Are control decks a black box as far as you’re concerned?
I’ve noticed over the years that there’s a notable chunk of the tournament Magic player base that treats control decks, particularly around countermagic, as if they were block boxes.
If you’ve ever found yourself just assuming that the control player “has it” and refusing to play into that imagined Mana Leak for ten straight turns, then you’re in the black box group. You imagine that the control deck is just some pool of unknowable frustration, always ready to cough up a counterspell or some removal just in time to screw up your game.
In this week’s edition of The Field Report, I’m going to dig into the current suite of control decks populating the Standard metagame. Specifically, I wanted to answer this question:
“How much countermagic is out there, anyway?”
So we’ll check in on what modern control looks like, starting from its portion of the metagame and then looking at how each archetype deploys the counterspells available to us in Standard right now.
…and then maybe we can all stop assuming that control player just “has it.”
Control’s share of the metagame, and how it breaks down
For today’s column, I sampled slightly more than a week of tournament results form paper and online Magic. I basically folded in all reported decks, which tends to mean decks that went 4-X or better in paper events, 3-1 and 4-0 decks from MTGO Dailies, and decks that top eighted MTGO PEs. That gives us nearly a thousand deck lists to work with, and the following view of the metagame:
The control share
Let’s start with the obvious – the major control decks make about a third of the metagame.
There are some caveats here, as usual.
First, there are some minor control builds that I didn’t wrap up in this count – for example, there are some instances of four- or even five-color control decks that are sort of Solar Flare-ish, but not really.
Second, I’m counting Illusions as a control deck, although it is properly aggro-control more in the “Fish” mode. If you remove Illusions from consideration, then classic control decks only account for a little over a fifth of the metagame.
A controlling share of the control share
Looking back at our handy pie chart, we can see that the dominant control decks of the past week – where by “dominant” we mean “prevalent” – are Illusions and Solar Flare. If you just sat down at a table for a game, you’d have about a one in eight chance of playing against Solar Flare and a one in seven chance of playing against Illusions.
The remaining control archetypes combined didn’t quite match Solar Flare’s share of the metagame. That’s just something to keep in mind as you prepare for your next tournament.
Countermagic, by the numbers
For the rest of today’s piece I’m going to take a look at how your fellow players have been using countermagic in their control decks. We’ll take it archetype-by-archetype, starting with the least prevalent (U/B Control) and ending with the most (U/W Illusions).
Each archetype will come with a handy graphic showing how frequently decks in that archetype use zero, one, two, three, or four copies of each counterspell. I know that description is a little unclear, so take a look at this pie chart that shows the “how many copies?” information for Flashfreeze in Solar Flare.
In this case, the pie chart is telling us that of all the Solar Flare builds surveyed…
2% of them ran 4 copies of Flashfreeze (blue slice)
2% of them ran 3 copies of Flashfreeze (green slice)
20% of them ran 2 copies of Flashfreeze (yellow slice)
13% of them ran 1 copy of Flashfreeze (red slice)
64% of them ran 0 copies of Flashfreeze (gray slice)
(Note that the written percentages might not quite add up to 100%, since they’re rounded up or down to avoid ugly numbers. Regardless, the visual slices are correct.)
Just to make this clearer, here’s the same chart expanded a little:
To keep things as clear as possible, I’ll stick to the same color scheme for all the charts. So, as a refresher:
Blue is the portion of decks running 4 copies of the card
Green is the portion of decks running 3 copies of the card
Yellow is the portion of decks running 2 copies of the card
Red is the portion of decks running 1 copy of the card
Gray is the portion of decks not running the card
Also keep in mind that we’re tallying cards across the full seventy-five in each deck list. Some counterspells – like Flashfreeze, for example – are obvious sideboard cards and will rarely make main deck appearances. Regardless, we do want to know if they’re likely to be present or not.
So, with all that in mind, let’s start our run through the six major control archetypes in Standard.
I admit to being surprised that U/B Control was taking up last place, even knowing that it has some problems surviving in the current Standard metagame. The 2% slice of the metagame I’m reporting on here doesn’t go to pure U/B control, either. I’ve batched in some Tezzeret decks and at least one or two U/B control decks with an infect theme.
