Grabbing Control #1


By: Richard Gebbia

Best. Combo. Ever.


My name is Richard, but you can call me Rayne for short. And, oh yeah, I love control decks.

I started playing not too long ago, when Judgment first came out. The first deck I played was a green aggressive deck against my friend’s blue control deck. I ran him over my first game, and, being the novice I was, I simply could not understand why anyone would play such a slow deck. A week later, my friend said that he had revamped his deck and we played again. This time, he had a Prodigal Sorcerer/Charisma combo that killed me every game I played. I was dazzled.

Ever since, control decks have been a passion of mine, and I have meticulously analyzed and constructed control, usually in the Standard format (Type 2).

An Intro to the Control Archetype

We’ll start with the basics—the essence of a control deck. A control deck aims at winning the long game, attempting to stall until it gains a natural (and usually significant) advantage most often programmed into the deck itself. Then, the deck creates an inevitable win condition through that advantage directly or indirectly either by a large creature (the usual win condition) or basically anything else (a combo, an enchantment, et cetera) that wins the game in short order.

The Major Archetypes of Control

In the game of Magic: the Gathering, there are three major archetypes (or styles that decks tend toward): aggro (aggressive and creature-based), combo (wins using a two-or-more-card combination), and control, which I defined above. In my studies, I have discovered that control decks can be split into even more specific groups. While there are many different types of control decks, there still remains a clear general divide between them: reactive and proactive.

A perfect reaction
The reactive decks are usually considered the “classic” control decks. A perfect example of one would be Standard’s popular Dralnu du Louvre deck. This deck is extremely reactive, countering any threat if it can, and if it can’t, then it can tutor up something that should be able to deal with it. Another non-blue example would be Beach House or the updated Glittering Wish version by Evan Erwin. This deck trades Dralnu’s counter force for access to almost any card in the deck as well as powerful threats, such as Teneb the Harvester.

Despite their differing executions, these decks all share at least one concept: they can adapt to gain control over any kind of opponent. In other words, they play based on how the opponent plays. In the “Who’s the Beatdown?”* dilemma, the player of this deck is almost always the control player.

Then, there are the proactive control decks. One deck that seems to most represent this archetype is the classic Vore deck. As opposed to a reactive deck, Vore comes in every game knowing that it wants to keep as few lands on the opponent’s side of the table as it can to greatly cripple the opponent until it lays down a huge Magnivore to seal the game. Another great example of a U/R proactive control deck is Werner Cloete’s (or Osyp Lebedowicz’s) Izzetron. Most of the cards in this deck are focused on assembling the Urza lands (Urza’s Mine, Urza’s Power Plant, and Urza’s Tower) to lay down one of its eight quality creatures or to amass enough mana to play a game-winning Blaze (or, more recently, Demonfire).

One form of proactive control is the “lock” deck, a kind of fusion of combo and control. Lock decks are control decks whose advantage is a combo that, rather than just winning the game, simply negates the opponent's existence. Pickles is a perfect example. Pickles tries to get its Vesuvan Shapeshifter/Brine Elemental combo as fast as possible to deprive the opponent of his most necessary and most taken-for-granted part of his game: his untap step. From there, the Elemental cleans up the mess. Another wonderful representative of a “lock” style deck is MartyrTron, whose main focus is, rather than disrupt the opponent, to stall the game until it gets its Martyr of Sands/Proclamation of Rebirth combo going, which nets the MartyrTron player more life per turn than the opponent can reduce per turn. From there, the opponent has no or very little chance of winning.

Whether the deck is a “lock” style or it is a straightforward proactive control deck like Vore, all proactive control decks have something in common that is genuinely different than the reactive control deck: it has a gameplan. Very much unlike the “classic” reactive deck, the proactive control deck tries to play the same game every game. The interesting quirk about these decks is that more times than the reactive deck and more often than not, in the “Who’s the Beatdown?”* dilemma they are the beatdown.

