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Your Guide to Control in EDH, Part 3: Win Conditions

I’m back for the third and final segment of this comprehensive guide for Control Players in EDH. After talking about the third column of any Control player’s strategy, I’ll go back and review and conclude some things about the Control playstyle as it applies to the EDH table.

The Ways to Win

This column has got to be the most straight-forward on terms of why exactly it’s a vital component of Control players’ deckbuilding. After assessing threats and taking care of threats, all while slowly obtaining advantages throughout the game, it’s time to finally put out our guns and finish the remaining opponents off, Mexican-standoff style. This late-game is by far the most entertaining and fun part of the game for any Control player, as he/she finally is able to pull the curtains away from his/her inevitable winning machine, infecting opponents with an agonizing sensation of doom. Speaking of winning machine, what does one of those machines look like?

There are actually quite a few different ways to win in a game of Magic: the Gathering. Of course, the most typical and basic one is to reduce opponents’ life totals to 0, but there are a couple more. “Mill”, as it’s popularly called, forces an opponent to draw from his library when there are no longer any cards in his or her library to draw, and is actually a fairly popular theme or subtheme among most casual playgroups. Any seasoned EDH player, however, knows that with cards like Serra Avatar and the Eldrazi Titans (dang, these guys are the most applicable examples ever!) being popular bombs in the format, it’s difficult to actually feasibly win with “mill” in this format — with some exceptions like this great primer (which is actually a deck I designed for my brother to play, as he loved mill strategies when he began to play Magic). Aside from mill, alternative win conditions typically fall under a “If this card does its thing, it wins” category. For example, if one is playing a copies/tokens type of deck, it’s probably in that player’s best interest to slot in a Biovisionary and more ways to make multiple copies of a creature in one turn. Now I’ll briefly go over some popular win conditions in the format that allow for Control players to win in short order, restricting how many turns opponents get to see while the win condition is out in the open.

Combat and Life Total: Like I stated earlier, reducing an opponent (or opponents) to 0 life is the most typical and usually easiest way to ensure victory. It’s also worth noting that while most life loss occurs as a result of combat damage, life loss and damage are not the same thing: Damage is a precursor to life loss, and damage can be prevented. Life loss has no way of being prevented. Within this “category” of possible ways of winning, there are four general avenues I’d say make up the category: single-creature combat damage, multi-creature combat damage, direct damage, and direct life loss. Single-creature combat damage specifies that a single creature, usually one’s commander in EDH, will be doing massive amounts of damage in one combat step to either kill opponents or reduce their life totals to 0 in no time flat — aside from commanders and their commander damage, big, splashy bombs like Kozilek, Butcher of Truth (oh man) also fit in here. Multi-creature combat damage focuses highly on having a large creature force that is more difficult to block or remove fully (and favorably) that also can be easily buffed with anthems or Overrun-type effects… these strategies typically exist in white, red, and green, and popular components are Kamahl, Fist of Krosa and Garruk Wildspeaker. Direct damage specifies exactly what it says: a spell or ability that is able to do unblocked damage to a player’s head — most of the spells in the game that do direct damage to either creature or player are nestled in red, like Comet Storm or Brimstone Volley. Life loss is perhaps the most dastardly of the avenues for a life total victory: similar in some ways to direct damage, these sorts of strategies like to target players outright to reduce their life totals to 0 with no ways to prevent the life loss besides a counterspell to negate the spell or ability… Popular example include Exsanguinate and Debt to the Deathless, and the differences between life loss and direct damage, you guessed it, are the differences between dealing damage and causing a player to lose life fundamentally (see above).

Mill: Another fairly common effect in lots of decks in casual environments, named after the card Millstone — people like the sentiment of removing someone’s cards from their library before they can even consider using them. Mill strategies typically remove cards from the top of a player’s library and puts them into the graveyard, and then eventually forces the player to draw from his or her library while that player has no cards in his or her library to make that player lose. Image As a win condition, discussed before, mill is quite weak: lots of players just pack big creatures that negate mill “progress” because of a tacked-on ability that can be difficult to interact with. There are committed mill decks in EDH that have definitely equipped themselves to combat these sorts of cards in decks, but this is a little too specific and greedy of a win strategy for most Control decks. Outside of playing it as a win condition, mill can actually be fairly useful in removing certain threats, essentially countering “top-of-the-deck” tutors, and placing certain cards in the graveyard for advantages.

Card-specific: Like the Biovisionary example above, these are perhaps the most niche win conditions out of the categories. Where multiple cards in a player’s deck could force an opponent to either lose life or mill cards, these cards sacrifice consistency within the decks they reside in in exchange for being very potent in a particular deck. There really aren’t too many “popular” choices in this category just because of how fleeting the cards are to see in decks and how specific the deck needs to be to play it. Despite that fact, players will probably see those life-total-focused ones around from time to time, and also Helix Pinnacle, which seems to be a fan favorite win condition for every pillowfort deck. My personal favorite would be Divine Intervention because it feels even better than a win when it works out. (Note: Coalition Victory is actually banned by the EDH Rules Committee, but don’t let that stop the fun your playgroup can have!)

Concession: Yes, I consider this a very real win condition too! Even without a concrete win condition in hand or on the battlefield, Control players can make opponents concede actually fairly often. In order to push concession, and “inevitable” gamestate needs to be pressed on the opponent(s). This un-beatable gamestate may involve a hand size as thick as a steak, infinite life, infinite tokens on the battlefield, revealing a wad of countermagic, infinite mana, an unanswered win condition (obviously, but not really relevant), mass resource destruction, or an effective lockdown. While I’d personally prefer to see actual win conditions in my control decks, this is not any weaker of a “win condition” for that reason: playing politically and subtly convincing your opponents to concede is actually a fairly dastardly and clever way to pull wins out on games that would have otherwise been un-winnable. A lot of the ways to push concession also act as win conditions by themselves, so I wouldn’t recommend players focus on concession too much for winning, in general circumstances. A deck like my 5-color Enchantment Control deck love this as a win condition, but it’s worth noting that it (and many decks like it) typically aren’t built with a competitive win as a priority.

