Control is usually not very good in Modern. This is from someone who has a lot of experience in this department, given that I always try to play control and it rarely works. The threats are just too different, and it’s impossible to build your deck to be good against everything. Since every deck is 5% of the field, trying to hit the metagame just right is often a fool’s errand in this format.
Right now, things are different. There are somewhat clear archetypes established and, even though there isn’t a deck that is 30% of the field, there are frontrunners for each archetype: Burn, Humans/Spirits, Hollow One/Bridgevine, Blue-White/Jeskai, KCI, Mardu, and Tron. I no longer expect to play against 18 different decks in 20 rounds of Modern—I expect to play against an even mix of those decks, and perhaps a couple of stragglers.
On top of that, the type of card you want against each of those archetypes often overlaps. Wrath effects are good against Humans and Spirits, but they can also be good versus Hollow One and Bridgevine. Graveyard hate is great versus Hollow One and Bridgevine, and also serves as hate for KCI. Stony Silence is great versus KCI, but it’s also good versus Tron and Hardened Scales. Dispel is fantastic both in the mirror and against Burn. Damping Sphere is good versus KCI and good versus Tron and Storm. In today’s Modern metagame, even the narrow cards aren’t so narrow if you pick the right ones.
This is the prime spot for control decks to shine because they can actually be built to attack a specific metagame, and they have access to all the sideboard cards that KO other decks. On top of that, control is in an axis of its own in this metagame—there is very little overlap between control and other decks, so it’s hard to take an “anti-control” deck to a tournament. What would that deck look like? Would it be able to beat anything else?
With that said, how do you build your control deck?
Grixis, Jeskai, or U/W
In Modern, there are three relatively popular control decks: Grixis, Jeskai and U/W. I think Grixis is basically just a bad Blue-White/Jeskai for the most part. It has the best Snapcaster Mages, and the fact that it can play hand disruption makes it the best variant for the mirror, but I don’t prefer it versus almost anything else, and the mirror doesn’t have enough metagame share to justify it. Unless your name is Corey Burkhart, you should probably not play Grixis. In fact, I don’t think Corey should play it either, though he probably will.
U/W and Jeskai are a lot closer. Here are some sample lists from past GPs:
Javier Dominguez (The main deck is also identical to Branco Neirynck’s deck from GP Stockholm)
In general, there’s a little more variation between versions of U/W, and Jeskai decks are all almost identical with the exception of the one played by Ben Stark and Luis Scott-Vargas in GP Detroit.
Whether you want to play U/W or Jeskai depends on which metagame you expect. In general, the red cards (Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix and Electrolyze) are key against creature decks that aren’t strictly trying to attack you. If you’re trying to kill a Wild Nacatl, then it doesn’t really matter if you Condemn or Bolt it, but if you’re trying to kill a Thalia, a Meddling Mage, a Kitesail Freebooter, a Devoted Druid, a Steel Overseer, a Spell Queller or a Drogskol Captain, then the red spells are much more effective, because you can time them however you want instead of being at the mercy of what your opponent is doing. Lightning Helix in particular is incredible versus Burn, especially if you’re using Snapcaster Mage to flash it back.
The burn spells also provide you with an avenue to win the game. Neither deck can apply a lot of pressure, but Jeskai can at least apply some pressure between Bolts and Snapcaster Mages. This makes it so that cards like Celestial Colonnade, Snapcaster Mage, and Vendilion Clique can actually close out some games.
Finally, the red spells are also better than the white removal spells against other control decks because of planeswalkers. I can Bolt your Jace, but you can’t Condemn, Oust, or Terminus my Teferi.
The U/W benefits, on the other hand, are a better (and less painful) mana base that is less vulnerable to Blood Moon, and access to Terminus. You could, of course, play Terminus in Jeskai (and it surprises me that nobody does), but it’s not as effective because that deck runs fewer cheap cantrips and usually no Jace, the Mind Sculptor. In U/W, the sweepers are a game plan—in Jeskai, the game plan is to individually kill every creature your opponent plays, and the sweepers are an “oh no” button. Having a more consistent mana base might seem like a small thing, but it’s going to matter every single game you play in the tournament, so it adds up.
The red cards are, in general, very ineffective against graveyard strategies. Hollow One, Gurmag Angler, Bloodghast, Flamewake Phoenix, Vengevine, and Prized Amalgam all largely ignore Bolt and Helix, but are all hit by Condemn and especially Terminus.
At first glance, it might seem like Jeskai is better. After all, Humans + Spirits are more popular than Hollow One + Vengevine, and Burn is pretty popular right now, relatively speaking. I believe in that matchup that having access to Lightning Helix is worth the damage you take from your lands. But the percentages aren’t necessarily equal. Jeskai is very good versus Humans, but U/W is still good versus Humans—just not as good. Against a deck like Hollow One, on the other hand, U/W is good, and Jeskai is bad. In the end, U/W has more even matchups, whereas Jeskai is more polarized. Personally, I don’t think the “decks Jeskai is better against” percentage of the metagame share is big enough to justify how much worse it is versus the graveyard decks. Burn might be the most popular deck online right now, but it’s still only 7% of the field, which is not so different from the, say, 4% or so it was before.
Terminus, Verdict, Wrath, or Settle the Wreckage
In my mind, Terminus is simply too good not to play right now. It’s excellent versus Humans, Spirits, Hollow One, and Dredgevine, and also not bad versus decks like Mardu Pyromancer. This is just too large a percentage of the field. If I play a control deck, I want to play four Terminus, and I want to maximize my ability to cast it with cards like Jace, Opt and Serum Visions. Most people play a fifth sweeper in U/W, and I think that’s good (I like the first Supreme Verdict more than the first Settle the Wreckage), but I think the first four should be Terminus, even if it leaves you slightly more vulnerable to Meddling Mage.
