I’ve seen a few posts and comments around the EDH subreddit asking for advice in building and playing control in this format, and, since I seem to pilot a majority of decks that are classified as control, I decided to take a stab at talking about it.
Note: A couple thousand words in, I realized it was no longer realistic to publish this all as one article. The first and last parts will contain the setup and wrap-up to this guide, but beyond that the three parts of the guide will be divided by the “columns” of playing control, that I will introduce here shortly. Please see the end of this part to be linked to the next!
Here We Go
Control, no matter what format one plays in, has always been a strong deck archetype in Magic: the Gathering. By virtue of its own name, it’s an archetype that aims to slow down and then elongate the game with suites of removal, resource denial, and permission management. By doing this, Control decks get a better hold on the flow of the game and can assemble a win condition much easier than opposing decks. In some matchups, the decision-making may be simple for a Control player: “If I keep this hand, I’ll need to draw into my Supreme Verdict by turn 4, or I fold to this aggro deck.” In other matchups, there are a myriad of possible play lines: “Will I have enough reach to close out the game if I choose to Lightning Bolt this Tarmogoyf right now, before damage is dealt? If I don’t, neutering my opponent’s combat swings may be more difficult the longer I wait — all the while taking more and more damage.” At its best, Control is a resilient monster that cannot be undone by low-end aggressive strategies, and has too many resources by the time that other Midrange and taller decks would be able to “go over” it. At its worst, Control can be slow, too reactive, or too dull to pull out wins — removal and denial elements may fall short, incremental advantages may be nonexistent, and game-winning threats may be easily-answered or fleeting in general. Either way, Control is a core archetype for decks in essentially every format that express a fundamental difference in playstyle than any other archetype of deck — these decks even exist in the Magic’s best format, Elder Dragon Highlander.
It seems like a vast majority of the builds I make in EDH (whether they stick around or not is a different story) are variants of differently-colored control builds, as control or variants of “tempo” tend to award me more fun and strategic games to enjoy.
The largest columns of playing “control” in multiplayer EDH environments are understanding how to assess threats (both cards being cast/on the battlefield and players), how to react to those threats, and then essentially how to win against one or two opponents during the game’s final act.
The Threat Test
Threat assessment is no new concept to magic players, and it’s actually been quite a popular discussion topic among other EDH news and strategy outlets. The difference here is the fact that while in a constructed format (or 1v1/French) a player would be simply keeping track of one opposing boardstate, one opposing life total, and one opposing hand size, *our* control player needs to essentially juggle those statistics for more than one opponent. Luckily for us, we can typically lay some of those initial concerns to rest by virtue of who is physically playing the game from across us. Any sort of aggro deck, for example, will deal a lot of damage early in the game and be burned at the stake for it by the rest of the table. A deck with any sort of notoriety of winning consistently may get initially-unwarranted hate before any damage has been done just due to the fact that building their combo pieces back up may be more difficult through active removal being cast against them. It’s relieving, in this way, to see some decks self-prophesy their own respective defeats. While we’ve talked about players that perhaps will fall short before the end of a game, we haven’t discussed the black horses of typical multiplayer EDH games, decks that are eerily similar in playstyle to what our control deck(s) want to do.
Cards are the name of the game, that hasn’t ever been more clear in long-lasting EDH games. Card draw is even universally powerful across Magic’s formats, spelling out doom for the drawer’s opponent, as cards essentially equal more options, outs, bombs, answers, threats, and paths to victory. This is no different here in EDH: a player that can draw cards repeatedly and/or in great mass is typically a greater threat than someone who has already committed his average number of cards to the board, which are now open for removal. Incidentally, control players also like to draw cards, because, obviously, we also want answers and threats in our hand. Card advantage comes in many forms, and not just the drawing of them itself: players that can gain raw card advantage through 2-for-1s, 3-for-1s, and so on are also high threats. Cards have never been a resource that haven’t won people important games.
In the same vein as card advantage, there are other incremental advantages opponents can gain that can steal wins from out under us. The universal complement to options in cards is the ability to cast them: mana. The acquisition of vast amounts of mana, be it through landbases, mana dorks or rocks, or spells, can be very dangerous for any player at the EDH table, as it enables that player to actually use the options given to them in their hands, battlefields, and graveyards. Aside from combo decks that cast spells like Manamorphose and kin, the warning signs of inflated mana pools are obvious: “mana ramp” in order to fetch and play additional lands in one turn and playing creatures/artifacts/enchantments that provide mana when activated. While the dorks/rocks themselves are not smart targets for removal, the player him/herself may be a smart one.
I humbly offer my Riku Counterburn Control deck as an accurate example of a deck that shows obvious warning signs of accelerated land-fetching and then awesome card draw much before it can take out opponents whole. 🙂
Bottom Line : Incremental advantages are typically signs of more powerful end-game opponents, and “end-game opponents” is synonymous with “opponents”, provided we make it to the end-game. Broadly speaking, a flashy low-end aggro deck, a hate-mongering hatebear/stax deck, or durdly, attention-whoring tribal/affinity-type deck are the obvious targets for early-to-mid-game hate because of the immediate impact on the game, but will either be dead before or will be ill-prepared for the endgame. Properly balancing political neutrality in the table’s political environment can be difficult while trying to hinder other top-end, late-game-oriented decks.
In the next part we will discuss possibly the largest component of any EDH deck — answers. Please click here if you’d like to be forwarded directly to the second part of my guide for Control EDH players!