When you ask people what the most powerful card in Standard control decks are, most of the time they are going to answer with Sphinx's Revelation. While Sphinx's Revelation is one of the most potent tools in control, I'd argue that the correct answer to the question is Supreme Verdict. Without Supreme Verdict, control decks as we know them would simply cease to exist. I think people take this effect for granted. For as long as we can remember, we've had Wrath of God, Day of Judgment, or other similar effects. But without a relatively cheap and extremely efficient sweeper, creature-based strategies would simply be too powerful for control decks to overcome.
Supreme Verdict is likely the most difficult card in Standard to play around. If you're playing a creature-based deck, a large amount of games come down to deciding whether or not you should further develop your board and risk playing into the sweeper. It is important when deciding whether or not you should commit more creatures to the board—when worrying about a potential Supreme Verdict—that you use all the information available to you to make the most well-educated decision possible.
Let's get the easy part out of the way. Sometimes a deck has a card that actually serves as a suitable answer to Supreme Verdict. The notable cards in current Standard are Boros Charm, Golgari Charm, and Rootborn Defenses, with the most notable being Boros Charm. Ben Lundquist won the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Los Angeles with the following:
- 2 Azorius Arrester
- 4 Boros Elite
- 4 Daring Skyjek
- 4 Dryad Militant
- 4 Frontline Medic
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
In games where you draw Boros Charm, spend your mana and play creatures with reckless abandon up until the turn before they'll have four mana and will first be able to cast Supreme Verdict. At that point, unless they've been able to one-for-one your creatures at such a rate that you have none in play (which is very unlikely), just hold up the requisite mana for your Boros Charm (or Golgari Charm or Rootborn Defenses) and it will be very difficult for the control deck to beat you. Just like sometimes the aggressive player is forced to say, "Oh well, if he has the Supreme Verdict, he has the Supreme Verdict," the control player is forced to say the same about Boros Charm.
Assuming you're playing a deck without a counter for the Verdict, which is true most of the time, the first thing you need to evaluate is your rough likelihood of winning the game in the four possible situations. Those four situations are:
1. You play more creatures, and they have Supreme Verdict
2. You play more creatures, and they don't have Supreme Verdict
3. You don't play any more creatures, and they have Supreme Verdict
4. You don't play any more creatures, and they don't have Supreme Verdict.
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is in the situation where if the opponent has the Verdict they are basically zero percent to win the game. They decide not to play more creatures in fear of losing too much. But then it turns out that the opponent doesn't have the Verdict, and the lack of additional pressure causes them to narrowly lose. Let's say you're playing an all-in red aggro deck like the one Thomas Pannell piloted to a Top 8 finish at the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Los Angeles:
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Chandra's Phoenix
- 4 Firedrinker Satyr
- 4 Firefist Striker
- 4 Foundry Street Denizen
- 4 Gore-House Chainwalker
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 2 Rubblebelt Maaka
On your fourth turn, the crucial turn before they are first able to cast Supreme Verdict, you have two creatures in play. But because they've traded one-for-one twice already, you haven't been able to deal a ton of damage, and after attacking they are at twelve life. Your hand has a Firefist Striker and a couple Mountains. In this situation, it is unlikely no matter what you do that you'll be able to beat a Supreme Verdict.
However, by not playing the Firefist Striker, you make life much harder on yourself if your opponent doesn't have the Verdict and just follows up with another Detention Sphere, spot removal spell, or Jace. It's understandably very difficult to put your last creature in play knowing that if they do in fact have the Verdict that you'll be left with literally nothing. However, with these hyperaggressive decks, it is sometimes your best chance to win. Take time and think about whether or not this is the situation you're in and remember that you are the aggressor, your deck is built to win, and you should play that way. The control deck is the one that is playing "not to lose."
Let's say in the scenario above instead of two removal spells your opponent has only cast a single Detention Sphere. You've gotten in two extra attacks, so your opponent is at eight life instead of twelve. Instead of two Mountains and a Firefist Striker in hand, you have a Rakdos Cackler, a Shock, and a Firefist Striker. You can see the pronounced difference here.
