Last weekend, I went 8-2 with Blue-Red Control at PT Amonkhet, which was enough to secure me Gold level for this season. Afterward, I got a ton of messages asking for sideboard advice with the deck, and also comments such as: “24 lands? Really?” Since a lot of people seemed interested in the deck, I figured I could answer all their questions in one place.
Why U/R Control?
Let’s start with why I played U/R Control. To people who know me, the answer is obvious: I play control all the time. Indeed, I came into testing already almost locked on U/R. The deck had gained a lot of tools it had been missing: Magma Spray and Censor most importantly, and Pull from Tomorrow, Commit // Memory, Sweltering Suns, and Hieroglyphic Illumination as additional options. I expected that with these cards added, the Mardu matchup would be close to 50/50, and the deck already looked like a good choice against everything else.
Unfortunately, testing revealed that the Mardu matchup was still unfavorable. So I moved on to Temur Marvel and started working on that deck. Then something odd happened. Initially, most of the players in our group (I tested with Niels Noorlander, Niels Molle, Brent Vos, Mattia Rizzi, Martin Hrycej, and Dominik Prosek) were on Mardu. But Mardu was losing against Zombies and losing against our Marvel list. So Mardu could be beaten, and that meant the players at the PT would.
The rest of the time I worked on both U/R and Marvel, but I eventually settled on playing Marvel. On Thursday, we went to the site to register and I bought the cards I was missing for the deck. We learned that Relentless Dead was sold out at the dealers and started thinking about adding Chandra Flamecaller to our deck. But during dinner, it suddenly hit me. I already had a deck that crushed Zombies. And if Zombies was going to be the breakout deck, that meant bad news for Mardu. If I could dodge Mardu for a bit, U/R Control would clean up the inevitable Zombie/Marvel metagame on Day 2.
The Deck List
Main Deck Card Choices
24 lands, 4 Hieroglyphic Illumination
This is the big one. I’m quite sure I was the only U/R player to register these numbers, and they are definitely not what I expected to play at first. But in testing I noticed that I would flood out too often and lose even in the late game, where the control deck is supposed to be strongest. The configuration with fewer lands and 4 Illumination solved this issue. Hieroglyphic Illumination may not look great on the surface, but cycling for 1 mana is just an incredibly low opportunity cost. The combination of playing fewer lands and more draw-2s makes running out of gas unlikely.
Meanwhile, Illumination is never a dead draw in the early game, as you can simply cycle it away. This is extremely important in the current metagame, which is filled with aggressive decks and 1-card game-winners that don’t allow for you to lack an answer for one turn.
But don’t you get mana-screwed more often? Obviously, yes, it will happen more often than if you ran more lands. But I’m convinced 24 is the optimal number for this build. When you are light on mana, that means you have a lot of spells in hand, so at this point it’s fine to cycle Illumination and Censor aggressively. Therefore you could approximate the mana density of the deck as if it didn’t include these cards. A 53-card deck with 24 lands is like a 60-card deck with 27 lands (more than the 26 that was the normal number pre-Amonkhet). Obviously, cycling for 1 mana is not completely free, and you don’t always want to be forced to cycle, so calling a deck with seven 1-mana cyclers a 53-card deck is not exactly true, but this calculation still shows how the deck can function on only 24 lands. Maybe Frank Karsten can find a better way to mathematically prove this point—I only arrived at 24 lands empirically.
1 Pull from Tomorrow
This is the draw spell that initially attracted the most attention. The comparison between this and Sphinx’s Revelation has been made many times, and others have explained why the card isn’t as good (but still fine). One point I haven’t seen made is about the metagame the cards existed in. At the time of Sphinx’s Revelation, the nature of threats and answers allowed you to come back from behind. The U/W Control deck played Supreme Verdict and either Planar Cleansing or Detention Sphere, cards that allowed you to wipe out any of the threats your opponent had resolved in the time you were building up lands and possibly missing on interaction.
The current threats don’t allow for that. You can’t spend some turns making land drops for a big draw spell while there’s a Gideon or Marvel in play—if it’s there for two turns, you’re probably dead. Pull from Tomorrow ideally wants a high land count, and several copies of the X-draw to make up for it. But both the lands and the extra Pulls are not cheap interaction spells, so this setup increases the chance that you don’t have the right answer at the right time, and die before you get to the point where Pull from Tomorrow becomes useful.
On the plus side, Pull from Tomorrow is a good way to put the game away once you do get to the later stages, which is why I still have 1 copy. It’s also useful to have access to this effect in case your Gearhulks get Dispossessed. Still, the card is not essential to this build of the deck, so I could see it getting cut in favor of another hard counter (Disallow or Void Shatter).
