Magic is basically a rock-paper-scissor game made complicated by the different layers in which this game is played. My personal principle in building unconventional brews is that all decks, both meta and non-meta alike, need to win the “war of attrition”.
Wikipedia defines a ‘war of attrition as “a dynamic timing game in which players choose a time to stop, and fundamentally trade off the strategic gains from outlasting other players and the real costs expended with the passage of time”.
In other words, to win this war in a game of Magic, you need to assess a certain moment in the game where you would gladly lose something at the onset, but have that loss work towards gaining more in the long run while the game progress.
This ‘timing game’, in my opinion, is best won by control players who trade off life totals and board presence against aggro and midrange decks, in order to play a game-breaking sweeper that resets the board state after the opponent has committed a lot of resources on the field, and then follow it up with a stabilizer play that renders any future plays of the opponent irrelevant.
The most popular shell most control players default to is Blue White. Blue for the card advantage to find your reset button, and White for the life gain that keeps you alive until you can hit the reset. With the introduction of Planeswalkers like Jace and Teferi, Blue White shells set the gold standard for highly effective control strategies.
Except for the fact that building competitive and highly tuned Blue-White decks can be expensive, and by choosing to play less efficient or cheaper card variants, you run the risk of significantly reducing your deck’s performance. It’s similar to playing a Creature-based finisher instead of playing Jace, The Mind Sculptor which is more difficult to take out compared to a creature.
Like many magic players, spending capacity often is a limiting factor to what decks you end up bringing into tournaments. But by taking these fundamental guard rails into consideration, we can come up with good shells that can compete with the most tuned decks in the meta but still get to keep both our kidneys. Trading Blue for Black significantly helps us reduce the cost but we get to keep the interactions and interesting play
Let’s start with the budget list. Can’t afford Teferi, Hero of Dominaria? Then play its $2 counterpart, Ob Nixilis, Reignited. Almost the exact same thing, but bought in Greenhills! Teferi can’t draw you cards, and so does Ob Nixilis but for a price. Teferi can tuck threats in, and Ob Nixilis takes threats out. Teferi gives you a game-ending emblem, and so does Ob Nixilis.
Sweepers you say? We can’t say Farewell to all permanents but we can take a creature, an enchantment, and a Planeswalker out or draw 3 cards and deal 6 damage thanks to Invoke Despair. We don’t have Portable Holes but we sure can push stuff into one. We can’t grow our hands but we sure can trim our opponent’s.
I will somehow take back what I said about creatures being bad win conditions compared to planeswalkers because there are some creatures that can ‘planeswalk’ and shift the game state to your favor!
Edgar, Charmed Groom is one of the most irritating creatures to remove permanently. It’s not because it transforms and sticks on the battlefield, but because it transforms into a very different permanent type which you can’t interact with the same way as how you killed the front side. Not many decks run mainboard artifact hate intentionally, and especially not in Pioneer, which makes Edgar a recurring nightmare for your opponents to deal with. The added bonus is that while it’s taking its time to go back to creature form, it leaves you with 1/1 life-linking tokens that can buy you the time to draw your sweeper paving the way for your 4/4 Vampire Noble to take the game.
Sorin is another Vampire that does everything you want from a win condition. He draws your cards, he deals damage, he removes threats, he gains you life, and his ultimate often wins you the game if it resolves. Take note, his 1/1 tokens from his ultimate gets pumped by Edgar’s anthem effect too!
The deck however has one other win condition, which is actually our main win con. It’s Approach of the Second Sun. When the war of attrition settles, both players end up desperate to close the game. With the aggro and midrange player hoping to close the gap and end the control player’s miserable life with a topdecked threat or burn spell, while the control player digs to find a way to buy a bit more time and win with a spell that the opponent will have a hard time recovering from. That moment is when drawing into your Approach of the Second Sun is perfect. It gains you life, which probably you need after taking some blows earlier, and puts you one step closer to winning the game. Unlike Blue-White shells that have the ability to draw into the tucked Approach faster than 7 turns, we also have some ways to do that with Ob Nixilis, or drawing Invoke Despair in between drawing you 2-3 cards, and Castle Lochtwain.
You may be wondering why we have ‘Lessons’ on the sideboard. Cram Session in the mainboard helps us in the life total department buying us some time to stabilize and get to our sweepers. But if we draw it late midgame, we can convert it into a removal, or a win condition in itself in the late game when your opponents are essentially top decking. I took this technology from green devotion decks using Karn to expand their mainboard and take win conditions or answers from the sideboard.
If you’re interested in a non-budget version and have some Liliana of the Veils and Thoughtseizes lying around, sleeve this version up and go grab yourself some podium finishes on your next FNM.
Till then, happy shuffling!