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Chicago-Style U/W Control

Zvi Mowshowitz

This article will be divided into two parts so I can illustrate part of the testing process. I had a W/U control deck I was doing quite well with before Chicago, but I never put the work in that would have been necessary to play it. Due to the Grudge Match Finals, I recently did have to put in that work, if not to the extent I would for a Pro Tour. So first, here is an overall analysis of Chicago versions of W/U Control, after which I'll take apart the version I decided on. To start off, here are five W/U control decks that made Day 2 in Chicago.

Arto Hiltunen
UW Control

Main Deck
Sideboard
8 Island
7 Plains
4 Counterspell
4 Absorb
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Blinding Angel
4 Wrath of God
4 Opt
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Coastal Tower
2 Dismantling Blow
2 Millstone
1 Teferi's Moat
1 Story Circle
1 Tsabo's Web
1 Misdirection
1 Dominate
3 Last Breath
2 Millstone
2 Mageta the Lion
2 Disenchant
1 Teferi's Moat
1 Story Circle
1 Misdirection
1 Disrupting Scepter
1 Thwart
1 Rout

Gary Wise
UW Control

Main Deck
Sideboard
10 Island
5 Plains
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Coastal Tower
4 Marble Diamond
4 Counterspell
4 Absorb
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Wrath of God
3 Dismantling Blow
3 Blinding Angel
2 Rout
2 Story Circle
2 Tsabo's Web
1 Disrupting Scepter
4 Rootwater Thief
4 Mageta the Lion
2 Disrupting Scepter
1 Dismantling Blow
1 Blinding Angel
1 Tsabo's Web
1 Ivory Mask
1 Seal of Cleansing

Nicols Labarre
UW Control

Main Deck
Sideboard
9 Island
7 Plains
4 Wrath of God
4 Counterspell
4 Absorb
4 Opt
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Coastal Tower
3 Blinding Angel
2 Story Circle
2 Dismantling Blow
2 Power Sink
2 Tsabo's Web
1 Recall
3 Nether Spirit
3 Last Breath
2 Misdirection
2 Mageta the Lion
2 Disenchant
1 Tsabo's Web
1 Jeweled Spirit
1 Rout

Scott McCord
UW Control

Main Deck
Sideboard
9 Island
8 Plains
4 Counterspell
4 Absorb
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Disenchant
4 Tsabo's Web
4 Wrath of God
4 Blinding Angel
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Coastal Tower
2 Story Circle
1 Power Sink
4 Millstone
4 Disrupt
3 Rout
2 Rootwater Thief
1 Story Circle
1 Seal of Cleansing

Yann Hamon
UW Control

Main Deck
Sideboard
9 Island
7 Plains
4 Coastal Tower
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Opt
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Counterspell
4 Absorb
4 Wrath of God
3 Blinding Angel
2 Tsabo's Web
2 Power Sink
2 Story Circle
2 Dismantling Blow
1 Recall
3 Nether Spirit
3 Last Breath
2 Mageta the Lion
2 Disenchant
2 Misdirection
1 Tsabo's Web
1 Rout
1 Jeweled Spirit

If there's one deck that Fires fears the most it would be W/U Control. The official statistics say there were 12 such decks in Day 2 of Chicago with a high finish of 9th place, and five of the more standard ones are reprinted here. The 12 decks vary to different degrees off of standard, with at two of them actually being mislabeled; Jakub Slemr and Michael Rumsey's decks are actually Counter-Rebel. There's some truth in that, since Counter-Rebel is basically W/U control with a rebel engine in it, but those decks have rightfully been split off. There are plenty of other variants on W/U out there, but this is one of those decks that has most of its cards chosen for it. Not counting the mana, there is a core of 20 cards (Accumulated Knowledge, Fact or Fiction, Counterspell, Absorb and Wrath of God) that must be in the deck, which together with Blinding Angel or Millstone as the kill doesn't leave much space to mess around with. This deck does best when it sticks close to its roots and stays on target. I won't go into quite the detail I did for Fires, and I'll start by looking over the major issues in deck construction.

