The Guide To Macro-Archetypes

Whether you’re a newcomer to competitive Magic or a seasoned veteran, Carsten has put together a great guide for you! Here, deckbuilding theory sits in one convenient place. What is aggro? What is control? What is combo? Carsten defines it all!

Last week’s Eternal Europe
in which I tried to explore why aggro is the only common macro-archetype that has essentially died out in Legacy triggered a very interesting discussion
that made me realize one thing in particular: while we all use the term as if we meant the same thing, we seem to have very different ideas as to what
actually constitutes an aggro deck. Based on that observation, I assume that the same is true for the other macro-archetypes: midrange, combo, control,
aggro-control, aggro-combo, combo-control and aggro-combo-control.

As these classifications come up a lot when talking about the game, it doesn’t seem like a good idea for each player to have a different idea as
to what each of them means exactly. Given that I’m the one with the soapbox, I think that it’s a good idea for me to try and do something about this
dilemma. So what I’ll be doing today is this: I’ll outline how I personally view each of the macro-archetypes and which characteristics I look for when
deciding which mental drawer to put a deck in, complete with a couple of sample decks for each of them. Now, this is my mental framework. I won’t
claim that this is the only correct way to think about them, and I’d very much like to see discussion if these are or aren’t useful lines to draw among the
different decktypes and what could be more helpful in the long run. I think it’s better to have one clear definition available to start with than to keep
things as subjective as they appear to be at the moment though.

How and Why I Classify

Before we start to run down the different archetypes, however, I’d like to take a second to talk about what the point of classifying decks is in the first
place. In last week’s comments, Rich Shay made this very interesting observation:

“We as humans use classification in order to understand information, especially novel information. If I haven’t played against a deck before but start
to see creatures, then in my brain I might begin to classify that deck as an aggro deck and use what I have learned from prior aggro decks in order to
combat it.”

This makes a lot of sense, but it isn’t how I use macro-archetype classifications (at least not consciously). My biggest problem with using them
in play is that they’re too blunt to really be useful. To my mind, Zoo is an aggro deck. So is Goblins. Yet when playing against these decks, they require
very different approaches to be successfully dealt with.

Against Zoo, you need to minimize the damage you take at any point of the game because otherwise the burn finish will get you, but if you manage to
stabilize at any point with a high enough life total, you can probably run away with the game from that point onwards easily enough.

Against Goblins, on the other hand, you need to use your life total as a resource early on to create enough value to avoid getting buried by their lategame
Goblin Ringleader advantage or you need to flip the switch towards being aggressive yourself as soon as possible for the same reason.

My personal motivation to classify decks doesn’t have anything to do with correctly playing any particular game. I use macro-archetype categories to help
me make sense of the wild mass of disparate ideas that is Magic, to have a tool to efficiently talk about decks without having to describe what I mean
every time I want to refer to a particular strategic approach, and to give myself a helpful framework to think about the inner workings of the game. In
general, I also simply happen to be fond of breaking the world down into categories that help me understand it – you can think of this along the lines of
the scientific endeavors of biology to classify the flora and fauna of this planet if you want.

As a result, the main criterion I take into account when deciding where to place a deck aren’t the cards it uses or even what the deck is capable of doing
exactly, but how it approaches the game on a fundamental level. Where does it focus its resources, what does and doesn’t it want to see happen, how much
does it care about its opponent’s plans, which field(s) of battle is it most effective on – those are the questions I ask myself when deciding where a deck

I mention all of this to make clear what kind of approach the definitions I’ll be presenting you with have grown out of, as knowing what a system of
categorization is meant for usually helps to understand why things were done that way and not any other. Alright, enough prelude, let’s start with the work
at hand.


The first of the original triangle of deck-classification (aggro – combo – control), the aggro archetype is defined by its focus on the battlefield –
especially the combat step – and getting the opponent dead. This is what I consider the defining features of an aggro deck:

– It tries to win by attacking with creatures.

– It is built with the idea of presenting threats, not answering them.

– Ultimately, aggro doesn’t care about its opponent’s gameplan. It plans to set the pace of the match with its threats and wants to have the opponent
scramble to answer them because otherwise they’re dead. As a result, an aggro deck will only include a very limited number of cards aimed at interacting
with its opponent’s gameplan, and often it will only include those that are convenient and powerful enough that they won’t ever threaten the execution of
its own gameplan (say, Wasteland).

– Similarly, an aggressive deck might use a minor amount of removal to clear a path for its creatures, but it mainly plans to play more and/or bigger
creatures to dominate the board unless the removal can also be used to end the game (burn spells or something like Selesnya Charm).

