A while ago I wrote articles on how to build and play aggro and control decks (which you can find here and here). Today, I’m going to go a little more in depth about Aggro-Control. The article will be less focused on building, and more on how to fully utilize aggro-control’s greatest strength—its ability to change roles continuously.
The way I see it, there are far less aggro-control decks than any other kind. In fact, in recent memory, I recall three decks that I would call “aggro-control” - Faeries, Caw-Blade and Delver (with Caw-Blade being the one closest to the edge; if you think of it as just a different control deck, I don’t really blame you, but I think it’s closer to the other two than to real control so it’s worth talking about here. In later versions, the deck took a swing towards the middle, with Mirran Crusaders and fewer or no Day of Judgments).
Here are, for reference, lists that I’ve played for the three archetypes:
If aggro-control decks are so rare, then why write an article dedicate only to them? Three main reasons:
1) When an aggro-control deck is good, it is the best deck you can possibly play. All three of those decks dominated their respective formats completely (the best deck right now is probably aggro-control), and you will lose a lot of opportunities if you don’t know how to play them.
The reason aggro-control decks are so good is that all the cards in it are flexible, and they work well in whatever strategy you choose for that particular game—when a control deck is forced to play an aggressive game, for example, then half of its cards are not doing what they are supposed to do; if you must pressure your combo opponent before they go off, then the nine removal spells in your deck become blanks.
With Aggro-Control, that doesn’t happen—your cards are not specific in the way that Steppe Lynx attacks and Wall of Omens blocks, the way Lava Spike deals damage and Healing Salve gains life. They’re good in any situation, and that gives you flexibility to play whatever game you want.
Since you can do whatever, you become very hard to beat—if one strategy isn’t working, then you’ll just move to the other one and your cards will make it look like that was what your deck was supposed to do on the first place.
For this reason, it’s hard to imagine an aggro-control deck without blue—blue has the most versatile cards, most general answers (counterspells) and card selection that means you’re going to draw whatever you want at the time (Ponder, Preordain). It also has a lot of instants and instant speed guys, which lets you react and change your strategy a little bit faster than an all-sorcery deck could. (i.e., if it turns out I want to be aggressive after all, I can play my Vendilion Clique rather than the removal spell I was planning on—if my guy is sorcery speed, then I’m locked into it and I can’t change my decision even if the circumstance asks for it.)
Manlands also play an important role here—it’s much easier to suddenly go aggressive with a Colonnade than with a guy you had to play the previous turn.
2) They’re the hardest decks to play well. It’s possible that some combo decks might be harder, but it’s a different kind of hard—combos are often math and repetition, whereas aggro-control forces you to reevaluate the entire game every time something changes. You have to understand what is going on if you’re going to pilot them properly.
Whatever you learn with an aggro-control deck, you will apply every time you play Magic, no matter what it is you’re playing. Since they’re so hard to play, they’re also very hard to play against, which is part of the reason why they’re so good.
3) I love aggro-control decks! They’re the most fun, I’ve played them a lot, and I think I play them better than I play all other kinds of decks.
First, a small aside on “definitions”: when I wrote the two previous articles, I got an overwhelming amount of responses on the subject of what actually was an aggro, a control or an aggro control deck.
Though the discussion was interesting (until we got to a certain point, anyway), that was not really the goal of the article—this is also not an article about definitions. In fact, I’ve always thought definitions are somewhat overrated—I prefer understanding things rather than classifying them, and while definitions can be useful to communicate (“I lost to Solar Flare” has a lot more meaning when we both share a definition of “Solar Flare”), they’re not that helpful in figuring out how to play with or against a deck.
It is fairly common to classify a deck by the cards it contains—some cards are natural control cards, and some are natural aggro cards. This is, however, not very useful—I can just look at the cards and see that, I don’t need a classification.
However, if you must have a definition, I’m going to use something close to this one:
Aggro-Control is a deck that is situated between Aggro and Control. It contains elements of both, and uses them to change between aggression and control, depending on the matchup and the game state.
“But PV, wouldn’t pretty much every deck fit your definition of control? I mean, I do have to assume a controlling stance in the Zoo mirror from time to time...” - well, no, not really. Every deck is going to change its game plan based on the board, that is true, but aggro-control is the one that is best equipped to do that—this is what the deck is built for.
Every card has variable functions, and your deck ranges from being an efficient aggro deck to an efficient control deck, with most of the cards pulling their weight in both versions, which you often see multiple times in the same game. If you still don’t like the definition, you can just look at this article as “how to play decks like Delver, Faeries and Caw-Blade”, it makes no matter.
