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By: Francis Law, Frankie Law
May 08 2015 10:08am
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What is a Control Deck?

"Control", much like "aggro", "midrange" or "combo", is a description of a Magic deck's strategy. If you tell me that you're running a "Jeskai" control deck, I will have some idea of the types of cards that deck is likely to contain and the kind of strategy that those cards are likely to enact, despite perhaps not knowing a single card you've chosen to play. As a Magic player, you can likely identify where a given deck sits on the spectrum between aggro and control, but how does one go about building a control deck? The first, and most important step, is understanding the control strategy.

Michael Flores' 1999 masterpiece Who's the Beatdown changed the face of Magic theory overnight. Michael argued that incorrectly identifying your role as the beatdown (aggro) or control deck in a given matchup spelled certain defeat.

"The player who misassigns himself is inevitably the loser" Michael J Flores, Who's the Beatdown

Suddenly, sideboarding out lands in favour of interactive spells and voluntarily going second was commonplace in Mono Red Sligh mirror matches. The idea was that, given your spells were inevitably going to trade off with your opponent's anyway, simply having a couple left over when the dust settled meant guaranteed victory. Players were realising that correct strategy depended on the relative compositions of both decks in a given matchup, rather than either deck in isolation. There was always a beatdown. There was always a control. Winning was a simple matter of executing the right plan.

16 years on, and this misconception is still rife. Ironically, it took a mono-red mirror match of my own to realise the error in this thinking.

It was Innistrad/ Return to Ravnica Standard and I was running a mono-red aggressive deck featuring oddball build-around Kessig Malcontents. After winning round one against a fellow red pilot, I leafed through my sideboard for my four copies of Volcanic Strength. By my third turn, my board consisted of a transformed Reckless Waif along with another creature to my opponent's three small red creatures. I had found myself behind, but reasoned that by attaching Volcanic Strength to my Reckless Waif, my opponent's offense would be blunted unless he was able to string together multiple burn spells to remove my blocker- I had assumed the control role.

My opponent untapped, played a Firefist Striker, which he soulbonded to a Lightning Mauler, and swung gracefully past my 5/4. A turn later and my opponent was aiming a lethal Searing Spear directly at me. I had failed to realise that both our decks were simply more capable of causing damage in the matchup than preventing it. By sitting back, not only was I playing right into his creatures' evasive abilities, but I was wasting my burn spells' potential to double as a way of finishing the game.

                                           

This was confusing. Who was the control?

Imagine this game. Player A's deck consists of 20 Mountains and 40 Lava Spikes. Player B's consists of 20 Islands and 40 Triton Shorestalkers. Who is the control is this matchup? The answer, of course, is nobody. As neither player has any cards that have any ability to negate the effects of the other, the game devolves into simply who can win the game the fastest.

The game is a race.

Needless to say, the "toy" decks of my example are unlike those we are used to seeing in tournament Magic. However, this does not mean that races are unusual. Indeed, the term "race" is commonly used by commentators in reference to games in which neither deck can effectively answer their opponent's threats. In other words, the winningest strategy for both players is to act as if they were the aggro deck.

So there can be games with no control player, but what about no aggro player? It is customary to believe that in a given matchup, one deck will always have "inevitability", meaning that the game will eventually progress to a stage where it is guaranteed to win on merit of its ability to function better after a certain point in development. This would leave one to believe that all matchup must contain an aggro deck, as one player will always have a limited window in which to win the game.

Modern "Soul Sisters" is a deck that is able to gain life at a much faster rate than it can deal damage. In a mirror match, neither player can realistically expect to bring their opponent's life total to 0 until they have a significant material advantage. As dealing damage is all but irrelevant in the early stages, the correct strategy is to make plays that create card advantage over those that may gain or deal even large amounts of life. Much like in my mono-red mirror match, even though one deck may be set up worse for the long game (the inevitable consequence of both players assuming the control role), changing stance and playing an aggressive game that the deck's cards have limited ability to perform is even less fruitful.

