The Many Faces Of Control

Ah, control, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways!

Ah, control, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways!

Or we could skip the counting and get down to business. For if I were to describe all the reasons that control is my favorite kind of deck to play, it’d take weeks! Instead, I thought this week I’d talk about the varying degrees of control in Magic.”Why now?” you ask. Well, I’d like the general Magic public to realize that control is beautiful and solid, and doesn’t a new green creature to go crushing it up one side and down the other. So, to all those voting in the Create a Mechanic section of MagicTheGathering.com’s newest poll, read on to find out just why you should vote for the new win condition, leaving control intact as the valuable Magic commodity as it is. (I totally disagree – that new win condition is the suckiest card of the lot – The Ferrett)

The most pure and, when all goes according to plan, effective form of control is permission. Permission decks revolve around the key concept of denying your opponent all of his possible win conditions using counterspells. Since nearly all the counterspells in Magic are blue (of the sixty cards in Apprentice that include the words”counter target spell,” fifty-eight of them are blue), permission decks are almost always blue or mostly blue in their composition.

So how does it work? Generally, there are four main components of a permission deck: Counters, card-draw, win condition, and board-clearers. The basic premise is this: Counter every important spell that your opponent casts, while out-drawing your opponent to ensure that you have more counters than he has threats. Clear the board in one fell swoop of anything that you missed – and then cast your win condition, bringing the game to an end. The actual specifics of each deck vary, but the general premise remains the same.

Take Buehler Blue, for instance. This deck (which placed in the Top Eight of Worlds ’99) features twenty counters, including the reusable Forbid. It sports board-clearing in the form of Powder Keg and Masticore – which also functions as a win condition if the Faerie Conclaves and Stalking Stones didn’t cut it. All in all, this deck started countering on turn 2 with Counterspell – and by turn 6, Forbid could be cast twice each turn. Dismiss also acted as card drawing, working with Whispers of the Muse to make sure that you always had more cards than your opponent. Using the Keg to clear away unwanted weenie creatures, this deck was almost assured victory if it made it to the late game.

For another example, you can see Nether-Go-Mar here. This deck featured only sixteen counters, but it also included the necessary board control and a lot of card-drawing (including Fact or Fiction, Accumulated Knowledge – oh, I how I miss you! – and Tsabo’s Web). The win condition was a mixture of Nether Spirit and Undermine, blurring the lines between winning and keeping control.

But that blur didn’t make my deck less pure. In fact, this deck was extremely controllish, though it’s almost to the point of board control (to which I’ll get in a moment). The point I’m trying to make is that in any of its forms, control is versatile and effective, especially in today’s environment. I’m currently playing a deck very similar to Nether Go Mar, and my favorite card is Dromar’s Charm – it counters, yes, but it also acts as spot removal (something becoming increasingly more important as the environment evolves) and as lifegain in a pinch. In other words, the best card in the deck is also the most versatile – a sure sign that control is evolving from its original”draw-go” format.

Another sign that control is evolving can be discussed in the next type of control: Board control. Generally, board control decks tend to keep the board clear of all offensive permanents, but not necessarily by countering those spells before they hit play.

Historically, it’s been non-blue decks that have taken the position of being board control decks. For instance, any of my long-term readers might remember my seething abhorrence of Ponza decks. These red monstrosities seek to deny their opponents of all lands, eventually ending their opponent’s life with burn or a big creature. This is a classic board control deck: It uses cards like Stone Rain and Avalanche Riders to get rid of lands while using burn spells like Shock and Hammer of Bogardan to rid your opponent of unwholesome creature threats. Finally, the deathblow is dealt by a creature like Lightning Dragon or by massive burn in the form of Hammer of Bogardan or a modern-day Urza’s Rage.

Another deck that I would put under this category is discard. Whether B/R discard-burn or B/W discard-removal (in the form of Vindicate and Wrath of God), I’d say that making your opponent discard cards is a non-permission form of dealing with them. Additionally, both these decks have ways of dealing with threats individually (Flametongue Kavu) or in groups (Mutilate). Decks like these have been played since the days of Hypnotic Specter and Hymn to Tourach, leaving their mark on Magic history.

However, as I mentioned before, I believe that blue is slowly moving into a major player in this category. My current control deck is a powerful blend of permission and board control – including global and spot removal as well as an abundance of counters. Additionally, as blue becomes better able to produce its own win conditions (Undermine, Shadowmage Infiltrator, Mahamoti Djinn, etc.), it becomes less reliant on another color (as was seen in the days of Serra/Blinding Angel being the victor of U/W control decks). Additionally, blue’s achievement of removal (Æther Burst, Repulse, etc.) allows it to more easily move into the realm of board control without total reliance on another color. Therefore, blue players, though hated by many Magic players because of their label as permission players, need to be given another chance – we’re not just about countering spells anymore (though that’s still what we do best!).

Truly, I’d go so far to say that blue is even permeating the ranks of aggro-control, the final avenue of control-playing. Historically, this has been kept out of blue’s reach as well, tending more towards black, green, and red than blue. A good example of an aggro-control deck would be the Plow Under decks of years ago. Keeping lands in check while running rampant with squirrels was a rather effective way to gain control and win. Blue even began to infiltrate the ranks here, adding Opposition to decks sporting Deranged Hermit, making what I would consider to be one of the first aggro-control decks including blue.

Before that, there was the ever-powerful Living Death deck, which had every color but blue (except for the odd Tradewind Rider or two). This deck used a variety of single-copy utility creatures to gain control, either by casting them or bringing them all to life using a massive Living Death. The mere fact that this deck relied nearly solely on creatures brands it as an aggro-control deck. I’d consider this to be one of the first aggro-control decks, making this type of deck relatively new in the scheme of things.

However, starting with CounterRebels, I’d say that aggro-control has been relying more heavily on blue. Currently, the impressive array of lands that let us play with any color combination we want to, and allows blue and any other color to team up for some form of aggro-control. Generally, the blue provides the control, while the other color provides the aggro.

For instance, I have a U/G deck that’s all bounce, counters, and token critters (Beast Attack and Call of the Herd). The green is almost purely beatdown, and the blue is almost purely control and card-draw. Take, for example R/W/U – the decks featuring Lightning Angel, Prophetic Bolt, Absorb, and so on. Here, the other colors (mainly red) provide an aggressive edge to the deck while blue provides more traditional”permission” values.

So am I contradicting myself with that last paragraph? Previously, I said that blue needed to be reevaluated as the color of countering… But now I’m saying that it couples with other colors though the blue cards take on the”control” part of the deck. However, I’d argue that you have to look at the deck as a whole. The entire composition of CounterBurn is both aggressive and controllish – the fact that blue does a great deal of controlling doesn’t play into it. The fact is that before this rich environment, blue was relegated to fly alone or not at all. But now it can easily and effectively team up with other colors to create varied control decks for fun and profit.

All in all, I’d say that the current Standard environment (owing mostly to the Invasion block) has allowed control decks to evolve significantly past the original”permission” stage of control. Board control decks are not relegated to discard and burn anymore, and aggro-control decks have found a new life.

Now, wouldn’t it be terrible if, now that we have a thriving new control environment (which happens to have a lot of blue in it), we allowed ourselves to create a card that castrates all control decks, especially those with blue? I urge you not to let Wizards create another Rishadan Port. Let the casual players have fun with that new victory condition, and leave well enough alone. Control is beautiful – let’s not give green another way to get over its jealousy.

Daniel Crane

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