Why do we play the decks we play? What makes you a “control player,” “combo player,” or “aggro player?” Today’s article will look at these play styles
that all Magic players fall under and examine them more closely. We’ve all seen the psychographic breakdown from Mark Rosewater and how on point it
If you play aggro, control, or combo, it’s because you enjoy the interactions (or lack thereof) with your cards and your opponents. A true Spike would
glance over all three types and confidently be able to pilot any of them well, but sadly, that’s not me or the majority of Magic players. Some players
truly are much more comfortable and skilled with one of the particular archetypes.
After a quick view of the major three, I’ll combine them into hybrids to pick up those fans of aggro/control, combo/control, and aggro/combo. We hear a
lot about aggro/control, but the other two are alive and well in the current Standard and Extended (even if their power level is weak).
This is not on the same dimension as Johnny, Spike, and Timmy. The three personalities aren’t set to a specific type of deck. Rosewater makes it clear
that the Johnny player enjoys cards working together in a type of combo scenario…not necessarily a two-card crusher. A Timmy will smash someone with a
Verdant Force but then might put a Myr Battlesphere under a Prototype Portal…who knows! Of course, Spike will travel across all the main types and
hybrids a thousand times throughout his/her career.
This breakdown of play style in terms of deck choice, card choice, and piloting ability stands parallel with the Rosewater psychographic profiles. I
mention the Rosewater scheme because it does help us find out why we play this game, but I feel we can go further down the rabbit hole into play-style
Since States back in 2002, I have been a control player in the tournament world. Aggro decks to me were just a nuisance, easily beaten with tight play
and some sideboard help. Today, I am no different. I easily fall under the Johnny / Spike category, where I’ll play decks that win but on my own terms.
Very rarely will I play a “made” deck, and if I do, it will have multiple changes in the maindeck and sideboard for my added twist.
I feel that many of the readers here are in a similar category. I’d like to preface that my description of the “aggro player” might not fit some
perfectly and may even be offensive, but this is coming from the perspective of a true-blooded control player.
The goal of this article is to give you all a view of the personality of someone who sticks to a play style, the types of decks that fall under
each category, and each personality’s mentality when trying to play and win some Magic.
Play Style 1 — CONTROL
Imperialism: MORE RESOURCES THAN YOU
People who fall under this genre want to win the game by drawing more cards, removing threats, and playing more powerful (game-ending) win conditions.
The control player has an additional resource of life that they can use, allowing their opponents to scrape them here and there, as long as it’s not
that last lethal hit. They play decks that require opponents to play more than one creature at a time or to apply pressure using more of their cards
than the control player has use to answer. The majority of control’s wins can be very decisive or not, depending on the matchup and circumstances.
Control players feel powerful while they flaunt their resources, dropping that end-of-turn Jace’s Ingenuity and watching their opponent look at a
halted board state with no hope of winning. They win multiple turns after the game becomes unwinnable for the opponent.
Why does he persist? Why doesn’t just quit? I have the game on lock!
But the real question is…are we that concerned when we know that our opponent is digging for an answer that isn’t there or that will be answered by one
of our own if he/she draws it?
Sometimes, they do get smashed though. A great hand of Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, Jace TMS, Gideon, and three lands can be trounced by a turn 1 Goblin
Guide. The sideboard is very important because that scenario becomes very unlikely once they’re prepared. The control mirror can have a similar result;
an opening hand of Day of Judgment, Day of Judgment, Gideon, Ratchet Bomb, Preordain, and two lands can get whooped by a less removal-intensive
opponent. If the control deck fails to out-resource its opponent, then a loss is very likely.
Control players always leave themselves an out. The decks they craft contain answers for competing decks across the metagame even if they’re
thinned out. The flood of Preordains solidified people’s resolve to add a one- or two-of into the maindeck to help with whatever pesky problem an
opposing deck may have. Card selection is important to the control player, and some may argue more important than card advantage. To continue with the
resources comparison…I’ll trade my broken wood for this hardened steel! A Jace TMS Brainstormed away Ratchet Bomb and Condemn for two Flashfreezes
against a Valakut nemesis.
