A Beginner’s Guide to Cruel Control
For the beginner player, the world of Standard Magic can seem daunting to get into, with so many decks to test out and build. For someone who wants to start playing on a competitive level, Cruel Control is probably the best deck for you to learn about.
Cruel Control essentially preys on Magic players’ greediness for more bang for their buck, their want for larger effects and spells. Probably for the only time in Magic, the Cruel Control deck started off as a manabase.
At Grand Prix Birmingham, the first Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block premier level event, both Manuel Bucher and Raphael Levy experimented with this new type of mana base in their top 8 decks.
What makes the mana base so special is the interaction between Vivid lands, such as Vivid Creek or Vivid Marsh, and Reflecting Pool. If you have a Vivid land and a Reflecting Pool on the board, the Reflecting Pool can produce any color of mana. This allows decks to run cards that are nowhere near their colors, and practically banishes color screw to the far reaches of the game.
However, the two decks piloted by these pros are not even close to as streamlined as the Cruel Control deck is today. Bucher’s list was called “Ten Commandments” because the deck’s mana base allowed him to run Cryptic Command, Austere Command, AND Primal Command. Raphael Levy exploited the interaction to run his 5 color Elementals deck.
GerryT, winner of Grand Prix Denver, another Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block event, also ran the Cruel Control mana base. His deck used more Wrath effects, in the form of a playset of Firespouts, but at heart, his deck was a Mannequin deck, using Shriekmaw, Mulldrifter, and Cloudthresher, together with the reanimation powerhouse. This was the original type of Cruel Control, dubbed Quick N’ Toast.
While these decks all had the appearances of Cruel Control, they lacked efficient counterspells to make the deck more powerful. The problem was the absence of Remove Soul and other cheaper counter spells from Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block. However, in Standard, the deck thrived. At Grand Prix Copenhagen in August 2008, Guillame Wafo-Tapa and Phillipp Summereder made the Top 8 with their builds of Cruel Control, still under the moniker of Quick N’ Toast. In the Top 8, though, neither made it through the quarterfinals. When would Quick N’ Toast come out on top?
Not for a while yet, as there were no more Standard Premier Level Events until the release of Shards of Alara. One card stood out to deck builders everywhere as an autoinclude in their Quick N’ Toast builds: Cruel Ultimatum. For a long time, Quick N’ Toast badly needed a finisher that was immune to removal. Cloudthresher got Terrored, Oona got Oblivion Ringed, and so the only answer seemed like a spell. Cruel Ultimatum gave them what they needed. At 7 mana it was a card advantage monster, generating an 8-for-1.
Finally, at the World Championships in Memphis, Cruel Control was brought to the forefront. Jamie Park ran Cruel Control to a 2nd place finish, losing to Annti Malin. Yet for some reason, Jamie had gone an abysmal 2-3-1 in the Standard portion of the event, and only his good performance in Draft and Extended had pushed him into the Top 8. What new innovations did Cruel Control need in order to take the top prize? With Pro Tour Kyoto a few months away, the game’s best and brightest sat down to work.
When Pro Tour Kyoto came around in February, the masses got what they wanted. Gab Nassif won the tournament with Cruel Control, but what exactly was it that let him succeed where so many others had failed?
Along with Patrick Chapin, Nassif came up with innovation on top of innovation for the deck that gave him the edge.
Here are some of the key cards from Nassif’s list:
Plumeveil: Patrick Chapin said that Plumeveil has the three best abilities Wizards could give it. It has flying, so it can hold off a Mistbind Clique. It has flash, so it can take out an attacking 2/2 Figure of Destiny by surprise. It has defender. Now why is defender good on a creature? Surely bashing your opponent for 4 a turn would be better than sitting back and waiting? That is where the data from Worlds was so key. Jamie Park in his Cruel Control list ran Rhox War Monk over Plumeveil, a seemingly obvious choice due to the ability to attack and the added lifelink. However throughout the day, Sower of Temptation was wrecking Cruel Control players. Because of Cruel Control’s less than abundant spot removal, a Sower stealing a War Monk would be able to beat down for the win. However, if a Faeries player steals your Plumeveil, yes you won’t have it as a defense, but it wont be killing you any quicker either.