If it doesn’t matter, then why did I just spend half a page on reasons why I call those decks aggro-control, rather than just starting with the article? It all originated when I classified this deck as an “aggro deck with disruption”:
This is Caleb’s deck from a few tournaments ago, and a lot of people got back to me saying that this was, in fact, an aggro-control deck—it does have burn, creatures, and counterspells after all, so it has both control and aggressive elements.
Then why do I think it is not useful to think of this as an aggro-control deck? Because I believe the components are way less important than what they are used for. You see, any literate person can look at this decklist and see that it has counterspells and burn—that is not hard. What you probably do not know just by looking is that those elements—even the disruptive ones—are all used towards aggression, every time.
Sure, some games you will have to sit and counter something; but ultimately every card in your deck is geared towards killing them, hopefully as fast as possible, and to stop whatever it is they are doing to stop you from killing them. This, to me, is an aggro deck—it is a lot closer to Boros than it is to Faeries, even if it has a lot more control elements than Boros normally does.
In the end, is there much of a difference between playing Path to Exile on their blocker and Dazing their blocker? Is there much of a difference between Force of Willing their Swords to Plowshares on your one drop and playing a second one drop? I don’t think there is.
By calling this deck aggressive, I am telling you: “you should pick this up and play it like Boros, use your spells to maximize aggression”. If you understand that this is how you should play it, then you can call it whatever you want.
Take, for example, a Humans deck from Pro Tour Honolulu—it’s clearly an aggressive deck. Now add three Mana Leaks—does it become aggro-control? By many people’s definitions, it would, since it now has a “control element”, and those Mana Leaks will surely add another dimension to the deck. But, in the end the deck won’t play much differently than it was playing before—you’re still aggressive. The difference now is that instead of having to kill their blocker you can counter it, and instead of having to play more guys you can counter their removal.
An important characteristic of aggro-control decks is that they’re capable of performing at every single stage—you can play the early game, the mid-game, or the late game.
As a general rule, you can’t play the super-early or the super-late game, but you can play anything in the middle. On a scale from 1-10 (with 1 being a game that is over very quickly and 10 a game that takes forever), we can say that aggro can play from 1-6, control from 5-10, and aggro-control from 3-8.
The difference is that with the other two, you get progressively worse as you get closer to the middle (i.e. a control deck can play on 5, but it’s much better at 10), whereas with aggro-control you’re constantly good across your entire range.
Sure, a Delver deck would rather have two flipped Delvers attacking on turn three, but it does not lose if those cards are dealt with or if it doesn’t have them—it has Snapcasters, Swords, Moorland Haunts, and few lands—all of which enable you to play a late game.
At the same time, Caw-Blade did not particularly want the game to end soon, but it had the ability to do so—if you felt like you were going to run out of answers, or if your answers weren't going to be good enough—it is very much within your power to just kill them before that happens.
This is not the case with a deck such as RUG (or most aggro decks)—the longer the game goes, the worse most of your cards get. This particular list has Stifle and Daze that lose most of their effectiveness past the mid-game, as well as burn spells and Force of Wills (and even random dorks) that do not have much of a purpose if the game goes long, and you were unable to threaten the opponent early on.
You need to use your cards early if you want them to retain their full effect, and you need to have pressured them if you want topdecked burn to have any meaning.
Control decks, on the other hand, usually very much want the game to get to a later point, because either you have a lot of spells you want to cast, or very expensive ones. For both you need mana and time; with aggro control, you don’t need to do anything—your cards are generally cheap and versatile enough that they can be used in all stages to their full effect. Snapcaster Mage is great on turn three, but it is also great on turn seventeen. Sword kills them whether you’re equipping a Delver of Secrets or a Moorland Haunt token, a Stoneforge Mystic or a Sun Titan.
Because of this ability to play at any stage, your general guideline (aggression if I want the game to end quickly, control if I want it to go long) sort of disappears—you no longer know from the start if you want the game to go long or not, and it changes constantly. The main thing with those decks, therefore, is to recognize when you change from aggressive to defensive.
From the description I gave you, there might be some confusion as to what is aggro-control and what is midrange—it is a thin line after all.
In my mind, the difference is that midrange is a deck that is neither aggro, nor control, whereas aggro-control is both at the same time.
Midrange can play both roles, but plays neither particularly well—they’re just clumsy, and the cards are very specific rather than versatile.
Basically, in a midrange deck, you can play aggro because you have aggro elements and control because you have control elements, whereas in aggro-control you have elements that work as either aggro or control depending on what you want.
