Sultai ‘Red’ Control in Modern

Why Sultai Control? Straight up UB Control has never held even Tier 2 status in Modern (even though it is my favourite guild and deck) for a few reasons:

  • Inability to deal with resolved permanents such as planeswalkers (Hero’s Downfall costs 3!!!), artifacts and enchantments.
  • Inability to stabilize and turn the corner after fighting off aggro

This deck started from a UB control shell with green added for Assassin’s Trophy, Pulse of Murasa, Maelstrom Pulse and Abrupt Decay in the sideboard to shore up the above weaknesses. By shifting to Sultai Control we shore up weaknesses and make the deck able to handle the wide variety of situations you face in Modern.

Then for extra spice there is a super light red splash for our main win condition and big Teferi equivilent, the new Nicol Bolas planeswalker.

Nicol Bolas is an awesome win condition. His ultimate flat out wins the game unless they control a legendary permanent. He protects himself. He provides card advantage while simultaneously setting back the opponents plans (think of the ‘exile card from hand or permanent they control’ part as an added bonus – the card draw and moving towards his ultimate are the important parts of his +1 ability.)

This deck rewards skill and knowledge of the format. Prepare to lose a lot if you pick it up and have not played a lot of either Modern or control in the past. But as long as you stick with it, it is fun and rewarding. Even though it is a black-blue based control deck I have tried to sculpt it to use a similar structure to that of UW control – so Azorios mages who are bored with that deck (and ashamed when looking in the mirror) might enjoy this one more.

Note 1: If you don’t want to play my spicy red splash you can switch the two Nicol Bolas with either Ob Nixilis or Terrential Gearhulks and swap out the 2 red lands for Sultai colour creating lands.

Note 2: Recently Reddit user 1ougabouga1 took down the Face to Face London 1K Open with Sultai Control, it can be done! You can read his tournament report here.

I will start off this deck guide by showing you my current decklist, explain the card choices and then show how the deck lines up against the current meta.

Decklist

Let me start directly with the deck list before explaining the card choices:

LANDS (25)

CREATURES (3)

PLANESWALKERS (6)

SORCERIES (5)

INSTANTS (20)

SIDEBOARD (15)

Sultai Control Mana Base

We are playing 4 and 5 drops in our draw-go control shell with only a few direct ways to draw cards in the early game so we need the 25 lands we have. We are playing 3 Cryptic Command so we need to be able to get UUU. We are also playing Nicol Bolas with his UBBBR casting cost, so we are also playing lots of B lands and two fetchable sources of red mana. If those get destroyed we need to have Pulse of Murasa to get them back. One red land is a shockland and the other is a battle land, a double check land. I used that because there are already so many fetch and shocklands in the deck.

Mana Needs:

Mana Symbol Count Used In Mainboard Biggest Usage
Blue Mana Symbol 25 UUU
Black Mana Symbol 22 BBB
Green Mana Symbol 7 G
Red Mana Symbol 2 R

Haves:

Mana Symbol # Sources
Sultai Control Manabase 18
Black Mana Symbol 16
Green Mana Symbol 11
Red Mana Symbol 9

I feel like I want one more actual red mana producing land but I’d have to cut green and we rely on that much more. It might be necessary to cut Field of Ruin, but I like having that for big-mana and manlands. Thoughts?

I am open to suggestions on the mana base, but I’ve never had many issues hitting the mana I needed in hundreds of games played. The one issue I’ve had is getting 3 black mana for Nicol Bolas. But that isn’t back breaking, it just delays us by a turn. As long as you think ahead to what you need to accomplish for that game, choosing the right mana combination shouldn’t be a problem.

But if there is an optimization I can make to improve the mana base, please let me know.

Win Conditions

The deck does not run a lot of win conditions and then suffers a problem many control decks have – it takes a while to close out games. The main win conditions main deck are the 2 Nicol Bolas’ and the 1 Jace the Mind Sculpter. The secondary win conditions are 3 Snapcaster Mages and 2 Creeping Tar Pits. The super backup win condition is milling with Ashiok and Cryptic Command bounces. In the sideboard two Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet give the deck a beatdown plan.

