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The Comprehensive Guide to Control in Standard

If you don’t know by now, I love to play control decks. I even play control in Modern, and I’ve been playing a lot of control in Standard recently. I haven’t played a single League on Magic Online with Mono-Red or Zombies—it has just never been my style to pick up the most popular deck unless I have to. I think the next big Standard tournament I’m playing in is  French “Nationals,” so I might eventually “have to,” but for now, I’m enjoying playing and tuning my numerous Gearhulk decks.

I’ll go through all of the versions of control I’ve tried, starting with the one I’ve liked the least and ending with the one that has shown the most promise.

Approach of the Second Sun

I’ll admit that I haven’t played with this deck much—only 10 or 15 matches—but the deck has always looked bad to me, and when I have tried it, it was very mediocre. Yet people keep doing well with it, placing in GPs and posting 5-0 results on Magic Online. They even managed to do so playing Unsummon, a mind-boggling choice for a control deck, especially given the lack of Gearhulks in the main. My theory is that the deck got a lot of hype, so a lot of people are playing it and some are bound to do well.

I feel like it’s a worse version of U/W Gearhulk Control. You probably still have an okay matchup against Zombies, Temur Energy, and Black-Green, but so does the regular U/W Control deck and you still have an abysmal matchup against Red, at least in game 1.

U/W Approach

This is the list I tried. I decided to cut the Unsummons as well as the Aether Meltdowns as the interaction with Blessed Alliance is pretty poor, and Essence Scatter is important against cards like Rogue Refiner, Diregraf Ghoul, and Tireless Tracker.

It’s possible I just made the deck worse, and I’ll admit I didn’t give it my all since I didn’t think much of the deck in the first place. Part of it is probably ego, and accepting that I could be wrong about the card.

Another reason I did poorly is that people were more prepared. They don’t play around Gearhulk anymore, they have cards like Lost Legacy in their sideboard, etc. As much as I dislike the deck, I’d still expect to win around 55% of my matches with it online with a tuned version.

Gerard Fabiano, who built and/or made the deck popular, has been doing well with it—he even recorded a video for ChannelFireball and he’s planning on playing it in upcoming Standard tournaments. He decided to go the Jeskai route, something I considered but didn’t try due to lack of interest and time. Here is Gerard’s current version:

Jeskai Approach

He’s basically playing blue-red, splashing for Nahiri and Approach. His list makes sense (unlike those Unsummons he was playing at first—I’m sorry, I just can’t get over that). As you’ll see later, I like playing a lot of copies of Magma Spray right now, and Virtuoso in the sideboard for the Red matchup is interesting—it provides multiple blockers and helps fight Chandra.

U/W

You might remember that I was doing well with this deck pre-Hour of Devastation, winning almost 80% of my matches over a large sample, crushing Zombies, holding my own against Temur and B/G decks, with a favorable matchup against Mardu thanks to a sideboard dedicated mostly to beating it.

Mono-Red had to come and ruin my fun. I still played the deck in Kyoto, where I did all right, and I still think the deck is fine—but you’re literally ~15% to win game 1 against Red, and you have to use at least two-thirds of your sideboard if you want to have close to an even matchup overall. Those sideboard cards are fine against Mardu but not optimal, and that matchup becomes much worse.

I’ve kind of set it aside for now, but here is my most recent list:

U/W Gearhulk

You might notice some odd land choices: only 2 Prairie Streams, 1 Hub, and 1 Port Town, and lots of basics. These changes were made to help fight the Red decks by making sure my lands entered untapped as often as possible. I had to cut down on colorless lands and I chose to play 2 copies of Westvale Abbey, mostly to be able to compete against other control decks, as well as to make sure I could still win the game against post-board Dispossess.

Scavenger Grounds is also a strong option, with Blighted Cataract a distant third. The Linvala/Gearhulk split is a nudge to the Red and Mardu matchups, but that might be a bit too fancy. Quarantine Field is perhaps the card that raises the most eyebrows, but the 1 copy has consistently been good for me, against almost every archetype. Regal Caracal is a house against Red and you usually want to board out all your sweepers against them and bring in all your creatures.

If I were to pick up the deck again, a playset of Thraben Inspectors would be an interesting main deck option. I’ve seen people play them in the U/W Approach deck, and it might be just what this deck needs. You probably have to rework the mana base and play 4 copies of Port Town if you want to include the Human. I’m not sure what I would cut, but Illumination would make sense.

If I were to play the deck as is, I would expect to win around 55% of my matches in online competitive Leagues.

U/R

I was never a fan of the deck. I thought it was pretty bad pre-HOU, but it has kind of grown on me. It’s a bit less fun to play than U/W, but red has some pretty strong and key cards in the metagame right now. Saito has been doing well with the deck, which inspired me to pick it up again and jam some queues with it.

