Torrential Gearhulk | Svetlin Velinov

Introduction

Shota Yasooka won Pro Tour Kaladesh with another take on his signature blue-based control. Almost as common as praise for Shota’s mastery has been the assertion that his approach to building and playing control won’t work for anyone else. This has been repeated so often that it’s nearly a cliche, but if you take a step back, it’s quite a strange idea. After all, Shota doesn’t get a special Vanguard card that says, “If your name is Shota Yasooka, scry 10.” He has access to the same cards and the same play choices as everyone else.

Some may consider it arrogant to try to imitate Shota’s success, but in reality, “I have a lot to learn from Shota” is a far less arrogant stance than, “I have nothing to learn from Shota.” Many players give up on Shota’s lists when they don’t experience initial success, but it might be worth digging deeper and asking why his decklists look different than everyone else’s. Why is he making these card choices? What play patterns are necessary to succeed with this type of deck?

For this article I looked at Shota’s four most recent Standard Top 8 decklists, spanning from PT Kaladesh in 2016 to GP Shizuoka in 2013, and broke the cards down into categories. If you’ve been following Magic for a long time, you know Shota was playing control long before 2013, but I chose to stick to these four lists to keep the analysis manageable. Taken together, the four lists analyzed here present a nice picture of how Shota builds control for modern metagames. His current approach represents the culmination of many years spent refining his strategy and the ratios between the categories are remarkably consistent from deck to deck. Analysis

These are the decks I’m looking at:

PT Kaladesh 2016

PT Shadows Over Innistrad 2016

PT Dragons of Tarkir 2015

GP Shizuoka 2013

5 Color Combo Store

  Grixis - PT Kaladesh 2016 Esper Dragons - PT Shadows Over Innistrad 2016 Silumgar - PT Dragons of Tarkir 2015 UB Control - GP Shizuoka 2013 Average
Lands 26 27 26 26 26.25
Draw 5 3 6 2 4.00
Selection 3 0 0 0 0.75
Spot Removal 10 8 10 10 9.50
Sweepers 2 3 3 3 2.75
Counters 6 6 6 7 6.25
Discard 1 2 2 2 1.75
Creatures 6 10 7 4 6.75
Planeswalkers 1 1 1 6 2.25

Categories

Lands - max 27, min 26, average 26.25

This one’s pretty simple: play 26 lands. You need a lot of lands because these decks can’t afford to miss their land drops and the curve usually goes up to six. A finer point to note is that Shota values mana consistently very highly. At PT Dragons of Tarkir, when other control players were splashing white in their blue-black decks for Dragonlord Ojutai, Shota stuck to straight blue-black and played four Dismal Backwater. While he eventually gave in to the power of Ojutai, the fact remains that he places a very high value on mana consistency and is willing to play a lot of enters the battlefield tapped lands if that’s what’s necessary to make sure he has the right colors of mana.

Draw - max 6, min 2, average 4

Draw is often considered the backbone of control decks. After all, there’s no point in extending the game if you can’t win the lategame, and traditionally one of the best ways to do that has been to get ahead on cards. To that end a lot of control players try to play so many draw spells that they can reliably chain one into another. This is not Shota’s approach. He’ll fire off a draw spell to refuel if he has a window of opportunity, but chaining draw spells together is not his primary gameplan.

The variation in the number of draw spells between decks is due to card advantage coming from other types of cards. For the numbers, I only included dedicated draw spells like Jace’s Ingenuity. The decks that had less dedicated draw spells made up for it with other sources of draw or card advantage like Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy or Dragonlord Ojutai.

Selection - max 3, min 0, average 0.75

I’m including this category mostly to note its absence. Apart from Anticipate at PT Kaladesh, Shota never played draw/selection spells that didn’t gain card advantage. He prefers “big” draw spells like Painful Truths or Opportunity. Apparently, he believes that in the early turns mana is better spent countering spells or killing creatures to avoid falling behind on the board.

Spot removal - max 10, min 8, average 9.5

Shota is very consistent in this category: he usually plays ten spot removal spells. Some players might worry that this is too many and will lead to too many removal spells being stranded against creature-light opponents, but Shota evidently believes this is necessary to avoid being overrun by creature decks.

Sweepers - max 3, min 2, average 2.75

Another very consistent category, this time the standard being three. Again, Shota’s approach differs somewhat from other control players: many assume if there is a good sweeper in the format, four is the standard number to run. But if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to be sparing with sweepers. It’s a specialized effect that is bad in a lot of matchups and you often don’t want to draw more than one, but sometimes it will be the best card in your deck. Against some strategies, like tokens, you will probably need access to a sweeper to win the game.

