UB Control in Standard is Secretly the Deck to Beat

Thomas think Blue-Black Control is still underrated coming off of Worlds. Does the deck have what it takes to dominate Standard this season?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Blue-Black control is squarely Tier One going into Nationals and a contender for the best deck in Standard. Our answers are, for once, incredibly mana efficient. We have the best threat in the format (All hail The Scarab God) and Search for Azcanta is the best blue card advantage engine we’ve had in Standard since the days of Sphinx’s Revelation.

I know this is something of a controversial opinion, that Blue-Black is back on top. As we’ll discuss, Gerry Thompson was critical of the list going into Nationals and plenty of noted pundits have wondered if it’s even the best control deck. As Shaheen Sorani recently remarked

The void created by the Grasp of Darkness rotation isn’t the only reason why this deck will not dominate the top tables for this Standard.

He goes on to discuss the lack of powerful sweepers, like recently rotated Flaying Tendrils, or past staples like Languish, as sorely missed in contemporary takes on Blue-Black Control. To mitigate this, he recommends Grixis lists with Hour of Devastation. His list is similar to the one Scott McNamara used to top sixteen SCG Dallas. He then goes on to recommend an Esper lists with Fumigate and Approach of the Second Sun as another superior option to Blue-Black.

While there’s a case for Grixis, or UWx Approach decks like Jim Davis played at SCG Dallas, I think they generally have worse removal and struggle to beat UB in the mirror. Grixis control in Ixalan emerged with Scott’s run at Dallas. His list built on his previous 5-0 list, which ran an Aetherhub manabase and eschewed removal spells like Vraska’s Contempt and Fatal Push for Abrade, Magma Spray and Harnessed Lightning.

While I understand the rational, I just can’t get behind this removal package. Cards like Magma Spray are great against red decks, but even in that matchup your best answer is still just Essence Extraction. Against the format’s most important threats, gods like Hazoret the Fervent or The Scarab God, it’s incredibly awkward to stack Magma Spray with another burn spell. Vraska’s Contempt is just a cleaner answer and also hits planewalkers. Finally, against threats like Longtusk Cub, there’s no better answer than Fatal Push. It’s just the most effective removal spell in the format. For all you gain from superior sweepers, this cost just seems too high in my mind.

The other problem is the manabase. Specifically, the lack of Field of Ruin is a real cost to splashing. In a metagame where a flipped Search for Azcanta quickly takes over the game, I think this is a questionable decision.

Eric Froehlich seemed to agree with this assessment in his recent article on UB Control. In his analysis, it was a solid choice for Worlds and will be one of the top decks going forward in Ixalan Standard. Amongst other points, he remarks just how powerful Essence Scatter is in this format:

Essence Scatter is so good that the best team in the world decided to maindeck some copies in their Temur Energy deck. Countering key haste creatures, indestructible creatures, Gearhulks, Gods, and more is powerful at just 2 mana.

While I understand that in some formats Essence Scatter is just a fine card, there’s a case that in this format it’s a premier answer. Adding this to Negate, Censor and Disallow, gives us an incredibly powerful counterspell package.

To reiterate: you really don’t need to splash with this many answers in blue and black. You just want to play the best answers, the best threat and powerful control cards like Torrential Gearhulk. Gearhulk in particular is a nice draw, since it doubles as a powerful flash threat and a toolbox for whatever you need — be that additional card draw, countermagic or a flashed back Vraska’s Contempt.

So, if we’re assuming that Blue-Black is the strongest control deck in the format, what’s the best build going into this weekend? I’ll start by looking at Gerry Thompson’s list from Worlds, before turning to Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif’s latest list.

UB Control by Gerry Thompson

Lands (26)
Fetid Pools
Drowned Catacomb
Submerged Boneyard
Island
Swamp
Field of Ruin

Instants (26)
Censor
Essence Scatter
Disallow
Fatal Push
Essence Extraction
Vraska’s Contempt
Hieroglyphic Illumination
Glimmer of Genius

Creatures (5)
The Scarab God
Torrential Gearhulk
Enchantments (3)
Search for Azcanta

Sideboard (15)
Duress
Essence Extraction
Search for Azcanta
Field of Ruin
Negate
Vizier of Many Faces
Contraband Kingpin
Liliana’s Defeat

Frank Karsten’s article on Blue-Black control is a great introduction to the lists we saw at Worlds. In it, he explains the decks basic strategy. Like many control lists, we’re trying to trade one for one early and win off of late game engines. Here, our finishers are Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin and The Scarab God. Search for Azcanta flips very quickly thanks to the high number of cyclers and cheap interaction we play, turning it into a sort of Rampant Growth which also allows us to almost Impulse at will.

Gerry discussed his list in depth in this week’s episode of the GAM podcast and was a little more critical.

Beyond making it clear that the list was heavily metagamed for Worlds and not what he would play in an open field, he admits he’s more likely to play Temur Energy going into the weekend. I understand his critique, that it’s hard for control to answer everything in a wide open field with only fifteen sideboard cards, but that’s nothing new to control pilots.

