This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series No Uncertain Terms

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Welcome back to another “No Uncertain Terms,” or N.U.T. (the scientific term for a language pedant). It’s been quite some time since I did an entry in this series, so here’s a refresher: This series is meant to be a reference to help players communicate more effectively with each other. Each article will introduce and explain a commonly used piece of Magic slang and attempt to pare it down to its fundamental definition.

 

Previously, I discussed the definition of Aggro and what it means to be an Aggro deck. Today, I’m going to pick up where I left off and discuss the archetype of Control decks using that same model.

 

What Is Control?

Archetypes represent a general strategy that is applied at the deck-level, meaning that these strategies aren’t unique to a single game, metagame, or format. What’s important is the common characteristics that make these decks function in similar ways.

 

“Control” can be employed as an adjective to describe certain formats or metagames. A format that is overrun with Control decks could be described as “controlling,” “control dominated,” or “control-ish,” but the metagame itself is not the thing that’s indicative of Control. Rather, the decks that make it up are particularly–or perhaps mostly–controlling.

 

The name “control” stems from the fact that Control decks tend to use their resources to interact with an opponent rather than directly pressuring them. Control decks employ disruptive elements like removal, counterspells, discard, land destruction, etc., to prevent an opponent from being able to assemble their own strategy. In this way, the Control deck can influence how their opponent’s hand develops. With the right answers, the Control deck can assert so much influence on the opponent that it feels like there’s nothing they can do.

 

A Control deck is “in control” when they’ve effectively answered all relevant threats from an opponent, leaving them with only trivial cards that can’t affect the outcome of the game. Depending on the format and the matchup, where a Control deck chooses to apply its disruption will differ. Against an Aggro opponent attacking with lots of cheap creatures, a Control deck may rely heavily on cheap removal. Against a Combo opponent who depends on certain key cards, counterspells are more useful. Against another Control opponent, winning may require the depletion of their resources, so tools like land destruction or discard may prove the most useful. The exact balance of interactive cards included in a Control deck depends on the other decks in the metagame that you expect to face. A Control deck can’t win unless it effectively answers threats from the opponent, so the answers you include in your deck need to match the metagame.

 

Finally, Control decks win the game in a variety of ways. The exact nature of the win condition will vary from deck to deck, but the key principle stays the same: Once you’ve gained control of the game, winning is much easier. Often, Control decks will just deploy a single creature that will kill the opponent because it’s completely unopposed.

 

Classifying Control Decks

Sometimes it can be helpful to classify Control decks based on their chosen win conditions. A hybrid Combo-Control deck may employ a typical disruption package from a Control deck, but utilize a combo to win. This can make the deck capable of stealing games even if you can’t gain total control over the board. Some decks use cheap, efficient threats to attack early on and use their disruptive cards to force through damage later. This is known as Aggro-Control. This broad range means that the Control moniker can be applied to a lot of decks that actually play out quite differently. The common strategic element is simply that the opponent’s deck is not able to assemble its game plan because of the powerful influence your Control deck exerts.

 

It can also be helpful to classify Control decks based on how they assert their control. This generally breaks down into two categories, tap-out and draw-go, but these are really just opposite extremes of the spectrum and a particular deck will likely fall somewhere between.

 

Draw-Go or “pure control” decks are highly reactive in nature. They primarily use answers to deal with opposing threats as they come. The answers in a pure Control deck tend to be instant-speed removal and counterspells. The name is derived from the fact that these decks often draw for the their turn and then immediately pass to the opponent, conserving their mana to use on instants. A draw-go deck will continue like this until they’ve either completely exhausted their opponent’s resources or they have enough mana to cast a threat and hold up answers in the same turn.

 

Tap-Out Control decks rely on the superior power level of their cards to gain control of a game. They foil opposing threats by having threats of their own that outclass the opponent’s board, often planeswalkers or creatures with keywords like Hexproof. Tap-Out decks tend to use all of their mana on their own turn, “tapping out” to cast their big spells. These decks typically employ more planeswalkers, creatures, sorceries, and noncreature permanents–elements that may not typically be associated with pure Control.

 

An individual Control deck will usually have elements of both types, and just because you have certain types of cards in your deck doesn’t automatically label it as proactive or reactive. This can be extra confusing if you also have labels like “good stuff” or “midrange” in your vernacular, because these terms often overlap with tap-out, but they describe same elements from a different perspective. The nature of the cards you choose and how your deck matches up against the opponent will dictate your strategy. In one game you might execute a tap-out strategy, while you may play more like a draw-go deck in the next game.