That said, most games do indeed contain an aggro and control player. As creatures are the bread and butter of contemporary Magic decks, which typically can enact both aggressive and controlling game-plans through attacking and blocking respectively, many decks are able to competently assume both roles. Such decks include all "midrange" decks, along with many considered "control" or "aggro" (such as the Mono Red Sligh in the first example).

These examples seek to demonstrate that a "control" deck is not merely a deck that assumes the control role in an arbitrary percentage of its matches. It is instead:

"A deck designed to mitigate proactive strategies sufficiently to successfully develop a game-state in which its ongoing ability to mitigate proactive strategies is greater than its opponent's ability to create proactive threats"

Most commonly this refers to a control deck's ability to use its mana more productively than its opponent in a game's later stages, though it could as easily be due to their greater ability to create recursive material advantage through cards like Garruk Relentless or Assemble the Legion.

Common Misconceptions

Perhaps more than any other type of deck, control decks are a common victim of false generalisations.

1. Control Decks Are Decks That Play No Creatures

It is commonly believed that one of the main identifiers of a control deck is a low creature count. Indeed, many control decks don't play any creatures at all. The falsity in this notion is that a deck's game-plan can be deduced by the proportions of the card types it contains.

It may seem facetious to point out that many tokens based decks contain no creature cards, and yet clearly are not control decks. Similarly, "Soul Sisters" is frequently thought to be a control deck, but is based around a package of creature cards.

This myth is proliferated due to a preconceived notion that a control deck is simply a blue counterspell based deck, in the manner of Brian Weissman's famous "The Deck". However, after a decade long power drop-off in instants and sorceries in relation to permanents, modern control decks commonly contain cards from any and all card supertypes.

2. Control Decks are Soft to Aggro Decks

A paradigm often described by enfranchised players to hopeful competitors is the rock, paper, scissors relationship between aggro, midrange and control. While this does often play out, that is normally because of the underlying rock, paper, scissors relationship between red creature decks, green creature decks and blue control decks. It is not uncommon for a format to settle into a place where these three kinds of decks become the prime representatives of their respective strategies, but this is far from a given.

For example, a deck containing many copies of cards like Pharika's Cure, Drown in Sorrow and Serrated Arrows would be considered a control deck (it would likely have little ability to play out an aggressive game-plan). However, it would much rather play against a red aggro deck, than a green creature-based midrange deck.

The reason this myth is damaging is how it effects people's choices when playing against aggressive deck, particularly with regards to sideboarding. It is a misconception that the card drawing in most control decks is a nod towards beating other slower decks. While card drawing has its place in slow matchups, it is a necessary part of a control deck's two stage plan against aggro. All too often, a control player will side out his Jace's Ingenuity for a Doom Blade only to find that after surviving the first wave of pressure, he falls victim to his deck's high land count with no spells to cast. As balancing card flow is key to the success of a control deck, good pilots will be looking to be swapping like-for-like effects in pursuit of making their answer suite more efficient and targeted without undermining the deck's ability to win a long game.

3. Control Decks are the Hardest Decks to Play

Hardest? Not necessarily. Least intuitive? Absolutely.

While many are put off playing control decks due to the lack of intuitive positional heuristics they grant the pilot (I always feel behind!), they are less mentally demanding in other ways. Playing a counter-based blue control deck may feel like a puzzle at first, but eschewing head-scratching combat math is not nothing over a long tournament.

Simply playing ten games with a dedicated control deck may not be enough to answer all of a prospective pilot's questions, but with a fundamental understanding of the strategy and a few basic rules of thumb, winning begins to feel a lot less like rocket science.

Card Flow

To successfully take control of a Magic game, we need to be able to better utilise our mana than our opponent in the later stages. As "mana sinks" such as Selesnya Guildmage and Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree are usually inefficient in light our their low opportunity costs, they rarely suffice alone to take over (though similar cards are often used as win conditions). Instead, card drawing effects, like Read the Bones,Mulldrifter or less obviously Oracle of Mul Daya, are a popular means of achieving this goal in control decks.

