This article is all about my current favorite deck in Standard, UWr Control: dissecting my card choices, how it plays out against the format's most played decks, and sideboard plans. Whether you are planning on playing control yourself, or just playing against it, understanding UWx control is important. This is a pretty typical UW control deck, with just a handful of splashed red cards adding any spice, so while I'm going to reference my exact list, almost everything is applicable to UWx decks generally. Diving right on in to my card choices:
4 [card]Temple of Triumph[/card]
4 [card]Steam Vents[/card]
4 [card]Azorius Guildgate[/card]
4 [card]Hallowed Fountain[/card]
Hello 8 red sources. That's not enough to support casting red spells early in the game, which is OK. The only two red cards in the 75, [card]Counterflux[/card] and [card]Assemble the Legion[/card], I'm not looking to cast until late. Those two provide large enough swings against the mirror and black devotion respectively that I think the costs to the mana base in all other matchups are worth it. No cheap red cards are important enough to make me want to make further sacrifices with the mana.
4 [card]Azorius Charm[/card]
4 [card]Detention Sphere[/card]
4 [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card]
4 [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]
4 [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card]
The core of every UWx deck in Standard. These cards are all fantastic at what they do, and have been performing well for so long now that they don't really need to be defended. Sometimes you will see a [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card] get shaved, but I am strongly in favor of playing 4. It's the best of the “finishers” and playing 4 gives you a lot more flexibility in playing small Revelations for 2 when that is what your curve requires, and not being forced to hang onto it to as a game winner.
4 [card]Last Breath[/card]
[card]Last Breath[/card] has recently surfaced as a premiere removal spell in the format, as it kills all of the most important creatures: [card]Pack Rat[/card], [card]Nightveil Specter[/card], [card]Master of Waves[/card], [card]Xathrid Necromancer[/card], [card]Mutavault[/card], along with almost all one- and two-drops. Esper used to have a significant advantage over straight UW in access to excellent removal, as UW didn't get any cheap removal outside of [card]Azorius Charm[/card], but the rise of Last Breath has taken that incentive away. Last Breath is better than the black removal even if you are playing Esper! For curve purposes, and especially to support the Divinations, I want as much cheap removal as possible, so I'm maxing out on Charms and Last Breaths.
Value! Divination is far from impressive, but it's the best [card]Preordain[/card] we have, helping smooth things out and giving you enough cards to continue hitting land drops while trading off cards. It's particularly awesome against Mono-Black and mirrors, and against aggressive decks you could do worse than digging two cards deeper towards a Verdict.
1 [card]Elspeth, Sun's Champion[/card]
I want just as many finishers as necessary to reliably close out games, so that my hands aren't clogged with them early. I've settled on two; it's really the 4 Revelations you are looking to to win games with. One of the win conditions has to be an Aetherling or [card]Elixir of Immortality[/card], and I only favor Aetherling due to time considerations. The other slot gets to be an Elspeth, which does more to help you stabilize and take control of a game.
A significant downgrade from [card]Dissolve[/card] in every matchup except mirrors. However, Counterflux provides such an enormous swing in control mirror game ones that I am happy making that trade-off; for more on that, see below. Casting Counterflux on turn three is ambitious, not just because there are only 8 red sources, but also because you can't cast it off of Plains or Mutavault. I can tolerate this though, as you are rarely looking to Dissolve/Counterflux as a three-drop in your curve; its purpose is primarily for taking care of any problematic cards late game.
