Testing for the World Magic Cup, we hated all of the U/W decks: Gift, U/W Approach, Esper, Jeskai—they all seemed bad. Eventually, we tried the U/W Cycling deck, and we liked it so much that I’ve been working on it for regular Standard. In today’s article, I’ll try to make the case for U/W Cycling over the other U/W-based options, and I’ll go over some unconventional choices in my list and sideboard.
Why Play U/W Cycling Over Approach?
At this point in time, U/W-based Approach (Esper, Jeskai, or straight U/W all work) is probably the most popular control deck in the format. Why, then, do I recommend U/W Cycling over it?
The short answer is that I believe that it’s better against basically everything. Approach is flawed as a kill condition because it’s extremely expensive, easy to disrupt, and not very defensive. Sure, you gain 7 life, but a lot of the time you die before you get to cast Approach again anyway. If they deal with your second Approach, then it’s like the first one did nothing.
Approach’s biggest advantage is that it dodges creature removal. A deck like Abzan Tokens, for example, has no hope of ever beating you game 1 because they’re unable to interact with Approach of the Second Sun, and they cannot kill you before you cast it twice. A deck like Temur can have a lot of Abrades and Harnessed Lightnings stuck in their hand while you’re gaining control of the game.
Luckily for you, there’s a card with all of the benefits of Approach but none of the downsides— Drake Haven.
Given control of the game, Drake Haven will win the game for you anyway. Sure, they get to use their removal spells, but at that point they’re just delaying the inevitable. Here are the benefits of Drake Haven:
You can use it on defense before it becomes a kill condition
This is the card’s biggest advantage. Other than the often insignificant 7 life, Approach of the Second Sun is a straight-up kill condition—it’s basically a Millstone. It does not in any way help you control the game—it merely wins the game once you’ve obtained control, or alternatively, if you can stall the game long enough to cast it twice. It’s a 7-mana card with pitiful impact.
Drake Haven, on the other hand, can help you get to the point where you’re in control of the game, and then it can win the game for you. A lot of decks have trouble with a turn-3 Drake Haven, especially if you’re on the play. You can make two tokens on turn 4, and then two more tokens on turn 5 and halt any offense.
Drake Haven helps pressure planeswalkers
If you play a Haven and make two or three tokens, it becomes very easy to answer cards like Chandra, Gideon, or Nissa, Steward of Elements.
Drake Haven is cheaper to fight over
If you’re playing against another control deck, it’s almost impossible to play an Approach and protect it with countermagic. With Drake Haven, you can do it since it costs only 3 mana. On top of that, you can usually lose the fight for the first Drake Haven and they cannot punish you because only the second Approach is dangerous.
Drake Haven sneaks through sideboarded countermagic
Approach is a good deck game 1, but a nightmare in games 2 and 3 because people bring in cards that interact with your spells, and when they’re using their 1- and 2-mana cards to deal with your 5- and 7-mana cards, it becomes very hard to win. Drake Haven doesn’t have this problem, and you can often just get it in play even if they have their sideboard card in hand, because they can’t afford to just wait with 2 mana up on turn 3—they have to be proactive to try to beat you.
If you’re playing Approach, you often straight-up need another kill condition in the board. If you’re playing Drake Haven, you do not need them, or you need fewer copies, because Haven remains a kill condition in a lot of post-boarded games anyway.
Drake Haven makes you less reliant on Fumigate/Settle
Approach often sets up for several turns and then relies on resolving a Fumigate or a Settle the Wreckage to make up for the lost time. Because of this, you often straight-up lose in sideboarded games when your Fumigate or Settle gets Negated or Duressed. Having a Drake Haven in play means that you can maneuver the game to a spot where, even if your Fumigate or Settle the Wreckage is dealt with, you can still win because you can do things in the early turns before you cast that big spell.
Drake Haven is harder to play against
U/W Approach is almost trivial to play against because the number of effects they can have is limited. Drake Haven, on the other hand, offers more avenues of play, and will severely punish people who mess up. Consider, for example, the Drake Haven/Settle the Wreckage interaction. If you have Drake Haven in play and pass with 4 mana up, any opponent who wants to attack you is in trouble. If they send all their creatures, you can Settle the Wreckage their whole board. If they send in only one or two, then you can make Drakes and block with them. Even decks that normally beat control, such as Ramunap Red and Mono-Black, struggle in this spot.