Does this mean, then, that proactive control decks are not actually control?—Absolutely not. Why not? It still follows the definition of a control deck: it’s built for the long game, and still aims to stall until it wins on its own terms by means of a natural advantage.

Here, I would like to note that midrange is actually a subset of proactive control. It obeys the definition, but rather than focus on instants or sorceries, midrange decks focus on quality creatures that can both control the game and end the game.

Which balance fits your deck?
Elements and Measure

Now, if you notice, despite the fact that Vore is a proactive deck, it still contains a significant number of counterspells and removal/burn. Conversely, Dralnu du Louvre has four Mystical Teachings mainboard and at least two Teferi. The counterspells in Vore are typical reactive spells and the Teachings in Dralnu are typical proactive spells as they further advance the deck’s inevitable win through card advantage. This, of course, means that no control deck is perfectly reactive or proactive. The purely proactive deck would be an aggro deck, and the pure reactive deck would have no means to win because every single one of its spells would be completely devoted to reacting to an opponent as opposed to actually winning the game.

A real control deck of any type has both proactive and reactive elements. Finding the balance between the amounts of each in a given deck is a crucial point in deckbuilding. Furthermore, you can adjust the amounts of each element to fit your playing style.

Proactive Elements

For simplicity's sake, I will only discuss some of the major proactive elements found in the Standard format. Remember, proactive spells are those that create the advantage and/or develop your win condition. Draw spells are the most straightforward (and, in my experience, the least efficient). Draw spells give you more options than your opponent since you have access to more cards (unless you're really unlucky). A step up is the tutor spells, which are very efficient because, like the draw spells, they put something into your hand, but the card(s) you get are, rather than draw spells, the cards you want. An older deck called Solar Pox from Kamigawa-Ravnica-Coldsnap Standard used reanimation and a draw engine in Haakon, Stromgald Scourge and Court Hussar as its proactive elements. The reanimation could put pressure on the opponent with powerful creatures while still leaving mana open for other reactive elements such as Remand or Mortify.

Both land destruction and discard are viable forms of proactive disruption, but only if you pack them en masse. This is because a few land destruction spells may set an opponent back a turn or two, but they can usually regain their ground. However, if they rarely have two lands to work off of or rarely have any cards in hand to use, then they are truly hindered to the point of no return.

Another straightforward and rather effective proactive element is a large amount of good and relatively cheap (5-6 mana) threats. This is how Izzetron works. I find this to be one of the most, if not the most, effective forms of proactivity as you can almost always immediately regain pressure advantage (that is, always having a threat that needs to be dealt with) even if your opponent finds a way to get rid of it. As a key point to remember for reactive decks: you should almost always have something to do on the turns when you don’t need (or want) to react.

Reactive Elements

We all hate you, Extirpate.
These are rather easy to find. The most popular (and usually most effective) reactive elements in a deck are counterspells. The most commonplace is countermagic’s counterpart: removal. Together, countermagic and removal create a powerful wall against your opponent by stopping some spells as they arrive at play and dealing with the rest later. As of late, mass removal spells such as Damnation are the most common since they deal with any kind of pressure in an instant. In more aggressive environments, spot removal (or spells that only kill one thing at a time) are generally more useful because they are cheaper and usually force the opponent into making bad plays.

Most other reactive elements are just other spells called hate. These spells take out specific things in case you need them. The most perfect example of a hate spell is Naturalize, which “hates” artifacts and enchantments. There are other common hate spells. For instance, currently abounding is graveyard hate, like Tormod’s Crypt, Extirpate, Moratorium Stone, et cetera. The other type of hate spell is color hate, which is just spells that defend against a certain color. The prime example would be Circle of Protection: Red, which red decks usually can’t handle. Both of the example reactive decks are able grab these hate spells whenever they need them.

