on my mind, I realized I should really think of what else I might want to proliferate…and then it occurred to me that the alternate win condition in a normal U/B deck seriously benefits from counters.
Yes, it pays to proliferate your Jace.
Phyrexia doesn’t play well with others
But there’s a downside here, one that you’ll have experienced if you ended up playing half an infect deck in Scars Sealed. A mixed team of infect and regular finishers…
…well, it kind of sucks.
Having to deal thirty damage, effectively, is godawful.
So we can’t mix-and-match our bombs. We can’t have the exciting, aggro-stifling life gain power of Wurmcoil alongside Skithyrix in the same way we might have the Wurmcoil along with a Frost Titan. They’re not playing the same game, and it hurts us.
In fact, this prompted me to drop the Creeping Tar Pits from the deck, a decision I eventually reversed for reasons I’ll discuss below.
If we want to have our opponent legitimately “be at 10 life,” we don’t get to touch any of the other big bombs we might otherwise use…and even our Trinket Mages are now more tutors and speed bumps than anything else.
The loss of Creeping Tar Pit was particularly disappointing, until I realized I was following a rule I didn’t need to follow.
So, Skithyrix. U/B Control. How did that turn out?
A boy and his dragon
Here’s the list I have after a week or so of playtesting:
That’s the list. Now, here are the highlights.
Your power tools
I learned a few interesting things in the many cycles of building and testing that went into this deck. Some of them are very specific – what to do with a pathogenic dragon – but the others apply outside of this specific take on U/B Control, so hopefully they’ll plug into your control deck needs generally.
We touched on the factors that make Skithyrix a legitimate bomb already, so this section will focus on how to play the big, dead guy.
Broadly speaking, treat Skithyrix like any other finisher. Keep mana up to defend him, whether that means having a Mana Leak at the ready or just being prepared to regenerate him out from under some damage. I like to at least hold off until I have the mana up to make him hasty, because putting an opponent 40% of the way toward dead is tremendous in this deck, even if they deal with Skithyrix immediately after.
This is actually one of the big plusses of Skithyrix as a finisher – he punishes the opponent tremendously for tapping out.
When you’re playing against any deck featuring white, remember that Journey and Condemn exist. Assume that you’ll lose at least one copy of Skithyrix to one of those two spells, and don’t go for game plans that require that your current edition of the zombie dragon survive. In general, we don’t want to go all-in on one card, of course, but I’ve found that Skithyrix makes that tempting.
So don’t do it. Skithyrix is good, but he’s not that good.
Creeping Tar Pit
Hey, so didn’t I just say something about how normal damage and infect don’t play well together?
Right. In fact, that’s why I pulled the Tar Pits during testing. I figured it was sad that they “didn’t work” in the deck anymore, but I’d pick up some gains in tempo instead.
But as testing showed me, Tar Pit is not primarily a win condition.
Tar Pit is there to kill all their stupid planeswalkers, blockers be damned! After just a handful of games sans Tar Pits, I realized this, and put them back in.
And you know, sometimes you win games on Tar Pit damage anyway. It happens. Always attack when it doesn’t otherwise inconvenience you, because why not? It gives your opponent something else to worry about. In the mean time, remember that the Tar Pits are there to assassinate opposing Jaces, so you can call on the big guy instead.
Another player who is not primarily around for the purposes of dealing damage, Trinket Mage solves many problems for this deck. After much testing, I’ve eschewed Everflowing Chalice, so my Mages don’t tutor those up for me. However, they’re critical for giving me reliable access to Brittle Effigy, which is, in turn, critical for dealing with things that can’t be Doom Bladed, Smothered, or bounced with Jace.
…and if Brittle Effigy is sometimes critical, then Elixir of Immortality is essential. This card, backed by Trinket Mages, lets you infinitely recur almost everything in your deck, gain life, avoid decking in control mirrors, and generally operate as if you had a much more sophisticated recursion engine than Standard really allows.
This deck needs two Clasps.
More would be wasted space, but one or none is too few. Clasp is a neat little anti-aggro device, but its real purpose is to convert any single Skithyrix hit into an inevitable kill.
With a single Clasp in play, the opponent dies to two Skithyrix swings rather than one. Clasp similarly accelerates kills via Jace’s ultimate. I’ve ultimated to end more games with Jace in this deck than I ever have before – gaining three loyalty counters a turn while fatesealing the opponent is just crazy.
I’ve noticed that the go-to removal option for U/B Control decks, after Doom Blade, is [card]Disfigure[/card]. The logic is reasonable, of course – you can hit a Goblin Guide right away, before it wreaks untold havoc on you while drawing you lands.
But in searching through Gatherer for black cards, I saw Smother.
I like Smother. I like it better than Disfigure.
Yes, it’s slower. It means the potential for a more damage from Goblin Guide and other fast cards. On the other hand, it kills fast creatures unconditionally. Even more to the point, it kills [card raging ravine]creature lands[/card].
Seriously, why aren’t more people playing this card? It’s great.
I’ll end this discussion with some quick notes on sideboarding:
Note that this is a special case where Clasp can come out, since most of your win comes on the back of crippling their game plan via Duress and Memoricide.
Boros, B/R Vampires, Quest Aggro
A few weeks ago, Frost Titan was the lame titan.
It’s good to keep that kind of thing in mind when we’re building and refining decks.
Values are relative. No card is always good or always bad – although some come close on either count. Last week’s silly Timmy card or pointlessly complex Johnny card may be this week’s entirely reasonable win condition.
So what are you going to win with this week?