One Step Ahead – Anatomy of a Control Deck

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Wednesday, December 10th – Gerry Thompson has long been a supporter of the “grind ‘em out” style of control deck. As the dust settles on the “Cruel Ultimatum of No” battlefield, Thompson brings us an insight into the grinding strategy he finds so appealing. With Tap-Out Control strategies being the control weapon of choice in recent times, has the tide turned toward the traditional attrition plan? Gerry reveals all!

After the various responses to the “Cruel Ultimatum or No” argument, I realized that very few people had any idea how a true control deck functions. I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way (although I’m sure that many of you will take it that way). I had to have most of this explained to me too, as it isn’t readily obvious.

When I think of control, I generally think of the old decks, Buehler Blue and 5c Donais. Here they are, respectively:

Buehler Blue

18 Island
4 Quicksand
4 Stalking Stones
1 Rainbow Efreet
4 Counterspell
4 Dismiss
2 Dissipate
3 Forbid
4 Force Spike
4 Impulse
3 Mana Leak
1 Memory Lapse
4 Nevinyrral’s Disk
4 Whispers of the Muse

5c Donais

4 Impulse
4 Whispers of the Muse
4 Counterspell
3 Dissipate
4 Dismiss
2 Fireball
4 Wrath of God
1 Disenchant
3 Gerrard’s Wisdom
4 Wall of Blossoms
3 Gaea’s Blessing
2 Uktabi Orangutan
1 Wasteland
1 Quicksand
4 Reflecting Pool
1 Undiscovered Paradise
1 City of Brass
3 Gemstone Mine
1 Adarkar Wastes
2 Thalakos Lowlands
1 Flood Plains
1 Vec Township
1 Svyelunite Temple
1 Plains
1 Forest
3 Island

You might be asking yourself, “How do those decks win?” Basically, you grind the opponent out. Once you have full control by killing all of their creatures and have some counterspell backup, you can win however you want. A Stalking Stones or even a raw Orangutan can get the job done. Your opponent will literally never do anything that matters again, and has effectively lost the game already.

I see many players refusing to concede in this situation, even though they know they are drawing dead. That type of action can only be harmful to the player who refuses to concede, as it is more likely that the match will drag on, and even if the control deck can’t win, they can often prolong the game. If one player is wasting time, it is less likely that the match will finish in time.

The point of these decks was to not have any dead cards early. If you draw an Oona in your opening hand, it is effectively a mulligan until the turn you cast it. Even then, you might be hoping that it helps you stabilize, only to fall victim to a removal spell that your opponent hadn’t been able to use yet.

These control decks are all about card advantage, and therefore cannot afford to take a mulligan early. Sure, you can recoup the lost cards from mulliganing via something like a Wrath of God or Fact or Fiction, but you would rather be up a card still. Obviously, you can still win if you mulligan, sometimes even two or three times, but that isn’t the point. If you can draw an opener of seven good cards instead of six good cards, you take the seven every time.

Almost every deck is going to have creature removal in it, so if you can find a strategy that is creatureless, your opponent will be the one taking mulligans. Relying on Oona to stabilize you against Kithkin is just a losing proposition when they have Unmake and/or Oblivion Ring. Chances are, they have one waiting for a target, and the tempo they gain from that exchange is enough to kill you.

Instead, just focus on what matters. As long as they aren’t killing you, you are winning. You have inevitability, which means that if the game keeps going on, your deck is going to be the one that wins, as the opponent can’t stop your endgame from happening. With a deck like Standard Five-Color Control, eventually you can Wrath all of their guys away for the second time, refuel with Tidings, and will have a grip full of removal and/or counterspells. Especially if you have an Oona’s Grace or Story Circle, they will not be able to stick any relevant threats and you will kill them with whatever you have left in your deck. I prefer Treetop Villages in addition to Kitchen Finks, as those cards all provide you with value, even if they have removal.

