Magic: The Gathering is complicated for a variety of reasons. There are thousands of unique cards, hundreds of decks, and a mind-boggling number of interactions to consider. Magic reminds me of a card version of chess, if chess had tens of thousands of unique pieces all with unique movement and striking rules, as well as synergies and counter-synergies relative to other pieces.
While chess has the elegance of zero variance, Magic is boundless in terms of possibilities and options. The overlap between the two games: both are highly strategic and reward a savvy strategist for thinking several moves ahead of the competition. In Magic, moves ahead applies to game play but also deck selection and construction. What you play is as important as how you play it.
Today’s article will break down the fundamental archetypes of Magic and explain what they are, as well as how and why they work. Decks come and go over time. New cards invalidate old ones. But how we play and why certain types of strategies are good always returns to understanding the basics of how decks work and what they do.
Magic has three fundamental pillars: aggro, control, and combo. From those three archetypes, all decks and sub-archetypes are derived.
Pillars and Blurred Columns
Aggro, control, and combo. Sometimes people think about these in terms of rock, scissors, and paper, although they probably shouldn’t, since these archetypes are not intrinsically balanced relative to one another, but rather all matchups are always contextually defined by the cards themselves.
In fact, most decks don’t actually fit neatly into one box but draw qualities from multiple categories. This is nothing new and harkens back to Who’s the Beatdown? Categories start to break down as soon as we play games, since the context of the matchup defines the role a deck should adopt.
Even moving beyond matchups, it’s also clear that many decks (most decks in fact), can and do draw from more than one archetype.
Is Modern Izzet Phoenix an aggro, combo, or control deck?
You can and must only pick one option… go. What did you pick?
Trick question. It was a stupid premise to begin with. Decks are not just one thing, which is the basis of how I think about building, tuning, and choosing Magic decks for tournaments. Most decks are a mish-mash of elements from multiple super-archetypes.
With that fluidity of archetype in mind, let’s take a look at the three super archetypes (aggro, combo, and control) and discuss what they actually are and more importantly what they do.
Make the Game About Life Totals: Aggro
Beatdown. Blitz. Burn. Zoo. Red Deck Wins. What do these decks all share in common?
The defining characteristic of aggro decks is that the resource it is primarily focused on fighting over is the opponent’s life total. The further you push a deck toward dealing damage to an opponent, the more aggressive it becomes.
Being aggro has some nice advantages. For instance, you can often close a game out before an opponent can mount a proper defense, meaning an opponent may die before he or she ever has a chance to cast the lion’s share of the cards they are holding.
There is a reason red is synonymous with aggro:
Red is highly adept at “dealing damage,” which makes it an ideal base for aggro shell. Its “burn” spells double as interaction with potential threats and blockers, as well as virtual damage to an opponent.
Not only are red aggro decks naturally suited at dealing damage, they are easily built for consistent speed through reliable mana production. It’s hard to get “color screwed” with a deck that plays 20 Mountains.
Pure aggro decks are designed for high damage output and blistering speed to end games before an opponent can execute their plan.
“Run Them Over” or “Go Wide”
There are two primary ways to beat down, and both are effective. While I tend to imagine a red deck when somebody says “aggro,” there are many ways to be aggressive that span all the colors.
Mono-Blue Tempo is a Standard deck that pressures hard with aggressive creatures backed up with permission and spells to protect its powerful beaters. Mono-Blue is effective at running people over.
White Weenie is another aggro deck that diverges from the red deck formula. The greatest strength of these decks is their ability to present many threats, making it difficult for an opponent to deal with everything before it’s too late.
The key to all of these decks: right from the first land deployment, the focus is on presenting and maintaining pressure to end the game.
Make the Game All About “Something Else”: Combo
Of the three major archetypes, combo is the most difficult to pin down because it encompasses many things covering a diverse range of interactions. Combo decks want to make the game about something specific: a resource, a synergy between specific cards, or a type of interaction that creates a profound and powerful effect in the game—often, outright victory!
Some combo decks are extremely obvious:
A storm deck makes the game all about whether or not an opponent can interact with my ability to chain 9 spells together and plop Tendrils onto the stack.
