Deck Building with CGB: Let's Build Control
Today I want to try a new spin-off of Duels Diaries that I want to call my "Lets Build" series. I'd like to take some time and really focus in on creating a specific deck for a whole article, and this is my first shot at it.
I want to start the party by trying to build a control deck that will be successful in the new B4Z metagame. Please notice that I haven't set out to build an Abzan control deck, or an Esper control deck, or a Golgari control deck. This is about building the best control deck. I know there are some players, and they can be successful players, who play try to play Esper Control no matter what. I don't think we have that kind of flexibility in Magic Duels, and anyone who has tried to play Esper in Magic Duels Origins or Magic 2015 would probably agree with me in a moment of honesty.
Let's have dessert first. HERE is the control deck I am advocating for the current B4Z climate.
Yes, it's Bant. It isn't what I expected to happen, I thought I would finish in Esper or Abzan, or maybe a U/W deck that just counters EVERYTHING.
Building a control deck is about being reactive, and finding the right tools to counter what is going on in the meta. It is unlikely that modern Magic will ever see a control deck that can simply answer all the threats that ANY deck could possibly present with a handful of cards (Swords to Plowshares, Counterspell, Force of Will, Wrath of God, Vindicate). Now we have to work for it, Wizards gives us a lot of options but we have to find the good ones that work in our meta. Here is a list with just some of our options for answering threats in the colors we chose -
Disperse, Suppression Bonds, Tightening Coils, Hixus, Felidar Cub, Gideon's Reproach, Titan's Presence, Roil Spout, Tragic Arrogance, Claustrophobia, Bone to Ash, Reprisal, Celestial Flare, Spell Shrivel, Scatter to the Winds, Planar Outburst, Countermand, Horribly Awry.
When building a control deck, it is very important to have great answers to threats that you expect to face. Just because a card says "destroy target creature" doesn't mean it belongs in your deck. What is the casting cost? Is it an instant/sorcery/creature/enchantment? What are it's limitations (even Non-zombie creature is a limitation that can matter)? Before we fill a deck with answers, let's be aware of the threats we are most likely to face. These numbers are pulled from the gathered data for Duels Diaries Week 18 -
Green Ramp strategies (combining Mono Green, R/G and G/W) - about 28% of the field
Red Aggro strategies - about 16% of the field
These two strategies are the far-and-away leaders in what makes up the metagame. It is important the cards we select for our control strategy are preferably good against both, and at least very good against one of these strategies. Of course, this is a test by itself, as these two strategies are very very different. There are also two types of Red Aggro strategy that I notice - swarm aggro with Foundry Street and Goblin Fodder, and Aura Aggro with Mage-Ring, Flame-kin and Call of the Full Moon/Infectious Bloodlust. One goes big, one goes wide. Ramp goes REALLY BIG. Now we have a lens to view our answers through.
When I examine a removal card, I look for cards that are either Big and Small, or Big and All. What I mean is that a card like Celestial Flare kills a big creature or a small creature, so it is Big and Small. Reprisal kills a big creature, but not a small creature. It is just Big and Big, and I would only run it in a meta where I felt that small creatures were unplayable and easily ignored. Planar Outburst is Big and All, as in, it can kill one big creature but it also just kills all the creatures. To be prepared for different strategies, I really want Big and Small removal, and I really love Big and All removal, and I will usually pay more mana for it. Now let's talk about the answers I chose for the Bant list -
Disperse - Big and small, great against Red Auras, good against Red Swarm, ok against Ramp. Rarely ever a dead draw against anything.
Suppression Bonds - Big and small, great against everything including planeswalkers. It has synergy with Emeria Shepherd because you can return it to the hand or battlefield. I haven't tried this online yet, but if Stainless has this working right, returning an Aura to the battlefield doesn't target. In theory, and in real magic, I can use a Plains and Emeria Shepherd to return Suppression Bonds to the battlefield enchanting a Gaea's Revenge.
Felidar Cub - Big and small in enchantment terms, and he can block and attack, and you can get him back with Shepherd.
Bone to Ash - Big and small, although your target is big. Too slow against red decks, but very good against Ramp, and your ideal answer to Greenwarden, Ulamog and Deso-Twin. Yeah, I know, you still have to deal with the cast-tiggers, but at least you maintain card parity.
Celestial Flare - Big and small - as long as they attack and block. Great against both Red decks and Ramp. While you may question being great against red swarm, and I understand the concern, it is important to have something to do for a low mana cost to slow the bleeding, and in my experience this is among the best at the job.
