Welcome to the new Standard format! It looks a lot like the old format, actually.
The format staples are still here, but Dragons of Tarkir gave every deck something special to work with. Reanimator decks got the Demonic Tutor stylings of Sidisi, Undead Vizier. Mono-red aggro decks increased their one-drop options with Lightning Berserker and Zurgo Bellstriker. Green beat-down decks can go on a relentless offensive using multiple Deathmist Raptor. And control, which arguably benefited most from Dragons of Tarkir, increased its draw consistency with Anticipate and doubled its removal power with Ultimate Price. Nearly every Standard archetype acquired from the new set either a maindeckable powerhouse or a sideboard staple. Dragons of Tarkir was basically Oprah:
After a decent time away from competitive Magic, I sleeved up 75 blue and black control cards and battled in a local PPTQ the day after Dragons of Tarkir released. I’ve been playing blue/black control for the past few months on MTGO and figured it would be a good call to just play what I know (versus learning a brand new archetype) in this first event of the new format. I added some of the new cards into my list and practiced a bit with friends.
I went into the event fully confident in the deck, but things didn’t go as well as I had planned. I ended up 3-3, blowing two chances to make it into the top 8 playoff. But before we get into the details, let’s see the list:
2 Silumgar, the Drifting Death
2 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
2 Perilous Vault
2 Crux of Fate
4 Dig Through Time
2 Disdainful Stroke
3 Hero’s Downfall
1 Silumgar’s Command
2 Bile Blight
3 Ultimate Price
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Polluted Delta
4 Dismal Backwater
3 Radiant Fountain
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Opulent Palace
1 Haven of the Spirit Dragon
1 Disdainful Stroke
2 Drown in Sorrow
2 Bile Blight
1 Dragonlord Silumgar
1 Silence the Believers
2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
3 Self-Inflicted Wound
Silumgar’s Command: You’re probably thinking – only three Hero’s Downfall, are you nuts? During testing against the format behemoths (mono-red, Abzan midrange, Abzan aggro, Jeskai tokens, and Sultai reanimator), Hero’s Downfall was generally good and definitely worthy of a 4-0f, of course. But Silumgar’s Command had so many instances of blowout potential with its versatility that I had to stick at least one of them in the maindeck. Command fills a similar role in the deck as Hero’s Downfall – it’s mainly to kill planeswalkers, as the deck already has plenty of ways to deal with creatures, especially given the addition of Ultimate Price. But Silumgar’s Command plays the role of Hero’s Downfall PLUS, allowing me to use at least one of its modes in all matchups and often it lets me get two game-breaking effects from one card. Against control it’s Negate plus bounce a tapped land to slow down my opponent on a crucial turn 5/6 play. Against Abzan aggro I can kill a 3/3 Fleecemane Lion and bounce a Courser of Kruphix or Rakshasa Deathdealer to slow down the offensive. It counters Stoke the Flames and kills a Goblin Rabblemaster.
Five mana might seem like a lot, but consider that Silumgar’s Command is a mid- to late-game spell, where getting two effects for one card is insane. Hero’s Downfall is generally only played on turns 3-4 as an act of desperation when a Dissolve isn’t available or Bile Blight/Ultimate Price can’t do the trick, so it isn’t so crazy to give the 4th Downfall a boost by playing Silumgar’s Command instead. It has the additional bonus role of being one of the only ways in the deck to answer a resolved artifact or enchantment; it cannot be understated how valuable it is to delay just one turn a game-swinging Whip of Erebos activation.
The 2 Bile Blight/3 Ultimate Price split: Ultimate Price does not kill Siege Rhino. But neither does Bile Blight. Ultimate Price does not kill Hordeling Outburst tokens all at once like Bile Blight does. But that’s why the deck still has two Bile Blight in the main. Ultimate Price kills 90% of the threats in Standard currently, and some of them are big ones – Stormbreath Dragon, Courser of Kruphix, Goblin Rabblemaster, Seeker of the Way, Thunderbreak Regent, Sidisi (Undead Vizier), Whisperwood Elemental, and on and on. Two mana can kill almost all the best creatures in the format, while Bile Blight plays secondary by producing super value against a few token-producing cards and Fleecemane Lion. That’s why I played three Ultimate Price and only two Bile Blight main. When playing against decks that make me want more Bile Blight, like Abzan aggro and Jeskai tokens, I can side into the full complement. The field is generally more vulnerable to Ultimate Price right now than Bile Blight.
Maindeck Negate – Thanks to Ultimate Price, it’s more easy than ever for blue/black control to kill off creatures. Noncreature spells like planeswalkers, enchantments, and token-producing spells are still difficult to handle, so the maindeck has been enabled to better fight them (before resolving, at least). The average mana curve in Standard has decreased a bit with all the new Dragons of Tarkir cards, so Disdainful Stroke is less appealing beyond two in the main. A third Stroke is in the board for the Abzan midrange and Abzan/Sultai reanimator decks, as those are generally the only decks relying heavily on expensive hay-makers.