Analyzing a Control Deck

Now I’ll show you how I use a critical eye to see the strategies of a control deck. Let’s take a look at one of the most popular decks in Standard—Dralnu du Louvre. Here is the decklist by Frank Karsten:

Dralnu du LouvreMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
2 Dimir Aqueduct
9 Island
2 Swamp
4 Watery Grave
4 Dreadship Reef
2 Tolaria West
2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Urza's Factory

1 Skeletal Vampire
1 Aeon Chronicler
1 Dralnu, Lich Lord
3 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir

Other Spells
3 Mana Leak
4 Remand
2 Repeal
4 Rewind
1 Seize the Soul
2 Cancel
3 Damnation
3 Mystical Teachings
3 Spell Snare
1 Sudden Death
2 Think Twice

I sort the deck into reactive elements and proactive elements. This tells me more about the deck and how it’s supposed to work without even trying it out. I can analyze each respective element and its priority.

Reactive Elements:
• Mana Leak
• Remand
• Repeal
• Rewind
• Seize the Soul
• Cancel
• Damnation
• Spell Snare
• Sudden Death
• Bottle Gnomes
• Tormod’s Crypt
• Extirpate
• Slaughter Pact
• Tendrils of Corruption
• Trickbind

That’s a total of twenty-three reactive spells in the maindeck and eleven reactive spells in the sideboard. In the main alone, the reactive spells make almost half of the deck. This is definitely a draw-go deck. I notice also here that the deck relies mostly on counterspells with a few removal spells, especially Damnation.

Proactive Elements:
• Urza’s Factory
• Tolaria West
• Skeletal Vampire
• Aeon Chronicler
• Dralnu, Lich Lord
• Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
• Mystical Teachings
• Think Twice
• Persecute
• Grim Harvest
• Haunting Hymn

Making control players cry since 2006
This list is slightly smaller than before and has less numbers within the actual decklist. All lands are proactive, since they further advance the deck’s inevitable win by creating more mana for the control deck to use. However, unless they are there specifically to do something as opposed to just create mana, it doesn’t help to list them. I see in this list tons of one-ofs. An important spell in this deck is Mystical Teachings because it gathers Teferi, the deck’s most important card, as well as being able to tutor up those one-ofs. Also, the Dralnu player can cast Teachings to fetch another when there isn't any action, which gives the player an extra tutor to use (one in the graveyard and one in hand that, after it's played, can be flashed back). With Teferi, this deck can really start to actually make progress because it can work without distraction or a potential threat of an opponent’s disruption. Also, Teferi makes the lone Skeletal Vampire, which is a better win condition as a four-turn clock, flashy, so you can flashback the original Mystical Teachings you used to fetch Teferi to nab Vampire for the win.

Teferi also has a synergy with the bulk of the deck: the reactive spells. Not only does he take the guesswork out of when your opponents will play their spells, but he also allows your proactive spells to be played on your opponent’s turn after the reaction. This ensures that you can use your hand with as little danger as possible. Also, you don’t have to get a Skeletal Vampire once Teferi’s out, but instead, if your opponent still poses a threat after Teferi, you can tutor up a Dralnu, Lich Lord which allows you to reuse your reactive spells to make sure you stay alive until you can settle a win.

Thus, with all this information floating around in your head, you can compile the basic game plan of the deck. The plan for this deck is to sit back, relax, counter some spells, Teachings for Teferi, flashback for Vampire, keep the game stable, and win from there.

Here’s another deck to analyze, a more proactive deck this time: Korlash Control (this is Brian Upham’s list from the StarCity Games recent 1K tournament). The decklist:

Korlash ControlMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
7 Snow-Covered Swamp
4 Blood Crypt
3 Graven Cairns
1 Sulfurous Springs
1 Urza's Factory
4 Watery Grave
3 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Mouth of Ronom

4 Aeon Chronicler
1 Detritivore
4 Dimir House Guard
1 Twisted Abomination
4 Korlash, Heir to Blackblade

Other Spells
1 Bottled Cloister
4 Dimir Signet
2 Rakdos Signet
1 Leyline of the Void
3 Tendrils of Corruption
2 Compulsive Research
4 Damnation
1 Persecute
4 Rise // Fall