Take for example Divination, the quintessential card drawing spell. By casting Divination, you are investing three mana (one on which must be blue) which could have been used to destroy creatures, deploy blockers etc.- in the hope that the game will progress to a stage in which the two cards drawn can contribute more to negating the opponent's board than a three mana interactive spell could . As it's common for control decks to rely on expensive cards to trump opposing strategies (e.g Elspeth, Sun's Champion against creature decks), card drawing spells' ability to prevent the missing of land drops is also crucial to many control decks.

It is important to remember than while powerful, drawing cards does not actually help progress your game-plan of neutralising threats. What's more, card drawing effects can quickly become redundant in a player's hand against an opponent with a tempo based game-plan.

 

Flavours of Control

Control is not a strategy limited to one style of deck or set of tactics. However, due to inherent synergies between certain kinds of cards, control decks tend to fall into the following archetypes.

Creatureless Control

Few would argue that creatures are among the most powerful card types in modern Magic, so eschewing them completely represents a very meaningful restriction in deckbuilding.

So why would you self-impose such a restriction? The reasons are twofold. 

  1. The creatureless control player is able to gain virtual card advantage by rendering an opponent's creature removal spells useless.
  2. By playing no creatures of their own, the symmetry of the control player's "Wrath of God" effects are broken, affording them an unrivalled ability to recoup tempo and create card advantage.

 

Spells

  Permanents
 

Sideboard

This is as pure as control decks come. Indeed, it is so dedicated to the strategy that the list runs no proactive cards in the main deck at all- boredom and decking are the two main plans for victory.

Reid's list is an example of a sub-category of creatureless control decks termed "draw-go" in reference to the rarity of a pilot casting spells during her own turn. By combining instant speed removal spells along with counter spells, the player is able to match their efficient, situational answers with an opponent's threats whilst having access to powerful but more expensive generic answers such as  Dissolve to cover the inevitable holes in their answer suite. As the deck transitions to the late game, card drawing spells like Sphinx's Revelation allow the control deck to eventually gain access to more generic answers than an opponent can produce threats, thus gaining true control of the game.

The critical take-away is that the luxury of minimising win conditions is dependent on the ability to gain true control of a game. As it is unrealistic for a control deck to have targeted answers for all threats in a given format, gaining true control is typically predicated on running a moderate amount of hard counter-magic.

 

Creatures

4 Solemn Simulacrum
3 Wurmcoil Engine
 
Artifacts
 
 
 Spells
 
 
Planeswalkers
 
 

Lands

21 Swamp
3 Buried Ruin

Sideboard

2 Nihil Spellbomb
3 Torpor Orb
1 Tribute to Hunger
2 Karn Liberated
1 Liliana of the Veil
2 Barter In Blood
4 Duress

Brad Nelson's "Black Market" is an example of an engine-based tap-out control deck. Though Brad's deck reaps the benefits from being effectively creatureless, without access to counter-magic Brad is forced to play a patchwork of targeted reactive spells. As this means that he may not be able to answer all an opponent's threat in some matchups (for example, their enchantments), the deck contains tools to overpower threats ((Trading Post + Ichor Wellspring) and recursively gain life (Wurmcoil Engine) to counteract any otherwise "inevitable" damage dealing source (e.g. Curse of the Pierced Heart).

Tap-out control decks tend to be best suited to combating known metagames, where their answer suite can be guaranteed to match-up well against played threats. The success of Brad's deck, for example, relies on a field dominated by creatures with few decks capable of completing alternative win conditions like decking or non-interactive combos. As tap-out control decks are unable to gain true control in all matchups, they benefit from win-conditions that can close games quickly in the event that an opponent produces an  unanswerable (inevitable) threat.

