It has been a very, very long time since I last wrote an article. I find recording videos to be way more time efficient and I have much more to say about limited so I naturally gravitate towards producing content in that form.
It takes a lot to get me to break out Microsoft Word and start typing. Over the last 2 months, first as I began preparing for the Standard portion of Worlds and then as I dominated MTGO Gold queues playing a deck I really enjoyed, I’ve tuned and tweaked a version of U/W control that I think is positioned to really crush the metagame. Instead of jumping into the story at the present, let me back up a bit…
Worlds Preparation, October 2011
For Worlds this year, I joined forces with my oft-teammates on Mythic (Gaudenis Vidguris, Sam Black, Brian Kowal, Alex West, Finkel, Zvi, etc) and our new friends the Misers (Chapin, MJ, GerryT, Sperling, Rietzl, Nassif) to form “The Other Team. We added a few free agents (Yurchik, Conrad Kolos), a few fossils from Magic past (Bob Maher, Andrew Cuneo) and some unqualified assistants (Ben Dempsey and Adrian Sullivan) to put together one of the largest and clunkiest teams in magic history.
This isn’t really an article about Worlds or about teams, but a quick aside – there is a reason why CFB is 10-12 people. If you get much bigger, you have to spend SO MUCH effort communicating that you lose a lot of your effectiveness at testing. We tried to solve this problem by getting together in person, first at a house in LA for the week before San Diego and then for 3 days at my “compound” in the Bay Area just before worlds, but conflicting schedules and jobs meant we never had more than 8-10 of us in the same place.
With a group this large and a lack of a dictator handing out assignments, people wandered around in different directions. Reports would trickle in at random intervals about decks with somewhat haphazard notes and everyone pursued whatever interested them the most. Our mailing list ended up having 163 different threads, many with only a few emails and others resulting in 30 or 40 responses. A few overzealous contributors sent a disproportionate amount of the traffic, turning off some of the more discerning readers with the volume and resulting in a disappointing level of dialogue.
Our list had a lot of my favorite people in the magic world and I would be hard pressed to tell any of them to take a hike, so while I would have liked it to be smaller, that is much easier said than done.
While efficient we were not, it actually worked out ok from me, as I latched onto an early thread on our mailing list discussing “U/W Control”. Cuneo sent out the first email on October 6th, describing an Esper deck he was working on that has little in common with the eventual deck. The only point to note was a comment he made about his 1-of White Sun’s Zenith and 1-of Elspeth Tirel
I was pretty underwhelmed with the deck itself, as it was too similar to the other esper decks I had already rejected. Ben Dempsey almost immediately replied with a short note that set the stage for my eventual brewing.
“Pristine talisman is amazing. You usually gain more life than you do with timely reinforcements or [card elspeth tirel]elspeth[/card]. It also builds your mana base which is great in control, especially with zenith.
When you have 1-2 talismans going, it forces them to commit more to the board, making wraths better.”
Enter the Pristine Talisman.
The thread then petered out and we all moved on to bigger and better things. It wasn’t until Adrian Sullivan joined the mailing list that anything like this was revived. In late October, he posted a rough list that featured both 3 Pristine Talismans and 4 White Sun’s Zeniths. However, to make room he sacrificed some of the powerful control elements you typically see in a U/W deck, going down to 2 Day of Judgments and cutting the Elspeth Tirel entirely. He also played 4 Inkmoth Nexus as his colorless land of choice.
Andrew Cuneo responded with a “similar” deck he had been working on that took things in a different direction, going with Blue Sun’s Zenith as his X spell and bypassing the Pristine Talismans but keeping the traditional control core of 4 Day of Judgments. He also chose Ghost Quarter over Inkmoth Nexus as his colorless land.
I played quite a bit with both versions and got to work on my own blended build that combined what I thought was the best of each.
