At my core, I’m a control player. From the point when I first started playing Magic all the way through to today, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for control decks. There has always been something satisfying to me in completely stopping my opponent’s game plan from being executed and only then beginning to execute my own.
I just have a different approach to control than normal. See, I could give a pack rat’s ass about countering a spell. I’ve never really cared about hiding behind a wall of countermagic, board sweepers, and card-draw spells and then eventually winning 30 turns later with a lone copy of Flying Men. That’s not my kind of jam. I’ve always preferred the kind of control deck that plays the most efficient threats, the most efficient removal spells, and the most efficient card-draw spells and taps out every turn for bigger and bigger effects.
I’ve heard these decks referred to as board control or planeswalker control or tapout control, but the idea is essentially the same. You control the game with powerful effects, not countermagic.
Nowadays, though, that idea of control doesn’t really get grouped under "control" anymore. People just call it midrange. In fact, the Esper Control deck I played at the last Invitational featured a bunch of planeswalkers and tapout threats like Blood Baron of Vizkopa. I had a lot of people comment on the deck saying things to the extent of "wait, isn’t that just a midrange deck? You don’t have any countermagic. That isn’t a control deck."
Personally, I don’t really care much about whether a deck gets lumped under control or midrange so I won’t bother to argue the point, but the fact is I don’t really play control anymore. At least I don’t play what people consider to be control decks nowadays. It’s very unlikely that you will ever see me shuffling my library with an Elixir of Immortality. These days I’m firmly entrenched in the healthy grip of midrange.
It’s a true delight.
While I may not touch contemporary control much, I still play against those decks all the time. In fact, I enjoy playing against them. Learning how to beat them with whatever deck I’m currently running is a special love of mine. Midrange against control is a fantastic matchup because the games generally involve a lot of back and forth maneuvering to try to one up the other. The midrange deck is typically trying to slip through enough resilient threats to close the game, and the control deck is trying to sequence their spells properly to prevent this from happening.
It’s good clean Magic.
I also think it’s an important matchup to understand as a midrange player. Frequently, midrange decks are ill equipped to deal with control decks in game 1. Those Ultimate Prices, Blood Baron of Vizkopas, and Mizzium Mortars don’t exactly blow the pants off Jace, Architect of Thought; Supreme Verdict; and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.
Starting down a game against a deck that can very easily bury you under increasingly larger and larger Sphinx’s Revelations is not a great place to be. It’s important to be able to play the match well so that you can give yourself the best chance to win even if game 1 is tough.
I have come up with a few tips for how to most effectively attack a control deck with a midrange deck. Before I start, I want to quickly clarify that a lot of decks can fit into the midrange camp, and I consider a lot more decks "midrange" than what one might expect. For example, the G/R Monsters deck that Chris VanMeter and I played at SCG Standard Open: Indianapolis last weekend is decidedly midrange. I consider a deck like R/W Devotion to also fit under the midrange banner. While neither of these decks may truly deserve the classification, there isn’t much difference in how they should approach playing against control decks.
In this format, control means U/W/x Control. While there might be a few rogue variants out there, I know that when I hear control I think Sphinx’s Revelation, and that’s the archetype I’m going to focus on.
Ignore Their Win Conditions
One of the easiest mistakes to make against a control deck is to focus on trying to attack the control player’s few ways to win the game. That’s very rarely a winning proposition.
While your U/W Control opponent may plan to win with the two copies of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion in their deck, trying to beat that plan by loading up on Hero’s Downfall and Dreadbore isn’t going to be successful. For one, they typically have a few others ways that they can use to win the game if needed. Jace, Architect of Thought can also serve as a win condition by stealing yours. They might have an Elixir of Immortality in their deck to start things over.
Even if those two copies of Elspeth were the only ways they could possibly win, loading up on Hero’s Downfall and Dreadbore is still a poor plan against them. By playing those cards, you have diluted your deck. Every Hero’s Downfall you draw could have instead been a threat that forces the control deck to react to it.
When you don’t pressure the control deck well enough, they are going to beat you with Sphinx’s Revelation. It doesn’t matter how many answers you have; they will have more when they can draw their entire deck. Unless you have a superior endgame to Sphinx’s Revelation and that endgame involves needing to deal with that Aetherling or Elspeth, it’s not worth trying to fight them on that axis.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means that siding in Pithing Needle to try to beat Aetherling or Elspeth isn’t probably where you want to be.* It means that as a Mono-Black Devotion player you might consider trimming down on the number of Hero’s Downfalls in your deck after sideboard. I’d rather have a Lifebane Zombie over a Downfall most of the time. One of those two things can pressure your opponent, and it’s not Hero’s Downfall. Having a few copies is fine, but having the full set just leads to games where you flood on Hero’s Downfall while your opponent is hitting land drops and drawing cards.
