The feeling of hopelessness.
The fear of endless possibilities represented by open mana.
Knowing that, while technically you are still alive, you’ve all but lost the battle.
It’s one of Magic’s most accomplished color pairs, with variations in every format since its inception and cares very little about winning so long as you lose. It may even take pleasure in continuing your torment for as long as you’re willing to suffer under its thumb and refuse to scoop.
The deck of course, is Blue-White Control.
Few decks can trace their lineage all the way back to Alpha, but U/W Control is certainly one of those decks. Serra Angel, Counterspell, Swords to Plowshares, Control Magic, Balance, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Wrath of God, and many more composed the early iterations of the deck that were terrifyingly formidable. For some people, this deck is more than just a good meta call, it’s nostalgic.
Of course this archetype has come a long way since Counterspell and Serra Angel were printed but the core goal of the deck has not changed. The mission: to stop their opponents from doing anything relevant, allow only what will amount to nothing, and to exhaust their resources before ultimately deciding it’s time to win.
In Vintage, the win conditions revolve around Monastery Mentor, Tinker, or Standstill while getting to play all the blue Power 9 cards like Ancestral Recall and Time Walk. The remnants of Legacy’s once dominating Counterbalance/Sensei’s Divining Top Miracles deck still exists and has Entreat the Angels as its finisher. Both Vintage and Legacy variations get to play powerful card manipulation spells like Ponder and Brainstorm, can interact for free with Force of Will, and can handle any resolved threat with Swords to Plowshares.
In Modern, it’s a bit of a different story. There is no Ponder or Force of Will and the options for permission and card manipulation are much worse. Opt and Search for Azcanta act as card selection while Cryptic Command is the main piece of permission with a sprinkling of Mana Leak, Logic Knot, and Negate. While it may not have access to Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile does an excellent job of dealing with any threat at a very efficient cost. Modern is much more focused on creature combat and very few decks win outside of it. This means control decks have to dedicate multiple slots to sweepers to help catch up when one-for-one removal isn’t enough. This can come in many forms to include Wrath of God, Supreme Verdict, Settle the Wreckage, and Terminus. Its main finishers are its planeswalkers like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or creatures like Snapcaster Mage and Celestial Colonnade.
Of course the card that gets to be played in every U/W control deck whether you’re playing Vintage, Legacy, or Modern, is Jace, the Mind Sculpter. Card advantage, removal, and finisher. He’s the most powerful planeswalker ever printed and we have the pleasure of trying to beat him.
Our worst interaction is our creature removal. Most of these control list only run two to three Snapcasters, MAYBE a Vendilion Clique, with a suite of Celestial Colonnades. Many of our losses can involve flooding out on Fatal Push‘s and Path to Exile while starring down a Teferi. Any removal that can hit non-creature permanents are more welcome here to include discard. Assassin’s Trophy does an excellent job of being so incredibly flexible that it takes care of any threat U/W control can play: planeswalkers, creature lands, and even Search for Azcanta (flipped or not). Maelstrom Pulse also does a decent job of clearing away the planeswalkers and a Secure the Waste efficiently but is a sorcery for three mana, which makes it more susceptible to countermagic. Our strongest creatures are the ones that generate card advantage. Cards like Bloodbraid Elf and Dark Confidant are extremely important in this match along with any other creature that can produce multiple bodies or draw cards.
There are some specific things that I want to address for this matchup to help you navigate it more prosperously.
- An important skill to have in this match is knowing how to utilize your discard spells. Generally you should always pick the most powerful card when playing against Snapcaster type decks.
U/W relies on some very strong engines that will allow them to run away with the game. The deck also plays only a handful of these engine pieces, so getting rid of them can often leave your opponent without a win condition for many turns. You can one-for-one your opponent’s Mana Leaks and Paths all day, your deck is designed to do that. What you cannot beat is an online Teferi, Jace, or Azcanta. Those should be your first priority. After that, cards like Snapcaster, sweepers, and Cryptic tend to be the most powerful takes.