3 Sweltering Suns
This is another card that I changed my opinion on during testing. It seemed like merely a decent option at first. Surely cycling 3 was just a bit too expensive? It turns out that in the matchups where this card is dead, it doesn’t matter how much you need to pay to get rid of it—being able to replace it with another card is still great. And the card is well-positioned. Against Mardu you need to get rid of their little creatures at some point, against Marvel it cleans up all their creatures including Virtuoso and any number of Thopters, and against Zombies it’s simply great.
0 Commit // Memory
The card isn’t bad, but it was consistently mediocre. 4 mana is a lot for a 1-for-1 interactive spell, even if it’s versatile. With the expected Zombie outbreak, I ended up cutting it for the third copy of the overperforming Sweltering Suns.
3 Censor, 3 Negate, 2 Essence Scatter, 3 Disallow, 1 Void Shatter
There’s not that much to say about the counterspell package. Censor is a good card, but it doesn’t actually counter spells all that often, so you need a high density of hard counters. Negate is mediocre against Zombies but great everywhere else, and I would not run fewer than 3 currently. Essence Scatter is fine and has targets in every matchup. Void Shatter is sometimes better than Disallow, which is why I like the 3-1 split. Having more options when both can be relevant is a good thing.
As a general note, I board out 1-2 Censor in almost every matchup. It’s a great catch-all card for game 1, but it’s also the card I shave most often when I have more specialized cards to bring in. Keeping 5 or 6 cyclers is enough to have the required mana density, especially if you take out a Gearhulk against aggressive decks. Sideboarding is fluid, so these are just basic guidelines to give you an idea which cards to bring in and take out in each matchup. You should definitely mix things up as you learn more about your opponent’s exact deck composition, sideboard plan, and play style.
Thing in the Ice is the best card to beat Mardu. I’ve never understood why people haven’t adopted 4 copies of this card. Once it flips, it completely swings the tempo of the matchup to the point where even Gideon isn’t a threat anymore. Even if they remove it, they usually pay 3 mana, which is a win for you. But don’t do stupid things to protect it. If they try to kill it on your turn and you only have one counter (or the mana for one counter), you probably need to allow it. Countering a Disintegration to get wrecked by Chandra is not a good idea.
This is a pretty generic sideboard strategy. There are now various new Marvel versions out there that I haven’t played against, so I can’t claim that this is correct against all of them. Depending on their exact strategy, it might be good to bring in up to 4 Things to pressure them. Marvel is generally a good matchup in game 1 and even after sideboard.
This matchup is great, as you have all the tools to deal with their threats as long as you apply them correctly. After sideboard you get Tower, which is almost unbeatable for them. Sideboarding can vary, if you are sure they have Dispossess you should probably cut another Gearhulk (especially on the draw) and consider boarding a couple of Thing in the Ice—it’s actually a good card in the matchup, it’s just that Tower is even better.
This matchup is quite different as they have Gideon, so you need to keep Negates. Brutal Expulsion is not as good here as they don’t have Relentless Dead. In testing we preferred the mono-black variant, so I don’t have much experience with this matchup and this sideboard plan is certainly not set in stone. Bringing Tower instead of creatures is also possible, and I would be inclined to do so on the play—it’s a guessing game on both sides.
The matchup is still good, as you should always win game 1 against a deck with dead removal spells and Grizzly Bears.
This is not a matchup I’m super comfortable with, but Thing in the Ice is for sure the best card for it. Game 1 is rough, particularly on the draw where you can’t beat an opening like Attune into Cub, but if they don’t have it they’ll probably draw some dead removal spells and run out of gas eventually. After sideboard it’s mostly about being able to flip Thing in the Ice.
I didn’t expect there to be a ton of mirrors, so I didn’t have a specialized slot like Kefnet or Sphinx of the Final Word. I’m also not completely convinced they are better than the plan I currently have, as Kefnet is situational and Sphinx can be raced with Tower and/or Gearhulk (especially if you find Commit to slow it down). Summary Dismissal is also possible as an answer to opposing Sphinxes (including from Marvel decks).
Right after the Pro Tour, I expected U/R Control to be well positioned in the short-term metagame of Zombies and Marvel. Three of my teammates took the trip to Santiago and played the deck in the GP. Niels Noorlander made Top 8 with it, while Martin Hrycej and Mattia Rizzi finished 9th and 14th respectively. They each made slight tweaks to the list, so I’ll make sure to get their feedback in time for GP Amsterdam.
As the results of the GPs showed, Mardu Vehicles is not dead at all, so it’s unlikely that U/R will be the best deck in the format. Still, the matchup is not disastrous, so depending on the exact composition of the metagame on any given weekend, U/R may be well-positioned
I’ll be happy to read your feedback in the comments!