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 [card]Mana Leak[/card] 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.

This attitude may be a function of players not actually playing enough control – just like players who never field [card wild nacatl]Nacatls[/card] and [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s tend to imagine that aggro decks are “easy” or “dumb.”

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.

Also, keep in mind that [card]Mana Leak[/card] is near-ubiquitous in decks running blue, even those decks that aren’t taking on the control role, such as U/W Humans. If a deck has blue, expect [card]Mana Leak[/card].

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 [card]Flashfreeze[/card] 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 [card]Flashfreeze[/card] (blue slice)
2% of them ran 3 copies of [card]Flashfreeze[/card] (green slice)
20% of them ran 2 copies of [card]Flashfreeze[/card] (yellow slice)
13% of them ran 1 copy of [card]Flashfreeze[/card] (red slice)
64% of them ran 0 copies of [card]Flashfreeze[/card] (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 [card]Flashfreeze[/card], 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.

U/B Control

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 – [card]Mana Leak[/card] 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 [card]Mana Leak[/card].

The intriguing runner-up position goes to [card]Dissipate[/card], 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 [card]Steel Sabotage[/card], 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 [card]Steel Sabotage[/card] 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)

[deck]4 Darkslick Shores
4 Drowned Catacomb
2 Ghost Quarter
8 Island
2 Nephalia Drownyard
6 Swamp
2 Consecrated Sphinx
1 Grave Titan
3 Snapcaster Mage
2 Black Sun's Zenith
2 Dissipate
3 Doom Blade
4 Forbidden Alchemy
1 Karn Liberated
2 Liliana of the Veil
4 Mana Leak
1 Negate
1 Nihil Spellbomb
4 Think Twice
1 Tribute to Hunger
1 Visions of Beyond
2 Wring Flesh
Sideboard:
2 Batterskull
1 Black Sun's Zenith
3 Curse of Death's Hold
1 Disperse
2 Jace, Memory Adept
1 Liliana of the Veil
2 Negate
2 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Volition Reins[/deck]

Grixis

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 [card]Day of Judgment[/card] and [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] for additional card advantage from [card]Desperate Ravings[/card], and the ability to field a helicopter gunship named [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card].

Here’s how our Grixis 2% have been slinging countermagic in the past week or so:

Once again, [card]Mana Leak[/card] 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 [card]Flashfreeze[/card] and [card]Negate[/card], 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 [card]Mana Leak[/card] 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 [card]Mana Leak[/card]s…then they’re probably bluffing.

Grixis (as played by Washi_min on MTGO)

[deck]4 Blackcleave Cliffs
1 Copperline Gorge
4 Darkslick Shores
1 Dragonskull Summit
4 Drowned Catacomb
3 Island
3 Mountain
2 Stensia Bloodhall
4 Sulfur Falls
3 Grave Titan
3 Olivia Voldaren
3 Snapcaster Mage
3 Desperate Ravings
2 Dissipate
3 Doom Blade
3 Forbidden Alchemy
3 Galvanic Blast
1 Geth's Verdict
1 Go for the Throat
4 Mana Leak
2 Slagstorm
2 Think Twice
1 Whipflare
Sideboard:
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Go for the Throat
3 Grim Lavamancer
1 Negate
3 Phantasmal Image
1 Stensia Bloodhall
3 Surgical Extraction
1 Wurmcoil Engine[/deck]

U/W Blade

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 [card]Mirran Crusader[/card] and [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card].

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, [card]Mana Leak[/card] 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 [card]Dissipate[/card] or [card]Negate[/card] in most Blade decks you run up against. [card]Flashfreeze[/card] is the only genuinely common backup counterspell, often living side-by-side with [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] 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.

Regardless, your take home here is simple – expect [card]Mana Leak[/card]s and almost only [card]Mana Leak[/card]s.

