I have recently been thinking a lot about Modern. The upcoming modern PPTQ season, the unbannings of Ancestral Vision, Sword of the Meek, and the printing of Nahiri, the Harbinger are exciting to me as a blue mage. Despite the hype that has surrounded all 3 of these cards at one point, they are widely considered flops, and didn’t live up to expectations. Pure control has never been tier one in Modern. Today i’m gong to be delving into why that is and if there is a true control deck out there that can thrive in modern with these new options.

Many pros and magic writers often say that control in modern isn’t viable because there are too many threats operating on too many axes in the format for a true control deck to thrive. Because of this, the closest things we get to control decks are tempo or midrange decks, such as Jund, Jeskai Nahiri and Grixis, that have disruptive elements but try to put the opponent on the clock. I think that this notion of modern’s threat range being the reason control doesn’t thrive is wrong, it’s just that the control cards that people play are deceptively bad.

I’m going to propose a skeleton consisting of 6 criteria a control deck needs to meet to be successful. Some of the criteria overlap with each other, and some are more important than others. While a control deck can be weak in one or maybe 2 areas, they still have to cover everything and in my opinion excel at at least one thing. Miracles is one of the most successful control decks of all time, so I’m going to use it as an example for each of the criteria. For reference, here is Aaron Kaspzak’s top 8 miracles list from GP Columbus:

Lands (22)

  • 4 Island
  • 2 Plains
  • 4 Flooded Strand
  • 2 Arid Mesa
  • 2 Polluted Delta
  • 1 Scalding Tarn
  • 3 Tundra
  • 3 Volcanic Island

Creatures (3)

  • 3 Snapcaster Mage

Planeswalkers (3)

  • 3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Spells (32)

  • 4 Sensei’s Divining Top
  • 4 Brainstorm
  • 2 Counterspell
  • 4 Force of Will
  • 4 Swords to Plowshares
  • 1 Council’s Judgment
  • 2 Entreat the Angels
  • 4 Ponder
  • 4 Terminus

Sideboard (15)

  • 1 Containment Priest
  • 1 Moat
  • 3 Flusterstorm
  • 2 Pyroblast
  • 1 Red Elemental Blast
  • 3 Surgical Extraction
  • 2 Wear//Tear
  • 2 Vendilion Clique
  • 1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

The Backbone of a Control Deck

-Inevitability/Card advantage Originally I wanted to put card advantage in its own section, but inevitability encompasses card advantage. Inevitability is a control deck’s ability to play to the late game knowing it will be favored. This is one of the strengths of a control deck, and makes it so you have a game plan from turn one, in every game. Card advantage helps achieve inevitability because if you have enough cheap one-for-one answers to your opponent’s threats, both players’ resources will be dwindled down until a card advantage spell refills your hand, putting you in the drivers seat.  Legacy miracles has fantastic inevitability through locking its opponent out with the Counterbalance and Sensei’s Diving Top combo. Once Miracles has nullified its opponent’s game entirely, it eventually ends the game with Entreat the Angels, Monastery Mentor, or Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s ultimate. Inevitability is one of the keys to a control deck.

-Wraths Wraths serve 3 main purposes in control decks. The first is to provide card advantage against creature decks by dealing with multiple cards from their side, in exchange for one of the control deck’s own. The second thing wraths do is provide a large tempo advantage to the caster, by undoing multiple turns of development of opposing creature decks, expending only one card. This buys you time so that your slower counterspells or card advantage spells are turned on. The third is the respect your opponents give to your wrath even if you don’t have it. They will often hold threats back for fear of a sweeper, allowing you to play your slightly slower control game and be less pressured going into the mid game. Miracles clearly has the most potent board wipe of all time, Terminus, which serves as a one mana Wrath of God a majority of the time. Terminus makes match ups that would otherwise be unfavorable for Miracles into great match ups (e.g. Elves, Merfolk). This shows how valuable wraths can be. Having access to that specific effect flips a matchup.

