Week in Review – Control Ascendant

Grand Prix Memphis is in the books and while the results were a little cringe-inducing (So many Rhinos…) they shouldn’t have been unexpected. As I wrote last week, the format had been divvied up into decks that are designed to snowball an advantage and gain massive life or material advantage and win from there, and decks aimed specifically to disrupt those plans and trade as much as possible in the early game, eventually recouping resources with 2-for-1s or planeswalkers toward the end-game.

This weekend showed off the power of decks that say “no” in a big way. Six of the Top 8 set out to ruin the best laid plans of everyone trying to attack or build a board in the early game. One of these, Sultai Control, won the Grand Prix, and five Abzan Control decks constituted the majority representative of the Top 8. And I mean Abzan Control—not aggro like we’ve seen.

Outside of Siege Rhino, the rest of the deck resembles an old Esper Control deck in terms of removal and disruption played. It wants to win nearly every match by controlling the board and eventually beating the opponent with multiple Rhinos, an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.

Abzan Control – Alex Majlaton, Top 8

Did you want to beat the opponent by trying to attack? Good news! Your opposition only has 14 removal spells! (18 in full if you count Elspeth and Ugin’s sweeper effects as well.) Jam some more post-board if you want and just make people hate life for ever wanting to play other green decks!

The amount of enchantment removal is pretty low compared to cards that deal with planeswalkers, which makes the switch toward Outpost Siege over Chandra a clear win. It also explains a lot of how Ben’s RW Aggro deck makes sense in the context of the field at Memphis.

RW Aggro – Ben Stark, 2nd

While two RW Aggro decks made the Top 8, I’m most interested in the direction Ben Stark took the strategy. He kept the slimmed-down approach and heavy emphasis on burn and removal, but also maxed out on Outpost Siege and removed any late-game cards from the deck. Instead, any end-game will likely come down to a flurry or burn spells powered by Soulfire Grand Master or Siege.

Soulfire Grand Master has seen some play in RW and Jeskai lists but never made the big impact the hype and prerelease prices indicated it would. Seeker of the Way did the job better and most of the time Grand Master was a 1-of as 2-drop number five. A few people jammed the full 4 and every so often it would be impressive, delivering a ton of extra reach in the late-game. It was ignored in the early game due to Sylvan Caryatid and was worse in mirrors because Seeker casually blew by it and could gain more life.

Of course, Soulfire Grand Master was never truly utilized in a deck designed the way Stark’s Memphis list was. Not only does it run a full set of burn spells, save a single Lightning Strike, it had a full playset of Outpost Siege. This a major difference because it changes how often and how well the deck could do with mana pockets. Soulfire takes a ton of mana to really get going and without Outpost Siege it can be very hard to get that without dying in the meantime.

More important is that Outpost Siege can’t easily be dealt with by Abzan players and the slower builds have shaved off ways to end the game. This means that, in games where you don’t roll the opponent early, Soulfire Grand Master can be sandbagged like the burn spells. Getting one or two extra shots on an Abzan player can be a very big deal. Another key to this match in particular is that Sylvan Caryatid has been cut from many Abzan Control decks. Seeker had no problem blowing through Caryatid as a defender, but for Soulfire it was simply a brick wall that shut down your 2-drop.

Another card that ended up being a surprise out of Stark’s list is Mastery of the Unseen. What was a fun Limited card ended up being one of the more interesting counter plays against board control deck. Again there isn’t a whole lot of enchantment removal floating around and while people will likely bring it in against Chained to the Rocks, UB Control has few answers and the same goes for midrange decks if you find yourself consistently being dragged into long games. An Outpost Siege and Mastery can go a long way toward overloading the powerful but limited planeswalkers and big creatures from other decks.

Deck of the Week: Mardu Midrange

Michael Bonacini – 2nd, Santa Clara PTQ

Michael came in 2nd at ChannelFireball’s final PTQ this past weekend using old fashioned Mardu. I say it’s old fashioned because it lacked a single Fate Reforged card in the 75 and despite this he saw plenty of success throughout today. Mardu went from being a traditional favorite to being one of the least played decks after FRF hit the shelves. Crackling Doom is at its best right now—it hits Stormbreath Dragon, Siege Rhino, and is incidentally strong against outliers like Heroic.

Meanwhile the Mardu deck can shift into a full controlling strategy with a variety of sweeper effects and access to all of the same heavy-hitting planeswalkers in the format. If one were to update the deck, Outpost Siege seems like an obvious throw-in, if not over Chandra then in addition to her. Right now the main deck lacks a good draw option and while the ‘walkers can support, there’s no engine quite as resilient as Siege. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion has also shown to be quite strong at the moment and perhaps a Sarkhan could be swapped out for her.


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