Flow Of Ideas – Aggro-Control In Every Format Ever

Gavin is frequently asked how he builds decks. In this article, he demonstrates how to build a unique aggro-control build using nothing but past decks, in an entirely invented format.

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking for tips on deckbuilding. Several of you guys see how I consistently identify baseline strategies and are curious what my process is. Well, today I’m going to let you guys in on a secret.

Ready for it? Most of these decks are built off templates!

What is a template? A template is a list of roles in my head that I want the cards in any given archetype to fill. Essentially it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks with the cards legal in the format, and voila! Instant deck. If deckbuilding is like baking a cake, utilizing a template is like following a recipe. Once you have the recipe down, anybody can do it!

The vast majority of decks run off the templates of their ancestors. Beatdown decks will always want the most efficient creatures backed by removal and/or forms of reach. Control decks will always want a mix of disruption, removal, and inevitability. Midrange decks will always want powerful cards at every drop. If you can learn the templates for decks, deckbuilding becomes much easier.

Now, that’s not to say that templates create perfect decks. Templates do have some faults. They do risk stifling innovation, and they don’t work for some strategies. (Namely, combo decks.) To continue the metaphor, a cake made from a recipe isn’t going to be more delicious than something a master chef whipped up from scratch. Of course, you don’t risk ending up with something that won’t rise in the oven properly either! Templates, like recipes, are the safe bet. If you’re looking to create baseline decks of the format to test against or try out a new archetype, they’re a great way to do so.

Unlike learning how to build one particular Standard beatdown deck and then having to relearn everything when that Standard deck is no longer good, if you learn the template for beatdown in general you’ll be able to build a beatdown deck for current Standard, Innistrad Standard, Modern, “Friends, Romans, Countryman” Block Constructed, Pauper, and more. Not to mix up my analogies (I generally try to keep fish firmly out of my cakes), but it is truly teaching a man to fish.

Today, I’m going to go over the template for one of my favorite archetypes to build: aggro-control. If you guys like this article and find it useful, post some feedback in the comments and I’d be happy to continue the series to cover beatdown, control, and midrange in the future.

Why start at aggro-control? A couple reasons. One is that the majority of decks I’m sent fall into this category, and I’d love for this article to provide help to all of those two people. Another major reason is that I just find aggro-control interesting, dynamic, and good in wide open formats, making it a perfect archetype to dissect.

Ready? Let’s begin!    

Deck Overview

Before getting into the actual template, it’s important to understand how the deck is going to perform. You can’t just bake a quiche in a cake pan and call it a cake. All you have then is a deformed quiche, which, let me tell you, is substantially less delicious than a cake or a quiche. You have to have a full idea of what you’re trying to do going into the process.

The goal of an aggro-control deck is to create a clock on your opponent that you can back up with disruption. Usually the clock is in some form of creature-based assault, but it can really be any source of inevitability. For example, an untouched planeswalker will often close up the game just as well.

Almost all aggro-control decks are blue and/or black. Why? Because they are the colors that provide ample disruption. The one exception I can think of is a deck like Hate Bears, which relies on creatures like Gaddock Teeg and Aven Mindcensor to disrupt the opponent. Aside from that G/W oddity, you either want to play black for discard effects or blue for light countermagic.

Disruption is crucial to the aggro-control game plan, since it protects your clock by preventing your opponent from doing anything to stop you and executing their game plan. At its core, that’s what the aggro-control archetype aims to do.

How is this different from beatdown? Unlike beatdown, you’re not trying to play the most undercosted, highest power/toughness creatures. You’re not relying on pure blistering speed to win. Instead, your creatures generally have some kind of useful effect attached to them. Where beatdown decks play creatures like Wild Nacatl, aggro-control decks play cards like Vendilion Clique: they both have the same amount of power, but one works toward controlling the terms of the game while the other does not. That’s where the split occurs.

How is this different from control? Unlike control decks, you’re not trying to draw the game out, deplete your opponent’s resources, and then eventually win with a finisher. Aggro-control decks aren’t heavy enough on disruption to lock their opponent out of the long game. Instead, they have just enough disruption to inhibit their opponent’s ability to play for the first several turns and hope to win in that period of time.

Aggro-control is all about tempo. You want to set the pace of the game to your own terms. Aggro-control decks traditionally can win out of nowhere, riding a handful of efficient 2/2s and a pair of Mana Leaks all the way to victory. This is why aggro-control decks can’t control as well as control decks: their focus on tempo plays leaves them unable to play the long game, where tempo is less relevant.

To get your mind on the right track if you’re new to the archetype, here are seven notable aggro-control decks to look at as examples:

The Template

Alright! You have the goal of the archetype firmly in mind. Now it’s just a matter of completing the recipe.