Here’s the countermagic breakdown across this diverse and yet compact set of U/B Control decks:
The obvious thing first – Mana Leak is always present, and almost always in four copies. In other words, if they’re leaving up two mana in the early game, it’s quite reasonable to assume that your U/B opponent does, in fact, have the Mana Leak.
The intriguing runner-up position goes to Dissipate, which has a sharply bimodal distribution, with decks either running four copies or none. Anecdotally, I think the main differentiator here is between “pure” U/B Control and those Tezzeret decks, largely because the Tezz decks have less room for reactive cards.
Fascinatingly, the most prevalent “specialized” sideboard counterspell is Steel Sabotage, a card I wasn’t really expecting to see much of outside of Scars Block and Vintage. On consideration, though, it makes sense for a deck that can have some issues fighting against Tempered Steel to run an artifact-specific disruption spell in large numbers.
The take home, of course, is that you shouldn’t be too surprised to see Steel Sabotage in opposing U/B Control decks.
The rest of the counterspells are standard sideboard fare in standard sideboard quantities – sometimes present, most often in two copies.
U/B Control (as played by witzo on MTGO)
I have to say, reading about Patrick Chapin casting Olivia Voldaren in Standard was one of the cooler aspects of the day one coverage from Worlds this year. Grixis control is sort of like a Solar Flare deck that trades in the security of Day of Judgment and Timely Reinforcements for additional card advantage from Desperate Ravings, and the ability to field a helicopter gunship named Olivia Voldaren.
Here’s how our Grixis 2% have been slinging countermagic in the past week or so:
Once again, Mana Leak is nigh ubiquitous, although a narrow subset of Grixis decks have a nominal one or two copies instead of the standard four.
Following in the footsteps of Chapin’s list from Worlds, Grixis decks have been running might lighter in countermagic than some of the other control options out there – check out all that gray across the six pie charts. The most likely additional countermagic options are Flashfreeze and Negate, both of which tend to live in the sideboard rather than the main deck.
Overall, the take home rule of thumb about Grixis in Standard right now is “expect Mana Leak and not much else.” If your Grixis opponent is trying to represent some other form of countermagic…or, really, any countermagic after they’ve already burned through some Mana Leaks…then they’re probably bluffing.
Grixis (as played by Washi_min on MTGO)
Leveling up to a whopping 3% of the metagame we have the bird to Caw-Blade’s dinosaur, the U/W Blade archetype.
U/W Blade decks right now run more toward aggro-control than pure control, filling a niche similar to Bant decks of prior Standard (and Extended and Legacy) formats. They tend toward a light smattering of main deck removal spells and countermagic, backing high-value creatures such as Mirran Crusader and Hero of Bladehold.
Here’s the counterspell breakdown for our U/W Blade competitors:
That “counterspell-light” quality of modern Blade decks is pretty clear in the graphic, right?
Once again, Mana Leak is ubiquitous – albeit appearing in fewer than four copies a surprising quarter of the time.
The other counterspells essentially don’t appear in most Blade decks. You can pretty much count on not seeing Dissipate or Negate in most Blade decks you run up against. Flashfreeze is the only genuinely common backup counterspell, often living side-by-side with Timely Reinforcements in the sideboard.
Overall, modern U/W Blade decks are learning rather more toward the “aggro” side than the “control” side, even more than our default aggro-combo deck, Illusions.
I suspect U/W Blade decks along these lines are much better against Wolf Run Ramp than against any other part of the metagame…so the more the metagame isn’t Wolf Run, the worse they’ve been getting.
U/W Blade (as played by sandydogmtg on MTGO)
As we slowly claw our way to metagame relevance we find ourselves at U/W Control, which has a modest 4% share of the recent Standard metagame. At the moment, U/W Control is a sort of mirror image of Grixis, being sort of like a Solar Flare deck that has eschewed the fast removal and card advantage options of black in favor of a more stable mana base and ready access to powerful mass removal.
Here’s the counterspell breakdown for the U/W Control contingent:
Check out that Mana Leak entry – for the first time, Mana Leak is actually and not just virtually ubiquitous. Given how vulnerable U/W Control decks are to fast attackers, it’s not surprising that they max out on Mana Leaks.
