I found myself in a conversation last Friday that hinged around an absolute.
I’m currently working with a group of collaborators on a paper describing research that links the definitively logical with the reliably fuzzy. We’re using linear programming and the contents of a biological database to figure out which nutrients real, living organisms can grow on. One consequence of this project’s crossover nature is that we’re going to have readers everywhere along the spectrum from “I suck at math" through “I don’t know what DNA is."
That’s a big gap to bridge.
So in trying to make the work “biologist accessible," I’d appended a sentence to the end of a mathematical definition that said, “In other words, we did this…"
My collaborator didn’t like that at all. To him, “in other words" meant I was saying it was completely equivalent – when it clearly wasn’t, since I was summarizing a whole paragraph of logic in one sentence. He just wanted to cut the sentence…but we compromised, changing “in other words" to “basically…"
In contrast, I spend a lot of time replying to him about biological situations by explaining that things are likelihoods, best guesses, and the current working model. If I grow some bacteria in the lab for a couple weeks, for example, that’s like a thousand generations in bacteria time. They might actually have mutated to be different in that time, so my understanding of what they are is kind of high level, like if I say that my opponent played “Caw-Blade." You know what I mean, but there’s a lot of fuzz in the specifics.
Grand Prix Barcelona gave us a top eight with an unexpected set of decks. Two each of Valakut, RUG, Caw-Blade, and U/B Control? Compare that to Atlanta – five Caw-Blade variants. Or Los Angeles, with another five.
What does that mean? Is Caw-Blade the “best" deck, and Europe is just behind the curve? Or is there something else at play here?
Searching for control amidst the birds
I admit to being more than a little surprised at the appearance of two U/B decks in the top eight at Barcelona – albeit less so when I saw that one was piloted by Wafo-Tapa. It does sometimes feel as if you could hand him a couple packs of Bicycle playing cards and he’d somehow find a way to sculpt a winning control build out of them.
But what really struck me was a strong appearance by this lady:
Liliana does so many things I like in one card – it’s no wonder I keep wanting her to be better than she is. She’s among those cards that are “frequent flyers" in my testing, going into decks only to be yanked back out when playtesting demonstrates that they aren’t the best for the job. So I was intrigued by two (two!) copies in Wafo-Tapa’s deck in the top eight of a GP.
But…and we always want to stop and ask this question…
Why do I want to have a control deck right now?
A gun for each holster
Did you know there was a Jewish adventurer who started carrying two guns after he took a bullet in one arm and found himself alarmed at the prospect of not having a gun he could draw with his “good arm" if that ever happened again?
But I digress.
One reason I’m all on about a control deck is that I’ve decided I always want to have two decks ready and tested for a format, if possible. So in addition to last week’s Angel apocalypse, I’d like to have something in hand that relies on different lines of attack.
But that still doesn’t mean it has to be control. I could build some form of Caw-Blade, for example.
I won’t beat them by joining them
I’m used to hearing players complain about not wanting to play in a mirror, usually accessorizing that complaint with a follow-up remark attributing results in the mirror to luck rather than skill. My suspicion is that mirrors of all kinds feature more skill than we like to admit, and it’s with that idea in mind that I basically cede the Caw-Blade mirror to the (very good) players around me who will have practiced it far more extensively than I have.
Essentially, I’m not going to be competitive against a player who has optimized their skills in the prevalent deck if I haven’t put in a similar amount of practice.
Instead, I prefer to do an end-run around this game of narrow percentages and just play something else, preferably something I’ve spent time either designing or tweaking. After all, the design process involves a lot of testing, meaning the familiarity in terms of both cards and lines of play is going to be imprinted on my mind in a way that the Caw-Blade mirror just won’t.
I’ll take some resilience, thanks
The final factor in taking a serious look at a control deck is my love of redundancy and stability. I my recent discussion of power and resilience, I touched on how stability interacts with other factors to yield a powerful deck design.
Caw-Blade decks are powerful, but they have an aspect of dynamic instability that I’m not fond of. The planeswalkers are clearly universally powerful, but your leading edge is no more or less than a bunch of 1/1s and 1/2s with access to a cache of powerful equipment. Take the equipment away and you have a bunch of 1/1 s and 1/2s.
