The Art Of Beating Control

Israel wrote his tales of how to play control… Now I’ll show you the tricks I used to beat Israel when he plays control.

Today I found Israel Marques’ latest article,”The Art of Control.” Being pressed for time and seeing a great deal of text involved, I printed out the article to read it at a later time, which made me write today’s article. Because I had a hard copy in front of me, I was compelled to have pen in hand, checking Israel’s points. This intense concentration led me to come up with certain”counter-arguments” which I thought might help newbies face the perils that Israel draws in his article.

Before we get started, I suggest that everyone who hasn’t read Israel’s article should read it here. Although I’ll reiterate the relevant points from his article, it’d be best to have his whole article in mind.

Now, let me begin by saying that almost everything Israel said is correct. As you probably know, I’m an avid control player myself, and I agreed with most of the things he said.”So what’s the response all about?” you’re asking. Well, the one thing that I needed to address was brought to my attention in this line:

“But against newbies, it is one of the best ways to get them to make mistakes.”

“What the heck?” I said to myself. He’s preaching on how to beat newbies? This just will not do. Perhaps no one remembers, but there was a time when I wrote as”The Newbies’ Lawyer,” defending newbies everywhere. I felt a call rising forth that told me I had to arm newbies against control players sporting the suggestions Israel made. So to find out solid ways to defy Israel’s just-as-solid points, read on.

As we start at the beginning, we hear Israel say,”Control decks are incredibly difficult for newer players to pick up and use well.” I agree. The most-suggested deck for a new player is often Stompy circa Artifacts Cycle (which basically includes four Rancors, thirty-six creatures, and twenty lands). Well, in that case, don’t play a control deck if you’re new or no good at control! If you’re playing in an extended tournament, go ahead and play Stompy – it’s the surest way to beat Permission. Having an attacking 3/3 Vine Dryad before your opponent plays his second Island is the way to go! If you’re playing in Standard, play some sort of beatdown deck. I used a B/W beatdown deck to beat U/W control three games in a row. Beatdown is Control’s worst enemy.

Now that we have our deck, it’s time to play. Israel says,”…the most powerful weapon in the control player’s arsenal is the ability to trick the opponent into either committing too much, or too little, at any given moment.” So, the second thing to do is don’t give in to Jedi Mind Tricks! In my article Sith Mind Tricks, I give five suggestions along the lines of having information about your opponent (Sith) instead of giving information to your opponent (Jedi). Check it out for further reading. Now how might you combat certain Jedi Mind Tricks? Well, let’s see what Tricks Israel suggests and see how we can counter them:

Israel’s first Trick involves his land setup. He puts lands into piles that let him easily cast his spells. I’ve personally seen this, and it is actually a bit daunting. He puts two lands next to his Millstone, two next to his Kor Haven, and you can tell he has his Absorb pile and his Counterspell pile. What can you do about this? Well, there’s not really much. You might make a point (though not too obviously) of counting your opponent’s piles. Then, look at your hand and (again, not too obviously) count your”threats.” Of course, make sure you have more”threats” than your opponent has piles. Look at your lands, and then take one of two courses of action. If you have enough land and enough threats, play as many threats as you can, saving the most important for last. If your opponent is playing U/W control and he lets one creature through, though, stop immediately and say go. Serve with that creature until he’s forced to deal with it, and then make another threat. Or if you don’t have enough land (or enough threats, so you pretend that you don’t have enough land), make it subtly obvious (perhaps a”subconscious” nod or mental math) that you’re going to wait it out.