Also, it’s worth noting the term “combo deck” came about to describe decks that were defined by powerful, synergistic combinations of cards that won the game. Yet, most combo decks are not strictly based around a strict two-card combo:
Rather, combo decks tend to be synergy decks designed to exploit certain cards or resources. For instance, with which cards is Tendrils of Agony a combo? It’s a game-ending combo with any 9 cards! The answer is: All of them! Legacy and Modern Storm are powerful decks because they make the entire game about whether or not an opponent can win first or interact with my “combo,” a.k.a. a sequence where I draw and cast my entire deck.
I frequently talk about Magic plays in terms of what I call bursts. Bursts are essentially tempo positive plays, and signify a play or sequence of plays that generate momentum.
Any type of deck can make burst-worthy plays.
The difference between dropping a Chainwhiler onto an empty board and a board that includes two Llanowar Elves is substantial. Pinging two mana dorks is a huge swing in tempo and board advantage.
Even control decks have their version of burst plays:
An opponent has six creatures in play and is threatening lethal. What other sequence can you make to dig out of the hole? Six Doom Blades? Every deck, every archetype, is capable and reliant on bursts to swing a game in their favor. In many cases, as in this example, a control deck’s burst play involves undoing an aggressive deck’s burst play!
Being able to double-spell (play two spells in the same turn) before an opponent can do the same is another great example of a burst that will allow you to gain a big advantage in the early turns of a game.
While all decks can make tempo positive plays—bursts—combo decks are notorious for doing so. In fact, they are the bread and butter that defines what combo decks do.
There are few better ways to use 2 mana and two cards than to put Griselbrand or some other absurd monster directly onto the field of battle to create a greater advantage.
Obviously, the advantage of cheating an 8-drop into play on turn 2 is greater than simply double-spelling on 2, which means we are delving into combo territory. At this point, the Reanimator player is making the game 100% about whether the opponent can interact with these spells, or the graveyard, before they resolve.
The resource most commonly being leveraged by a combo deck is typically mana in the sense that, through synergy, these decks are able to accomplish results that are greater than the sum of their parts, i.e., the number of cards and mana invested.
Mana is the most constraining resource in the game and we can only deploy our spells as quickly as we can afford to cast them! It’s precisely the reason Bedevil is a poor answer to an opponent who plays a third Dauntless Bodyguard on the second turn on the play.
Legacy, more so than other formats, has a high saturation of “pure combo” decks. These are decks where the game tends to be about exactly one thing, and either the opponent can stop it or they can’t:
These decks are easy to identify because they do one ridiculously powerful, game-ending thing with blistering speed and redundancy.
The reason is because Legacy allows for many powerful, fast mana enablers, which makes executing these “combos” in the first three turns easy.
Modern and Standard don’t have cards like Lion’s Eye Diamond and Dark Ritual at the ready, and as a result we see very few “pure combo decks.” In fact, when they do crop up there is an almost immediate reaction to ban them outright:
If you look at the Modern banned list, it is a graveyard of the “types” of fast mana/card selection cards that facilitate Legacy’s pure combo decks.
Modern and Standard “combo decks” tend to be a hybrid of two archetypes. Izzet Phoenix is a fantastic example. Phoenix is a unique hybrid of aggro and combo. I’ve described the deck as “the best burn deck I’ve ever played,” which is saying something, considering I won an SCG Open with then off-the-radar Atarka Red!
The deck has the kind of xerox-style library manipulation and card filtering we’d expect to help set up a broken combo:
It also has some powerful bursts, or tempo-positive plays:
Returning a Phoenix or flipping a Thing in the Ice doesn’t typically end the game outright. Rather, both of these bursts are so easy to spam and so tempo positive that it’s a good enough exchange rate on resources required to achieve a profitable outcome.
I mentioned Atarka Red, which was also an aggro-combo deck with some powerful bursts:
If they tap out, we spend potentially 3 mana to throw 12+ trample damage into combat. It feels like a combo because it is a combo. There are no individual cards that deal that much damage for that little mana without synergy between cards.
Fundamentally, I think Phoenix and Atarka are both aggro decks at heart that incorporate elements of combo. For what it’s worth, having played both decks, I played Phoenix more like a burn deck and Atarka more like a TPS deck with regard to how I approached playing actual games of Magic.
With that being said, both decks cared greatly about the opponent’s life total and getting it to zero ASAP. Both decks also cared greatly about setting up and executing their burst plays.
Make the Game About Resources and Attrition: Control
Control decks are defined by an emphasis on resources and attrition-based strategy. While there are many styles of control deck, all focus on creating resource-based advantage that is leveraged through attrition-based advantage. The most common is answering opposing threats, running the opponent out of cards, and coming over the top with whatever is left over.
