A Control Mage’s Guide to Zendikar Rising

Hello everyone and welcome to my first article for Face to Face Games! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Roman Fusco, I’m a longtime Magic player from Los Angeles. While this is my first written article for F2F, you might be familiar with some of my work already if you’re an avid Brian David-Marshall and Michael Flores fan. I’m the current editor for Top 8 Magic Podcast but it’s nice to write down my thoughts for a change. Pre-COVID I was traveling to Grand Prix every month, aiming to make a name for myself on the Player’s Tour circuit. While the pandemic has put a sudden halt to my travels, I’ve used the interim to explore MTG Arena. Last month I hit Mythic in Limited, and this month I’ve been upping my Historic game to prep for the September Zendikar Rising Qualifier Weekend. While I’ve been playtesting a ton (and will have an upcoming article on that soon) spoiler season is at its height and I can’t stop thinking about how Standard will look in just a few weeks. 

While I’m trademarked as a Burn player in most formats, I’ve always gravitated towards control decks in Standard (I’m bad at combat math, sue me!). Control decks surprisingly are a bit easier to pilot than aggro decks, since the gameplay is about answering your opponents’ threats as opposed to presenting your own. You don’t have to jump over the hurdles of solving combat math in aggro mirrors, and instead you focus your attention on how to gain control over the board and set up for an inevitable victory. 

I’ll be honest, Standard has not been the kindest to ‘traditional’ control decks in recent months. With cards like Field of the Dead, Oko, Thief of Crowns, and Fires of Invention, it’s been difficult to succeed with a classic “draw, go” type of control deck. Even with the most recent bannings of Growth Spiral and Cauldron Familiar, UW Control has fallen victim to Uro/Nissa ramp strategies packed with various counterspells, discard spells, and the indomitable Hydroid Krasis. To top it all off we even lost access to Teferi, Time Raveler – a ban which broke my heart. 

However, Zendikar Rising gives us a clean slate and I’m excited about the return of ‘traditional’ control strategies. When I say ‘traditional’ it’s important to have an understanding of the hallmarks of what make a control deck, well, a control deck! 

  1. Answers: Counterspells, removal spells, wraths
  2. Sources of Card Advantage: Planeswalkers, draw spells, 2 for 1’s
  3. Finishers: Individual threats or threats that stockpile (Dream Trawler, Castle Ardenvale)

UB, UW, and Esper, and Jeskai have been the hallmark colors combinations of control decks of standard in recent years. UW and UW Yorion have seen play throughout the last year, and while UB hasn’t had its time to shine, I’m confident that some new cards combined with the power level of Ashiok, Nightmare Muse, will change that. There have also been a variety of Esper Yorion decks, and while a traditional Jeskai control deck hasn’t existed since Guilds of Ravnica, it has access to powerful multicolored rares and great mana fixing. Now, onto the spoilers!

1. Jace, Mirror Mage – Jace seems a bit underwhelming on the surface, since his only plus ability just scrys and his minus ability has the potential to kill him on the spot. Historically walkers have needed some combination of self-protection, card advantage, or ability to close the game, recent examples include Teferi, Time Raveler and the recently reprinted Ugin. Jace only draws cards, and at a significant cost. Jace also provides no sort of interaction with your opponent’s cards, so he’ll be less impactful versus beatdown strategies. However, kicking Jace in a control mirror seems very impactful. A kicked Jace gives you two threats and together in sync they provide a nice engine, the token copy allowing you to scry cards to the top of your library that won’t immediately kill your original Jace. It’s also worthy to note Jace has high loyalty, so even in the aggro matchups he’ll be able to stick around hopefully longer than a turn or two.