This is why the experienced Caw-Blade pilot knows how to get those Swords active and protected, of course. But it also means that if you take a hit in mid-stride, your deck doesn’t recover its balance all that well – at least if you’re an average pilot.
The dissing of U/B Control
An interest in control doesn’t automatically mean an interest in U/B Control, of course. The Atlanta open saw a U/W Venser control build in the top eight, as well as other U/W builds in contention. RUG is a control build of sorts, although it suffers from the same dynamic instability issues as Caw-Blade, which makes it yet another deck I don’t really want to pilot.
In the wake of Barcelona, there was a bit of positive buzz for U/B Control as well as a general piling on, calling out the Barcelona top eight as a bit of a fluke. As happens when we playtest, I got to see the “inside scoop" on some of the negative remarks about the deck, and how true they are (or aren’t).
Aggro rolls you
This is the list Guillaume Wafo-Tapa top eighted Barcelona with:
U/B Control (as played by Guillaume Wafo-Tapa at GP Barcelona 2011
You can see at a glance how this deck might have a rough matchup against fast aggro, especially something like Boros or Mono-Red. The main deck features four basically dead Spreading Seas backed by two very slow Ratchet Bombs and four point removal spells. Its game plan against aggro involves disrupting them as much as possible, then sticking a Grave Titan and crossing your fingers.
Unless you’re Guillaume, I suppose, and have the magic control touch.
The sideboard improves things, but not too dramatically.
But the trick is that there’s no compelling reason to have the deck configured so heavily toward disruption and countermagic, especially if you don’t have access to the special mutated part of Guillaume’s brain that synthesizes cards and life total to win games against aggro decks with zero life gain and very little removal. In fact, the tinkering I carried out on the build started with adjusting the deck to have better game against aggro, even before I’d read that criticism.
So yes, Guillaume’s specific build is scary to play against aggro, but that’s not a requirement for the archetype. The eventual GP winner certainly had his deck more tilted against aggro:
U/B Control (as played by Martin Scheinin Morero at GP Barcelona 2011
In fact, in being a deck mostly composed of solutions, it has a lot of room for this kind of individual customization. Of course, the downside is that it’s also a deck full of solutions, so you have a great deal of opportunity to be really wrong about what problems you’re going to be facing.
Caw-Blade rolls you
Sort of yes, sort of no.
The line of action in which the Caw-Blade deck lands an early Sword and then a wild-eyed Kor hacks madly away at you while generating card and mana advantage can be exceptionally hard to recover from. Morero stemmed the bleeding via Tumble Magnet and Into the Roil, whereas Wafo-Tapa simply stared impassively at this problem and willed it out of existence.
In my testing, Caw-Blade variants not splashing black were pretty reasonable to deal with. Sometimes they’d get that runaway Mystic situation, but most of the time your superior disruption and point removal kept them off any coherent game plan long enough for U/B to drop a threat and win.
On the other hand, an opponent who has their own suite of Inquisitions and Duresses is genuinely annoying to deal with, as they can strip your hand of any useful disruption or solutions before you can deploy them.
This is the classic “Fish versus control" situation, reflected perhaps most purely in Legacy Merfolk (the eponymous Fish deck) versus CounterTop. If they can land a clock and keep the disruption coming, you may never recover – although I have some advice on avoiding this fate, below.
It’s just good because they don’t know what you’re doing
The last major critique of U/B Control’s position in the current Standard environment is that it only works because most of your opponents don’t really know what you’re up to.
This only remains a valid criticism if you assume that everyone is suddenly going to spend a lot of time figuring out how to take down the full variety of U/B Control decks. And as we just said, there’s a lot of room for flexibility in designing a U/B Control game plan, such that you might be facing a deck that clearly plans on laying the smackdown on Valakut – like Wafo-Tapa’s – or one that is arranged to utterly stomp aggro.
Or just something in between.
