Two weeks ago, I started an article series that talked about the macro archetypes in Magic. The first article was about Aggro, and this one is about its polar opposite, control.
Though control strategies have obviously always existed, the first real control deck I know of, and probably the most famous of all time, is Brian Weisman’s “The Deck”, from 1996:
So, why is this deck different? Mainly, it’s a bunch of answers, rather than a bunch of threats or a mix of the two. In this deck, it’s clear that killing the opponent is not a priority, but something that will eventually happen and come as a consequence of you just playing a game of Magic. Despite its popularity, though, The Deck is not what comes to my mind when I think “Control” – that honor goes to Counterpost. For those not aware, Counterpost was a UW control deck that packed counterspells, card drawing and removal, and killed with Kjeldoran Outpost – it had no creatures. The very first tournament I attended was won by Counterpost, and it opened many new horizons to me, because it was radically different than anything I had ever seen. Throughout the years, two big branches of Control have appeared – Draw-go and Tapout. Both are control to me, but they differ in the ways they achieve control and, most importantly, for how long they intend to be in control. Let’s go over them:
The name Draw-go comes from the fact that every turn is basically drawing a card, playing a land and saying “go” – you don’t play stuff on your turn because you want to keep mana up to answer whatever it is that they do, usually with a counterspell. Those are generally decks that trade 1 for 1 and then have instant card drawing to pull ahead, which they play at the end of the turn when the opponent doesn’t do anything. The deck I mentioned, Counterpost, is an extreme example of draw-go, as is Randy Buhler’s mono Blue deck (which is, contrary to popular belief, not the deck he won the PT with):
The idea is to counter everything they do, and eventually get to a point where you can play Whispers of the Muse with buyback every turn that they don’t play anything, and overwhelm them in card advantage. If anything slips through, you have Quicksand to deal with it while not forcing you to tap out, and even the main kill mechanism – Stalking Stones – can be activated at the end of the turn and doesn’t cost you a card. With Draw-go decks, your goal is to acquire complete control – you are in no rush to kill them, because, if they don’t kill you, then you win, the game will get to a point where you can’t lose.
In Standard, we have a deck that could not possibly be more draw-goish – UB Control. This is David Shiels’ list from GP Baltimore (again, not necessarily the list I recommend, just an example):
This deck has a little more tap out spells than both Randy’s and Counterpost, but it’s still very much a draw-go deck, since the main idea is to attrition war them with instant speed answers and then eventually win with Nephalia Drownyard. This deck also plays Consecrated Sphinx, but that doesn’t mean it’s a different type of deck – the main goal is not to stall them until you can play sphinx, but to acquire total control of the game. Still, it does give the deck an approach that did not exist back when Ben played it in Orlando (where his kill condition consisted of 2 Blue Sun’s Zenith), which is to play a couple answers into Consecrated Sphinx to try and close the game. In a draw-go version, it’s very common that you get to 6 mana but do not play Sphinx, instead waiting until you also have Dissipate backup or your opponent has no cards in hand, because you’re usually not in a hurry.
Tapout control is the opposite of draw-go in the sense that, well, it keeps tapping out. Solar Flare is an example of tapout control (since it hasn’t been winning much, I just took a random old list from Google):
It’s easy to see the difference here – this deck has actual zero counterspells, so it has no reason to keep untapped mana and is therefore able to play more powerful spells that the other decks can’t afford due to them being Sorcery speed. In some ways, this deck is very similar to the RG Ramp deck we played in Hawaii – you play some removal spells so that you can play a Titan at a point where it dominates the board (because they don’t have anything, since you killed it), rather than playing some acceleration and then playing a Titan at a point where it dominates the board (because they don’t have anything yet).