2. Emeria’s Call // Emeria, Shattered Skyclave – I’m not the first to say it, but these modal double face cards are incredibly powerful. A seven mana sorcery to make two 4/4 angels is not that exciting on face value, however having access to a land at any time is what makes this card so good. These cards are definitely a head-scratcher, it’s not obvious if you should just include this as an auto four-of or if you should count this just as a land in your deck. I love that this card has a bit of a downside for playing it, paying 3 life for an untapped white has serious repercussions, but I’m glad that at least you have the option to put this land into play untapped if need be. Ultimately, being able to include a game-ending spell in your land slot is a deal I’m willing to make, and I’ll gladly be putting in a couple of copies of this card in any UW control deck I build.

3. Hagra Mauling // Hagra Broodpit – speaking of MDFC’s, Hagra Mauling is another card I’m happy to play in my UB control deck. While you never want to have too many tap lands, and 2BB to kill a creature at instant speed is a worse Murder, Hagra Bite, like every other mdfc, packs versatility. I’m happy to include one or two copies of this in my land slots.

4. Sea Gate Restoration // Sea Gate Reborn – I’m actually less excited about this mdfc than the other two previously mentioned. Unlike Emeria’s Call, which can provide a late-game threat or way to stabilize a board, Sea Gate Restoration is a 7-mana draw spell and it’s uncertain how many cards you would draw in a given scenario. Standard, in the past year, has been primarily about decks taking advantage of their ‘nut draws’ and executing their game plan efficiently. We’ve seen cards insanely overpowered for their mana cost, such as Oko/Once Upon a Time, and we’ve seen cards that, unanswered, can run away with a game in only a matter of turns (Fires of Invention, Nissa Who Shakes the World). Even with these cards banned or rotating out of standard, we still have two cards that have worrisome power levels: Lucky Clover, which inherently “doubles” your mana, and Uro, Titan of Nature’s wrath, a redundant high power creature that aims to stabilize the board and bury its opponent in card advantage. I’m unsure of how dominating Temur Adventures and UGx Ramp strategies will be in the new format, but they’ll certainly be major players. That being said, i’m skeptical of a card like this being good, but who knows. It’s still a mdfc and could easily take up a land slot, so maybe it’s correct to always be playing a copy.

5. Jwari Disruption – This is one mdfc I’m actually not sure how to evaluate, but when it comes to arena I’ll definitely be trying this as a 4-of. This card is comparable to Censor. They both do the same thing, but have similar modal effects. Censor you can pay a blue mana to cycle at any point in the game, Jwari Perturbation is always a land on the other side. In a lot of games you would cycle Censor early on to hit land drops, Jwari Perturbation fills a similar role in that regard. However, Censor can cycle itself away for a spell while Perturbation is always a tapped land. I feel like this card is worth its drawbacks, but I can also see this card seeing little play. This card will be worse in open-decklist tournaments though.

6. Bloodchief’s Thirst – This card draws a lot of similarities to Fatal Push. While Fatal Push is an instant and always costs 1 mana, Bloodchief’s Thirst can also target planeswalkers at a kicked cost. Fatal Push saw a ton of standard play and I believe this card will. What I love about this card is that it allows some early interaction, especially against tricky cards like Fervent Champion and Selfless Savior. It makes future Anaxs and bigger creatures to protect less threatening. I also love that this card will almost always have a target, unlike other removal spells such as Glass Casket or Eliminate.

7. Speaking of cheap efficient spells, Sea Gate Stormcaller, while no Snapcaster Mage, definitely seems pushed. While this card could see play in a variety of strategies, potentially even in a deck revolved around kicker cards, I think this card could find a home in UB control. UB has access to a lot of cheap instants and sorceries, such as Opt, various removal spells, and Agonizing Remorse. But the card I’m most interested in casting with this is Frantic Inventory. A 2/1 for 2 mana might also just be fine to slow down an aggro deck as well. This card will always have to be played at sorcery speed however, and also isn’t always the best finisher, especially in control mirrors where your opponent has Castle Ardenvale. This brings me to my next card…

8. Inscription of Ruin – Another versatile card for black control decks, Inscription of Ruin offers three choosable options, which have relevance versus multiple matchups. It can kill an Uro, do some damage to your UW Control opponent’s hand, and even bring back a Sea Gate Stormcaller. The dream is doing all three and casting another spell with your oracle, but if your deck has an oracle to begin with you can get a little extra value out of Inscription. Also other relevant reanimate targets of note: Kitesail Freebooter, Blacklance Paragon, Archfiend’s Vessel.