At this point, I would choose two colors (potentially three if the mana in the format can support it) to focus on. U/G is usually the easiest one to start with, but U/B, B/W, and U/W tend to be pretty popular as well. Usually, a couple of particular cards will draw you toward a color combination. Thoughtseize, Dark Confidant, Vendilion Clique, Mana Leak, Noble Hierarch, and Remand are some good examples of cards that may pull you in a direction. Once you have your colors in mind, it’s time to get down to business.

Here’s the template for aggro-control:

23-25 Lands


0-8 Accelerators that cost 1 or less (At least 4 if available in your colors.)
8-16 Efficient/disruptive 2-drop creatures
4-8 Efficient/disruptive 3-drop creatures
2-4 Four-cost creatures/planeswalkers that provide inevitability (They can cost five or six if you have acceleration, but ideally they cost four.)

Spells to fill the gaps:

6-8 Disruption spells
2-6 Cards that interact with the board in some way (Bounce or removal)
2-5 Cards that create card advantage/selection
0-4 Cards that have synergy within the deck (Vengevine, Stoneforge targets, and so on.)


2-4 More disruption spells for control/combo matchups
4-6 Cards for beatdown, either removal or creatures good at blocking, and/or lifegain for red decks
0-4 Larger creatures or spells aimed at fighting/going over the top of midrange decks
4-8 Metagame specific cards (Artifact and enchantment removal, graveyard hate, combo disablers, and so on.)

Now some of that is a little generic because of how all-encompassing this template needed to be, but I think you’ll find it works pretty well. There are a few categories with pretty wide spreads, but that’s mostly to encompass all of the colors. It should become pretty clear to you which decks can take more cards in which categories as you’re building. For example, a U/B deck is going to be hard pressed to find good accelerators if Chrome Mox isn’t in the format, whereas it should be easy for a U/G deck.

The other thing to clarify is that the spells are meant to fill the gaps left by the creatures. In other words, if you’re playing four Aether Adepts and you get to the “cards to interact with the board” section, keep in mind that you already have four ways to do that. There’s a lot of overlap, and your creatures should cover some of the ground that spells would.

To help illustrate this process, I’m going to walk you through how I would use this template to build a deck. There’s a twist though: I can’t just take a pre-existing format and use that because it would be too easy to simply rebuild something that’s been built before. I want to show how this can be used for all new decks.

Instead, we’re going to take a whole new format comprised of never-before-combined sets. This format will use six Modern-legal sets escalating down from Mirrodin per block, so that is: Mirrodin, Betrayers of Kamigawa, Dissension, Time Spiral, Morningtide, and Eventide. For a base set, we’ll use Magic 2012. And, just for some extra restrictions, the deck will adhere to the Modern banned list.

Now, at this point, we have to choose a color combination. There are plenty of good options. U/B has some good options, and your Bant deck has great mana because of Dissension. Normally what I would do is just try them all. However, since it seems to be the most commonly played, I’ll focus on building U/G instead.

Here we go! Let’s start from the top of the non-land list and go down.

0-8 Accelerators

We’re green, and that means we have access to accelerators! The only question is how many we want. We want one-drop accelerators and not Simic Signet or anything, so Birds of Paradise, Llanowar Elves, and Utopia Sprawl are all options.

Since we’re aggressive and tempo based, we’re going to favor the creatures. At that point, it’s a matter of figuring out which is better or if we want both. This is a decision that can only be made after seeing the rest of the deck. For example, if our mana is rough or if we have Equipment, then we want Birds, but if we are just attacking all the time without a way to pump our creatures, then Elf is better. We’ll tentatively pencil in four Birds and revisit this area before finishing.

8-16 Efficient/disruptive two-drops

Just to clarify, these are almost always two-drops. However, if there’s ever a one-drop that fits this category that is worth running, that doesn’t mean you should exclude it.

In any case, our best options are: Coiling Oracle, Fauna Shaman, Looter Il-Kor, Plaxmanta, Phantasmal Image, Riftwing Cloudskate, Scryb Ranger, and Ninja of the Deep Hours.

Plaxmanta is a great card for this kind of deck: it has flash so you can hold up counter mana, protects your creatures, and is very versatile. We’ll start with four of those. Looking ahead, I know Scryb Ranger is in the same set as Spectral Force, which is a nice combo, but generally I think we can do better than the five-mana Spectral Force, and the Ranger is a bit unimpressive otherwise.

Fauna Shaman is interesting to keep in mind, but without Vengevine, it’s going to lose a lot of its Standard punch. Unless there’s a toolbox we really want for this deck, it’s better to pass. Phantasmal Image is a neat card, but you want to be the one applying pressure and you can’t guarantee that will work if you have an Image.