For this reason, I don’t like cards like Chameleon Colossus, as they have no synergy with your strategy. Colossus can only attack or block, and while that sometimes invalidate your opponents attackers, more often than not it will just die. You will have spent four mana for nothing, or you will be so far behind that Colossus doesn’t matter. At that point, it is a mulligan.

Cruel Ultimatum is very close to Colossus. While it can help you not lose, and can probably help you kill your opponent, you don’t need it. It is also dead in several situations. You wouldn’t put Millstone in your Kithkin deck, would you? You plan on killing them via damage, not decking, so the Millstone is basically useless.

Odds are, Cruel is a dead card early game. Even if you get to seven lands and cast it (which doesn’t happen on turn 7 all the time, so it might even be later than that), the Edict and gain five life might not be enough to stop them from killing you on the counterswing. If Kithkin has a Cloudgoat, RDW has a Demigod, or GB Elves has some manlands in addition to some other tiny threats, the gain five life portion is irrelevant.

There are just too many ifs, ands, and buts for me to think that Cruel Ultimatum is a consistent card. If that Cruel were anything else on the turns where Cruel was a blank, maybe it would have helped you stabilize, and you wouldn’t have even needed Cruel in the first place. I strive for consistency, and the Ultimatum is anything but. Obviously you all remember the games where you blew out your opponent, but was it really necessary? Winning is all that matters, not doing cool stuff.

Mulligans can just be devastating, and that is why I attempt to build my decks to avoid them the best I can. I play one or two more lands on average, but I always make sure that I have stuff to do with them (Oona’s Grace, manlands, etc) so that I rarely feel as if I’m flooded. In decks like Five-Color Control, one of the few ways you can lose to bad matchups is by missing land drops. However, because of this, I often draw more lands than my opponent, and need more spells that trade one for one with his. Because of that, I can’t afford to play cards that are virtual mulligans when I draw them.

Over the years, I think that this strategy has slowly faded away for various reasons. Tempest and Urza’s block were extremely powerful, and you could barely design a control deck that had to fight combo and Cursed-Scroll-powered aggro decks to survive the first five turns, let alone the entire game.

Astral Slide decks mostly followed these principles. By having all of their cards cycle, they were extremely consistent. If you were short on lands, you could dig to find them. If you needed to find a Lightning Rift, a few turns later you could have it.

A few blocks later, Gifts Ungiven decks started to usher in a new era, although sometimes those decks won quickly because of things like Kagemaro, which was the deck’s primary sweeper, and Kokusho, which was good in the mirror.

Sometime later, Mike Flores changed the face of Magic forever. Week after week, he would present a new “tap-out control” deck, usually headlined by Kiega, the Tide Star. Mike’s philosophy was much different than my own. He actually wanted to kill his opponent. What blasphemy! He found that tapping out for a Kiega was much more likely to win you the game on the spot than trying to grind out your opponents. The main reason that was true was that even if Kiega died, you got a ton of value by stealing their best creature. Current things like Oona don’t do that for you. Archon of Justice saw a brief period of play, but was notoriously awful against removal like Sower of Temptation, Oblivion Ring, or Unmake.

In fact, if not for Faeries, I think that end game control decks would be amazing right now. We are almost entirely back to basics. There is a White Weenie deck, a Red deck, a few midrange Green decks, and some permission decks. The problem is that Faeries doesn’t fit the mould, and preys on slow control decks. I didn’t quit playing Five-Color Control because “I couldn’t get it to work,” as Patrick would say… it was simply because Faeries is a monster, and it’s too difficult to defeat regularly. I did like my chances against every other deck, just to be fair.

Cruel Ultimatum doesn’t solve the Faerie problem, by allowing you to play more anti Fae cards or otherwise. Just try and build an anti-Fae Five-Color Control deck. I dare you. I imagine it would look more like a Flores deck than anything.

End-Game Control is only viable if, by drawing extra cards, you are able to lock your opponent out of the game with the things that you could draw. Red decks popped up to fight Gifts Ungiven at the end of that season, because even if you set up a Hana Kami loop, a topdecked burn spell would usually kill you, as you had little life gain and no permission.