The mana base varies in size from a low of 23 cards to a high of about 28. In the five sample decklists I took from Day 2 of Chicago, all of which are fairly close to what I consider the 'normal' build of the deck, the low end was represented by Arto Hiltunen's deck. Simply put, his deck does not have enough lands in it. He managed to fit maindeck Millstone in a deck with four Blinding Angels and still find room for Opt, and he did this in part by not playing enough lands. It could be argued that four Opt allows the deck to play two less mana sources, and it definitely helps, but the last thing W/U wants to do is spend its early turns scrambling to get its lands. It may seem like nitpicking considering I ended up going with 25 and no Opts, but small things like that become hugely important in such refined formats. Operating properly is going to require at least five lands just to cast Blinding Angel against no opposing Rishadan Ports, and in matchups against control and against beatdown much more than that is desired. The deck wants to reach at least seven lands and often wants more. The low mana cost also prevented Arto from using Power Sink.

On the other end would be the deck given to Gary Wise. It too has 23 lands, but it supplements them with four Marble Diamonds to make 27 pure mana sources. Note that this accounts for his odd looking basic land ratio. Almost all W/U decks have their colored mana split almost evenly, with one or two more blue sources than white sources depending on whether their total number of mana sources is even or odd. All of them also use all eight duallands, with four copies of both Adarkar Wastes and Coastal Tower. Diamonds are one of the big debates our playtest group had early on, not just about this deck but actually about almost every deck without Birds and Elves in it; Adrian Sullivan in particular thought they were worthwhile in virtually every deck in order to get to four mana faster. I thought that having to tap the two mana to get the Diamonds on the table was an invitation for something disastrous to resolve, and having played many games on both sides I'd say that Diamonds are more likely to hurt than help unless there are Evil Plans involved. There is a variant of W/U that does in fact use Enlightened Tutor to find silver bullets, and it has a copy of Rising Waters. This combines with the ability to tutor for a Diamond to make them worthwhile in that kind of strategy. But without any Evil Plans, playing Diamonds turns out to just be the invitation to disaster I thought it would be. A much better plan with two mana is to cast Tsabo's Web, which will take away the mana from the Rishadan Port tying up mana and hopefully therefore prevent retaliation. There are definitely situations that could be pointed to with the observation "A Diamond would have been perfect there" but there are too many where drawing them prevents the control deck from having its counterspells ready when it needs them. When it draws multiple Diamonds it can be even worse. I suspect part of this is that most Fires decks didn't used to have Dust Bowl or have enough mana to instantly replace threats after an early Wrath of God often enough. Now, getting mana on the table at the cost of having to Wrath afterwards is a much riskier move.

What seemed early on like the big decision for W/U control was deciding what its kill card should be, with almost all the Chicago decks that did well choosing Blinding Angel. It was the right choice, and given the current metagame situation Millstone isn't really a viable alternative. This is quite an anomaly, because with most control decks the kill card makes very little difference. In this case the opposite is true, and many matchups are changed wildly by switching between Blinding Angel and Millstone. Blinding Angel is much, much more than a kill card against creature decks. Instead, it becomes the primary weapon to stop them. It's so good that often it's even well worth tapping out for it, knowing the chance of them dealing with it at all is low and the chance of them managing to both kill it and do something else worth countering on the next turn is virtually zero. Once it starts, Blinding Angel will end the game in ten turns. Often the sideboard cards or card choices of Fires aimed at W/U are even dedicated to stopping the Angel itself. That doesn't mean that not playing Angel makes the Fires matchup terrible; in fact, it should still be favorable.

On the flip side of that, Millstone is indeed a pure kill card. It does what it does, and aside from a few nice effects like countering Tutors it does nothing else. On the other hand, it doesn't require dealing with all the creature removal in the opposing deck in order to win, which Blinding Angel does. Playing Millstone doesn't give the opponent anything new to shoot at, since there will be other things worth killing with Disenchant or Dismantling Blow as well unless several cards are given up, and that has to include Tsabo's Web. Blinding Angel is different, and would stand alone as the deck's only creature and only path to victory. This is so problematic in matchups against other control decks that game one is almost an auto-loss playing Blinding Angel against Millstone. Other matchups have similar swings; against a rouge deck called Chevy Blue, for example, the Millstone version will almost never lose game one but the Blinding Angel deck is probably at a disadvantage - it has to go through all the opposing deck's defenses. In the end, this decision is a pure metagame call, with Blinding Angel currently being the correct answer and being the correct answer in Chicago. There are too many creature decks out there to go the other way.

