Control Decks in Modern: Exploring the Variations in Viable Archetypes

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For a long time, control decks in Modern have struggled to gain some inkling of viability. Considering the huge breadth and diversity of Modern, a deck composed of all answers has be tuned just right for the current metagame. While this is already quite the lofty task, the next step is near impossible—getting pairings to match that expected metagame. Modern does have a relatively established list of Tier 1 decks that are consistently performing better than the other options. However, time and time again, people will play what they want to play in Modern, which has implications for the control deck.

Whether it be because they love their deck, don't have the ability to switch, or don't follow the metagame closely enough, some people will always play their Modern deck, no matter the circumstances. While the degree to which this is the case varies, you will encounter it whether you are attending a local event, an SCG Open, or a GP. Having some number of byes at a large event can somewhat change the equation. When metagaming, earlier rounds in any given tournament are more likely to contain matchups you aren't prepared for. However, having byes doesn't give you a ticket to avoiding the outliers; even in round 3, 4, or beyond, you can easily be playing against something far outside the expected metagame. This makes it quite difficult to construct a good control deck in Modern — you never really know what you are going to be seated across from in any given tournament.

Even through all of this, control archetypes have persisted through the last few years, largely due to the same tenet I just described—people will play what they want. In recent months however, the place of control in the meta has solidified somewhat, with decks like UW Control and Jeskai rising closer to the top (if not the top itself). Given these circumstances I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the different control options in the format and why I may prefer one over the others (spoiler alert: it's still UW).

The Outliers

Esper Control is certainly a fan favorite. When people think of "true" control, this is likely where their mind might wander. Tons of instant-speed options, often threat-light and answer-heavy. Frankly, who doesn't love casting an Esper Charm? Often these lists will sit back, eventually cast a Sphinx's Revelation at the end of their opponent's turn, and finally finish them off with something like a Secure the Wastes. All in all, a true "draw-go" game plan.

This type of list struggles the most with the issues that I have laid out already. Being that it is almost entirely composed of answers, you can easily find yourself in a matchup that you aren't really prepared for. Traditionally, decklists like these can have a difficult time against some combo decks and especially the big-mana decks. As always, you can tune your list to help in any given matchup, but those styles will be the ones Esper will flail against, even with some specific tuning.

Out of all of the available control decks in Modern, Esper is my least favorite. While I enjoy playing draw-go, Modern is not the right format to be metagaming to answer every threat that every opponent will present for 15+ rounds. Certainly it is still viable, but I believe it will struggle more than the other available archetypes.

The "Strictly" Worse

Grixis Control has largely faded into the background of late due to the popularity and similarity of Grixis Death Shadow. It has the same package of Tasigur, the Golden Fang/Gurmag Angler (the split varies) and a removal suite including Fatal Push and Terminate. Obviously the biggest difference (and the easiest place to draw the line between the two archetypes) is the inclusion of Cryptic Command, and the exclusion of Death's Shadow.

I'll be blunt—I don't think there is much reason to play Grixis Control over the Death Shadow variant at the moment. Removing some proactive elements from the well-oiled machine that is GDS to add reactive cards like Cryptic Command or Spell Snare weakens the strategy overall in most situations. It is possible that this change may benefit the archetype in particular matchups. That said, I can honestly not think of a matchup where that would be the case. Fortunately, Modern is a pretty wide format, so there has to be at least one... right?

When comparing Grixis Control to Epser, I do like the presence of delve threats that Grixis lists often employ, especially alongside Snapcaster Mage and Lightning Bolt. It can close games out more quickly and has an easier time being proactive when necessary. I think it may be slightly better than Esper, but not by a significant margin. If I ever feel tempted to sleeve up some Kolaghan's Commands, I'm sticking with Death's Shadow.

The Frontrunners

Jeskai Control is perhaps the least "controlling" deck on the list. These decks often employ more tempo elements than control elements, although it can vary. The addition of red to a UW shell gives access to many burn-based removal spells in Lightning Bolt, Lighting Helix, and Electrolyze. Add Snapcaster, Spell Quller, and even potentially Geist of Saint Traft to the mix, and suddenly it is very easy to turn the corner in any given game. Control elements are still present but they are almost entirely instant-speed. These lists will typically have fewer Supreme Verdicts and instead lean on additional counterspells, as well as their ability to quickly close out games.

I really like the construction of this list. Similar to Esper lists, Jeskai's ability to play almost entirely at instant speed is a huge advantage. It makes your counterspells that much better when you rarely are doing much of anything on your own mainphase. Tapping out for things like Supreme Verdict or a planeswalker can easily get you in trouble when your opponent untaps with your shields down. Jeskai makes up for its lack of additional Verdicts with its ability to close games with Queller, Snapcaster, and a flurry of burn. Since being printed, Queller has been a wonderful addition to the archetype, giving access to another pseudo-counterspell that also functions as a tempo threat. In that regard, it fills a similar role to Snapcaster Mage.