U/W Control decks have also been pretty rich in other typical sideboard counterspells. Nearly every deck I looked at for this survey had some number of Negates, with the majority having two or more copies.
In light of the frequency with which Negate appears in U/W Control, I’m actually pretty surprised that Dissipate is so rare. Notably, when Dissipate does appear in our set of examined decks, it does so in an all-or-nothing fashion. Decks either ran the full playset or didn’t use Dissipate at all.
It does seem as if the take home here is that U/W Control decks will tend to win in control mirrors, at least if it comes down to a counterspell war. The other take home is to expect additional two-mana counterspells beyond Mana Leak.
U/W Control (as played by KDCobain on MTGO)
I like to imagine this is actually Tupac playing on Kurt’s account, in violation of WotC’s ToC and the metaphysical rules of the universe.
With Solar Flare, we make our first foray into a genuine metagame market share, with some 12% of all the decks examined falling into this archetype.
I recently had a fun and (naturally) brief Twitter conversation over the name of thie archetype. Historically, Solar Flare was a control deck with some value reanimation built in. However, the current Solar Flare archetype can be best described as a Forbidden Alchemy / Snapcaster deck that may or may not use Unburial Rites. The suggestion was that this should be called something else, like “Snapcaster Alchemy.”
But past a certain point, things are called what they’re called, so I’ll stick with Solar Flare and trust that this confuses you all less than it would if I tried to push a new name.
Here’s the Solar Flare counterspell breakdown:
Almost all Solar Flare decks run four copies of Mana Leak, with a peculiar subset opting for three instead.
Fascinatingly, Dissipate tends to be an all-or-nothing card in Solar Flare, with decks that run it tending, in overwhelming numbers, to run the full four copies. I haven’t checked the historical data to see if Dissipate used to appear more generally. However, my suspicion is that we are seeing an ebb in the use of Dissipate as the metagame tends to be dominated by aggro right now, where the “exile” aspect of Dissipate is less critical.
I’m looking forward to seeing whether we have an upswing in the presence of Mental Missteps in sideboards if Illusions retains its current popularity, since that archetype is especially rough for this kind of deck.
The general take home is that right now, Solar Flare decks tend to run counterspell-light. You should expect Mana Leaks and the occasional Flashfreeze or Negate, but not much else…unless you see the first Dissipate, in which case you’ve probably run into that annoying one fifth of the Solar Flare metagame pool which does pack extensive countermagic.
Solar Flare (as played by manu_chao on MTGO)
We close out today’s countermagic roundup with the increasing metagame presence that is Illusions. As I mentioned above, this tends to run as a classic “Fish” deck, sticking one or more light and fast threats, and then supporting them with counterspells and other disruption.
Here’s the Illusions counterspell breakdown:
Mana Leak strikes again, of course. Mana Leak is the core ingredient to the Illusions take on aggro-combo, since it lets you protect that Delver or Bear you dropped on turn one starting on turn two, before your opponent has any defenses established.
In what is likely an acknowledgement of the prevalence of the mirror match, nearly all Illusions decks have two or three copies of Mental Misstep – usually all living in the sideboard.
Illusions decks are also power users of Flashfreeze – again, as a sideboard option.
In contrast, Negate didn’t appear even once in over a hundered Illusions builds. Most Illusions decks do run some number of Dissipates, though, with a significant majority favoring two or three copies of the exiling counterspell. Even more than in the traditional control decks featured above, Illusions is able to present a wall of countermagic to its opponent.
Illusions (as played by Zalae on MTGO)
From black boxes to, well, decks of cards
Hopefully this has been an enlightening experience in terms of what to expect from typical decks within each archetype. I admit I was surprised at how counterspell-light Grixis builds tend to be, for example.
Although your mileage will vary each an every time you sit down against a new opponent and their specific take on the archetype, people do tend to build to known lists, and these decks run specific countermagic for a reason. As a consequence, you can get a pretty good set of guidelines for what to expect by dipping into the recent metagame as we have today.
magic (at) alexandershearer.com
parakkum on twitter