Wall of Reverence: Wall of Reverence helps ease the pain of cutting Rhox War Monk from the deck. A turn 3 Plumeveil followed by a turn 4 Wall of Reverence nets you 4 life per turn until your opponent can deal with it. not only that, but it’s massive butt means that it blocks Dorans, Mistbind Cliques, and Demigod’s all day until you can surge ahead with a Cruel Ultimatum or stabilize with a Wrath effect.
Broodmate Dragon: this is a card that Patrick Chapin describes as a “semi-soft lock”, in other words, a card that generates a large advantage, but can be forced through by an opponent. Broodmate Dragon generates card advantage, has a very high amount of power and toughness for it’s CMC (essentially an 8/8 for 6 mana), and is yet another creature that goes well with Wall of Reverence. Should be an automatic 3 of in any Cruel Control deck.
Volcanic Fallout: Nassif played Fallout over Wrath of God which I believe is a correct choice for the metagame he was playing in. however, because of the large number of 4 color Doran decks in lower tier metagames, if you plan on playing in a PTQ or any lower level tournament, I would suggest going 3 Fallout and 2 Wraths.
In the sideboard, Nassif had 4 Scepter of Fugue. This is a very good card in the mirror match, as it continually generates card advantage through the entire game.
Kithkin/Boat Brew: Cruel Control has a fairly even matchup against the small white men. If it can stick down a Plumeveil+Wall of Reverence early, it will take it easily, while if it starts off too slowly, it will get torn apart. In this matchups it would be wise to have the full 4 Fallouts instead of splitting them with Wraths, so if you don’t run 4 maindeck I would suggest running the rest in you sideboard to help with this matchup. Infest can also be good if you don’t have 4 Fallouts. Celestial Purge is also a good option as it deals with Figure of Destiny and Ajani Vengeant, two very large threats.
B/W Tokens: again, another close matchup. Here, it is essential to prevent them from sticking their pump effects, like Glorious Anthem and Ajani Goldmane. If they do manage to stick either of these, your Fallouts will fall in value because they won’t be able to kill their army. After boarding, you can sideboard in Wispmare to deal with their Glorious Anthems, or Negate to deal with the Anthems and Ajanis. Infest can also help against the smaller tokens. However, watch out for the B/W Tokens deck’s sideboard cards as well, the most crippling of which is Head Games. In the finals of Kyoto, Nassif wisely held back a Negate to deal with Head Games instead of countering an Ajani as Head Games is the worst thing that can happen to you.
Blightning: this is a very bad matchup for you. Boggart Ram-Gang can wither away your Plumeveils and Wall of Reverences, and Demigod is very difficult to counter. There is a more recent version that runs Siege-Gang Commanders over the Demigods, and while this can be more dangerous in terms of potential direct damage, Volcanic Fallout can clear away the nasty Goblins. For sideboarding, if they are running Demigods, Celestial Purge is excellent, however, if they are running Siege-Gang, it is not as powerful. Wydwen, the Biting Gale can be an all star here, dodging burn and coming out as a surprise blocker to take out their smaller threats.
4 color Doran: again, not a great matchup. If you are running Fallouts over Wraths, you are pretty much dead game 1. Your only hope is sticking a Wall of Reverence while they have a Doran out, allowing you to hold off their larger threats until you can stabilize. While I was running Doran at Regionals, I went 3-1 against Cruel Control decks, losing to some nasty topdecking, but this exhibits Doran’s dominance. For Sideboarding, Celestial Purge can remove a Doran and should come in for any maindeck Terrors. Pithing Needle is also very good to remove Treetop Villages. Some extra spot removal such as Path to Exile would also be good to deal with Rafiqs and Sowers. You also definitely want some Remove Souls, as their deck is nearly all creatures.
Faeries: while not great, the Faeries matchup has settled around 60-40 in the Faeries deck’s favor. The main threat in the Faeries’ arsenal is Bitterblossom. No matter how many Mistbind Cliques you counter, Bitterblossom will always be able to kill you if you don’t drop a Wall of Reverence or Broodmate Dragon, or someother large threat. Bitterblossom is the best source of card advantage and must be dealt with. In game 1, your Esper Charms should be used to kill Bitterblossom every time, and hopefully you’re on the play so that Broken Ambitions can counter it. If it comes down to early to deal with though, brace yourself and mise like a monster. After boarding, Celestial Purge and Wispmare are both good options to deal with Bitterblossoms, along with extra Fallouts. If you are on the play, Negate can also be good to give you a few extra ways of stopping the turn 2 Bitterblossom. Scepter of Fugue can help negate the card advantage generated by Bitterblossom, and if you get it active early, it can be game from there.