This doesn’t mean you can’t have any counterspells – most Solar Flare decks play Mana Leak, for example. Let’s take a look at LSV’s Esper list from his last article:
This deck shares many traits with UB (Leaks, Snapcasters, Alchemies, Tragic Slips, Think Twice), but it is obviously radically different in that it wants to use those control elements to buy time until your powerful threats come online, rather than trying to construct a scenario in which you can’t lose anymore. Draw-go thrives in the late game, and though tapout decks are not necessarily opposed to the late game (this one is particularly good at it with all the Flashback spells, most are a little worse), they would rather the game finishes in the “middle-late” – they do not assume they’re naturally going to win if the game reaches turn 50, they actively want to do something to end the game before their opponents can draw out of the situation. In Tapout, you’ll very rarely wait once you get to six mana – you’ll just play your big guy even if you have a counter in your hand.
If I had to put it in graphs, the “chance to win the game” based on how long the game is going would look like this:
CONTROL WITHOUT BLUE
It’s very weird to think about control decks without any blue, because the color gives you the two hallmarks of the archetype, card drawing and permission. That’s not to say people don’t attempt those from time to time, though they will usually fail and I don’t recommend them as a general rule, particularly because beating a control deck with actual blue in it is very very hard for those decks, since they just get outclassed by counters on their most important spells and then draw spells they can do nothing about. Two of those decks come to my mind as successful, though, the first being Mono Black Control from Odissey block:
This is Rob Dougherty’s list from PT Osaka. Despite being Mono Black, this was the most popular control deck in that tournament, and it’s not hard to see why – you don’t actually need Blue when you’ve got this many sources of card advantage in Mutilate, Mind Sludge, Chainer’s Edict, Skeletal Scrying and Diabolic Tutor for said Scrying and it could circumvent the “if you don’t have permission they’ll just play something more powerful at some point” issue with Mind Sludge. Nowadays, those decks are just not very good because they have a lot of trouble dealing with non-creatures – Planeswalkers, for example. Even in Odissey Block, I remember playing MBC at a PTQ and then just dying to a Bearscape I wasn’t able to remove.
…and the second being Julien Nuijten’s GW Astral Slide, from Worlds 2004:
This deck has enough card advantage for three different control builds, but even then it credits a big part of its success to the metagame (I mean, 4 Viridian Shaman with Astral Slide, 4 Wraths, 4 Renewed Faith and 2 Wing Shards is obviously very personal).
Nowadays, the closest to blueless control I can find is Caleb’s RW deck, which I am not a big fan of:
BUILDING A CONTROL DECK
Control decks are far harder to build optimally than aggro decks, because the right builds are highly dependant on what you’re going to face and you have a lot more opportunities to mess up – with aggro you just play your own game, but with control you have to react to what they are doing, and if you try to react to one thing and they’re doing another then your entire deck falls apart. For this reason, whenever a new format starts, aggro dominates – because even an untuned aggro deck will have the traits that define it (curve, aggression), but an untuned control deck will not have what it needs (the correct answers). For the same reason, aggro decks remain largely the same throughout a format, but control decks change every week to adapt to whatever is going on. Take, for example, the multitude of UB lists from the GP – there was a big mix of Grave Titan, Consecrated Sphinx, neither, and then Doom Blade, Tragic Slip and Go For the Throat, based solely on what each player predicted, and the difference in those numbers could easily lead to wins or losses.
It follows, therefore, that to build a good control deck you need one thing first and foremost – knowledge of what is going on. If you’ve been away for a long while, I don’t recommend trying to build (or play) a control deck. Once you know the metagame, then you see how it beats you, and address that. Are the decks based on an early rush? Then you need cheap answers. Are they based on swarming the board? You need sweepers. Are they based on big splashy spells, like Titans? You need Counterspells. This might seem a little too obvious, but that’s what it really is. Since you trade 1 for 1 so much, you need a way to get your card advantage back – this is generally done through plain card drawing, but something like Planeswalkers can also work. In general, the more cheap answers you have, then the more card drawing you’re going to want, for two reasons – one, you can actually buy the time for those to work, two, you have many cards that are not intrinsically powerful, so you need to make up for that. It does not do to trade one for one the entire game and then run out of cards and die to their last threat – you must make sure that, if your plan is a bunch of cheap answers, you can actually come ahead in that exchange. If you run more cards that are powerful by themselves (big creatures, [card cryptic command]Cryptics[/card], [card cruel ultimatum]Cruels[/card], [card wrath of god]Wraths[/card]) then you also need less card drawing as a general rule (though I guess some of those cards are only “intrinsically powerful” because they draw cards, so…)
Another important aspect is how much of a kill condition you actually need, and again it’s entirely dependant on the format. It’s not common for a format to allow a creatureless kill, though this one does since it has Drownyard, Alchemy and Think Twice – if any of those did not exist, then UB would probably be radically different. When those are not there, then you need to try to figure out for how long you can stall them and how quickly they need to be killed. If you think you cannot win even a small topdeck war in the format, then you should play a ton of powerful guys, like Solar Flare, to make sure that the game doesn’t get to that point.