Permission decks were great against Astral Slide because, despite Slide tearing through its deck every turn, it couldn’t fight through a wall of counterspells with so few threats. Once in a while a Decree of Justice would turn the tides, but those games were few and far between.

Current Standard is weak against the end game strategy, with the exception of Faeries. Sometimes, the end game strategy is perfectly legitimate, but this is not one of those times.

As I see it, the main disadvantage to playing an end game strategy is the fact that the games go long. It gives you more opportunities to mess up, but that works both ways. Good Magic players want the games to go long, as the more turns they play, the more likely the worst player makes a game-ending mistake. If you don’t think you can play an end game strategy quickly and efficiently, perhaps you should just be willing to play a different deck.

Dave Price used to say that there are no wrong threats, and only wrong answers, and that is certainly true in this day and age. You can load your Five-Color Control deck to the brim with creature removal, but your deck will end up very soft against things like Bitterblossom or Garruk, cards that constantly pump out threats. At that point, you want to kill the source of the problem, not the threats they provide, but those types of answers are either fairly weak (Oblivion Ring comes to mind) or just don’t exist.

Occasionally, an end game strategy is bad against a fringe strategy like discard or land destruction, but that could just be bad pairings. They are also vulnerable to more powerful permission strategies like Tron or Faeries.

The positives are what sold me on control decks a long time ago. You generally destroy creature strategies, which people still enjoy playing. I absolutely hate losing to a linear aggro deck, as there is basically no reason for it. If you took the time to build and tune your deck, you shouldn’t be losing to a Zoo deck.

As I said earlier, you force your opponent to make more decisions. Eventually, they will start making the wrong ones, and you will benefit from that. Your deck is also full of answers. You will very rarely lose straight up to a card because you couldn’t kill or counter it.

Control decks have card drawing and card advantage to pull ahead of close games. Those things also allow you to recover from mulligans or missed land drops. If you play an aggressive deck, and miss a land drop or your three drop, that could be curtains for you. While control doesn’t often take advantage of an opponent’s bad draw, their slow draws play right into your strategy. Most of these decks have inevitability.

Some successful control decks have implemented the transformational surprise, in which they side in some undercosted beaters while their opponents are siding out all of their creature removal. That is usually good enough to win one game in a match based on surprise value, whereas you can rely on your real cards to win the other game. This is especially relevant if you happen to be low on time in the round and need a way to finish the game quickly.

I hope this all makes sense now, and you can understand why I say things like “Cruel Ultimatum is a mulligan,” “I want my win conditions to do something,” or even “I don’t need to kill my opponents to win the game.”

I felt pretty good when, earlier in the week, I watched my roommate playing a Faerie mirror on Magic Online. He cast a Fathom Trawl to pull way ahead after they had traded a bunch of cards, but his opponent topdecked his own Fathom Trawl! Suddenly, they were at parity again. Thankfully, my roommate peeled another one and went on to win the game, the match, and the queue. I’m just glad that someone, somewhere, is listening to what I have to say.

I’m still in New Zealand after picking up some much needed pro points, but will be leaving soon. I only need to make Top 100 Worlds to reach Level 6, so wish me luck!

I am very glad they didn’t ban anything (at least as of yet). It would have thrown a lot of my testing and theory out the window, in addition to just being completely unnecessary. Faeries and Elves are the best decks in their respective Worlds formats, but I don’t necessarily expect them to perform the best. Both of them are easily dealt with, should you be willing to put in the time and effort.

Honestly, I think they should change the banned and restricted announcement format. Once every three months simply isn’t often enough. As we have seen with Dredge and Elves, WotC is more than willing to let powerful decks run rampant and create a rock-paper-scissors metagame. However, when something comes along that they hadn’t planned for ends up being too powerful, why should they have to wait potentially three months to ban it?

A monthly B/R announcement seems more than fine to me. I suppose there could be some overly nervous people out there who think that the cards they just bought are going to get banned, but if it was going to happen, it was going to happen eventually anyway.