Now having played against Israel’s control decks far too many times, his signature”I find my hand drifting over to [my counterspell mana]” move is far too easy to see through. Now, though, Israel, like the Borg he is, reaches for counterspell mana whether or not he has a counterspell (and, if he’s playing his Extended Permission deck, he usually does). So, this brings me to my next point: Until you get a threat out, GOLDFISH your deck. Completely ignore your opponent’s attempts to fool you (though don’t ignore everything, as we’ll get to that soon enough). Although control decks nowadays have more answers to threats once they get on the board (mostly because of more-than-one color decks), more traditional Permission decks (and there are plenty of those in the diverse Standard field) have a very hard time dealing with threats once they’re already on the board. So if your turns look like Idol, counter; Blastoderm, counter; Saproling Burst, counter; etc. don’t worry. Keep casting one or two threats a turn as long as you can – you will run them out of counters. (Israel himself said,”…control decks usually don’t have more than one or two answers in their hands at any given moment.”) Then, once you get a threat on the board, STOP casting threats. Stockpile them so that you can push another one through once your opponent is force to Wrath or some such to deal with your annoying threat. Wash, rinse, and repeat. If your opponent gets out a countermeasure like Nether Spirit, get two threats out. Always have something constantly dealing him damage. If you can get him down to ten and you have Mountains in your deck, you’re going to have a very nervous control player.

By the way, the player that cast an Armageddon through Israel’s bluff while sitting behind Chimeric Idol and Charging Troll – that was me. {grin}

Israel says,”…Give your opponent a slightly sinister and superior smile. … Against newbies, it is one of the best ways to get them to make mistakes.” I say, know when your opponent is trying to trick you. I already mentioned ignoring his attempts to trick you, but don’t ignore him completely – always know what he’s thinking. If he looks always at you and never at his hand, especially early in the game, then you know he doesn’t have much of anything good in his hand. If he had any spells worth casting (before he’s had a chance to memorize his hand and its impact on the game), he’d be looking at his hand and the board, trying to figure out his best mode of play. But, if he has three lands, a Tsabo’s Web, and a Misdirection in hand, he’s going to be trying to fool you. Be able to recognize this.

Now, what if it’s later in the game? Well, the most common form of Jedi Mind Trick in all Magic games is withholding lands to pretend that they’re important spells. You should know how your opponent plays his lands. If he draws one, does he immediately put it into play? Or does he shuffle his hand after every card is drawn (a good suggestion)? Does he always seem to play lands from one side of his hand? Knowing these characteristics can be very helpful in determining how many lands your opponent is hiding. Although many players won’t do this, a mistake that can be made when your opponent doesn’t know how many lands, exactly, he should have in play, he might put a land out and take it back. Remember this, and remember as much about the land as you can. If it was a white-bordered Island, remember that. If your opponent plays a black-bordered Island next turn, you know he has at least one land in his hand. Similarly, remember as much as you can if you get to see your opponent’s hand (through, say, Duress). Try to remember the cards and their expansions, so you can recognize them if they come into play later. This helps you keep taps on what your opponent is hiding from you.

Now, let’s address Israel’s totally bizarre point of eyes. He says that the skin around the eyes can be a determining factor in telling if someone is truly happy or disappointed. If this is so, then by all means, look at the skin around your opponent’s eyes! Now, while you’re looking at his eyes, see what he looks at. If he constantly stares at his hand, he’s thinking about things to do. He doesn’t have all lands in his hand, but they’re not all counters either. Additionally, if he’s staring right at you, he’s trying to influence you in some way. You know that he’s trying to pursue the psychological advantage in addition to the gameplay advantage. It might mean that he’s going to a backup plan of trying to psych you out now that he’s out of counters, or it might mean that he’s pursuing every advantage. Cast a spell and see what he does. Does he look at his hand, tap his lands, and then cast a spell? Or, does he simply tap his lands and counter? If he casts Accumulated Knowledge, you’re probably in the clear (unless he draws a counterspell), but I’ve had it happen to me that my opponent’s cast Accumulated Knowledge as a simple ruse to keep me off guard.