Personally, I think at the moment Temur Energy has something of a target on it. I’m also unsure Temur actually has a higher power level than Blue-Black Control. The Scarab God, Search for Azcanta and Torrential Gearhulk are each the best at what they do and our answers are all very reasonably costed. All things equal, I’d rather be on the overpowered deck with less people preparing against it (which also happens to beat the format’s perceived best deck.)

Of course, that leaves the question of which list to play. In this metagame, as in any, you could do much worse than one of Gabriel Nassif’s recent lists. I think Logan Nettles take on the archetype is interesting, running cards like Kitesail Freebooter and Chart a Course, but I would rather be on a build less vulnerable to removal game one. Nassif’s list is more clearly a traditional Blue-Black control deck and what I’ll turn to now. I’ve been testing different variants of Nassif’s lists, but I’ll just look at the one he’s been streaming with this past week.

UB Control by Gabriel Nassif

Lands (26)
Drowned Catacomb
Evolving Wilds
Fetid Pools
Island
Swamp
Field of Ruin

Instants (25)
Fatal Push
Censor
Essence Scatter
Negate
Supreme Will
Disallow
Consign // Oblivion
Essence Extraction
Hieroglyphic Illumination
Vraska’s Contempt

Sorceries (1)
Bontu’s Last Reckoning

Creatures (5)
The Scarab God
Torrential Gearhulk
Enchantments (3)
Search for Azcanta

Sideboard (15)
Duress
Gifted Aetherborn
Bontu’s Last Reckoning
Hostage Taker
Essence Extraction
Vraska’s Contempt
Gonti, Lord of Luxury
Deadeye Tracker
Negate
Arguel’s Blood Fast

Nassif balances out the sideboard for a more general metagame and cuts back on some of the greedier choices Thompson and Utter-Leyton made in their lists. One of this biggest changes, is he goes much lower on card draw. While Gerry had four copies of Hieroglyphic Illumination and a copy of Glimmer of Genius, Nassif goes down to three copies of Illumination. Consign // Oblivion is a nice catch all, which gives us another answer to particularly problematic threats like Hazoret or Chandra, while also helping with enchantments, or artifacts from rogue strategies. Bontu’s Last Reckoning, which was played by Shota and Chew, is another solid addition for an open field. The rest is very close to the original build.

Notable Cards

Censor is a key card in the resurgence of Blue-Black. It’s real interaction from turns two through five and can even randomly snag spells later. When it doesn’t line up right, or your opponent plays off curve to play around it, you’re not even punished as it just cycles for another card, getting you closer to a flipped Search for Azcanta. Mana efficient interaction that isn’t dead late is exactly what control wants.

Essence Scatter is the best it’s been in sometime. With Gideon, Ally of Zendikar rotating, the most important threats in the format are all creatures. The power of Essence Scatter is part of why we never cast Search on turn two, we basically always hold up Censor and Essence Scatter on the early turns to trade one for one, which lets us get into the late game where our finishers take over.

Hieroglyphic Illumination cycles early to build up your graveyard for Search, or gives us card advantage late. Illumination also plays well with Torrential Gearhulk, as you can cycle it and still flash it back for real value.

Search for Azcanta has proven itself as the most impactful card from Ixalan. The early filtering is relevant, the midgame ramp is something blue rarely gets and Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is unbeatable going into the late game. It’s a little slow against the format’s fastest decks, but you always want to run two or three in this archetype. Gerry Thompson recently wrote that it’s Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy level of broken, which is high praise.

The Scarab God is the best finisher available in Standard full stop. Beyond giving us true inevitability, The Scarab God has the notable advantage over other finishers that he can stabilize early. A 5/5 body as early as turn five lines up fine with other threats in the format. On some draws he gives us nine power by turn six, which is an impressive roadblock out of control!

Field of Ruin is the best answer to Search for Azcanta. Josh Utter-Leyton played four in the seventy-five, which was aggressive, but testifies to its strength in the mirror. It also sometimes hits a Ramunap Ruins, or critical dual land and enables revolt for Fatal Push.

Matchups and Sideboarding

Ramunap Red

In a Ramunap Red heavy metagame, I’d recommend running all four copies of Essence Extraction in your seventy-five, similar to Sam Black’s list from Worlds. Vraska’s Contempt is clunky, but a solid answer to Hazoret, the Fervent and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Gifted Aetherborn really isn’t that great, but at least it can attack and start gaining you back life. In testing I really didn’t like Contraband Kingpin, as it really only blocks Bomat Courier profitably.

In: +2 Essence Extraction, +1 Vraska’s Contempt, +1 Gifted Aetherborn

Out: -3 Search for Azcanta, -1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning

Temur Energy

Against multiple copies of Essence Scatter and Confiscation Coup I would shave a copy of The Scarab God. I like playing one to two Duress over Negate, as it’s more mana efficient and lets you plan out your game plan. Still, against a Chandra heavy build, some number of Negates are helpful.

