The other day, I watched another new player getting upset and frustrated as his deck got creamed, repeatedly, by a blue mage. The newbie had some passably cool combos and tricks, but they depended on getting cards into play and having those cards stay in play. His opponent didn’t let that happen.
Newbie:”Attack with Shivan Wurm. Bloodlust it. Bloodlust it again.”
Opponent:”In response to the second Bloodlust, Capsize the Wurm.”
Newbie:”In response, Fling it, targeting you.”
And so forth. The new player had tuned his deck and developed lots of tricks – and I’m sure the deck goldfished very well. The problem was that he hadn’t considered what his opponent would (or could) do. He just built a deck that could run over nearly anything by using big, fast tramplers and direct damage. Nothing with creatures could stand against his deck. Problem was, he hadn’t considered that people play decks that don’t use creatures to stop their opponents. They use spells like these:
UU: Don’t do that.
3UU or no mana at all: Don’t do that, either.
2U: Put that back in your hand, and I’ll draw another”don’t do that” card.*
Plus others – lots of others. Enough that the blue mage stops everything that can hurt him (or her), then drops one of his or her very few creatures and kills the opponent. Or, even worse, drops Millstone – which I consider a horrible and frustrating way to die. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from playing Millstone. I like using it – I just don’t like losing to it.*
Blue is the color of control – the color of preventing your opponent from doing what they want. Is it any surprise that blue is also the traditional color for police uniforms? Blue mages are the cops. Anything you might enjoy doing, the blue mages see as illegal – and they will try to prevent it and bust you, however possible.
Why is Arrest a white spell? It ruins the whole analogy.
I have to admit, I’m a blue mage. I play blue decks, and more than one opponent has left the table frustrated – muttering that Wizards should ban islands. Prevention and denial is rarely fun to play against. However, blue is not the only color that can handle prevention. Any color can shut down an opponent.
Take red, for example. Red is the color of land destruction – which is very much control. I have another friend that always builds his decks with just a bit too few lands. No matter what he builds, he is always short on lands and is always hoping to topdeck mana. Land destruction just wrecks him, every time. It’s to the point that we don’t play LD against him – it’s an automatic win. That shouldn’t happen – because you need to design decks around what you want to do and what the opponent can do. Playing land destruction is one example.
Black can be a control color – it has the tools: The Abyss, Nether Void, Sinkhole, Gravepact / token generators, Pestilence, Terror, etc. Black is also the color of discard. If you discard a card, you can’t play it. Well, not unless you have some special tricks, most of which are also black. (Rumor has it that the next block – Torment – will have a new mechanic that let’s you play a card as you discard it, but that remains to be seen.)
White’s control cards are sweeping and powerful. Swords to Plowshares kills practically any creature, save Blastoderm and – generally – Morphling. Wrath of God even does in those. Armageddon says”I’ve done my thing, now no one can do anything else” as well as any card ever printed. Other white cards, like Cataclysm and Catastrophe (and even Purify, Serendipity, and Presence of the Master), can drastically change the game and have huge impacts on how it plays out.
Green can be a control color. Nah, who am I trying to kid? Green cannot be much of a control color. Titania’s Song, Plow Under, and Stunted Growth just don’t cut it, nor does the constantly-reprinted Tranquility.
But the point is that it isn’t enough to design a deck that does what it wants to do consistently – you want to design a deck that wins consistently, regardless of what your opponent is doing to prevent it. In”Enter the Dragon,” some guy breaks a board – and an unimpressed Bruce Lee says,”boards don’t hit back.” To be good, your deck has to hit hard, even when the opponent is hitting back.
To put it another way, I have frequently developed combo decks that could kill on turn 5-8, unless the opponent had counters or something. I don’t write articles about those, because no one cares – nor should they. By turn six, the opponent has probably already won, or has a fist full of counters, or has destroyed all your land, or has done something else to make sure the combo doesn’t happen.
There are ways of building decks that can win, despite the opponent’s best efforts. It can be done. Here are the basic methods:
1) Doing it fast
2) Doing just enough, then protecting it
3) Doing just enough, then making sure they don’t do anything
4) Doing it all at once.
5) Doing the same thing over and over.
That probably doesn’t mean all that much. Let me explain, using Extended for examples.
Doing It Fast:
The concept is simple – play out threats as fast as possible, then kill the opponent before they can stabilize. Sligh and Stompy are good examples – both drop a lot of small threats very fast and hope to kill you before turn 5. These decks get around counterspells by casting one threat turn 1, two threats on turn 2, three on turn 3, and so on until they run out of cards. A year or two ago, this option worked pretty well. However, Sligh does not like a metagame with Wall of Roots (Rock), or decks like Donate that require it to do forty damage. Speed can work, but not consistently in the current*** Extended environment. Speed needs some assistance.