I think Jeskai is a very reasonable choice in Modern. Having a proactive plan that you can rely on against nearly every deck in the format is a huge advantage. What better plan than throwing a bunch of burn in your opponent's direction? In my opinion, that is what makes it more viable than both Grixis and Esper: it's buttery-smooth instant-speed game plan coupled with the ability to turn on a dime against any strategy. The versatility of this game plan and the fluid nature of Jeskai's role assessment are phenomenal assets when played well.

The Favorite

Ah, I've saved the best for last (at least for me): UW Control. UW is closer to Esper than the others in the regard that it is a "true" control deck. It is playing for the late, late, LATE game and rarely looking to pressure the opponent early. However, while similar in that regard, the two decks are quite different overall. UW trades an instant-speed game plan for what is largely a tap-out control plan. You'll see UW lists playing fewer Cryptics and Snapcasters than other control archetypes. They will instead be replaced with things like more planeswalkers and sorcery-speed cantrips.

Now I'm a little biased towards this particular list but this deck is an absolute delight to play. It is far more proactive than traditional control strategies. As such, it has better game against big-mana decks than any other control deck I have ever played in Modern. The coupling of Spreading Seas with Ghost Quarter and Tectonic Edge can help an outstanding amount against any Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle strategy or Tron deck.

Why UW?

Truly I do not want to undersell this point: the land destruction package showcased here is the true power of this archetype. Ghost Quarter is often a Strip Mine without much effort, and don't get me started on Spreading Seas. Not only does it cantrip, but it has good targets in nearly every matchup. Take the most extreme example: the mono-colored decks. Mono-White Death and Taxes is playing Horizon Canopy, Tectonic Edge, Ghost Quarter, and Cavern of Souls; all of which are situationally good targets. Even Merfolk has troublesome Mutavaults! I'm forced to admit that there are places Spreading Seas isn't great, UR Storm being the best example. However, that is rare and even in those cases all you are stuck with is a mildly awkward cantrip.

Speaking of cantrips—this deck has a lot of them. Most of the cards are either lands (love those) or cards that have some (ir)relevant text that ends or begins in draw a card (love that part). I often joke with my viewers that all I ever want to do when playing this deck is hit land drops and draw cards; there is some real truth to that. This deck has some incredible consistency and the obscene number of cantrips is a big part of pulling it all together. The sheer number of cards you go through allows you to mulligan very infrequently, which is a huge boon to consistency in and of itself. Most hands that have between 2-5 lands are keepable partially because of those cantrips.

On a related note, the manabase contributes to that consistency as well. Being a two-color deck opens up a world of advantages. You take far less damage from your manabase than any of the three-color counterparts, which can lend you percentage points against Burn. In addition, the basic lands help insulate you somewhat from Blood Moon. I've already mentioned the ability of the utility lands to disrupt the opponent's gameplan, but have yet to explore how it smooths out our own. Twenty-six-land decks may be prone to flooding, but this deck plays well with flood. Ghost Quarter and Tec Edge are often better than a spell and will function as such. On top of that you have Temple of Enlightenment and Irrigated Farmland to help mitigate flooding. Even if you do find yourself flooding, you have Celestial Colonnade to give you something to do with all that mana! At first glance, a five-land opener may look unkeepable, but on second inspection you may realize you have a GQ, a Colonnade, and a Farmland. Suddenly, that hand doesn't sound so bad! Whether or not such a hand would actually be a keep is dependent on a lot of factors, but the point remains that the utility lands provide access to a wider range of keepable hands.

Moving Forward

In case it somehow wasn't abundantly clear, UW is the pick for me. I certainly wouldn't fault anyone for choosing Jeskai over it—I think both are reasonable decks. They both have access to a somewhat proactive game plan when required, land destruction for UW and the burn plan for Jeskai. These plans have game against nearly every deck in the format because they attack one of two primary game concepts: mana or life total. In most cases, you won't win the game if you can't cast your spells, and uh, well, you aren't going to win the game if you're at 0! (But Phyrexian Unlife and Gideon of the Trials! Yeah, sure... you got me.)

The place where I fall in love with UW over Jeskai is in the consistency department. In my experience UW mulligans less often, especially below six, and struggles less after mulliganing. Draws are often less clunky than Jeskai and your cards generate more value on average. I think some amount of my bias can be chalked up to personal preference, but frankly I don't dislike how Jeskai plays.

It is definitely important to mention, however, that the meta has shifted in a way that is not ideal for UW. Some of the worst matchups are getting more popular, namely Storm, and some of the best matchups are fading a bit, particularly Death's Shadow. Even with that said, if I'm sleeving up a control strategy any time soon, I'm likely to stick with UW.

16 thoughts on “Control Decks in Modern: Exploring the Variations in Viable Archetypes

  1. Good article and good description of the key differences (burn vs mana denial). I play esper control and recently added two shadow of doubt and two ghost quarter with some surgicals in the board to shore up tron/valakut. Jury is still out overall but I love casting shadow of doubt for the turn 2 fetchland blowout or thwarting a gifts ungiven.