Here’s what I played most recently:

U/R Control

When I saw Saito was playing the full playset of Magma Sprays main deck and not even a single copy of Kozilek’s Return, I was dubious. I took his list and made some changes, but eventually reached the same conclusions.

My list still differs a bit, though. I really like 1 copy of Pull from Tomorrow in U/R, a card I hated in U/W Control—I always felt it was worse than Illumination—but U/R plays out differently. Your curve is lower, you don’t have as many powerful cards, and overall you have to work a little harder for your wins, and the huge boost in card advantage is welcome.

I’m also playing 2 copies of Ipnu Rivulet, mostly for the mirror match, but it can come in handy against Approach of the Second Sun too. The mirror is a bit weird since you have way too many answers and not enough threats, and game 1 comes down to decking a lot.

Sideboard games play out differently, and never come down to decking in my experience, but I almost feel like I have a one-game head start if I’m playing the Deserts and my opponent isn’t.

I’m still not sure if the deck needs 25 or 26 lands. You could hedge by playing 26, cutting one of the two Rivulets and replacing it with a Desert of the Mindful. Scavenger Grounds is also an option and you should probably play a copy as I believe the mana base can handle the extra colorless land.

The Red matchup is still rough. You’re probably an underdog and I would probably try Gerard’s Virtuosos in the sideboard. I think Glorybringer is also worth a shot. My sideboard might be a tiny bit loose overall, but Dragonmaster Outcast has impressed me. It’s amazing how often they don’t have it (or how often I didn’t have it when I played control against U/R).

U/B

My latest project. I built it a few days ago after being reluctant to give it a shot, but it had been showing up here and there, and J0hnStar went 8-0 with the following version in a Magic Online PTQ before losing in the quarters:

U/B Control

I like to make changes right away when I try netdecks, and I started off by cutting the Champions, going up to 4 Censor (remember kids, never play less than the full playset) and reworking the mana base a bit. I fired a League, and I just couldn’t believe how good The Scarab God was.

How can a 5-mana creature that doesn’t affect the board the turn it comes into play be Constructed playable? Well it turns out that being Grasp/Glorybringer/Chandra/Push-proof is pretty good right now. It also turns out that its ability is completely busted.

I think one of my problems is that I have a huge anti-creature bias when it comes to Constructed. I grew up playing the game in a world where spells were much better than creatures and I always underrate them as a result.

The deck felt good right away, and I’ve now played in 9 Leagues with it, making adjustments along the way. Here is my current build:

U/B Control

I tried a couple copies of Champion of Wits at some point, and they felt really good at first, but then kept being lackluster. It’s a great Magic card, but I think the minimum synergy requirements aren’t met here. I also tried going up to 3 Scarab God, cutting a Gearhulk, but that was a bit much. If anything you want the 4th Gearhulk.

Illumination wasn’t in the deck for a while, but I think you want a couple. I’ve also tried Negate and Never // Return, but I’m playing more copies of Disallow and Supreme Will right now. I usually dislike sorcery-speed cards in that kind of deck, but I was impressed with Never // Return, and it might deserve a main-deck slot.

Speaking of sorceries, Flaying Tendrils may look odd as a main-deck card, but it’s very well positioned right now. You’re really hoping to play it on turn 3 against Red in most games, and it’s usually good throughout all stages of the game against Zombies since you almost always have a removal spell for Lord of the Accursed and can usually keep Liliana’s Mastery off the board.

It’s also very good against Mardu and Scrounger in particular, and the exile clause can come in handy against the Gift deck, preventing a Gate to the Afterlife activation. Still, it might be unnecessary, but you would probably want a second Kalitas and another removal spell to retain the ability to exile some of the more annoying creatures. The exile part sometimes hurts you when you have a God out but you’re usually in fine shape if you get to untap with the God anyway. The same goes for Kalitas, but you’re not going to lose many games where you have both the God and the legendary Vampire in play.

I’m not playing any “fancy” removal spells like Murder, Hour of Glory, or Essence Extraction because I think Push and Grasp are just too good, but I could see cutting 1 Push for a Murder or something.

The mana base is tricky and I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve tried playing Blighted Cataract as my 27th land, I’ve tried a copy or two of Aether Hub to avoid the draws where your first three lands all come into play tapped, and I’ve tried a different mix of Choked Estuary and Sunken Hollow. I think the 4 Fetid Pools are untouchable, but beyond that, I’m not really sure (I could even be convinced to cut down on Pools).