Doing Just Enough, Then Protecting It:
This was the strategy in Invasion drafting and early block – just drop a 2/2, then counter and bounce anything that could block or stop it. The idea is to get a single fast threat down, then control the board just enough to let the threat win the game. In Extended right now, Miracle Gro fits this model. It runs a few cheap, reasonably powerful threats (okay – a 7/7 Quirion Dryad with two Curiosities is more than”reasonably powerful”) and only ten counterspells – and four of those are Daze. The deck isn’t trying to be Forbiddian – it isn’t trying to control the board. It is just trying to slow down the opponent enough to get the win. Note that Winter Orb is a critical part of that plan – while Gro cannot counter everything, Winter Orb can force the opponent to cast fewer spells and does make Daze more useful.
Doing Just Enough, Then Making Sure They Don’t Do Anything
On a slightly different tack, decks can try to drop a threat, then prevent an opponent from doing anything by denying resources. The difference between this strategy and decks packing counterspells is that these decks use other methods of stopping an opponent from playing their game – usually by denying or destroying mana. Land destruction decks try this approach, but none are viable in the current Extended. An archetype that is having some success now is Weenie-Geddon, which traditionally dropped cheap fatties (like Erhnam Djinn), then played Armageddon to make sure the opponent didn’t have enough mana to dispose of the fatties. The current incarnation is Threshold-Geddon, which plays small creatures like Werebear, then uses Armageddon to reach threshold and turn the bear into a monster. Winter Orb does the much same thing in that it denies the opponent the mana to solve the problems. The Winter Orb in Miracle Gro is almost enough to justify putting the deck in this category.
Doing It All At Once
Another option for making your deck perform, regardless of what the opponent does, is to build the deck to win on one big turn. Yes, I mean build a combo deck. The classic combo decks were Academy, Bargain, and High Tide, and – fortunately or unfortunately – they are not in the format. The closest thing to a pure combo deck going is Raisin Bran, which uses Aluren to power an infinite life or infinite mana engine, then wins with a Stroke. Of course, Raisin Bran can also win with fliers, and at least one version doesn’t even run the Stroke (if the posted decklist is correct), but I like having a way of using the infinite mana.
Decks that use the one big turn idea may also have a way of protecting the combo from disruption. Counterspells and Force of Will are powerful and obvious, if the colors allow. Trix and Cocoa Pebbles used Duress as well – it not only checks the opponent’s hand for counters, but can remove one. If decks include white, Abeyance is a perfect lead – cast it during your upkeep – if they do not counter, then you can go off safely. Orim’s Chant is almost as good. Green and Red don’t have those colors – City of Solitude is as close as you can get – but then again, Green and Red don’t have any combos either.****
Doing The Same Thing Over And Over
A final option to beat control decks is simply to have more redundant threats than the opponent has counters for. Control decks run a finite number of counters – they cannot counter everything. Decks like Three-Deuce have a ton of small, cheap creatures, and tend to drop several threats in the first couple of turns. No deck can counter that many threats, that fast, so these decks can try to overwhelm an opponent. The potential problem with such an approach, however, is that small creatures do badly against Wall of Roots and elephant tokens. Three-Deuce tries to get around this problem with removal, Rancor, and first strike – but even so, Junk and Rock are tough matchups.
A word of warning for those playing redundant weenie decks, whether they be 3 Deuce, Cradle Elf or U/W Weenie – Pernicious Deed hurts.
All Of The Above:
The best decks don’t rely on just one of these strategies. The best decks find a synergy between several. Counterslivers dropped a few small threats, then stopped just enough of the opponent’s cards to get the deck though – but it could also make it’s threats into large, untargetable fliers. Miracle Gro does some of the same. Current elf decks combine redundant threats with Winter Orb to stall opponents. Decks like Tinker combine the threat of an explosive first turn (City of Traitors, Grim Monolith, Voltaic Key, Phyrexian Processor for ten), with control elements like Crumbling Sanctuary and Mishra’s Helix.
That’s the real secret of great decks – they combine their ability to play out their win conditions with ways of preventing the opponent from stopping them in a very tight package. It is not just that these decks can both win and stop an opponent’s control elements – it’s that they do it so almost simultaneously. It is the synergy that makes the great Extended decks great right now. Much as I hate to say it, that’s what Donate does so well – it’s kill card is both a path to victory and a way of staying alive for another few turns. Nothing is more synergistic than one card that says”win soon” and”don’t lose for a while” in one card.
On the plus side – a lot of decks can beat Donate again and again, which it fully deserves.
* – For anyone that missed it – Counterspell, Force of Will, Repulse
** – Truth be told, I don’t like losing, period. However, Millstone has a slow inevitability to it that seems to hurt more – almost like dying to Obstinate Familiar. (Steve Port killed an opponent that way in a draft. He had also drafted a ton of land destruction cards, so I can tell that story here – because it fits the article. And because it wasn’t me getting smashed by Obstinate Familiar.)
*** – Well, it was current when I started working on this. It’s on its last legs now, and once this article goes up, it will probably be over.
**** – Okay – some parts of some combos are green and red, but it is Enduring Renewal that powers the Renewal/Goblin Bombardment/Shield Sphere combo in Pebbles, and Prosperity that powers the Drain Life that kills in ProsBloom. Green and red are just there as support.