The full spoiler for Ixalan isn’t out yet, but they usually reveal the good stuff first, so we already have a decent idea of what’s coming. First, I’d like to look at what control players won’t have to worry about anymore—for better or worse.
Zombies, Eldrazi Ramp, and U/W Monument are completely gone. Mixed feelings here, as Zombies was a good matchup for the control decks and had also become the most played of the three recently. U/W Monument was a close matchup, especially since they started overloading their sideboard with counterspells, and Eldrazi Ramp was fairly close as well. It’s a good thing that World Breaker and Ulamog are gone, since Summary Dismissal, which is by far your best tool against them, is rotating out as well.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is leaving too, and it won’t be missed. The white planeswalker is probably the one card control players have single-handedly lost to the most in the past few years, rendering the archetype borderline unplayable at times, even though it isn’t as much of a nightmare recently with cards like Cast Out, Hour of Devastation, and more good, cheap countermagic (Censor, Supreme Will).
Red also takes a major hit as it loses two of its best 1-drops, especially potent against control decks (even though Bomat Courier is very good too). I, for one, will be happy to be facing turn-1 Soul-Scar Mage instead of Village Messenger or Falkenrath Gorger. Mardu doesn’t lose much in quantity but it does lose Thraben Inspector, which in some ways was the deck’s cornerstone. It also loses Archangel Avacyn, which could be annoying to play around at times and would have been harder to deal with with Grasp of Darkness gone.
Finally, the creaturelands are gone. They weren’t a huge issue for control decks, but I’ve definitely lost my fair share of games to them. You couldn’t target them with Cast Out and they were almost all annoying in their own way (sorry Shambling Vent, lifelink is a keyword I’m not too worried about). You couldn’t profitably ambush Quagmire with Gearhulk, Needle Spires hit pretty hard, Lumbering Falls being hexproof could steal games, and Wandering Fumarole was a huge asset in the control mirrors.
What You Do Have to Worry About
So far, Carnage Tyrant is the big one—or the one that’s getting the most hype, anyway. Straight blue-red is going to struggle with the new Dino, white should be fine thanks to Fumigate, and black has some tools as well (Trial of Ambition, Bontu’s Last Reckoning, Harsh Scrutiny), even though none of them are especially exciting. Maybe blue-black’s best tool will simply be The Scarab God. Even though it doesn’t trade with it, it should be able to find a plus-one to deal with the Tyrant.
Another card that caught my attention was Shaper’s Sanctuary. It’s not a great topdeck and it doesn’t help you against sweepers or edict effects, but it can be a game-winning turn 1 play. I even wonder if we’re going to see the card maindecked. It’s decent against control but also against pretty much every other deck in the format. You get to draw a card if your opponent tries to shoot down your creatures with Walking Ballista, Glorybringer, Chandra Torch of Defiance, or any removal spell, and it makes Earthshaker Khenra and Ahn-Crop Crasher’s abilities way less appealing.
Duress and Spell Pierce are also being reprinted. While Spell Pierce is blue, it’s typically way better in aggressive strategies since the 1-mana spell loses a ton of value the longer the game goes. If Heart of Kiran is everywhere, I can see Spell Pierce making its way into control decks, but probably just as a 1- or 2-of.
While you can play Duress in control decks, it might hurt the archetype more than it will help it, though the idea of being able to pave the way for a turn-5 Scarab God is appealing. You typically want to make them spend their mana when you’re playing control, so I’m not sure you will want to play Duress over Negate. 1 mana isn’t much, but between lands that enter the battlefield tapped, cycling costs, and cards like Opt, it adds up. Duress is also worse than Negate in long games and doesn’t prevent your opponent from topdecking.
One last card I want to talk about is Ixalan’s Binding. While the new Oblivion Ring shouldn’t see much play over Cast Out, I could see it being played alongside it, and control players would have to worry about either packing a wide enough array of threats or enough Duress/Negate/Disallow type of cards. Once again, blue-red is probably the most ill-equipped to deal with Binding while white has access to their own Cast Outs (or even their own Bindings!) and black can play something like Consign // Oblivion.
What You Lose
Black takes a big hit as it will lose one of its key removal spells: Grasp of Darkness. No more Flaying Tendrils either, which had recently become a staple, and you won’t have access to cards like Kalitas or Liliana anymore.
White is probably the most impacted as it loses Blessed Alliance, Stasis Snare, and Immolating Glare, as well as a personal favorite of mine: Quarantine Field. Archangel Avacyn and Spell Queller were both solid sideboard options and they will be rotating out as well.
With about half of the cards spoiled (and probably most of the good ones), Opt is the (only?) big one for blue. I love that card, and was playing 4 copies in the Blue Skies deck I battled with in my first Pro Tour in Chicago 2000 (you know, one of the seven Kai won). I actually went back to take a look at the control deck lists from that PT to see if people were playing Opt or not. About half of them were and half of them weren’t.
I honestly don’t know (or can’t remember) if it was right to play the card back then in control decks (it was very good in Blue Skies) and I’m not sure it will be right to play it this time around. It could end up depending on how many enters-the-battlefield tapped lands you have in your deck or how fast the format is.
