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Eight Rules for Control Players During a Midnight Hunt

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1. The First Rule is the Same as it Ever Was

The first rule of control decks has long been that control decks tend not to be very good early on in a format... But can become increasingly good as time goes on.

The reason for that is pretty simple. Control decks kind of have to know what they want to control. Like, how bad is it if you're stacked to the rafters in your ability to beat 1/1, 2/1, or 3/1 White weenie creatures... But the threats that matter mid-way through a tournament happen to be un-counter-able and also indestructible 6/6 Serpents? The former doesn't really need very specific answers, but an attitude toward go-wide instead of quality individual threats. The latter asks for a very specific answer. You can't counter Koma, Cosmos Serpent so you have to kill it. You have to either kill it at instant speed before it can go indestructible, or remove it from the game.

Put another way, think about two different four-mana Black spells and how great they are when they're right and how pointlessly inefficient in seemingly every other possible case:

Crippling Fear
Baleful Mastery

A great direct example might be from me. Last week I was all about shoving my chips - or I suppose Treasures - into Wrenn and Seven on turn three. While my deck had Blood on the Snow as part of its long game, I was trying to present two-for-one threats.

In the ensuing week, I've shifted seemingly slightly from bg to Mono-Black. But it's not just trading Prosperous Innkeeper in for Hunt for Specimens at two; this represents a macro archetype shift from The Rock to what Next Level Deck-building calls Non-Blue Control.

For reference, here's my updated Mono-Black list:


2. The Funniest Things About Mono-Black Control are All in Its Mana Base

Golgari Snow had seventeen primary sources of Black mana... Two fewer Snow-Covered Swamps, maybe; but eight bg dual lands.

The Mono-Black shell gains four black-producing creature lands; but an absolute ton of colorless lands by comparison. In a long game you can convert a Field of Ruin into a Snow-Covered Swamp (or the Mountain if you need to), but that doesn't help you on turn one. Ergo, I was a little surprised about how much more I've had to mulligan hands with two or even three lands.

As much as anything else, the mana base of this deck is an example of shifts elsewhere in a format impacting the construction of a Control deck. Namely, Blue decks have increased in popularity; and while you're unlikely to beat any of them if they chain 2-3 copies of Alrund's Epiphany, you can certainly tax their defensive capabilities with a lot of utility lands. Sometimes it's great to just fight their Field of Ruin with your Field of Ruin; but just having a full eight creature lands lets you connect for 3-7 on the turn they sweep. That can be a big game, and certainly Hive of the Eye Tyrant is a punishing tool for anyone trying to accumulate advantages with Devious Cover-up, Faithful Mending, or Memory Deluge.

Spells-wise, we can see how a shift away from Goldspan Dragon opens the door for Mono-Black over bg. If fewer people are shooting for Goldspan Dragon (at least in non-Blue decks), then Wrenn and Seven becomes just another expensive card without a specific role. On the other hand, The Meathook Massacre becomes a highly applicable answer to potential new big threat Storm the Festival.

3. Other Control - or at least other Blue decks - are Also Gaining Share

This is just them finding better best fits to the format, as well.

Inferno of the Star Mounts seemed like a cool addition to Izzet Dragons. It was one of the Izzet colors, certainly, as well as a creature that could really make Dragon's Fire hurt. Same with Galazeth Prismari... Anyone find the disappearance of the Prismari namesake a little surprising? There is just a better Dragon - arguably better than Goldspan Dragon, even - available now.

Same on Blue's Azorius and Dimir cousins. Half of them don't even top up on Alrund's Epiphany anymore! They've just got other things to do, more specifically coherent game plans, and ways to expose fewer critical fault points.

4. Not a Rule but a Prediction: Izzet Taking Turns Will NOT be the Preferred ur Deck in the Long Term

A few days ago, the sky was falling.

Stats from the first Star City Games satellite had come in. While only 16% of the satellite population, Izzet Taking Turns produced a gigantic 75% win rate.

Ban Alrund's Epiphany!

Right?

Fast forward to just the third such event. Taking Turns fell to a perfectly fair 50% win rate. Was it a paper tiger all along?

I'm not sure. Izzet Taking Turns is by far the style of Blue deck I, as a Blood on the Snow player primarily, want to face the least. It presents almost no permanent threats, killing the value of most of Black's mid-game top decks. Black's best card becomes an expensive, and sometimes highly inconvenient, reanimation spell.

But elsewhere?