 

What You’ll Find in a Control Deck

Control decks typically carry higher amounts of land than you would find in a more aggressive deck: between 38-to-45%. This is facilitates reaching the later stages of the game smoothly, as well as enabling the deck to cast more expensive and powerful spells. Some Control shells may also utilize mana accelerators to speed up their development. Control decks are generally vulnerable in the early game and moving quickly through that stage can improve their odds of winning.

 

Often the bulk of a Control deck is answers: various types of removal, counters, and discard all geared specifically to deal with the most common threats in the metagame. Because the Control strategy hinges on being able to interact favorably with the opponent, you need to draw these cards early and often. A Control player will likely be forced to mulligan hands that have the wrong configuration of answers, even if the overall curve or land/spell ratio is desirable.

 

Card manipulation is the next major category you’ll see represented. These include draw spells like Fact or Fiction, tutors like Mystical Teachings, selection tools like Sensei’s Divining Top, and even big flashy spells like Sphinx’s Revelation.

 

Control decks all have some type of win condition, but they can vary widely. The selection of win conditions is a subtle process. You may not want to have the most obvious card choices, because the opposition will likely be expecting them and come prepared. Sometimes you’ll have only one threat that’s very difficult to stop, like a Nephalia Drownyard. Other decks might use overwhelming card advantage to simply exhaust the opponent: e.g. repeated use of Seasons Past.  Alternatively, a Control deck may employ a group of win conditions that are all distinct, so that a single type of answer can’t deal with all of them.

 

What You Won’t Find in a Control Deck

Strangely, pretty much anything can show up. It all depends on what the deck needs to face-off against your expected competition. Card selection is the major challenge of designing a Control strategy. One key indicator you can use, though, is moderation. A Control deck might have a few creatures. It might even have a couple different types of cheap creatures to play early, but there probably won’t be a ton of them. You could easily see four Delver of Secrets or Grim Lavamancer, but you probably won’t see twelve one-drops. You could have a Baneslayer Angel, but not as part of a team of eight different creatures. Control tends to differ from more linear strategies in that the list will include several cards with only one or two copies and a greater overall variety of cards. See the first example below.

 

The style of Control deck also matters a great deal in terms of card selection. Draw-go decks usually won’t play any cheap creatures. The low end of their mana curve will be completely consumed with removal spells and counters. The top will be for threats, card draw, and any splashy haymakers like Cruel Ultimatum or Mindslaver.

 

Historical Control Decks

To conclude, let’s look at some historically significant Control decks that have been piloted to success at the top level.

 

1994 World Champion – Zak Dolan

 

The first World Champion of Magic was Zak Dolan, piloting what was really the first Control deck ever. At this point in the game, there were only a small number of cards, so the diversity in decks was pretty low. Early tournaments revolved around using fast mana from Black Lotus to power up a Channel and cast a Fireball for lethal damage. Channel-Fireball was Magic’s first combo, but at this time there really was no name for these archetypes, there was just one deck. Dolan made waves by eschewing the typical Combo win and instead chose to build a deck full of 1-of answers.

 

1995 “The Deck” – Brian Weissman

 

Perhaps the most historically significant of all Control decks, Brian Weissman created not only an enduring deck archetype, but founded a major school of thought for advantage theory in Magic. Brian’s big idea was that card advantage, drawing more net cards than the opponent, led to a direct increase in your chances of winning the game. Today we take this idea for granted, but at that time this was a revolution. The deck employed minimal win conditions, originally just Serra Angel. Instead the deck had a variety of disruption: Disrupting Scepter, Moat, Swords to Plowshares, Mana Drain, and Disenchant. This meant he could deal with basically every card in the game at that time, giving him a bulletproof defense against whatever the opponent was doing.

 

1998 U.S. Nationals 3rd Place “Forbidian” – Jon Finkel

 

After Weissman, Control went through a quiet period for a while. Players innovated new decks to combat it like Sligh, which I discussed at length in the previous article. Also, the release of Necropotence and various sources of fast mana in Urza’s Block led the game in the direction of fast degenerate combos. From this, Jon Finkel would emerge with a strong draw-go Control deck that would eventually become the inspiration for his invitational card: Shadowmage Infiltrator.

 

2004 World Champion “Astral Slide” – Julien Nuijten

 

Julien Nuijten became the youngest Magic World Champion ever piloting Astral Slide. This card slows the flow of damage from Aggro opponents by cycling various cards. Wrath of God put an end to attackers for good while Eternal Dragon helped smooth out land drops. Eventually the deck would finish with a huge Decree of Justice.

 

2005 “Critical Mass” – Mike Flores

 

Michael J. Flores has been an important author, theorist, and deck designer in Magic since the very beginning. In the time of Kamigawa block Standard, he was famous for popularizing two decks: Critical Mass and the related mono Blue Control shell, Jushi Blue. The concept was to generate card advantage through plays like Kodama’s Reach, Jushi Apprentice, and Keiga, the Tide Star.