9. Inscription of Insight – I’m bummed this card isn’t an instant but I understand if it was it would be incredibly busted. Since you have to tap out for this card at sorcery speed I only want one or two copies, but this card is pretty efficient. Being able to reset your opponent’s board for a turn while you accrue more card advantage with your Jace or add loyalty to another walker seems great, and I like the versatility of being able to make a threat or draw cards in midrange or control matchups.

10. Soul Shatter – This brings back memories of Crackling Doom, however this upcoming standard format will look very different than that of KTK. Crackling Doom was so potent in Khans of Tarkir standard due to decks running very powerful individual threats, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Siege Rhino come to mind. However, Soul Shatter may prove to be less useful. This standard could see a bevy of powerful go-wide decks, such as mono white and mono red. Soul Shatter seems very matchup dependent. For example a Soul Shatter might take out a Winota before your opponent can attack, preventing you from losing the game on the spot. However, Soul Shatter might also just kill an Anax and give your opponents more bodies for their Torbran or Castle Embereth to pump, or leave you with a removal spell that’s incapable of answering an Embercleaved creature. This card does seem great however at killing Dream Trawlers and individual planeswalkers. This takes care of  Nissa or Ugin nicely. I’m going to hold off on including this card in my decks right away. The correct amount of Soul Shatters will be reflective of its targets in the metagame.

11. Shadow’s Verdict – I really wish this card cost one less mana. This card is comparable to Ritual of Soot which is rotating, but instead of killing an Uro we get to exile it, even if it’s hanging out in the graveyard. I do like that this card is a nice answer to the resilient creatures such as Seasoned Hallowblade and Anax. The trick will be balancing how many copies you play relative to your Extinction Events and Ashioks. At least an Extinction Event can remove a Winota or Beanstalk Giant.

12. Ondu Inversion // Ondu Skyruins – This card is incredibly expensive for a wrath and I’m unlikely to play many copies. I think this can slot in as a one of since I’m not confident you’ll be able to rely on the front side of this card. However, it’s still a land and a wrath in one card which justifies slotting an 8 mana wrath in your deck.

13. Silundi Vision // Silundi’s Island – While a 3 mana instant to essentially draw a card isn’t too exciting on a first look, there’s actually a couple reasons why I like this card. You can bluff having a counterspell and use the mana to cast this instead, it can help guarantee you a wrath on turn 4, and most importantly you’re less likely to whiff since your deck will be packed with way more spells than in recent standard formats with the inclusion of MDFC’s.

14. Feed the Swarm – I think this card is actually quite dangerous and won’t find a home in any control strategies at least. Life loss is a heavy price to pay, especially if you have any of the mdfc mythics. There aren’t currently any threatening enchantments in current standard, other than Elspeth Conquers Death and Shark Typhoon maybe. Red also gets access to Valakut Exploration and Roiling Vortex, so there’s some consideration there.

15. Legion Angel – I’m not sure how to accurately evaluate this card. If anything I’d play this as a 1-of with up to 3 copies in my board, but I don’t think it’s terribly exciting to have a 4 mana 4/3 flyer. I’m only really interested in drawing multiple copies to gum up the board or have game ending threats. Not optimistic on its inclusion but worth testing a copy maindeck.

16. The Lands – Finally, let’s talk about the “pathway” lands. While these aren’t as good as shocklands and don’t have the basic land type stapled onto them, untapped sources of two colors of mana are still vital to any multicolored deck’s mana base. Of note, UW doesn’t have a pathway land, UB has one, and Jeskai and Esper have access to two.

