This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Decksplanations

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric (AKA Grandpa Growth)

Last time on Decksplanations we discussed threat density in aggressive Commander decks. The underlying mathematics makes it difficult to produce consistent, effective aggro decks because of Commander’s unique deck building restrictions, namely the ‘Highlander’ rule. This week we will discuss why this is much less of a problem for Control decks. As always, we begin with a quote:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Mahatma Gandhi

If you play any Commander, this saying will strike a chord with you. How many multiplayer games have you sat through where the early aggressors were punished while you quietly bided your time? You develop slowly. Play your land and say “go” quickly. You don’t waste time asking status questions, or asking someone to wait while you think, or reaching over to read your opponent’s permanents. Your plan doesn’t really involve them. Eventually someone cracks a joke and wonders if your deck is ever going to do anything. Sooner or later, they figure out what is going on and try to rally the table against you, but by the time everyone gets onboard it is just too late. The time for opposition has long passed; you have already won.

When a Control deck is in control every thing looks easy. The games are highly interactive, but they don’t feel that way. You have a resource advantage and all the right answers. A lot happens, but nothing really changes. This is the ideal, but how do you build a deck that can reliably take control of a game? Take out the threats.

You read that right. I don’t know why you were surprised. You didn’t honestly expect me to say that you should add more. When we examined the math for Aggro decks, we saw that they needed approximately 45 threats to get a curve going by turn four. As a rough comparison point, I would say that a control deck should have no more than 10. I am looking right now at a streamlined Control deck that I have been using for years: Glissa, the Traitor. My build has six things I would call a threat. Six. You don’t need more. In fact, you don’t need that many. I would say two is the minimum, because you don’t want to have some weird Cranial Extraction type card remove your only win condition, but heck, you have a commander!

The thing that you must understand is this: Control decks compete with their answers, not their threats. Are your answers available, on time, and do they really work? That is all that matters. If your opponent CAN’T win, then you WILL.

That is a lot of rhetoric, so here is the call to action: if you want to improve the quality of your control decks take out your threats. Replace them with a mix of three things: answers, tutors, and card draw. Preferably, more of that last one.

You see, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you have more removal than they have threats, that is a waste. Your extra removal card would be much better if it were a card draw spell you could use at that moment. Winning with a control deck isn’t really so much about having the right card at the right time, but rather having a steady flow of extra cards.

Mathematically, this will guarantee you a higher chance of having the right thing at the right time. When it comes to Commander, it has been my experience that the person who draws more cards tends to win more. I don’t have data to back that up, and I am wary of anecdotes skewing my decision making, but there exists no double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial conclusively proving that drawing cards leads to victory. So I am just going to go with my gut.

When it comes to building a Commander deck, my default approach is to try and win through card advantage. It doesn’t matter what my win conditions are, what color my deck is, or what themes I want to support. My strategy is always the same: expand first. Something I learned from years of playing Zerg.

Having more available resources than your opponent relieves the pressure of needing to interact more efficiently. I can’t guarantee that I will always have the right answer for a given threat, but card advantage has been my key to dealing with a larger volume of indistinct threats.

So having more is better, but let’s circle back to that idea of interacting efficiently. How can we increase our odds of having the right tool for the job so to speak? Getting more information about your deck, your opponent’s deck, and making great decisions certainly helps, but those skills take a lot of time and experience to develop. It would be so much easier if we actually did just have the best card for our situation. There are ways that we can increase the average quality of the cards we draw.

What I am skirting around here are three concepts that are at the core of my control builds: Selection, Velocity, and Access. I will cover each in more detail in future articles, but for now I want to leave you with a thought puzzle:

It is late in the game and both players have plenty of lands in play. You have just swept the board. Both you and your opponent have no cards in hand. You untap, draw, and resolve Dig Through Time seeing:

  1. Beast Within
  2. Counterspell
  3. Demonic Tutor
  4. Beacon of Unrest
  5. Concentrate
  6. Koth of the Hammer
  7. Inkwell Leviathan


Which two would you pick?



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