This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Up! Your! Deck!

378127_10150441621792624_1477312954_n“I don’t get it!” whined Bones as he stared at the board in frustration.

“What? How to play the game? I thought you knew the rules,” said Scotty with a wry grin.

“Shut up,” Bones growled before adding, “I know this Grimgrin, Corpse-Born deck is good. I have seen it do well. But every time I try to play it, it falls apart.”

“Well, maybe you just suck at playing control,” Scotty shrugged at him.

“How can you suck at playing control? It’s just removal and counter spells!” Bones said with frustration. 

“Is it?” Scotty asked him, shrugging his shoulders again.

Bones just gave the board another frustrated look before sighing loudly.

Boldly going where no Frankenstein rip off has gone before...

Boldly going where no Frankenstein rip-off has gone before…

“I’m a control player.”

“I’m an aggro player.”

“I’m a red player.”

“I’m a Vorthos.”

“I like Sweet Chilli Heat Doritos.”

These are some of the first things Magic players tend to say to each other, common small talk that comes up at card stores and tournaments about which decks and play styles (and brand of corn chip) we favour. And if you have never tried to categorize yourself as a player, get ready to, because here is the first commandment for those of you who want to build your perfect EDH deck:

Your deck must fit your play style, and you will never get better results with a deck made for a different style.

Now, most of you are probably thinking of the control-aggro-combo triangle of classifications, or assigning styles by your favourite flavour on the colour wheel, since these are the most common categories players use. But no, because just like the ex-girlfriend who told you “It’s not you, it’s me”, what a player says and what they are trying to say aren’t the same. In reality there only two overarching categories of player styles.

Reactive Vs. Proactive

Picture a straight line, with reactive on one side and proactive on the other. Here is a helpful diagram.


That is the sliding scale of players, and everyone lands on it somewhere. Well-rounded players land somewhere in the middle but still favour one side over the other. And which side you favour is going to determine what cards you like, how you play them, and how good certain cards are in your deck.

I was going to say team proactive and team reactive, but somehow this series has managed to taint even the word team for me.

I was going to say team proactive and team reactive, but somehow this series has managed to taint even the word team for me.

For example: I have talked at length about my love for my Lyzolda deck, and the deck that inspired it was made by my friend who we will continue to call Tyrion. Our decks are nearly identical, with a difference of ten cards or less between us at any time. However, I am a proactive player and Tyrion is a reactive player, which makes certain cards better suited to our respective decks. Here is an example of us picking five-drops:

Eric is choosing between Puppeteer Clique and Master of Cruelties to run in his deck. He likes that Master can be a win condition on its own, and that it is a threat that the opponent absolutely has to answer. He doesn’t like that Puppeteer Clique often sits in his hand for long periods of time until there is a good enough dead creature to justify playing it. Eric hates cards that sit in his hand, so he chooses to play Master of Cruelties.

Tyrion also has to choose between the two cards, but his experience with them is different. Because he plays fewer threats than Eric, his opponent always has the removal spell by the time he plays Master of Cruelties and the card dies before it can do anything. On the other hand, Tyrion spends most of his time killing his opponent’s creatures, so he always has a target for Puppeteer Clique. Because the card always does its job and Tyrion hates losing value on the Master, Tyrion chooses to run Puppeteer Clique.


This is a real life example of two cards that aren’t just good, but absolutely terrific. However, because of differences in play styles, the cards’ values are changed even in decks that are nearly identical.

"Yes, I do like the faeries better. No, I didn't pick them because they were smaller."

“Yes, I do like the faeries better. No, I didn’t pick them because they were smaller.”

This is why it’s so important to acknowledge your style and play to it. Just the tiniest change in the attitudes and strategies of the player will hugely affect the mileage you get out of your cards, and by extension your deck. So let’s break down the two styles so you can see where you fit.


If you’re a reactive player, then you play like Tyrion. You like to see what your opponent does and then have the perfect answer for it. You like to think about what kinds of cards your opponents will be playing when you design your deck, and you probably have a soft spot for counter spells, removal, and instants. You like to squeeze extra value out of your cards in order to keep yourself ahead of the other players. Though reactive strategies are strongly associated with a control, all three main deck types can be played as reactive.

Control Decks

Reactive players play the archetypal control deck, running heavy on answers and instants. They are likely to rely on using their opponents’ own cards to kill them, or to be light on big win conditions. They love to do things at the end of their opponent’s turn, and probably spend many of their own turns drawing, un-tapping, then saying go.

"Just wait until your end step. Then I'll show you who's wasting their turns."

“Just wait until your end step. Then I’ll show you who’s wasting their turns.”

Combo Decks

A reactive combo deck looks a lot like a control deck, but uses combos as the primary win condition. They probably have one combo and then one or two back-up combos, but they are unlikely to have any more than ten dedicated combo pieces. They will rely on their control spells to make sure their combo goes off. The reactive combo deck is going to favour combos that include cards that can be used as answers (Leyline of the Void) or combos that can be set up at the end of an opponent’s turn, to be executed immediately afterwards.