Sometimes, they don’t attack with a 2/2 because you have Drake Haven out, but it turns out that you had no cyclers. Sometimes they attack with only a big creature, and you have Cast Out. Sometimes they attack only with Vicious Conquistador because you are at 1, and you have Renewed Faith. Sometimes they send in a Heart of Kiran because they don’t think you have two cyclers, but you do. This is the kind of thing that happens when you’re playing Drake Haven, but not nearly as much when you’re playing Approach.
In sum, Drake Haven is better than Approach against other control decks (cheaper), against aggro decks (can block) and against midrange decks post-board (not as vulnerable to countermagic). This happens to be almost the totality of decks in Standard, so I think you’d have to be crazy to play Approach over U/W Cycling.
The Deck List
This is the deck we played at the WMC. It’s based on Corey Burkhart’s GP list, which is probably based on the French list from the PT. The Polish team, who got second place, played something similar.
4 Drake Haven
In his article, Corey suggested cutting a Drake Haven for a Settle the Wreckage, and the Polish team did that. With all respect to Corey and Piot, I did not just spend eight paragraphs talking about how awesome Drake Haven is just to play 3 copies. When a card is this good and this important, I’m playing 4.
A lot of the time, the second Drake Haven is bad. Not unplayable, mind you, since they stack, but in general worse than a cycler. I think that’s OK, because having one in play is so good that you can afford to have another one in your hand. I want Drake Haven on turn 3 against everyone, and I’m willing to take the risk of having redundant Drake Havens for that. Besides, in some matchups you actually want to draw multiples since they’ll fight over it with counterspells, Cast Out, etc.
1 Curator of Mysteries
I don’t mind Curator of Mysteries, but I agree with Corey that you want a 4th Settle, and I think Curator of Mysteries is the worst card. You virtually never play it in game 1 unless you’ve cast an Abandoned Sarcophagus, so it’s just a cheap cycler.
I’ve found this card to actually be better in sideboarded games when people take out all of their removal. If you play against Mono-Black, for example, what do they do against a 4/4 flyer once they take out Walk the Plank and Fatal Push? What does Sultai do? It’s not trivial to deal with in a lot of post-boarded games. You might be tempted to side it out every time because it’s “the worst card,” but remember that it gets a lot better post-board.
3 Search for Azcanta, 1 Abandoned Sarcophagus
Corey played 2 and 2, Piotr played 3 and 1. I’m honestly not sure which one is right. I think they’re both great cards in the deck, but there’s a limit to how many “do nothings” you can play, so there’s no way to play 3 and 2. They serve similar purposes of winning the late game, but both can have some early game applications.
Sarcophagus is usually a very powerful card, but the later you play it, the more powerful it is. Common play patterns are turn-6 Sarcophagus plus Renewed Faith against aggro, turn-6 Sarcophagus plus Countervailing Winds versus midrange, or turn-7 Sarcophagus plus Cast Out against anyone. Sometimes you cycle something on turn 1, something on turn 2, and then play a Sarcophagus, and that’s OK as well.
When I look at my matches against Mono-Red, I lose to three cards: Rampaging Ferocidon, Bomat Courier, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Regal Caracal costs 5 mana, and doesn’t even deal with any of those problems! In fact, it happens to be horrible against all of the cards that already beat you. It’s good versus their other draws, but their other draws aren’t a problem—those cards are. How is this an efficient use of a sideboard slot? It’s like Dredge siding in Gurmag Angler because they’re losing to Leyline.
On top of that, we also found that we didn’t like Caracal very much against the other aggro decks either. 5 mana is just too much, and you need 2 for them to actually be good.
Turn-2 Search is the best thing you can do in any sort of control mirror, so I want to maximize the change so that I do that. With 4 Search and 4 Drake Haven in my deck, I can slam enchantments early on and hope they run out of answers.
Negate is the best counterspell because it lets you counter a turn-2 Search on the play or a turn-2 Drake Haven on the draw, and it’s also the best in any sort of counter war since it’s the cheapest. I don’t like Spell Pierce since games go long and it becomes useless, though it is very effective at countering the cheap enchantments.