-Early Disruption The bread and butter of control decks. Cheap removal spells, hand disruption spells, and counterspells should make up the bulk of any control decks. This is where a lot of preparation for events and formats comes in, because finding the correct suite of interaction for any given tournament is quintessential for a control deck’s success. It is also important for control decks to have scaling and universal answers. An example of this is in Miracles are Swords to Plowshares, Counterspell, and Snapcaster Mage. They are some of the leanest, most efficient, and most versatile answers in all of magic. Early disruption, how a control decks disruption lines up with the format, and scalability of disruption are hugely important to the success of a control deck, being the most important criteria alongside inevitability/card advantage.

 -Filtering This is a category that a control deck can skimp on, but filtering is so powerful when it can be done for ideally one mana. Because control decks have many moving parts, and needs to draw different elements depending on matchup, cantrips can serve as the glue that holds decks together, and make them run seamlessly. Filtering is key to miracles and its many situational cards likeTerminus and Counterbalance, turning them into the efficient menaces that they are with the help of Sensei’s Divining Top and Brainstorm.

 -Powerful Sideboard Having a powerful sideboard is the type of thing that can easily push any deck to the next level. The power of sideboards are amplified in control decks for two reasons. The first is that control decks will see more cards than the average deck in a game. This makes it more likely that you will see a sideboard card, amplifying its value. The second, is that control decks don’t have a linear game plan that requires a ton of narrow cards to execute. An aggro or combo deck can’t add many silver bullets to its deck post board, for fear of diluting its core strategy that requires many cards to execute each game. A good sideboard card in a control deck can serve as any of a wrath, early piece of disruption, or inevitability. In Miracles, a card like Moat serves as a wrath and inevitability against many decks, because it nullifies their board and makes it so they can’t really win. The same goes for Containment Priest. Miracles’ sideboard doesn’t have that many silver bullets though, and many of its cards are just cheaper more powerful answers against a wide verity of decks, for example Pyroblast serving as a one mana Counterspell // Terminate split card against blue decks for just one mana.

 -Curve Keeping mana curve in mind is super important for control decks. A control deck will usually be less mana efficient card for card than most decks, so keeping the mana curve lower if at all possible is very powerful. Miracles is a perfect example of a lean control deck.

Why Modern Control Decks Fail

Corey Burkhart’s Grixis control; GP LA top 8

Lands (22)

  • 4 Scalding Tarn
  • 4 Polluted Delta
  • 2 Watery Grave
  • 2 Steam Vents
  • 2 Sulfur Falls
  • 1 Blood Crypt
  • 2 Creeping Tar Pit
  • 3 Island
  • 1 Mountain
  • 1 Swamp

Creatures (7)

  • 4 Snapcaster Mage
  • 3 Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Spells (31)

  • 4 Ancestral Vision
  • 4 Serum Visions
  • 1 Dreadbore
  • 4 Thought Scour
  • 4 Lightning Bolt
  • 2 Spell Snare
  • 1 Remand
  • 1 Negate
  • 3 Terminate
  • 3 Kolaghan’s Command
  • 4 Cryptic Command

Sideboard (15)

  • 1 Negate
  • 3 Fulminator Mage
  • 1 Izzet Staticaster
  • 2 Spellskite
  • 2 Dispel
  • 1 Slaughter Game
  • 1 Engineered Explosives
  • 2 Anger of the Gods
  • 1 Cryptic Command
  • 1 Sun Droplet

Im impressed with Corey’s version of Grixis Control overall, compared to most. The printing of Ancestral Vision did wonders for the deck, not only on power level, but the inevitability it gives the deck makes it so it can be build differently, playing more Cryptic Commands, and play for the long game. It still has it’s problems.

