During the first week of February, I’ll be in Bilbao with the rest of Team Coverage as we bring the live stream of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan to the world. For those new to Modern, getting across the huge scope of viable decks is quite intimidating. To bring everyone up to speed for the Pro Tour, Level 1 Modern is a column that seeks to explain the game plan, strengths, and weaknesses of the format’s major archetypes. This week, I’m looking at White-Blue based (“U/W/x”) Control.
What U/W/x Control Does
The control decks of Modern have not had much time in the sun in recent years. Generally speaking, blue is toward the weaker end of the format’s spectrum, which means that control decks pay the price. A recent resurgence in blue-based control, however, has given control mages a reason to rejoice—it’s a viable choice in Modern once again!
White-blue based control decks in Modern seek to do more or less exactly what control decks are famous for—keeping the board empty with removal or sweepers, controlling the game with counterspells, and staying ahead on cards. These decks are slow and lumbering, but once the game is locked up under their control, it’s very difficult for an opponent to get back into it.
There are two principal variants of white-blue based control. First, there is straight white-blue, which leans heavily on planeswalkers and benefits from a virtually painless mana base.
Andrew McQuary, 19th place at GP Oklahoma City 2017
Second, there is Jeskai Control, which adds red to take advantage of burn spells, which are at their best when paired with Snapcaster Mage.
Logan Martin, 18th place at GP Oklahoma City 2017
One of the most striking advantages to playing a control deck like this is that you immediately blank a broad proportion of cards in your opponent’s deck. Creature removal is virtually useless against control strategies, and any Fatal Pushes or Path to Exiles an opponent draws are an effective mulligan.
The raw power of the high-end cards in these lists is game-ending. If successful in controlling the early turns with counterspells and removal, huge haymakers like Cryptic Command, Sphinx’s Revelation, and various flavors of Gideon planeswalkers will end things quickly. This endgame is difficult to contest with most decks in Modern.
These decks have access to the best sideboard cards in the format. White has extremely powerful options against more or less every conceivable strategy, and these cards are at their best when deployed in a timely and precise fashion by a control deck. Rest in Peace, Stony Silence, Leyline of Sanctity—there is no shortage of ways to lock up post-board games.
Straight White-Blue Control benefits from having a Blood Moon-proof mana base that also punishes opponents who rely on nonbasics to succeed. Field of Ruin and Spreading Seas are among the best land destruction in Modern, and can steal games when up against needy and greedy opposing mana bases.
Jeskai Control, on the other hand, has access to one of the most potent interactions in Modern— flashing back Lightning Bolt with Snapcaster Mage. Cheap, efficient damage out of a control deck means that Jeskai can close out games with surprising speed, which means that opponents can’t afford to be too loosey-goosey with their life totals.
The classic problem with control decks across all formats applies to these ones, too—they absolutely must have the right answers to the threats their opponents present. When your answers don’t line up well against their questions, you’re going to have a bad time, and many of the answers in these control decks are either conditional or expensive, which means that they can’t always be deployed effectively.
Modern is fast, characterized by decks that come out of the gates at lightning pace and often execute turn-4 kills. Control decks can suffer greatly in fast formats, as they run the risk of falling behind early and playing a futile game of catchup. Maintaining control of the early game is crucial for these decks, but keeping your snoot above water in the opening turns is often difficult given the pace of Modern.
It doesn’t stop there, however, especially in the case of straight white-blue. Often, closing the game out with these decks is a slow process, and so they are susceptible to comebacks from decks that can compete on card quality. This is less of an issue with Jeskai, which can start pointing burn spells at the opponent’s scone, but the fact remains that unless the game is truly locked up, control players must always be cautious of an opponent stringing together favorable draws.
How to Beat U/W/x Control
Just as with most decks that seek to go big, the best way to go up against white-blue based control decks is to get under them. Fast decks that present a quick clock can ultimately put on more pressure than any control deck is equipped to deal with, especially when that pressure is backed up with cheap interaction.
Another angle of attack is to have a noncreature game plan. Given that much of the strength of control comes from controlling the board, if you don’t care about using the battlefield, you’re already at an advantage. A deck like Storm or Ad Nauseam will put control players to the test, as all of a sudden their usually-excellent removal suite is useless.
If neither of these options is available to you, try to assemble a recurring value effect that can tussle with the late-game engines of these control decks. Examples of this include Liliana, the Last Hope and Snapcaster Mage, or Collected Company and Eternal Witness. Given the slow pace of control decks, out-valuing them with approaches like this can often pull you a long way ahead.
White-blue based control decks are currently enjoying a renaissance in Modern, and they can be tuned expertly against an expected field. New additions from Ixalan—namely, Field of Ruin, Settle the Wreckage, and of course Search for Azcanta—mean that these decks are currently being developed further every day. We may see some exciting new takes on the archetype in Bilbao!