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Luck, Skill, Victory – Feeling Blue About Standard

All I want to do is cast [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] (or [card]Opportunity[/card]) in peace. Is that too much to ask? It might be, but for the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to find out. Ever since I got back from Worlds Week, I’ve been on a quest to find the best blue deck in Standard. I’ve cast [card]Augur of Bolas[/card] many, many, times, both online and off, and I don’t even want to know how many times I’ve thought (it’s sure more than [card think twice]twice[/card]).

In the vein of Running the Gauntlet, a series I have not done for quite some time, I decided to chronicle my experiences with control decks, and supplement my writing with videos of each. The videos aren’t meant to be fully representative, but a glimpse at how each deck plays out.

The four main decks you have to beat are RG Beats, Jund, U/x control, and Hexproof. Humans/Tokens/mono-green are all real decks, but the top four decks are enough of the field that I’m not really worried about anything else, and none of the fringe decks attack from such a different angle that preparing for the big four leaves you too vulnerable.

I played with three different control decks, and a significant amount with each one.

Exploring the Drowned Catacomb

I started by making the blue/black deck Stanislav Cifka played at the World Magic Cup, and even recorded a video of that here. As many have said, I probably should have [card devour flesh]devoured the flesh[/card] of my [card]Augur of Bolas[/card] in order to survive, but you live (or die) and you learn.

The gameplan with UB is pretty simple: kill all their stuff, and [card nephalia drownyard]Drown[/card] them to death. The deck is basically all removal spells, counterspells, or ways to draw more of the first two categories. [card]Augur of Bolas[/card] and [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], while not as good without [card]Restoration Angel[/card], are still awesome, and [card]Think Twice[/card] plus [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] does a decent job of ensuring you have a steady stream of removal.

The games are pretty simple, as long as you know how to prioritize threats and what removal spells to use, particularly because this deck isn’t trying to do anything. UW and UWR have vague notions of attacking (and UWR is arguably half a beatdown deck anyways), but UB should not attack an [card]Augur of Bolas[/card] into an empty board, out of respect for haste creature. Just keep yourself alive, and eventually you will get into a spot where you can start using Drownyard, preferably with a counterspell or two held back for emergencies.

After playing more with UB I went back and made some changes, adding two copies of [card]Far // Away[/card] and four [card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card]s to the sideboard. I then joined a Daily Event, using this list:

[deck]Main Deck
2 Dissipate
6 Swamp
8 Island
2 Opportunity
2 Syncopate
4 Watery Grave
3 Think Twice
2 Ratchet Bomb
2 Doom Blade
4 Drowned Catacomb
3 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Tribute to Hunger
2 Curse of Death’s Hold
3 Snapcaster Mage
3 Nephalia Drownyard
2 Tragic Slip
3 Augur of Bolas
1 Dimir Guildgate
2 Warped Physique
2 Far/Away
2 Essence Scatter
Sideboard
2 Duress
1 Cremate
2 Pithing Needle
1 Jace, Memory Adept
1 Nephalia Drownyard
4 Vampire Nighthawk
2 Devour Flesh
2 Negate[/deck]

Well, that certainly could have gone better. I felt like I misboarded against RG, for two reasons:

1) They kept having [card mizzium mortars]Mortars[/card] for [card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card]. I honestly can’t explain this, as I thought there was no way they would have Mortars in post-board unless they knew about Nighthawk, and neither opponent should have (I hadn’t cast any prior to the games where they got Mortars’d). Still, if they do have Mortars, Nighthawk is clearly not the best sideboard option.

2) I trimmed too many of my card advantage mechanisms. Without [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card], UB runs the risk of casting a bunch of 1-for-1’s and running out of answers, which is exactly what happened.

After that event, I played the same list in a few more 8-mans, with mixed results. The control matchup is still close to unloseable, Hexproof is pretty good, RG is close but certainly not hopeless, and Jund is tougher than I’d like. The main weakness of UB is a pretty obvious one: [card]Opportunity[/card] and [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] are much less good than [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] and [card]Restoration Angel[/card], the two best cards white has to offer.

Matchups

The biggest selling point of UB is how good the control matchup is. A lot has to go wrong for UB to lose to any of the other blue decks, though UWR can steal wins with [card thundermaw hellkite]Hellkites[/card] and burn spells every now and then. Still, UB has so many removal spells and other control decks have so few threats, and UB kills them with a card they basically can’t interact with. UB even gets to let Sphinx’s Revelation resolve, which is reminiscent of Carlos Romao’s strategy of not fighting over [card]Fact or Fiction[/card] in the [card]Psychatog[/card] mirror. Here, there are less than 10 cards that matter, and Revelation isn’t one of them, so you can usually save your counters for their actual threats and counterspells.

While I haven’t really solved it yet, I don’t think the RG matchup is unfixable. I’m not completely convinced that the Nighthawks aren’t great, but in the event that they aren’t, an alternative plan is to up the spot removal count. [card]Barter in Blood[/card] is also a decent addition, just as a mini-Wrath, and it combines well with all of the other Edict effects. [card]Burning Earth[/card] is not that hard to beat, and a deck with so many creatures that aren’t resistant to removal cannot be unbeatable. [card]Domri Rade[/card] is one of the biggest problems, but siding in a pair of [card]Pithing Needle[/card]s goes a long way.

Jund is going to be tough regardless, just because of how slow the UB deck kills and how good the Jund sideboard cards are. I’m considering a pair of [card]Aetherling[/card]s in the sideboard, solely for the Jund matchup. I suppose I might bring them in against blue decks, but I want them so I can beat Jund without having to actually Drown them out. Part of the problem is how resilient [card]Thragtusk[/card] is, and how much gas [card]Underworld Connections[/card] delivers, so shortcutting the killing phase with Aetherling might do the trick. Aetherling simultaneously blocks Thragtusk while putting Jund on a three-turn clock, though it does do so by demanding a ton of mana.

Lastly, Bant Hexproof is another reason to pick UB. While [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card] can be annoying, the deck with upwards of eight [card]Diabolic Edict[/card] effects plus [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]s certainly isn’t too worried about an aura-based deck. UB even has [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card] and [card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card], both of which are excellent in this matchup.

Walking the (Basic) Plains

Next up on my list was UW control. After Jacob Wilson and Matt Nass finished 6th and 9th respectively at GP Calgary, (report here), the idea of dodging [card]Burning Earth[/card] by just playing a million (or fifteen) basic lands sounded sweet. I made the deck online, and started playing games.

The UW deck plays very nicely. As expected, the whole [card]Augur of Bolas[/card] plus [card]Restoration Angel[/card] engine is still quite good, and there is something to be said for taking no damage from your lands and never struggling for colors.

Here is the list I ended up with after testing:

[deck]Main Deck
7 Plains
8 Island
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Moorland Haunt
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Cavern of Souls
2 Syncopate
4 Think Twice
2 Dissipate
1 Snapcaster Mage
4 Restoration Angel
4 Augur of Bolas
2 Essence Scatter
3 Azorius Charm
3 Detention Sphere
4 Supreme Verdict
1 Jace, Architect of Thought
3 Sphinx’s Revelation
1 Aetherling
Sideboard
1 Pithing Needle
2 Ratchet Bomb
3 Terminus
1 Cavern of Souls
1 Jace, Memory Adept
2 Dispel
1 Aetherling
2 Negate
2 Celestial Flare[/deck]

I’ve gone back and forth between the 4th [card]Azorius Charm[/card], 4th [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card], and 4th [card]Think Twice[/card], and currently am on the 4th Think Twice. I like the [card]Essence Scatter[/card]s, and think a mix of them and [card]Syncopate[/card]/[card]Dissipate[/card] is best.

I made Top 8 of a Starcity Games Invitational Qualifier at Black Gold here in Colorado, but ultimately lost to BWR tokens (even after a miracled [card]Terminus[/card] in game two off of a Sphinx’s Revelation for 1). I was able to beat both mono-red and RG beats on the way, so I felt like playing the anti-[card]Burning Earth[/card] deck was a good choice.

I also recorded an 8-man on MTGO with the deck, which helps get a sense of how the deck plays:

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I definitely should have won that last game, so blame me, not the deck.

It’s actually kind of funny, but UW really is a cross between UB and UWR in terms of how it plays. UB never attacks, and UWR often attacks, but UW does a fair bit of both. UW is definitely more on the side of control, but sometimes you do draw a pair of Angels and just switch into beatdown mode.

Between [card]Think Twice[/card], [card]Augur of Bolas[/card], and most importantly, [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card], this deck is in no danger of running out of gas, while trading [card]Azorius Charm[/card], [card]Detention Sphere[/card], and [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] for whatever offense your opponent musters. [card]Aetherling[/card] eventually finishes most games, though it’s a formality much of the time.

Matchups

As I mentioned above, the [card]Burning Earth[/card] decks are not bad for UW, though I want to try [card]Blind Obedience[/card] to fight against all the haste creatures those decks employ. Among the best cards in the format against RG and mono-red are basic lands, Wraths, and Restoration Angels, and this deck has a lot of each.

Other control decks are a little less fun to play against, and of the blue decks, this fares the most poorly in the mirror. UB is a huge favorite over UW, but more relevant is that UWR has [card]Thundermaw Dragon[/card] and [card]Counterflux[/card], both of which are very annoying to play against. UW against UWR is certainly not a foregone conclusion, but I would rather be on the side that gets to play an extra color of spells at little cost.

UW has less trouble against Jund than UB does, mainly because of Sphinx’s Revelation. Even if your hand gets emptied or you fall behind, you can just topdeck a Revelation, and cast it for some absurdly large amount. UW also has Aetherling, which is one of the best threats in the format in the attrition-based Jund matchup.

Having access to seven Wraths plus some [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card]s and [card]Celestial Flare[/card]s makes me comfortable against Bant Hexproof. Any deck can lose to it (as we’ve all found out), but I’m not too unhappy to face it with this build of UW. [card]Detention Sphere[/card] even provides a little extra insurance.

Dragon Punch

The last deck in the holy trinity of blue-based control decks is UWR. This deck is the most powerful of the three, and has the highest overall card quality, but pays for it with a mana base that tends to burn at inconvenient times. Before Burning Earth, I’d advocate that you play UWR if you wanted to play control, but now that RG and mono-red make up such a big part of the metagame, it’s not so clear-cut.

The UWR list I’ve been using is a few cards different than most:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Steam Vents
4 Sulfur Falls
3 Clifftop Retreat
3 Sacred Foundry
4 Hallowed Fountain
1 Cavern of Souls
2 Moorland Haunt
1 Island
2 Snapcaster Mage
4 Restoration Angel
4 Augur of Bolas
1 Thundermaw Hellkite
1 Runechanter’s Pike
3 Think Twice
2 Syncopate
2 Warleader’s Helix
3 Azorius Charm
1 Izzet Charm
2 Searing Spear
3 Sphinx’s Revelation
2 Turn//Burn
2 Counterflux
2 Pillar of Flame
Sideboard
1 Assemble the Legion
2 Detention Sphere
2 Celestial Flare
1 Ratchet Bomb
2 Thundermaw Hellkite
1 Negate
2 Dispel
1 Wear/Tear
1 Pillar of Flame
2 Supreme Verdict[/deck]

The main difference here is that I’m choosing to play 1 [card]Runechanter’s Pike[/card] and 1 [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] maindeck, with 2 [card]Moorland Haunt[/card]s and a [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] as my sweet lands. I like having one Pike and one Dragon main because of how efficiently they can kill the opponent, and out of nowhere. It’s very easy to swap them out for another couple removal spells, like a [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] or two, but so far I’ve been happy with the additional threats. With all the burn spells in the deck, I think the aggressive nature of these finishers works better than using Aetherlings, even though I originally tried one Aetherling main and one sideboard. If you do go with Aetherling, I’d add a Cavern of Souls for a Moorland Haunt.