First and foremost, the cheap counterspells in modern are terrible for control. Mana Leak, Remand and Spell Snare are inconsistent tempo cards, that are potent on turns two to four or five. Past that they get outclassed and lose their value, taking away heavily from your control decks inevitability, because your hand can get clogged with them in the late game instead of more scaling cards. Corey identified this, and his deck is devoid of those two mana counter spells save a singleton remand and inconsistent negate. Instead, his deck is bursting at the seams with removal. His answers are versatile under the umbrella of removal, but his deck has almost no game against spell-based decks. Because he isn’t playing 2 mana counterspells or Inquisition of Kozilek, Corey is stone cold dead to decks like Tron, Burn, and an underdog to other blue decks.

Traditional wraths are overall underpowered in modern, because four mana is often too steep a price to pay. This makes modern control decks weak in that criteria, but Corey augments that by having so much removal that he is still favorable against creature decks.

Corey has decent inevitability. He is playing the full compliment of Cryptic Command and Ancestral Vision which gives him power. Also, late game his cantrips are great. When spending one mana doesn’t matter (late in the game when you have excess land) his cantrips replace themselves and provide extra value. He doesn’t however, have very good threats. Many Grixis decks play 4 or 5 mana threats in Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, or Goblin Dark Dwellers. With Tasigur as his main threat, he is much lower to the ground which is nice for early tempo, but closing out games with any version is time consuming and at times difficult. I like that Corey has cantrips, but I think that 4 Thought Scour and 4 Serum Visions alongside the 4 Ancestral Vision is a little overboard, and i could see the deck spinning its wheels a lot.   

Overall Pros Great filtering, efficient removal, velocity, card advantage.

Overall Cons Bad at closing the game out, no wrath, very bad against spell-based decks, decent but not spectacular sideboard.

Logan Martin’s Nahiri Jeskai, GP Charlotte Top 32

Lands (24)

  • 3 Snow-Covered Island
  • 1 Snow-Covered Mountain
  • 1 Snow-Covered Plains
  • 1 Arid Mesa
  • 3 Celestial Collonade
  • 1 Desolate Lighthouse
  • 3 Flooded Strand
  • 2 Hallowed Fountain
  • 1 Sacred Foundry
  • 4 Scalding Tarn
  • 2 Steam Vents
  • 2 Sulfur Falls

Creatures (22)

  • 4 Snapcaster Mage
  • 1 Vendilion Clique
  • 1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn

Planeswalkers (4)

  • 4 Nahiri, the Harbinger

Spells (26)

  • 4 Serum Visions
  • 2 Cryptic Command
  • 2 Electrolyze
  • 4 Lightning Bolt
  • 3 Lightning Helix
  • 2 Mana Leak
  • 4 Path to Exile
  • 3 Remand
  • 2 Spell Snare

Sideboard (15)

  • 1 Vendilion Clique
  • 1 Celestial Purge
  • 1 Wear//Tear
  • 2 Crumble to Dust
  • 1 Engineered Explosives
  • 1 Dispel
  • 2 Ancestral Vision
  • 1 Timely Reinforcements
  • 1 Stony Silence
  • 2 Negate
  • 1 Anger of the Gods
  • 1 Surgical Extraction

This is a stock Jeskai Nahiri list that was extremely hyped up about a month ago, but has recently been falling off the map after a few weeks of struggling. This is a much more classic and common shell of a control decks in modern than Corey’s Grixis list; play a bunch of removal, Snapcaster Mages, bad counterspells, Cryptic Command, and threats. There are a bunch of holes in this strategy, and to demonstrate why, we can go down the line of control criteria and how Jeskai Nahiri falls short.

Inevitability/card advantage Jeskai Nahiri has mediocre inevitability, and tries to augment this by closing the game quickly with Nahiri. This can definitely work, but the deck leans really heavily on Nahiri, and sometimes she isn’t good enough and can get killed when you tap out for her at sorcery speed. This deck has card advantage in the form of two-for-ones Cryptic Command and Electrolyze but is still lacking overall, compared to an Ancestral Vision deck. The deck can’t play Ancestral Vision in its current form, because it already plays a singleton Emrakul which is clunky, and you don’t want ancestral in your Remand, Mana Leak, Spell Snare deck, as Ancestral wants to be in a deck that grinds.

