Modern control decks are in a tough position—there are a ton of different decks in the format that demand different answers, and the cards that are great against some opponents are atrocious against others. For this reason, playing a control deck in Modern is always a gamble on the metagame. You have to decide which decks you want to beat, and you’ll probably lose to the others. There’s no way to be a generalist. You can hedge in either direction, but you will inevitably have some great matchups, and some horrible ones.
In today’s article, I’ll go over the control options in Modern, and which deck I think is better against each expected metagame:
U/W is the most controlling of the control decks. It doesn’t run Lightning Bolt, so it has some trouble picking off small utility creatures, and it doesn’t have the ability to kill people out of nowhere like a deck with Snapcaster and Bolt can. Simply put, U/W has no aggressive draws—it is just not capable of pressuring anyone. In return, it gets the ability to interact with huge, burn-immune creatures via Condemn, Blessed Alliance, Path to Exile, and Supreme Verdict. It also gets to interact with your opponent’s lands more via Spreading Seas and multiple copies of Ghost Quarter or Tectonic Edge, which you can afford in a 2-color deck.
This is the list Greg Orange played at GP San Antonio:
San Antonio was Unified Modern, which meant that people couldn’t share the same card across the 3 decks from the team, but given that Greg’s teammates were playing Jund and Affinity, it’s unlikely Greg would be playing anything different if the tournament were individual.
Corey Burkhart also played U/W in the tournament (paired with Death’s Shadow and Amulet Titan). His version is a bit more planeswalker and sweeper heavy:
Greg’s version has a lot more 1-for-1s such as Condemns, Mana Leaks, and Spell Snares, which makes sense because he has 4 Ancestral Vision, so all he wants to do is survive for those to resolve. Corey doesn’t have Ancestral Vision, and so gets his advantages from Supreme Verdict, Sphinx’s Revelation, and Gideon Jura.
I think both approaches are good because they are consistent—the person with the Ancestral Vision is also the one with the cheap answers. Personally, I like Ancestral Vision in decks like this, so Greg Orange’s version is more to my taste.
The other big difference is Tectonic Edge versus Ghost Quarter. Tectonic Edge is better against Valakut decks, but Ghost Quarter is better at killing random utility lands such as Inkmoth Nexus and to a lesser extent Gavony Township. I like Ghost Quarter better. You have a good enough late game that the ability to kill Inkmoth Nexus at any point and for 0 mana is worth more than the potential to stunt their development with Tectonic Edge. Ghost Quarter is also better at keeping a deck like Death’s Shadow locked out of white mana, especially with Crucible of Worlds, whereas they often don’t even have 4 lands for Tectonic Edge.
You should play blue-white if:
- You expect big-mana decks, and not other combos.
- You expect tough creatures that are going to attack you.
- You don’t mind having no pressure.
Right now, U/W would be my choice for a control deck in Modern.
U/W/R comes in two flavors—Nahiri or no Nahiri. Jeskai Nahiri is a control deck that tries to resolve Nahiri, the Harbinger and get her up to 8 loyalty to conjure a hasty Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Nahiri is pretty good in the deck because she works with your control plan while also offering a semi-quick way to win the game, which most U/W builds don’t have. This deck is capable of pressuring people, but it usually has to tap out on turn 4 to do that.
The best placing Nahiri build I could find was played by Jack Kiefer to 17th place (though Jack’s personal record was, I believe, 10-4):
The other option is to play red but not Nahiri. This deck has fallen so far out of popularity to the point I could not find a list I considered decent between Magic Online and IRL tournaments this year.
All in all, the Nahiri-less version is basically U/W splashing red for burn spells—Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, and sometimes Electrolyze. As a result, it excels at killing small creatures that aren’t entering the combat step such as Viscera Seer, Noble Hierarch, or Steel Overseer, but it has trouble with big creatures that can ignore burn spells such as Tarmogoyf, Death’s Shadow, and Eldrazi creatures.
The burn spells put you in an interesting spot against Death’s Shadow. Normally, they aren’t very good—their creature suite of Death’s Shadow, Tarmogoyf, Traverse, and Lingering Souls is almost immune to it. On the other hand, their life total gets so low that burn-Snapcaster-burn is a valid win condition, and they have to be mindful of it in a way they don’t against any other control deck.