Hostage Taker, Gifted Aetherborn and Gonti, Lord of Luxury are strong plays, as they usually cut their copies of Harnessed Lightning and Abrade for Negates and additional threats.

In: +1 Duress, +1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning, +1 Gonti, Lord of Luxury, +1 Hostage Taker, +1 Gifted Aetherborn 

Out: -1 Consign // Oblivion, -1 Search for Azcanta, -1 Essence Extraction, -1 Negate, -1 Vraska’s Contempt

WBx Tokens

The above list is a little soft to Tokens when compared to Logan Nettle’s recent lists. In a tokens heavy metagame, you’ll want to consider two or three River’s Rebuke in your seventy-five, as well as cards like Archfiend of Ifnir which synergize well with all of our cycling cards. In the current lists, disruptive cards like Duress and Negate put in solid work and your gameplan is just to overpower them with The Scarab God.

Vraska’s Contempt is still fine for Vraska, Relic Seeker herself (against Abzan builds) and The Scarab God (against Esper.)

In: +3 Duress, +1 Gonti, Lord of Luxury, +2 Negate, +1 Gifted Aetherborn, +2 Deadeye Tracker

Out: -3 Essence Scatter, -1 Essence Extraction, -4 Fatal Push, -1 Vraska’s Contempt

Mirror

The control mirror gets a little silly sometimes. This list is well setup, though, as we have impactful early plays like Deadeye Tracker, which keeps their Search for Azcanta’s from flipping as well as providing early pressure. We run the full three Search’s unlike Chew’s recent list. Arguel’s Blood Fast is a particularly powerful card, as it lets you draw a surprising number of cards and Temple of Aclazotz importantly protects The Scarab God from exile effects.

If you really want to further improve this matchup, you can consider a second Arguel’s Blood Fast. I think a third Field of Ruin is a little hard to justify, but is obviously impactful if you can find room.

In: +3 Duress, +1 Gonti, Lord of Luxury, +2 Deadeye Tracker, +2 Negate, +1 Arguel’s Blood Fast

Out: -4 Fatal Push, -1 Essence Extraction, -1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning, -1 Consign // Oblivion, -2 Supreme Will

Conclusion

It’s my opinion Blue-Black control may just be the best thing to be playing this weekend. It seems clear it will remain tier one throughout Ixalan Standard. As with any control list, you’ll need to adjust your sideboard from week to week to effectively answer the format’s threats. Thankfully, this is the rare Standard season where we have both appropriately costed answers and powerful enough payoffs to make the strategy truly dominant.

In Nassif’s list the card which I would be most apt to change is Deadeye Tracker out of the sideboard. While it still performed quite well across a variety of matchups and is a nice surprise when your opponent has boarded out their removal, it’s still a one mana 1/1 with a slow activated ability. The card I would most consider adding is River’s Rebuke, depending how well you expect lists like tokens to perform. I generally think people will be prepared for the strategy and the top tables will have lots of green decks for control to continue preying on.

Thanks for taking the time to read my article. Feel free to follow the rest of the team @mtgdotone and you can keep up with me personally @Nascarfath. I’m always around on social media, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

Thomas Snodgrass

Magic and Twitch enthusiast. Frontier grinder. Frequent caster of Torrential Gear Hulk into Dig Through Time (with counterspell backup.) @Nascarfath on Twitter.

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13 Responses to “UB Control in Standard is Secretly the Deck to Beat”

  • Hey, Skylar Here, Nice article!

  • I absolutely think that scarab god has what it takes. With very little that can directly answer it, scarab god is the natural u/b finisher. Its only a matter of whether or not that u/b shell can take off. Scarab god on its own is fantastic, but can it be supported enough?

    • Thomas Snodgrass
      Thomas Snodgrass Reply

      I think it’s a more natural fit than, say, Temur Black or other control variants because you have the best answers to bridge the gap to the late game and very good mana. I actually tend to agree with the Pantheon that for as many points as you gain from playing the premier finisher with the splash, you also lose by having worse mana.

      Also Search for Azcanta (along with the entire shell, really) makes sure you have spells to protect it against exile effects like Vraska’s Contempt, or the appropriate interaction for Hostage Takers.

  • if there is a deck and a card that make me play standard again is UB Control and Scarab God! keep up the good work!

    • Thomas Snodgrass
      Thomas Snodgrass Reply

      Appreciate it. It’s a good time to be alive when Control has this many clean answers and the format’s best threats!

  • This deck, and standard season look great!

  • Impressed with how it turned out Nascar! Keep writing these!

  • Seeing The Scarab God and Search for Azcanta in the same deck will always make me happy – great article and great content as ever! Keep up the amazing work!

  • Thanks for the article, using it for a PPTQ today!

  • Given the results of the last GPs and PT, how do you feel about the UB control right now? I like the deck and I find it strong, but sometimes it can’t match the aggro power of enery decks.

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