The previous two categories, spot removal and sweepers, can be thought of together as creature control. More of one might be able to compensate for less of the other to some extent, but Shota has consistently preferred a 10/3 split as the best ratio.

Counterspells - max 7, min 6, average 6.25

Like card draw, counterspells are a card type that some control decks overload on to ensure access to at any point in the game. Shota’s approach is to include a balanced mix of different types of effects, without overloading on any particular one. This will become even more clear as we go through the rest of the categories.

Discard - max 2, min 1, average 1.75

Shota likes to include just a couple discard spells in his deck. This allows him to occasionally see his opponent’s hand and snipe a key card while minimizing the risk of being stuck with discard spells against an empty-handed opponent.

Like spot removal and sweepers, counterspells and discard could be lumped into a single category, in this case hand/stack control.

Creatures - max 10, min 4, average 6.75

This category is tricky. I initially labeled it “finishers,” but decided that label was too misleading. “Finisher” implies that the card comes down after control has been established and ends the game, but that’s not really how Shota uses his creatures. Rather, the creatures are an important part of seizing the initiative and gaining control. Watching Shota’s matches from PT Kaladesh, I was struck by how often he went for aggressive attacks in the midgame. In every game I saw, these attacks paid off later when his opponents were forced into a defensive role in the face of potentially lethal attacks.

As a nod to Shota’s recent dragon decks, “Dragons” might be a better name for this category than “Creatures.” It emphasizes that the chosen creatures are big, impactful, and aggressive.

Regarding the variation in this category, the deck that played ten creatures included four copies of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, which is arguably more like a draw spell than a creature. The deck that played four creatures also included six planeswalkers, which perform a similar role to creatures in seizing the initiative. If you’re looking for a benchmark for “dragons” to include, the number is six.

Planeswalkers - max 6, min 1, average 2.25

In the three most recent lists, Shota ran exactly one planeswalker. This is a little mysterious, but that’s kind of the point: it’s not possible to theorycraft these ratios with a high degree of accuracy. Rather, the numbers represent the result of a tremendous amount of trial-and-error. Fortunately, we can piggyback on all of Shota’s hard work by adopting his ratios.

For now the standard is exactly one planeswalker, but that could easily change. When planeswalkers are especially strong or well-positioned, Shota is willing to run far more. He played six (2 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, 4 Jace, Architect of Thought) at GP Shizuoka in 2013.

Creatures and planeswalker can be lumped together into initiative plays. They both pose to the opponent a pressing problem: answer me or lose.

General Comments

If I had to choose one word to describe Shota’s approach to control it would be “balanced.” He doesn’t go all-in on one gameplan or effect; rather, he plays a variety of powerful effects in a ratio that he’s perfected with an enormous amount of practice. This gives his decks tremendous flexibility. They have the tools to address almost any situation and they don’t crumble when the game doesn’t go according to plan. This approach demands a high skill level on the part of the pilot, because he has to be ready to switch roles at the drop of a hat.

We can combine all of the above categories into a single decklist for “Platonic Shota Control.” This list is a good starting point for thinking about control in a new format.

26 lands

  • 10 spot removal
  • 3 sweepers
  • 6 counterspells
  • 2 discard spells
  • 6 draw spells
  • 6 dragons
  • 1 planeswalker

While adapting this formula to a given format, it may also be helpful to keep these broader conceptual categories in mind (some cards support multiple categories):

  • 13 creature control
  • 8 hand/stack control
  • 7+ initiative plays
  • 10+ sources of card advantage

Conclusion

Of course, following this template won’t guarantee good results. First of all there’s the matter of actually playing the games and as noted these decks take a lot of skill to pilot correctly.

Additionally, a large part of Shota’s genius is how he adapts within this general framework. Like a great sonnet writer, he’s constantly coming up with brilliant twists within an established structure. The basic template is only the starting point. It’s far from easy to figure out how to fill it out with the tools available in a given format. You also need to understand the metagame at large so you’re prepared for the ways other decks can attack you.

Having said all that, there’s still plenty to learn from Shota’s success. He’s provided a highly refined and consistent deckbuilding template for anyone who bothers to look. It would be foolish to assume you can imitate Shota’s success. It would be even more foolish to ignore him.

A photo of Nate Solon Nate Solon

Nate Solon is a poker pro living in Boston. He's been playing Magic since Revised and likes nothing better than drawing cards.