I began my U/W journey after the decks I had previously played in Modern were banned or were crippled by bans: Splinter Twin, Dredge and Infect. It was a struggle to find something I was excited to play and I wanted my deck choice to be favoured against Death’s Shadow, which many consider the best deck in the format. After Rob Catton’s success with the deck at the RPTQ in Birmingham, I decided to give it a spin and went on to win the Axion Mega GPT!
Modern U/W control is primarily a board control deck designed to deal with any permanent the opponent plays. It is an excellent choice if you wish to prey upon the creature based decks that make up a significant portion of the Modern metagame but is much weaker against spell based combo decks. For the purposes of this article I will be talking about the list I played at the Axion Mega GPT.
4 Path to Exile
4 Serum Visions
2 Spell Snare
2 Mana Leak
1 Runed Halo
1 Blessed Alliance
2 Snapcaster Mage
4 Spreading Seas
2 Detention Sphere
3 Cryptic Command
2 Jace, Architect of Thought
3 Supreme Verdict
1 Gideon Jura
1 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
2 Sphinx's Revelation
3 Ghost Quarter
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Flooded Strand
1 Glacial Fortress
1 Polluted Delta
1 Prairie Stream
2 Hallowed Fountain
2 Ceremonious Rejection
1 Runed Halo
3 Spell Queller
1 Celestial Purge
1 Rule of Law
3 Kor Firewalker
1 Stony Silence
2 Rest in Peace
The cards in UW control fall into four categories; Counterspells, Card draw, Removal and Win Conditions. Some of the cards overlap such as Gideon Jura which is a win con and removal but I will be placing each card into one category for simplicity.
2 Snapcaster Mage: Snapcaster Mage doesn’t really fit into any category, which is why it’s so good. Snapcaster is additional copies of most of your spells and is probably the best blue card in Modern. Snapcaster is the reason why you can play a singleton copy of cards such as Blessed Alliance and Negate and have them still be high impact, in the matchups where those cards are great you effectively gain access to additional copies. However, you can only play two or three copies of Snapcaster realistically. In an aggressive deck such as the Delver variants where the 2/1 body is a relevant attacker you can play more but in UW the 2/1 is not especially good and making the spells you are casting cost two more mana is a significant drawback in a format as fast as Modern which is why I wouldn’t recommend playing the full four.
3 Cryptic Command: It only seems fair to start with the best counterspell. The majority of the time Cryptic will be used as Dismiss, counter target spell and draw a card, but the versatility of four modes is what makes it so powerful. The bounce allows you to deal with any problem permanent, at least temporarily and the tapping of creatures allows you to effectively ’fog’ for a turn. I only play three Cryptic despite its obvious power level as a concession to the speed of Modern as a format. Most Modern decks win the game by turn four so your four mana spells need to be extremely powerful to earn a slot, however, it is very important to have a hard counter to lock up the game in a control deck of this nature. If you have a Snapcaster already on the battlefield then you will often find yourself choosing to bounce the Snapcaster instead of drawing a card to give yourself access to yet another Cryptic.
2 Mana Leak: Mana Leak is a fairly mediocre card, it can quickly become dead since you are trying to play the game to turn ten or even later but you need some form of early game interaction that can deal with non-creature spells. An early planeswalker can be a nightmare for UW to cope with and Mana Leak gives you a way to interact on turns two to five with almost any spell an opponent can play. Mana Leak is also not a combo with Path to Exile but is the best option available as it can hit everything. The other options are Spell Pierce, which is too narrow and Logic Knot which I am not a huge fan of due to the low fetch count in the deck meaning it is often unable to counter a spell on turn two. Logic Knot is a much better card in the mid-game and late game though.
2 Spell Snare: Another necessary evil in a format as wide as Modern, there is not always a good target for Spell Snare but it does allow you to interact on turn one on the draw. Generally speaking I’m happy to use Spell Snare to trade for almost anything, you’re always up on mana in the exchange and there’s not always going to be a good target for it in your opponent’s deck.
1 Negate: A single Negate makes the list because it is an incredibly powerful, if narrow effect, having one in the list allows you to draw into it in the mid game as an insurance policy against spell based decks. Negate is almost never dead in Modern but is not going to be reliable enough to play a lot of them.
4 Serum Visions: Serum Visions is not technically card draw as it only cantrips (replaces itself) but in Modern finding the right cards is far more valuable than raw card numbers, this is why I prefer Serum Visions to Ancestral Vision. Despite the obvious power of Ancestral Vision quite often a game of Modern can end before even a turn one Ancestral can resolve, both Ancestral and Serum Visions allow you to see three cards but Serum Visions does it immediately whereas Ancestral takes four turns.
2 Jace, Architect of Thought: Very few Modern decks play clean answers to Planeswalkers and Jace fits nicely as a way to dig to specific cards or to draw two depending on your situation. Jace’s ultimate can also be a realistic win condition when you cannot find one. The plus is also an excellent tool to deal with decks going wide such as Elves, Merfolk, Collected Company style decks, Affinity, Dredge and token based strategies. These decks will all fall back on attacking with a multitude of low power creatures when you remove their more powerful permanents and this can quickly whittle down your life total. Jace plus significantly slows down this clock as well as presenting a tempting target to attack.
2 Sphinx’s Revelation: This is the real haymaker card draw for the deck. Your typical game will play out such that you play a few interactive spells early, cast a Supreme Verdict to clear the board then cast a Revelation for x=3 or more. When your game plan is to go to the late game you need a card that gives you inevitability and Revelation is that card.
3 Supreme Verdict: The main reason to play UW control. If Supreme Verdict is bad then there is a good chance the match-up is bad. An uncounterable board sweeper is a nightmare for decks trying to win by attacking with creatures, which is a large part of the Modern metagame.
4 Path to Exile: Arguable the best removal spell in Modern. One mana at instant speed to exile a creature is an absurd rate, the downside of ramping your opponent isn’t irrelevant but most Modern decks simply don’t play expensive spells to punish you. The biggest downside is making your Mana Leaks much worse.
1 Blessed Alliance: Blessed Alliance is the best edict (make your opponent sacrifice a creature) that you can play in UW. Having an out to Bogles or a way to guarantee you kill a creature through protection is an excellent effect to have but two mana is quite expensive for removal in Modern which is why I only recommend playing one. Blessed Alliance also has the gain four life mode which makes it one of your best cards against Burn and the ability to escalate to cast a four mana edict plus gain four life is useful.
2 Detention Sphere: Detention Sphere is a concession to the fact that sometimes your opponent makes a permanent that is difficult to interact with such as a planeswalker or a Chalice of the Void and Detention Sphere is necessary to have outs to these things. Abrupt Decay is seeing less play than it used to but you can play Cast Out instead if you’re worried about it. I prefer Detention Sphere because it is cheaper and sometimes you get multiple permanents (most often spirit tokens). You can also Cryptic Command to bounce your own Sphere in response to the exile trigger to permanently exile a permanent.
4 Spreading Seas and 3 Ghost Quarter: I’ve decided to put Spreading Seas and Ghost Quarter under removal because their primary function is to turn off opposing creature lands. Creature lands are excellent against control decks, especially wrath based ones and having cards that deals with them for a low cost is excellent. Spreading Seas and Ghost Quarter are also great in UW because other than spell based combo decks your worst match ups are big mana decks like Tron. Spreading Seas and GQ give you a way to slow them down and make them play a fair game. There are also a huge number of utility lands in Modern that can be problematic for you such as Cavern of Souls or Gavony Township. Additionally, a lot of Modern decks have very greedy mana bases and cannot afford to have their dual lands turned into islands. Death’s shadow especially as it only tends to play one source of their splash colour and removing it can stop them casting certain spells for the remainder of the game. Dredge decks rely heavily upon Life from the Loam in long games and don’t want to take actual draw steps so removing their green source on turn two can be game winning.