Silumgar, the Drifting Death – The debate rages on between Silumgar and Pearl Lake Ancient as blue/black’s best finisher. Ultimate Price makes PLA nowhere near as solid as it used to be, since you can’t reliably play PLA before turn 10 without hitting a massive set back (need 7 to cast + 3 land to bounce to not get time warped by Ultimate Price). Silumgar is difficult to deal with from the perspective of any non-control deck in Standard, and can reliably be dropped on turn 6 to provide a strong defense against Siege Rhino, Stormbreath Dragon, and other opposing threats. Additionally, Silumgar’s -1/-1 attack trigger is brutal against token deck strategies.
Self-Inflicted Wound – The deck is weak to Abzan aggro (the one deck where Ultimate Price really sucks) so I have three green/white hosers in the sideboard mainly to help out that matchup. Additionally it serves as a blowout card against blue/white heroic, although I don’t really expect to see too much of that deck anymore.
Round 1: vs. Abzan Reanimator (1-0-1) This is generally a much tougher matchup for control than the usual Abzan midrange. It’s difficult to fight against Whip (which can only be removed by Perilous Vault once it’s on the table) and the deck’s ability to go through all of its threats twice. Game One I decked my opponent using Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and won with my life total at 2. There was not enough time to finish Game Two, but my opponent was land flooded early in the game so it appeared I was in control of the game for most of the time we played it. (1-0)
Round 2: vs. blue/red Scissors (2-0) I really like this deck, although I’m not sure how consistent it is over the long haul. The main attack strategy is enchanting a turn 1 Ornithopter or Darksteel Citadel with Ensoul Artifact to have a turn 2 5/5 assaulter. It can also burn you out with red spells or drop a hasty Scuttling Doom Engine as early as turn 4 with help from Generator Servant. Game One I was a little lucky that my opponent stumbled on mana early while I had a hand full of counterspells. He missed a key land drop that allowed me to make my two Dissolves live and prevent him from landing a threat for most of the game. Ugin, Ashiok, and Silumgar combined forces to take the game. Game Two I cast Anticipate to find a Bile Blight right after my opponent played a second Generator Servant. I targeted the one that still had summoning sickness (do they even call it that anymore?) to wipe the board, and my opponent was unable to cast the Scuttling Doom Engine in his hand for most of the game. I ended up winning by beating him with a different Scuttling Doom Engine that I stole with Ashiok’s abilities. (2-0)
Round 3: vs Abzan Reanimator Game One was all mine, as I was somehow able to fight off two Siege Rhinos, Whip of Erebos, Hornet Queen, and other threats my opponent cast one turn after another. It was pretty bonkers, really. He leveled me Game Two with help from an early resolved Whip of Erebos (making me wish I had played Esper for Utter End) and I couldn’t find a Silumgar to create some defense. Game Three was rough, as I started with a mulligan to six cards and my opponent played two Thoughtseize – one on turn 1 and another on turn 3, making it nearly impossible for me to be competitive. I had one turn near the end where I was back in the game if I drew a Perilous Vault, but it didn’t come. (2-1)
Round 4: vs Green/white beat-down This deck appeared to be similar to the green/white devotion deck but was mostly just good value beat-down creatures. Game One I luckily had one of my two Bile Blight at the start of the game to kill his turn 2 Fleecemane Lion, and my turn 3 Ashiok easily took over the game. Game Two was awkward as I started with two Temple of Deceit and a Radiant Fountain, with Bile Blight and Self-Inflicted Wound in my hand. My opponent played Fleecemane Lion on turn 2, and I had to decide whether to play the 2nd temple to guarantee access to BB on turn 3, or play the Radiant Fountain to play Self-Inflicted Wound and kill the Lion. I played the Temple, hoping to take care of multiple creatures on turns 3 through 5, but my opponent took advantage of my slow start and added several creatures to the board, including a hasty Surrak, the Hunt Caller that I could not repel. In hindsight I should have dealt with the Fleecemane immediately and at least cleared the board for one turn. There was always the chance of drawing a Swamp or Polluted Delta on turn 3 to cast the Bile Blight anyway.