While certainly a viable way to do things, it seems that Taking Turns could not sustain that early win rate; and it's doubtful it was the best deck to begin with. All three of the first three satellites were actually aced by versions of Mono-Green! Even storied Red Deck player sandydogmtg pocketed the first with Old-Growth Troll and Esika's Chariot in front of him.

That said, I do believe there to be a high incentive to Izzet. But there are almost equal pulls to Azorius and Dimir. If you listened to the updated Golgari Snow Primer on Barbarian Class, you know that each of these revolve around a two mana spell particular to Blue's secondary color; all of which are compelling or even spectacular in a unique way.

5. Nobody Beats an Ashmouth Dragon

Behold the Smoldering Egg:

Smoldering Egg // Ashmouth Dragon

This is one of the most not-obvious cards the nice people in Renton, WA have printed in years. Until you've played against it a few times, you're not likely to understand how profoundly paradigm defining the Smoldering Egg is.

It's this weird kind of Delayed Blast Insectile Aberration for two mana. Unlike Delver of Secrets, Smoldering Egg is actually a good defender! A Mono-Green deck can get through it; but only by exposing itself to a two-for-one. A Mono-White deck can't get through it at all. The humble 0/4 is simply bigger than everything Mono-White can present, unenhanced.

But don't worry! Smoldering Egg will not stay 0/4 for very long!

I did not initially understand how utterly free it is to flip into an Ashmouth Dragon. For instance, just casting the Alrund's Epiphany we all know is waiting at the top end will do it. Lacing together a few Considers and Counterspells will do it, too; and effortlessly. If you have two Eggs in play it doesn't cost ANY more mana to flip the second one.

This card not only defends the Izzet Dragons player from beatdown, it conveniently slides under an opposing Blue mage's Counterspell wall. The turn they are tucking a Saw it Coming with Foretell, you can have your Egg in play. If they don't deal with it pretty quickly, you're just going to beat them with it.

This card - and the implications of its evolved Pokemon form, Ashmouth Dragon - are the main reason I feel like Taking Turns has probably already peaked. A deck that needs as much time to set up as Taking Turns can simply not reliably beat even a single Smoldering Egg. Big brother Ashmouth finishes the game in two turn cycles, like max. Every Consider is a Shock. Every Shock is two Shocks.

Not for nothing, but remember a moment ago when we were talking about the precipitous win rate drop of Taking Turns from Satellite #1 to Satellite #3? (Even though Mono-Green won them all)? By Satellite #6, it was two Izzet Dragons decks, each packing four copies of Smoldering Egg facing off for the top spot.

Smoldering Egg is annoying for beatdown, and appropriately priced; on the other hand, it's an undated Death Note for any Control player who doesn't move to remove it ASAP.

6. The Fix is In

We generally give a lot of press space to ways you can draw more cards; you know, increase your hand size... Memory Deluge is the standard in Standard for this. But that's a card that all the Blue decks can share equally. It's powerful, but being a four-of in all three-color combinations and their sub-archetypes, it offers no particular edge to any of them.

But what if instead of increasing the size of our hand, we focused on just fixing it? Or rather, Mending it?

Faithful Mending

Since at least 1996 the struggle to surmount the pointiest tippy top of the Control pyramid has been contested primarily between the flexibility of ur with the specificity of uw. The ur camp always had the most durable threats... Cards like Hammer of Bogardan or Shard Phoenix that allowed them to play the long game through another Control deck's Counterspells. At the same time, ur usually had little to no wasted space. Even if a Lightning Bolt was not the best against Control, it wasn't particularly wasted, either. At the same time, that Lightning Bolt could be very fast at defending the not-yet-Izzet player from quick beatdown.

On the other side of the color wheel, uw was where you wanted to be if you knew who you had to kill. While uw could not claim to have no fat to trim heads up, it could murder every kind of 4/5 or 7/7 one-for-one, or sweep all the 2/1 or 2/2 weenies at the same time, no matter what color they were, even if they regenerated. In Standard today, uw offers the exact same structure of incentives and caveats. If you're up against beatdown, there is literally nothing in ur that is going to compare to a well-placed Sunset Revelry. If ur is up against an Immerturm Predator, it probably has to try to race. And if it's racing with Time Walks, that's nothing the other Blue decks couldn't have done in the same spot. Azorius can not only turn Koma, Cosmos Serpent into a Clue before it makes its first Snake-buddy, it can tuck a Doomskar away from the prying eyes of Paulo Victor Damo Da Rosa. Perhaps best of all, the recent innovation of Devastating Mastery allows it to obliterate a Black-based deck's varied battlefield. Go-wide, go-tall, Planeswalkers... Even Treasures! None of them escape the devastation of Devastating Mastery.

So, when you know who you want to kill, uw is your Control deck of choice.

Here's the problem: At this point in the metagame, it isn't clear who you want to kill. That is why the uw deck is saddled with such a weirdly different palette of cards. It's not that your cards are so bad... But they can certainly drag against other Control decks. If you plan to get any value out of that Sunset Revelry against ur? They probably already landed their best card against you while you - almost by definition - haven't answered.

Enter Faithful Mending. For such a small cost, this card can filter a uw deck's Sunset Revelries and Doomskars away against Control; or dig to them against beatdown... While bolstering life total!

Consider this card a moment:

Inscription of Ruin

This is a card I've told you in this very episode already that I play in Mono-Black. It's a nice take-on-all-comers that is not terrible in any matchup. Sometimes it will really shine on seven; but the card is mostly good for beating up Control a little and taking a little pressure off against creatures. It doesn't shine anywhere.

A uw deck with Faithful Mending never has to play cards like Inscription of Ruin. The incentive here is that they can play the most contextually efficient, most extreme, answers and just filter the bad ones away in the off matchups. Against beatdown the extra life will help make up for the two or three mana used for digging; and against Control you'll not only hit land drops but be better able to pick fights during the opponent's end step.

7. Three Hands are Better Than One

The most exciting of the Blue accessory 2-drops has got to be Siphon Insight.

Siphon Insight... Exciting?

This card has been described as a bad Think Twice. But isn't it in fact a great Think Twice? Isn't in fact a Think Twice that is twice as helpful for hitting land drops on turn two?

This card is at its absolute best against decks like Blood Money, which have relatively few high end victory conditions. Every time you steal one with Siphon Insight, that's not only one fewer you have to deal with yourself, but one that becomes a problem worth two or more cards for the deck across the table.

But Siphon Insight breaks more than the Alrund's Epiphany mirror. It breaks the fundamentals of Magic rules. In a very long game, two Blue decks will sometimes ignore the other's Memory Deluges. This results in both players having tons of lands and seven cards in hand. The uw one will sometimes have to discard pointless creature removal, but at some point, both mages will simply max out at seven, desperate to find another potential breaker (and to keep hitting mana of course).

Here is where Siphon Insight distinguishes itself. What's the point of the seven-card hand limit? The Think Twice that this card is invariably compared to replaces itself hand-to-hand. Siphon Insight creates a separate demi-hand in exile. There is no limit to how many cards you can have tucked over there. As a flashback card (that can sometimes help you access even more flashback), it will create a third reservoir in your graveyard. At some point, someone is going to try to break the seven-cards-in-hand-standoff... And the ub Siphon Insight mage, with three times as many available hands, simply has more resources to win that fight, or recover and rebuild after.

Dimir has another incentive that is particular to go-wide beatdown opponents. That is The Meathook Massacre, or more specifically, combining The Meathook Massacre with Divide By Zero. In a long game, this combination is next to unbeatable for Standard's current family of beatdown decks... But perhaps more importantly, Divide By Zero itself is such a versatile answer to any number of non-creature permanent threats, like Esika's Chariot or Ranger Class.

8. A Settling Standard Metagame Offers Control Opportunities for Leverage

Consider, for a moment, this spectacular Tweet from top player Grzegorz Kowalski:

In it, Kowalski shows the opponent putting Alrund's Epiphany on the stack. He is about to point an Infernal Grasp at his own Shambling Ghast. This will of course give Grzegorz a Treasure, which he can convert into half the mana for the Test of Talents waiting in his hand.

This is a somewhat unexplored segment of Standard. And I love it! The idea of "Mono" Black combatting Alrund's Epiphany directly with Test of Talents isn't even described in its potential glory via Kowalski's Tweet. I would love to sacrifice a Field of Ruin in response to find one Snow-Covered Island; and love even more to do it all with Galvanic Iteration up to bat !

Just as the fake two-for-one-ness of both Elite Spellbinder and Skycloud Apparition is magnified under very particular circumstances, Control decks can achieve similar leverage with profitable mana and particular opportunities.

Izzet Taking Turns will remain a challenge for Black decks, certainly; but with this cat out of the bag, I don't know that they'll sleep easy again any time soon.

LOVE

MIKE

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