Control FREAK: On Hot Weather, Ice Cream, and Bad Metaphors
By David Hitchcock on June 15th, 2006 · Filed in Standard (Type 2) · Comments not available just now
I am writing this article in an air-conditioned office, but outside it is 31 degrees Celsius in Ottawa. Yes, you heard it here first, Canada can get temperatures over the magical 30 mark, it just happens rarely enough that most of our old people die if they step outside during the peak hours.
It is now officially the season of ice cream, that immensely unhealthy, yet gloriously satisfying blend of sugar, artificial flavour, and cow extract. This season actually seems to extend into the Magic competitive scene too. No one was willing to bet me on the large number of Wraths and Faith’s Fetters run at Regionals, and that was probably a wise move. Nor did anyone dispute the strong presence of Black in the format either, sometimes out of the sideboard, or making not-so-surprising appearances in the top 8s, or a Flores’ column, or casting Ghost Council… cough! So that’s Vanilla and Chocolate Ice cream for yah, and although the metaphor does seem thin (ironic), those colours certainly were delicious for some and unhealthy for others (usually opponents).
Heck, let’s run down the list of competitive decks relying on Black and/or White at Regionals:
“The Masterpiece” and its less-janky brethren
You cannot resist the Creamy!
U/W Control (White only)
Oh, and anything Running Debtors' Knell (They scoop you said? Did you mean three scoops?)
So as you can see, dear reader, White and Black cards are really starting to define the metagame now, even if you thought they were not doing so before. Another interesting point of note is the balance between Control and Aggro lists packing in the higher echelons; it seems about even so far.
Let’s Deconstruct this cold and creamy trend:
1: Most Decks in Standard today win by sending creatures into the red zone.
2: White and Black are the two best anti-creature colours in standard. Red, amusingly enough, comes a close third. I speak strictly in terms of card quality versus quantity here.
Conclusion 1: Since competitive players play to win, and winning involves not losing to their opponent (profound, I know!), and said opponent is using creatures, they are playing White and Black.
Of course, there is far more to it than that. Not only do White and Black have the most solid removal cards between them, they also have a deep set of supporting cards of almost every other type. Card drawing? Black is back! Annoying, advantageous threats? They are everywhere! Disruption? Yup, it’s covered.
The only type of control card that our well-stocked ice cream shack cannot offer us is permission. Countermagic is Blue’s domain, and blueberry ice cream never tasted right to me, so in the spirit of today’s awe-inspiringly bad metaphor; we will just leave that flavour out in the sun.
If I was going to name each set in Ravnica block after an ice cream flavour, with reference to constructed cards that currently dominate, Guildpact would totally be “Rocky Road”. Ravnica would be “Tiger Tail”, and Dissension, oh boy, it would be the “Neopolitan” set of flavours.
Any U2 fans in the house? Look how I butchered this one!
Delicious, but deadly...
Alright, There’s the List, So What Gives?
I’ll spare you all the jokes and analogies for a bit, and talk straight theory:
Threat Density: Let’s look at the biggest weakness first: 6 threats, and each costs 6 mana or more. You don’t have any way of directly protecting your Debtors' Knells especially, so you need to be extremely careful when playing them out. This most often means you play one after you have tapped them down for a turn or two with Yosei, not as a pre-emptive threat. Don’t worry too much, though. Chars, Helixes, and pain from lands can do your job for you, and the deck is in no rush. Cranial in game one is an issue though.
Removal Density: This deck packs the most board and hand removal in Standard currently, at 23 cards. The consistency is incredible. The vast majority of these cards do double duty too, including Hit (damage the dome), Char and Helix (ditto), Faith’s Fetters (Legend rule), Mortify, and Hide // Seek (the most versatile card in the deck).
Momentum: The deck is pretty slow, yes, and packs a curve average of about 3.5. I deliberately designed it that way, because the benefits are that most of the deck is “must-counter” and multi-purpose. They will need a lot of permission to keep a threat out, especially if they didn’t counter Arena. Also please note that Spell Snare does still hurt you, but not that badly. Once the deck gets going, it's like a freight train. Allll aboooard!
Tricks Are not Just for Kids!
This deck does not take rocket science to pilot, but I still think it is worth it to go over some of the nastiest tricks you can pull:
Everyone likes Goldfishing!
“Infinite Turns:” Two Yosei and a Debtors' Knell. You Exhaustion cum Time Stretch until they are dead, or you deck yourself? Hide // Seek can always put your own Knell on the bottom, if it ever comes to that. You can count your deck, so plan this one out.
“Hit Me baby, one more Time” Hit // Run is an awesome card, especially against control. “I play Simic Sky Swallower on an empty board!” “EOT, Take 7, <Giggle>” You can play into scenarios where this card is abusive, using Hide // Seek, and other removal to get rid of artifacts and creatures they might have otherwise selected.
“One-Two, Gutpunch!” Castigate into a Persecute. If this ever resolves, the opponent probably loses.
“Peek-a-boo! I see You…” Hide // Seek is a one-card trick. Is your opponent playing Heartbeat? Seek Maga. It is suddenly quite a lot harder to win. Do it a second time for Invoke the Firemind. Or you can always just Hide the Heartbeat. This works for Firemane Angel too, or U/R Control, basically since they are light on threats anyways, you just pre-emptively remove one. You can also hide their Signets, (or annex!) if they don’t have many. Deals nicely with Jitte too, when necessary.
I Dropped My Spoon…
The deck can be easily adapted to your metagame. More control? More discard and Hide // Seek, less burn. More aggro? More Wrath. And so on. Try it out, take it for a spin on MWS, this is one sundae that won’t melt under heat.
