All about control decks from a special guest author.

Your First Control Deck

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The letter M!ost games of Magic are skewed to one of the following struggles: a race, or a duel of attrition.

In a race, I am trying to implement my plan (my combo, my 20 points of damage, my lock, my unstoppable creature, whatever), before you get yours. In an attrition game, we are trading threats and answers (your Grizzly Bears, my Shock; my Stupor, your Mana Leak; your Disintegrate, my Healing Salve) down to the point where one of us is pretty powerless (often because all of our threats have been killed and we don’t have a good way to find new ones) and the other is left to sail smoothly.

A deck’s preferred posture can vary from matchup to matchup and draw to draw. Maybe your Rebel deck (which uses rebels like Amrou Scout to get more rebels and overwhelm the opponent) tries to deal 20 damage to a white-blue control deck before they kill all of your creatures and draw a bunch of extra cards – but against a Zoo-style deck (featuring efficient, aggressive creatures backed up by damage-dealing spells), you aim to just slow them down initially, and trust that you will win the long game with your more sturdy and plentiful rebels. Thus you are looking to play an attrition game in some matchups, and a racing game in others. This sort of flexibility is often referred to as “hard/soft,” or “aggro/control” – where the hard or aggressive side is attempting to race, and the soft or control side is looking to grind you down.

Let’s call a control deck (as opposed to a deck that has simply taken the control posture) one that plays for a war of attrition in the vast majority of its matchups.

NOTE: There are other decks, such as classic decks featuring Humility and Orim’s Prayer or Winter Orb and Icy Manipulator, that might also be considered control decks. These decks set up a sort of lock (often racing the opponent to get there), only to slowly implement their win condition while protecting and shoring up the lock once it is online. I think this other class of decks is different and rare enough that we can justifiably bypass it for this discussion.

You might first ask: Why am I forgoing attacking and pushing the pace to play for a long, drawn out struggle?

The most compelling and empowering attribute of control is its ability to devalue the opponent’s cards. It does this in four ways:

1) Erases them at a reduced cost. Whether this means killing a multitude of creatures with one spell like a Wrath of God or Earthquake, using a relatively cheap Cancel to stop an expensive spell like Akroma, Angel of Wrath, playing Slay to kill a green creature and drawing a card, or having time to play a single Stupor to knock out two cards in your hand, it often gets ugly when the control deck has time and opportunity to match its answers to your threats.

2) Doesn’t play threats to be answered. The control deck is so robustly dedicated to reactive spells that it can go without playing early creatures and other proactive spells. This means that whatever reactive cards you have may not find targets. This has been labeled virtual card advantage as it makes your cards so narrow that they are almost as good as dealt with.

3) Disrupts synergies. Even if they don’t deal with every spell you play directly, they can leave out whichever ones don’t stand well on their own and still be in good shape. The most extreme example of this is a creature enchantment that might never need attention if you can’t make a creature stick.

4) Drags the game out past your preparations. A Savannah Lions is a fine spell in the first few turns of a game, but on turn ten, when you have more than just a few lands, it will be a disappointing draw.

Savannah Lions
A lot of decks are filled with such disappointing potential draws, and very few ways to capitalize on all of the mana that we naturally accumulate as we go through more and more draw phases. You can be sure that the control deck will come prepared.

Sound pretty tough to beat? It really can be. Of course there are metagames and matchups and card pools to be considered, but this style of control deck is likely to pop up in any format you encounter. Some of you might be too impatient or otherwise uninterested in playing this sort of deck. If so, I can only offer you a behind the scenes look at some of your opponents. For the rest of you, I’m going to give what I hope will be an instructive sample of a control deck.

First, what are your angles? One might be as simple as including few creatures in your deck in order to maximize the power of Wrath of God. But if you come up against a deck that does not rely on creatures, or has some discard or counters of its own, the Wrath of God angle won’t be enough. But let’s see what we mean about an angle.

Suppose your deck looked something like this nearly classic blend:

Blue-White Nearly Classic Control, Take 1

Main Deck

60 cards

Hallowed Fountain
11  Island
10  Plains

25 lands

Mahamoti Djinn
Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir

3 creatures

Cancel
Disenchant
Dismal Failure
Faith's Fetters
Mana Leak
Mana Tithe
Porphyry Nodes
Remand
Wrath of God

32 other spells


You’re stacked with answers to your opponent’s threats; and if your opponent simply plays a permanent a turn, you will probably find the answers fast enough that he will run out of threats before you are in danger. But even in the most straightforward matchups, what if you run out of lands at 3 or 4, and your opponent simply doesn’t play spells while you have mana untapped? If he makes his land drops, you will find that your deck has gone overboard on reactivity (as you can’t play your cards proactively, and will have to discard down to 7!). And if you draw too many lands, your deck doesn’t have a lot to do with them and can probably be counted out of a longterm attrition war. This is not to mention your rival control decks, which may have card drawing, instant speed threats, flashbacks spells, and other tricky-to-counter problems for you to solve. The message here is that if you have no way at all to make progress on your own, your more cunning opponents will find a way to take advantage of all of your idling. So what’s the solution? Your engine – your angle.