The most important thing for Control players to realize while selecting win conditions is that they have to be resilient, on-demand, and quick. A two-card infinite-damage combo is no doubt a win condition that ends the game at instant speed, but if one of those combo pieces is removed somehow, we no longer have a win condition if we can’t recur that essential piece — and now it’s pretty obvious what we are trying to do if we are taking the resources to recover a very niche and combo-oriented card; lots of crazy stuff happens during a long EDH game, a control player’s way to win is a resilient one. A Blightsteel Colossus can be a very quick and resilient win condition in decks, but without a way to either tutor for it or have it in hand when it’s needed, it’s difficult to assume we’ll draw it or find it when we actually need it; on-demand win conditions allow control players to take advantage of small windows of opportunities during the late game, which may be the only windows the players will have. Unlike many circumstances in constructed formats, a win condition in the form of just a creature with a big power in the late game is typically never a win condition that’s “worth it” in EDH — it’s incredibly slow and susceptible to all sorts of removal; a quick win condition denies opponents much-needed time to stop a Control player’s big plays while also mitigating any “risk” of being vulnerable after going “all out”. Of the three conditions a successful Control win condition needs to meet, win conditions can be resilient and on-demand quite easily if there’s actually just a larger concentration of them in a deck; a player will be drawing into ways to way more frequently as a result. General card draw also improves the possibilities for win conditions to be resilient and on-demand.

Bottom Line: An ideal Control player has a strong win condition (or conditions) that is resilient, on-demand, and quick. By understanding how win conditions can be met, investigating certain strategy, and observing that player’s metagame, a Control player can choose the ideal win condition that will be difficult for opponents to ever interact with.

Control Conclusions

We’ve finally reached the end of this gargantuan guide, ladies and gentlemen. There really isn’t too much else to say about “how” to play Control. While this guide has talked extensively about reminders and priorities a Control player needs to have both during deck construction and during play time, many of the choices a player will make will be individual, unique, and tailored to his or her own strategy and philosophy. I play in a playgroup that is mostly casual, where most decks hover around the “75%” mark of powerlevel (!), so even for me some of the stuff in this guide could become too strategy-intensive for a fun and enjoyable game for everyone at the table. EDH and Magic: the Gathering are games, and games should be fun over everything else, in my opinion. Hopefully this guide has been of some assistance for players who want to move into the mindset of a Control player, or really any player who is trying to understand the strategies and whatnot behind playing the Control archetype. Either way, I hope seeing at least some of this guide has been of help to others, and I greatly appreciate those of you who stuck around for the entirety. Until next time!



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  1. Fantastic Conclusion. And, I will share, that I have landed and ended the game with a Divine Intervention in my Hanna, Ship’s Navigator deck and it was glorious! I used Academy Rector to dig it out and Sunder to ensure resource denial to pay for removal… but anyways…

    For discussion… in a control deck, what do you feel is the appropriate number (or amount range) of win conditions in a control deck? I feel that having just one win condition may irritate a playgroup, unless the deck is seldom played, or resides at the 75% level. Is this a correct assumption?

  2. Supportive as always, Wally! I thank you.

    The interesting thing about trying to [em]quantify[/em] win conditions is that some conditions come as a one-man-band: Blightsteel Colossus or something like Exsanguinate can outright win games by themselves and no other particular card support. Other times, one “win condition” may require more than one card, like, for example, a way to infinitely recreate dudes in addition to one’s Goblin Bombardment or similar. It kind of sucks because some win conditions take larger chunks out of the nonland slots of a deck, do absolutely nothing without their respective “win condition package” members, and ultimately eat up precious hand space throughout a large portion of the game if they are drawn too early. One-card win conditions are interesting in this regard too, because while a deckbuilder is pressed to synerg-ize even his win condition cards with central themes and engines of the deck, most one-card win conditions either are actually particularly weak without rough and general boardstate support, or are just so alienating and powerful that they must be held back before the time is right to “go big”.

    In my experience, it seems that the actual ideal number of win conditions for a control deck varies greatly among what kind of control is in question. For example, if my control deck just stacks its deck with Proteus Staff to win off a storm-count win, it’d be more safe to just keep one win condition (the one Grapeshot or Brain Freeze) and ensure its potency with more easily-cantripped storm-count-spells and/or ways to recur the one win condition if things go dicey. But, if my jund reanimator deck simply just plays Bitter Ordeal as its one win condition, it will become difficult to end games without first finding an infinite sacrifice engine and then finding, casting, and resolving a potent Bitter Ordeal. In this example, I’d probably also run bigger and more explosive reanimator targets (I probably already am in a reanimator deck however), some of which now with the intent to close out games by just hitting the field and maybe attacking. Additional win condition additions for such a deck may just be things like Blood Artist and Vicious Shadows, as they are potent ways to win that also look for the same qualifications as Bitter Ordeal, and are overall very good in the deck that has strong synergy towards a theme of reanimation, sacrifice-on-demand, and death triggers.

    Wall of text, sorry about that. I hope this gave a little bit of insight about how win condition density should be decided for each control deck — no two decks are quite the same!

  1. […] be it for this iteration, good people, but you can click right here for a direct link to the third and final part of this guide, which will talk about the win […]

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