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Cruel Intentions

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I’ve become a bit obsessed.

Just one month ago, I played Modern with the same passing fancy I might have with Pack Wars or Cube. It was an eccentricity that I was fond of dabbling in now and then when the monthly tournament rolled around, but otherwise, I gave it little thought.

However, since I started playing the Cruel Control deck I discussed briefly in my last article, I can’t get enough. I’ve started tweaking and playtesting, and I’m debating the correct number of Electrolyzes and the various merits of Vendilion Clique and Inquisition of Kozilek. I’ve started analyzing when and why it’s appropriate to +2 Jace Beleren and when you should just accept it will die to Lightning Bolt.

But, most of all, I’m learning to love Modern.

But let’s not throw a parade in my honor just yet, mostly because that’s an idiotic idea for a parade and because like five people would show up for a parade in my honor—but also because the whole reason I’ve fallen for this format is so I can do this to people:

Cruel Ultimatum

For me, casting Cruel Ultimatum against an opponent with three cards in hand and one creature in play gives rise to a whole host of confusing emotions (some of them not printable on a family website). Much like a fourteen-year-old discovering his father’s stash of old magazines, I’m simultaneously stunned, exited, nervous, and a bit titillated.

But I also happen to think the deck is good.

I’ve played a lot with the deck both online and off lately, and I feel I have a good sense of the deck’s strengths and weaknesses—as well as possibilities for evolving the deck further.

Before we go any further, here’s my current list, which is only a few cards off from the list posted last week.

The changes, for those interested in the minutia, have been to remove the random Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker and semi-random Shadow of Doubt from the sideboard and replace them with a pair of Sowing Salts, while also moving the Pillar of Flames to the main (something I’ll discuss in detail in a bit) in favor of Pyroclasm in the board. Something had to give in the main deck, which ended up being Snapcaster Mage, but that could change very easily.

Snapcaster Mage
First, let’s discuss what the deck does and its place in the metagame.

Broadly, Cruel Control is among the few, if not the only, viable control decks in the format. The various R/W/U decks are really more midrangy, semi-, sometimes-aggressive decks that happen to have Path to Exile, Mana Leak, and Cryptic Command. There are no sweepers, no card-draw engines, and even the versions with Sphinx's Revelation mostly just use it to draw more burn and creatures. R/W/U is usually stuck in the control role in most matchups simply by default because there aren’t any other true control decks out there.

That means Cruel Control spends most of the game killing or countering things, building its mana base, and working toward a board state from which it can kill essentially at its leisure. It’s a strategy that’s not terribly prevalent in Modern at the moment, and it’s one we can potentially exploit.

Specifically, Cruel Control is a Cruel Ultimatum deck. We’re trying to maneuver the board state to a place where we can resolve Cruel Ultimatum and it either wins us the game or puts us so far ahead that winning becomes inevitable.

So how do we do that? With all of these sweet cards!

The Deck

Jace Beleren
3 Jace Beleren This was the real innovation for this list, and it’s the engine that enables us to play so many cheap answers in a metagame with a variety of questions. When you open with a Jace, your plan is to keep the board clear on turns one and two, land Jace, and then protect Jace with all of the cards he draws. Like his time in Standard, this sometimes means ticking Jace up right away to protect him from Lightning Bolt. But it’s also not the worst thing if you draw a card and it immediately dies to a spell. You’re up a card in the exchange, and, often, this deck just needs to churn through some cards.

3 Serum Visions Speaking of which, this is our cheap card-churning spell of choice . . . for now. I’ve toyed with the idea of Think Twice instead, but I scry to the bottom often enough that I don’t think that’s correct. Discard and disruption in Modern is mostly of the Thoughtseize, Inquisition variety rather than Blightning or Mind Rot, meaning we’re not really in the market for the extra card Think Twice offers us when we already have Jace. Plus, it has come up that the scry lets me hold a card on the top of my library in the face of Thoughtseize, knowing I’ll draw it next turn but without having to worry about losing it. You sometimes flash this back with Snapcaster Mage, but now that I’ve moved to only two copies of the Wizard, that’s less common.

4 Lightning Bolt

3 Electrolyze

1 Pillar of Flames

Lightning Bolt
4 Lightning Bolt This has not changed and never should. It’s the best 1-mana removal spell in the format and isn’t going anywhere. Electrolyze is a fantastic spell, but I find myself cycling at the opponent’s life total it way too often to play the full four. Pillar is the most contentious of the eight burn spells. In certain metagames, I’d happily leave this in the sideboard. It’s very dead against a number of decks (Tron, Scapeshift, Living End), mostly dead against a number of others (R/W/U, Twin), decent against Deathrite Shaman decks, and at its best against Kitchen Finks decks, specifically Pod. It earns its spot for its performance against Pod, and specifically how good Kitchen Finks is against this deck. It’s possible there should be a second in the board, zero in the main, or some combination thereof.

1 MulldrifterThis guy more than carries his weight, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how good he is. I think it’s pretty underplayed at the moment, but there aren’t many decks in the market for 5-mana 2/2s, even ones this good. One is plenty.

2 DamnationThis is also well worth its weight, and it’s also our only main-decked way to kill Geist of Saint Traft. That might have to change if that R/W/U Geist deck keeps seeing so much play. Devour Flesh is an option, too.

2 DreadboreI’d like to fit in Terminate, but not at the expense of Dreadbore. Dreadbore is really only worse against Twin, where it is considerably worse. It’s really our only way to beat a smart player who resolves Karn Liberated.