Teferi is a great control card because it is not only a flexible answer to any threat, but also because it is a recurring source of card and mana advantage, and ultimately a devastating win condition to come over the top with.
Azorius-based decks have traditionally been the flagship combination for control (at least in the modern era). The combination of powerful white sweepers, diverse removal, and sideboard answers to directly answer a wide swath of linear decks when paired with blue’s natural penchant for drawing cards and countering spells is quite effective.
It’s also false to assume that control decks can only generate defensive, bursting, tempo swings. One of the most classic control counter punches from the oldest days of Magic is proactive, but also attrition-based:
Congratulations, you have nothing left. Wah-Wah.
Despite, having some synergistic combos, I still wouldn’t describe Weissman’s The Deck as “combo,” but rather as a control deck with the ability to leverage some nice burst plays to swing a game. All of its avenues of play are designed to win via attrition.
In an evolving game where “bursts” are so important, there is something to be said for a strategy that is apt at interacting with a wide array of situations likely to occur over the course of a 15-round event!
Combo Control (Control Decks with Combo Kills)
I’ve spent ample time discussing the importance of generating plays that create bursts. No matter the archetype you are playing, it is important to have plays in your playbook that can generate tangible, significant advantage and either catch you up from behind or put an opponent away once you are ahead.
Miracling a Terminus is quite the burst! In a strategy based around attrition and defense, it can be tough for decks to overcome. Keep in mind, this burst is control focused in the sense that it seeks to decimate an opponent’s resources, primarily their threats in play. Even though a play such as this is highly bursty, it still keeps with the generic control mantra of winning a war of resources.
On the other hand, control often dips into combo territory and can take on a subtheme that makes the game about something other than a pure resource arms race.
While these sorts of Modern combo control decks have fallen out of favor with the addition of better pure control tools like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, fusing a devastating combo into a control shell has long been popular in competitive Magic. A deck like this can fight you over resources, but it can also make the game all about a devastating combo.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Vintage. The best combo control deck I’ve ever played was Control Slaver, a deck that was capable of running an opponent out of resources with permission and card advantage, but could also make the game all about a broken, out-of-nowhere sequence of plays.
The general premise is that the control shell of the deck prolongs the game to a point where you can find and execute a devastating burst that ends it all. On the other hand, built-in combos can also steal games where attrition simply isn’t an achievable option. Perhaps the most famous combo control deck of all time was Splinter Twin in Modern.
The deck was perfectly capable of beating people by simply grinding them out beneath a tidal wave of 2-for-1s, removal, and permission, but it could also come out of nowhere with a sequence that simply won the game.
Was Twin a control deck? Was it a combo deck? Like Control Slaver, I’d argue it was a perfect fusion of both archetypes and the fact that it could do two completely different things with maximum efficiency was the primary reason it was the definitive best deck up until the point when it was banned.
The key to thinking about these hybrid archetypes is that they are both and you must respect both angles. It’s common strategy that it’s a losing proposition to fight a war on two fronts, and these types of decks are able to present a range of attack that is difficult to defend against.
Prison Decks: Combo Control
Prison decks are tricky to classify. A lot of people consider prison to be its own super archetype, because the gameplay is unique.
With that being said, how things “feel” isn’t always indicative of what they are. Prison decks typically win by by impeding an opponent’s ability to execute a game plan. The decks that immediately come to mind when thinking about prison are Lantern “Control” and Mishra’s Workshop Stax.
I would argue, based on my approach, that prison is a fusion of combo and control. Like combo, they make the game about something specific and force an opponent to interact accordingly. Also, like control, they tend to care greatly about leveraging resources.
Stax focused on making opposing spells too expensive to matter and then directly attacked an opponent’s mana with Wasteland, Strip Mine, and Smokestack. It’s essentially a “control deck” that only cares about fighting over an opponent’s mana production.
Lantern, on the other hand, invalidates combat-based attacks with Ensnaring Bridge and then fights over an opponent’s ability to ever draw a relevant spell from the deck.
Both decks clearly care about resources like a control deck, but focus with laser precision and obscene redundancy on crippling one specific facet of an opponent’s ability to play Magic (mana or hand).
The most confusing part about prison is that it “feels” different from combos we typically encounter. Nothing feels further from getting stormed out than being Lantern locked. But when you think about what is actually happening and how you are losing the game, it isn’t that different.