Wraths Again, wraths are very hard to play in modern because they are just a little underpowered compared to the format. Nahiri does have electrolyze which on a good day can be a wrath, much like Grixis overloading on removal is a good strategy, although Jeskai doesn’t do it as well as Grixis due to the lack of Ancestral Vision.

Early disruption This deck has great early disruption. Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, Path to Exile, Snapcaster Mage, and Electrolyze are all fantastic. As I have stated before though, the blue cheap counterspells Remand, Mana Leak, and Spell Snare just don’t cut it in control. This effect is magnified in Jeskai, where Path to Exile helps pull your opponent out of range of Remand and Mana Leak even quicker

Filtering This deck has good filtering with Serum Visions, Electrolyze, Nahiri, Remand, and Vendilion Clique.

Powerful Sidebored This deck’s sideboard is powerful. White offers the best sideboard options in Modern including, but not limited to, Timely Reinforcements and Stony Silence. The deck also had potent anti-control measures through Ancestral Vision and Negate, which also serves purposes elsewhere.

Curve The decks curve is pretty lean and low, which is good.

Overall, the Nahiri deck excels in it’s sideboard, curve and very early disruption, but has problems in inevitability and its answers not lining up correctly. Nahiri, much like Grixis, struggles with spell-based decks like Tron, Burn, and with jund where its answers have to line up perfectly with their versatile and sticky threats. Jeskai is favored against creature decks.

Where to go From Here

Esper Dragons by Abe Corrigan

Lands (22)

  • 4 Flooded Strand
  • 4 Polluted Delta
  • 2 Watery Grave
  • 1 Godless Shrine
  • 1 Hallowed Fountain
  • 3 Island
  • 1 Plains
  • 1 Swamp
  • 2 Celestial Collonade
  • 1 Tectonic Edge
  • 2 Glacial Fortress
  • 2 Drowned Catacomb

Creatures (22)

  • 4 Snapcaster Mage
  • 3 Dragonlord Ojutai

Spells (22)

  • 4 Lingering Souls
  • 3 Serum Visions
  • 3 Ancestral Vision
  • 3 Cryptic Command
  • 4 Silumgar’s Scorn
  • 3 Nameless Inversion
  • 4 Path to Exile
  • 4 Inquisition of Kozilek
  • 1 Detention Sphere

Sideboard (15)

  • 2 Timely Reinforcements
  • 2 Negate
  • 1 Ancestral Vision
  • 1 Dragonlord Ojutai
  • 2 Stony Silence
  • 2 Supreme Verdict
  • 2 Spreading Seas
  • 1 Hallowed Moonlight
  • 1 Threads of Disloyalty
  • 1 Go for the Throat

This is the deck that i’m working on right now. Admittedly, I haven’t tested enough, but I recently went 3-0 at a local modern event and has been very positive in match ups I have been playing against in my testing. Furthermore, the decks I have been testing against and winning include Tron and Burn in game ones, which is super promising. The sample size is only about 7-10 games each though, and the burn matchup was very close, going 4-3 in favor of Esper (it gets much more favorable post-board). The third deck I tested against was Affinity, which I stomped over and over. In my local modern events I defeated Abzan Company, Skred Red, and Jeskai Nahiri, as well.