As the game continues, and you’ve traded resources back and forth, your discard spells can still be excellent pieces of interaction, whereas in many other matches they can be dead draws. I go into more examples and details in this article but I want to reiterate the main point here as well. DO NOT simply fire off discard spells late in the game without giving them purpose. Your discard spells can do more heavy lifting than simply trading one-for-one. Hold onto them until you draw a threat, so that they can ensure the threat will resolve and not simply be removed upon resolution. It’s safe to say that at this point in the game, if your opponent has a Teferi, they’d play it, which means what they do have is most likely interaction that you’ll need to force your way through if they’re ahead on cards.
- Don’t over extend. You may have heard of this phrase before, and it’s very applicable in this match. If you already have threats on the battlefield and have more threats in hand, try to sequence them in a way that follows one after another as they are removed. If you continuously replace the threats you have on board over and over and over, then you will sooner or later exhaust your opponent’s interaction.
The sweepers in U/W control are meant to do most of the heavy lifting since there isn’t much one-for-one removal past Path to Exile. Eventually, they will be forced to use sweepers on only one or two creatures instead of three, four, or five. Make them answer what you have before adding anything else. Even though you may want to be aggressive and add more beaters to the board, you also don’t want to allow your opponent to get too much value off a sweeper and leave you with no follow up.
- When your opponent is looking to attack with Colonnade for the turn, make sure you use your removal before they declare attackers. If their plan for protecting it involves tapping it for mana to use for a countermagic, you can ensure that it isn’t getting in for damage that turn. As soon as it attacks, and you choose to interact with it, you are putting yourself at risk of getting your spell countered and still taking four damage. Even if it is tapped for mana after attacking, the Colonnade will connect.
- Scavenging Ooze is a great piece of interaction that can turn off Snapcaster’s ability to flashback spells. There are many scenarios where sometimes simply untapping is so much better than tapping out on your opponents end step. Against an opponent that primarily operates at instant speed, this can certainly be the case. I almost always leave at least one green mana open at all times. The moment you go shields down is the moment they play their Snapcaster for value.
- Cryptic Command is a very good piece of disruption and tempo that enables U/W players to gain all sorts of small advantages outside of countering our spells. When ticking up your Liliana, be sure you always have something to discard. If you don’t, they can punish you by bouncing Liliana with the discard trigger on the stack, forcing you to discard her to her own ability.
People also have a tendency to ultimate Liliana as soon as they can. While this can be detrimental and game winning in other matches, against control, it’s often reduced to a triple Stone Rain and not much else. It’s much more powerful to keep her around and ensure the U/W player can’t keep any cards in hand.
- Cryptic can also “Fog” for a turn by tapping down your team and either bouncing another permanent or drawing a card. If you have creature lands, it can be beneficial to play around this by holding them back. When you go to combat, and they tap your team, you can still fire up the creature land before declaring attackers to get in damage that turn.
This Cryptic combat trick is a great reason to make sure you are only adding to your board post combat. Casting a spell before combat means they get to use their Cryptic to counter your play for the turn as well as Fog your attack. By waiting to cast your spells in the second main-phase, you’ll make them choose between countering your play for the turn or tapping your team. The only time I’ve deviated from this was when I knew my spell would be countered by a Mana Leak or Logic Knot and played into it pre-combat to grow my Goyf for that turn’s attack.
Ultimately, this match is about resource denial. U/W is spell heavy and mana hungry. If you can keep them off their engine pieces and strain their mana, you can often come out on top. We’re not aggressive enough to go under them or overwhelm their interaction early, so we have to pummel our way through the early game and then make sure they don’t make it to the late-late game where they can turn the corner.
Let’s look at some ways we can sideboard against U/W, starting with this Jund list that got first place at an IQ in Findlay in the hands of David Shawn.
Coming out we have our narrow removal for more non-creature interaction with Maelstrom Pulse. The Lightning Bolts can help you close out the game faster, but they are also fairly restricted as their most common mode will simply be to go face and not interact with the opponent much. Because this list has no Fulminator Mages, I think it’s a fine hedge to keep in one Fatal Push to deal with Celestial Colonnade. This way, Assassin’s Trophy (the only other removal spell that can deal with Colonnades after sideboarding) can be utilized on the bigger planeswalker threats.