I like Terminus because it’s sort of a split card where some of the modes are amazing and the others are just OK. If you ever randomly miracle a Terminus, then the game is over against a lot of decks—they’re just not prepared to beat a 1-mana Wrath, even if it’s very early in the game and you’re only getting two creatures with it. You can also set it up with scrys and Jace, the Mind Sculptor and it becomes very hard to beat. Sometimes, though, you just naturally cast a 6-mana Terminus, and that’s okay too. Supreme Verdict is more consistent, of course, but I think Terminus ranges from like a 4 to a 10, whereas Supreme Verdict is always a 6, give or take.
If you’re playing Jeskai and you don’t want Terminus, then Javier’s approach of one Supreme Verdict, one Wrath of God to dodge Meddling Mage is the best one. If Spirits becomes popular, then I can see myself going to two Verdict, since they bring in counterspells post-board, but at this point in time Humans is still more popular than Spirits, so I’d err on the side of splitting them. Andrew Lopez played two Supreme Verdict and one Settle the Wreckage, which I can get behind, but I’d go with a 1-1-1 split. Jeskai has many ways of killing Meddling Mage, so it doesn’t have to worry that much about it (whereas I think playing two Supreme Verdicts in U/W would be a very bad choice), but I still think it’s worth it.
Opt, Serum Visions, Ancestral Vision, Illumination, or Peek
All these spells have merit, but I think Opt is the best. Being an instant is just too good, since it lets you keep your mana up and know what you have to react to, and it works much better with Snapcaster Mage because tapping 3 mana on your turn is a real cost. On top of that, it gives you the opportunity to play Terminus on their turn, which can be devastating.
Serum Visions versus Ancestral Vision is a metagame call. In general, Ancestral Vision is better in grindy matchups: Mardu, Jund, and control mirrors. If my opponent is countering what I’m doing or attacking my hand in some way, then I want Ancestral. Serum Visions is better against matchups where you have to be fast. Against decks like Humans, Hollow One, and KCI, it helps to dig for Path to Exile and your sideboard cards, and it helps to set up Terminus.
Right now, I think the latter is more important. There are too many unforgiving decks to play Ancestral Vision (though this could change at any moment). So my preference is Serum Visions. I don’t think you need to play four, though. In fact, I think four is probably incorrect, and I’d keep to two or three, because I don’t think you have all the time in the world to durdle. Some people play a small number of Ancestral Vision and I think that’s also good.
I can’t really get behind Hieroglyphic Illumination. Both Luis and Ben played it at the GP, and they both said it was good, but I’m going to need some more convincing. The two modes are just so bad, and the card doesn’t work nearly as well with Snapcaster Mage as Opt does. I understand that sometimes you’re in a grindy matchup and you draw two and it’s good, but that’s so… bad. In the late game, Opting a useless land to the bottom is almost the same as drawing two cards anyway. It’s possible I’m underestimating this card, but it would not make my Jeskai deck at this point.
I’m also not a fan of Peek. Only Andrew Lopez played it, and I’d rather play Illumination. Looking at their hand is not that important.
If you’re playing Jeskai, then I can get behind Vendilion Clique—you have an aggressive approach to your deck and you can deal some damage with Clique, one attack with Colonnade here or there, and finish them off with burn. In this deck, it plays triple-duty—it’s disruption, defense, and it kills them.
In U/W, I’m not a fan, because I think the “killing them” part never happens. Yes, sometimes you will attack with Vendilion Clique 7 times, but you could win those games with Jace or Teferi anyway. The presence of Teferi means that you actually have a “clock” that isn’t damage-based, and Vendilion Clique doesn’t really do anything in this regard. When it’s only there for disruption and blocking, I simply don’t think it’s good enough.
Oust, Timely Reinforcements, or Condemn
I think Condemn is the best of these, but I understand playing one Oust to diversify. Neither is as good as Path against basically anything, but you can’t play eight Paths. Oust is just an embarrassment of a Magic card for the most part, especially since people running fetchlands means that you can’t exactly “Oust-lock” them because they can just shuffle their library if they don’t want to draw their creature again, but there are a lot of creatures that you want to kill and don’t necessarily attack you, so I think having one Oust is a necessary evil. There’s such a thing as too many Condemns. Both these spells can also be used to gain some life if you target your own creatures. Oust works best with Snapcaster Mage, and Condemn is good with Celestial Colonnade.
I understand why Timely Reinforcements is there, but I don’t like it. I don’t think you need a life gain spell in this format (almost no aggro deck burns you out from a reasonable life total, only the deck Burn), and you’re not necessarily interested in buying time against the other flavors of aggressive decks. Decks like Humans, Hollow One, Affinity, and Spirits attack in very big chunks, and I’m more interested in stopping creature synergies for good than stemming the bleeding. It is going to be the best card in your deck against Burn, but even against Burn it’s sometimes weak (as they have Skullcrack or Atarka’s Command, and they can also Shock themselves with fetchlands low enough that you can’t always cast Timely when you want to).
Overall, I think I’d play one Oust and fill all my other slots with Condemn. Timely I’d just move to the sideboard.
2, 3, or 4 Snapcasters
In Jeskai, I think it’s mandatory to play four—you have more cheap spells to flashback, and, like Vendilion Clique, you actually have the aggression going for it because it gets in for chip damage. In U/W, it’s a different story. It’s more of a utility card that lets you rebuy whatever you need at a particular moment. Personally, I like two Snapcaster Mages in U/W.
So, if I were to play control, it would be U/W, and my list would look something like this: