5 Point Plan: A Beginners Guide To Control In Magic: The Gathering
Welcome back, rapidly-developing Planeswalkers.
Since last week, I hope you’ve been getting your kicks by blitzing your unfortunate opponents with brutal, streamlined Aggro decks. With any luck, they’ll have become so irritated by losing to your Madcap rush of damage that they will start building their own copies, to give you a taste of the same medicine.
Why would that be lucky, you ask? Well, it’s because you’re poised to learn all about Control in Magic: The Gathering, which will give you the tools you need to rain on their respective parades for another week.
1. What is Control?
It’s a style of Magic deck which aims to neutralise the opponent’s strategy, dictate the pace and direction of the game, then win with a powerful and resilient threat.
If Aggro is all about threats to the opponent, Control is all about answers to threats. For that reason, it’s the strategy which has to be most aware of what is happening in the environment – if your deck contains all the wrong answers, you won’t get very far.
2. What colours is Control?
The strategy can be built in various different colour combinations, although some are naturally more controlling than others (I’m looking at you, Blue).
A perennial source of mass-creature destruction and proficient in dealing with any permanent type you care to name, White is a classic control colour. It has also been providing heavenly, winged win conditions since the very earliest days of the game – although we’ve come a long way from Serra Angel.
There are no two ways about it: Blue is the colour of Control.
While it’s possible to build the strategy whilst overlooking Blue, there have historically been few formats where doing so was the best choice. A great illustration of this principle is that, although I’ve summarised three core controlling abilities above, I could easily have listed another three for Blue; its palette of useful effects is very deep indeed.
Having just raved about Blue’s essential role in Control strategies, I immediately come to the colour which is most often cited as an independent competitor. When the right elements come together in a format, Black can present decks which force opponents to discard anything they don’t commit to the board and blow up anything they do.
The last time this happened was in 2002, however, so even though it pains me to say so: don’t hold your breath.
Luckily, Black cards also pair very well with Blue, so it tends to show up in Control lists with reasonable frequency.
One of the less common Control colours, Red has nonetheless featured frequently as a secondary or tertiary partner in various decks; this is mostly down to the fact that burning little creatures in the early turns is a great way to stay out of trouble.
Red deserves a little more credit than this, of course: it also brings huge, world-ruining spells like Wildfire and superb threats like Thundermaw Hellkite. Mono-red control has been a powerful strategy at points in the past.
Green can’t do Control alone – but then it doesn’t have to. As the most accomplished at developing its manabase, it makes a great partner for any of the other colours – and it can provide some truly exceptional threats to help them close the game.
Great, life-gaining middle drops like Thragtusk and Obstinate Baloth help Green Control decks to bridge a gap between resisting early pressure… and establishing the late game strange-hold they so desire.
3. How does Control work?
A successful control deck will tend to follow a few strategic principles.
It will play more more lands
Control has several good motivations to play more lands than other strategies.
Firstly, the mana curve of spells deployed by a Control deck will be more expensive on average than the curve of an Aggro deck. Larger mana requirements = larger requirement to draw lands, hence more should appear in the deck.
Secondly, a Control deck needs to be able to play all of its answers on time. What this means is that, if the opponent plays out a dangerous creature for which the Control deck has an answer in hand, it’s important that the Control player can use that answer as soon as possible; she can’t afford to wait around for several turns to draw a third land. Greater need to play spells on time = greater need to draw lands… you get the picture.
Thirdly, it’s a treasured Magic truism that in the Control mirror match (where two similar decks face off), the first player to miss a land drop is likely to lose. While the truth isn’t that simple, it’s definitely true that when two decks with counterspells face off, the one with more mana on the board can play more spells in a turn… and is therefore favoured to win any counterspell-war which breaks out.
Playing more lands increases the risk of being flooded with mana, of course – but Control can mitigate this by playing lands which also have spell-like effects.
It will play spells which allow it to catch up, or leap ahead
Magic decks sporting the most threatening range of cheap plays will tend to be the pace-setters, at least in the early turns of a game. As a slower strategy, Control needs to play effects which compensate for that tendency if it’s going to be successful.
In an ideal game, a Control player will work to survive the early turns, then overpower the opponent by exhausting their resources. Cards which wipe out the opponent’s lead (or establish a lead for the control deck) at a single stroke are fundamental to the success of this strategy.
It will play the most powerful, reliable win conditions available
An Aggro player can expect the majority of the non-land cards in their deck to win the game, if they go unanswered; although it’s unlikely, a Jackal Pup can attack 10 times and be victorious. It’s not the same for a Control player.
Control dedicates a lot of space within its strategy to answering opposing threats and generating card advantage. This doesn’t leave a lot of space for ways to win – so the win conditions it does play have to get the job done.
This reality pushes Control decks into a couple of defined channels as they seek their win condition.