That brings us to the following list:
4 Azorius Guildgate
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Temple of Triumph
4 Steam Vents
4 Azorius Charm
4 Last Breath
4 Detention Sphere
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
4 Supreme Verdict
4 Sphinx's Revelation
1 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
2 Archangel of Thune
3 Fiendslayer Paladin
4 Assemble the Legion[/Deck]
Mirrors (UW, Esper, etc)
Mirror game ones are rather odd, as so few of each player's cards do anything. The only cards that really matter are the legitimate win conditions, [card]Aetherling[/card] and [card]Elixir of Immortality[/card], and counterspells. Planeswalkers are relevant, but with [card]Detention Sphere[/card] (plus [card]Hero's Downfall[/card] out of Esper) as an answer, it's rare for a planeswalker to actually stick and win the game. Card draw is only relevant in that it can find more win conditions and counterspells, but because such a small percentage of the cards matter, even large [card]Sphinx's Revelation[/card]s are generally less valuable than a counterspell. In a normal mirror, you would care about your opponent resolving giant Revelations and have to fight over them, as falling behind on counterspells means your opponent can resolve a win condition. However, Counterflux changes everything and is a complete trump card in game ones.
Your plan from the very first turn in a mirror is to deck your opponent. It's extremely unlikely that either player will be able to resolve a win condition, so it's of critical importance that you make sure your opponent is always the one who will deck first. You don't need to know how many cards are in each library, but you should always know the relative amounts. Keep a count of the number of cards you can safely draw from the moment you know you are playing a mirror. If you are on the play, the count starts at 0; on the draw, at -1. Every time your opponent draws an extra card, add one, and subtract one for every extra draw of yours. Every cycled Charm, every Jace activation, don't forget to update the count. Later in the game you can count libraries to verify your count, but ideally you don't want to tip your opponent off about how the game is going to end too early. One thing to keep in mind is that either player can get a card back in their library by Charming their own Mutavault; cast those Last Breaths before Mutavault gets to attack or block!
Other than making sure your opponent will always be the first to deck, playing is very simple. Let your opponent draw ALL the cards. They can have their entire deck in their hand, and you are going to beat them. It doesn't matter if you fall behind on counterspells, since as long as you have one [card]Counterflux[/card] for each of their win conditions, you will win. Never counter a Sphinx's Revelation. Never counter a Jace. Don't counter an Elspeth if you can Sphere it. Don't fight to resolve Aetherling. [card]Counterflux[/card] just about reads “Counter target [card]Aetherling[/card] or [card]Elixir of Immortality[/card].”
Sometimes you will be forced to draw cards to dig for a Counterflux, or a Sphere for Elspeth. If you find yourself in the position of being the first to deck, go ahead and draw a ton. Your goal then is to get ahead on counterspells so that you can resolve Aetherling.
Since you are committing to letting your opponent get ahead on cards, you do have to get a little bit creative to make sure you don't die to a Jace or Elspeth, as you won't have enough Spheres to keep up with all of the planeswalkers, and your opponent can use counters to try to protect them. Fortunately, Jace doesn't really mandate a Sphere. Since you don't care much about your opponent drawing cards, you can let your opponent have Jace and draw and draw. Even the ultimate isn't threatening!
The ability casts the spells, giving you the perfect opportunity to take advantage of overload on Counterflux. If your opponent knows not to get a win condition out of their own deck, and only take your Elspeth, Jace ultimate is certainly more problematic, at least until you draw your Elspeth. (Note that your own Aetherling isn't a real threat against you, as your opponent can't use the blink ability unless they are feeling extremely charitable.) While you won't always be set up to ignore Jace, for the most part you want to save Spheres for exactly Elspeth.
[draft]4 Last Breath
4 Supreme Verdict[/draft]
2 Assemble the Legion[/draft]
You have eight obvious cards that need to get boarded out, and while Assemble is not great in the matchup (it's a five-mana sorcery and easily answered with no value gained even when it does resolve), it's better than the alternatives, as it at least trades with a relevant card, albeit quite inefficiently. Ideally you would have more sideboard cards for mirrors, especially since Esper in particular gets to improve a lot more than you post-board thanks to [card]Thoughtseize[/card] and especially [card]Sin Collector[/card], but since game one is so favorable giving up some ground here is not too worrisome.