There wasn’t a tremendous amount of interest on the mailing list for the deck, so I recruited my good friend Ian Spaulding to help me test the deck. He served as my punching bag, running a small gauntlet of popular lists from the SCG Standard opens against me. He convinced me of how good the Pristine Talismans were in a field dominated by decks relying on incremental damage to win a 6+ turn game. After a week of frantic testing, we came to the following list:
U/W Control for Worlds, 2011
My only real concern with the deck going into worlds was the lack of rigorous testing by the team. No one had really put in reps with the deck other than myself and my only opponents were the untrustworthy folk you find in magic online queues. Also, at the last minute there was a big surge (shocking, really) to play a Grixis deck that Chapin and Alex West brewed up. Other members of the team were leaning towards our mono red list that had the by far the most man hours put into testing it. I was pretty torn between sticking to my guns and going with one of our other decks.
My mind was eventually made up for me. I promised my friend Ian that I would get a copy of the U/W deck for him when I went to pick up cards from CFB. I actually forgot about this while I was there and as I picked up a massive order to cover all of my potential audibles, I only got enough cards to build one copy of the deck. This was very unfortunate when I decided I wanted to go with the U/W deck, only to discover I had but one copy and it was promised to Ian. I scrambled to build a second copy, but for the first time in my professional career card availability stumped me and I was forced to play mono red instead. I was a sad panda.
Post Worlds – Evolution and Analysis
I won’t bore you with a long drawn out tale of the weeks since worlds. Suffice it to say, I now have something like 250 packs of Innistrad courtesy of a lot of Gold queue victories and I am very enamored with the deck.
My current list:
3 Timely Reinforcements
2 Celestial Purge
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
0-1 Revoke Existence
1-2 Divine Offering
0-1 White Sun’s Zenith
0-1 Blue Sun’s Zenith
0-2 Phantasmal Image
0-2 Phyrexian Rebirth
0-3 Sensory Deprivation
This captures the different sideboard configurations I’ve used to approach the format as the metagame has shifted.
Some thoughts on specific cards:
Snapcaster Mage – This guy is really bad in this deck. You’ll notice I went from 3 to 1 to 0 in my iterations with the deck, and he isn’t even a consideration now. Snapcaster Mage excels in decks that 1) fill your graveyard consistently (Forbidden Alchemy) and 2) contain a diverse suite of cheap spells that do different things (Doom Blade, Mana Leak, Disperse). This deck does neither. Snapcaster Mage has to wait for us to actually play a spell we’d want to flashback and then find an opportunity to jump in. His best use case here is as a 6 mana Day of Judgment, but this is really inefficient and actually not necessary in the current evolution of the deck. In the games where you’ve already resolved one Day of Judgment, you can just go bigger with a planeswalker or White Sun’s Zenith.
Ponder – I hate this card in the deck. It was the last artifact of the original build that just kept sticking around as it felt weird to cut it since it was so innocuous, but it really just does nothing. When you have Snapcasters, this is nice as an early flashback target, but without the Mage it isn’t doing anything. You don’t have a good way to shuffle so you are always stuck taking the 3 cards. I’d much rather have Divination, which is my current replacement.
Divination – As I just mentioned, I’d much rather have Divination to Ponder in this deck. This deck needs to keep hitting land drops but also really wants to be casting a spell every turn from turn 3 to turn 7 or 8. To do that, you need a few extra cards and 4 Think Twice isn’t quite enough. Divination is a great play on turn 4 after you cast a Pristine Talisman as you can leave up Mana Leak and it is fine to tap out on turn 3 as there aren’t a lot of decks that will punish you.
Oblivion Ring – My early versions of the deck didn’t play any of these but that is a huge mistake. This format has a lot of diverse threats and people are going to attack you with Planeswalkers, Hero of Bladeholds, etc. Having a relatively cheap catchall solution is a great and I could see adding a third to the list.
White Sun’s Zenith – This card has really blown me away. It is extremely versatile. Against decks like Illusions or Humans, you can often cast it for 3 on turn 6 in combat, Wrathing your opponent. Against U/B, it is a spell you can cast on their end step that they have to answer immediately. This locks up a lot of their mana and lets you stick a “fatty” on your turn through their diminished mana supply. Blue Sun’s Zenith plays a very similar role in control matchups but is worse vs the aggressive decks, hence the 3-1 split.
Day of Judgment – You must play 4. Period. This is good against almost every deck and playing less than 4 is insane right now.