 

2008 World Champion “Faeries” – Antti Malin

 

The first Aggro-Control deck on this list, faeries, used an early Bitterblossom to produce consistent threats and then a follow up Cryptic Command to lock down the game. However, despite the high number of creatures in the main deck, Faeries could easily sideboard into a pure U/B Control plan with Mind Shatter, Infest, and Jace Beleren.

 

2009 Pro Tour Kyoto Champion “Cruel Control” – Gabriel Nassif

 

Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif picked up his second Pro Tour victory on the back of Cruel Ultimatum. This deck was one of many three, four, and five-color Control decks in Standard during the late 2000’s. Using the power of Lorwyn’s Vivid land cycle, the deck was able to support the most powerful plays in each color. It also spawned one of the most exciting moments in tournament Magic history; a true classic.

 

2010 Worlds “Caw-Go” – Brian Kibler

 

“Dragonmaster” Brian Kibler debuted his modern adaption of the old draw-go control decks at Worlds in 2010. He called it “Caw-Go” because the deck used Squadron Hawk to generate card advantage and produce a stream of blockers until a Day of Judgment could be found. The deck would regularly play a hawk, search for the remaining hawks, and then pass the turn. Opponents would have to spend precious time and resources chewing through a long line of 1/1 fliers before ultimately being crushed by a Gideon Jura, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Celestial Colonnade. This deck would serve as the foundation for the infamous “Caw-Blade” decks that would follow a year later. Adding Stoneforge Mystic and Sword of Feast and Famine, Caw-Blade was one of the most successful Standard decks of all time.

 

2012 Pro Tour Barcelona Champion “Miracles” – Alexander Hayne

 

At Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, Hayne used a U/W deck that relied heavily on the Miracle mechanic to win his first big tournament and catapult himself into the pro scene. The deck uses cards like Temporal Mastery and Terminus to get ahead on board before finally killing with a top-decked Entreat the Angels. This same deck design would later be adapted for use in the Counter-Top deck which we will discuss later. This deck has the dubious distinction of winning only 40% of its matches during the event, Frank Karsten even wrote an article where he claimed it was among the worst decks ever to win a PT.

 

2013 Pro Tour Theros Top 8 “Esper Control” – Guillaume Wafo-Tapa

 

Wafo-Tapa’s name is synonymous with Blue/Black Control decks. Despite his checkered past, he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2014. He experienced great success designing and piloting Control builds during the 2000s. This list showcases his signature style: counters, removal, tons of card draw, and glacially slow win conditions.

 

2014 “Legacy Miracles” – Reid Duke

 

Building upon the success of the Miracles shell, Reid Duke adapted some elements to fit into existing Counter-Top Control builds in Legacy. Counter-Top uses the combination of Sensei’s Divining Top and Counterbalance to lock the opponent out of resolving most spells. The deck frequently rearranges the top cards of it’s library, which was a natural fit to take advantage of the Miracle mechanic. As a result, the deck came to dominate Legacy in the aftermath of the Delve bannings following Khans of Tarkir.

 

2015 World Champion “Abzan Control” – Seth Manfield

 

An atypical Control deck, Abzan features a high threat density and no Blue, but that didn’t stop Seth Manfield from piloting it straight through a field of the world’s best players to claim his first championship title. This event was made famous for Seth’s incredible streak of victories. Abzan opens up with a turn one Thoughtseize, giving a wealth of information and informing you how to use the Scry effect from your Temples. A huge package of removal keeps the board clear until you can deploy a Siege Rhino, the centerpiece of the deck and the dominant threat in the format. Despite the glut of excellent cards in this deck, it was the Courser of Kruphix that really cemented this deck’s dominance. It creates a steady stream of both lifegain and card advantage, while simultaneously presenting an incredibly efficient blocker.

 

I hope that now you have a little bit better control over just what people mean when they say they’re a Control player. Control decks are consistently powerful competitors across multiple formats, especially in Commander, so you won’t have to go too far to find one in your local playgroup.

 

Do you want your top decks to be in the form of a Cruel Ultimatum? Have you never met a spell you didn’t want to counter? Share your thoughts in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support Commandercast.com on Patreon.

 

-GG

Wherever knowledge goes, misinformation is sure to follow. Magic is confusing more often than not. “No Uncertain Terms” is meant to give all players the same base of requisite knowledge to completely understand an issue; to give all Magic players, new and old, the language to communicate and fully understand each other. This series functions as a curriculum of vocabulary, with each new segment building on the last.

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