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The New Best Control Deck (in Standard)


Adam Koska
Adam Koska

About Adam Koska

Adam is an experienced player from the Czech Republic who has a number of high-profile finishes under his belt:

  • 9th at Worlds 2009
  • 9th at Pro Tour Kyoto 2009
  • 45 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Top 32 GP Vienna 2008
  • Top 64 GP Krakow 2007
  • Three times Czech Nationals Top 8

The New Best Control Deck (in Standard)

Hello and welcome to another installment of the Level up series! Dragon’s Maze has become an inherent part of Standard in the past couple of weeks and with three big Standard events happening only this past weekend, we have a lot of data to work with. The first impression that many (most?) people got from Dragon’s Maze was that for Standard, there is Voice of Resurgence, then nothing for a long time, then possibly Advent of the Wurm, Far / Away and Sire of Insanity and then nothing again. Is this assumption correct? Does the data support it? Let’s have a look at the new lists and see for ourselves!

I’ve mentioned the three most recent Standard tournaments that we’re going to work with today. These are GP Gualadajara in Mexico, which attracted some 462 mostly local players hungry to set their wits to a handful of travelling Pros. On the same weekend, there was also a SCG Open in Dallas – on Saturday having a headcount of 440 and on Sunday seeing an attendance of 247. Both Saturday and Sunday were played in Standard, so this time around, we don’t have to go too far to collect another representative sample of Standard decklists. And while these three tournaments – the GP and the two SCG Opens – can’t be seen as the „real“ Standard metagame anywhere and everywhere (since that tends to change from one place to another and also rapidly over time), I think that there are enough signs that tell us a lot about Standard, if we take a closer look, for it to be interesting and strong enough data to allow us to conclude some more general statements about Standard.

Let’s start with the GP. If you read the written coverage, you’ll find several opinions on the format from some of the travelling Pros – notably Standa Cifka and Willy Edel. Stanislav gives strong arguments for playing Bant Hexproof – Liliana of the Veil, the deck’s enemy no. 1, is almost non-existent in Standard right now and the deck is quite difficult to completely hate out, unless people put some effort in doing so. Willy Edel decided to run Naya – not the Blitz version with forty cheap creatures and twenty lands, but a more midrange version with Restoration Angels and Thundermaw Hellkites and unlike Cifka, who finished in (still very solid) 22nd place, Edel had a top8 result to support his deck choice. Ken Yukuhiro chose a very similar Naya list and went 14-0 with it in the swiss portion of the tournament. But while a significant sample of pros decided to stick to Naya or Bant hexproof aggro decks, it was Junk Reanimator that took the biggest share of the top 8 berths – something that we’ve grown accustomed to recently. This is what the GP Gualadajara top 8 archetype breakdown looks like:

Guadalajara Top8

Furthermore, the top16 decklists were also published in the official coverage, even though they only contain six decks and one of them is just a copy+pasted list of one of the top 8 decks, so instead of the top16 metagame, we only have the top13 (which is still fine and we can work with it).


Sire of Insanity
Dragon's Maze (Foil)

The Bhorzov deck in this list is a really interesting black-red-white brew featuring Faithless Looting, Unburial Rites, Lingering Souls, removal and fatties (Obzedat, Aurelia, Angel of Serenity, Sire of Insanity) and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend looking it up in the coverage. It’s not an entirely new deck, since it saw a decent amount of success even in the pre-DGM Standard format, so I’m not going to post the full decklist here again, but it still looks quite powerful and must be a blast to play.

What can we conclude from these thirteen decks? First of all, the Gualadajara metagame (and in fact the wider Standard metagame around the world, but I’ll get to that later) seems to be fairly slanted towards aggro and midrange. Junk Rites is still probably the single most important deck of the metagame, which is likely going to hold true either until Scavenging Ooze joins the Standard party or (more certainly) until Unburial Rites say goodbye and cross the border between Standard and Modern-only land. But in total, the decks that fall into the „aggro“ category are probably even more important in Standard, as together they form an even bigger share of the metagame. Sure, there seem to be many „midrange“ decks in the archetype breakdown section, but these lists play cards like Loxodon Smiter, and Boros Reckoner and can attack for loads of damage early on. If you can’t beat an early rush, you have no business competing with the rest of Standard decks nowadays.

When you look at the flood of aggro and Junk Rites, one more thing becomes quite apparent – the lack of Esper control or any Sphinx's Revelation decks. Not so long ago, at the Standard Pro Tour Gatecrash, four Sphinx's Revelation decks made it into the elimination rounds. Now we have only one such deck among the top 13. That’s a drop from 50% of the top tables metagame to only about 7,5%. Sure, we’re working with a very small sample size here, but there’s a lot of evidence that this is actually a bigger trend, as we’ll see in a minute. Because the SCG Opens in Dallas has shown almost exactly the same thing. Here’s what the two top8s in Dallas looked like, combined:

The SCG Opens top8s

Again, we see very similar things like we saw in Dallas. A flood of aggro – eight of these sixteen decks can be labeled as outright „aggro“ decks and there are only two dedicated control decks (even though Jund plays the role of control in all the aggro matchups). The influence of Junk Rites has been played down a bit here, but if you look at the top16s of these tournaments, you’ll see many more Junk Rites decks, so don’t make the mistake of underestimating the deck. It’s still strong and it’s here to stay.