Ghost Quarter vs. Inkmoth Nexus – For Worlds, Gaudenis ended up playing Adrian’s final version of the deck. It differed from my list in several ways, but the biggest change was he had 4 Inkmoth Nexus where I have 4 Ghost Quarters. Talking to Gau after day 1, his biggest complaint about the deck was how useless the Nexi were and how hard it was to beat opponents lands.
This format has a TON of important lands that will kill you if games go long. Illusions and U/W Humans have Moorland Haunt. G/W humans have Gavony Township. Wolf Run has [card kessig wolf run]wolf runs[/card] (obv) and Inkmoth Nexus. U/B has Nephalia Drownyard.
Not playing 4 Ghost Quarters in a deck that has so many powerful cards that recover from card disadvantage is crazy.
Phyrexian Rebirth – I haven’t seen anyone else play this card (maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough) but it is a great sideboard option in a field full of G/W humans. While the deck is now less popular than it was earlier in the season (hence my current 0), if it ticks back up I love this as the proxy Snapcaster flashing back Day of Judgment. This version even leaves behind a creature.
Sensory Deprivation – In a field full of Mirran Crusaders, I love this as an answer. You can cast it while also casting a card drawing spell at the same time, letting you develop your board and sculpt your hand for future turns. It is also great vs mono-red, shutting down their 1 drop to stop them from bloodthirsting their Berserkers. Against Illusions, it targets all of their random dorks and shuts down Stitched Drake, one of the few “scary” creatures they have (one that gets past your White Sun’s Zenith and Elspeth Tirel tokens). As I write out this paragraph, I am really wondering why I currently have 0 in my sideboard as it sounds pretty awesome…
Karn Liberated – He is the end boss. You want 2 in your list, either 1 each in main and sideboard or 2 main. Don’t leave home without him.
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite – This guy is unreal. I’ve actually considered maindecking him, as he is good against everything but U/B and Solar Flare (he is actually fine in the mirror as he shuts off their White Sun’s Zenith and makes your lethal even for low X) but I haven’t figured out how to make room. He does so much work at closing out games.
Phantasmal Image – Only here really for Wolf Run, you need to try copying a Primeval Titan, fetching 2 Ghost Quarters, and then Oblivion Ringing the Titan. It is really fun. Also a great way to keep [card thrun, the last troll]Thrun[/card] under wraps.
Thrun, the Last Troll – I know this isn’t one of our cards, but I wanted to talk about it specifically as it is often seen as the Control Killer. It isn’t really that great against us. We have so many ways to generate chump blockers that it is only really threatening if it is trampling over with a Wolf Run. We have a lot of ways to interact with this plan so I’m not too scared of this actually killing us.
Divine Offering – I haven’t seen much Tempered Steel (despite its success at worlds) but I like having 1 of these as an answer there as well as a card to bring in against Wolf Run (need to get those Nexi…)
Playing the Deck
I view the deck as having a distinct three-phase plan that, if it is allowed to execute without interruption, results in very easy wins.
Phase 1: Development
The development phase consists of building up our mana base through hitting all of our land drops and hopefully accelerating with a Pristine Talisman (or two). It also includes maintaining enough cards in hand through Think Twice and Divination that we can enter the middlegame with the resources necessary to fight our opponent. We can selectively use countermagic here to slow him down.
Phase 2: Stabilization
During this period we are struggling to overcome our opponent’s initial offense through the use of countermagic to disrupt his plan and our sweepers to reset the game. Resetting the board is inherently valuable for us as we are one of the most “mana efficient” decks in the format; we convert large amounts of mana to comparable board power for almost any value of X.
Some people will take umbrage at my usage of “mana efficient’ in the previous paragraph. How is a deck with a bunch of 7 drops and X spells mana efficient?
In a classical sense of efficiency, this is actually a good use of the term. [card karn liberated]Karn[/card] is actually quite mana efficient – you get a ton of bang for your 7 mana. This is contrary to our common usage of the term, where we think of Lightning Bolt as efficient both because it costs very little and does a lot.
I couldn’t think of a better way to describe this phenomenon; namely the fact that a deck that scales its output (power level of cards) in proportion to its input (mana availability) makes more efficient use of its resources as the game progresses. I’ll leave it to others to perfect the naming. Where is Flores when you need him?