U/W/R also has another advantage in that it can board into a more aggressive deck. In U/W, you have no way to deal extra damage, so if you board in a card like Geist of Saint Traft, they know you have to attack many times with it before it actually kills them. Once you add Bolt/Helix/Snapcaster to the mix though, Geist (or even Vendilion Clique) becomes much more threatening.
You should play blue-white-red if:
- You want to kill small, utility creatures.
- You think people are damaging themselves enough that you can finish them off with burn.
- You think Nahiri is well positioned (Inquisitions rather than Thoughtseizes, no Maelstrom Pulse, enchantments you might want to target).
The other option, and probably the most popular right now, is Grixis Control. Here’s the version Owen Turtenwald played at the GP:
This is identical to the main deck I played, but our sideboards were different.
Grixis, unlike U/W and U/W/R, actually uses up some cards that are in high demand from other decks, particularly in the sideboard. If the tournament weren’t Unified Modern, we’d probably have seen at least a couple of Fatal Pushes in Owen’s list, as well as potentially Fulminator Mage, Surgical Extraction, and Thoughtseize out of the sideboard. I know Grixis player extraordinaire Corey Burkhart doesn’t like Thoughtseize, but I really like having at least 2 in my Grixis sideboards (and I played Collective Brutality when I couldn’t have Thoughtseize in the team event).
Grixis is capable of the fastest draws due to a combination of Thought Scour + Tasigur and Snapcaster + Bolt. It also packs a bunch of incidental damage, with Countersquall and Kolaghan’s Command. It’s not good at applying pressure—it’s still a control deck, after all—but it has the potential for some fast draws that do not exist in U/W or pre-sideboarded U/W/R.
Like the other red decks, Grixis is well equipped to deal with small, utility creatures, and suffers a bit against giant monsters (though it does have Terminate and Fatal Push to offset its loss of Path and Condemn).
Grixis lacks a haymaker like Sphinx’s Revelation or Elspeth, but to compensate it has a powerful late-game engine of Snapcaster Mage + Kolaghan’s Command, which isn’t infinite but provides a ton of value if you’ve reached a point in the game where you have a lot of mana and a stacked graveyard. The main problem with this is that the combination of Snapcaster Mage + Kolaghan’s Command + Tasigur actually makes graveyard hate effective against Grixis, especially Rest in Peace. If your opponent resolves Rest in Peace, your threat starts costing 6 instead of 1, and your Snapcaster Mages and Command loops are gone. As a result, it becomes very hard to win because there’s just not enough power left in your deck. In some metagames this isn’t a problem, but Rest in Peace is also good against the Traverse the Ulvenwald version of Death’s Shadow, so it’s a popular sideboard card right now.
The sideboard from Grixis decks is also different, and I like its style more. U/W and U/W/R are often full of narrow but extremely powerful sideboard cards: Rest in Peace, Stony Silence, and Timely Reinforcements. Black doesn’t give you those options, and instead you get more generic but less powerful hate, such as Wrath effects, extra removal, discard, counterspells, Fulminator Mages and Surgical Extractions.
You should play Grixis if:
- You want to kill small utility creatures.
- You expect combo decks that are not land-based.
- You don’t expect a ton of Rest in Peace.
The last control deck in the format is Blue Moon. This is the list Gerard Fabiano took to a Top 4:
This deck is a little all over the place, but in the end it’s remarkably similar to U/W/R, except that it has better mana and its combo kill is more immediate—Nahiri takes 3 turns to win you the game, whereas Madcap Experiment can win on the spot. For those that don’t know how the combo works, the idea is to cast Madcap Experiment and flip your deck until you find your one artifact (Platinum Emperion), which is then put into play. Normally you’d take a lot of damage from the Experiment, potentially dying, but since Platinum Emperion is already in play at that point, your life total can’t change, so you don’t take any damage. In this deck, it’s basically Platinum Emperion for 3R, with the condition that you can’t play any other artifacts in your deck and you can’t have drawn your 1-of Emperion (though you have Vendilion Clique if this happens).
