If you’re anything like me, you enjoy yourself a good old fashioned control deck. I haven’t seen traditional control decks in Standard too often over the past few years, for which there are a few good reasons. If WotC is going to push creatures with cards like Mantis Rider and Siege Rhino, control decks will suffer. The more diverse a metagame is, the more control decks struggle to adapt. A control deck is naturally one with many answers—if the control deck doesn’t have the right answers to many of the powerful threats its opponent may present, the game will slip away.
What Makes Control Decks Succeed?
The most common method is to have some powerful cards that turn the game as soon as they come down. Esper Dragons wants to control the game, maybe cast a sweeper, and then play Dragonlord Ojutai. At that point, if Ojutai is the largest creature in play, you can start to preserve your life total. The Dragonlord can eventually take over, attacking for card advantage as you continue playing answers. Ojutai will end the game in short order.
The other most common control deck exists when you don’t need to play win conditions in your deck. If the interactive spells are powerful enough, you have a great starting point. Esper decks capable of playing both Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation have some great tools to keep the board under control and continually find answers. A single Elixir of Immortality as a “win condition” to prevent decking was a popular choice, and before that, Ben Stark made Top 8 of the Pro Tour with the win condition being Nephalia’s Drownyard. When you can use your lands to reliably win a game, control decks really thrive—this goes double when your land can’t be interacted with, unlike Celestial Colonnade and Creeping Tar Pit versus removal spells.
In most formats, powerful finishers are the way to go. Dragonlord Ojutai is still around, but it’s tough to compete with so many powerful aggressive strategies. Having answers to threats that aren’t in play is a recipe for disaster in a slower control deck since they all function as mulligans while sitting in your hand. Reflector Mage also makes any deck filled with slower creatures look much worse than it would otherwise, and even though it can’t target an untapped Ojutai, you will likely need to tap your Dragon to win eventually. Usually, getting your Dragonlord killed in combat isn’t a big deal and you can simply play another, but having it bounced and not being able to play another one is backbreaking.
I don’t think now is the time for Esper Dragons. It’s too slow and there aren’t enough tools to guarantee that you will get to the point in the game where the deck’s power can take over. For control players, this is a Grixis world. Red gives the deck cheaper answers and the best threat.
The best finisher for a control deck is Chandra, Flamecaller. I love this card because she doesn’t require you to clear the board before playing her. A swarm of creatures makes Dragonlord Ojutai look anemic, but this is the exact spot where Chandra really shines. On an empty board, she will win the game much faster than Ojutai, dealing 6 damage immediately.
The real gem is the ability that is most overlooked. With so many answers in your deck, you are bound to draw the wrong ones at the wrong time, especially in game 1 before you’re able to sideboard useless cards out—Chandra lets you cash in your hand of the spells you don’t need. Representing so much card advantage puts Chandra over the top. You often draw 2-3 real cards worth of value off the +0, which completely changes how the game is played.
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy’s virtues have been sung for nearly a year now, but he has earned them all. It’s a little bit weak to play a cheap creature that dies to every removal spell in your nearly creatureless deck, but Jace is too good not to play. An early spell that requires your opponent to deal with him immediately is still a great tempo play, even if he doesn’t end up impacting the board. If you do get to untap with Jace, however, his ability is closer to just drawing a card than a loot in a deck with some bad answers in game 1. With so many powerful spells in a creature-light deck, the flashback ability is excellent.
The only other creature I would absolutely maindeck in this strategy is Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. While Kalitas is in play, Rally the Ancestors doesn’t do anything, which is a great start for a card. A huge lifelink creature can change so many midrange matchups as it becomes a real challenge to race. Against aggressive decks, Kalitas is going to be exceptionally challenging to get through. In a deck filled with the cheapest removal spells you can play in Standard, the ability to play Kalitas and kill a creature in the same turn, or to untap with Kalitas in play and kill several creatures, is a threat many decks can’t deal with. With even a single Zombie in play, Kalitas should threaten to be the largest creature on the battlefield.
The most important spell in the deck is Dig Through Time. In fact, it’s the only noncreature spell that is a reliable 4-of in these decks. With a bunch of fetchlands, Jace, and cheap interaction, the first Dig is trivial to cast. With so many 1-ofs, 2-ofs, and 3-ofs in the deck, a Dig greatly increases your odds of finding what you need when you need it. Being able to knock the casting cost down to 2 can let you cast a Dig and still cast a counter, removal spell, or potentially even a sweeper on the same turn.
The rest of the spell suite is definitely customizable. At the very least, in the numbers you actually decide to run. Some cards are still important to the archetype.
You will need some number of cheap removal spells. These will help you from getting run over and allow your powerful late game to matter. They also help to fuel Dig and Jace. Fiery Impulse, Grasp of Darkness, and Murderous Cut are the cheapest versatile removal spells. Decks need to be prepared to kill opposing Jaces or Warden of the First Trees, and these are the best tools for the job.
You will also need midgame interaction. Mantis Rider, Anafenza, the Foremost, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, and Siege Rhino are heavily played in Standard. They will likely resolve, and then you will need to deal with them. Murderous Cut can help here, although with so many Digs in the deck, you can’t actually play that many delve spells. Ruinous Path is the most common, and likely strongest, answer that you can play, which is reinforced by the fact it can also dispatch a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
There will be some creatures and spells you will struggle to beat, so counter magic is critical. Clash of Wills, Disdainful Stroke, Dispel, Negate, and Void Shatter are all viable candidates for the main deck. Discard outlets for the counters that are not useful in your current situation are a big advantage. Having access to all of these can make a Dig Through Time with mana available far more powerful.