Aggro Decks

Reactive aggro decks seem like an oxymoron, but they are surprisingly common. The reactive aggro decks will win in one of two ways: by either exhausting their opponent’s resources before playing one threat that wins the game, usually their general (reactive Voltron) or by playing some small evasive creatures early, then relying on their control spells to protect them until they are able to kill the opponent (this is the classic Edric deck). Reactive aggro players tend to do multiple things in a single turn, or take multiple turns in a row.

There are the three staple deck types as piloted by a reactive player. You may have already spotted one of your favourite decks among them, but if you didn’t then you might not be a reactive player. Come, join me on the side of…


If you are a proactive player, than you play like me. You probably favour cards or synergies that define board states. Your decks are very dense with threats and creatures, and you are likely to consider whether or not a card is good on an empty board and a developed board before you put it in your deck. You almost never draw and then pass your turn, and you probably like having many cards that can be win conditions. Your style is typically associated with aggro, but you can also play all three deck types very effectively.

I'm not saying proactive is better, I'm just saying that when I googled proactive this was the second image result. Draw your own conclusions.

I’m not saying proactive is better, I’m just saying that when I googled proactive this was the second image result. Draw your own conclusions.


The proactive control deck does more on its own turn. It is likely to play many sorcery speed resource denial (Mind Twist) or tax cards (pillow fort decks) in order to squeeze your opponent out of the game. Like the reactive deck, you are lighter on win conditions and likely play instant speed answers. But you probably have far more creatures, and cards with more dramatic effects, than the reactive player does with their incremental advantage.


A proactive combo deck is bursting at the seams with synergies and combos. A reactive combo deck has a few combos that it goes out of its way to protect, whereas a proactive combo deck will be running upwards of fifteen combo cards and relying on having more combos than the opponent has answers. Proactive combo decks are the ones most likely to have a early game win-out-of-nowhere, and to frustrate their opponents with the consistency in which they draw and tutor into wins. Many Karador, Ghave, or Mimeoplasm combo decks are proactive.


My people! Come, sing with me of the proactive aggro decks! If a proactive combo deck has a rash of win conditions, then a proactive aggro deck is absolutely infested with threats. The proactive aggro deck will win by playing a threat, having it answered, playing another threat, having it answered, and then playing yet another threat when your opponents are out of removal. A proactive aggro player likely runs quite a few answers to clear the way for their creatures (and because they have seen the value of having removal firsthand), just enough ramp and draw to keep them going, and then packs the rest of their deck with threats in the form of equipment, creatures, and planeswalkers. A Rafiq deck that plays nothing but auras, equipment, and back-up threats is a proactive aggro deck, as is an Azusa deck that ramps into one fatty creature after another.

This strategy is also known as the "Neo's rescue plan" method.

This strategy is also known as the “Neo’s rescue plan” method.

Know Your Style!

One of the biggest frustrations for new EDH players is when they take a list from online in the hopes of it helping them win, only to realize that the deck just doesn’t work for them the way it works for others. Sometimes it’s a difference in the meta, sometimes it’s a matter of skill level, and sometimes it’s because a reactive player is trying to pilot a proactive deck.

Mismatching your style with the wrong kinds of cards is like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole: frustrating, difficult, and likely to lead to violent cursing. That is why it is essential that, before you try to build yourself a great deck, you are honest with yourself about what kind of player you are. This will allow you to build a deck that fits you like a glove, making your games smoother, better, and more fun.

Or you can ignore all my advice and just make a deck with cards that feature pictures of fruit in them. You won’t win, but your deck will be the sweetest.

The time is ripe for someone to produce this deck.

The time is ripe for someone to produce this deck.

God, that was awful. No one ever let me do that again.

Eric is a proud proactive player who doesn’t understand not playing Master of Cruelties in a Lyzolda deck. You can tell him why he’s wrong in the comments below, or send him an email at Or go check out quotes from his girlfriend on his twitter, @ThatBonvieGuy.


Series Navigation<< Up! Your! Deck! 1 – Mission StatementUp! Your! Deck! 3 – Follow the leader, leader, leader… >>

30 Responses to “Up! Your! Deck! 2 – Check yourself, before you wreck yourself…”

  1. Robert Johnston said

    I fall roughly two-thirds to the Proactive side and the remaining one-third to reactive. Which is weird, because I have a few “control” decks that usually tap out during my turn, and then I have my aggressive tribal decks that pack several reactive things. >_>

  2. Eric T said

    Thanks Eric for this great article!
    Your Reactive/Proactive theory was easier for me to identify my play style than the usual color method or Control/agrro/combo method.
    Looking forward to building my first edh deck!
    Intimidating path ahead… 😛

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