17. Nighthawk Scavenger // Confounding Conundrum – These are two sideboard options that I wanted to briefly touch on. Scavenger, an upgrade to Vampire Nighthawk, seems like a great stall against aggressive strategies and a late-game finisher that helps regain your life total. Against black aggro decks this card seems great at downgrading a Scourge of the Skyclaves. Confounding Conundrum is another card to help slow down Uro ramp strategies. It also is a nice flicker target for Yorion for some added value.

Phew, that’s a lot of cards to cover. Now applying what we know let’s look at some sample lists and discuss card choices for what standard might look like with Zendikar Rising added to the mix. 

U/W Control – Roman Fusco – Test Deck

Decklist: https://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/3384771

Sideboard Options:
Mystical Dispute
Realm-Cloaked Giant 
Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis 
Archon of Sun’s Grace
Baneslayer Angel 
Negate
Disenchant
Confounding Conundrum

UW keeps a lot of its hallmark cards post-rotation. We have a counterspell in Neutralize, a wrath in Shatter, anti-aggro cards in the form of Glass Casket and Birth of Meletis, and some late game threats as well. I’m utilizing Jace to fill the 3-mana walker spot that is left by Narset and Teferi and trying out both Jwari Perturbation and Emeria’s Call mdfc’s in land slots. 

Notes on some card inclusions:

Glass Casket – Although time will tell how the standard format shakes out, I’m convinced that Glass Casket will be an auto 4-of in UW control decks, for a couple reasons. Multiple Aggro strategies have creatures that resist Shatter the Sky, such as Anax, Basri’s Lieutenant, Seasoned Hallowblade, and Selfless Savior. It’s important to tag these creatures, especially ones with dying triggers before they accrue too much value. Since UW doesn’t have access to targeted removal like UB does, Casket will be an important piece of removal against aggro strategies. UGx Ramp decks were also gifted with the reprinting of Lotus Cobra, which should strike fear in the hearts of all control mages. An unanswered Lotus Cobra will lead to some seriously busted draws in the new standard. Imagine on the play going Cobra, into Uro, put in a fabled passage, have three mana leftover, and cast a Cultivate. This sets the ramp deck for a turn 4 Ugin! So before Lotus Cobra runs away with the game, it’s important to be able to answer it. Casket also can tag an escaped Uro which has some nice usability versus these ramp decks. Gemrazer remains one card that’s blown me out the most when I’ve casketed a creature, but besides Mono Green I believe Casket will prove worthy in aggro, ramp, and Temur Adventures matchups. 

Realm-Cloaked Giant – Depending on how the format shakes out I can see having access to a 5th or 6th wrath if there are a lot of prevalent aggro decks. I like this card especially against green aggro decks, but it’s worthy to note this wrath misses Yorvo, Beanstalk Giant, and Bonecrusher Giant. If UW Yorion decks are popular access to more than four wraths in 80 cards seems ideal. 

Brazen Borrower/Into the Roil: I like Brazen Borrower in UW Control decks while Into the Roil seems better with Sea Gate Stormcaller. One card that has proven to be difficult for UW to deal with is Winota, Joiner of Forces. UW has no targeted removal unlike UB, so bounce spells may be more valuable depending on how many Winota decks there are. This is another reason why I like running so many glass caskets. 

Elspeth Conquers Death: While this card was pushed out by Sultai the last few months it has seen tremendous standard play since its printing. I think ECD will be one of the premier sources of card advantage for white control decks. While this card is worse against the go-wide aggro decks, I think ECD will play an important role in removing threats we’ve known for awhile now (Uro, Winota, Ugin, Elder Gargaroth) and will deal with some new threats for Zendikar Rising, especially Leyline Tyrant which can prove to be a hard to answer endgame finisher from red decks. 

