Control decks are too often placed on a pedestal. They are the most “skill intensive” decks, or “most difficult to pilot” decks, or “the most punishing for misplays” – or whatever else players feel like claiming. The point is that people tend to think control decks are extremely demanding of the pilot. Yet, anyone who has seen Pat Sullivan play burn knows that any deck can be demanding of the pilot. What a control deck has are clear moments where you can be demolished if you make the wrong move.
We want to avoid that.
So what is a control deck trying to accomplish? Controlling the game, of course! I know – that’s a fairly useless statement, because every deck is trying to control the game in some manner of speaking. What a control deck is trying to do is establish a game state where inevitability takes hold and victory is assured. This typically happens through a combination of removal (and/or counters), board wipes, and card advantage to stall until a win condition finishes the game in your favor. While a combo deck establishes a condition to just win the game outright and an aggressive deck applies pressure to collapse the opposition before they have a chance, a control deck sculpts a game so that it can win after an opponent is neutralized.
This applies to Commander a little differently than regular games (curse those pesky extra opponents trying to cramp your style!) That factor also makes removing and countering key threats more difficult. You will run out of cards or mana (or both!) and then your opponents will capitalize on this, gang up, and squish you like a bug. If you do manage to counter everything, then you reach a position where you have to take out every opponent on your own.
In Commander, you need to let the game advance, and you need to use your opponents as a resource.
First – don’t counter everything! Seriously…no one will have any fun. If you want to stop everyone from playing, suck it up and run a prison deck. (And then enjoy how fast your friends come to hate you.) Rather, you should let the game develop. Counter key threats, but let your opponents fight each other; you can always hang back and use mass removal to wipe the board when things get out of hand. Using Wrath of God to take out ten creatures is the best four-mana draw spell in Magic (Unless you wait it out to try to get a few more creatures…)
A control deck in Commander is mostly about the long game. A Krenko, Mob Boss deck may have tons of aggressive potential, but after a couple wipes, the deck cannot generate enough traction to continue in a long game. Control decks lack this problem; they have late game threats that can handle strong opponents.
This is where many control deck generals come into play – as a finisher. Dragonlord Ojutai, Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet all examples of control finishers; this also includes combo commanders such as Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. One thing to remember is the emphasis on evasive finishers. A deck like Kalitas needs far more removal to make up for its ground-pounder status. Oloro doesn’t even need the attack step. If you don’t take evasion into account, you end up trying to win with something like Thragtusk which can be chump-blocked all day.
The other option for a control commander is one who provides card advantage. Arcanis the Omnipotent is one of the clearest examples, but others like Karador, Ghost Chieftain or Damia, Sage of Stone provide card advantage through extra cards or extra resources. Other possible generals exist; but the most successful commanders for a control strategy fall into these broad categories (or if you’re lucky, the ideal general can do both!)
Importance of Defense
If your opponents are good at all, they will recognize the late game potential of a control deck. This demands that you have some early defense to keep your life total high.
The defenses for control decks mostly break down into disincentives and blockers. Disincentive cards make you an unattractive target. Ghostly Prison, Dissipation Field, and Vampire Nighthawk are examples. They demand that an opponent lose resources to commit to an attack against you.
I should address this now – those are not “political cards”. That term is overused and pointless. The cards provide a hard choice – Propaganda makes attacks difficult because the mana spent on the attack tax cannot be used to develop the board state. Vampire Nighthawk dissuades attacks because deathtouch really cramps a creature’s style.
On to blockers! If you are going to use creatures with defender, make sure they have other uses. Mnemonic Wall brings back a spell, Wall of Blossoms draws a card, Vent Sentinel can kill an opponent. I typically don’t use many walls because I like my creatures to be able to attack when someone’s shields are down, but some of my friends have good success with very defensive creatures.
If you simply want more defensive creatures that are not quite a wall, this opens up a lot more options. Silklash Spider and the aforementioned Vampire Nighthawk keep away the opposition. Nighthawk is evasive to get on the offense, while Silklash can nuke fliers that are giving you a problem. My preferred method of defensive creatures are tokens – they can be easily replaced, can take to the offense well, and are more often overlooked by opponents. Token producers also provide a mana sink to use after counter mana has been held up – I don’t like contributing nothing to the board for several turns.
Counter Spells and Mana Woes
First and foremost, a control deck does not need counter spells. At all. Board control and discard provide alternative means of controlling the game. A deck does not need to be blue to be a control deck (and every blue deck is not a control deck!)