Spell Shrivel - Big and small, but not too small - Yay, counterspells! We live in mana hungry meta where decks run ten drops without thinking too much about it. Red decks usually don't play enough lands to ever pay for this. In my experience, over 90% of the time this is just three mana, counter something. A touch slow against red, but still good. Great against Ramp.
Scatter to the Winds - See above, same thing. Just save this one for something special if you can Shrivel instead. As a general rule, I don't awaken my land if my opponent is likely to have a Fiery Impulse in their hand. That card is mostly dead against me, and lands are important, so don't give them a target unless you have a really good reason.
Planar Outburst - Big and ALL. Love it. Like I said before, don't awaken if you need the land and it is likely to just get killed. However, if you think they have a Reprisal in hand, it is often correct to Awaken a land and let it get Reprisal'd to clear the way for Emeria Shepherd.
Tragic Arrogance - Big and almost all - This card is such high variance, it can be amazing or a dud.
If you are wondering about certain cards like Reprisal, Horribly Awry, ask yourself how they compare to the Big and Small or Big and All rules. What do they provide that is different from the cards above? What are their limitations? How do they fare against Red Aggro and Ramp?
Of course, just having all the answers only makes you a know-it-all, you have to have some swagger to win the game with. Control decks generally need (a) answers (b) card advantage and (c) a way to win the game.
Card advantage, good old card drawing. This is where I think many Duels players get it wrong. I commonly see lists labeled as control that pack in 3 Telling Time and 4 Inspiration as their card advantage and call it a good day. Here is my problem with this - drawing cards is only as good as the cards you draw. One thing that keeps Duels different is that we are very limited in the amount of high-power cards we get and can run in our decks. I have seen so many Duels games in 2015, Duels Origins, and now Duels Battle For Zendikar where a player has killed everything, his opponent is top decking one threat at a time, and our control pilot either vocalizes or surely thinks "now I need to find a win condition" and casts Inspiration and draws....an answer and a land. Well great, we have another answer for the next threat, but we still can't win the game. For the next several turns the control mage may or may not draw and cast more Telling Times and Inspirations, but they just draw more lands and more answers. Eventually the answers line up wrong with the threats the opponent draws (Gaea's Revenge vs Angelic Edict anyone?) or that final burn spell gets top-decked and our control mage dies, how unlucky.
What if Inspiration or Telling Time was the win con? A win con that also generated card advantage? Drawing two cards isn't a lot. Four mana is not cheap. For every draw spell you add, you gain two random cards in hand if you cast it, but you lose another opportunity to have a threat in your deck. I am not against running card draw or card filtering at all, but it has to be well costed, and I wouldn't run a card like Telling Time or Inspiration over a card that can win the game AND generate card advantage. If you look at the Bant list, it only has two green cards, but they fit this bill. Kiora and Nissa can generate meaningful card advantage and also win the game. Nissa is obvious, Kiora is not, the trick with Kiora is to use the -2 ability often, whenever you can. I rarely, if EVER see people use this ability on Twitch and YouTube. It is the first thing I usually do when I cast her, and sometimes I -2 twice in a row and let her die with the plan of finding Emeria Shepherd and getting her back later. A pair of -2's gets you eight cards closer to an Emeria Shepherd, which is like casting 4 Inspirations digging for a win-con...except you did it with one four-mana planeswalker who happens to also have more text on her.
Speaking of Shepherd, this is your big awesome endgame. This card is amazing. Targets range from answers like Suppression Bonds to win-cons like Disciple of the Ring/Drowner of Hope to planeswalkers like Gideon/Kiora/Jace/Nissa. This card does and should effect the way you play the game. Keep a land in your hand after you get to seven land drops, preferably an Evolving Wilds followed by Plains, Canopy Vista, Prairie Stream, and other lands.
Drowner of Hope and Disciple of the Ring are super-underrated cards that can play offense and defense well. In many a battle with Ramp, I have been able to tap-down Ulamog long enough to pull off the win. A note on playing against Ulamog - don't just hope they don't have it. Don't play your win conditions into Ulamog just to get exiled unless you have a compelling reason to do so. These include having Disperse in hand and mana to cast it, having multiple win-cons in hand and you need to get Ulamog out of the way, ect. Most of the time you can save your win-cons in hand and wait for the opponent to hit and exceed ten mana, they almost always jam Ulamog if they have it and "settle" for exiling two lands.