Your best bet is to try to win the game before they beat you with their win conditions, not try to answer them after they’ve already reached the late game where they have certainly sculpted their hand.
Have A Good Plan, Not Just Good Cards
None of those cards do anything against a control deck on their own. Assemble the Legion gets trumped by Jace or Detention Sphere. Voice of Resurgence doesn’t do enough damage to require the control deck to react until far later in the game. Mistcutter Hydra is slow and can easily be removed by Doom Blade, Celestial Flare, Elspeth, or Supreme Verdict.
It’s a poor plan to just play cards simply because they are historically good against control. You should play them because they actually fit your game plan of how to win the game against a control deck. Voice of Resurgence isn’t a scary threat against control out of a slow or grindy deck because it will eventually just get caught up in a Supreme Verdict or be trumped by a planeswalker and the damage doesn’t add up fast enough to be relevant.
However, Voice of Resurgence is an exceptional threat against control decks out of a deck like Andrew Shrout’s G/W Aggro deck from #SCGINDY. Because he has a lot of other aggressive creatures to put pressure on a control deck, the control player has to start to react to the cards he’s playing, which in turn makes both abilities on Voice of Resurgence powerful.
Assemble the Legion is one of the most overrated cards against control decks. It doesn’t come down until turn 5, meaning it won’t start to take over the game until at least turn 7 or 8. Even then it’s very easy for a control deck to handle it with Detention Sphere or Jace, Architect of Thought.
However, if you have a game plan that revolves around making Assemble the Legion good, it can be a completely unbeatable force. The U/W/R Heliod deck that I was working on months ago had such a plan. I knew that Assemble couldn’t win by itself, but alongside help it would be a huge thorn in the side of a control deck. I had Pithing Needle; Detention Sphere; Spear of Heliod; and Purphoros, God of the Forge to fight Jace, and I had Wear // Tear and Glare of Heresy to beat Detention Sphere. With that kind of a game plan, I could make Assemble the Legion good enough against control.
Is Naturalize a good card against a control deck? That depends. A deck like Shrout’s G/W Aggro wouldn’t want to go overboard on a card like Naturalize. His plan is to win the game with early pressure, and anything that doesn’t provide that early pressure isn’t very good, especially considering that Detention Sphere is the only target for Naturalize and a D-Sphere on a token can completely invalidate Naturalize anyway.
On the other hand, for the G/R Monsters deck, Destructive Revelry is one of the best cards possible in a post-board game. G/R Monsters’ entire game plan against control decks is to bury them with planeswalkers. Detention Sphere and Pithing Needle are the best answers that a control deck can have to this strategy, and being able to blow one up and put the pressure back on them is invaluable. Having Destructive Revelry is almost as good as having another planeswalker. Sometimes it’s better.
The key point here is that context matters. You can’t just jam a bunch of cards that are "good against control" into a deck and call it a day. You need an actual coherent plan. Prove that those cards actually are good against control by playing them in a shell that takes advantage of them.
Is Loathsome Catoblepas a good card against control? In a vacuum, no, but who knows what kind of a role it might serve in Catoblepas Tribal’s post-board plan against Esper Control.
Just as it’s important to know what cards matter, it’s also essential to know how you should play in the game itself.
Attack Their Card Advantage
For decks that contain cards like Thoughtseize, Duress, or Sin Collector after sideboard, you have to know what to strip from your opponent’s hand. It might be tempting to jack their Squire, but oftentimes the Elspeth is going to be a little scarier. One of the easiest mistakes you can make is to Thoughtseize your opponent, take the wrong card, and then just lose to the other cards you knew they had.
My philosophy on this has always been pretty simple—take their card advantage. I’m nearly always taking a Sphinx’s Revelation or Jace from their hand unless I’m positive that I can win the game before it becomes an issue or I have a second discard spell as backup to steal that Revelation before they can fire it off.
One exception is that sometimes it can be right to take your opponent’s answer to your own source of card advantage and try to simply outdraw them or draw another answer to Sphinx’s Revelation before it grows out of control. An example of that would be stripping a Thoughtseize so you can fire off your own Revelation or stripping a Detention Sphere to make an Underworld Connections live.