Thrun and Choke are specifically here for this matchup. Being an uncounterable threat with hexproof and the ability to survive a Supreme Verdict makes Thrun well positioned to run away with the game outside of a Terminus or Settle the Wreckage. Of course, if you can help it, this can sometimes mean that Thrun is closer to a six-drop than he is a four-drop if you wish to be able to save him from a sweeper and untap with him.
While the U/W list does have numerous lands that are not islands, such as Glacial Fortress, Field of Ruin, Fetches, non-island basics, and creature lands, Choke will still do an excellent job of slowing the opponent down. Not only will their islands not untap, but their Fetches and Field of Ruins become much worse when they are searching for islands that will only serve as a one-time-use blue source. This can often make it so that you have enough time to defeat your opponent before they can find a way to get rid of it or get around it. Of course all of this won’t matter as much if the opponent is able to resolve a Teferi and untap their lands through the Choke.
You can make arguments that Kalitas is a worthy threat to bring in or that Surgical Extraction can be a card to make Snapcaster worse, but I personally like Scavenging Ooze more. They will rarely become anything more than 2/2’s or 3/3’s but the ability to ensure the opponent cannot two-for-one with Snapcaster (more than once unlike Surgical) can really take the wind out of their sails. It’s not a beater (like Kalitas) so much as it is a disruptive element (which Kalitas is not in this match).
Note that Collective Brutality fills the duel role of being able to kill most of the creatures presented in the U/W lists while also acting as additional discard if you’re in search of more cards to bring in; that goes for any G/Bx deck that has Brutality in the sideboard. What it doesn’t hit, which we’ve mentioned is extremely important, are the draw engines that will bury you in card advantage. So even though discard is very important in this match, Brutality is actually much more narrow than you may think.
Next, let’s look at an Abzan list that 5-0’d a league by user YawgmothPT.
Coming out of the Abzan deck we have a lot of excess removal to make room for more threats.
Knight of Autumn has the versitiliy of either being a 4/3 beater or sometimes having the opportunity to blow up a Detention Sphere or Search for Azcanta. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Liliana, the Last Hope help the threat diversity; Gideon floods the board and beats down hard while Liliana can buy back threats, kill most of the creatures presented in U/W, and tick up to the (almost always) game winning emblem. Fulminator Mage can poke in for damage while having an uncounterable Stone Rain ability that can deal with Colonnades and set the U/W player back early in the game.
This list is also playing Noble Hierarchs, a card that can get some of the most important cards in the match, like Fulminator Mage and Liliana of the Veil, down as early as turn two. It’s a very mediocre top-deck in the late game that has the potential to pull the Abzan player very far ahead early in the game. Turn two Liliana of the Veil and turn three Siege Rhino is very strong.
Lastly, let’s look at this G/B lists that went 8-1 in an online PTQ by user Iziter.
I like Duress a lot more than Brutality in this match since it can actually grab the important engine pieces like Search for Azcanta, Teferi, and Jace. I would either cut both the Brutalities and leave in all the Oozes or do a split as previewed above. We’re also going to cut most of our Fatal Pushes for more threats.
This list also omits Fulminator Mage but seeing as G/B has access to Field of Ruin, it shouldn’t be a problem most of the time. Regardless, we’re still going to keep in one Fatal Push to deal with their small creatures and Colonnades if we have to.
Kitchen Finks isn’t terribly impressive in the face of Path to Exile but is certainly better than excess copies of Fatal Push. Kalitas could play a similar role if you wanted to play it over Finks or the fourth Push but seeing as the exile clause is not very relevant, I’d rather go with the cheaper three power creature that has an ETB.
Nissa is excellent in this match. She can emblem very quickly to make sure you never run out of gas, re-buy threats (even planeswalkers), and hit hard with 5/5 animated lands. Every mode is relevant and powerful.
Before closing, I’d like to demonstrate some of the points made in this article by recreating snapshots from a recent experience I had playing Jund on MtGO against U/W control.
My opponent won game one after I ran out of gas and ultimated my Liliana of the Veil in a last ditch effort to return the game to parody. I split their permanents into two piles: one, a flipped and unflipped Search for Azcanta and other containing the rest of their lands. They kept the Azcantas and went on to win the game. Remember, I was out of gas and not pressuring them after this moment. They scry’d lands to the top when I didn’t add to the board and kept removal when I presented threats. Eventually they made enough land drops to start activating the Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin and buried me. This alone should illustrate the importance and power of these cards. My opponent knew it, I knew it, and they made the correct decision in choosing the Azcanta pile knowing full well that that was their way back into the game.
