The pinnacle of answers is the counterspell, dealing with a threat as it's being cast. Another cornerstone of control is card draw, to make sure each question meets its answer. When one opts for primarily reactive gameplay at instant speed, avoiding blue is impossible. Sometimes you also get flash threats such as Vendilion Clique, Torrential Gearhulk, or Snapcaster Mage, which further emphasize blue's strength of facilitating a draw-go strategy.
However, it's highly unlikely that you'll be able to avoid adding a second color. While blue might be the core, it won't provide all the necessary utility due to color pie restrictions. The first and main limitation is removal. Canonically, blue deals in bounce and tap effects, nonpermanent solutions to permanent threats. You cannot afford to lose a full card just to return something to its owner's hand and let it be recast. On top of that, in formats like Modern or Legacy, relevant creatures will cost as little as one or two mana at which point blue, on its own, is losing on the tempo front as well. You have to be able to pay one or two mana to kill something, which blue does not offer.
Of particular importance to a control strategy, covering all bases and building your sideboard becomes much more of a challenge when you're playing a monocolored deck. Last but not least, gold cards have strong unique effects that can further add to your arsenal. For all of these reasons you mainly see two- or three-color control decks. There's still one question that remains—which color to add? We've got four to choose from: black, red, green, and white. In this article I want to delve deeper into the strengths but also weaknesses of each combination.
Black is known as the color of death and that's exactly what it brings best. It gives you cards like Fatal Push, Bloodchief's Thirst but also Doom Blade, Go for the Throat, and Power Word Kill. With blue traditionally lacking hard removal, black subsidizes it very nicely. Clearly, all of these have some conditionality to them, so you have to choose your final configuration carefully to cover a meaningful part of the format.
Black also offers edict effects. While not very relevant in Modern, they've been important on and off in Pauper and Legacy. Cards like Chainer's Edict or Diabolic Edict can get rid of powerful threats that have protection, indestructible, hexproof, or shroud, for example Slippery Bogle or Marit Lage. Moreover, when you play against decks that tend to have one threat on the board at a time, an edict will often be a hard piece of removal.
Black knows mass removal too: Damnation, Extinction Event, Languish, Shadows' Verdict, et cetera. However, black tends to offer the best rates on spot removal. Thus, blue-black often eschews the clunkier, sorcery-speed board wipes in favor of targeted tools.
Black is the only color that has discard. While historically control decks do not mix discard and countermagic too much, some low-to-the-ground versions tend to go for Inquisition of Kozilek, Thoughtseize, or Duress. Even when a deck opts out of mixing the two main, there will frequently be some discard in the sideboard to be brought in for control and combo matchups. Lastly, you can take advantage of card draw that is cheaper than blue's but usually at a cost of life total, like Sign in Blood or Night's Whisper. However, not all decks can accommodate such sorceries.
|Blue-Black Control by TheSandwhichKing, Pioneer Preliminary 3-1, February 22|
Red is also known for removal, albeit differently. The majority of red removal is based on damage. On surface level, this is worse as it's more conditional. However, having damage-based removal has its upsides. One of them is the ability of killing off planeswalkers. It's a huge one as control historically has a tough time dealing with walkers. In addition, burn spells such as Lightning Bolt can hit the opponent's face. Blue-red Modern decks have often combined Bolt with Snapcaster Mage, which results in either very efficient interaction for early creatures or a sudden outburst of damage that can kill the opponent. The ability to pivot is one of the reasons people like blue-red—you can sneak in a win out of nowhere.
On top of that, this color pair is very combogenic. While everybody knows about the banned Splinter Twin, there are still multiple options.
Through the Breach plus Emrakul, the Aeons Torn for an almost game-winning attack. While the 15 damage might not seal the deal, resetting the opponent's board will most likely decide the outcome of the game.
Finally, you might not consider it a combo, but there is an entire archetype named Blue Moon that mixes a good blue-dense mana base and Blood Moon to lock the opponent out. A good way to get some free wins.
|Blue-Red Kiki by Jeannix, Modern League 5-0, March 8|
Lastly, blue-red decks can take a more aggressive slant designwise. You can add Vendilion Clique, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, and/or Murktide Regent to close out games quickly.
|Blue Moon by LJex, 18th at Modern Challenge, March 20|
With all these tools at your disposal, the opponent won't ever fully know whether you play Moon, a combo to kill them out of nowhere, some aggressive creatures, or just good old Bolt-Snap-Bolt. The biggest downside of blue-red is its lack of solid mass removal, which is partly solved via Fury, and lack of hard unconditional removal to deal with threats such as Tarmogoyf or Murktide Regent.
This combination isn't often seen in nature. As I've mentioned, blue has to be supported by a second color as it does not have strong removal options itself. Green also fails to meet this condition. Most often, blue and green will be a part of a three-color deck with an actual removal partner. Sometimes Ice-Fang Coatl sees play as a proxy for removal.
In the Uro days, the lack of removal was offset by the Titan providing enough life gain to stay alive. Back then, green-blue control decks were indeed possible, and I myself really liked playing them.
|Green-Blue Reclamation by FSkura, Modern League 5-0, February 9, 2021|
However, green has its merits. They usually revolve around ramp. The most popular example is Growth Spiral. It draws a card and enables you to put a land into play at instant speed. It effectively acts as a way to jump from turn two to turn four. Turn four then usually represents Cryptic Command or Wilderness Reclamation—the next upside of green. Reclamation makes for a combination between ramp-control and combo-control. You generate copious amounts of mana to spend on Shark Typhoon or Nexus of Fate. The presence of a quasi-combo aspect makes up for the lack of removal.
The last combination is arguably the most popular one. White-blue has been played since time immemorial. It first emerged as "The Deck."
The first main upside is hard removal. It can play anything from Oust, Condemn to Path to Exile, Prismatic Ending, Swords to Plowshares, or March of Otherworldly Light. While it's still mostly conditional, the condition is made up for the flexibility and exile. Ending hard answers walkers and any miscellaneous permanents, Path exiles any creature you'd want, et cetera. Each of them has its downsides, so you have to make a deliberate calculation of which is best when, considering the shortcomings. On top of that, white-blue has access to very powerful mass removal options. Starting with the classic Wrath of God to Day of Judgment and the iconic Supreme Verdict.
In addition, this color combination offers some of the best control walkers. There are the usual blue ones like Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Narset, Parter of Veils, but the selection is augmented by arguably two of the best five walkers of all time: Teferi, Time Raveler and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Another upside is the white color itself in the context of sideboarding. Historically, white has been the best hate color, providing Stony Silence, Rest in Peace, Timely Reinforcements, Rule of Law, and more. Whatever the current best linear deck is, you'll have shut-down cards to combat it.
The presence of sorcery removal and those planeswalkers usually makes white-blue more of a tap-out deck, quite contrary to draw-go. It then comes down to the metagame and individual preferences. Some formats benefit such a strategy, some punish it. Another downside is the general lack of pressure. White-blue is pretty mediocre at attacking and gives the opponent a lot of time to rebuild or amass counteroffensive. Some players still run Vendilion Clique, Snapcaster Mage, or Monastery Mentor to try to shorten the game's time span, but it's certainly not the archetype's forte.
|White-Blue Control by WaToO, 1st at Modern Challenge, March 21|
This concludes the breakdown. I hope you enjoyed the summary on how the color pairs differ from one another. If you have any further questions, feel free to comment below. You can find more articles of mine in my writer section. And remember to hold my hand and pass the turn together. Cheers!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket's.