First of all, you have sufficient pressure on the board. Even if your opponent plays Jace, Architect of Thought and uses the plus ability, you can attack it with all of your creatures and Shock it to finish it off. If your opponent plays the Verdict, you can follow up with two creatures on the following turn, and it's likely that you've conserved enough resources to be able to force through the six damage you need to put your opponent in range of a lethal Shock.
Another major factor to consider is whether or not it seems likely for them to have a Verdict based on what's happened in the game to that point. If you're playing a game with a creature deck, especially when you know your opponent knows what you're playing either before the match or in games 2 or 3, take note of how things develop in the first few turns.
If your opponent puts up little-to-no resistance, neither removing nor countering any of your creatures, ask yourself what hand they could have kept to put up such a small fight. It stands to reason that the less they interact with you before turn 4, the more likely it is they have the Verdict. As a control player, when you look at your opening hand, aside from having lands the thing you most want to see is a Supreme Verdict. It is very hard to keep marginal hands with no Verdict, and very few hands that contain both lands and Verdict would be considered "only" marginal on the strength of Verdict alone.
Keep a close eye on opponents who choose to use Azorius Charm to draw a card on turn 2. I've found both as a control player and from watching opponents that most often when Azorius Charm is being cycled against creature decks it's because the player has a Supreme Verdict in hand but doesn't have all four lands necessary to cast it. If you're playing paper Magic, see if you can follow the card your opponent draws off the Charm as well as their subsequent draw phase. See if the land they play for the turn is one of those cards. Savvy players often shuffle their hands, so you can't always tell, but it doesn't hurt to try.
In any case, by cycling the Charm they are declaring that they have something else to deal with your onslaught of creatures, so be very wary about overextending in those games. But what if they are just cycling in order to find a Verdict? Usually, this isn't a good play. It's almost always better to use the Charm to buy yourself some time, especially in combination with other removal spells. Don't worry too much about that scenario.
Also, be mindful of your "clock." What I mean is if your opponent is at seven life and you have five power in creatures in play, you have to factor that in to a risk/reward analysis. If the decision is close and you have nothing in particular to make you believe that they definitely have a Verdict, the fact that you are presenting lethal damage and if they are unable to deal with your threats they get one less draw phase is very relevant.
Burn spells play a very key role here as well. If you are able to put yourself in a position where the difference between playing a creature will present lethal damage if they don't have Supreme Verdict but will put them to two or three life if they do, the fact that you are able to reduce their life total to a point where they are dead to burn spells is very valuable even if you don't yet have one in your hand.
Let's take a look at a perspective from a more midrange deck. Here is the deck that Hal Brady used to win the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Dallas, Texas:
- 3 Arbor Colossus
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 2 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Voyaging Satyr
- 4 Polukranos, World Eater
- 1 Ruric Thar, the Unbowed
- 1 Nylea, God of the Hunt
In decks like these, where you have planeswalkers and other "haymakers" that you can use to take advantage of a tapped-out opponent, you have a lot more play against Supreme Verdict. Certainly the midrange decks have a lot less situations that come up where you are simply unable to beat the card at all. That being said, it is still going to be the most important tool for the control deck in stabilizing against you. The thing to ask yourself when deciding you want to play into a Supreme Verdict with a midrange deck is "if my opponent casts Supreme Verdict, what am I going to do over the next few turns?"
Usually whether or not you want to commit more creatures to the board depends on your answer to that question. The best-case scenario is the one where if you commit another creature to the board and your opponent plays Supreme Verdict you are able to use the fact they are tapped out to your advantage by following up with major threats over the next turn or two. If throwing an extra mana creature; Scavenging Ooze; or even sometimes Polukranos, World Eater into play is going to create a sequence where your opponent is forced to Verdict and then your next two turns are going to be spent playing Xenagos, the Reveler and Garruk, Caller of Beasts, it is very likely worth it.