On the topic of staying on guard, I’ll go ahead and say it now: Everything that I suggest in this article must be done constantly. If you remember that your opponent has a Tempest Island in his hand, and he doesn’t play it for several turns, don’t forget and start wondering what’s in his hand. If you notice that he plays a land as soon as he draws it, and then he stops playing lands for five turns, he’s probably holding something back. But if he draws a land and plays it immediately, then maybe you were wrong – if you remember his land-playing patterns, you’ll have more information. Be on constant alert. Since there won’t be much going on on the board, know what’s going on in your opponent’s mind… Or at least assume you know. This will also help against people following Israel’s tenet,”People who are in a very concentrating mood will often not fall for any of the lesser Jedi Mind Tricks…”

Israel says that, to get an opponent in the mood you want him in,”…All that’s needed … is perceived weakness.” This brings me to a rule in general, not one that only applies to control players: Never underestimate your opponent. Unless you know, by all the methods already discussed, that Card A in your opponent’s hand is not a counterspell, assume that it is. If your opponent lets you cast Blastoderm the turn after you played two Elves (which was unnecessary in the first place), assume that he has a Wrath of God in his hand. Whether your opponent is smiling evilly at you or staring forlornly at the top card of his deck, don’t underestimate your opponent. Allow yourself just enough leeway to get a win condition into play and to use it enough to defeat your opponent. If it’ll take two more attacks with your Chimeric Idol to kill him, don’t cast Ghitu Fire for the win because he will Absorb it and give himself another turn to kill the Idol. Play it safe – unless you have Urza’s Rage in hand. {another grin}

Israel also rightly suggests knowing the environment well. Although it’s useful for you to know the environment, if your local metagame has a lot of control it might do you well to bring an off-the-wall beatdown deck. Lots of Bears and Rages could just about do it to any control deck. If your opponent has the metagame memorized and his sideboard plans already made and you present him with a completely rogue deck, he’s going to have no idea how to react to you. He won’t counter the Birds of Paradise or the Armadillo Cloak. But when he finally has to Wrath them away, and you play your maindeck Kavu Chameleon, he’s going to be annoyed. When he gets out a Nether Spirit and you play Parallax Wave, he’s going to be even more flustered.

Additionally, know your opponent’s deck. If he plays a Fact or Fiction, assume he has four in his deck. The same goes for Accumulated Knowledge. Know that, if he’s playing U/W, he has about four different solid counters against you – Counterspell, Absorb, Foil, and Thwart. If you see a lot of Adarkar Wastes and Coastal Towers, he’s probably not playing with Thwart. If he’s playing U/B, he has the same options with Undermine instead of Absorb. If he’s playing a non-counter control deck like B/G/W, be aware of removal such as Vendetta, Snuff Out, Pernicious Deed, and Vindicate. If he’s playing with red, be aware of burn. Have an idea of what your opponent has available, and compare it to what you know you have available. This will help you plan your strategies.

Israel says,”The final pillar of control is courage.” Well, you’ll need courage when going up against a veteran control player as well. It’s very daunting when your opponent has ten lands out and seven cards in hand, but you need to keep in mind that you can win. Even if he draws Story Circle: Whatever color all your sources of damage are, it’s okay. You can force him to make a play mistake. The one thing that can easily be forgotten about Story Circle is that it does take white mana to activate; if they don’t have white mana, it’s no good. So if you constantly attack with three creatures, he’s using three white sources a turn. This might prevent him from casting Rout or Fact or Fiction at the end of your turn. I’ve used just this strategy to get my opponent out of Absorb range, having an educated guess that he didn’t have any Counterspells in his hand, letting me push through a game-breaking spell. The moral of the story is, never lose hope.

So, as you can see, there is plenty you can do if you come face-to-face with a well-tuned control deck piloted by an excellent player utilizing many Jedi Mind Tricks. And, of course, if all else fails, there is one thing that will absolutely win you the game every time: Obliterate. Gee-friggin-whiz, does this card wreck control! If you time it well, you’ll win the game, ESPECIALLY when your opponent isn’t ready for it (one maindeck slot’ll do it).

So I wish you good luck against all control decks, though if you keep what I’ve said in mind, you won’t need quite as much. Oh and feel free to conveniently forget everything I’ve written when you play me in a tournament – because I’ll be playing by every rule in Israel’s book! Except maybe that weird eye thing.

Daniel Crane, the Newbies’ Lawyer

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