Let me explain with an example. A red deck isn’t doing fundamentally different things on a given turn if it has 3 mana or 7 mana. It is probably playing a guy that costs between 1 and 3 mana and/or it is casting a burn spell that will deal between 2 and 3 damage to the opponent. The U/W deck, on the other hand, is doing dramatically different things as it can exploit the robustness of the mana curve. At 3 mana it will cast a pristine talisman; with 9 mana it is going to make 6 2/2s. The Zeniths do a great job of providing the bridge in efficiency; both are reasonable for 5 mana and become downright filthy when you are casting them for 8+.
We can also use the incremental life gain provided by Pristine Talisman to effectively negate some portion of our opponent’s board. This forces them to commit more creatures to the attack, setting up even better wraths.
Phase 3: Tap Out
Once we have weathered the initial onslaught, we can enter the tapout phase of the game. Against most decks in the format, whatever they are casting after turn 6 does not compare to the threat we can tapout to cast, so we can stop worrying about using our counterspells defensively. We jam a Karn Liberated onto the board and then we use our counterspells offensively to advance our win condition and end the game. With the exception of Wolf Run (which can reply with a Primeval Titan fetching out multiple threats), few decks can really keep up with us at this point.
I think of this as the point when we shift gears and go from Control to Aggro.
For this discussion, let’s assume I go with the following sideboard:
This matchup is surprisingly straightforward and not very difficult. Mono-red historically prays on slow, clunky control decks. We are a different animal. The incremental lifegain from the Pristine Talismans is incredibly relevant here as the current generation of mono-red decks don’t have sufficient burst damage to kill us in the early turns. The longer the game goes, the more we counter their burn spells with our progressive life gain.
After sideboard, smart mono-red players will get access to a critical sideboard card: Manic Vandal. This guy is pretty annoying as Pristine Talisman is really our best card against them. But to make up for it, we get access to Celestial Purge (our best answer to Chandra’s Phoenix and Koth of the Hammer) and Timely Reinforcements, an incredible stabilization tool. Using our creatures from the Timely as well as tokens from White Sun’s Zenith and Elspeth Tirel, we can easily counter their efforts to swarm us on the ground and eventually mop up with one of our finishers. The only thing to be careful of is a Shrine of Burning Rage going huge – but with 2 Oblivion Rings, a Divine Offering, a [card karn liberated]Karn[/card] -3 activation or an [card elspeth tirel]Elspeth[/card] ultimate all able to stop the Shrine, this isn’t a big problem in practice.
Because we are boarding in a lot of proactive cards and great answers, we don’t need to have as many counterspells available. We also want to lower our number of expensive cards and make our deck better geared towards phase 1 and 2 of our gameplan, as this is where the Red deck can really threaten us.
I believe this matchup is pretty good but it is not trivial. If they have an aggressive start on the play backed up by a mana leak, they may be able to power through enough damage to kill us in Phase 2 before we can reach Phase 3. If we ever do stabilize, the game is a joke as their cards are horrifically underpowered individually.
Pristine Talisman is quite good (as it is versus all the aggro decks) at mitigating a single threat but the synergy and scale of the illusions creatures (and having the Lord ramp the army) gives them better burst damage to overwhelm a Talisman.
This is a matchup that makes me really want Sensory Deprivation as we want to load up on Phase 1 and 2.
Timely Reinforcements is great in this matchup because it helps us transition into Phase 3 quickly where our more powerful cards can come to bear. We also really need the ability to force through spells during Phase 2 so something that adds 1-2 turns to their clock could be the difference between our Day of Judgment getting Mana Leaked or us having 2 mana up to leak back.
With how popular this deck has been recently at the SCGs, I would really try to fit in 1-2 Deprivations into the sideboard to smooth things out. I could easily see removing the Revoke Existence and a Zenith from the board to fit them.
This matchup plays out as a cross between U/W Illusions and Mono-red. The deck has individually more powerful creatures than Illusions and more reach with some burn spells but less synergy. It has quite a bit less reach than Mono-Red and much, much worse mana. If they are able to draw perfect mana, the matchup is a little harder than U/W illusions but they also don’t have the late game power of Moorland Haunt to recover from a wrath.