MULLIGANING WITH A CONTROL DECK
Control decks can be more liberal with their keeps than aggro decks, because ideally the game goes longer, so you draw more cards, and your cards don’t lose value as the game progresses – in aggro, if you draw that Kird Ape on turn four, it’s a lot worse, so you should mulligan until you have it in your opening hand, but your Wrath of God, Esper Charm, Think Twice, Black Sun’s Zenith, Go for the Throat, Grave Titan, etc, are all fine to draw later on. As a general rule, control decks also mulligan better than aggro decks, for a multitude of reasons – first, again, its cards don’t need to be in your hand at specific times to work; second, its cards are less dependant on each other to work; third, the game goes longer and you draw a lot of extra cards, so you lose a smaller percentage of your total cards by mulligan (i.e. if when you’re playing an aggro deck the game is defined by turn five, one card less is 8% less, but if the game is supposed to go to turn 15 it’s only 4% of your resources that you’re giving up).
There is one exception to “your cards are less dependant on each other”, and that is for your expensive cards when you’re dead – Grave Titan doesn’t depend on Wrath of God for being good, but it does if not having Wrath of God means you are not alive to play Grave Titan. For this reason, the one thing you have to make sure you watch for in mulligan decisions is actually surviving to the point where you’re sovereign, the late game – depending on what you’re playing against, you need a certain amount of cheap spells to get to that point (in this aspect, it’s like aggro – Bolt for their Ape is not going to be the same on turn four as it is on turn one).
SIDEBOARDING WITH A CONTROL DECK
Control decks are a blast to sideboard with, and the sideboard is by far my favorite aspect in them. Control decks are full of answers in their maindeck, and the goal of your sideboard should be to swap the cards that don’t answer that particular matchup for ones that do. As a general rule, you’re going to have a ton of cards to take out in every match, and your deck is going to end up becoming the biggest fear of whatever it is you’re facing after board – in the main, you’ll have 6 removal and 6 counterspells, and then after board it’s going to become 12 of one or 12 of the other. Because of that, you usually want generic cards, rather than specific – you’d much rather have four Go For the Throats than two Deathmarks and two Celestial Purges, for example, since you will have four cards to take out against any deck, even if you’d rather have Deathmark against one and Purge against the other by a small margin.
Against aggro, you’ll generally want to bring in cheap answers. You don’t care that you have many of those, because your late game is naturally more powerful anyway, and as long as you don’t go overboard you should be fine (i.e. you can take out one Forbidden Alchemy for an extra spot removal, but you shouldn’t take out all three because then you’re not going to do anything with all the extra time that you’re buying). By bringing in cheap answers, you lower your curve so much that you can sometimes take out a land, which is something I don’t think people do enough. Another thing people don’t do enough is taking out counterspells – if you have answers for everything they’re doing, then maybe you don’t need as many of those since you can just let stuff resolve and then kill it.
When you play against other control decks, there are two main focuses – one is trying to prevail in the normal terms of the matchup (counterspells, cards in hand, resources, etc), and the other is trying to attack a different angle. Control decks usually have a billion removal spells in the main, so it’s not hard to figure out what to take out, but if you take all of them out then you become susceptible to a creature sideboard plan, which is becoming more and more common. In the first category, you generally want cheap counterspells, like Negate, to force your stuff through, Duress type effects for the same reason and to get information, sometimes more lands. In the second category, you want a permanent that will bring the fight to other terms, such as Jace Beleren, Azure Mage, or my favorite sideboard card ever, Vendilion Clique, which is so great because it fits both at the same time. In general, a mix of the two is optional, and the permanents should be cheap so that you can force them through with your own countermagic or play them as they’re tapped out. Extra lands are also popular cards for the control mirror, since you never want to miss land drops and they’re uncounterable and usually unkillable, so if you can find a land with a good ability that might be all you need.