One of the easiest ways to gain card advantage as a control deck is to not play any creatures, thus blanking your opponent’s removal. This deck plays 3 creatures (the best crature ever) and 2 creature lands. Snapcasters are not primarly used as bodies but for the ability to reuse spells, helping us to gain incremental advantages over the opponent. Snapcaster’s also have special synergy with Pulse of Murasa; each of which is capable of getting the other back from the graveyard.

The Bolas and Jace planeswalkers both have ultimates that can outright win the game. Bolas is this deck’s version of big Teferi, giving similar functionality while having a much better ultimate. Most of the time I am constantly ticking him up, unless there is a must answer threat on the board and I don’t have any other way to answer it.

Support Planeswalkers

Narset and Ashiok both function like modal enchantments, their static ability helps hose opponents while offering abilities you can use a couple of times. Narset is the main form of repeatable card advantage (replacing Search for Azcanta) while stopping the opposing player’s ability to draw multiple cards a turn. Ashiok works with Surgical Extraction to fight graveyard strategies while simultanously acting as a super backup win condition. (Ashiok mills 4 times then is bounced back to your hand with Cryptic and recast. Rinse and repeat until their deck is done.)

Instants and Sorceries

These are the bread and butter of the deck, allowing you to answer anything Modern can throw at you.

The Damnations and to a lesser extent Maelstrom Pulse are the main deck sweepers. Pulse can hit copies and tokens but usually it is used as more of a single answer. In the sideboard are a Bontu’s Last Reckoning and a Cry of the Cranarium to diversity our sweepers in a world of Meddling Mage. Reckoning helps against aggressive starts while Cranarium is good versus graveyard strategies. The problem with Cranarium is that creatures often get past the 2 toughness needed to kill, requiring additional spells to hit larger creatures.

Maelstrom Pulse also acts as the fifth main deck Assassin’s Trophy, allowing you to cleanly answer any non-land threat. In a world of Karns and 3-mana planeswalkers it is a very valuable card. Brutality is the best role player we have, granting removal, a Duress effect and life gain. There is another in the board for when you really need them.

The deck uses a fairly standard counterspell package. 3 Cryptics are used instead of 4 to make the mana base more palatable for our friend Nicol Bolas. The remaining 3 counters are ok but not great, I’d rather just run Counterspell in those slots. The new Archmage’s Charm looks interesting, but there isn’t any room for it at the moment. The one card it could replace is Mana Leak, but the UUU cost is very steep and Mana Leak is used to counter early aggressive spells.

Pulse of Murasa plays many roles and is a very important card in this deck. It is usually used to get back fetch lands so that we can continue to keep hitting land drops, which is particularly important versus UW Control. The 6 life gained each time it is cast is vital for stabilizing versus Aggro and Burn. Plus the spell can get back a Snapcaster Mage or Kalitas if it needs to.

Due to the degeneracy of Modern I am maindecking 2 Surgical Extractions to fight graveyard shenanigans. There is also another in the board if we need it. Otherwise it gets boarded out versus fair strategies… who am I kidding, it pretty much stays in all the time in Modern.

The targetted removal package is concluded with 3 Fatal Push for fast creatures and Assassin’s Trophy as the clean answer that UB Control is lacking. There an additional Collective Brutality and an Abrupt Decay in the sideboard if you need more single answers.

Sideboard

The sideboard has gone through a number of variations as the meta has changed. It has a good selection of answers to aggro, control and combo decks.

Kalitas is an all-star out of the board against aggro and burn. His one weakness in my testing is Reflector Mage, that card can be a blowout against us in the Humans matchup. He gives lifegain, makes tokens to clog up boards and stops graveyard creatures from being a problem. Well worth the two slots in the sideboard.

I used to run an additional Damnation in the sideboard but Meddling Mage kept naming it in Humans matches so I switched it to Bontu’s Last Reckoning, the next best sweeper in black for Modern. I’d love a GB2 destroy all creatures, can’t be countered Golgari sweeper but we don’t have one right now. Cry of the Cranarium is mostly used against Dredge and Phoenix, it is very limited against Humans and Spirits.