The mirror match: here, game 1 comes down to “who ran Wraths over Fallouts?” Fallouts are absolutely useless against the mirror match, as nothing other than Mulldrifter is in range. In the post boarded games, Scepter of Fugue takes the spotlight as a magnificent threat in the late game, stripping away your opponent’s hand, and usually taking the match. It is also a good idea to bring in as many aggressive creatures as possible, such as Wydwen, while removing you Walls of Reverence and Plumeveils. Spot removal is also fairly useless in the mirror match because of the lack of targets; it can only kill a 4/4 against Broodmate Dragon, will kill obsolete Plumeveils and other Walls, and will do nothing against a Wydwen. Expect this match to go long. While not used much in recent decklists, two other options in the mirror match come to mind. The first is sideboarding in your own Bitterblossoms. This is dangerous, because with the quantity of Comes Into Play Tapped lands that you run, it will be difficult to drop the Bitterblossom on turn 2, but if it sticks it will win you the game. The other option is Planeswalkers. Cruel Control has historically had a hard time dealing with opposing Planeswalkers because of their slow “grind the opponent down” mentality, so sideboarding in cards such as Jace Beleren, Ajani Vengeant, Liliana Vess (another great source of card advantage) or even Chandra Nalaar can help you gain the edge.
Taking all these matchups into account, here is a sample decklist to get you started:
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Sunken Ruins
4 Vivid Creek
2 Vivid Crag
2 Vivid Meadow
3 Vivid Marsh
1 Exotic Orchard
2 Cascade Bluffs
2 Mystic Gate
3 Broodmate Dragon
3 Wall of Reverence
4 Cryptic Command
2 Cruel Ultimatum
3 Volcanic Fallout
2 Wrath of God
3 Path to Exile
4 Esper Charm
4 Broken Ambitions
1 Volcanic Fallout
2 Wrath of God
3 Ajani Vengeant
2 Pithing Needle
4 Scepter of Fugue
Here, I go with the 27 lands and 61 cards configuration that was used by Nassif and Patrick Chapin. The deck and sideboard are based off Nassif’s Kyoto winning decklist, but I have switched up the land configuration and creature numbers to deal with the added Wraths maindeck and a metagame largely dominated by control decks. You should change this depending on your meta. I have swapped 1 Terror, 1 Celestial Purge, and 1 Pithing Needle maindeck for 3 Path to Exile, which I find is much better against a majority of opponents and can also help take out Anathemancer. I also cut out 1 Mulldrifter and 1 Fallout to fit in 2 Wraths.
In the sideboard, I have the 4 Scepters for the mirror match, as I explained earlier. I also have Ajani Vengeant for the mirror match as my Planeswalker threat. It is an over statement to say that you WILL be able to one sided Armageddon in the mirror match. I also fill out the playsets of Fallouts and Wraths in the sideboard which can be switched in and out depending on the size of your opponent’s creatures. I have the Pithing Needles in instead of Celestial Purges since they can deal with any Planeswalkers I’ve seen game 1, and also can negate a Treetop Village or Figure of Destiny.
Right now, Cruel Control is probably the most popular deck at the Regional/PTQ level events, and after taking the top prize at the recent SCG 5K it has only gained popularity. Cruel Control is an excellent choice for standard tournaments right now because of its solid matchups against aggro, and its very good matchups against control.
I hope this has helped any players unfamiliar to Standard to get an idea of how Cruel Control works, either for purposes of how to beat it or deciding to play it. below are some links if you want to learn a bit more about Cruel Control.
This is an article written by Patrick Chapin for Starcity Games about Cruel Control: http://www.starcitygames.com/magic/misc/17338_Innovations_Meddling_with_Flaws_Curves_and_Beauty_A_Deckbuilding_Masterclass.html
These are the decklists from the Top 8 of PT Kyoto, including Nassif’s list:
This is a slightly older article from just after Worlds where Patrick Chapin talks about his Cruel Control list that he, Manuel Bucher, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Olivier Ruel, and Antoine Ruel: