Feature Article – The Perils of Playing Control

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The goal of every competitive deck is to win. Not losing is merely a means to that end, but not an end in itself. Each archetype takes a different approach to winning the game. Looking at each archetype in detail will provide insight into how each of them achieves its strategy. There is one particular archetype that will be very different in nature from the others and it deserves more consideration.

The goal of every competitive deck is to win. Not losing is merely a means to that end, but not an end in itself. Each archetype takes a different approach to winning the game. Looking at each archetype in detail will provide insight into how each of them achieves its strategy. There is one particular archetype that will be very different in nature from the others and it deserves more consideration.

Aggressive decks play independent threats, usually in the form of creatures, to deal lethal damage to their opponent. These threats are independent because any of them can win the game without the others. These decks play very few if any answers. An answer stops your opponent’s threats.

In contrast to aggro decks, combination decks need to play a combination or sequence of cards to win the game. These decks play very few actual threats. The only threats are the ones that actually win the game, whether that be a storm spell (after a lethal storm count) or a two-card combination that wins the game. These threats are dependent either on another card for a two-card combination, or setup spells such as mana accelerants or card draw that enable that threat to win the game. Some combo decks also incorporate a few answers in their decks as means of protecting their threats from their opponent’s answers. Answers are usually quite limited, as most of the deck is dedicated to spells that find the combination pieces, accelerants to allow the combination to be played quickly, and the combination itself.

While aggro and combo decks are actively trying to win the game, there is one archetype that is not. Control decks are focused on answering an opponent’s threats. These decks consist mostly of answers. They also play very few threats, often referred to as win conditions. These threats are usually so few in number and often very expensive to cast that they can only be played late in the game. The remaining cards in a control deck are usually dedicated to generating card advantage. They allow control decks to have more answers than their opponent can possibly have threats. This focus on not losing over winning makes this approach completely different than aggro and combo decks.

Hybrid archetypes also exist, such aggro-control, combo-control, and even aggro-combo that combine elements from their respective archetypes. Aggro-control decks have both independent threats (aggressive) and answers (control). Combo-control decks opt for having dependent threats (combo) with additional answers (control), which allow it to function as a control deck at certain points in the game. Aggro-Combo is a deck with independent threats (aggressive) that also has dependents threats (combo) that win the game when assembled together.

Of all the archetypes, control is the only one that does not spend most of its resources trying to win the game. Almost all of its resources are spent on answers, or cards that draw more answers. This strategy is unique and has its own advantages and disadvantages.

The perils of playing control in Legacy are severe. Legacy has a deep card pool and a diverse metagame. It will always be difficult to have the appropriate answers if the threats can vary. It is just as challenging to try and win quickly with an archetype that places a focus on answers over threats.

The Wrong Answers

Playing control is based on having the right answers for your opponent’s threats. If you have the wrong answers losing is almost a certainty.

Rifter versus Solidarity

Rifter is a control deck based on cycling cards to fuel Lightning Rift and to find more creature destruction spells like Swords to Plowshares, Humility, Pyroclasm and others. On the other side is Solidarity, a combo deck, based around playing High Tide followed by both draw spells and untap effects to build the storm count. The deck usually wins with Brain Freeze and sometimes with Stroke of Genius cast on the opponent.

This matchup is a perfect example of having the wrong answers. Solidarity only plays two types of spells, lands and instants. Rifter has no counterspells, discard, or land destruction to affect the parts of the game in which Solidarity operates. Rifter is an anti-creature control deck, which can answer threats that are creatures. Rifter has no way to control Solidarity because Solidarity doesn’t play any creatures.

Rifter only plays one relevant spell (Abeyance), which is its only answer. If Rifter draws Abeyance it is likely to be met by Force of Will, Remand, or your Solidarity will go off on top of the Abeyance (Solidarity can play all its spells in response to Abeyance because it plays all instants). The worst part for Rifter is that Solidarity can actually wait to sculpt the perfect hand because Rifter like most control decks doesn’t play very many win conditions and most of them cost too much to cast in the early game. An early Lightning Rift followed by a steady stream of cycling cards is the best it can do but it is rarely enough to win before the Solidarity player can.

The Rifter player can try to board Rule of Law, Pyroblast, Red Elemental Blast, and even Boil, but it is rarely enough to turn around such an unfavorable matchup. Rifter simply is unable to answer the threats that Solidarity has. It has the wrong answers.

Rifter may seem like a poor deck and in this matchup it is, but that does not necessarily mean that Rifter is a bad deck. Rifter made Top 8 at both Grand Prix: Philadelphia and Grand Prix: Lille. This was largely based on its strength against creature-based decks, especially Vial Goblins.

Truffle Shuffle versus Iggy Pop

Truffle Shuffle is a control deck based around Black discard spells and sweepers such as Wrath of God and Pernicious Deed. Iggy Pop is a combo deck based around using mana accelerants such Lion’s Eye Diamond and Dark Ritual to cast multiple Ill-Gotten Gains into a lethal Tendrils of Agony.

This matchup is not as lopsided as the Rifter/Solidarity matchup, but Truffle Shuffle for the most part has the wrong answers. Iggy Pop essentially plays sorceries, instants, and artifacts. Truffle Shuffle has a variety of spells to control different aspects of the game. It plays Black disruption spells in Duress and Hymn to Tourach to prevent spells from being cast. It incorporates the versatile Vindicate to deal with permanents that do make it into play. Haunting Echoes and Pernicious Deed can be relevant but they are also very slow against this fast combo deck. The problem is that its remaining spells are completely ineffective against Iggy Pop because it plays no creatures (newer versions have adopted Empty the Warrens). Spells like Swords to Plowshares and Wrath of God are the best examples of the wrong answers.

There are many reasons why Truffle Shuffle is unable to win this matchup even with the answers it has. The most obvious scenario is that Truffle Shuffle may simply not draw one of its relevant answers before the Iggy Pop Player can win. If by turn 3 the Truffle Shuffle player hasn’t drawn one of these it has likely lost the game. Iggy Pop generally wins on turn 3 without being disrupted in some way.

The other problem is that Iggy Pop is very resilient against discard spells. The reason for this is that the spell Ill-Gotten Gains allows the Iggy Pop player to recur the very spells that were discarded and be able to combo off using its graveyard.

The last problem is that while the Iggy Pop player may be forced to discard a large portion of its hand or lose some permanents to Vindicate it has time to recover. The win conditions for Truffle Shuffle such as Gigapede and Eternal Dragon cost too much mana and are too few in number to be played in the early game.

Truffle Shuffle can try to board in more disruption and faster win condition, but this does not prove to be enough to turn around such a difficult matchup. Truffle Shuffle happens to the play the answers that Iggy Pop is most resilient against and the rest of its answers are irrelevant. It has the wrong answers.

This again does not mean that Truffle Shuffle is an unviable deck. Matt Abold played this deck to a Top 8 finish at the 2006 GenCon Legacy Championship. Matt was able to defeat the eventually champion, Roland Chang, playing U/G Madness in the swiss of that very tournament.

Too Little Too Late

The limited number of win conditions and their usually expensive cost forces the control player to win in the late game. This requires the control player to answer all of its opponent’s threats until its win condition can come into play. There are times where the control player has gained control of the game in the mid game, but has not drawn its win condition. This situation allows the opposing player to get back into the game.

Landstill versus Vial Goblins

Landstill is a control deck that uses counterspells and board sweepers. By keeping the board clear it can use the card Standstill to generate card advantage. It has Mishra Factories and sometimes Nantuko Monasteries to break the symmetry of Standstill. Vial Goblins is an aggressive deck that uses Aether Vial to power out some of the more expensive and powerful Goblins to deal lethal damage. Landstill in this case does have the right answers. Almost all of its cards are relevant in the matchup. This should be a good matchup for Landstill but it isn’t.

For the purpose of this analysis lets grant that Landstill survives the early game against Goblins. The early game is very tough for Landstill, but let’s assume that this happens. The game drifts into the midgame where Landstill has been able to use Pernicious Deed or Wrath of God to wipe away the board, but its life total is not very high. Both players have very few cards in hand. The Goblin players attack stalls because he has no creatures in play.

This is a time where Landstill could start winning the game with one of its threats. At this point in the game Landstill may not have drawn any of its threats since there are usually only 6 or 7 win conditions. Or even worse, it has been hit by Wasteland or constantly pinned down by a Rishadan Port. As the turns go by Landstill will draw more answers, but the Goblin player will draw more threats and may resolve a key threat such as a Goblin Ringleader or Siege-Gang Commander. If this happens the Landstill player can easily lose the game, as the card advantage from Ringleader or damage from Siege-Gang Commander can be too much for Landstill to survive. Landstill may have all the answers and may even find a win condition in a short amount of time. This would require the best draws on the part of Landstill and some of the worst from the Goblin player. Landstill loses in this situation because it cannot reliably win the game quickly after gaining control.

Gaining control of the situation is simply not enough. Unless the control player can generate some card advantage to find more answers or is able to the end the game the situation will change. Your opponent will recover by drawing cards with each passing turn. When and if that happens your temporary control of the game will be lost and you will have to struggle to gain control once again.

Despite Landstill’s difficulty with beating Goblins consistently, it has enjoyed some success in Legacy. It has multiple Top 8 appearances in major events such as Grand Prix: Lille and GenCon Legacy Championships. It has also had success in the German metagame.

Looking Back and Walking Forward

According to the Historical Top 8 thread maintained on The Source cataloging the major American Legacy tournaments, no control deck has won any tournament with 50 or more players. Not a single win in 23 tournaments spread out over three years. Only two control decks have even made it to the finals of one of these tournaments (Psychatog at the The Mana Leak Open 2, and 43 Land at the 2007 GenCon Legacy Championship). Outside the U.S., control has fared better, especially in Germany where decks such as 43 Land, Landstill, and different Loam control variants have placed first in different tournaments.

Control has to improve if it wants to claim the top prize going forward. These examples from Legacy’s past highlight two of the most pressing issues that control decks have to come to terms with to be more successful. It is important that the builders of future control decks keep such shortcomings in mind and try to overcome them. If control decks are able to avoid having the wrong answers and are able to find ways to accelerate their win condition then they may enjoy more success.

Anwar Ahmad
AnwarA101 on The Source, StarCityGames.com Forums