Collective Brutality and Abrupt Decay are just two more flexible answers to be brought in depending on the matchup.

Damping Sphere is there for big mana strategies, Storm and Phoenix.

Thoughtseize, Unmoored Ego and Surgical are anti-combo cards that can also be brought in against control to give you a pretty large advantage. Against Tron Unmoored Ego often names Ulamog since it cannot be countered without its triggers still exiling two of your permanents.

The Negates and Ceremonious Rejection are additional counterspells to be brought in if needed. The new Force of Negation is a possibility, but I don’t think we run enough blue cards to make it effective. Plus we already have the Thoughseizes and Unmoored Ego are there to fill those anti-combo roles.

How This Deck Wins

The ideal method this deck wins is by first stopping the opponents gameplan and then landing a Nicol Bolar or Jace and ticking it up until you ultimate.

The secondary method is with creature beatdowns, which is much weaker without Kalitas in play.

The third way to win is with Ashiok and Cryptic Command recursion. You can also drop Bolas and copy Ashiok’s negative ability.

How This Deck Loses

Let me count the ways… 2.

Decks that go under it like Burn, Dredge, Phoenix and Humans. The attack and kill you before you can stabilize. This is the most common way I lose, and a fair bit of the sideboard is meant to protect against aggro decks. Especially when you are new with this deck, it is easy to get overwhelmed and just run over. Avoiding this comes with experience in using your targetted removal, sweepers and life gain effects.

Decks that go over it like Tron, Amulet Titan and to a lesser extent UW Control. Here you want to be more aggressive, taking the beatdown role when you can.

Matchup Analysis and Sideboard Guide

Tier 1 Matchups

Humans

  • Testing Win Rate: 35/65
  • Overview: This is your toughest Tier 1 matchup, they can either goldfish kill us before we are ready or their creature disruption proves too much for us. Cavern of Souls and Aether Vial make our countermagic much less effective.
  • Side In: 2 Kalitas, 1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning, 1 Cry of the Cranarium, 1 Collective Brutality, 1 Abrupt Decay
  • Side Out: 1 Jace the Mind Sculptor, 2 Narset, 1 Ashiok, 1 Negate, 1 Logic Knot
  • Gameplan: Have lots of different kinds of efficient removal available to fight thought Meddling Mages, Kitesail Scouts and Thalias. Hope to draw your sweepers and – a, not have Meddling Mage name Damnation -and- b, not have Thalia prevent you from casting it with lethal on board. Remember: Cryptic Command works best as a fog in this matchup. Keep tapping down there creatures if you are stuck. Postboard Kalitas is a beast – unless they have Reflector Mage then he’s a liability.

Dredge

  • Testing Win Rate: 40/60
  • Overview: This can be a miserable matchup. Even if you contain (exile) their creatures, they have Creeping Chill and Conflagrate that can chip away at your health or even kill you outright. Pre-boarding you have to hope for a good draw.
  • Side In: 1 Surgical Extraction, 2 Kalitas, 1 Cry of the Carnarium
  • Side Out: 1 Jace the Mind Sculpter, 2 Narset, 1 Opt
  • Gameplan: Hiting a Bloodghast or Zombie with a Surgical Extraction in the first two turns stops the super explosive starts Dredge can have against you. Then it becomes a grind. Leverage Ashiok’s graveyard clearing ability if you draw her. Lifegain is also important to offset the extra ‘burn’ damage this deck can do to you. Be wary of lowering your countering shields in the mid/late game.

Amulet Titan

  • Testing Win Rate: 40/60?
  • Overview: A big-mana/ish combo deck with many nuances and twists, Amulet players need to be really skilled to play this deck.
  • Side In: 2 Thoughtseize, 1 Abrupt Decay
  • Side Out: 3 Fatal Push
  • Gameplan: Attack with Snapcasters, stop Amulet from resolving, watch out for their Haste land. Counter or kill the Titans.
  • Notes: Of all the Tier 1-ish decks, this is the one I have the least experience playing against. As such any information above i s just my initial notes. I welcome any feedback or ideas on how to combat this deck.