This matchup is very straightforward. Their deck dumps a lot of guys on the table. Kill the guys then play a trump. The only thing to play around here is them sticking a Planeswalker, but this isn’t usually the end of the world. We have our own Elspeth Tirels and Oblivion Rings to cancel theirs and Garruk is way too slow to be a real threat.
Various Pod Decks
This archetype has seemed relatively dead as of late, but I tested against it a lot leading up to Worlds. The matchup is pretty straight forward – they are forced to donk out their threats and try to kill you while you can attack every aspect of their game plan. We have several ways to remove Pods once they hit play, we can Day away their creature base and make them restart their chain and we can go over the top with our X spells to pull way ahead. We can also use countermagic to disrupt them at any stage. The matchup seems very bad for them.
You can also bring in Flashfreeze but it doesn’t tend to counter much other than Pod (same problem as Negate). I can see bringing out the second Elspeth but the ability to make some chump blockers to protect a Karn Liberated or Gideon Jura as well as occasionally reset with her ultimate is useful.
When I first saw this deck on paper, I thought this matchup would be impossible. I spent the first 2 weeks of the format just playing U/B and milling people out with Nephalia Drownyard and I didn’t see how this would be different. My early builds had a bunch of Elixir of Immortalitys and Witchbane Orbs to try and react to their strategy.
This was completely wrong. The matchup is amazing.
Their deck is super slow and reactive. You have just as many or more counterspells as they do and you have game winning instant speed threats you can fire off in response to a Drownyard activation or at their EOT. If they ever try to flashback a Forbidden Alchemy you can drop 6 2/2s into play that they will have a very hard time dealing with as they don’t have sweepers.
The tricks to this match are holding your Ghost Quarters when possible until they have a Drownyard in play so they can’t Ghost Quarter your Ghost Quarter, and using your instant speed threats to capitalize on any window when they tap low. Ignore their Alchemies. I have literally never countered an Alchemy in this matchup and I am something absurd like 15-1. Let them play with themselves all they want; they have no way to start a fight on our turn so we are always fully untapped to stop their sorcery speed threats.
Pristine Talismans are also awesome here as they let us effectively outmana them early in the game and give us a big advantage in any counter wars.
This is very similar to U/B but their mana is worse and they have some ability to recover from a White Sun’s Zenith via Day of Judgment and they can recover from a planeswalker via Oblivion Ring. They are also more threat dense as they have the ability to “cheat” a threat into play via Unburial Rites letting them protect the spell more easily.
The games tend to play out very similarly to the U/B games. Phase 1 goes on for a very long time and our deck is better at developing than they are. Phase 2 is skipped and we can force a favorable transition to Phase 3 by provoking a response from them on their end step and then protecting a Karn Liberated with our mana advantage the following turn.
In my experience so far, this is the hardest matchup. This is the only deck that can provide steady harassment in the early game via random [card viridian emissary]Viridian Emissaries[/card] and Solemn Simulacrums and then match the power level of our late game with Primeval Titans and other fatties. They can also invalidate Mana Leaks by just ramping up so I like using a leak aggressively early to stop a 2 power guy.
The key points to this game are to protect against a devastating Primeval Titan and to keep Thrun, the Last Troll under control by attacking the Kessig Wolf Runs via Ghost Quarter and Karn Liberated. Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is good here as it stops them from ever activating their Inkmoth Nexus, ending their “combo kill” potential.
I’ve really enjoyed playing this deck over the last 2 months and with my recent realization that I won’t have any real tournaments to bring it to before the next set hits, I decided I wanted to share it with everyone to give it a chance to bring home a trophy in someone else’s hands. I am very, very rarely a deck designer in any form. I usually pick up something someone else has built, maybe tweak a card or two, and go forth to battle. This has been a fun departure from my usual methods and hopefully leads to some more brewing in the future.
I’d love your thoughts and feedback on both the deck as well as the article; I haven’t written anything recently so there are a lot of cobwebs to work through. I’ve always been a “write if I have something to say” kind of author, but if this is particularly well received I’ll make an extra effort to find things to say. If not, I hope you at least got something productive from the time you spent here with me.
Finally, I’ve recently started streaming some random magic online matches at my new site. I’ll make sure to tweet (@semisober on twitter) any time I’m going to be streaming so please stop by and say hi!
As always, this is Tom Martell with Channel Fireball signing off!