1 Runed Halo: Runed Halo made it into my maindeck because I wanted to play two in the deck and wanted to make room in my sideboard. It’s primary function is to name Valakut or Grapeshot as Storm and Scapeshift are very bad matchups but it is rarely a dead card as you can just name whatever creature your opponent is attacking you with. Naming recursive creatures such as Kitchen FInks or naming a creature like Slippery Bogle can really ruin your opponent’s day!
1 Gideon Jura: As I previously stated when talking about Jace, most Modern decks don’t have good answers to planeswalkers. They usually rely on damage to remove them. Gideon goes to eight loyalty if you plus him, which makes him almost impossible to immediately kill. The ‘fog’ effect is extremely powerful in a control deck and he even doubles as removal. Most creature decks cannot beat a deck with Gideon and Supreme Verdict and then Gideon closes the game quickly by attacking for six a turn. It is important to remember that Gideon Jura does not become indestructible when you make him a creature, so don’t active his zero ability before you wrath! You should also avoid making Gideon a creature if you cannot protect him.
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion: Like the rest of the deck, Elspeth is excellent against creatures. Three 1/1 soldiers each turn quickly becomes insurmountable whilst also protecting the Elspeth from attack, the ultimate is almost always game over with the number of 1/1s you will have in play.
4 Celestial Colonnade: This creature land is the primary way you will win games. Once you have cleared the board and drawn cards with Revelation you will have enough mana to start attacking with Colonnade whilst holding up countermagic, it’s also a dual land to help your mana.
The second reason to play UW control is that you have access to the best sideboard cards and your game plan is affected very little by them, I prefer to play ‘sledgehammer’ sideboard cards rather than cards that are minor upgrades; things that can single-handedly win the game for you. My sideboarding philosophy in Modern is generally to pick a few decks you think you will see a lot of and simply play the best cards you can against those decks whilst hoping to dodge your really bad matchups, even with help from your sideboard your bad matchups are likely to still be bad and you can’t beat everything in a format as diverse as Modern.
2 Rest in Peace:The best graveyard hate card in Modern. When I bring in Rest in Peace I usually take out some number of Snapcaster Mage. If you’re playing Logic Knot I would take that out as well. Decks that rely on the graveyard such as Dredge or Goryo's Vengeance cannot really beat a Rest in Peace and it is also excellent against Tarmogoyf decks and decks such as Collected Company and Knightfall which use the graveyard for value and for their combos.
1 Stony Silence: This is your best card against Affinity, Lantern and random artifact based Modern decks. I would strongly consider playing two of these going forward. It also has some value against Tron decks turning off Walking Ballista and Expedition maps, I also bring in one against Aether Vial decks.
3 Kor Firewalker: Kor Firewalker is almost exclusively for Burn decks. Burn is a moderately difficult matchup for UW because you don’t present a clock, allowing them to simply keep drawing burn spells until you die. The matchup isn’t totally horrible as you have main deck lifegain and countermagic but Firewalker solves most of your problems by being a clock and gaining you a lot of life. Another option for Burn is to play Leyline of Sanctity, which has application against discard decks.
1 Rule of Law: This is the best card available against both Storm and Ad Nauseum which are probably your worst matchups. It is also usually game ending for Living End. I don’t like dedicating many sideboard cards to these matchups as they are awful for UW control, if you expect to see them a lot I would recommend simply playing a different deck but having a singleton is low cost and gives you a way to win.
1 Celestial Purge: A single copy of Celestial Purge gives you a slight upgrade against Liliana decks, it is mostly to answer Liliana of the Veil and Liliana, Last Hope. I didn’t like Celestial Purge that much as it is fairly low impact for a sideboard card and probably wouldn’t play it going forwards.
3 Spell Queller: A recent addition to UW sideboards, If Supreme Verdict isn’t good in the matchup, Spell Queller probably will be. A lot of non-creature based decks play very little removal so Spell Queller is a counterspell that attacks, it gives you a lot more game against spell based combo decks especially as they will usually try to fight a counterspell war with Negate and Dispel and are unlikely to be able to answer a Spell Queller.