Normally I’d want some sort of countermagic that can counter Gearhulk or a creature they bring out of the sideboard, but you already have 4 Countervailing Winds for that, so I like the 2-mana counterspells more. It’s not absurd to play a Disallow instead of a Negate, though.
This is the biggest difference in my sideboard from other people’s. It runs a bunch of weird cards, but they’re trying to address the cards that actually beat you—Chandra, Bomat, and Ferocidon.
Impeccable Timing can deal with Bomat and Ferocidon, and just gives you an early play in a deck that otherwise has none. Spyglass can name either Chandra or Bomat (or Ramunap Ruins if you’re low on life). Ixalan’s Binding can get rid of Chandra, Ferocidon, or Hazoret.
A lot of people swear by Authority of the Consuls. I think it’s just OK. You have to play it very early for it to work, and the mana in the deck isn’t perfect for that—there are only nine turn-1 white sources. If you draw it past turn 2, then it becomes a problem because every turn you delay it loses value, yet sometimes you spend your whole turn casting it even though it only costs 1. If you draw it turn 3, you’d usually rather play Drake Haven. Then, on turn 4, you might want to keep up Settle. On top of that, it doesn’t do enough versus Ferocidon or Chandra.
That said, when you do play it early, it kind of solves all the non-Ferocidon, non-Chandra problems. It means that you can focus on just those, and gives you a lot of breathing room. It’s possible that, for this reason, there should be 4. Right now I’m happy with 3, since I don’t feel like I need it and it’s not particularly great in multiples, but if you want to play 4 I cannot fault you.
On the Play
On the Draw
Settle the Wreckage is great game 1 against Temur, but not as good in game 2. They bring out a lot of counterspells, so if you rely on it too much they can just stop it, and they also bring in expensive cards, so giving them lands is more problematic. Instead, you bring in cards that help deal with Chandra and Nissa.
If you’re playing against Sultai, then Spyglass isn’t good, and you can keep the Curator of Mysteries on the draw and the Sarcophagus on the play.
This covers the 3 macro archetypes in Standard, but the fringe decks should be pretty intuitive—they usually fall within one of those categories anyway. If you’re losing to planeswalkers, bring in Spyglass and Binding. If they have artifacts/enchantments worth killing, bring in Forsake the Worldly and Binding. If they have good spells, bring in Negate, etc. I like bringing in the Gearhulks against anyone that isn’t very aggressive, just to have an extra threat they have to deal with, as well as a way to block any creatures they might have themselves.
- When playing against control decks, especially game 1, you should be mindful of your Countervailing Winds. They’re your best cards. If you can, try not to play Sarcophagus until you have at least a couple in the graveyard. If you can cast 2-3 on key spells and then rebuy them, that’s very good for you.
- If you already have a Drake Haven and a sweeper in hand, you don’t need to cycle turn 1. Almost everyone will cycle instinctively, because it looks like they’re doing something, but when the best card for you to draw is an extra copy of the card you just cycled, then there’s no reason to do it. Imagine, for example, this hand:
With this hand, I just wouldn’t cycle Cast Out turn 1 because my goal is to play turn-3 Drake Haven and turn-4 double-cycler. I’m not looking for anything else that’s not a cycler, so I can just wait. If you have Search for Azcanta or Sarcophagus in your hand, then things change.
- Against aggro decks, it’s often better to cast Renewed Faith than to cycle it.
- Drake Haven works on any discard, including the discard step and a potential Duress that they play.
- They cannot respond to you choosing a card with Spyglass, so they might be forced to react to it. If they don’t make Thopter tokens in response, for example, you can name Whirler Virtuoso. If they do, you can name Chandra. If they don’t sac Bomat, you can name it, and so on. Looking at their hand and choosing a card is all part of the same ability and there’s no window for them to do anything between them.
- Don’t worry about necessarily closing the game out—you win the overwhelming majority of long games against non-control decks. Focus on surviving, and eventually you’ll overpower them with Search for Azcanta, Drake Haven or Sarcophagus.
That’s what I have for today! If you want to play control in Standard, give this deck a try. You won’t be disappointed.