I took UWR into an 8-man as well, which you can see here:

Hexproof is a great mechanic and a fun deck to play against.

UWR is definitely the most aggressive of the control decks. It does have Sphinx’s Revelation, removal spells, and counterspells, so it certainly can just sit back and trade cards before firing off a Revelation, but it also has a bunch of burn spells and hasty creatures. I’ve played many games where I’ve [card]Searing Spear[/card]’d my opponent, [card snapcaster mage]Snapcaster[/card]ed it, played an [card restoration angel]Angel[/card], and cast a [card]Warleader’s Helix[/card] to finish things off. Once all the Dragons come in, the aggressive lines happen even more often. Plan A in most matchups is still a big Revelation, but when playing this deck you have to realize how easy it is to play a Helix and a Dragon and all of a sudden become the aggressor.

Matchups

UWR sits firmly in the middle of the control decks, when it comes to the head-to-head. I’d much rather be on the UB side of things, but I’ve felt firmly ahead when playing UWR against UW. As I mentioned above, Thundermaw is very annoying, especially when Caverned out, and a Dragon plus a Helix can often just race an Aetherling. The Dragon usually gets a head start, and costs no mana once in play, letting UWR often resolve a Revelation and play the control role.

Jund is close, but I like UWR here. The burn spells and Dragons mean that Jund can’t just durdle around forever with [card]Underworld Connections[/card] and [card]Duress[/card]/[card]Slaughter Games[/card], and Revelation as a fallback plan is still great. Jund doesn’t particularly punish the 3-color mana base, which gives UWR access to more tools (such as [card]Assemble the Legion[/card]) than the other control decks.

Red/green is the real killer. [card]Burning Earth[/card] is a very hard card to beat, and even siding in cards like [card]Wear // Tear[/card] is kind of miserable. [card]Detention Sphere[/card] at least justifies itself because it can hit anything, but taking 3 and tapping out to kill Burning Earth is still aggravating. I’m not sure that UWR can’t go to playing a couple more basics, and between that and Detention Sphere, RG might be salvageable. As matters stand, RG is the reason that UWR has lost some of its luster.

Bant Hexproof is also tougher with UWR than either UW or UB. UWR has a much harder game one, almost impossible against Bant’s good draws, and after board still has less answers than the other two control decks. I’d prefer not playing against Hexproof with UWR.

Picking Your Poison

I think of each these decks has a lot going for it, and each of them is viable under the right conditions. If you can figure out what the metagame you are facing looks like, there’s a blue deck that might be right for it, though figuring out the metagame is not always easy.

Right now, I’d play straight UW. Even though it’s disadvantaged against UWR, RG is keeping UWR’s numbers down, and the UW vs. UWR matchup is still close. Once you factor in how prevalent RG is, and how UW doesn’t hate the matchup, UW pulls ahead of the other two decks. If control (somehow) becomes very big, UB is an excellent choice, and against a diverse field that isn’t dominated by RG, UWR looks good. I don’t know how much Standard is going to change before Theros, but the way things are going right now, I’d start with UW and be prepared to switch to UWR if people move to playing a bit less RG. Alternatively, you could just play Jund, which is still a fine choice, albeit one I have less experience with.

LSV

Sample hand with one of the UW builds I was trying:

[draft]staff of nin
jace, memory adept
jace, architect of thought
cavern of souls
cavern of souls
ghost quarter
encroaching wastes[/draft]

Discussion

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