That was the original version of the deck, but as MWS testing continued, it naturally needed to change. I found Char to be less and less useful as time went on. I was not using it to do anything that Mortify could not do already, and burning to the dome was never supposed to be a primary or even secondary win condition anyways. As such: -3 Char. For further testing, I upped my Lightning Helix count to 4, and Mortify to 4, as those spells do fantastic double duty all over the map, and are rarely a dead draw. The final Char became a 4th Hide // Seek, as I had trouble drawing one against some Heartbeat decks, and it is still excellent pseudo-Disenchant removal against most other decks.
Persecute at 2 seemed like the magic number, and Castigate showed up enough to be useful. I really considered upping the Castigate count to 3 in the main, as it was not often a dead draw.
I also found that while 4 Yosei and 2 Knell is just right for the end finishers, I was slightly lacking in both early-to-mid game pressure and defense.
I ended up testing Descendant of Kiyomaro at 3-of and moving Hit // Run to the board for the control matchups, especially wildfire. Casting Hit on their second turn Signet and Hiding their Annex is a serious beating for the deck. You can also just Hit their fatty when they Wildfire sometimes, giving you several extra turns to recover. I also found that three Signets was often unnecessary. Sometimes it powered out a Yosei on turn 4, but mostly it was a dead draw late game in a deck that cannot actually afford to have dead draws. The momentum of the deck also relies strongly on Phyrexian Arena, whereas a deck packing blue would not have to worry about that fragile position.
So the new list looks like this, with manabase adjustments for the increased White count:
On Blueberry Ice-cream, and associated flavours:
I pushed Red for the third colour in this design mainly because Sundaes are delicious. However, a W/B/U Knell control deck was also brewing in the back of my feverish brain as I playtested Bloody Sundae, and I coughed up a list late at night to see if Blue brought enough positive change to the deck to justify the distinctly sub-par taste of blueberry ice cream. I mean, I can stretch a metaphor, but can I really stretch it that much? When the comparison is to something that is not tasty?
Apparently I can, since Blue is just as vicious (if not more so) in this deck as Red was. I started with the following list:
(Note: What the heck is the name for Vanilla-Chocolate-Blueberry ice cream?)
Again, the real advantage of a deck like this is consistency. Gifts Ungiven is fantastic in a deck like this, since you don't often have to actually Gifts for removal, since you pack so much. Instead, you can setup your wins by searching for 3 Dragons and a Compulsive Research. You get Keiga or Kokusho probably, and then just play the fatty and use it until you draw into a Knell. 3 Dragons and Miren, the Moaning Well is also a fantastic Gifts setup. Finally, 3 dangerous cards and Tidings is rank and unfair. 3 Castigate is great with countermagic, since they can no longer effectively bait you out with what they have. I chose Rewind over Hinder because of the sick EOT Gifts after a Rewind play, and this deck is still in no rush. Rewind is also nice for dealing with powerful plays that occur in main phase 1, and then having the gas untapped for further deterrence. This deck is even slower than Bloody Sundae, since it packs zero Signets, but you really only need 4 mana to stay alive, and then you can just Gifts for two more if necessary.
It is supposed to say 'Castrate'Some advice on how to play without Signets: Use Remand early, especially on undercosted creature threats like Watchwolf or Rumbling Slum. Ensure that you can get to Wrath and Fetters mana, and don't worry about a lack of permission later; the deck does not really rely on it. Also don't be afraid to Castigate their clear play for the next turn, i.e: a Burning Tree Shaman for Zoo, or Annex for U/R Tron, over something more dangerous later. You get better and better at dealing with threats the longer the game goes on.
One glaring weakness of this version is the lack of game 1 power against combo, especially Heartbeat. No maindeck Hide // Seek means that you only have 4 Rewind and 3 Mortify to actually deal with the tough stuff. Castigate and Persecute (Blue, then Green, usually) can sometimes pick up the slack, and against Heartbeat you can Gifts for Rewind, Castigate, Persecute, and Mortify to give them a headache. Testing may show that the deck can sustain one Hide // Seek maindeck to deal with Heartbeat game one, since they pretty much have to put it in the 'yard off of a Gifts, so you get better odds to receive your other three choices.
Another unfortunate step down from Bloody Sundae is the diminished ability to deal with a resolved Umezawa's Jitte. Sundae just Hides it away, Helixes the weenie, slaps a Fetters it, or what-have-you. Three Scoops has fewer maindeck solutions, so you should consider holding that Fetters sometimes against aggro, as you will probably see Jitte sooner rather than later.
Up and Coming Tasty Treats:
In my next article I want to look at Control decks in another format: Multiplayer! Oh man, how many of you have been savagely hated out of a group game for even talking about countermagic?
I would also like to design strong, but fun multiplayer control decks based off of reader submissions. Please write in and tell me what control tricks or cards have worked for you in group games, and I will try to include your observations in my article, and incorporate your ideas (with sourcing, of course) into multiplayer control decks!
These decks must ultimately seem more casual than the Standard material we have been discussing recently, and the glorious poker and give-and-take of multiplayer will definitely factor into any discussion or design.
So until next time, stay cool as a rule!
By David Hitchcock on June 15th, 2006 · Filed in Standard (Type 2) · Comments not available just now
About David Hitchcock
David hails from Ottawa city in Ontario, the capital of Canada, where he is completing a Master's Degree in History. He currently spends way too much time thinking about Magic, and not nearly enough time playing it. David loves beer and books.