Once that decision is made, all the others come down to numbers if the deck is sticking close to the standard model and retain what makes the deck work properly. The deck has to include some number of Disenchants and/or Dismantling Blows. I felt that the deck definitely should have at least three and wanted four, but in practice a lot of versions ended up trimming this number down to two. The most important target is definitely Chimeric Idol. Because it only costs three mana, Chimeric Idol often comes out under even Counterspell itself, and because it is not a creature on the opponent's turn it can't be killed by Wrath of God either. The only solutions are to Rout it (which costs 7 mana), Disenchant or Dismantling Blow it or to knock out the attack phase itself with Blinding Angel. If counterspell mana has to be saved to keep the Angel alive then it will very rarely show up on time to stop a turn 2 Idol.

The biggest space hog in the deck that isn't mandatory is Opt. Opinions on Opt vary from a card that belongs in most blue control decks to a few people who think the card is just bad. For me, the best reason for Opt is that it helps find Wrath of God or multiple copies of Accumulated Knowledge and set up a turn 2 Counterspell, but I can't justify giving up the slots it needs. The other card that basically replaces itself is Tsabo's Web, and there I do think the space is worth it. The problem with Tsabo's Web is the need to tap two mana at some point in order to cast it. Often there is no good turn for that, but if the deck is to have sufficient mana to do things like Wrath with counter backup it's going to have to take out Rishadan Port and Dust Bowl. Dust Bowl in particular can ruin everything if it goes unchecked.

The next question is whether to use a third counterspell after Counterspell and Absorb. Here I have very little doubt that the correct answer is yes and the card to use is Power Sink. If all mana is left untapped, it is very unusual for Power Sink not to work on the spells that matter. Against green decks, all the important spells cost at least three and there is rarely time to actually play around Power Sink even after its existence in multiples is confirmed. Against decks with less mana than my Fires deck it would become even more reliable. The only place where it is troublesome is against other blue decks, and there its ability to tap the opponent out becomes valuable and the deck needs all the counters it can get. If nothing else, it's by far the best way to counter a turn four Fact or Fiction game one. If nothing else, eight counters simply are not enough to use them when they need to be used. Without Power Sink the deck's curve often isn't solid enough to stay in the game early on. I'm really happy with four copies of it.

The last maindeck decision is the distribution of anti-creature cards. Four Wrath of God are mandatory. After that, the choices branch out into Story Circle, Rout, Teferi's Moat and sometimes Mageta the Lion or additional Blinding Angels beyond the third, which I would consider anti-creature rather than a kill card. Story Circle theoretically also helps against burn but right now burn is not a serious issue except for recursion of Pyre Zombie or Hammer of Bogardan, the threat of which seems to have forced this card into the deck. Urza's Rage is another wild card that has to be dealt with, with the normal plan just to finish the opponent off before his mana gets to that point. The rest of the deck will determine how many slots are left over for this group. Given the use of Blinding Angel, Teferi's Moat is mostly redundant, but if Millstone is used instead the Moat becomes a lot better. Story Circle I consider basically a requirement to cover weird situations but not actually a card worth packing too many of. The best option for the last one or two slots that are left over is probably Rout; having more than four Wraths is a big help, and the alternate cost can come in handy.

The sideboard has an element of the prisoner's dilemma in it, because the matchup that will eat up tons and tons of slots is actually the mirror. Right now that attention isn't very important. Nether-Go can also be included but it requires most and often all of the same cards. Against creature decks, the deck is already going to be set up more or less correctly; anything done to the deck is almost just tuning. Putting in extra copies of (for example) Rout is nice, and it might be an idea to try and take out all the Disenchant targets. The only pure hate cards really worth thinking about are Submerge and Circle of Protection: Green. Disrupting Scepter is another odd question. Without it, the deck is counting on killing its opponents before they can use Obliterate or a kickered Urza's Rage; defending against these cards is far too costly any other way. But the Scepter is otherwise absolutely horrid in non-control matchups. Against other control decks the dilemma reverses itself. Wrath of God does almost nothing, and what it does it isn't very good at. Any supplementary creature control also needs to come out, and the kill spell wants to move away from Blinding Angel. That can mean using as many as 12 or so slots. A slightly smaller version of what I would consider the full mirror sideboard can be found in Scott McCord's decklist; he is missing only the other two copies of Rootwater Thief. The Thief becomes so important that often cards like Last Breath come in just to kill him; Last Breath's main purpose is in the very bad matchup against rebels, where it seeks to kill searchers without paying four mana.