Think of this as the way you punish your opponent when he doesn’t pressure you to react to his game. In some cases the engine is bold, expensive, and can generate so much power that the rest of your deck will look thin without it. Necropotence control decks were a good example of this, back in the day. Even a deck like Osyp’s Urzatron at Pro Tour – Honolulu shows this idea.

Many control decks are looking to mostly wear the opponent down before their game takes over. In Osyp’s case it was not so subtle – just very large and powerful flying creatures.

But for our white-blue deck, we’ve got a lot of sturdy stuff happening with our reactive spells. Most decks will have a very hard time breaking us with an early assault, and our counters and disenchants give us a lot of flexibility as the game progresses. What is needed here is not an eye to domination – but some insulation. We need something to do on the turns when we can’t disrupt our opponent.

Two such opportunities are in the early turns when we don’t have a play and at the end of the opponent’s turn when we left up mana for countermagic but he didn’t cast a worthy spell. Think Twice, as modest as it looks, is perfect for capitalizing on these opportunities. Five mana for two cards might feel lukewarm to you, but when you play with decks like these you’ll notice many times when your mana would have otherwise gone unspent – meaning that it’s really closer to zero mana for that extra card.

Another nice way to get a foothold as the game drags on is with Careful Consideration. Decks like this one, packed with remedies to particular threats, are all too likely to end up with cards that have either outlasted their planned purpose, or are not applicable for the current matchup. The discard on Careful Consideration becomes all the less painful when we are losing useless Mana Tithes and Disenchants, in addition to whatever extra lands we might want to chuck. Careful Consideration has the added bonus of being playable as an instant, like Think Twice (another fine discard to Careful Consideration). In a similar vein, Whispers of the Muse is a nice resuable card drawer that is also easy to cycle in the early game.



Blue-White Nearly Classic Control, Take 2

And after cutting a few lands (because of all of the cheap card drawing) this looks like a real control deck- something you might even consider sporting at your local Standard tournament! Hopefully you’ve read Jeff’s discussion of sideboarding- it applies to sideboarding with a control deck too. Figure out the matchups you need to improve in, then figure out which cards are weak in those matchups. Find suitable replacements, and make sure that your transformed build is still functional in all of the usual ways (decent mana curve, ways to win, card drawing, answers to the important threats).

When navigating a deck like this one, it’s important to be ready to keep your opponent in check whether the game goes long or short. If you get tripped up in the short game you will just lose, and because your deck is built to take you to the long game, you will inevitably get there and must have played efficiently enough to still have the resources to keep control. These considerations will dictate your play in such touchy situations as when your opponent plays a creature and you have mana untapped for a Cancel, but also a Faith’s Fetters in hand. In the early turns, your mana is tight and Cancel is probably good to play on almost any target, whereas Faith’s Fetters has the flexibility to be useful the turn after you untap from a Wrath of God. In later turns, when you can afford to keep Cancel mana up, the roles reverse.

If you are wondering about the disruption spells used here, there is no hard and fast rule for how much of your removal must be dedicated to various cardtypes. It is often just a matter of what you expect to face – you are a reactive deck after all. But a few relations between these spells ought to be kept in mind.

First is the ever-important mana curve – you will have different amounts of mana available on different turns, and the costs of your spells should be staggered somewhat accordingly. Also keep in mind when a given spell will be useful. For example, Think Twice’s flashback is perfectly suited for the three mana you will be leaving up for Cancel. Were there no Cancels in the deck, you might consider using a different instant to draw cards.

A second is the synergy between your cards and what sort of position they put your opponent in. Suppose all of your counters were ‘mana counters’ like Mana Tithe and Mana Leak. Your opponent could just wait until he had the mana to pay, and your countermagic would just be a delaying device. But mix in some hard counters, and your opponent finds that even upon waiting, his spells are not easy to resolve. This is particularly nice for you, considering your hard counters are a little more expensive, and the time your Mana Tithes buy you is often enough to get them online. Another example of synergies is between Porphyry Nodes and Faith’s Fetters. Nodes doesn’t kill a creature the turn you play it, but can take out a lot of creatures, given you can take a few hits. Faith’s Fetters is the opposite – expensive and only targeting one guy. But the life gain and immediacy of Fetters can be enough to enable the long-term power of the Nodes.

Synergy, long term planning, and the right answers. Good luck.

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