Sideboarded games function completely differently, as both players have enough cards with text that letting your opponent outdraw you is no longer an option, as they can realistically defend a planeswalker and kill you with it if they get ahead on cards. Esper in particular gets to make Counterflux a non-factor with Thoughtseize and Sin Collector, but even against straight UW it's no longer realistic to let large Revelations resolve and only counter their win conditions, though that still can come up in some games. Once sideboarded, whichever player gets ahead on cards is likely going to win. Jace and Revelation are the main ways to accomplish that, so those become the main focal points.
You are pretty well set up against their creatures. While it is certainly possible for them to punch a hole in your curve and beat you with an unanswered threat, or burn you out with Gray Merchants if you fall behind, that's only realistic if they have a notably better draw than you. It's unlikely their anemic beatdown plan is going to race the ticking time bomb that is a deck packing 4 Sphinx's Revelations. Their real threat is [card]Underworld Connections[/card]; an early Connections sticking is usually not beatable, as it lets them easily outdraw Revelations. With only 4 Spheres to answer it, and with Thoughtseize running interference, Connections does stick often.
1 Elspeth, sun's champion
2 Azorius Charm
1 Supreme Verdict[/draft]
[draft]4 Assemble the Legion
There's so much trading in the matchup that I like to shave a land, and the Assembles make the other finishers unnecessary. After that you want to go down on removal, and Last Breath is the best of it, so some combination of Charm and Verdict come out. Verdict is for the most part an inefficient 1-for-1 and is not ideal, but it does take care of [card]Pack Rat[/card]. Depending on how your opponent plays their Rats, though, you may want to board out more Verdicts.
While game one in the matchup is typically slightly in control's favor, it normally gets much harder post-board. Mono-Black gets to turn dead removal into high impact cards in the form of [card]Erebos, God of the Dead[/card] and [card]Duress[/card], while from the control side you get more answers to Connections but you don't have the same bricks to upgrade. This goes especially poorly for control, as your answers are split between dealing with creatures or dealing with Connections. As rough as it is to matchup a specific answer for threats normally, discard makes it easy for Mono-Black to overload you on whichever type of threat you are weakest to.
Trying to answer all of their threats is a losing proposition post-board; the solution is to get aggressive and slam a card that they can't beat. Once you have an Assemble in play, it really doesn't matter how many cards your opponent draws, they are going to die to the legions. Their best shot at beating Assemble is, well, to Thoughtseize or Duress it, so it's actually quite easy for them to do. But that's why I'm playing the maximum number of Assembles, to give myself the best chances of topdecking it. And once it's in play on a stable board, the only hope they have is to burn you out with Merchants. The ability to ignore their best cards in Connections and Erebos is insane, and I'm happy to play the 8 red sources and 4 sideboard slots to gain that capability.
[card]Supreme Verdict[/card] is key for clearing out their creatures (you can't go 1-for-1 with them effectively), and their best cards are the ones Verdict doesn't deal with: [card]Bident of Thassa[/card], [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card], [card]Thassa, God of the Sea[/card], and [card]Mutavault[/card]. Even though Thassa is excellent against you, it is sometimes correct to not try to keep them off of Thassa with counters and Spheres, as if you can afford to just let them have Thassa in play then you blank all of their other Thassas. If you believe you can keep them from hitting 5 devotion all game, scry one a turn is certainly not worth spending a premium answer on.
In games where you do draw Verdict, it's real hard for them to tempo you out. They don't put that much pressure on your life total, but do have a lot of resiliency. It's fairly common for games to play out with both players “going off” drawing cards. This goes well for you, as you can usually kill everything they throw at you; as long as you are staying alive, you don't need to actually grind them out of cards, eventually you will find an Aetherling and kill them. In these games, [card]Cyclonic Rift[/card] is extremely threatening, as overloading it end of turn bouncing all of your [card]Detention Sphere[/card]s will usually be lethal.