Speaking of land removal, let's talk about the deck's Acid Moss recovery plan -
Your MVP here is Knight of the White Orchid. Since ramp makes it a point to have more land than you, getting the trigger isn't hard. I have had some great games where the Ramp deck Acid-Mossed me twice, but I just played Knight, Dispersed Knight, played Knight again and kept rolling along. It is also fun to get back Knight with Emeria Shepherd, fetch some type of Plains, put something else from the yard onto the battlefield - say, Drowner of Hope? Ruin Processor? Let it be known that Knight says "Plains", not "basic Plains", so like Acid-Moss this can fix your mana by fetching either Canopy Vista or Prairie Stream. And some quick notes about playing your lands in this meta - Mobius had a great point in a Youtube video early in Duels Origins that deserves revisiting. He said not to play your dual lands as quickly as you can in a format with land destruction. It was very niche advice back then, but in Moss meta as some have called it, it is important. In this deck, the important lands are Blue/White. If I expect to get Mossed, and I don't need the exact mana to cast my spells this turn, I don't play my most important dual lands until I need to. I search up Canopy Vista all the time with Knight instead of Prairie Stream, just to give my opponent a juicy-looking Moss target. I use Lumbering Falls the same way. Most opponents go after a green source because they expect you to have mana fixing or Moss itself, and Lumbering Falls is an extra juicy target. Against ramp, you will rarely, if-ever activate Lumbering Falls in my experience, so I play it very early hoping it get's mossed, because double blue and especially double white are what is really important (Knight, Celestial Flare, Planar Outburst, Emeria Shepherd). Don't just play the prettiest land in your hand. Ask yourself, "what if this land gets destroyed?" and even "which land do I want to get destroyed?". You don't always have to walk into moss-mana screw, you really don't.
Ruin Processor exists to do a bad Pelakka Wurm impression. Jace isn't the best in this deck, but don't be afraid to use the -3 ability anytime you find a good reason, and going for the emblem is an option. Some games you play Felidar Cub to attack, some games you play him to block, some games you hold him until there is an enchantment to wreck. It all depends.
Control decks can be hard. You have to know your deck, the answers you have, and you have to have an idea of what your opponent's deck is trying to do so you answer the right things. I built and tested this deck to the best of my ability with the intention of having the right answers against Red Aggro and Ramp, especially Ramp. Here are the results from my personal testing, playing the deck against my best build of R/G Ramp and my best build of Red Auras -
8 wins, 2 losses vs R/G Ramp, among the best results I have found so far.
7 wins, 8 losses against Red Aggro.
Nothing to get super excited about in the red matchup, but the matchup was much worse when I had cards like From Beyond, Inspiration, and other assorted win-cons in the deck. The matchup was closer to 20% in the beginning, and I worked hard to get the ratio to where I feel like we have a chance. Still, if you play against red aggro dozens of times a night, you should probably be playing ramp or a different build of control.
Control is the natural predator of midrange and ramp, and lots of informed players know that. Still, I haven't seen many control builds that hold up against ramp performance-wise. Trust me, I have tested a lot of them. If you are less worried about Ramp and prefer to beat Red Aggro, there are options in different color combinations -
Jeskai offers cheap interaction in the form of Fiery Impulse, Radiant Flames and Twin Bolt. These are almost completely dead-draws vs Ramp.
Esper offers Languish, Reave Soul and Complete Disregard. These are mostly dead draws against Ramp.
One of the issues with building control decks in Duals is that you can focus on beating one thing, and maybe you can do it well, but it is hard to build a control deck that beats everything. Finding a perfect mix of Reave Souls and Reprisals, as an example, will still leave you hoping to draw the right half of your deck against aggro and instead drawing the half intended for ramp. If the card draw and selection was better, as in Dig Through Time and Anticipate instead of Telling Time and Inspiration, we could work with an approach like that. As it is now, we must pick our battles. I think this deck can win many of the battles against Ramp, I am am excited to put it out there and see how it does for all of you. Don't forget to be patient, with the deck and with yourself. Playing control isn't obvious or intuitive to most, and if you go 1/4 and delete the deck you are likely losing the game within the game. Or you got unlucky, or my deck isn't as good as I think it is, that happens too. A lot of decks I have posted this year are just ideas, notebook material, and folks are quick to tell me if they turn out to be junk. This is the first deck of the season I'm confident/brave enough to put my faith into, as proven by my writing of this article. I've tested the important match-ups a lot and I believe it has the tools to win and be a tier one control deck. I hope you'll give it a shot, and may your opponents rage quit when you ultimate Nissa.