It deserves repeating – don’t counter everything! You simply can’t stop the whole game in a multiplayer format, so you need to be more conservative with counterspells. Watch some Magic coverage; the pro players allow things to resolve all the time. If you have an answer, or the card isn’t threatening to you, then let it resolve. Instead of trying to stop everything, focus on defensive counters. You need to protect yourself and your threats. Even Darksteel Colossus is not invincible. When someone tries to Comet Storm you for a bazillion, that is a good spell to counter.
A big scary threat…sure. Go for it. But all too often, people counter odd spells like a late game ramp spell. Don’t do that.
Instead of wasting your counters on every opportunity, stop the biggest blows coming your way. In a video game where you can spend a resource to break an attack, you don’t spam that every chance you get. You wait for the big moments to have the most impact. If you aren’t sure what I mean, check out DOTA 2 games and look for when BKB is activated (It makes you magic-immune temporarily). Players usually BKB to initiate a fight, or to survive a fight going badly. They do not activate it every chance they get – that is how you get caught with resources and no defenses.
Since I’m talking about resource management, I want to also talk about lands. Hit your land drops! For crying out loud, the number of people I’ve seen over the years who play a Faithless Looting or similar spell early and then discard lands is mind-boggling. Do you know what usually happens? They always start missing land drops in a few turns. Don’t hamstring yourself like this!
In Standard, a control deck is likely to run something like twenty-six lands because they cannot afford to fall behind in mana production. In Commander, don’t run thirty-six lands and expect to never miss a land drop. You need to be able to deploy a threat and keep up pressure on your opponents; shorting yourself on lands stops your ability to attack the game on multiple fronts.
This goes for mana rocks too. Use them, run them, and play some cheaper ones. If your only mana rock below three mana is Sol Ring, you might have an issue.
To beat a control deck you need to keep them under pressure. If you back down and give a control deck breathing room, you are giving up and letting them take a game away from you. A control deck will get more powerful as the game continues – they are like a carry in DOTA or League. If you give a control deck breathing room early, then right around turn six things are going to get difficult for you. Keep them from developing, take out their lone threats, and keep that life total as low as you can. Steal their time; force them to act before they are ready.
You need to hit a control deck hard. High impact cards are the best case for this. Last week I talked about how five mana is a huge break point for effectiveness. Use that! Attack with haste creatures so that a board wipe lessens the impact against you. Specter creatures (like Hypnotic Specter) are not often played, but this type of creature is exactly what you need to pressure control decks. They lose a card no matter what they do, and if they don’t answer it, they lose more cards.
You can also put control decks into tight squeezes by attacking their resources. Destroy their mana, blow up mana rocks, make them discard spells. Just don’t let up. It just takes one good Sphinx’s Revelation to undo a lot of your hard work and allow a control deck to reload. To help keep up pressure, use the early game for maximum gains. Stigma Lasher on turn two against Oloro is basically a death-knell for that deck.
Still, there are many control decks with incidental life gain or a few recovery spells like the Sphinx’s Revelation. Turn off their options! Leonin Arbiter puts a tax on tutoring, which makes several of their cards worse and makes Path to Exile and Ghost Quarter much better for you. Many players are using Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker in a control deck these days; however it also works wonders against control decks.
The other cards that gain counters from opponents casting spells can use everyone’s contributions to fighting the control deck. (Think Taurean Mauler, Sunscorch Regent, Mangorger Hydra, and their grand pappy Forgotten Ancient).
Never forget to hold back a little bit in reserve. Overextending into a Wrath effect is a great way to turn a winning game into a loss. However, there is a fine line between applying enough pressure and holding back enough to keep that pressure going. This tends to be group and game-dependant, so I can’t give you an easy answer as to what is always correct. I prefer to hold back a haste critter or two so that I can follow up a board wipe with a good counter-attack. We’ve got to punish the control decks for their audacity, right?
The overextending protection can come in a few forms like critter lands, more big threats, or something simple like burn spells. Mutavault is pretty safe from most sweepers and can be cheaply animated to grab a few pieces of equipment to bash in on someone. You go the burn route after a sweeper with something like Fan the Flames to burn a control mage to a nice crisp. Mind their open mana with burn spells – buyback is stopped if the spell is countered and a timely Misdirect can ruin your day too.
The Inevitable End
With any control deck, your goal is getting to a state of inevitability (Mr. Anderson) so that you cannot be beaten. Unlike Agent Smith, you can finish off your opponents once they’re out of gas to keep up. How do you achieve the inevitable victory? How to do you fight against a control deck?
Hit me up in the comments or the Twitterverse. I’ll see you next week.