Did they make the game all about one thing?
Is their entire deck a pile of synergy designed to push a linear approach?
Did you feel like you didn’t play a “real” game of interactive Magic?
Do you legitimately need focused sideboard cards to deal with this bullcrap?
If this isn’t a “combo,” I don’t know what is.
Prison decks are almost the inverse of what you’d typically expect a combo deck to do. Whereas a combo deck seeks to use synergy to present a threat that wins the game, prison decks do the same thing except they present an obstacle that prevents an opponent from executing a meaningful line of play.
The last major deck type I’d like to discuss are midrange decks. Midrange decks are aggro decks designed to incorporate aspects of attrition and resource advantage. In a sense, it’s a proactive, aggressive deck that introduces aspects of resource advantage into the mix.
The most famous midrange deck of all time is The Rock, which is a Golgari deck that features potent threats, card advantage, and flexible removal. The Rock has existed for decades and spans every format.
The general idea is to “go bigger” and out-resource the expected aggressive decks while also having enough pressure and disruption to interact with combo and control decks.
Like control decks, midrange decks need to be aware of the other popular decks in the field and line up their threats and answers precisely and effectively. Also, like control decks, midrange decks tend to look extremely different from one format to another.
For instance, in Legacy the midrange decks tend to be blue-based like Stoneblade or Sultai. They feature cheap permission like Force of Will and Daze (to hedge against fast combo decks) and cheap powerful threats like True-Name Nemesis and Stoneforge Mystic.
In Modern and Standard, we see midrange decks that are based around individually powerful creatures, removal, and black hand disruption.
At their core, midrange decks are still aggro decks in the sense that they are packed with threats, but are different from pure aggro in the sense that they place higher emphasis on interacting with an opponent’s threats via removal and disruption (rather than focusing primarily upon damage output and speed).
Archetypes Are Not Rigid
One of the most interesting things about the relationships between archetypes is that the more I try to get to the heart of how they are different, the less distinct I find them to be. That is a complicated sentiment, so I’ll unpack it a little bit.
No matter what you are doing, what you are playing, or how you are innovating there are really three primary things you can make the game about:
- Dealing damage.
- Creating attrition.
- Exploiting a specific resource.
No matter what angle you are building toward, it’s likely one of these three types of angles that are characterized by aggro, control, or combo. The other thing to keep in mind is that perhaps the best way to create favorable or dynamic matchups is to create a fusion between one, two, or three of these angles because decks that are effective at doing multiple things bring a lot to the table.
Splinter Twin is a great example because it was top notch at doing two of these things at a premier level, allowing players to adapt their role relative to an opponent’s strategy.
One of the most fascinating and engaging qualities of Magic is that you can take any road, or any combination of multiple roads, and arrive at a new destination. You can push really hard in one specific direction, or diversify, and the consequences of a decision to push one way or another will dramatically alter every potential matchup.
Why is muddying up how one thinks about deck types useful? A great question! On the surface, it seems intuitive to want to think about how things are unique or different and break them into neat categories to be studied. But Magic is not a game of nice, neat, obvious distinctions. It’s a game of complexity and nuance that rewards innovation and drawing useful conclusions to absurdly convoluted (and often unknowable) equations, such as “the metagame.”
When you look at decks and start thinking about how to approach various matchups this type of stuff is extremely useful. Arbitrary categories are not useful or helpful to improving or advancing your knowledge of Magic. What is important is understanding how decks work, what they do, and how they will try to beat you.
Once you understand what is important, it becomes much easier to know which things you need to fight over in an actual game of Magic. Is the game about your life total? Is the game about resources? Is the game about something else? In any given game, identifying what is important is critical to mounting an effective offense or defense.
A few fun decks to think about with regard to how they fall on the spectrum:
- Eldrazi Aggro
- Counterbalance-Top-Era Miracles
- Temur Reclamation
- Esper Control
- Boros Monarch
Today’s article is my take on how I think about decks: what they are, how they work, and what they do. Personally, I find this kind of stuff extremely useful when I play Magic because it’s an abstract guide to understanding how decks match up against one another and what matters when I’m playing. In that sense, it’s practical. I can play a few games against a deck and focus on how and why I’m winning or losing to determine what I think is important.
Once you know what’s important, it’s so much easier to choose better sideboard cards, to know what to counter, and how to chart a strategy that is likely to succeed.