Against combo, it’s going to depend on the combo – as a general rule, the cards that you sideboard against control will overlap, and sometimes you don’t even need anything specific. Imagine that you have, for example, a Jace Beleren, three Vendilion Cliques and three Negates as your sideboard cards against control – if that is the case, you just bring them in against combo too. If your sideboard against control is something like three Azure Mages and three Bloodline Keepers, or two Ghost Quarters, two Nephalia Drownyards, then you’ll need something specific. In any case, you’ll never need many cards, unless the combo relies on something different entirely, such as Dredge.
As a whole, you don’t need to know nearly as much about the metagame to construct the sideboard as you do for the maindeck, since, again, you want generic cards. Just to give you an example, I assume I wouldn’t have many problems with a sideboard of 4 Negates, 3 Vendilion Cliques, 3 Condemn, 3 Timely Reinforcements, 2 Oblivion Ring in any UW deck regardless of the format and what I’m facing.
Playing control comes down to mainly one thing: “do I use this now?”. If you can answer that correctly every time, then there isn’t much else you can mess up. Again, there is no right answer (if there was, Magic wouldn’t be very interesting would it), but, as a generalization, when in doubt, if you’re playing tapout control the answer is “yes”, and if you’re playing draw-go the answer is “no”. In Draw-go, you’re aiming to control the entire game – as such, you need to be more parsimonious with your resources because they might play something better at some point, wherever it is (and they will have time, because the game will go long) and then you will need those same cards to answer that. In Standard UB, for example, patience is the key word – as long as you’re only taking one or two damage a turn, then the game greatly favors you. Remember the graph? The longer it goes, the more likely you are to win, so you have no reason to panic and answer their threats while leaving yourself vulnerable to their follow up. If you can afford to, take damage for a couple turns and then answer their threats when you get to a point where you already have an answer for their follow up – try to get to a point where they can’t win, and buy your time with life points if need be.
With Tapout, things are different – you aim to control the game up to a certain point, in which you’ll then drop a card that is more powerful than anything your opponent is doing, so you no longer care what he does. It doesn’t matter you have no answers for his next play, because his next play most likely cannot beat your big, splashy play. Tapout control decks are, in general, among the easiest deck to play in Magic – they almost play themselves in the way that you just have to look at whatever is the most expensive card you can play this turn and play that, and it’ll be correct most of the time.
Imagine the situation where you have 5 lands in play, and in hand a land, Wrath of God, Think Twice, Mana Leak and Dissipate. In this case, unless you’re under serious threat of dying, you’ll want to wait a turn, so that you can then play Wrath with Mana Leak backup – if you just play Wrath now, then they will play something, you won’t be able to counter it and you’ll be powerless to stop it. Whether you play Mana Leak or not, you get to Think Twice, so it’s not like you wasted your turn either.
Now, imagine that instead of Dissipate you have a Grave Titan – in this case, just to ahead and Wrath now, because there is almost nothing they can do that you won’t crush with the Titan next turn. You don’t need to keep Mana Leak up, because all their spells are irrelevant in the face of Grave Titan – you already have an answer for their follow up. Besides, we all know you’re going to play that Titan at some point before you hit 8 mana anyway, so they’ll then be able to play whatever powerful spell it is that you fear and you’ll be powerless to stop it (that’s not even to mention the fact that they might just be able to pay, if your counter is a Leak).
Well, this is it – hopefully there aren’t many arguments over classification this time (most of which I will address when I get to Aggro-Control). Since I missed last week, you’ll probably be able to read the “Combo” part of the series still this week. I hope you’ve enjoyed it,