2 ThoughtseizeI want more, or possibly some Inquisition of Kozilek, but I can’t find the room. This is another card that could replace Pillar if Pod becomes banned.

Cryptic Command
4 Cryptic CommandBecause

2 Snapcaster MageI was actually really happy with three copies (they incidentally happen to face down Geist of Saint Traft pretty well), but I was forced to cut one for the current iteration. I want the third back.

1 Dreadship ReefIt’s awkward when you draw it as your seventh land holding Cruel (which has definitely happened), but the storage land has proved surprisingly strong against other blue decks, so one copy can stay.

2 Lavaclaw Reaches, 1 Creeping Tar PitHonestly, you usually just end up killing people with a combination of burn, Snapcasters, and Cruel Ultimatums, but sometimes, these come into play. They’re less necessary than they seem. It might be more correct to swap the numbers, too.

2 CounterfluxThis is simply a strong card in certain matchups and one of our best ways to improve our chances against Tron post-board. It also happens to be incidental Storm hate, should that deck ever show up.

2 Rakdos CharmNo sideboard card has impressed me more than Rakdos Charm. It’s obviously insane against Living End, effective enough against Affinity and Tron, and randomly playable against Twin. I like having flexible catch-alls in the sideboards of decks like this that apply to a number of matchups, and the “worst” of the Return to Ravnica Charms offers that in spades.

2 Sowing Salt Let’s just talk about this in the next section where we go over matchups . . .

Matchups

Tron

Let’s get this one out of the way: This matchup is bad. I have a slightly positive record against the deck, but I think this is probably by far the deck’s worst mainstream matchup. The Tron player assembles Tron consistently, making his or her early game better than yours. You can’t pressure the Tron player, so he or she always makes it to the late game, and the Tron late game is always better than yours. You have no main-deck answer to Eye of Ugin. All of your burn spells are virtual blanks, and Wurmcoil Engine is very hard to deal with. Your Mana Leaks become blanks quickly. Out of the board, you bring in the Sowing Salts, Thoughtseize, Vendilion Clique, Pithing Needle, and Counterfluxes, hoping to keep Tron off-balance long enough to escape the Eldrazi. Sometimes, you use Vandalblast, too. Resolving Sowing Salt is pretty key to surviving a long game. It’s better because the Tron player doesn’t get much more against you, but it’s still not good.

Jund

Jund, on the other hand, is a generally positive matchup. You just play Kill All of the Things for a while, make sure to pay special attention to Liliana, draw some cards while you can, and build up to Cruel Ultimatum. The Jund player really can’t win from that point. Your Thoughtseizes are also better than his or hers since your cards are mostly interchangeable against Jund (save Cruel), but the Jund player only has a few specific cards that worry you.

Urza's Tower
Liliana of the Veil
Geist of Saint Traft

R/W/U Geist

This one is tough. You have trouble interacting with Geist of Saint Traft, and a number of the deck’s threats are instant-speed. The Geist player has a bunch of burn that can just go straight to your dome, and Mana Leaks and Remands make resolving Cruel almost impossible. Honestly, things don’t become much better post-board.

R/W/U Control

Basically, these are the Sphinx's Revelation/Gideon Jura decks. You’re a better control deck, and you have Thoughtseize and Cruel Ultimatum. You’re favored, especially post-board, when you gain more discard, Clique, and Counterflux.

Affinity

This deck is fast, but that’s what all of that removal is for. You can become stuck with counters and Thoughtseizes in hand in Game 1, but just as often, you can stall until Damnation clears the way. Post-board Vandalblasts, Consume, Pyroclasm, and Rakdos Charm for Jaces and Mana Leaks improves things considerably.

Gideon Jura
Arcbound Ravager
Kitchen Finks

Pod

Meliera Pod basically can’t combo you out in the first game, but the opponent can simply run you over with early Kitchen Finks. Rakdos Charm is surprisingly good out of the board, and your sweepers and multiple ways to deal with Birthing Pod usually let you come out on top. The generally-positive matchups with this and Jund are what convinced me Cruel Control had a place in the metagame.

Twin

This is where our lack of Terminates hurts us, but we’re not without recourse. Discard, counterspells, and removal have always been effective ways of fighting Twin, and we have all of those things in spades. It can be hard to resolve Cruel Ultimatum, but the game usually comes down to one big turn. Manage your resources and hand carefully, and you’re favored to come out on top against most builds. Watch out for Blood Moon, though.

R/U/G Delver

One of the newer kids on the block, this match is close to slightly unfavorable, though it can be die-roll-dependent. The Delver player only has around fourteen creatures in the deck, so killing all of the things is pretty likely, but he or she also has a lot of counterspells and post-board access to Blood Moon. This is one area where we would wish for Supreme Verdict over Damnation. Hope Delver draws all of its Burst Lightnings and Vedalken Shackles.

Splinter Twin
Vedalken Shackles
Living End

Living End

Damnation, Mana Leak, Cryptic Command and post-board Rakdos Charm are all-stars here. A good Living End player will give you fits, but you’re definitely favored. You’re just not that scared of hard-cast Deadshot Minotaurs.

Everything Else

I’ve played a multitude of decks, some better than others, and I’ve been happy with the results all around. I find you’re generally favored against non-Tron, nonblue decks and generally close or unfavorable against the reverse. In some metagames, I wouldn’t hesitate to play Cruel Ultimatums and Jace Belerens.

Though, let’s be honest—there aren’t many metagames that would make me not want to play Cruel Ultimatum and Jace Beleren. I just happen to think that, for the first time in a while, it might actually be good as well.


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