Game Three was a serious battle due to my opponent resolving Mastery of the Unseen on turn 2 (again making me wish I had an Utter End) and I could not find a Perilous Vault during the game. However, I powered out both versions of Silumgar which allowed me to attack with the pair and give -2/-2 to his creatures, killing all of the unmorphable manifests. It was weird winning a game with Silumgar, Drifting Death and Dragonlord Silumgar, and it seemed flavor-wise that the legend rule should have applied there. But really, it was like Back to Future with past Biff working with future Biff and the Sports Almanac. (3-1)
Round 5: vs. Red Deck Wins (0-2) In testing all week, I wavered between Esper and blue/black control. Esper offers so much power in Narset Transcendent, Dragonlord Ojutai, and the new white sideboard cards, along with the catch-all removal Utter End. However, I found that the high number the enter-the-battlefield-tapped lands required to play Esper made it a hard fight against mono-red, which I anticipated as a common opponent the first weekend of a new format. So, in order to have a leg up against the red aggro menace, I chose blue/black over Esper. Naturally, I got ROFLSTOMPED by red during the PPTQ. Like, not even close, stomped. Game One I drew all the irrelevant cards in the matchup – turn 3 Ashiok does nothing, turn 4 Perilous Vault is too slow, several counterspells, etc. I took 14 damage during the fatal turn – Goblin Rabblemaster and his goblin token team supported by an earlier Hordeling Outburst and a Lightning Strike. Game Two started out better thanks to a pair of Bile Blight in my opening hand, but I got next leveled when I played Tasigur, the Golden Fang on turn 6 in defense mode. My opponent swiftly cast Harness by Force and stole my Tasigur, beating my face in with both his creature and mine for 9. I was dead the next turn.
It lasted less than ten minutes, and it was a matchup I felt prepared to endure. After the match my opponent and talked about the Harness by Force play. He said he was a control player at heart but chose mono-red for the event because of the new and potentially-unknown format. He knew control decks usually brought in Tasigur and other large defensive creatures, so the Harness came in as added blocker-clearing tech and a likely relevant four damage. I thought it was a risky sideboard plan, but it was better than some of the other dead cards in his maindeck like Searing Blood, and it’s hard to argue with something that actually helped win the game.
Round 6: vs. Blue/Black Control Ah, the classic fight to stay relevant by beating your own deck situation. Game One was the fastest game I’ve ever played in a control mirror, with his turn 3 Ashiok answered by my turn 3 Ashiok, and only me with a Hero’s Downfall to pull ahead. I lost Game Two after a long, slow beat-down from my opponent’s Silumgar, the Drifting Death. It was made worse by his early Ashiok exiling three of my five win conditions through only two +2 activations. Alright, Game Three for all the marbles – to get into top 8. It’s serious time, and I’m on the play. Let’s do this. Turn 1, Temple, scry. My opponent’s Turn 1, Temple, scry. Turn 2, second Temple, scry. I don’t need to hold up mana for Negate, nothing in the control mirror matters until at least turn 3 and even then, playing an Ashiok that early is just asking for a Downfall. My opponent’s Turn 2, island, Grindclock. I hate this game sometimes. Man, if only I had Utter End. (3-3)
I was happy with how the deck performed. Turn 2 Grindclock and double Thoughtseize after a mulligan are just instances of Magic’s common variance and those games could have gone much differently. Who knows, we could be celebrating a 5-1 record instead of lamenting a 3-3 day. Silumgar’s Command was a good choice, and there was never a time where I had it in my hand and wished it was a Hero’s Downfall instead. In fact, there were several times where I was hoping to draw it for a comeback or blowout opportunity.
The one card I was not excited about was Perilous Vault. It is important to have a catch-all in a deck that has very few ways to deal with enchantments and out-of-hand board states, but I noticed that throughout the day I didn’t need such a giant super-wrath effect. I think I’d rather have one in the main and one in the sideboard to bring in against decks where it shines (green/white decks, Whip/Reanimator, Sultai control). Blue/black control has a sufficient number of options to keep the board clean as the game goes on, so wrath effects aren’t as vital as they used to be.
Additionally, I think the matchup against mono-red is bad enough, regardless of which control archetype I’m piloting, that I’d rather play Esper to get the power of Narset and the versatility of Utter End – not to mention the additional scrying power from eight temples (Temple of Silence and Temple of Enlightenment). Esper just seems stronger against the field than blue/black, particularly if the deck is just a blue/black shell splashing for a few white cards (versus going all in on all three colors and playing WW cards like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and End Hostilities). A light white splash just for key cards could do the trick. We’re going to lose to mono-red anyway, so we might as well be better against everything else and build up the anti-red sideboard options.
I still enjoyed playing in the event and control definitely feels like a top tier deck once again, thanks primarily to Anticipate. I can’t tell you how great it feels to be able to do something on turn 2 again.
I’m going to be playing Esper on MTGO as soon at Dragons of Tarkir comes out, but likely I’ll give blue/black another go in a week or two at the next local event. Either Esper or blue/black is a good choice for the start of this new Standard format, at least until some new breakout decks emerge. I highly recommend playing either if you’re itching to get back to slinging counterspells and enjoy blowing up your opponents’ creatures while expelling a maniacal laugh.