1 Elspeth, sun's champion
2 Archangel of Thune[/draft]
Post-board things get harder, and you no longer win the games where both players go deep drawing cards. Or rather, you don't actually get to draw infinite, as once they are drawing cards, they can easily counter your Revelations. However, [card]Archangel of Thune[/card] functions much like [card]Assemble the Legion[/card] does against black devotion, punishing hands full of Gainsays and Bidents and Jaces, and just single-handedly winning the game. Even if they are prepared for it with Rapid Hybridization, that exchange doesn't work out so badly for you.
Their ideal draw is one threat (plus a Mutavault or two) and a grip full of counterspells. This lets them play a strong aggro-control game against you, clocking you while holding up countermagic for anything relevant you do.
Red Devotion (Rw, Rg)
Not the matchup you are looking for. The white splash is much easier for you, as instead of Domri, the green splash's best card against you, they have dead spot removal. But even against the white version, you have an uphill battle. Between [card]Purphoros, God of the Forge[/card], his Hammer, planeswalkers, and [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/card], they have so many difficult to answer threats, and they put you under a ton of pressure to have the answers immediately.
[draft]3 jace, architect of thought[/draft]
2 Archangel of Thune[/draft]
I've had opponents leaving in [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card] or [card]Chained to the Rocks[/card] without knowing for sure I have Archangel, which makes me hesitant to bring it in, but I don't know that that's the norm. If I think my opponent is going to have Mortars or Chained to the Rocks in their deck, I certainly don't want Archangel in mine. It's not even that great against them anyway, as Dragon trumps it so effectively.
You don't have the time to dig with a bunch of card drawing spells in these matchups, as Verdict doesn't function as card to bail you out from being behind. So many of the threats are not creatures, and Verdict is so important as an answer to Stormbreath Dragon. Divination is better at drawing cards here than Jace. They have so much haste it's not realistic to get two minus activations out of Jace, and plusing Jace is ineffective and subject to big blowouts. The white splash version has Assemble the Legion, though, so you want Jace against them as an answer to that.
Basically the same deck as red devotion from your perspective. Some early beats to pressure you, but the real threats are all the planeswalkers and Dragons, plus [card]Mistcutter Hydra[/card] for extra problems.
[draft]3 Jace, Architect of thought
2 Last Breath
2 Archangel of Thune
2 Assemble the Legion[/draft]
Jace is awful and Last Breath is nearly dead, but my sideboard is woefully unprepared for this matchup and there just isn't enough to bring in.
Aggro (WB, RB, mono-red, etc.)
If you aren't casting a Jace or Verdict on turn four, you are not winning. Spot removal is surprisingly ineffective; not that it is bad against them, just that going 1-for-1 with their creatures is not a winning game plan, as you are always going to be behind on board, and they will exhaust your answers quite quickly if you don't have the time to start chaining draw spells. Jace and Verdict are so effective that they give you that time.
[draft]2 Archangel of Thune
3 Fiendslayer Paladin[/draft]
Post-board is mostly the same. They get to add some non-creature threats to make Verdict less effective, but you get creatures that will have them begging you to wrath away their swarm just to get your guy off the board. How else can they beat a Fiendslayer Paladin?!
Going forward, it's hard to imagine that the UWx shell won't remain one of the best decks in the format, and as long as black devotion and mirrors are very prevalent I think the red splash will prove quite effective. With Hayne winning GP Vancouver with a UW list particularly well suited for mirrors (4 win conditions and 7 counterspells), I might look to play the fourth Counterflux. If UW does take off in popularity, the planeswalker/Stormbreath Dragon decks are sure to rise in response. That bodes especially poorly for this list, but moving towards [card]Celestial Flare[/card] in the removal, and cannibalizing the anti-aggro sideboard slots ([card]Fiendslayer Paladin[/card] and [card]Archangel of Thune[/card]), could go a long way toward shoring up those matchups.