What you want to do is use the Verdict to cause a chain of turns in which your opponent is forced to tap out or at least spend mana on their own turn to deal with your threats. Xenagos must get answered immediately. It is very likely if your opponent answers Xenagos that they a) won't have mana available to use a Dissolve on your Garruk (especially if you were on the play) and b) won't have any cards left that will be able to deal with Garruk anyway.
The other type of game is when you don't have planeswalkers to follow up with, just more and more creatures. The advantage you have with the midrange decks as opposed to the aggressive decks is that sometimes one creature is a very potent threat. As time goes on, your small mana creatures become less and less valuable. What they can do is provide a very small amount of pressure and also a buffer against a card like Devour Flesh.
In games where all you have to follow up are more creatures, often you are best served by leaving yourself with one or two small creatures in play and only exposing one of your big creatures, whether it be Polukranos, Arbor Colossus, or Ruric Thar, to a Supreme Verdict. If your first Polukranos gets hit with a Verdict, hopefully you can follow up with an Elvish Mystic and an Arbor Colossus. If that gets dealt with, hopefully you have another fatty to follow up with. If that gets Doom Bladed too and all you have is small creatures, well sometimes there's not much you can do.
But it's important to be aware of the potency of the creatures that you have in play. If all of your most potent threats are creatures, try not to lose more than one of the giant creatures at a time to a single copy of Supreme Verdict without a devastating follow-up as we talked about above.
Let's take a quick look at one last deck. Here's Sam Black's Mono-Blue Devotion deck from Grand Prix Louisville:
- 4 Cloudfin Raptor
- 4 Frostburn Weird
- 4 Judge's Familiar
- 4 Master of Waves
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 4 Tidebinder Mage
- 4 Thassa, God of the Sea
The first thing we talked about in regards to midrange decks, devastating follow-ups, definitely holds true for the Mono-Blue Devotion deck. Although Jace, Architect of Thought and Bident of Thassa are not quite as game breaking on their own as a card like Xenagos, they are used to regain the card advantage lost from having your board swept by Supreme Verdict. Jace is almost always minused immediately, and Bident of Thassa if unanswered causes all of your creatures to become major threats, effectively turning them into Thieving Magpies. If you've been fortunate enough to draw a Mutavault, the Bident is especially potent.
But what separates this deck is the implications of Supreme Verdict on the devotion mechanic itself. If you have Thassa, God of the Sea in play, it's important that if you're opponent plays Supreme Verdict you keep yourself in a position where you can play a couple of blue permanents on the following turn to "turn your devotion back on." The worst thing you can do is overextend so much that a Verdict leaves your hand barren and Thassa has to watch the game for a while as an enchantment.
Again, like with the midrange decks, if you've drawn nearly all creatures or your opponent has been able to quickly deal with Thassa or whatever noncreature threats you've dealt, the situation is much more difficult. However, the same principles hold true. Instead of Polukranos and Arbor Colossus, you're working with Nightveil Specter and Master of Waves. While Nightveil Specter doesn't "end the game" as fast as the other cards in the truest sense, if the card goes unanswered for too long, the card advantage it can create will effectively end the game. For this reason, the control player will do everything in their power to deal with it. Again, try your best to not commit multiple of your biggest threats to the board and force your opponent to have what they need to deal with each one.
While no two situations are completely alike, lots of the strategies and principles discussed in this article can help when deciding to how to proceed against today's Standard control decks. As Magic moves forward and we get more and different sweepers, I hope you'll think back on this when deciding how to play against them as well. For me personally, I remember back to when I first heard about some of these concepts:
"Don't play a second pump Knight (Order of the Ebon Hand or Knight of Stromgald). They can't be targeted by Swords to Plowshares, so your opponent is going to be forced to cast Wrath of God or Balance to deal with the first one. After that, play another one and make them deal with that."