Riley’s Modern Life: Getting it Done with UW Control (Primer)

Riley continues to prepare for GP Birmingham coverage this weekend with a quick primer on U/W Control, sideboarding theory, and why he thinks it's the best thing around.

sphinxs revelation art by Slawomir Maniak
Last week, I went through the eight decks I’m expecting to see at the top tables of GP Birmingham. Modern GPs are invariably excellent fun, and I’m looking forward to spouting more energetic claptrap in the booth all weekend, and as a result I’ve played a lot of Modern in the lead up this event – I want to know the format cold for coverage. Even though no-one is going to cast the cardboard brain aneurysm that is Chains of Mephistopheles, it’s my job to pretend I know what happens when you have Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Murderous Redcap out at the same time, and so I like to get in the reps on Magic Online.

I’ve been playing UW Control in Modern for years, and even when Hallowed Fountain decks were actually good, straight UW Control never really had what it took.

The problem is that Modern is such an immensely wide format, and asks more questions than that guy sitting in the front row of the lecture hall. Blue-based control decks have struggled for years to answer these questions, and were invariably outclassed by being asked the right question, by having the wrong answer, or just drawing more bricks than a sketch artist at a construction site.

Today, however, UW Control is better positioned than it’s ever been – your Celestial Colonnades haven’t been so ready to get frisky since the flash in the pan that was Jeskai Nahiri. The deck is picking up in popularity, too – evidenced by the increasing number of mirror matches I’ve slogged through!

The Deck

If you’ve been getting up and about in the Modern leagues on Magic Online recently, you may have run across me grinding away with this list like a confused frat boy.

UW Control by Riley Knight, GP Birmingham Testing

Creatures (4)
Snapcaster Mage

Planeswalkers (4)
Jace, Architect of Thought
Gideon of the Trials
Gideon Jura

Instants (16)
Path to Exile
Cryptic Command
Mana Leak
Condemn
Supreme Will
Think Twice
Shadow of Doubt
Blessed Alliance
Logic Knot
Sphinx’s Revelation

Sorceries (7)
Serum Visions
Supreme Verdict
Enchantments (5)
Spreading Seas
Detention Sphere

Lands (24)
Island
Plains
Celestial Colonnade
Flooded Strand
Ghost Quarter
Hallowed Fountain
Glacial Fortress
Temple of Enlightenment
Irrigated Farmland

Sideboard (15)
Negate
Dispel
Ceremonious Rejection
Rest in Peace
Stony Silence
Timely Reinforcements
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Vendilion Clique
Crucible of Worlds
Supreme Verdict
Before I go over individual card choices, I want to zoom out a bit here and look at the deck on a macro level. This deck is, obviously, a control deck, and it has the exact same game plan that every control deck does: survive.

This deck is looking to answer the questions an opponent is asking, bridge its way to the lategame, and win with whatever is left lying around. It doesn’t matter whether that happens to be getting to half a million mana and attacking with two Colonnades a turn, plugging in the headphones and enjoying the new Beats by Gideon™, or even hitting a Jace ultimate so you can beat them to death with their own cards. Given enough time, this deck has an almost unbeatable ability to go long.

In fact, only Tron decks can boast a lategame that tussles with this 75. The principal reason for this deck’s staying power is simple – Snapcaster Mage. The longer the game goes the better Snip Snap becomes, because he rewards you for playing your natural game and ensures you always have the answer you need. Playing one-ofs is even sweeter than usual because of our good friend Tiago, as he can bring to bear whatever piece of technology you need at the time that you need it.

snapcaster mage

Missing land drops? Flashback Serum Visions. Getting ahead, and want to keep it that way? Flashback Cryptic Command, counter their nonsense, and pick the 2/1 right back up. Having your derrière handed to you on a silver platter like Napoleon at Waterloo, and need some breathing space? Flashback and escalate Blessed Alliance. Snapcaster Mage is the duct tape holding this whole broken air conditioner together – he is, essentially, an extra copy of the best card in your deck at any given point.

But what is the best card in your deck? Let’s go over some of the card choices in this particular 75, and explore other options available to those looking to crack some Flooded Strands this weekend.

The Cards

gideon of the trials

The new and exciting toy for UW Control is Gideon of the Trials, and on the charge of being an absolute stone-cold powerhouse, the jury is bringing back a verdict of guilty, your honour. Liliana of the Veil demonstrates the potency of three-mana planeswalkers, and while Gideon is a long way from her in terms of power level, his cost is absolutely critical in pushing him over the top in this deck. He can neutralise a threat, soak up some damage, and generally does everything you want from an early play. Even if he just ends up being 1WW: gain 4 to 6 life, it’s not the worst situation in the world.

gideon jura mtg card

Best of all, however, your opponent can’t just ignore him and go for your dome. His emblem ability demands he be answered before they can win the game – they can’t just attack past him and slay you like that. Furthermore, this emblem means he is the Doritos to Gideon Jura‘s Mountain Dew – these two work perfectly together to keep you alive for a long, long time. Once you’ve wrested the game under your control, you can start smashing them for four and six like Ricky Ponting. Gideon of the Trials is a hugely important addition to UW Control, and one of the reasons this deck is putting up the numbers.

spreading seas mtg card

An unassuming but hugely important card (as established by Dennis in the Jeskai Saheeli article), Spreading Seas is the Jonas Salk of the deck – despite the fact you don’t hear much about it, without it UW Control’s win percentage would take a huge nosedive and we’d all have polio. In truth, this card punches a long way above its weight, and serves an absolutely critical role in disrupting an opponent’s gameplan. Taking a three-colour deck off one of their colours is very easy with this card, and against Tron – the traditional weakness of decks like UW Control – a judicious Spreading Seas can be backbreaking.

With all the utility lands in the format, Spreading Seas can also do work against two- and even one-colour decks – the real strength of this card is that its floor is “1U: Draw a card”. That’s a pretty low floor, and seeing as its ceiling is knocking someone who keep a loosey-goosey hand right out of contention on turn two, Spreading Seas is the real deal. At first blush, it may not look like it does much, but the truth of the matter is that this card is both an early-game speedbump, a lategame cycler, and a key piece of interaction that shores up a natural weakness of blue control against big mana.

Lightning Bolt, once considered to be the best card in Modern, has been tapped on the shoulder by the coach and finds itself taking a stretch on the sidelines. In today’s format of one-mana 13/13s, hasty 5/5s, and trampling 6/6s, Path to Exile is your best best. In a similar vein, an unconditional, no-questions-asked sweeper such as Supreme Verdict lines up very well against the creature-heavy state of Modern. Playing four-mana sorceries that don’t win the game on the spot certainly may raise some eyebrows, but with cards like Path, Seas, and Gideon, this deck aims to survive long enough to leverage powerful sweepers.

Mana Leak is a necessary evil, giving you an interactive play during the early turns. I don’t like it much though, as it’s easy to play around and drawing it late is worse than finding half a worm in your apple. Nonetheless, it’s the best we’ve got and so it begrudgingly gets the nod.

Modern needs a better two-mana counterspell – at this stage, I wonder if actual, literal Counterspell would be appropriate. Blue needs a shot in the arm in Modern, and early interaction is its chief weakness. Late interaction, on the other hand, is not – Cryptic Command is still the most versatile and powerful tool available to blue decks, and remains a true joy to cast.

It’s time for another quick insight into the testing process for coverage team members. Right now, I’m not playing this deck to find the best version, or to evaluate cards objectively against one another to decide which are superior. This would be the path taken by most competitive players, but I’m looking for slightly different results.

The reason I’m casting Supreme Will, Shadow of Doubt, Blessed Alliance, and the like in Modern is because I want to get a sense of the way they can shape the texture of play, and the different interactions they open up within a game of Magic. In other words, I don’t play to win – I play to learn. It’s not the hugest difference in the world, but it means that I can justify playing silly cards like Think Twice and keep a straight face.

On a side note – nailing someone with Shadow of Doubt is just about the most fun you can have in modern. Stone Raining their fetchland is the nut high, but even something like countering a Farseek and drawing a card feels disgustingly good. Don’t forget how it combos with both Path to Exile and Ghost Quarter!

The other reason behind all the one-ofs, as I mentioned, is Snapcaster Mage. Just as Birthing Pod gave green wizards a creature toolbox, Tiago gives blue mages a spell toolbox. I like a wide variety of options when playing Snapcaster Mage, and that’s why my decklists tend to look a little scattered.

The Sideboard

As with any sideboard, construction and implementation of the backup 15 is one of the most difficult and skill-testing parts of deck design. I don’t know that this sideboard is perfect – here are some of the thoughts I had while putting it together.

  • Negate and Dispel are my two favourite sideboard cards, and get brought in more than you might think (for instance, against Burn, or Grixis Shadow). Dispel is particularly crucial in combatting decks who are looking to fight you on the stack.
  • Vendilion Clique, too, is a card that I bring in against almost all decks – it’s a cheap, interactive threat, and comes in after they’ve taken out all their removal.
  • Rest in Peace and Stony Silence are standard-issue, high-impact hate cards. I feel like two of each is kind of skimping, and I’d like to find room for the third Stony Silence in particular.
  • Looking to go long? Crucible of Worlds and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion lead to an even more absurd lategame. Crucible turns your Ghost Quarters into repeatable Strip Mines, and Elspeth plus countermagic is simply unanswerable to the vast majority of decks.
  • Ceremonious Rejection is an absolute all-star and should be an auto-include in your 75 – it’s a one-mana hard counter against Affinity, Eldrazi, and of course our arch-nemesis: Tron. Do not leave home without this card!

The Conclusion

For the first time in years, UW Control is in an excellent position to get its snoot ahead in the modern format. Even putting aside my huge personal bias, it’s clear to see that this deck has what it takes to get up and about, and I’m looking forward to see it go for the gold at GP Birmingham. What are your thoughts? Get at me on Twitter: @rileyquarytower – and don’t forget to follow @mtgdotone as well!

Riley Knight
Riley Knight is a member of the Magic coverage team, and has covered top-level events around the world since 2014. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, his favourite formats are Modern and Cube. Riley enjoys playing most of his Magic during his opponent’s end step.
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