There is one other way to build the sideboard, which is to make the deck transform into Counter-Rebel. An example of this strategy and other possible changes to the deck can be found in the decklist of Justin Gary:

Justin Gary

Main Deck
Sideboard
11 Island
6 Plains
4 Counterspell
4 Absorb
4 Foil
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Accumulated Knowledge
4 Wrath of God
4 Blinding Angel
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Coastal Tower
3 Dismantling Blow
2 Tsabo's Web
1 Jeweled Spirit
1 Reviving Vapors
4 Ramosian Sergeant
3 Submerge
2 Disenchant
2 Fresh Volunteers
1 Defiant Falcon
1 Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero
1 Rebel Informer
1 Nightwind Glider

Five slots are devoted to Disenchant and Submerge, and the other ten are a minor rebel engine. The point of that engine is basically Rebel Informer. Against other rebel decks, the plan is for them to take out Rebel Informer, so this plan takes advantage of that together with the extra mana naturally in a control deck to turn around a normally horrible matchup for a deck that doesn't need its sideboard that much. Even if the rebel player keeps his Rebel Informer, the now Counter-Rebel deck has more mana and a better shot at controlling whose Rebels hit the table when. In game three, the opponent doesn't know which strategy to sideboard for. The big problem for players like me (and Justin) is that players will learn of this sideboard quickly in the hands of a well known player. That makes such ideas work best in the hands of an unknown.

I think of W/U as the third strategy of the format behind Fires in first and the Rebels in second, although it's definitely not being played to that extent or anything like it. It represents Paper, killing the best deck but having very serious and probably mostly unsolvable problems against the second best one. If the modern field looks like New York's does with Fires everywhere, it becomes an excellent metagame call. I might even use it, but Fires is too much fun right now. As to the most popular question, "What do you think W/U should look like?" two weeks ago I would have answered that I don't have the exact right decklist but that I recommend sticking close to the standard decklist but fitting in multiple copies of Power Sink. Beyond that, the deck must be tested and adopted to personal style and local metagame.

Instead, here's the decklist that I used at the Grudge Match Finals, which I'll then explain:

Main Deck
Sideboard
3 Dismantling Blow
4 Power Sink
4 Absorb
4 Counterspell
2 Dominate
2 Tsabo's Web
3 Blinding Angel
4 Wrath of God
1 Rout
4 Fact or Fiction
4 Accumulated Knowledge
10 Island
7 Plains
4 Coastal Tower
4 Adarkar Wastes
1 Disenchant 
4 Last Breath
2 Disrupt
2 Disrupting Scepter 
4 Millstone
2 Story Circle

I was happy with this version of the deck, but it definitely was influenced by the exact format I had to play. I strongly suspected I would play against a close version of Kibler's deck but not a true Fires version, for example, and that let me cheat somewhat on the Disenchants. It also led to the decision to bypass Story Circle in order to turn Wax and Wane into a simple Shock. Story Circle can't be played very often in a situation where Wrath would have been unplayable, and often it's even more dangerous because it leaves Birds and Elves intact. What Story Circle really does is stop the random recursion of Hammer of Bogardan and Pyre Zombie. This is a groundless fear right now, with very few players using such things. If they do, Story Circle is generally the entire match unless the Hammer is in a Fires deck. After sideboarding in this defense, only a quick early start (such as Dark Ritual into Blazing Specter) is still worth worrying about. At this point, I'm willing to just play the deck without such things. If the deck looks silly, it looks silly. It can't be helped.

If there's one really weird looking card in this build it would be Dominate. Dominate is the replacement for Story Circle and other similar defenses. It can sometimes solve the Pyre Zombie problem, is another instant speed solutions to problems (especially Chimeric Idol, even though it's probably never activating again) and River Boa. Having to use Wrath of God or Blinding Angel to stop a River Boa is very poor, although Story Circle is a valid answer. Dominate also serves as an alternative way to win. Without it, the deck has serious worries finishing the opponent off with only three Blinding Angel, and I didn't want a fourth that much.

Assuming that most people are not playing Unified Standard against a player nicknamed Mouth but instead playing normal Standard format Magic, Story Circle becomes a more difficult decision. In general, I would recommend playing Story Circle in areas without Wax/Wane or Aura Mutation in the green decks, or if recursion cards are common. Nether-Go is another good reason to use them, although they don't care for Dominate much either. Otherwise the deck can be played without such things.