It’s rarely correct to take a removal spell or Supreme Verdict when you attack their hand. You can play around a Supreme Verdict by just deploying threats one at a time. Control against midrange isn’t generally a race, and trying to win by taking their Supreme Verdict and aiming to kill them before they cast Sphinx’s Revelation rarely works out very well.
If they don’t have a Sphinx’s Revelation, I would highly consider taking a Divination from their hand even if it’s a relatively good hand. Midrange decks typically have a lot of natural two-for ones. Cards like Sin Collector steal a card and provide a body. Underworld Connections replaces itself. Xenagos produces a Satyr even if it’s immediately removed. You can beat their one-for-one removal spells as long as they don’t draw too many. Divination and Sphinx’s Revelation let them draw too many.
Don’t Give Them Value
It’s very possible to grind out a control deck with a midrange deck, but one of the key elements is that you can’t give them any extra value out of their cards. The control deck already has powerful trump cards like Sphinx’s Revelation. To mitigate the power of those cards, it’s important to ensure that they aren’t getting a lot of mileage out of the rest of their deck.
What this means is that you rarely want to do things like play a second Underworld Connections out and let them get a two-for-one with Detention Sphere or play a second Stormbreath Dragon and allow their Supreme Verdict to deal with two of your best threats.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that it typically isn’t a race. You’re trying to present enough threats such that they eventually can’t deal with one. The expectation is that it might take a while.
For example, in the Top 8 of #SCGINDY, I kept a hand in game 3 on the draw against U/W Control where my first play of the game was a turn 4 Xenagos. The hand was four lands, Xenagos, and two Stormbreath Dragons. I was able to fairly convincingly win that game despite my opponent being able to play a Jace on his turn 4 on an empty board. I didn’t have much pressure and it took me a number of turns from that point to actually close out the game, but the point is that I wasn’t worried that my hand was too slow because it was filled with some of the best cards in my deck against him. I wasn’t trying to race; I was trying to present enough threats that he couldn’t deal with.
Keep An Inventory Of Their Hand
If you could see your opponent’s hand at all times, it would be easy to know what cards you need to play around. However, unless you’re playing Glasses of Urza Midrange, you probably aren’t going to know the contents of their hand at all times. Thankfully, there are still tools you can use to decipher what they have in order to know what to play around.
Most U/W/x Control decks right now are pretty predictable. They all look the same. Four Sphinx’s Revelations, four Supreme Verdicts, four Detention Spheres . . . generally speaking, if you look at a recent U/W/x Control deck that has put up results, it’s only going to be a few cards off from what your control opponent is playing.
That means that you should be able to have a good idea of the cards in their deck and throughout the course of the game it’s possible to get a good idea of the cards in their hand even without the help of Thoughtseize.
The easiest way to do this is to play the "if they had . . . they would have" game. The way that works is to think about a card in their deck, such as Detention Sphere, and then figure out if they would have cast the card already if they had it.
"If they had Detention Sphere, they would have removed my Xenagos already." "If they had Dissolve, my Obzedat, Ghost Council wouldn’t have resolved." "If they had Supreme Verdict, they would have blown up my two Elvish Mystics and stranded me on two lands." "If they had Sphinx’s Revelation, they would have cast it for sixteen on my end step."
This is important because if you know they don’t have something in their hand it becomes much less valuable to play around it. If you know they don’t have a Supreme Verdict, it gives you an opening to just flood the board with creatures and try to overwhelm their one-for-one removal spells before they can catch up. Sure, they could still draw one, but sometimes it’s worth taking that risk.
This information can prove quite useful if you also take into consideration what cards they are drawing. For example, let’s say they have been missing land drops and you’re also fairly certain that they don’t have a Dissolve in hand from context clues. If they play a land on their following turn, it stands to reason that they drew a land, and therefore you can deduce that they still don’t have a Dissolve in hand.
The reverse also works. You can also play the "they keep representing" game where you keep track of the cards that they keep leaving themselves open to cast each turn. If they make sure that they leave up 1UU each turn, it stands to reason that they’re likely to have a Dissolve. If they keep leaving open UW each turn, they’re probably trying to get value from an Azorius Charm.
It’s also possible to get these clues from your opponent’s actions. If they pause for a bit on their turn and eventually decide to just pass the turn back to you with a lot of mana, then it’s pretty clear that they have both a card they can cast and a Sphinx’s Revelation and they decided to go with casting the Revelation. Sometimes based on the board state you can also figure out what card it was they were thinking about casting. If Detention Sphere is the only reasonable card for them to cast on the board but instead they opted to go for a Revelation, you can be pretty certain that they will cast a Detention Sphere the following turn.