UW Control

  • Testing Win Rate: 50/50
  • Overview: This is a skill intensive matchup, most lists have similar amounts of Planeswalkers and Counterspells. With WAR UW Control got a lot of tools, luckily we got many of them as well. Assassin’s Trophy in the main and the anti-control/combo cards in the sideboard can give us an edge. They probably are the better draw-go deck, but you have discard which can give you an edge and let you know what they have in their hand.
  • Side In: 2 Negate, 2 Thoughtseize, 1 Unmoored Ego
  • Side Out: 3 Fatal Push, 2 Damnation
  • Gameplan: Start by playing like you are Jund or GB Control. Thoughtseize and Collective Brutality to strip their hands to gain the advantage. Hit your land drops with Opt and Pulse of Murasa. Get off an Unmoored Ego if you can, attacking them on an axis they are not prepared for in a control mirror. Watch out for Dovin’s Veto, it outclasses anything we have. Hopefully a UG version of that spell is printed in the future, like a scaled down version of Voidslime. They have 2-3 big Teferi’s, 1-2 Jace the Mind Sculptors, 2-4 Snapcaster Mage and 2-4 Celestial Colendades as their win conditions. You need to start stripping those cards from them or start taking their counterspells. Narset does not really affect you, I would ignore that but really watch out for small Teferi, he can make like a pain while not being a win condition. They usually play 1-2 of the small Teferis.
  • Notes: I am personally not that good in control mirrors, I run out of patience a lot. This might actually be a 55/45 matchup if you are good in control mirrors. Does anyone have suggestions on how to play this matchup better?

Green Tron

  • Testing Win Rate: 55/45
  • Overview: This is traditionally a very bad matchup for UW Control but with Sultai I think it actually runs in our favour, before the new Karn I would have said heavily. Pre-sideboard it is a little harder, but even then as long as you don’t have a hand full of Fatal Push you should be fine.
  • Side In: 2 Damping Sphere, 1 Unmoored Ego, 1 Surgical Extraction, 1 Ceremonious Rejection, 2 Negate, 2 Thoughtseize
  • Side Out: 2 Collective Brutality, 3 Fatal Push, 2 Narset, 1 Ashiok
  • Gameplan: First through Field of Ruin or Assassin’s Trophy you want to destroy a Tron land and then Surgically Extract it from the game. Then you should land 1-2 Snapcasters to provide pressure. Then you counter all their threats while you beat them down. Unmoored Ego and Thoughtseize should also be used to take their threats before they can play them.

UR Phoenix

  • Testing Win Rate: 60/40
  • Overview: Overall this feels like a good matchup. Pre-board they can blitz us if we don’t have early answers, but that usually doesn’t happen. Even without graveyard hate we can usually just grind them out, unlike Humans.
  • Side In: 2 Kalitas, 1 Cry of the Cranarium, 1 Surgical Extraction. Possibly Damping Sphere as well if you can make room.
  • Side Out: 1 Jace the Mind Sculptor, 2 Damnation
  • Gameplan: As long as you stop Phoenix’s storming out of the graveyard and Pyromancer’s Ascension from resolving, you should be ok. Thing in the Ice and Crackling Drake are not huge problems. Watch out post board for the new Saheeli and their go-wide backup plan.

Tier 2 and 3 Matchups

Burn

  • Testing Win Rate: 35/65
  • Overview: One of the hardest matches for the deck, the swarm of small creatures and direct damage hit at two axis that our deck can be overrun by.
  • Side In: 2 Kalitas, 2 Negate, 1 Collective Brutality
  • Side Out: 1 Jace the Mind Sculptor, 2 Damnation, 2 Surgical Extraction
  • Gameplan: You need to draw multiple lifegain and counters if you want a chance to win. Even if it looks like you are stabilzed they can still rip two bolts off the top to finish you off. Try to keep your life total above 8.