Creature Control Decks

  • Commonly 25-28 lands
  • Access to most raw card power of any deck type (as not bounded by explicit synergy patterns or card supertype restrictions)
  • Large defensive creatures provide virtual card advantage against aggressive decks that are unable to remove them efficiently.
  • Card flow often provided by recursive card advantage sources such as Courser of Kruphix, Outpost Siege and Underworld Connections or by "engines" such as Eternal Witness/ Cryptic Command.

 
Creatures
 
  Enchantments
 
 
Sideboard
     

Green/ White Devotion is not normally considered a control deck. After all, it does not interact with the opponent in the traditional sense. Instead, the deck seeks to combine Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx with devotion enabling permanents to create large amounts of mana. In turn, this mana is transformed into card advantage by Mastery of the Unseen which also gains an insurmountable amount of life.

So why is this a control deck? Is it not just racing its opponent's damage dealing with its life gaining? Isn't it just a different kind of proactive strategy?

II believe the answer is no. Though having 100 life may feel like certain victory, that is reliant on your deck's ability to create a material advantage over your opponent. If a mono red player has no creatures left on board or cards left in hand as he casts the lethal Lightning Bolt, he has won. However, a player at 100 life has no guarantee to win against an opponent who has five if that opponent has managed to exponentially gain a material advantage. Therefore, the life gain must be coupled with an ongoing ability to out material an opponent (in this case blockers to negate creature threats) or it is worthless. If it wasn't for the deck's larger creatures' capability to present a legitimate clock against other control decks (which would imply it was perhaps a midrange deck), Green/ White Devotion perfectly fits out definition of control. However, much like Brad's deck, victory is predicated on opponent's inability to attack on axes other than damage.

How to Design a Control Deck

  1. Inspect the format: What cards and strategies are popular? How narrow is the range of strategies amongst the most popular decks? How universal are the targeted answers? Are popular removal spells likely to be stranded against creatureless decks, or are they modal? What is the slowest control deck? What is the fastest aggro deck?
  2. Chose a deck type: In a format where there are popular "draw-go" control decks, varied threats and modal answer cards, playing "draw-go" is a good idea. In formats with an established metagame containing mostly proactive creature decks with narrow threat based, a tap-out deck might be worth considering. If popular answers are unlikely to deck stranded (e.g.Abzan Charm) and there is access to powerful defensive creatures like Courser of Kruphix and Thragtusk, creature control decks are most viable.
  3. Review the mana: What is the opportunity cost of running two, three, four or even five colour decks? How many of the available lands enter play tapped, or deal damage to you? What turn do you plan to play your tap lands, and how does that effect how you design your curve?
  4. Identify desirable Cards: Just because a card isn't being played doesn't mean it isn't good- lay out all your options. It's hard to weigh up the cost of greedily increasing your deck's power level against the cost of straining your mana. Try to test out multiple decks at different levels of conservatism and greed.
  5. Balance card flow: Too many Terrors are you'll flood out. Too many Divinations and you'll be overrun. Are you able to save card drawing slots by running spells that can chain into each other like Dig Through Time and Read the Bones?
  6. Fill out decklists: The correct number of lands and colour sources is best found through playtesting. Use the guidance provided in the deck types section as a starting point. Don't make decklists without sideboards. Most experience control deckbuilders will refer to the number of a given card they have access to "in their 75" when talking about deck building decisions. Don't fall into the trap of running a generic sideboard for your colour combination. Try to envision what your deck will look like after sideboard in each matchup- the most important part of sideboarding for a control deck is removing irrelevant answers, so make sure to have some generically powerful effects to bring across different matchups (such as Tasigur, the Golden Fang).
  7. Playtest: Just because you designed your deck to beat Jund Midrange doesn't mean that it does. When playesting matchups, try and remember which cards you wanted to draw or were always happy to have. Though it's hard to play enough games to know for sure how many of a certain card you should run, you should be able to see what's performing. Playtesting is not simply a matter of gathering raw data; in fact, the deductions you make yourself during gameplay are far more important that the chalk in the wins and losses columns.