Sideboard Guide

I quite like the sideboard. Contraband Kingpin is a better card against Red than Gifted Aetherborn since it’s easier to cast and doesn’t die to a single Abrade or Incendiary Flow, but there are some matchups where you’re happy to bring in a copy of the Aetherborn.

Red

Out

In

I don’t like Thing in the Ice here (you have fewer instants after sideboard), and the 4th Tendrils is untested and might be excessive. You can consider cutting a Push or two on the play and keep in more Disallows/Glimmers/Illuminations. A pretty close matchup overall, and if Red is very popular, you should consider a second copy of Kalitas in the main.

Zombies

Out

In

It feels weird taking out those cards against Zombies since they’re not bad at all, which really makes me wonder if I want the 4th Tendrils in the board. But, the card is very good, especially since a lot of the Zombie decks bring in Scrapheap Scrounger.

Cutting a Gearhulk is fine because they’ll often bring in Dispossess. You could cut an Illumination or two, but I don’t think that’s a good idea because the games can be more grindy when they bring in Transgress/Dispossess (sometimes even Lost Legacy) and it’s nice to punish them with 2-for-1s when they “Time Walk” themselves.

It’s a pretty good matchup overall. Try to play in a way that you don’t get wrecked by a Grasp/Dark Salvation if you can afford to (by tapping out for turn-4 Kalitas, for instance).

Temur Energy

Out

In

Like most matchups in Standard right now, I’m not sure how to sideboard. You might want to make your deck a bit cheaper (especially on the draw), cut a Disallow or two, and maybe an Illumination or two, for cards like Negate, Dispel, and Gifted Aetherborn.

It’s a favorable matchup, but be aware of Confiscation Coup after sideboard (they can activate your God with Hub—some versions even splash black for The Scarab God now) and try to play in a way that you aren’t dead to an Elder Deep-Fiend if you can. Skysovereign, Consul Flagship can be a bit scary as it dodges your removal but I’ve usually been able to get around it so far either by killing all their guys or racing with The Scarab God (sometimes bringing back Whirler Virtuoso).

Mardu Vehicles

Out

In

Once again you might want to go a bit cheaper on the draw, bringing in some number of Kingpin/Negate. Another favorable matchup.

B/G Constrictor

Out

In

I’m not entirely sure about Kalitas in this matchup. Bringing in Negate over Disallow helps fight their Nissas and Transgress a bit more efficiently, but I could be wrong. Gearhulk is strong against them, but once again, I’ve been seeing a lot of Dispossess recently. Another decent matchup.

U/W Approach

Out

In

Finally, a matchup in which I’m fairly confident I’m sideboarding properly. Be aware that they bring cards like Regal Caracal, Jace, Unraveler of Secrets, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Torrential Gearhulk etc. so try not to tap out in the early turns to fight over a Glimmer or whatnot if your hand can’t handle a planeswalker. Also, as in most control matchups, make sure you choose to draw first.

Game 1 is pretty good since most versions don’t play any hard counters, just Wills and Censors (though, I think that’s wrong—they should have some copies of Scatter/Negate/Disallow, so that might not last forever) and you should be able to find your copies of Disallows/Gearhulks in time. I don’t think I’ve lost to this deck yet, but once again, it will get much harder if they shy away from the all-Aether-Meltdowns version and start adding counterspells.

R/G Ramp

Out

In

Leave in Grasp as they usually board in Thought-Knot Seers, Tireless Trackers, and Druid of the Cowl. This is a tough matchup, especially game 1, but close to even overall. Hitting land drops is crucial, especially game 1, as it lets you sometimes beat multiple Eldrazi triggers. Dismissal obviously helps a ton after sideboard.

U/R Control

Out

In

A very bad matchup, since your removal lines up poorly game 1. Hope to steal a game by resolving a Scarab God with four mana untapped. Sideboard games are closer, but you probably shouldn’t be playing this deck if Blue-Red Control is popular.

I’ve played 9 Leagues so far for an overall record of 29-16 (just shy of 65%), which are the best results I’ve had over a large sample with any deck in the format—but I don’t play any of the tier 1 decks, so I don’t know if that’s good or not. You might be able to do at least as well with a fairly stock Zombie list, but if you’re looking to play control, you should definitely give U/B a try.

I have been reluctant to try out 3-color control decks, but that might be an option, as you usually don’t have all the tools you need with only 2 colors.

If you’re a control player at heart, keep fighting the good fight—don’t succumb to the call of Zombies and Goblins, or whatever creature type those red decks play nowadays (Shaheen, I’m looking at you). The games are sweet, and I’ve had a lot of fun playing control in Standard. Even if some of your attempts won’t be great, there will always be something to learn—something you can transpose and use for you next build!

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