There are certain things we can assume in a U/B Control deck:
…but the intrinsic flexibility of the archetype means that you can reasonably expect that many of your opponents won’t quite have a handle on what you’re doing, even if they do consider U/B Control a metagame player.
Black versus white
The other obvious question is why you’d go for U/B Control rather than U/W. I think both options are probably fine here, but we can boil it down to these points of comparison (aka “What does this color give us?"):
Based on these points of comparison, I think U/W is somewhat better versus many Caw-Blade variants, although you do have the Gideon Jura suicide problem to deal with. U/B is superior against ramp-based aggro such as Valakut and the much rarer Genesis Wave. They’re both basically equivalent against aggro.
Given all that backstory, it would be unnatural if I didn’t have a list. Here it is, along with a touch of explanation.
Lily’s Engines (U/B Control)
Additions and subtractions
Clearly, I’ve done some tinkering. Here are some of the essential notes on my choices.
Wurmcoils over Titans
Grave Titan is an excellent finisher, as long as you aren’t in imminent danger of being finished yourself. It drops three creatures and ten power on the board, but unless you need to block three or fewer groundbound attackers, it means you’d better not die in the two turns it’s going to take you to knock your opponent out of the game.
Wurmcoil Engine, in contrast, presents an immediate opportunity to claw back into a safer life total. It’s one turn slower, but given the ability to trade of some killing speed in exchange for an increased buffer against dying myself, I’ll make that exchange most of the time.
Wurmcoil also, quite pleasingly, leaves you with an onboard presence when your opponent Days you.
Good in Legacy, good in Extended, good in Standard.
This is one of my new favorite anti-aggro packages. Check the link in the prior paragraph for more on using the team. Having a recurring 2/2 that gains you 5 life and recycles your action cards is tremendously powerful. It’s also incredibly handy when you consider that each Trinket Mage represents two reshuffles to use along with Jace’s Brainstorming – once for the Mage, once for the Elixir.
In a less Caw-rich environment, I’d run the Trinket Mage package in the main.
Tumble Magnetic was Morero’s stall of choice against Sword-yielding opponents, but it has the fundamental problem of being a temporary stall.
The Maze, on the other hand, is indefinite. It does involve an ongoing mana investment, but at the same time it forces a mana investment on your opponent as you repeatedly unequip their attacker, forcing them to spend the two mana to re-Sword it.
As a bonus, you also have a substantial window in which they can’t slap the Sword back on, meaning that they’re risking not just a pointless attack and wasted mana, but also making their creature vulnerable to Doom Blade and Go for the Throat.
It’s a surprisingly good card, really.
Tuning the deck
Remember that this is a particularly flexible archetype. The composition of the main deck is far from set in stone, and should pretty much be tailored to whatever metagame you expect to run into, whether that’s FNM, GP Dallas, or MTGO.
For example, if I’m thinking it’ll be aggro all day long, I’d shuffle things around like so:
Taking on those birds
Although the lines of play for a deck like this are fairly obvious, I found that my initial intuition about how to address the Caw-Blade matchup wasn’t correct. My take-home from playtesting the U/W and U/W/B Caw-Blade matchups collect nicely in two bullet points:
There are so many opportunities to lose a Jace within a turn, there’s little to no point in going for the +2 fatesteal. Instead, Brainstorm vigorously, loading your hand with cards and thus flexibility and options. Similarly, take advantage of your extraordinary mana depth and Tec Edge them early and often, at least in the U/W/B Caw-Blade matchup. You’re running more lands than many Caw decks and you can often put them off of Gideon or Jace via a well-timed (that is, as soon as possible) Tectonic Edge.
Flexible and powerful
I’ve been enjoying U/B as my control option for the week, but with flexibility comes both power and confusion. It’s easy to build or play a deck like this incorrectly – and I spent days handling the Caw-Blade matchup incorrectly before I figured out what I was doing wrong. That can easily give us the impression that the deck is bad, much as running a RUG deck without practice might leave you feeling that it’s too shaky to succeed.
But with some time investment, both decks are actually quite good, assuming their style of play suits you.
And I must admit, I’m also just happy to run a deck where Liliana actually makes the cut. You go, girl.
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