Their first option is to pick the biggest, baddest, most indestructible monster in the environment and plan to ride it to victory. They will use their limited remaining deck-slots to incorporate copies of this abomination and count on their card drawing and survival capability to make sure they eventually find it.
Their second option is to pick cards which fulfill one of the Control deck’s other requirements, but which can also win the game… that way, the slots in their deck can do double duty and they can have more of everything. This concept is commonly known as redundancy.
These options aren’t mutually exclusive – take it from me, if my Control deck can play Aetherling and Gideon Jura and Nephalia Drownyard, it will be doing so – but they illustrate things you should think about in deck construction.
Is this card solid enough for me to hang my game-plan on when the chips are down? Are there cards I could play which will pull double duty?
It will play for the long game
With a strategy built around powerful effects, resource accumulation, attrition and expensive monsters, it should be clear that Control players are not going for a swift rush of damage followed by much cheering, fist-bumping and crotch-chopping.
Instead, the Control player’s sole purpose in most match-ups is to make the game last as long as possible. Control is about inevitability: every turn the game continues should be a turn which increases the likelihood of a win for the Control player. If this is not the case for you, you probably aren’t playing a Control deck.
One important aside: this doesn’t mean that a Control player ever makes the game go longer than is necessary to win. Their aim is to stretch things out until an opportunity to safely claim victory arrives; once it does, they take it in short order.
4. What are Control’s weaknesses?
Sometimes, the opponent acts too fast for a Control player to establish their stranglehold on the game, resulting in a bruising loss.
There are ways to mitigate this, which should be part of a Control player’s thinking while constructing their deck, but it is still a fact of Magical life. If it wasn’t, no one would play Aggro or Combo.
When a strategy counts on building up mana, cards, life and other resources to create a game-winning advantage, it becomes vulnerable to effects which attack those resources.
This might seem a strange entry, but it’s actually the most fundamental Control problem of all.
If your deck is full of answers, but they are answers for questions no-one is asking, you are going to have a bad day at the office.
A Control player has to make sure that their deck is properly taking aim at the other decks in the format, or it really isn’t worthwhile sleeving up the cards.
5. What does a good Control deck look like?
Let’s take a look at a recent, successful control deck from Standard, which made Top 8 of PT Return to Ravnica:
Ben Stark’s Esper Control
There’s a lot to talk about here – so let’s get cracking.
Stark’s gameplan is fairly straightforward: he wants to survive long enough to mill the opponent out of cards, with Nephalia Drownyard. It’s a solid plan, because his win condition is hard to interact with – you can’t counter or burn out a land. If the milling route is not viable, Stark also has the option of beating down with Restoration Angels.
In terms of deck composition, we can see immediately that there are no one-mana spells, but a glut of two-mana options. This is pretty telling.
Stark is playing a strategy with six board sweepers; he expects a lot of creature decks. There are certainly playable one-mana spells in the environment, but he and his team have decided that they don’t warrant a slot. Instead, it seems they think the optimal turn one play is simply to lay a tapped land.
That’s a reasonable conclusion. Looking at the manabase, we can see the full range of 12 ‘buddy’ lands – Glacial Fortress, Drowned Catacomb and Isolated Chapel – but only 8 ‘shocklands’, so the deck’s bias is clearly toward preserving life rather than having early untapped mana. If you expect aggression, saving two life might well be better than casting Thought Scour and friends.
Once we reach two mana, we find a very well-stocked, flexible package. All these spells do one of two important things: stifle aggression or draw cards.
Snapcaster Mage can do all of these things and provide a body… but he’s secretly a four drop or more, so he doesn’t count.
By focussing on the two slot, Stark also brings forward the point at which he will be able to start playing two spells per turn. This is very important: deploying multiple effects in a turn is a great way to pull things back or get ahead, a Control plan we highlighted earlier.
Planar Cleansing is an interesting card which has received very little love outside of Stark’s deck. Why is it here? Well, it’s a Supreme Verdict which also hits every other pesky permanent you can think of.
Stark doesn’t rely on a Planeswalker, or an artifact to win his games – he has a land for that. Planar Cleansing is pretty painless for him, but back-breaking for many opponents.
Finally, atop the curve, we find likely the most important card in the deck: Sphinx’s Revelation.
Earlier, we established that ‘gaining life while doing something useful’ and ‘drawing extra cards’ were good things for Control. Well, the classic problem of spending a turn drawing cards is that, if the opponent is still applying pressure, the Control player is not impacting the board and is edging closer to defeat; with Revelation, those extra cards come with a life cushion which mitigates that pressure and creates breathing room.
We’ve racked up a fair amount of mileage on Control, so it’s time to draw a line. Next week, we’ll take a look at the oft-maligned Combo archetype… until then, I expect you to knuckle down, blow up the world and draw more cards than you ever thought possible.
Oh… and have loads of fun doing it, of course.
Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.