1 Runed Halo & 1 Negate: Additional Copies of these cards for the matchups where they are great. When Negate and Halo are good, they’re probably your best cards.
2 Ceremonious Rejection: This was a bit of an experiment and a concession to the popularity of Eldrazi Tron. It counters everything from Eldrazi Tron and most of the relevant spells from regular Tron whilst also being a small upgrade against Affinity. I found them to be fine and probably wouldn’t play them at my next tournament, as I said at the start of the Sideboard section I’m not a fan of small upgrade cards and prefer to play a haymaker sideboard.
Addressing other options
Modern is a huge format, there are a lot of other options for a deck like UW control and I’m going to take a moment to talk about some of them and why I chose not to play them.
As Foretold is an undeniably powerful card, it’s most potent when casting suspend cards. If you play As Foretold I would play 4 Ancestral Vision instead of Serum Visions and consider playing a card like Restore Balance. Having tried the As Foretold version a little I would recommend staying away from it, although it is undeniably powerful when you have As Foretold on turn three with an Ancestral Vision I think it is essentially a three mana ‘do-nothing’ in a format that usually ends the game on turn four. As Foretold’s main positive is that you get a huge mana advantage from casting your spells for free, but UW rarely struggles with mana.
Vendilion Clique is an extremely powerful effect and is the only way for UW to get real hand disruption, it is also a clock against the spell based combo decks. I like Vendilion Clique a lot but felt as though the matchups where it would be good it was still worse than a Spell Queller. Much like Snapcaster Mage, in a deck where you are attacking and the body is much more relevant I am more excited to play Vendilion Clique.
Timely Reinforcements is your best anti-burn option with Snapcaster Mage. I personally don’t like Timely Reinforcements very much as you can’t guarantee you will get both halves of the card and I don’t want to play three mana gain six life or three mana make three 1/1s.
Dispel is the best card available for counterspell wars but I think counterspells are fairly poorly positioned in Modern and so don’t expect to get into a counter fight very often. It also falls into the category of minor sideboard upgrade which I don’t really advocate.
Condemn is basically your fifth and sixth Path to Exile. I do not think this is necessary when you are playing four Path three Verdict two Sphere but if you want to lower your curve then Condemn is the next best option after Path to Exile.
The creature package in UW control tends to consist of Kitchen FInks, Wall of Omens and Restoration Angel. These are all good options but move the deck more towards a UW flash deck rather than a UW Control deck, your matchups against Burn and Spell based Combo decks will improve but you will become worse against the things UW is traditionally great against so I don’t think it is worth it. If you really want to be better against those decks I prefer Geist of Saint Traft or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the sideboard to go with your Spell Quellers.
UW control is generally well positioned if Supreme Verdict and Path to Exile are good and is much worse if they are not. I think it is a very polarising deck, your good matchups are very good and your bad matchups are generally very bad. Currently I believe this deck is well positioned as Death’s Shadow, Affinity, Collected Company and Eldrazi Tron are all popular choices. UW is much worse against spell based combo decks and big mana decks, if decks such as Ad Nauseam, Storm and Tron become more popular then I would not recommend UW Control. Despite saying that I think the creature decks are likely to continue to be popular and I will be taking a slightly modified list to Copenhagen, if you like longer games of Modern and playing sweet cards like Revelation and Gideon Jura (who doesn’t?) then I’d recommend giving it a shot!
About Henry Channing:
Henry Channing is a perennial grinder, based in the south east of England he attends as many Grand Prix as possible and regularly tests on Magic Online. He started playing competitive Magic during Theros, which contains his favourite card, Courser of Kruphix. Henry will play any GP format in Magic but prefers Standard and Limited. His best results are two 12-3 finishes at Grand Prix Turin and Grand Prix Birmingham, first place at the Axion Mega Modern securing flights to Las Vegas and several cash finishes on the English tournament circuits. He currently holds a Bronze Level Pro status. Henry’s long-term goals are to Top 8 a GP and obtain that elusive Pro Tour invite.