Transgress the Mind is awesome right now. It’s like a super Disdainful Stroke that can be played proactively so that you can tap out for a Kalitas or Chandra later. Discard spells never play well against the top of the deck, but they will set you up nicely. Duress is also good enough for the main deck and a strong sideboard card, but Transgress is the best option right now. Duress is still worth consideration mainly for its spot on the mana curve.
For additional card draw, Painful Truths is the best option. Read the Bones is strong and the scry is a plus in a deck looking for specific answers, but with Jace and Chandra to utilize extraneous bad cards, the raw card draw is just superior. Play the better card.
As for sweeping the board, Chandra is great at it, but I needed more. Radiant Flames and Languish both offer strong effects for their casting costs. With the popularity of Kalitas and Anafenza right now, I would be more inclined to play Languish, but if aggressive decks end up rising in popularity, Radiant Flames would be the better choice. Flames is better against Collected Company decks, but I’m not sure it’s by enough that it’s the better option right now. Luckily for Grixis, you have the option to play both.
The first time I saw this deck really excel, it was in the Magic Online Championships:
ONLINEMAGICS, 3RD in a Standard MOCS
I really like this deck—it gets a lot right. In fact, there isn’t much I’d consider changing.
The sideboard shores up many weaknesses. Infinite Obliteration is not a good Magic card, but this deck is pretty weak to the Eldrazi menace in World Breaker and Ulamog, Ceaseless Hunger, so it’s probably a necessary evil. Upgrading removal, a bunch of sweepers, and counters that are excellent in a variety of matchups is a pretty great place to be.
Here’s a more recent list for another take on a similar deck:
Josh Rohde, 12th place in a Standard Classic
The biggest change Rohde made was to replace the 3rd copy of Chandra with a Dragonlord Silumgar. Silumgar is a great card and it’s nice to be able to have a variety of big threats, but I’m not sold on this. It may end up being correct, but my faith in Chandra is strong right now.
He also cut a copy of Dig Through Time, opening the door for another delve spell in Murderous Cut. I think this is reasonable, although I hate to ever cut a Dig from my deck. Cut is excellent and this deck can struggle against bigger creatures that get around Chandra’s -X ability. You can play more Painful Truths, but the issue becomes losing too much life with no way to recoup it if your Kalitas isn’t able to stay in play and attack.
Here’s a sample deck for where I would look to go with Grixis Control:
Test Grixis Control List
The changes I’ve made are relatively cosmetic. I think a couple numbers were slightly off from what I prefer and how the games have played out for me. I like having more early spells, so additional copies of Fiery Impulse, Painful Truths, and Murderous Cut are in and some of the most expensive stuff is out or in the sideboard.
On the Play
On the Draw
You don’t want to cut all of the Painful Truths since they help you find more interaction, but you also don’t want to draw multiples as you can’t afford the life loss. On the draw, Clash of Wills becomes too bad to still have in your deck, although should any game go longer, it will likely be a hard counter since you play so many more lands than they do.
Discard is pretty bad versus Abzan decks and I basically never want Duress or Transgress in against them after sideboard when I can help it. I really like Disdainful Stroke as a way to stop Rhinos and Gideons. Roast is the best removal spell you can play against them. Crux of Fate is a great answer to their nut draw.
After sideboard, you can stop so much of what they’re doing. With 5 discard spells and a plethora of counters, the only thing to really worry about is going to be chaining Ulamogs or World Breakers. Hopefully, exiling some permanents isn’t too painful for you because you’ve managed to counter their ramp, but if not, Infinite Obliteration should help. If you end up seeing them board in too many aggressive Eldrazi, like Thought-Knot Seer or Reality Smasher, leave in Murderous Cut and consider Roast. Luckily, you have lots of counters and discard that can also help with those particular creatures, so they aren’t great against you.
If you can protect Kalitas, you’re probably going to win. If you can stop their Company and Rally, you’re probably going to win. You have a lot of tools to help you in those endeavors. You can still lose to the little beatdown plan, but there are Radiant Flames and removal to help with that. They aren’t very fast, so Chandra is often a sweeper as well. Chandra with Dispel up to stop a Rally is pretty amazing.
There are many matchups that are going to vary heavily based on the cards you’ve actually seen. For example, Roast isn’t going to do much against a Jeskai deck relying on Mantis Rider to kill you, but if they have Kalitas, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Monastery Mentor, and Jace, it’s a very reasonable card to have in your deck. Duress and Dispel are both excellent against the many flavors of Jeskai.
Against decks with Siege Rhinos, I like to have access to Disdainful Strokes and Roasts. I don’t want the Rhino to resolve, but if it does, I want some answers. Rhino can’t be killed by Radiant Flames or Chandra, Flamecaller (at least not very easily), so try to not die to them. You can’t remove all your instant-speed removal against any Abzan deck because of the creature lands. This deck is definitely weaker to cards like Shambling Vent than many other control decks.
Grixis Control is a really strong deck right now. You get to play a number of powerful spells that Jeskai Black can’t afford due to the color requirements, but at the cost of some ability to gain life. Without many ways to recover your life total in the late game, you get to play the pure control strategy of protecting your life total as much as you can. Just remember, life is a resource in any game of Magic, and going down to 1 is completely acceptable if you never get to 0.
For the control players, how have you liked the Grixis Control deck if you’ve had a chance to play it? Any challenging matchups? And for you non-control players, if you’ve had the chance to play against Grixis, how have you fared? Sound off in the comments!