In the comments last week, Rich mentioned that “if you preclude control elements from aggro decks, then it is almost as though some measure of inefficiency
is inherent in the definition of an aggro deck.” This is very true, and him pointing it out led to me realizing that there is something about archetypes I
had never put into words before: macro archetypes are defined as much by their shortcomings as by their abilities.

For aggro, its main weaknesses – and yes, I realize I talked about these last week already – are two-fold. First aggro-decks are quite non-interactive,
especially towards things that can’t be hit with burn spells. Because they focus such a large part of their resources towards executing their own gameplan,
there isn’t much left to stop the opponent’s. If the opponent’s gameplan is simply superior to that of the aggro deck, there usually isn’t much it can do.

The second weakness revolves around an aggressive deck’s focus on the board. If it isn’t possible for an aggro deck to get ahead on the board – be it due
to an overwhelming amount of removal, permanents like Moat or Oath of Druids that just shut down that avenue of attack, or simply a more powerful board
presence from the opponent, an aggressive deck is very unlikely to win.


In a way, control can be considered to be the exact counterpoint to aggro. Instead of trying to set the pace of the game through aggression, control is all
about reacting. Instead of having an obvious proactive gameplan of its own, a control deck is planning to match its own actions to those of the opponent,
neutralizing them to drag the game out to a point where it can either take such firm control of the match that the opponent won’t ever be able to make a
meaningful play again and incidentally dies to whatever happens to be available to the control deck at that point, or it uses the control it has gained to
deploy a powerful finisher that will end the game in short order.

A control deck’s defining features:

– The actual road to victory isn’t of major importance, staying alive is the name of the game.

– The game is about answering what the opponent is trying to do; your thing is actually making them do nothing.

– The opponent’s gameplan is of paramount importance, as stopping it is the main thing you’re interested in. As a result, control decks are chock-full of
cards that deal with the opponent’s cards, be it counterspells, discard, permanents that stop their things from being relevant, or removal (as flexible and
efficient as possible).

– To make this kind of gameplan work, a control deck needs to either be able to create overwhelming card advantage through advantageous trades and
card-draw effects or to dominate the lategame with powerful finishers that will eventually come online if you drag the game out for long enough.

– Any card that doesn’t either help you cast your spells (lands usually), or to in some shape or form, answer your opponent’s cards, is highly suspect in a
control deck. Depending on the format you might be forced to play a couple of cards that do nothing but end the game, but ideally all of your win
conditions can serve another role (card advantage tool, answer, mana source, etc.) at the same time.

As for defining weaknesses, because of the reactive game control decks want to play, they’re generally rather bad at capitalizing when the opponent
stumbles. If you have to mull to five, you probably want a control deck to be sitting on the other side of the table as you can be reasonably sure you’ll
still be alive when you draw out of your problems. This reactive game also means that control decks sometimes have problems with finishing matches in the
allotted time.

Hi, Miracles!

In addition, because you’re so focused on stopping your opponent, you’re generally dead in the water if they’re doing something you don’t have the tools to
interact with because it relies on a field of battle you haven’t prepared for (say Manaless Dredge against a 24-counterspell draw-go deck) or haven’t drawn
the correct answers to this game. As the age old adage goes, there are no wrong threats, just wrong answers.


Combo decks, on the other hand, are what you get when you look at an aggressive deck in a funhouse mirror. Like aggro, combo is extremely focused on
executing its own gameplan and getting the opponent dead. Instead of focusing on the battlefield and incrementally working up to getting lethal damage
across, however, a combo deck relies on setting up one big synergistic play that decides the game all by its lonesome. Defining features:

– A combo deck revolves on setting up a particular chain of plays that directly results in deciding the game.

– It doesn’t try to answer the opponent’s plays, it tries to go over the top before the opponent can capitalize.

– The opponent’s gameplan only matters in so far as it can stop the combo deck from executing its kill. Anything else is answered by getting the opponent
dead ASAP. As a result, as with an aggro deck, there will be a very limited number of interactive cards in a combo deck and those will generally be geared
towards dealing with opposing interference with its own plan instead of stopping what the opponent is up to.

– The vast majority of cards in a combo deck will either be the pieces necessary for its winning play, mana sources to cast its cards, or tutors and
library manipulation to find whatever pieces it is missing to end the game.

Looking again on the other side of the coin, the major flaws in a combo strategy stem directly from its dedication to executing one particular gameplan
based around some tricky interaction. That dedication creates the same problem aggro has – if what the other deck is doing is simply more powerful or
efficient than what the combo deck is doing, you won’t have many options to really stop it from happening.