U/B Control – Roman Fusco – Test Deck 

Decklist: https://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/3384782

Sideboard Options:
Mystical Dispute 
Lochmere Serpent
Duress 
Negate
Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths
Kitesail Freebooter
Nighthawk Scavenger

This UB list is a little similar to the UW list, but here I’m testing out Sea Gate Stormcaller and pairing it with some cheap spells. Again with this list I’m trying to follow some of the “rules” of building control decks: Removal, Card Draw, Wraths, Finishers, etc. UB has better fixing with a pathway land, but I’m ultimately not sure if the Sea Gate package is worth including. I do like that Extinction Event gets around cards like Seasoned Hallow Blade and Anax and completely exiles Uro. The removal is also more flexible given the matchup with Bloodchief’s Thirst. I also like that this list gets access to Atris in control mirrors, but he might fall prey to a discounted Mystical Dispute (but maybe your discard will eat away their hand before that can happen). 

One card inclusion note: 

Frantic Inventory: While in a lot of control decks I’d much rather have Omen of the Sea because of the scry abilities and it has synergy with Yorion, Frantic Inventory is a card I’m interested in casting with my Sea Gate Stormcaller to accrue card draw. While Inscription of Insight is a similar Chemister’s Insight effect, I’d rather rely on a cheaper card that can stack and has synergy with other cards in my deck. 

Esper Control (Yorion) – Roman Fusco – Test Deck 

Companion: Yorion, Sky Nomad

I was actually kind of stumped on how to correctly build this deck. I like taking advantage of Yorion as a companion but ultimately I think the numbers in this list will be smoothed out once the format settles. This is not a deck I would recommend playing week one. I do think there’s a midrange Yorion deck that revolves around Doom Foretold and Treacherous Blessing. We also have access to three temples and two pathway lands, so the mana isn’t the worse either. Ultimately I’m not sure if it’s worth stretching the mana to include all these different cards.

Jeskai Control – Roman Fusco – Test Deck

Decklist: https://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/3384827

Sideboard Options
Scorching Dragonfire
Realm-Cloaked Giant
Mystical Dispute
Storm’s Wrath 
Mythos of Vadrok 
Negate
Robber of the Rich 
Kenrith, the Returned King 

Out of these decks Jeskai might actually be my favorite. It has a lot of really efficient answers, a strong multicolored planeswalker, and powerful tempo spell in the form of Inspired Ultimatum. What really stands out to me about Jeskai however is its mana base. Jeskai has access to a triome, two pathway lands, and three temples, giving it a variety of multicolored lands to choose from. I’m interested to see how many of these mdfc’s we should realistically be playing since a control deck doesn’t want to play a tapped land every single turn. I think having access to Inspired Ultimatum and Narset will help this version overtake the other control decks in the mirror while still having potent answers to aggressive strategies. If the format contains a lot of white or red go-wide decks with creatures with 1 or 2 toughness, Mythos of Vadrok might prove to be exceptional. 

One last decklist I’d like to discuss:

Decklist: https://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/3399241

This was the deck I used to 6-0 a MagicFest Online qualifier a few months back. Uro is no slouch and we still have access to a lot of these cards. However we’re notably missing Growth Spiral, Nissa, and Hydroid Krasis, so I’m not totally convinced that Bant is the way to go. Bant’s mana is also pretty rough given we only have access to one pathway land and no triome. I do like Uro paired with wrath effects, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Overall, it’s still too early to know which of these decks might be the most viable. That being said I think control decks have access to some really powerful cards and I’m less concerned about the format being warped around a few specific problem cards. Uro and Lucky Clover are two cards on my radar that might be difficult for control decks to deal with, but I think time will tell how these decks will fare in a brand new format. I do believe, however, that the inclusion of these powerful mdfc’s as well as the strong number of card options from the last four sets will pave the way for control to be a highly competitive strategy once the new set rolls around. 

Well that about wraps it up for today’s article. What cards are you excited to add to your control decks? How are you building your decks with the new mdfc’s? Let me know!

Twitter: @roman_fusco

Email: romanfusco95@gmail.com