Control players sacrifice pressure for a late-game finale. Control players love to drop that Baneslayer late game when their opponent is exhausted of
his/her resources. Even if they have remnants of their answers left, the control players definitely have the counter backup ready. They strive
for the late game and know that when they reach that point, victory will be near. Their win conditions do not have to be flashy and can be anything
from a manland to Meloku, the Clouded Mirror. Pressure creatures like Kitchen Finks and now Stoneforge Mystic appear in many control builds, but
control players still go back to their roots with a couple of big planeswalkers, Titans, or large lands equipped with swords to finish the job.
Control is always better. Those who play control think this to themselves and may not say it out loud. In 2003, when I Top 8ed mid-Atlantic regionals,
I played against Affinity seven times in a row and defeated it every time. I never won a tournament in my life prior, and this was the first real big
one I played in besides States. Did anyone think control was good during that format besides us? I doubt it. With Disciples and Skull Clamps running
around, a turn 4 Wrath of God just didn’t cut it. But with Wraths, Akroma’s Vengeance, and a couple Viridian Shamans, I took it to 9-1-1 and broke into
my first Nationals tournament. After that tournament, I felt that control could win in any metagame because it’s more than just a single deck but a
play style that can always be molded. In previous articles, I mention that control has gotten too proactive recently, and I miss the reactive days.
Even if that is control, there will always be true control, and the fans will always stay fans because the alternative isn’t very appealing.
The Icy Grip. Reactionary when able, proactive when the time calls for it.
Play Style 2 — COMBO
The Scientific Revolution: LOOK AT THIS FANCY NEW TELESCOPE
The great creators of our time love to twist cards together and create death swiftly for their opponent. True combo players enjoy the instant win,
rather than cool synergies inside a different play-style shell (i.e. combo/control, aggro/combo). The combo player doesn’t mind massive disruption in
order to Ad Nauseam their deck in a perfect storm. The combo player will gladly ramp, ramp, ramp, ramp into a speedy Primeval Titan to send eighteen
damage to their opponent’s dome. The combo player loves to win a counter war with you, only to resolve their Scapeshift and instantly kill you. A true
combo player is a very interesting fellow and will tend to play older formats where the sky is the limit over Standard. A combo player plans out
his/her moves well ahead of time with much less attention given to their opponent. Combo, like control, is also always evolving. Obviously, Mind’s
Desire is much different from Valakut, but they both operate on the same premise…to have their respective combo go off in the face of disruption and
Combo is about brute power. These players do not play cards that work well together to create a “cute” game state, but the combination of their cards
wins big. Saproling Burst / Pandemonium, Heartbeat of Spring / Mind’s Desire, Tezzeret / Time Vault, and the list can go on and on. The most powerful
decks rely on just a two-card interaction to win the game. This is an important aspect because the more cards are needed to do your deed, the greater
chance your opponent has to prevent it from happening. Brute power, speed, and resilience are important attributes that a combo player puts in his/her
I LOVE SOLITAIRE. Do you like that game also? If you’re a combo player, I bet you love it! You couldn’t care less about what your opponent is playing
in terms of threats, card draw/selection, their respective combo, etc. Your primary focus is to dodge and weave through their disruption and do the
thing you have goldfished a billion times…take ’em down. Your mission is clear and simple for the most part, and even if your combo deck has a lot of
tricky interactions compared to others, you still are quite adept at performing under pressure.
Have you seen the finals of the StarCityGames.com Open with my friend Alix Hatfield winning with Time Spiral? The interaction while the combo is
performing is wonderful…there is none. He sifts, and floats, and prepares, hoping to be able to get there at the end, and he of course did. Combo might
be the hardest of the three to just pick up and battle with when you haven’t tested it out at all. Not all combos are simple, like Natural Ordering up
a Progenitus, and require a ton of practice. Luckily, a lot of lost time can be made up during the solitaire phase and getting used to those tricky
Combo has very clear weaknesses that the wielders are aware of. When I see a Belcher player hit for eighteen, then they curse the deck and blame bad
luck. I see combo player number 2 wielding Mind’s Desire and slamming it for seven…yielding a bunch of ramp and lands. Combo can defeat itself from
time to time. The combo player doesn’t care however or will choose a different deck that doesn’t hit the same variance wall. You can’t change your bond
to a type of deck very easily, and I know players who will play combo religiously if it’s available, to the extent of my affinity for control. My
roommate who is much more casual will craft eight Commander decks, and each will be cluttered with combo kills. One of my best friends is the same way
and insists on playing combo even when Pyromancer Ascension might not even be in the top 10 decks of Standard.
Combo players love to invent. Even if they didn’t come up with the idea originally, they will fine-tune it to the point where it has their own
signature. While they set up the perfect series of spells, they’re building in a sense…building and inventing their way up to a game-finishing, final
spell in the early or mid-game. Even if you don’t fall under this category, like me, you have to respect this aspect of the game. It’s fun to watch,
fun to play, and it’s always the most innovative when brand-new.
Look over here; no over here…WHAM got you!!
Play Style 3 — Aggro
The Battle of Britain (WWII) — BOMBS AND GUNFIRE A CITY TO RUBBLE, BUT NO VICTORY!
Here is where some of the readers will hate and disagree with my explanation of the aggro player and play style. In response to that hate, all I can do
is apologize and remind them that the column is named The Icy Grip, and I love me some control!
Stop attacking me already! Have you noticed the people who pilot these decks have slightly aggressive tendencies? Well…maybe not, but in my experience,
it might be a hidden trend. The repeated attack and onslaught of an aggro player can be very scary, and that’s the major appeal. Aggro players
will play a deck that is relentless in its bombardment, by attacking with cheap and efficient creatures with a special helping hand. That helping hand
is in the form of equipment, burn, or hand disruption.
A true aggro player gets an adrenaline rush when dropping a ton of damage on their opponent in the early turns and making the game impossible to win
with a powerful start. Aggro players are one-dimensional, and their road to victory is applying lethal damage before the midgame or late game begins.
These people are the ones walking around while we’re still playing around…confident from victory or dejected and wanting to switch to a different deck.
Patrick Sullivan loves some red cards and is truly a soldier, carrying the aggro flag. He warned his readers not to confidently battle with his
list the next week or two because some joker would toss some Kor Firewalkers in the board, and there goes the neighborhood. I think this was 100% dead
Guy, guy, guy, guy…oh, you have the Wrath? %@!*@!! Aggro players who I have known live by this motto in all their games of Magic. Reading all these
descriptions and scenarios, you might think that some of these examples resemble terrible play, and you’re right. The average Magic player isn’t
amazing and plays this game for fun primarily. Even if you’re a full-blooded tournament player, you can’t say that you don’t play without error. Aggro
players have to teeter between the perfect amount of threats on board and enough in hand to recoup…but it’s nearly impossible against an adept control
player. I sometimes see great success with the balls-to-the-wall blitz of aggro…hoping there is no judgment for their actions on the other side.
Attacking is easy. Here is where the flak comes in…uh oh! I picked up an aggro deck while testing and slung it back and forth with friends and
colleagues with the utmost ease. I made plans to play this Goblin Guide, attack for two, and then play a Plated Geopede, and attack again, AND THEN
play an Adventuring Gear, AND THENNNNN…
There are decision-making opportunities in all play styles across the spectrum, but a misplay from the aggro player (barring missed triggers and just
poor eyesight) is a tough thing to do. Decks with countermagic, combos generating lots of mana through massive amounts of spells cast in a turn,
rationing removal in order to survive, and millions of other examples give our combo and control players many more opportunities to play poorly. This
creates a comfort zone for the aggro player.
Hey, let’s go grab lunch! Round’s done after twelve minutes, and now it’s time to mock all these suckers playing decks that take much longer to achieve
victory. A super decisive victory, an opponent checking the drop box, and not knowing what hit him…this is the life. Not going to lie…I am kind of
jealous of this part…
With aggro, you can get so close, but you are so far away. This is one of the few decks that have a ticking time bomb built in. You have to win
quickly, or you won’t win at all. Some aggressive decks are built for the super early game, but because of the nature of their decks, they can’t win at
any later point. You get your opponent to one and tell yourself that it was because of two missed burn spell draws, two missed land drops on turns 4
and 5, your opponent getting lucky with his second Day of Judgment or a turn 4 Primeval Titan.