    But if esper has an advantage it has to be esper charm plus fatal push since those are the only black cards! I think better players have commented that charm makes good matchups better, whereas red for burn makes bad matchups better and this is the key reason jeskai is stronger.

    As for uw I loved seas and tec edge too but otherwise I felt like I ran out of cards too easily and was stuck topdecking. Esper churns through its deck rapidly with charm, think twice, snap, and 2 revs. Omens and seas have high variance on their impact and some games two mana sorcery draw a card is just a death sentence.

    1. Hey Darcy!

      I appreciate the kind words and your thoughts. I certainly love a Shadow of Doubt, and it’s nice that it has incidental search hate other than just the land denial element. Once you start playing a larger number, like 4, I imagine Spreading Seas is just better.

      I haven’t had that experience with UW myself since so many of the cards cantrip. Certainly there are fewer big draw spells (only 1 Sphinx’s, 1 Jace) but the sheer number of draw 1’s keep you going through your deck at a pretty reasonable rate. Just my two cents.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I think this was a very accurate and well-informed take about control decks in Modern, so first and foremost I’d like to congratulate you on that. My second question is whether you’d ever consider a second Irrigated Farmland over the Temple of Enlightenment in your UW list. The Temples somewhat underwhelm me, and I can’t help but wonder if Farmland can do better. Lastly, I wanted to ask your opinion on Jeskai’s creature flex spots – would you prefer to suit up with Geist or Clique in the main, and why? Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. I can’t speak for Ryland, but I’ve tried Farmland and was unimpressed. Temple is generally better since you get value from playing it early and it costs no mana. Smoothing out early draws is extremely important, more than finding action late. Cycling Farmland late is ok, but you have to pay mana. And scrying is still fine late game.

    2. Hey Roland!

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, thanks. It seems that I have had a difference experience than both you and David. I have absolutely loved Farmland and I continue to be impressed with it. Many people have moved to 25 lands in their lists (rather than 26) and I think Farmland is the perfect way for me to “split the difference.”

      That said, I have also enjoyed having Temple of Enlightenment. They both can be better than the other in a specific spot, so I like the hedge. If you told me I was only allowed to play two copies of one of those cards however, it would undoubtedly be Irrgated Farmland.

      Concerning Jeskai’s flex slots – I prefer Clique in the main. Both Clique and Geist are good in similar matchups (combo), albeit for different reasons. I prefer the smoothness of having another instant speed threat and in addition feel like Clique is better in a larger number of matchups. As far as the list above I would make the following changes:

      -3 Geist

      +1 Mana Leak
      +1 Lightning Helix
      +1 Vendilion Clique

      Thanks for reading!

  3. I never understood why people think esper should be the super draw-go control deck.

    Black is the most tapout control color
    Whites really good on tap out control.
    Blue is the only draw go color.

    Red works better as draw go

    I think the key mistake people make is being draw-go in esper when jeskai is simply better at draw go.

    Play hand control
    Play tasigur
    Play Gideon
    Play lingering souls
    I’ve played ALOT of esper control in modern over time and I’ve found esper midrange is the better way to look at it.

    Not UW draw go plus esper charm

    1. Uw draw go plus esper charm (and fatal push) is quite literally what esper draw go is.

      Most people who try cutting charm from the deck come back to report that charm is essential to the archetype working as designed – interact or draw, win at your leisure once control is established, 1-2 win conditions in the deck.

      You’re right in the abstract that black is more tapout – but the deck isnt playing in the abstract, its playing two black cards one of which is largely considered integral. Bolts are cool but they dont fit the gameplan as well. They are better in some (maybe even many) matches but the ability to dome for 3 isnt what your archetypal draw go control deck wants to do. You want universal answers and crippling card advantage.

    2. Hey Aaron!

      I agree wholeheartedly. I think that the style of deck you are describing would be a much better modern deck than the typical Esper Control lists. I also agree that it would be more of a midrange deck than anything else, which kind of puts it out of the purview of this particular article. Either way, I think you are right.

      Thanks for reading!

    1. Notwithstanding the deck name, a strong argument can be made that Lantern Control is actually prison, not control. We’ve actually classified it that way ourselves on this site before. In any case, I think we could probably agree that the blue-based, permission- and removal-heavy decks like Grixis and UW have more in common with each other than they do with Lantern (which is a pretty odd animal any way you cut it).

      1. I would argue that prison is just a sub class of control, like burn is a sub class of aggro. Prison decks “control” the board state with permanents instead of spells and usually generate virtual card advantage rather than actual. However, they both have the same endgame which is the create an unwinnable game-state for the opponent. I could understand of the title was blue-based attrition decks in modern, but it seems like a very narrow article for such a broad topic.

      2. Hey artfranc007!

        Jason hit the nail on the head here. While I think there are many positive things to be said about Lantern’s viability, I only had so much room to discuss, and as such, stuck to the Cryptic Command style control decks. Perhaps I should be working on another article discussing the available prison decks (of which I think Lantern is the strongest by far).

        Thanks for reading!

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