On to the sideboard. Four Millstone is a requirement, for cases where Blinding Angel is a bad way to win. After that things get tougher. It's easy to take out Blinding Angel, but as mentioned above sideboarding is otherwise next to impossible unless creature kill is bad and Wrath (and sometimes its friends) can come out. Disrupting Scepter serves two purposes. One is to defend against Obliterate and Urza's Rage, which are otherwise ticking time bombs, although often it's better to just gamble that they won't come up. The other is its traditional use to gain card economy on other control decks. This double use allows it to replace some copies of Disrupt. Story Circle has already been explained. The last choice was Last Breath. Here I was looking for a solution to problems of both rebels and Nether Spirits. Some W/U sideboards have Nether Spirit in them, and of course there's Nether-Go. Last Breath kills Nether Spirit dead. It also represents a two mana solution to all the rebel searchers below Ramosian Sky Marshal as an instant, which is a big step toward giving the deck a fighting chance. Whether it's anything close to enough I didn't know yet, but I was willing to accept that if I hit the opposing rebel deck the results were not likely to be pretty.

What's keeping this deck back right now? It's almost certainly the old rebellion, and in more ways than one. The rebels beat W/U control without some serious modifications, and players are not willing to lose to rebels. In addition, the Counter-rebel deck is drawing U/W control players away into its own corner. Why play Wrath of God and Counterspell when you can play them and still have rebels? I very much disagree with that, but that's the way it is.

Finally, a miniature guide to playing the deck. The most important thing to remember is that the deck must be prepared to take a lot of damage early on so it doesn't have to tap out before it is ready. It's fine to be at 5 life if that means casting Wrath of God with counter backup. The only time the deck should tap out against a green deck when it can instead take damage to get protection is holding a second Wrath that can be protected later, and then only against versions without Armageddon. Whenever Blastoderm hits, look for a chance to just take fifteen damage, especially with Absorb. One question is whether to try and stop Fires of Yavimaya. With hands that plan to counter all opposing threats it should be let go, but when Wrath of God is a major part of the plan it should be countered if one can be spared. This holds especially if tapping out for Wrath may be required, at which point stopping Fires is imperative. Blinding Angel can win the entire game by itself but watch out for situations where it gets bogged down in a quagmire and beware having to tap out for it. More players are also starting to play removal for it, including maindeck Ghitu Fire. After sideboarding, there is a very good chance that there are cards in the opponent's deck specifically to kill Blinding Angel, and therefore the Angel should be held early on if possible. Another question is when to cast Tsabo's Web. Don't risk falling behind with it; if the opponent will still have four mana the turn after it hits and Port isn't currently raising hell, hold it until counter backup is available if the card isn't needed. In general, when I say to wait for counter backup it assumes such counters are in hand and what the deck is waiting for is the mana. It is rarely worth holding back to bluff counters, because the proper way to play against the deck is generally to put it to the test as often as possible.

Against other decks, the deck operates the same way as control decks of old. Play cautiously, go for card economy, let the opponent lose to himself and most of the time he will while Accumulated Knowledge and Fact or Fiction win the game. If he starts recursing Pyre Zombie or Hammer of Bogardan it's time to panic and go for the throat. Against other control decks, it's the traditional control against control situation so hold Accumulated Knowledge if possible and play accordingly. One big note is how to use Fact or Fiction. The biggest thing to remember using it with this deck is to hold it if that is practical instead of ending up having to discard or being put to a four against one decision for a key card that isn't needed yet.

When sideboarding with the deck, be cautious. Blinding Angel and Millstone can be swapped whenever the situation calls for it and Wrath of God and Dominate can leave when they're not appropriate. There's never much more to do after that. Against a rebel deck, for example, a few Power Sinks might come out along with Dominate and Blinding Angel for the Millstones and Last Breaths. This is one of the places I hate the Angel, because all the opposing creatures basically have to be dealt with anyway with a few exceptions for non-searchers. Against another control deck Blinding Angel, Rout and Wrath of God leave to start things off with Millstone, Disrupting Scepter and Disrupt, and then Dominate might switch out for Last Breath. If Nether Spirits were confirmed as the opposing strategy something would then need to be sacrificed for more Breaths. Taking out Tsabo's Web is a lot like taking out lands. I don't claim to have all the answers or know for sure.



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