Colorless Eldrazi

  • Testing Win Rate: 40/60
  • Overview: Their fast starts with Eldrazi or Chalice of the Void can put you on your back heels are lock you out of early interaction.
  • Side In: 2 Kalitas, 1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning, 1 Abrupt Decay
  • Side Out: 1 Jace the Mind Sculpter, 1 Ashiok, 1 Narset, 1 Negate
  • Gameplan: Be prepared to destroy a Chalice or two. Sweepers are you best friends. Use Surgical Extraction on Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher, if you get both of them the rest of the deck is much tamer.
  • Notes: My record might be worse that it should. I might have misplayed some of these matches. Let me know what you think.

Death’s Shadow

  • Testing Win Rate: 45/55
  • Overview: They quickly create large creatures, some of which cannot be destroyed by Fatal Push. Backing up a big threat with cheap counterspells lets them beat you down before you can respond.
  • Side In: 1 Abrupt Decay, 1 Unmoored Ego
  • Side Out: 2 Collective Brutality
  • Gameplan: Get rid of Stubborn Denial via Surgical or Unmoored Ego and their chances of winning go down a lot. After that target Death’s Shadow and Gurmag Angler, they do not play a lot of threats.

Hardened Scales

  • Testing Win Rate: 45/55
  • Overview: They can grow both wide and big, but don’t have the evasion of classic Affinity. The first game is usually a quick loss, and then they get two tries to finish you off.
  • Side In: 1 Cerimonious Rejection, 1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning, 1 Cry of the Cranarium, 1 Abrupt Decay
  • Side Out: 1 Jace the Mind Sculpter, 1 Ashiok, 2 Narset
  • Gameplan: As always, target Arcbound Ravager and Cranial Plating. Sweepers can help a lot. You will probably start on the back foot until you hit a sweeper, postboard you get 4 of them. Paired with Snapcaster Mage and you should be good. If you didn’t lose the first game you should be favoured.

Red Prison

  • Testing Win Rate: 45/55
  • Overview: A classic Blood Moon deck against a 3-4 colour deck. Whoops.
  • Side In: 1 Abrupt Decay, 2 Negate, 1 Unmoored Ego
  • Side Out: 1 Jace the Mind Sculpter, 1 Ashiok, 2 Narset
  • Gameplan: Blood Moon and Chalice of the Void are both beatings against you, especially Chalice on 2. If you prevent / destroy those you should be ok, the rest of their deck and plan is subpar.

Whir Prison

  • Testing Win Rate: 45/55
  • Overview: A more artifact based version of Red Prison. If they don’t lock you out right away, a real possibility, then you will usually be favoured. Nicol Bolas gets around most of their prison items – but not Sorcerer’s Spyglass.
  • Side In: 1 Abrupt Decay, 1 Ceremonious Rejection, 1 Unmoored Ego, 2 Negate
  • Side Out: 2 Damnation, 3 Fatal Push
  • Gameplan: Post board watch out for Ghirapur Aether Grid, try to counter that! And try to get rid of Spyglass, it stops your planeswalkers.

Hatebears

  • Testing Win Rate: 50/50
  • Overview: The worst thing about this matchup is they can mess with our mana. Not hitting our land drops can be a quick way to die.
  • Side In: 1 Abrupt Decay, 1 Cry of the Cranarium, 1 Collective Brutality
  • Side Out: 2 Surgical Extraction, 1 Negate
  • Gameplan: Leonin Arbiter and Thalia should have big targets on them, they can quickly move beyond being annoyances. Try to keep a good flow of both targetted removal and sweepers and you should be fine. Pulse of Murasa can help get back any destroyed lands and Snapcasters can flash back Pulse.