In addition, because you commit so many cards to one particular angle of attack, you generally won’t be able to beat anything that stops that angle cold.
In addition, because you’re relying on such specific cards instead of generally useful ones, most combo decks – those that aren’t creature-based in
particular – will just end up doing nothing of relevance in games where they can’t find all the tools they need to actually pull of their combo turn and
allow the opponent to goldfish them mostly unhindered while looking terrible.


Midrange decks are a somewhat newer addition to the spectrum of macro-archetypes. They’re characterized by focusing on disrupting the opponent’s gameplan
early on only to deploy powerful flexible creatures and card advantage tools once they reach the midgame to eventually overwhelm the opponent. Their
defining characteristics:

– A midrange deck wants to drown the opponent in value after stopping the opponent’s gameplan but before overwhelming lategame threats come online.

– Midrange wants to stop the opponent’s key plays while deploying its own threats and slowly accumulating card advantage.

– Identifying the most central elements of the opponent’s gameplan is of key importance as you need to use your limited amount of reactive tools to disrupt
it for long enough to have your own plan to end the game come online. That plan for ending the game generally consists in high-quality stand-alone cards
that have the ability to create value at the same time as serving as a threat.

– In contrast to the highly focused card choices in combo, aggro, and control decks, midrange decks generally combine a good number of flexible answers and
card advantage tools with board-dominating and relatively low-cost threats, often looking to play cards that can fill both roles simultaneously.

While the strength of a midrange deck lies in it being a jack of all trades, that’s also where its main weakness lies. It isn’t particularly strong at
either disrupting the opponent like a control deck nor is it great at ending the game like an aggro or combo deck would be, meaning that a concerted attack
on one of these two axes is reasonably likely to overwhelm that aspect of the deck and lead to a loss.

In addition, there is a very real risk to draw answers in matches in which you need threats and vice versa or to draw only one of the two elements that
make up your deck. In either case, the midrange deck ends up significantly behind because the cards you see force you to play out like a deck you are not,
leaving the midrange deck dysfunctional.


Note: The remaining macro-archetypes are named with combinations of the three original macro-archetypes for a reason: they combine elements of the
gameplans of the one-word archetypes to forge a strategy that is different enough to be considered distinct but has enough relevant similarities to
remain noticeable. They’re also rarer than the traditional archetypes so there will be fewer examples.

Aggro-combo decks play an aggressive, creature-focused game that tries to kill the opponent by attacking repeatedly and winning on the board but also have
the tools to set up combinations that will decide the game once assembled.

– An aggro-combo deck is planning to kill the opponent fast by attacking from two different angles.

– It mostly doesn’t plan to answer the opponent’s plays; if its first avenue of attack is stopped, it switches to a different angle of attack instead.

– Aggro-combo decks rarely have room for dedicated interactive pieces outside of possible silver bullets. It spends its card slots on both a beatdown
gameplan and the necessary synergies to pull of its combo win, hoping that one of the two will be good enough to kill the opponent.

– An aggro-control deck will play enough creatures to reliably set up a valid beatdown clock combined with enough combo elements and library manipulation
tools to find its combo finish when it is needed.

As for weaknesses, aggro-combo decks often end up less consistent than aggressive decks simply because they need to contain the cards necessary to execute
their synergy-based combo finish. They also share the weakness of both aggro and combo in that they usually have very few tools to interact with the
opponent, putting them at a severe disadvantage if what they’re planning to do is simply not good enough against the matchup at hand. This often is
reinforced by the additional slots taken up by the combo finish. In addition there is always a chance that you’re drawing a combination of disparate pieces
of your combo but can’t complete it, which in turn weakens your aggressive gameplan at times.


Aggro-control decks intend to start off the game by deploying a reasonably fast clock like an aggro deck would, but at that point they switch gears and
instead of setting the pace through continued aggression, they then focus on stopping the opponent’s gameplan and defenses for long enough to kill them.

– Aggro-control decks use strong creature-based threats and back them up with disruption.

– They establish a clock while messing with the opponent enough for that clock to end the game.

– Control elements and a creature package that can push out damage fast usually mingle freely, oftentimes focused on either the creature side to allow the
deck to reliably play like an aggro-deck, or the disruption elements to really rip the opponent’s gameplan to shreds.

– In contrast to midrange decks, aggro-control decks don’t try to be jack of all trades, they try to implement a highly-focused gameplan by using a
combination of two different tools – disruption and highly aggressive threats.

Looking at it from the other side again, by combining two strategies, you once again open yourself up to drawing too many disparate elements again. If you
don’t draw your creatures, the opponent will eventually outlast your disruption and kill you reasonably easily as you don’t really have a powerful lategame
plan to fall back on. If you don’t draw enough disruption, on the other hand, you end up playing a less-efficient aggro-deck, making it significantly more
likely that you will be stopped, and at that point your disruption will simply be too late to matter.