Again, just like in Gualadajara, we don’t see almost any Sphinx's Revelation decks at all. This time, there are two U/W/R decks and not even any trace of Esper. Control is on the back foot now and its position in Standard is very problematic.

Another archetype that we almost can’t see in these top8s is Zombies. That’s because red, green and white have now much, much better beatdown tools than black, and playing a tapped Geralf's Messenger on turn three just won’t impress anybody anymore. Especially when you need a blocker against your opponent’s four 2/2s (and no, Gravecrawler won’t help you with this either). Zombies are good at attacking and being troublesome to get rid of (resilience, in other words), but when it’s fighting against threats that are cheaper and faster, it’s an uphill battle.

So what are the reasons that the metagame looks the way it does? Where have all the control decks gone? The reason is at hand and if you’ve checked the prices of Standard mythics recently, I’m sure you know it just as well as anybody else. Voice of Resurgence is sick and it’s one of the cards with the biggest impact on Standard, together with staples like Thragtusk and Burning-Tree Emissary (and a few weeks ago, I’d have also said Sphinx's Revelation). As a sidenote, I think that it was a huge mistake to print this card as a mythic. I’m sad to see that there’s nothing left of the initial concept that mythics would be „big and flashy“ and definitely not tournament staples that everybody needs a playset of. What on earth would feel mythic about this non-legendary Grizzly Bear? Seriously? I’m really not a big fan of Standard $50 cards.

Anyway, rants aside, Voice of Resurgence shapes Standard right now and together with the insane amount of pressure that aggro decks can create, it’s the reason why casting Sphinx's Revelation for 6 won’t win you the game anymore for the simple reason that with the control builds of old, you’d be dead for about four or five turns by the time you could do that.

So is this the end of tier 1 control decks in Standard? Are we going to see endless scenes of hordes of dudes being thrown at each other from now on, occasionally interrupted by a 12/12 hasty Behemoth entering the battlefield? I don’t think so. What I do think is that Esper is not tier 1 anymore, and while a few weeks ago, it definitely was the best Sphinx's Revelation deck (simply because of how good Nephalia Drawnyard was against other slower decks), this doesn’t hold true anymore and if you’re looking for a deck that plays Revelations, U/W/R is a much better choice. As it is, Esper decks don’t really have any good answer to Voice of Resurgence. They do run Detention Spheres and sometimes also Terminus, but the first card is often too vulnerable and both of them are too slow when the Esper player is trying to keep up with the pace set by G/W beatdown. On the other hand, Pillar of Flame is excellent against Voice of Resurgence and pretty much the ideal answer to the mythic bear. Also, in the aggro-dominated metagame that we live in right now, Pillar will rarely be a dead card. I have a WMCQ and a PTQ to play this coming weekend and if the tournament was tomorrow, this is what I’d play:

UWR control, post-DGM

Dragon's Maze (Foil)

Aetherling is such a good finisher against the control decks that Nephalia Drownyards are not even necessary anymore, since the new Morphling on steroids just does the work in a faster and more reliable way. Assemble the Legion is another anti-control option, but I don’t really see a reason to run it when Aetherling is around, since Assemble the Legion is not even a guaranteed kill in the Esper matchup (it dies to Detention Sphere and Planar Cleansing) and against aggro, it’s painfully slow. You could maybe use one in the board to have another plan against Jund’s Slaughter Games, but since Slaughter Games is not that widely played a card right now (which might have something to do with the plummeting numbers of Sphinx's Revelations), I don’t think that Assemble the Legion is needed. The sideboard contains one more Aetherling and a pair of Cavern of Souls to make sure that you push your Aetherlings through their barrage of discard and countermagic.

What does UWR do against reanimator? Your best friends here are Essence Scatter and Dissipate. Scatter counters their Acidic Slimes and Sin Collectors, since most lists only run two Caverns nowadays and Junk Rites have so many creature types in their manabase that they can’t possibly cover all of them. Esper traditionally had a horrible matchup against Junk Rites because of how much time it usually took you to win (and Drownyards were simply abysmal as win conditions there, as you usually had to kill them in two turns with Jace’s +0 „mill 10“ ability). The Aetherling clock is much faster and you usually shouldn’t have much trouble finding one when you start chaining Sphinx's Revelations.

I think that right now, this deck is really well-positioned in Standard. It has tools against aggro and the maindeck is very much tuned to beat creature decks. However, you also have a more powerful endgame going in the control matchups than the traditional slow Drownyard engine. In my opinion, Aetherling made Nephalia Drownyard obsolete and red now offers much better tools than black. I’m curious to see where more testing takes me and what the results of some bigger tournaments will show about the character of the post-DGM Standard.

That’s all from me for today. As always, thanks for reading and if you have some comment, feel free to write a few lines. See you next time!

Adam Koska

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