That leaves Oracle, Cloudskate, Ninja, and Looter. Ninja isn’t really a two-drop, but it’s also not a four-drop, so it’s more likely to fit into this pile. I’m perfectly content with turn one Birds, turn two Ninja, and draw a card. It’s likely we’ll have enters the battlefield effects to use it with, and the consistent card advantage is excellent in a U/G deck.

I definitely want to have Riftwing Cloudscape. It’s a great tempo card, bouncing anything that slipped through the cracks and crashing in for two each turn. The harder choice comes down to Coiling Oracle or Looter.

Oracle gives you a one-time boost, while Looter gives you an effect for the longer game. One can’t be blocked, but they both work well with Ninja. In the end, I think Looter likely edges out Oracle because of the longer game filtering.

4-8 Efficient/disruptive three-drops

These three-drops will really set the tone of this deck. Normally, you don’t want too many three-drops because of how badly they tie up your mana while you’re trying to simultaneously disrupt the opponent. You can either try and play one quickly and win in a couple turns while countering a key spell (those are the kinds of decks that want eight accelerators), or play a smaller three-drop that nets you some kind of advantage and win the long game. This deck looks to be the latter.  

Fortunately, we have access to one of the best cards for this kind of deck ever: Vendilion Clique. It’s disruptive, hits for three each turn, and has flash. Even though it’s legendary, it dies so easily that I’m happy to run four.

Vendilion Clique lets us play even more three-drops if we want because he doesn’t constrict our mana, so we can look into playing some others. Vendilion Clique is a bit of a strange case in that it doesn’t fall into the three-drop problem of tying up your mana since it has flash. You can safely pass the turn with a three-drop Clique in your hand.

The other options are Aether Adept, Call of the Herd, Plaxcaster Frogling, Troll Ascetic, Trygon Predator, Wake Thrasher, and Kira, Great Glass-Spinner. Out of those, the ones that really stand out to me as being the best choices are Kira, Wake Thrasher, and Trygon Predator.

If you want a card that hits hard, Wake Thrasher is just the man to do it. However, in these kinds of decks, usually you can win just on the back of 2/2s backed up by countermagic. If in playtesting I found that I needed a finisher, I would turn to Wake Thrasher, but I don’t think he’s necessary. 

Kira makes our guys hard to deal with, which is going to be incredible against control and midrange decks that plan to deal with our creatures individually. Trygon Predator is the mystery factor here because he’s pretty metagame dependent. I’d rather sideboard the Predator, but Kira seems pretty good here too as a way to keep your fragile creatures alive, so I’m also going to run two copies of the legendary spirit.

2-4 Four-cost creatures/planeswalkers that provide inevitability

While your inevitability cards can cost more, I like to keep the costs low when I can. Looking just at four-drops, we have two main options: Chameleon Colossus and Glen Elendra Archmage. Neither of those is super exciting, and the Archmage is really the only one that fit our game plan. It helps stop whatever control wants to do, which makes sure our creatures can punch through.

The card I would normally have here is something like Garruk Wildspeaker, but we don’t have that option. Garruk, Primal Hunter is an option, but he’s a bit expensive for the slower tempo game this deck is going to play. At this point there is the option to eschew the slot if nothing exists, but I’ll put down a single Glen Elendra Archmage as a nice catchall and then sideboard more.

6-8 Disruption spells

When it comes to U/G, your primary form of disruption is going to be countermagic. You’re going to play some guys, get a little ahead, counter their trump spells to essentially Time Walk them and gain tempo, and then you should win. There aren’t many good options in this format, but fortunately we do have a single great one: Mana Leak. Four Mana Leaks make the cut for sure.

Now, when it comes to the spells, it’s very important to look at overlap from your creatures. For example, Glen Elendra Archmage counts as disruption in a sense. I think with this deck you could end it at four Leaks and two Archmages, but generally I want a couple more and especially access to a hard counter.

Spell Snare is good, but it’s conditional. In this case, I’m willing to try out two Mystic Snakes. After playing the deck, I would revise the numbers and see how good Snake was, but I imagine a hard counter is important. Plus, he perfectly embodies this kind of deck. He counters a spell, and then provides a minor board presence—exactly what the deck wants!

2-6 Cards that interact with the board in some way

There aren’t many great options here either. In U/G, generally this means bounce. (Or at least it did in a pre-Dismember world.) Now we already have the Riftwing Cloudskates, which interact on this axis, so because of the overlap I’d actually be okay just calling it good. However, there is a weird non-bounce card we can play a couple of for some reach: Psionic Blast.

U/G decks can be weak at closing out the last few points of damage sometimes, and Blast helps with that while also being removal. I’d only start with two, and then either up them or cut them entirely based on how they perform.

2-5 Cards that create card advantage/selection

We already have plenty of card advantage and selection already built into the deck with Looter and Ninja. Now, that’s not to say I wouldn’t consider Ancestral Vision if given the chance, but there really aren’t many great options. Looter and Ninja will have to do!

0-4 Cards that have synergy within the deck

Normally, these are just catchall slots to place very specific cards like Vengevine, Fauna Shaman singletons, and so on. The only real engine within this deck is Ninja, allowing you to reuse enters the battlefield effects, and there aren’t really any others worth the effort.

Crystal Shard is a cute way to reuse your effects further and morphs from cute to dangerous very quickly with Vendilion Clique and Mystic Snake. I don’t think it’ll be more than cute, but I’m willing to play one copy to see how it performs.  


I was pretty generic about the lands earlier, and that’s because it really depends on the format. In general, you want to play as many color-fixing lands as possible and as many manlands as you can. Manlands are great in aggro-control decks because they stymie the problem of flood and also just give you an extra body to serve in with as you’re countering spells.

Fortunately, our mana is great! Breeding Pool and Flooded Grove are both available to us, which should make sure our mana comes together without any need for Terramorphic Expanse. Even without tribal synergies, we can also run Mutavaults as our manland of choice.

Now it’s time to move onto the sideboard!

2-4 More disruption spells for control/combo matchups

One of the best cards to have in this case is one we already have maindeck: Glen Elendra Archmage. In this case, I would likely just end up sideboarding a third or possibly even fourth Archmage. The Archmage is going to be better than more Mystic Snakes.

I also might want some cheaper answers, especially if I want to land my Archmages. Negate and Spell Snare are both cards I would consider. Maindeck you mainly want universal countermagic in a deck like this, but after sideboarding you can bring in some more conditional cards.  

If the control decks are mainly leaning on Mana Leak, which is likely, being able to cast Archmage and Snare their Leak is fairly strong. Negate is also fairly easy to leave up once you have a presence. We already have quite a few counters, but I’d probably start by sideboarding something like 1 Glen Elendra Archmage, 2 Negate to tighten the screw on the control and combo decks.

4-6 Cards for beatdown, either removal or creatures good at blocking, and/or lifegain for red decks

While U/G is favored against control and combo decks, it is usually a little soft against fast beatdown decks. Red decks are especially a problem for U/G decks, and so having some big creatures and life gain to help out there is crucial.

There aren’t many good options, but Sun Droplet is one way to gain life back against red. They can still shoot at all your creatures, but if you also sideboard in 2 Iwamori of the Open Fist then you have a huge body to put down against red. If you get Act of Treasoned, that kind of sucks, but the body in general should prove very effective.

0-4 Larger creatures or spells aimed at fighting/going over the top of midrange decks   

The same Iwamoris that are good against red are likely going to be alright here, presuming the midrange decks don’t have too many legends. Other than that, it’s hard to say without knowing the nature of the decks we’re building for.

4-8 Metagame specific cards

These are more or less impossible to pick without knowing the format. A few choices though would be Engineered Explosives, Chalice of the Void, Trygon Predator, Annul, Creeping Mold, Flashfreeze, Krosan Grip, Viridian Shaman, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, Vesuvan Doppelganger, and Brine Elemental, alongside plenty others.

The Deck 

So where did we end up?

Sometimes you have to fool around with the numbers a little bit to make them fit, though it worked out nicely here, though you may want a 25th land over something. In general, I would lean toward trying out many different cards in playtesting to see what works best and potentially tweak the numbers.

I might also consider moving toward Bant or U/W, as the green isn’t providing too much—but that’s just part of the point of the exercise. It can also be used as a quick deckbuilding tool to see if a color combination is viable, and in this case the green might just be better as something else.

Of course this isn’t a real format so that deck is irrelevant, but it’s still an interesting exercise. Now it’s time for your homework!

If you want to try this yourself, try building a U/G aggro-control deck with the following sets: Darksteel, Saviors of Kamigawa, Ravnica, Planar Chaos, Lorwyn, and Shadowmoor, and Magic 2010. If you’re at a loss for cards to use, I recommend using a sortable search engine (like the StarCityGames.com Spoiler generator) to sort by set and then search for specific keywords. Post your finished builds in the comments and we can talk about them!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into what it’s like to build off a template. While templating isn’t necessarily the route to refined decks, it’s a great way to make decks quickly and playtest them to explore the format. If you liked this article and would like more like it, post in the comments and let me know and what specifically you’d like to see more of.

I’d also be happy to answer any questions if there’s anything you’d like explained further! Of course, if you don’t want to post in the comments below, you can also feel free to e-mail me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com or send me a tweet.

I’ll be at the StarCityGames.com Open Series in Atlanta doing coverage for SCGLive this weekend. Hope to see you there!

Gavin Verhey

Rabon on Magic online, @GavinVerhey on Twitter