With midrange, you might draw the wrong half of your deck, and then you don’t do anything. Imagine that aggro is a deck with 40 Oxidizes and control is a deck with 40 Demistifies; Midrange is a deck with 20 Demistifies and 20 Oxidizes (you can do either, but only if you draw the right half). Aggro-Control is a deck with 40 Disenchants.
Now, sometimes you’re going to lose because you needed an actual Oxidize, but you’ll never lose because you’re unable to do what you need to do in a particular game. Aggro-control decks, though not specialized in either role, are pretty much as good as any other deck when they decide to take them.
Delver, Caw-Blade, and Faeries occupy different parts of the spectrum, even inside aggro-control: Delver is more aggressive, Caw-Blade is more defensive and Faeries is in the exact middle (as in, there is absolutely no way to know how a Faeries game is going to go before it begins, whereas with the other two you could at least guess. That’s what makes it the best deck ever!)
The biggest mistake you can make with one of those decks is to misunderstand the role you have to take. Though this is true for most decks, it is especially hard with these decks because it changes constantly and you pretty much always have the choice. Almost every single one of your cards plays double duty, and it is for you to decide which one you want to use at the time.
For this reason, it is so important (and so hard) that you do not mistake what you have to do—the text on your cards is not going to help you in choosing a direction most of the time. Your cards are very good at multiple roles, but they must still work together—if you play half your cards defensively and half aggressively (which you can very easily do, even without noticing), then you’ll probably fall short on both ends.
Take, for example, Cryptic Command—counter target spell and draw a card is very different from tap all your guys and draw a card, yet it’s impossible to know which one you’re going to use in a given game until you actually use it. It could change radically from turn to turn. Snapcaster Mage can be a blocker and a Mana Leak, or an attacker and a Gut Shot. Even Squadron Hawk can be a blocker so that you can Brainstorm longer with Jace or a way to kill them before your Jace runs out of bounces.
What you cannot do is to counter their spell because you think you’ll gain control of the game, only to realize that you won’t be able to—now you want to take that Cryptic back and use it to force damage, but it’s too late.
So, the big question—how do you know when you should play what? Should you play Snapcaster turn two to block Diregraf Ghoul? Should you play Snapcaster turn two to attack for two? Should you save it to get value? Should you block with your Mistbind Clique, or should you block and then play Mistbind Clique so that you can attack for four? Should you leave Squadron Hawk up to protect Jace or should you attack for one? Should you keep Mana Leak mana up or attack with Celestial Colonnade to try to end the game quickly?
The answer is, of course, that it depends (and you weren’t really expecting anything else, were you?). What does it depend on? Your ability to do it. It doesn’t matter much what you “want” to do—you’re playing a deck that wants to do anything—so do whatever it is that you can.
Basically, you figure out what it is that you cannot do, because it will lead to losing the game, and then do the opposite. If you think you’re going to be severely outraced, then don’t try to be aggressive, try to control the game. Block rather than attacking, spend your counterspells and your removal on frivolous things.
If you think you can’t control the game, because they have better control elements or because they’ll eventually play something you can’t deal with (a big guy, a lethal burn spell), then try to be more aggressive. You will eventually get to a point where you’ll be able to attack, no matter what situation, and once that happens, do it!
As a general rule, you attack unless you can’t afford to—when in doubt, start attacking, because aggression will open more avenues for you to win (you have way more live draws when they’re at 5 than when they’re at 15), and sometimes they have to stop attacking you because you now threaten their life total.
Imagine that you’re playing Chess / Warcraft and they are harassing your king / pawns—one possible move is to try to defend yourself and stop them from doing it, and the other is attacking their kings / base so that they have to pull their resources away from you. With aggro-control, you do much more of the latter, but the basic premise is this—figure out what you think you cannot do, and then hope the other route works.
There are times you can suddenly afford an attack with all of your creatures—it was not rare with Faeries, for example, that you spent the first 8 turns blocking, trading and trying to stay alive. Then, all of a sudden, when you were at 4 life and they were at 18, you attacked with everything, prompting a very strange look from your opponent. They had to block, or thought they did, because of a Cryptic Command you might or might not have had. Then you ambushed their attacker with Mistbind Clique and a turn later they were dead.
They never even saw it coming: they were never, for a moment, concerned with their life total. Sometimes, with Caw-Blade, they play a couple guys, you Wrath. They play another guy, you play a Gideon Jura. They’re feeling good, then you drop your sixth land, activate Celestial Colonnade and attack for 10—they’re now dead next turn if they don’t do anything, and the great thing here is that, again, up to that turn, they were not even aware they had a life total.