Whether the Platinum Emperion version of the deck is good or not depends a lot on what metagame you expect. We saw Gerard playing the 8/8 against a Merfolk deck without Vapor Snag, for example—that went really well for him. Add Vapor Snag to Martin’s deck, though, and suddenly the whole combination becomes much worse. Fatal Push over Path helps the deck a lot, but Kolaghan’s Command does not. In the end, if you expect a lot of toughness-based removal, then the card is good, but if you expect Path/Terminate/Command/Snag, then it’s not worth going through hoops for it.
My inclination is that Gerard chose this exact build because it was Unified Modern, and his teammates were already playing Path and Fatal Push, so he wanted to keep his deck two colors. I can’t know for sure, but I think he might have gone in a different direction if he were playing a single-player GP.
You should play U/R if:
- You want to kill small utility creatures.
- You expect mana bases that are super hosed by Blood Moon.
- You expect answers to be unable to deal with Platinum Emperion.
- Your teammates are using all the good cards in white and black.
So, here’s the TL;DR:
- If you expect decks with small, utility creatures (Noble Hierarch, Steel Overseer), you should play red.
- If you expect big creatures (Eldrazi, Tarmogoyfs, Death’s Shadow), you should play U/W.
- If you expect big mana decks (Tron, Valakut), you should play U/W.
- If you expect combo decks that do not rely on lands (Ad Nauseam, Ironworks), you should play Grixis or Jeskai with an aggressive sideboard. Neither is great versus those decks but they give you the best chance.
- If you play Jeskai, I think Nahiri is better than burn. The U/W/R versions without Nahiri are just worse versions of Grixis.
Overall, my choice right now would be U/W. A lot of the combo decks are mana-based, and the creatures are too big for red removal to deal with. You’re incapable of applying pressure, but it’s not like those decks are great matchups for the other control decks anyway, so I’d rather just fold to my bad matchups and have a better chance against the decks I consider to be more popular. As far as which version of U/W goes, I’m a fan of something similar to Greg Orange’s, with Ancestral Vision, but I like Corey’s sideboard with Spell Queller. I also like Jace quite a bit and would consider a second.
How good would Fact or Fiction and Jace, the Mind Sculptor be in those decks?
During the tournament, these two “Fact or Fiction” segments on coverage caused a bit of controversy.
First, Fact or Fiction. Would this card be broken? Absolutely not. It’s certainly a card that can exist in the current Modern metagame. In fact, I’d love for it to exist, as it’s one of my favorite cards ever.
Whether it would see play is another question. 4 is a lot of mana in Modern, but you wouldn’t say it looking at those deck lists with playsets of Cryptic Commands and Supreme Verdicts, and multiple copies of Jace, Gideon, and Elspeth. The fact that you can pass the turn with 4 mana up and represent both Fact or Fiction and Cryptic Command is pretty cool.
I think Fact or Fiction is sort of like Ancestral Vision—it lets you replenish your draws after you’ve used a lot of 1-for-1s. A Fact or Fiction deck, therefore, would look a lot more like Greg’s than Corey’s. My inclination is that it would not play 4, but it would perhaps play 2.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a different matter. It would certainly be played in those decks, because Jace, Architect of Thought already is and happens to be a good card. Jace AOT has some benefits over JTMS (particularly when dealing with Lingering Souls), but the old Jace is enough better that I think it wouldn’t be close.
JTMS would also likely see play in Grixis decks, even though AOT currently doesn’t. It works very well with discard, as you can clear their hand so that you can tap out, and you can bounce a creature and then Thoughtseize it away if you draw discard in the middle game. Sure, against some matchups you can’t tap out or you just die, but those decks are mostly already playing cards like this, so Jace would simply be an upgrade.
Overall, I think Jace, the Mind Sculptor would be a big boost to control decks in Modern, but I don’t think unbanning Jace is the right approach, because Jace is an oppressive card. Control decks in Modern have room to be better without being too good, but having your creature bounced over and over and being fatesealed every turn is just not something people want to play against (I certainly don’t). I have no doubt Jace would see play if it were unbanned, but I don’t think it should be.