Control Will Dominate Pro Tour Amonkhet

Written by Austin Matthews on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

Control Will Dominate Pro Tour Amonkhet

Austin Matthews

Austin is a PPTQ/Open level grinder from Birmingham, AL. He's got an Open top 8 under his belt and is looking to continue adding to his resume.

The previous Standard format with Felidar Guardian had two decks dominating every tournament – Four Color Saheeli and Mardu Vehicles. Every now and then we would see some form of control deck usually revolving around Dynavolt Tower do well, but it was obvious that control was lacking the power necessary to do well consistently. Let’s take a look at Victor Fernandez’s winning Temur Tower deck from Grand Prix Porto Alegre earlier this year:

22 lands in a control deck playing 6-drop creatures? That was one of the factors that did make this deck at least somewhat viable. Being able to skimp on lands was only possible because of Attune with Aether, which is also the only green spell in the deck outside of Natural Obsolescence. Since this deck played 4 Dynavolt Towers, your Attune with Aethers were essentially 4/5 of a Lightning Bolt. Splashing for mana fixing might seem counter-intuitive, but being able to more consistently take advantage of Dynavolt Tower proved to be powerful.

So what was this deck missing? Why was it not considered to be in the same tier as Mardu or Saheeli?

The only draw spell worth playing in the previous standard format was Glimmer of Genius.

This meant that control decks had to find other ways to gain card advantage, which is the reason that Dynavolt Tower was so key. Having a repeatable removal spell acted as pseudo-card advantage, but it wasn’t enough to bring the archetype into the tier-1 category. I would regularly find myself stabilizing in a close game and eventually running out of resources with no way to refill my hand if I didn’t draw a Glimmer of Genius. That’s not where I like to be when playing control. Stabilizing is supposed to be the obstacle, while drowning your opponent in card advantage after the fact is supposed to be a given.

Counter spells were weak.

The options for main deck counter spells in the previous format were Disallow, Void Shatter, Scatter to the Winds, Negate, Horribly Awry, and Confirm Suspicions. These are all extremely narrow or over-costed. Disallow had the potential to be a game-changer, but too often it was simply a glorified Cancel. Every now and then it would give some insurance against Planeswalker ultimates, but if your opponents had any grasp on what was going on you almost never were put in a position where that was relevant. Void Shatter is my favorite of the bunch, but the format was at a point where graveyard relevance wasn’t really a thing outside of opposing Torrential Gearhulks or the off-chance you had a Mardu opponent off curve and was able to exile their Scrapheap Scrounger. Scatter to the Winds was always a Cancel – sometimes even worse, because it turns their removal into Stone Rains. Negate was fine, though obviously narrow. Horribly Awry didn’t hit Archangel Avacyn, Verdurous Gearhulk, or Torrential Gearhulk, so it hardly ever was justified as a main deck card. Confirm Suspicions sometimes could act as both a counter spell and a draw spell, but having a 5-mana counter spell when you’re likely dying on turn 4 is probably not where you want to be.

Removal wasn’t well-positioned against the field.

The best part of the past format was that your Harnessed Lightnings were almost always Terminates. The worst part of the past format was that that wasn’t good enough. Scrapheap Scrounger made most 1-for-1 removal look like a joke, which is why the old Temur Tower decks were forced to play with bad cards like Natural Obsolescence and Incendiary Flow. Natural Obsolescence was basically as narrow as most of the previously mentioned counter spells, and Incendiary Flow not being able to be flashed back with Torrential Gearhulk was a downer. Brutal Expulsion was a card I played occasionally, but it usually felt too cute to make a difference.
But that’s all in the past, because Amonkhet is here.

Sphinx’s Revelation is back, baby!

Ok, not really, but jeez, does Pull from Tomorrow feel awfully close. As I mentioned earlier, control decks used to have problems finding ways to pull ahead after stabilizing the board. Refilling your hand has always been an important factor in control strategies, and Pull from Tomorrow does a hell of a job at it. Not only does it help close the game out by putting you so far ahead your opponent couldn’t dream of coming back, but while Sphinx’s Revelation simply cycled at 4 mana, a completely reasonable play with Pull from Tomorrow is to cast it where X=2 to try and hit lands or find specific answers. Late in the game when you have a bunch of lands out and can cast it where X is 5 or more, the discard part of Pull from Tomorrow is almost always irrelevant. This card could singlehandedly be the reason control is a viable strategy again.

Force Spike got a facelift.