In addition, because you won’t have room to fully flesh out both the aggro gameplan and your disruptive elements, one of the two will usually be
particularly vulnerable to dedicated attention by your opponent, leaving your deck either weak to opponents that are very good at killing creatures,
deploying better creatures than the aggro-control deck, or opponents that demand a significant amount of disruption to keep in check.


A combo-control deck starts of the game exactly like a control deck would: by trying to keep the opponent in check and getting to a point where the
opponent doesn’t have a reliable way to implement their gameplan. However, in contrast to control, combo control will then not drag the game to the
lategame but use the opening it has created to implement the same kind of powerful synergy combo-decks are built around to just win. Combo-control is an
archetype that is inherently exceedingly powerful, and therefore, generally draws out bannings reasonably rapidly in formats outside of Vintage.

– Combo-control intends to put a two-step gameplan into action: take control of the game for a moment, then execute your combo kill.

– Strategically speaking, combo-control decks are essentially strict upgrades over true control strategies as long as you don’t have to commit too many
resources (card slots) to the combo kill. In a control deck, when you have control of the game, you still have to worry about your opponent topdecking out
of it while you hit a string of blanks. Once a combo-control deck gets to that point, the opponent won’t be playing the game anymore.

– The vast majority of the cards in a combo-control deck will be dedicated to taking control of the game just as they would be in a control deck. However,
instead of relying on card advantage tools or high impact finishers to sculpt your endgame, a combo-control deck uses a highly space-efficient combo

– Because of the combo-element, a combo-control deck will usually be able to largely skip tools solely aimed at controlling the board, instead playing
matchups as either a control deck (against disruptive opponents or faster combo-decks) or a combo deck (against opponents with too few interactive tools).

Obviously, there are some costs though. Depending on how compact your combo finish is, you might need to dedicate additional slots to your win condition
compared to a true control deck simply because you’re relying on a combination of cards to end the game instead of a single straight win condition. In
addition, because the different pieces of your win condition are meant to work together, they are likely to not do much (or any) work if drawn alone.

Their approach towards dealing with aggression – just turn into a combo deck – also makes them particularly weak to disruption-heavy aggro control decks as
they generally won’t have as many tools to slow down the creature clock when already being slower to implement it than a true combo deck.


This is essentially the Rolls Royce among archetypes. Aggro-combo-control decks have the tools to set up a creature-based clock early in the game but
complement them with an amount of control elements and card-drawing sufficient to control the game at the same time as setting up a synergistic combo kill
to go over the top of the opponent should that prove necessary or possible.

– The full package. You can play as an aggro-control deck or a combo-control deck depending on whatever the matchup requires.

– You can use your control elements either to protect your threats or to stop the opponent’s, depending what the gamestate requires.

– A aggro-combo-control deck will use a small set of extremely efficient creatures to provide its beatdown plan, a highly compact combo-finish to provide
the ability to end the game when given an opening and strong card-draw, and control elements to tie it all together and keep the game going until you can
end things with whichever angle of attack is more adapted to the matchup.

– Playing against an aggro-combo-control deck is particularly difficult because you have to correctly judge which plan they’re on and also cut of
opportunities for them to switch plans unexpectedly.

For aggro-combo-control decks, their weaknesses are hard to address simply because there have been so few viable so far. There certainly is the danger that
the multitude of different elements involved leads to disparate draws where a couple of useless combo pieces and too-slow creatures leave you open to be
killed. Depending on your draws, you may also get stuck with the wrong angle of attack for the matchup at hand – the creature beatdown plan against a
removal heavy midrange deck or the combo plan against someone who has chosen to make sure he won’t lose to combo, for example.

All Classified

So there you have it. My personal mind map I use to understand Magic and its decks from a more theoretical perspective. Now, once again, I’d like to insist
that I don’t claim that this is necessary the best or only way to think about the game and mentally organize it for yourself. It’s simply the system for
thinking I’ve developed over my time as a player and deckbuilder, and I’ve shared it so that we can use it as a foundation for an actual common terminology
and to figure out what’s missing from it; to discuss how it can be improved or what might be a better way to mentally organize things.

I’m very much looking forward to your comments, suggestions, observations, and criticism (constructive please) and hope we can have a fruitful discussion
there. As long as we don’t have a good and clear way to categorize and talk about decks and how archetypes relate to the inner workings of decks, it is
extremely difficult for us to efficiently share information. It’s high time we had consistent and generally understood terminology, wouldn’t you say?