Esper Dragons aims to interact with the opponent from turns one to four for control, and then locks them out by chaining counterspells and Lingering Souls. This is why the deck could beat Burn and Tron. Once I killed Burn’s creatures, I stabilized at 5 to 8 health and used Cryptic Command, Snapcaster Mage and Silumgar’s Scorn to create a gradual advantage and run them out of cards. This strategy is also fantastic with Ancestral Vision, because you know you have inevitability if it’s ticking down while you execute your counterspell game plan. Against Tron, if i had a turn 1 Ancestral Vision then I could lock them down with counterspells and Inquisition until I slammed an Ojutai and killed them. Esper also seems very favored in blue mirrors, where my increased number of counterspells are a strength as well as my threats being super sticky. I single-handedly killed Jeskai Nahiri with Lingering Souls and counterspells even when they drew fantastically.

Clearly this Esper deck has a better matchup against spell based decks than these other control decks, but what about creature matchups? Against the creature matchups, Lingering Souls, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Snapcaster Mage shine. Having these cards lets you make favorable trades often and Lingering Souls gives many decks fits (Affinity, Infect, midrange decks). Also having Silumgar’s Scorn instead of Remand is a big plus against these decks. Supreme Verdict, Timely Reinforcements, and removal after side bored help.

Now we need to run Esper Dragons through our control criteria and see how it fairs.

Inevitability/Card Advantage Esper has fantastic inevitability and card advantage. You have scalable powerful threats in Dragonlord Ojutai and Lingering Souls that not only put on a quick clock once you turn the corner, but provide additional card advantage to compliment Cryptic Command, Snapcaster Mage, and of course Ancestral Vision. Ancestral Vision in this deck is simply a delight. This deck utilizes it so much more effectively than any other deck I’ve seen, because of all the cheap interaction your deck has, and Silumgar’s Scorn being so versatile to both draw off it and protect you while its suspended. I could easily see running four, but don’t want to go overboard on cards that top deck poorly in the late game.

Wraths Definitely a category that this deck is weaker in similar to all control decks in modern. This being said, Lingering Souls can often serve the same purpose as a wrath against some decks, nullifying your opponents board and giving you card advantage. This is especially true against Infect and Affinity. Moral of the story; Lingering Souls is a messed up magic card that does everything.

Early Disruption This deck has very good early disruption, although its removal is slightly worse than Jeskai’s. Path to Exile is great, and Nameless Inversion is surprisingly serviceable. Similar to how Terminate and Lightning Bolt are the backbone of the Grixis removal suite, Path to Exile and Nameless Inversion are a 3-damage spell and a clean kill spell at one and two mana, just reversed. Inquisition of Kozilek is fantastic in the deck and gives you game against everything. We can afford to play it even though it is a poor top deck in the late game, because the rest of our deck is great in that part of the game, and Inquisition will often still hit in those situations. I’ve already sung the praises of Lingering Souls enough, but one final thing it does is provide pressure to Planeswalkers that are commonly played, Liliana and Nahiri, which the deck has trouble dealing with once they’ve resolved.

Filtering The deck has solid filtering through Serum Visions, Snapcaster Mage, and Cryptic Command.

 Powerful Sidebored The deck’s sideboard is perhaps the best of the bunch and has a lot of wiggle room depending on the expected metagame. It has some similar elements to Jeskai Nahiri, in terms of Stony Silence, Timely Reinforcements, Negate, and Ancestral Vision, albeit in different numbers than Jeskai. The extra removal, Threads of Disloyalty, and Supreme Verdict are good against creature decks, and Spreading Seas is great against Tron, Infect, and is a possibility against Jund.

Curve The deck’s curve is a bit higher than most modern decks, but rarely feels that clunky. Dragonlord Ojutai and Cryptic Command can sometimes be awkward, but having 14 one mana spells is really good, making it so you can double spell early on and gain tempo.

Overall, Esper Dragons does considerably better against our criteria than other control decks in modern, trading a bit of equity in removal spells for a much better late game and card advantage engine and the power house that is Silumgar’s Scorn. I’ve been having a lot of fun with the deck and it shows promise with the new addition of Ancestral Vision making true control a viable route to go. I look forward to tuning the deck for the upcoming PPTQ season.