I went on to win game two by keeping my opponent’s hand empty with a Liliana of the Veil and beating in with a Raging Ravine. Game three, I’m on a mull to six and start out with an Inquisition of Kozilek on my turn one.
I’m forced to take the Serum Visions and am a little nervous about my hand’s ability to compete with a Jace and Teferi. I have to hope they stumble on mana a little bit before I can get ahead.
On my turn three, after playing Tarmogoyf on turn two, I draw a very timely Thoughtseize. Now I have to make a decision between playing a three mana threat or playing the discard spell before my opponent can play Jace, assuming they have a fourth land.
If I play the Liliana, they will simply play Jace and bounce the Tarmogoyf, leaving Jace uncontested on an empty board with Teferi to follow up. If I play Kitchen Finks, they will probably play Supreme Verdict which will allow me to untap, play Liliana and Thoughtseize in the same turn. The other option available to my opponent though would be to take an attack from the Goyf and Finks to Cryptic my next play. This would mean I would have to bait the Cryptic with my Liliana to Thoughtseize the Jace. At the end of this exchange after a Supreme Verdict on their turn, I’d have a 2/1 Finks and no follow up while they would still have a Teferi in hand.
I decide too much could go wrong by not simply playing the discard spell immediately, respecting the potential down hill decline the game could take for me if Jace resolves. I can’t risk something going wrong or a potential draw that doesn’t allow me to deal with the Jace. My hand is currently weak to their planeswalkers with no Trophy or Pulse to help.
On my turn four I draw yet another Thoughtseize but my opponent has drawn the fourth land and has left up Cryptic Command. I attack and then bait the counterspell (Cryptic-counter/draw) with the Kitchen Finks to resolve my Thoughtseize and take the Teferi.
My opponent is left with two Supreme Verdicts and a land against my Tarmogoyf and Liliana in hand. At this point my Tarmogoyf has already gotten in for a decent amount of damage and is currently a 5/6. My opponent is forced to fire off one of the Verdicts to quell the pressure. I follow up with a Liliana, the Last Hope, tick up, and then tick down on the subsequent turn to re-buy and replay the Tarmogoyf. My opponent again is forced to fire off a Supreme Verdict to trade with the Tarmogoyf.
My opponent continues to one-for-one the best they can and by the time my opponent draws another threat/card advantage engine, the board looks like this.
My opponent is forced to minus the Teferi to deal with the annoyance of Liliana of the Veil taking their cards every turn with the impending ultimate. On my turn I draw Fulminator Mage to deal with the Colonnade poised to eliminate the Liliana, the Last Hope and attack Teferi down with the Tarmogoyf. Eventually I redraw Liliana of the Veil and the resource denial plan continues as I beat down with Tarmogoyf, re-buy Fulminators with Liliana, the Last Hope, and keep their hand empty with Liliana of the Veil.
My opponent scoops and as I survey the graveyard I see that I had bested two Teferis, a Jace, a Cryptic, two Supreme Verdicts, and a Colonnade. I accomplished this by accurately utilizing my discard to keep them off their most dangerous threats, not over extending into the sweepers, and attacking their resources with Liliana and Fulminator Mage.
Jace and Teferi are fierce opponents and this match can be very difficult to navigate. This is especially true if you don’t have the information provided to you by discard, as their open mana on your turn could represent so many possibilities. Don’t be afraid to go head to head with their one-for-one trades early in the game, remember that your deck is built to overcome that. Instead, focus more on stopping your opponent from sticking any of their late-game draw engines and finishers. If you can keep them from crawling back into the game and re-accumulating resources, your two-for-ones like Bloodbraid Elf, Lingering Souls, and planeswalker threats can begin to take over.
Jace may be the most feared planeswalker in the multiverse, but even he can fold under Duress.
2 thoughts on “Strategy & Sideboard Guide: U/W Control”
I am embarrassed that I found this just now. An excellent article. Thank you for all you provide to the community.
Thank you so much for the kind comment, they keep me motivated. I’m glad you enjoyed it!