They simply assumed you were fighting for control of the game and that life would only come into play as a consequence of the outcome of that fight, once the game was already decided—not unlike, say, signing the result slip. Aggro-control decks might look like control and they might look like aggro, but you and your opponent have to remember that they’re both.
This reminds me of an UFC match that I once watched. You see, I’m not really a UFC fan—in fact I don’t see the appeal at all—but I remember that one day I turned the TV on and a Brazilian guy was fighting, and for some unknown reason I started watching. The Brazilian guy was the subject of the biggest beating I’ve ever seen—it was honestly embarrassing.
He wasn’t exactly dying, but it was obvious that it was only a matter of time, and all he could do was defend himself. Then, a long time later, he made an offensive move—only one. It was enough to “lock” his opponent, who had to concede the fight.
I wasn’t even aware that he could make offensive moves, and apparently neither was his opponent—no doubt in his mind the fight had become a game of “can I push through his defenses”, a fight of his aggression against his opponent’s control. Except it wasn’t—the “can he push through my defenses” aspect of it was still there, lurking.
Most people have the mentality that, if they’re on defense, then they’ll be on defense forever until they ultimately gain control of the game. And if they’re on offense they’ll be on offense forever until their opponent succumbs. Things are rarely this black and white—sometimes the balance of power switches a little bit, and then you can suddenly afford an attack.
You see this a lot in Limited, too. People don’t realize they have a guy that is free to attack because their remaining guys are already enough defense to discourage a swing back from the opponent, for example.
There are also times when you can’t be the control deck. The hardest scenario to identify is the one in which you can’t be the control player not because they’ll out-control you (which is generally obvious) but because, if you try to be the control player, you will fail and they will kill you. You simply do not have the control elements you need to survive.
If that is the case, rather than trying to fight a battle that you clearly cannot win, do something else—attack! This is not even some sort of desperate measure—your deck is built to do that, that’s the reason it’s good! Every card you’ve been using to control the game so far could be used to buy more time to kill them, and usually whatever kills a blocker also kills an attacker, and any blocker could, in a moment, become an attacker.
One example is when Delver plays against Mono Red (or when any of those decks plays against Mono Red, really)—you could try to play defensively, but there will come a time where they will just burn you out, and you can’t really do much about it. It’s not like you’re drawing into Cruel Ultimatum or Circle of Protection.
As such, you have to make sure you don’t die early on, but you need to be opportunistic and take some risks to try to kill them before they can kill you, because they have inevitability. If the choice is between playing Geist or holding Mana Leak for their lethal burn spell, just play the Geist! If you wait until you can play both, then you’re just giving them more time to draw the burn spell, which you now can’t beat because they can just pay 3.
In the Faeries mirror, if they went turn two Bitterblossom and you have a Mutavault, then the correct play was often just to attack. It’s ok if you are tapping out of Mana Leak mana, you are not going to win if you wait. It’s time to be aggressive and get to a point where you’ve forced enough damage that you can Cryptic to clear the way for a lethal attack, before their Bitterblossom kills you.
One of my favorite adages is “if you fall from a mountain, you may as well try to fly, you’ve got nothing to lose”. This is true in all of Magic—if you’re doomed, then try something unorthodox, it can’t possibly get any worse.
This is especially true with aggro-control decks, though, because flying is actually realistic! Imagine you are, let’s say, a baby bird. Sure, if you try to fly, there is a chance you won’t succeed, but there is a real chance that it’s just going to happen, because that’s exactly what you’re built for. Basically—think you’re going to lose? Then take two damage and attack back for two, who knows what is going to happen. Since we’re into adages, “the best defense is a good offense” is a great one for aggro-control.
In the end, what you must do is to stay aware, at all times, of the possibility that you might attack—it doesn’t matter how senseless they’re beating you. There has to be a spark of aggression in some corner of your mind ready to jump up when the opportunity arises, and it usually will. Your opponents, as a general rule, will keep on whatever path they’ve chosen to be—in this case the beatdown—and they will not understand that the game has changed. But you must understand that you have the power to change it, or the opportunity will slip away unseen.
This is about where I’ll leave you today—the other aspects (building, sideboarding, mulliganning) are very much deck dependant. Though, it happens that all three decks I mentioned mulligan very well and routinely win games on 5 life due to the sheer power of some of their cards. I see no reason why it should be so with every aggro deck. The one factor that bonds them together really i the “can play every phase of the game optimally” and “changes many times from aggro to control in the same game”. However, I believe that is the single characteristic they share more with each other than any other deck—and the thing you must immediately realize if you’re going to play a deck like this.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it, see you next week!