I’m not sure this is a fair comparison, since Censor is so much better than Force Spike. The downside of Force Spike and any spell where your opponent can pay X to ignore the effect is that the game can eventually get to a point where the extra mana they’re forced to pay doesn’t matter. Adding Cycling to these effects wipes away that downside completely. Need a land early? Cycle it. Draw it late? Cycle it. Opponent wisely playing around it? Cycle it. I’d wager that Censor gets cycled something like 70% of the time, but having access to an effect like this means that your opponent is basically forced to play their spells a turn behind schedule. That’s exactly what you want them to do. Playing control is all about getting to the late game, and anything that helps bring the game to that point is extremely valuable. Essence Scatter being reprinted is a bit less exciting, but it’s also a much-needed upgrade from Horribly Awry. It doesn’t exile like Horribly Awry, but having the versatility of being able to counter everything from Veteran Motorist to Torrential Gearhulk or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger makes Essence Scatter a key part of the new control decks.

Removal spells actually remove things again.

Magma Spray is going to be important in URx control decks moving forward, as having a mana-efficient way to deal with Scrapheap Scrounger permanently that can also be flashed back with Gearhulk slots perfectly into the deck. Sweltering Suns is no Anger of the Gods, since it doesn’t exile, but being able to cycle it if you’re facing another control opponent makes this a reasonable main deck card. It’s an upgrade from Radiant Flames in that you aren’t forced to play three colors to get the full effect. White gets one of the most hyped cards from Amonkhet – Cast Out. I wasn’t big on Cast Out when it was first spoiled, because I think the best part of the Cycling mechanic is being able to play very narrow answers and not have them be dead, and there’s hardly ever going to be a time when Oblivion Ring effects are dead. While I don’t think the design of Cast Out is ideal, I do think it’s going to be a staple in the new format and a powerful effect for control decks to have access to. The new Ruinous Path, Never // Return, is notably no Hero’s Downfall, but after seeing it played more, people likely underestimated its second effect. Getting rid of a Planeswalker, exiling a relevant card that could be flashed back with Gearhulk or reanimated with Liliana, Death’s Majesty has proved to be useful in black-based control decks.

I’m not sure where to mention Commit // Memory, since it can act as a removal spell, counter spell, and draw spell in different scenarios, but it’s been a card that’s surprised me. Being able to somewhat cleanly answer a resolved Gideon, Ally of Zendikar has probably been the most crucial aspect of this card for me in my URx decks, but what makes this card so powerful is the interaction between it and Torrential Gearhulk. Since Commit is an instant, even though Memory is a sorcery, you can flash it back with Gearhulk and cast Memory. So if you’re running low on gas or your opponent has a stacked graveyard, casting Memory on their end step could be backbreaking (not to mention that Wheeling is one of the most fun things to do in Magic).

So what does a new control deck look like in Amonkhet Standard? I’m just getting back from a local tournament in which I went undefeated in the swiss with this list:

I was expecting a lot of Aetherworks Marvel decks in this tournament and not much aggro, so I hedged a bit and got punished for moving my Sweltering Suns to the board as my semifinals opponent was playing Humans. A lot of lists I’ve seen have been running 2 Pull from Tomorrow, and I wanted to see how the third one felt. I don’t think 3 is enough. Pull from Tomorrow is the reason to play control, so I think we’ll eventually learn that 4 is the correct number, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that means we go back to the days of 27-28 lands.

I’m not sure if red is the best color to pair blue with, but it’s the most obvious. The cheap interaction with Magma Spray and Harnessed Lightning make it the easiest to build. There have been some versions of UR adding white for Cast Out and Fumigate, which also seems reasonable, but I’m afraid of those manabases. Blue-white could be another powerful combination, as you could go for Cycling.dec and play another new card that has gotten a lot of hype – Drake Haven. I haven’t been impressed with these decks yet, but if anyone could figure out the correct build it would be Shaheen Soorani. I’ll be on the lookout for his list at the Pro Tour, since it’ll probably be blue-white or Esper. That brings me to black. Black has cheap interaction in Fatal Push and Grasp of Darkness, but it doesn’t have many clean answers to Scrapheap Scrounger outside of Never // Return, which is a bit slow. Scarab Feast might be viable, but I’m not even sure if you’d bring it in versus a deck with just Scrapheap Scrounger as the only graveyard interaction. The best part about black and white are the on-color cycle lands, but you lose out on creature lands.

I can’t wait for this weekend. Pro Tour Amonkhet is the most excited I’ve ever been for a Pro Tour.

I say that every time.

Magic’s great.

But anyways, if you have any sweet control brews you’ve been working on, feel free to leave them in the comments below. If you disagree with control being back… well, shut up.

I’m right. You’re wrong.

See you around.

Austin

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