Play Around Their Cards
The reason why it’s so important to get an understanding of what cards you think they have in their hand is that one of the easiest ways to beat a control deck is to play the card each turn that they don’t want you to play. Knowing which card that is involves having to have a good idea of what they have in hand.
It’s rare that a control deck has an answer to everything you can do. Generally speaking, they’ll have a few solid answers in their hand and one glaring weak spot. Figuring out what that weak spot is and exploiting it is an art form and a true joy when you can successfully pull it off.
It’s more than just knowing what’s in their hand though. It’s important to try to bait the control player into making certain actions that you have the trump for. For example, one thing I love to do is play just enough creatures out on the board when I think my opponent has both a Supreme Verdict and a Dissolve. That puts pressure on them to cast the Supreme Verdict, and I can use the turn where they’re tapped out to resolve a huge threat like Garruk, Caller of Beasts.
I had a situation like this occur at the Invitational where I ran out a second Nightveil Specter on the board against my U/W Control opponent who was struggling with mana. I knew he had a Supreme Verdict, but I was baiting him to tap out so that I could resolve Aetherling the following turn. It worked.
Another important tip is that you don’t want to let them get full value from their mana. If your opponent passes the turn on turn 3 and is very likely to have a Dissolve, you probably don’t want to just run out your Xenagos into it. That’s the play they want you to make. They want to be able to counter your best card in Xenagos and then untap into a relatively protected Jace. Instead, it might be a better line to play something weaker like a Scavenging Ooze to bait their counterspell and attack them with a Mutavault. If you have nothing else to cast, sometimes it’s better to just cast nothing. If they untap and play Jace, then you can resolve your threat.
Likewise, the reverse is true. If your opponent Shocks themselves with a Hallowed Fountain and passes the turn with six mana open, it’s extremely likely that they plan on casting a Sphinx’s Revelation at the end of your turn. That means that this is the turn you want to try to resolve your biggest and best threat. If they counter it, you prevented them from playing the card they wanted to play. If they just cast the Sphinx’s Revelation anyway, then at least you have successfully put your best card into play.
Other Tips For Fighting Counters
The best way to ensure a win against a control deck is to successfully sneak your best cards past their wall of countermagic. It takes work to figure out how to arrive at a situation where you can get Obzedat, Ghost Council past that Dissolve you’re fairly certain they have in their hand, but that’s a lot of the fun in the matchup.
There are a few ways to accomplish that. One is to wait until you draw protection. Wait and hope to draw a Thoughtseize or Sin Collector to protect Obzedat. This is only really a viable option if you have a lot of those effects in your deck and are certain that you’ll draw one eventually.
Another is to bait the counterspell. Generally speaking, if you think your opponent has a counterspell, the best option is to play your second-best threat. If you play your worst threat, chances are they will simply let it resolve and ignore it or handle it in other ways. Then you will be put in the same position the next turn where you’re hoping to resolve your best card against their counterspell.
By going for the second-best card, you’re pressuring them to counter it. If they counter it, then you’re giving yourself a window to resolve your best spell the following turn. If they don’t counter it, well, at least you have your second-best threat in play, and it’s likely they’ll have to respect it and find an answer for it eventually, which may give you another window later to resolve your best threat.
Save threats that can’t be countered until when your opponent is planning on countering your spell, and play spells that suck to get countered, such as Stormbreath Dragon, when your opponent taps out. You might be able to get more damage out of a 7/7 Mistcutter Hydra when your opponent taps out, but you can always resolve a Mistcutter Hydra. You can’t always resolve a Stormbreath Dragon and should take advantage of the opportunity even if it results in less damage that turn.
When all else fails, it’s usually better to make them have it than not. Waiting to cast your cards to play around counterspells just gives them a huge advantage in scenarios where they don’t actually have one, and believe me, there are plenty of times where they simply don’t have it.
Ultimately, I find midrange decks are able to go toe-to-toe with control decks fairly convincingly, but it takes knowing how to properly navigate the matchup to get the most mileage from it.
Or you could just cast Thoughtseize a bunch of times. I hear that works pretty well too.
*Pithing Needle isn’t a bad proactive answer to Jace in order to attack one of their sources of card advantage. I wouldn’t want more than one though.