The filtering effect is nice, but if it’s causing you to play off-curve too often, it might not be worth it. You might be more likely to play it if there were cards in your deck you desperately wanted to draw, a card you would play more than 4-of if you could, or maybe in a deck where you have a bunch of 1- or 2-ofs because you don’t want to draw more than one in a given game but still want a reasonable chance to see it.
On a side note, people are getting excited about it for Modern but I don’t really see it. The instant speed is nice but the effect is much worse than Serum Visions or Sleight of Hand. Peek has always been legal and has never seen much play, and I’m guessing it will eventually be the same for Opt (or maybe Peek is underplayed?).
Spell Swindle is the other potentially playable card but Confirm Suspicions never saw much play and I’m guessing the same will go for Swindle, especially given that we already have The Scarab God in the 5 slot.
If blue-black loses one of its two great removal spells, it gains what is perhaps the best card in Ixalan: Vraska’s Contempt. It has it all—instant speed, exile effect, targets both creatures and planeswalkers, and life gain. One downside is that there is a small chance playing all 4 copies alongside 4 copies of Glimmer of Genius will be too clunky, especially if you have to play some number of Bontu’s Last Reckoning to deal with Carnage Tyrant, but the card looks fantastic and I’ll be getting my playset ASAP. The other downside is that opposing decks will now have a great answer to your Scarab Gods and if I’m not a fan of playing main-deck Duress in my control decks, it might be a necessary evil.
I don’t think Walk the Plank will see much play as it doesn’t deal with Vehicles, isn’t great against haste creatures, and doesn’t solve your Bristling Hydra problems. After a full playset of Fatal Push and Vraska’s Contempt, I will probably be looking at cards like Consign // Oblivion, Trial of Ambition, Yahenni’s Expertise, or Bontu’s Last Reckoning, depending on how the metagame shapes up.
Settle the Wreckage is another card that doesn’t seem playable to me. Most of the aggro decks will probably have 6+ basic lands and even if they don’t make great use of the extra lands, the drawback is still very real, especially if you’re playing with Supreme Will in your deck. It might be a decent sideboard option if something like Mardu is still around (Matt Severa’s list only had 1 basic land in it) and it does get rid of Carnage Tyrant.
Thaumatic Compass, while extremely slow, could see some sideboard action in the mirror match.
Last but not least (or maybe least), Sunbird’s Invocation might be playable in a Jeskai Approach of the Second Sun deck. If this deck is going to survive, it is probably going to have to get help from a third color given how weak the white removal spells are, and throwing in a copy or two of this 6-mana enchantment might be an option. You can get the instant turn-7 win but “just” casting Hour of Devastation or Fumigate into Glimmer of Genius doesn’t sound bad either.
Here is what my first version of blue-black will probably look like:
Gonti has been good for me out of the sideboard and it’s a good way to deal with hexproof creatures. Aether Meltdown might be needed to make up for the lack of Grasp in the early turns, especially if Heart of Kiran is popular. Game 1 in the mirror might play out like the current blue-red mirror now that you have a removal spell that actually deals with The Scarab God and Torrential Gearhulk efficiently. A lot of games might come down to decking, so I like having the Desert package. The one upside of Grasp’s departure is that your mana base isn’t as color-intensive as it once was, so I think you can afford a colorless land or two.
It’s also possible the format turns into a Duress-fest and every black deck wants 4 copies main because the card is that good. It could also turn out that the tribal decks are good and if those decks have few noncreature spells, you won’t be able to pack too many Duresses.
I like staying in two colors, but if you’re desperate for a good sweeper and artifacts, or enchantments turn out to be popular and you want access to Cast Out, you could go the Esper route and try something like:
I think you need the full 16 duals and with so many enters-the-battlefield tapped lands, I decided not to run Opt. You’re playing 8 cycling lands so you don’t need to worry too much about getting flooded in the mid-to-late game. I don’t want to rely on Aether Hub, but you might want to run one or two.
There’s only one good blue-red dual left, and now that black has Vraska’s Contempt, you’re not as desperate for Magma Spray’s exile effect, so I’m not sure blue-red is really worth the trouble. You’ll also probably get shredded by control decks that have access to Duress. You could go Grixis and have access to Duress yourself, but I’m not sure red offers enough.
I have never been too sure what to think about the current U/W Approach deck, but you’ll probably just want to play an Esper version of it once the new set kicks in. It might be well positioned as you won’t have to worry about Vraska’s Contempt, but you will still have to find a way to sideboard against a potential Lost Legacy (the card has grown rampant online in the past few weeks).
There are still a couple of weeks to go before Ixalan prereleases, and though a lot of the cards seemed lackluster at first, I’m getting excited about the new set. Hopefully there are a few gems left (Arguel’s Blood Fast was spoiled as I was writing this) and who knows, maybe a new sweet counterspell or a playable sweeper will be one of them. I would ask for another cool finisher but I doubt anything would top Gearhulk or The Scarab God.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions, or if you want to share what you think the new blue control decks will look like.