My colleagues who lean toward aggro not only give me this song and dance after losing, but they do not see the same pattern that we control mages see.
Of course you got him close to lethal — you’re aggro! Of course you missed some land drops; you run four less than I do! Every deck can have bad luck
and draws; it’s the nature of the game, but these types of players tend to be fragile to mulligans and cold to sideboard cards.
There are Hybrids…
Some of the best decks of all time are beautiful hybrids, and some players find themselves addicted to them. I referred to myself as a control player
through the entire first part of the article, but more specifically, I tend to fall under the combo/control persona. I enjoy control spells more
than any other type, but I love to have a way to end the game quickly if it doesn’t affect the other pieces of the puzzle.
U/W Tron in old Extended was by far my favorite deck that I created. Its debut was in Worlds of 2006, equipped with Solemn Simulacrum, Exalted Angel,
Decree of Justice, and of course the Mindslaver / Academy Ruins lock. It played like a control deck and then auto-won in the late game with the classic
Another example of this play style was the deck I was most known for slinging, Greater-Gifts. I just got second at States with it, and Frank Karsten
built on my list and took it to the finals of Worlds that same year. Another deck with Wrath of God, disruption, big control dragons, and a combo kill
that locks opponents down for good.
The combo/control player enjoys having all the answers and a definite, concrete way to end the game rather than a solid, end-game threat. The
combo/control player also tends to enjoy the surprise factor in winning. This can come from that late-game Mindslaver in a close game or the Mass
Polymorph out of the blue. This player tends to feel that he/she has the upper hand in control mirrors but is more susceptible to hand disruption and
super-fast aggro starts. The player who falls under this style wants his/her day in the limelight and uses innovation much like a combo player with the
survival skills of a control player to achieve it.
The most popular play style that most Magic players fall under is aggro/control. They fill the Commander world as well as dominate Legacy and
Extended. In Standard, it comes and goes, but one of them always puts a list in the tier 1 slot. This type of player thoroughly enjoys putting early
pressure on with the cards to back it up. No Goblin Guides here, but plenty of Knight of the Reliquary / Bant Charm. No Kargan Dragonlord here, but
plenty of Tarmogoyf / Force of Will.
The list could go on forever, but the point is that in these decks, one threat is usually enough to warrant a Day of Judgment. These types of players
and decks make a control enemy struggle to find the balance between hate for creatures and removal. These same players create a headache for combo
players who feel the need to sideboard in some hate for their army but can’t afford to water down their own deck.
This play style has a different dynamic from the other two and can be as complicated to wield as a control or combo counterpart can. The magicians who
fall under this play style can range from true “Spikes,” picking up that newest Bant list and rushing to the PTQs, or the Commander player using Rafiq
and friends to dominate a player in the group game and then switch gears with his control spells.
This is my most feared type of deck to play against in tournament play because it can beat you in different ways and is the clearly not
one-dimensional. Sideboard cards also seem to be weaker against these players, and if they’re in a higher-level tournament, they tend to be confident
We had to have one so here it is. The rarest, unicorn player type is aggro/combo. There are a few of these decks that have existed before that
come to mind. In the last Extended season, the R/G Valakut deck with Bloodbraid Elf, Boggart Ram-Gang, Punishing Fire, etc. with the Scapeshift finish
is the clearest one in this category. The reason why I say a player rarely plays these style of decks is that there exist very few. There are decks
similar to this in Legacy also, like the Natural Order Zoo deck that some like to run.
The goal of this player is simple though: put early pressure on and then drop the combo bomb off for the win. If these decks increase in the future,
then I would expect to see some of the aggro/control and aggro players shift over slightly to try to embrace its power.
Some of you, as I said earlier, do not fall under any of the play styles listed. Your name will be The Professional. You enjoy all types of
decks and play each play style to absolute perfection or at least equally well. The rest of the readers, I hope, will be able to notice a few things
about themselves or the types of decks that they like to play, based on a pattern in their Magic history.
Magic is very different from a video game or poker. There is a lot of ingenuity and chances for an individual to allow their creative side to come out,
while being competitive and winning some cash with their own play-style strengths. Hope to hear some feedback in the forums as well as the usual