U/W Blade (as played by sandydogmtg on MTGO)

[deck]4 Glacial Fortress
3 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Island
2 Moorland Haunt
9 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Blade Splicer
3 Hero of Bladehold
4 Mirran Crusader
3 Snapcaster Mage
3 Spellskite
2 Dismember
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Mana Leak
2 Midnight Haunting
3 Oblivion Ring
2 Sword of Feast and Famine
Sideboard:
2 Day of Judgment
2 Dissipate
4 Flashfreeze
3 Mental Misstep
4 Timely Reinforcements[/deck]

U/W Control

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 [card]Mana Leak[/card] entry – for the first time, [card]Mana Leak[/card] 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 [card]Mana Leak[/card]s.

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 [card]Negate[/card] appears in U/W Control, I’m actually pretty surprised that [card]Dissipate[/card] is so rare. Notably, when [card]Dissipate[/card] 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 [card]Dissipate[/card] 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)

[deck]2 Buried Ruin
3 Ghost Quarter
4 Glacial Fortress
8 Island
6 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
2 Snapcaster Mage
2 Blue Sun's Zenith
4 Day of Judgment
3 Dissipate
1 Elspeth Tirel
2 Gideon Jura
2 Karn Liberated
4 Mana Leak
2 Negate
4 Ponder
3 Ratchet Bomb
4 Think Twice
Sideboard:
3 Divine Offering
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Elixir of Immortality
1 Mimic Vat
2 Negate
3 Oblivion Ring
3 Timely Reinforcements
1 White Sun's Zenith[/deck]

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.

Solar Flare

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 [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] / [card snapcaster mage]Snapcaster[/card] deck that may or may not use [card]Unburial Rites[/card]. 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 [card]Mana Leak[/card], with a peculiar subset opting for three instead.

Fascinatingly, [card]Dissipate[/card] 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 [card]Dissipate[/card] 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 [card]Dissipate[/card] is less critical.

We see a decent presence of both [card]Negate[/card] and [card]Flashfreeze[/card], both largely living in sideboards rather than main decks.

I’m looking forward to seeing whether we have an upswing in the presence of [card]Mental Misstep[/card]s 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 [card]Mana Leak[/card]s and the occasional [card]Flashfreeze[/card] or [card]Negate[/card], but not much else…unless you see the first [card]Dissipate[/card], 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)

[deck]4 Darkslick Shores
2 Drowned Catacomb
2 Ghost Quarter
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Island
3 Isolated Chapel
2 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
2 Swamp
4 Snapcaster Mage
3 Day of Judgment
3 Dissipate
3 Doom Blade
1 Elspeth Tirel
4 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Gideon Jura
1 Karn Liberated
1 Liliana of the Veil
4 Mana Leak
1 Negate
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Ratchet Bomb
4 Think Twice
1 White Sun's Zenith
Sideboard:
1 Day of Judgment
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Jace, Memory Adept
1 Liliana of the Veil
1 Negate
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Surgical Extraction
4 Timely Reinforcements
1 White Sun's Zenith
2 Wurmcoil Engine[/deck]

Illusions

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:

[card]Mana Leak[/card] strikes again, of course. [card]Mana Leak[/card] is the core ingredient to the Illusions take on aggro-combo, since it lets you protect that [card delver of secrets]Delver[/card] 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 [card]Mental Misstep[/card] – usually all living in the sideboard.

Illusions decks are also power users of [card]Flashfreeze[/card] – again, as a sideboard option.

In contrast, [card]Negate[/card] didn’t appear even once in over a hundered Illusions builds. Most Illusions decks do run some number of [card]Dissipate[/card]s, 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)

[deck]3 Glacial Fortress
10 Island
3 Moorland Haunt
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Delver of Secrets
2 Geist of Saint Traft
4 Lord of the Unreal
4 Phantasmal Bear
4 Phantasmal Image
4 Snapcaster Mage
3 Gitaxian Probe
3 Gut Shot
4 Mana Leak
4 Ponder
4 Vapor Snag
Sideboard
2 Dissipate
2 Flashfreeze
1 Glacial Fortress
1 Gut Shot
2 Mental Misstep
1 Negate
3 Oblivion Ring
3 Stitched Drake[/deck]

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.

Also, [card]Mana Leak[/card]. Even if all else is in doubt, [card]Mana Leak[/card]. It’s everywhere.

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