Bant Spirits

  • Testing Win Rate: 50/50
  • Overview: Another tribal aggro deck with disruption, Spirits isn’t as good as Humans but adds evasion to most of their creatures.
  • Side In: 1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning, 1 Abrupt Decay
  • Side Out: 1 Negate, 1 Logic Knot
  • Gameplan: Sweep, sweep, sweep them away. Watch out for Drogskol Captains invalidating your targetted removal. They like to play at instant speed, try to play at the end of their turn so you can follow up on yours

UB Mill

  • Testing Win Rate: 50/50
  • Overview: They have a simple gameplan to ‘burn’ out your library. Your Fatal Pushes should be saved for their Hedron Crabs, the most dangerous card in their deck. Do not let them attack you with two Crabs, then you’ll have crabs! It is a big insult.
  • Side In: 2 Negate, 1 Unmoored Ego, 2 Thoughtseize
  • Side Out: 1 Ashiok, 2 Narset, 2 Damnation
  • Gameplan: In order of importance I would look at targetting: Hedron Crab, Mesmeric Orb, Archive Trap and Glimpse the Unthinkable. Those are their main win conditions. Watch out for Mission Briefing and different ways to cast Archive Trap against you for free.

Jund

  • Testing Win Rate: 50/50
  • Overview: A long grindy matchup that we should win – but do people even play Jund anymore? I remember when it was the boogyman back when Magic was fair and life was simpler. After sideboarding we have a lot more tools at our disposal so we should win… unless we get Junded out.
  • Side In: 1 Abrupt Decay, 1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning
  • Side Out: 2 Surgical Extraction
  • Gameplan: Try to get as many two-for-ones as possible, they aim to win the one-on-one battle. Unless their life total is low, kill the Dark Confident. Sweepers usually only hit 2-3 creatures, be fine with that. Liliana of the Veil is brutal, don’t let her resolve. If she does, hope you draw Assassin’s Trophy.

GB Rock

  • Testing Win Rate: 50/50
  • Overview: A simpler, but usually better in this meta, than Jund. Much the same applies except they won’t have the red spells.
  • Side In: 1 Abrupt Decay, 1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning
  • Side Out: 2 Surgical Extraction
  • Gameplan: See – Jund, janky decks.

Esper Control

  • Testing Win Rate: 50/50
  • Overview: The other control deck I sometimes play, it runs fairly similar to our deck except can be a Azorius wanna-be. With Esper Charm they are very strong against other control matchups.
  • Side In: 2 Thoughtseize, 2 Negate
  • Side Out: 2 Fatal Push, 2 Damnation
  • Gameplan: Like you they start with lots of dead removal. Use Brutality to strip their hand. Watch out for Esper Charm.

Eldrazi Tron

  • Testing Win Rate: 50/50
  • Overview: Like Colorless Eldrazi and Green Tron had a baby. It is mid-rangy instead of aggro or control/combo. Not as fast or consistent as Colorless Eldrazi, but more powerful. Not as consistent as Green Tron, but much harder to hate against. Many versions now also run the Karn-Myco-Combo.
  • Side In: 1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning, 2 Damping Sphere
  • Side Out: 2 Fatal Push, 1 Negate
  • Gameplan: Be prepared to kill lots of big creatures. They are the beatdown but they also have inevitability with Ulamog and the Karn combo. Make judicious use of your sweepers, you only have a few.

Valakut / Scapeshift

  • Testing Win Rate: 60/40
  • Overview: Unlike other big-mana decks, you should be favoured against Valakut. You have all the tools to stop them pre-board and post-board it becomes even easier.
  • Side In: 1 Unmoored Ego, 1 Surgical Extraction, 1 Negate
  • Side Out: 3 Fatal Push
  • Gameplan: Kill Valakut and extract it. Remove their Titans. Be ready for Through the Breach / Emrakul, some pilots still use that as a backup plan.

Wrap-Up and Final Thoughts

When people think control in Modern, they think Azorius. That is too bad, I think UW Control is boring and lacks character. That is why I am drawn to black-based control archtypes like Sultai and Esper. While perhaps not as powerful, they are more enjoyable to run and over hundreds of matchups that is important too.

I plan on taking this deck to the Face to Face Hamilton 1K on June 22, 2019. I’ll post a tournament report here afterwards.

If you want to talk about this deck with me, please do so on my associated Reddit post at: Sultai ‘Red’ Control in Modern. Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.

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Broken Staff Studios

Broken Staff Studios is a small independent gaming studio based out of Ontario, Canada. We specialize in computer roleplaying games and are working on the open source Broken Staff CRPG system which we hope to finish by the end of 2022.