Blue-Red Control was all the rage in the previous Standard format. With cheap interaction from blue’s counterspells and red’s removal, the deck was able to keep up with the more aggressive decks in the format, and tried to turn the corner with six lands and Torrential Gearhulk. Then Blue-White Control popped up thanks to Approach of the Second Sun. Blue-White struggled in control mirrors but was quite good at going over the top of midrange decks in the format. Then came Blue-Black Control, which was doing many of the same things Blue-Red Control was, but adapted to the long grindy games with black card advantage and of course, The Scarab God.
So what changed with Ixalan? Many of the threats and answers in the format changed slightly. Some early aggression and planeswalkers departed, and control picked up possibly the best control card printed since Torrential Gearhulk, Search for Azcanta. This card is really unassuming on the surface. It writes out the old threshold keyword as its transform mechanism, and doesn’t do anything on the power level of Legion’s Landing, Vance’s Blasting Cannons, or Rites of Itlimoc. The back side however, Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, is an unbelievable card. It’s every control mage’s dream built into one card.
Breaking down Search for Azcanta, I see it coming in three parts. The first is the card selection. You control the top of your library (usually aggressively, as getting closer to transforming Search for Azcanta is a great boon). The second part is the mana acceleration. There’s a reason good artifact mana acceleration is not printed anymore. The concern that every deck starts with 4 copies of such a card is too dangerous. Thus, mana acceleration is pied out only to green. But with this cycle of transform cards, blue gets access to mana acceleration that, in Standard, you can flip as early as turn 4 if you’re really willing to work for it (spoiler: you are!). The third is card advantage. Once you’re on Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, you can spend 4 mana each turn to dig for an instant or sorcery. Thus you have a land that rewards you for being flooded by finding you another cheap and efficient answer.
To pair with that, Josh Utter-Leyton (Wrapter), Gerry Thompson, and Sam Black set off to pair the cheapest, most powerful spells they could find. Their list ended up like this, and mine is only one sideboard card off what Wrapter played in the Top 4 of the World Championships:
At this point I’ve played about 15 matches with the deck, and I can already see that people are adapting on Magic Online. You really want access to 1-3 Bontu’s Last Reckonings. Not having access to a sweeper and being prepared for such a narrow metagame is something that the trio were rewarded with at the World Championships, but Standard is not just a three-deck format. There are many different strategies out there, and this build of U/B Control is not the most well equipped to handle them all.
I think if I were to rebuild this deck that I’ve played with for this week, I’d have some copies of Hostage Taker, Bontu’s Last Reckoning, and potentially Gonti, Lord of Luxury in the sideboard. These cards play much worse with the Search for Azcanta plan, as you just want to be churning through your library (more on that in a moment), but each of these are exceptionally powerful in sideboard games as they’re going to be worth multiple cards. Your opponents are leaving in removal, but not enough to consistently grind through these creature-based card advantage sources. I’m sure there’s a way to build this deck with a transformational plan into value creatures, and I’m sure it involves Hostage Taker to fight the creature-based strategies when on the draw.
Search for Azcanta asks a little bit of you in terms of deckbuilding to transform it reliably and quickly. Looking at the list above, you’ll see that there’s only 1 copy of Glimmer of Genius, and the full 8 one-mana cycling spells (Censor and Hieroglyphic Illumination). This, to me, is the biggest innovation with this deck. The ability to cycle these cards to accelerate the transformation of Azcanta is key to playing turn-5 Gearhulks and makes the deck function fluidly with only 26 lands. The power of these one-mana cyclers has made me consider trying to build a version of the deck with 24 lands, 4 search for Azcantas and 4 Opts. That version of the deck would completely rely on transforming Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin for its source of card advantage, and would need more of an array of efficient answers (it would be much more similar to the Grixis Control deck Shota Yasooka brought to Worlds). In all, I believe it’s worth exploring further. It’s not something I’ve put my head down and tried 20-40 matches with yet, but I know that being able to transform Azcanta early and reliably is worthwhile.
The major transition from red to white to black for the removal suite for control decks comes from Vraska’s Contempt. This weaker Hero’s Downfall is effective, and the life gain adds up. When combined with Essence Extraction and the ability to buy them back with Torrential Gearhulk (because they’re both instants), you actually start many 10-turn games at 25 life, and this really pays dividends against decks like Ramunap Red where a slow start is not as damning as it was with U/R or U/W Control. The key here is that you’re not putting cards in your deck for the sake of life gain, but instead playing cards that have life gain tacked on. You wouldn’t play a card like Chaplain’s Blessing, but when you have Healing Salve tacked on to your Lightning Strike, you’re getting closer to what Essence Extraction looks like (ignoring the inability to go to the opponent’s face). Having these pieces of tacked-on life gain goes a long way, and allows a deck that is this slow, and this controlling, to really thrive in this hostile of an environment.
I’ll be battling with the posted U/B Control list later this week. I do recommend some changes even after my preparation matches because as I said, Magic Online is adapting quickly! So please watch the outro and the comments of that video to learn about my thoughts on U/B Control moving forward!