Coming to the end of what was intended as a comprehensive run-down of control strategies, I've only managed to scratch the surface. I have a lot more that I'd like to say on the subject, but that's for another day. If you have any topics that you'd like to see covered in a potential follow-up- e.g. how to play control mirrors or an example of the design process put in action- I'd love to hear them.

If you have any longer questions, the best place to contact me is via twitter @MTG_Brews

Frankie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

jff casual by mindlesslemming at Thu, 05/07/2015 - 12:28
mindlesslemming's picture

great article! this was my favorite quote:

"Players were realising that correct strategy depended on the relative compositions of both decks in a given matchup, rather than either deck in isolation. There was always a beatdown. There was always a control. Winning was a simple matter of executing the right plan."

i wish more people who complain about "money decks" or card cost would understand this point. this is a pet peeve of mine because i tend to just play "piles of cards i like to collect" and cards i feel connected to via nostalgia or visual art. people will see a turn one dual land or mox, and rage out at me, not noticing or taking a few turns to realize im playing a 250 un-themed singleton deck with no specific strategy.

a deck full of commons can beat a deck full of mythics and rares - any day - given the proper matchup. yes some deck types or themes will most often always lose to other specific deck types... but that's not because of card cost... it's because of MATCHUP (inherent natural ups and downs of each color/color mix), luck of draw (shuffler)... in addition to card cost and rarity. i have plenty of decks that cost hundreds of dollars that frequently lose to decks full of any old commons: burn, elves, green agro, white weenie, and counterspells.

decks and games do not exist in a vacuum.

I'm so happy that you liked by Francis Law at Thu, 05/07/2015 - 12:34
Francis Law's picture

I'm so happy that you liked it, and that you tool the effort to pick out that quote.

Interesting that you chose that quote, as my intention was to demonstrate that that line of thought isn't always true (though as you eloquently describe, it often is).

I'm very on board with your comments concerning budget decks. It is a source of great frustration when I hear Magic described as pay-to-win. The mileage you can gain from understanding the game from a fundamental perspective if often understated with people all to quick to blame to dominance of certain money rares.

Frankie

Correction... by Fred1160 at Thu, 05/07/2015 - 12:50
Fred1160's picture

The correct name is "Sligh" not "sleigh." The deck was designed by Jay Schneider and played by Paul Sligh.

Thanks Fred for the by Francis Law at Thu, 05/07/2015 - 13:00
Francis Law's picture

Thanks Fred for the correction. Sadly I can't make that change myself.

There always seem to be one or two things that fall between the cracks despite my best efforts to check and double check.

Two thumbs up for the layout by Clan Magic Eternal at Fri, 05/08/2015 - 13:52
Clan Magic Eternal's picture
5

Two thumbs up for the layout and the well-thought out, greatly articulated points. I wish more people would take the time to make their articles aesthetically pleasing.

If you could focus more on vintage I would be ever *MORE* excited - but general theory is definitely appreciated :)

Thanks for the article,

Zach

Thanks Zach! Vintage you say, by Francis Law at Fri, 05/08/2015 - 15:18
Francis Law's picture

Thanks Zach!

Vintage you say, hmmmm. Sadly I'm more of a vintage spectator than player but maybe one day.

Frankie

Thank you by Rokiyu at Mon, 09/05/2016 - 20:49
Rokiyu's picture
5

I've played off and on and always loved control. I haven't played enough to become very very skilled but I'm hoping to create a truely good monoblue control soon, i'm willing to put in the effort to research and I think this article will set me well on my way. It was very well written and I feel it will help me be more critical of myself. Thank you for it, well done.

Hey Rokiyu, thanks for the by Francis Law at Wed, 09/07/2016 - 18:05
Francis Law's picture

Hey Rokiyu, thanks for the feedback. Shoot me a list when you're done, I'd love to see it.