Like before, I’ll sort the deck into proactive and reactive elements:

Reactive Elements:
• Leyline of the Void
• Tendrils of Corruption
• Damnation
• Rise
• Extirpate

As you can see, there aren’t many elements listed, but in number they total 12 main slots, which is, in fact, one-fifth of the deck and about one-third of the non-land cards. That isn’t insignificant by any means. The reactivity of this deck is purely hate and removal. However, notice that, other than Rise, the reactive spells are extremely powerful. Any aggressive deck will have a pretty hard time against Damnation, and then he has Tendrils of Corruption + Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. This means that, should he not lose before he gets to four mana, the Korlash player has a pretty easy game against aggro. Extirpate and Leyline of the Void are there for graveyard-based strategies, mostly Narcolepsy, against which any deck has a hard time without hate. This player added some of these cards to the maindeck since he expected to face Narcolepsy and/or graveyard-based strategies.

Proactive Elements:
• Bottled Cloister
• Dimir Signet
• Rakdos Signet
• Aeon Chronicler
• Detritivore
• Dimir House Guard
• Twisted Abomination
• Korlash, Heir to Blackblade
• Compulsive Research
• Persecute
• Fall
• Riptide Pilferer
• Nightmare Void
• Urza’s Factory

A hard-to-kill win condition,
AND mana acceleration
in one neat package
This deck has many more proactive elements than it does reactive. You can see that they all do one or more of three different things: mana (like the Signets, Abomination, and Korlash), provide a win condition (like Korlash, Chronicler, and Urza’s Factory), or provide card advantage either through drawing or discarding (Chronicler, Compulsive Research, Persecute, et cetera). Detritivore is the exception, destroying lands against other control decks, although it can still of course be a wonderful win condition. All of the proactive strategies, though, add up to one thing: anti-control. Most (as in, just about all) control decks live off of having more cards and things to do available than the opponent. This deck destroys that ideal with constant discard, uncounterable card-drawing in Aeon Chronicler as well as faster mana development that greatly increases to the point where the other deck cannot catch up with Korlash.

This deck lies somewhat in contrast to the Dralnu deck. Where Dralnu’s proactive strategies were highly synergistic, this deck instead has cards that can do multiple things to reach the deck’s ultimate goal. For instance, Korlash is both a win condition AND mana acceleration; Aeon Chronicler is both a win condition AND a draw spell; Rise // Fall is either a proactive spell OR a reactive spell. This trend continues for most of the deck’s spells. Korlash Control does, however, have one major synergy: Dimir House Guard and… the rest of the deck. This deck hits its mana peak at four. In other words, all of the deck’s truly powerful cards like Damnation, Korlash, Detritivore, Aeon Chronicler, Persecute, and Tendrils of Corruption can be tutored for with Dimir House Guard.

Again, I can take all this analysis and shove it into a gameplan. The deck has a clear divide between strategies against aggressive decks and against control decks. Against the aggressive deck, it tries get as many reactive spells in hand as possible and use them generously. Usually, Damnation + Tendrils will hinder the aggressive deck to the point of no return. From that point, it lays down a Korlash and begins to beat face. Against control, however, this deck plays the aggressor and attempts to force through a significant advantage in mana, cards, pressure, or any combination of the three. The deck becomes much more favorable against control after sideboard, where it can launch Persecute after Persecute at the opponent until one sticks. From there on, the plan is to win with Korlash, Detritivore, or Chronicler.

One could argue that, usually, there is already an article or passage about how the deck works, and thus this deck analysis is unnecessary. However, being able to analyze decks without reading an article or passage about them is less of a necessary tool than it is a skill-builder. Once you can analyze how another control deck works, it becomes easier to construct your own deck with a higher chance of it being able to win. Also, if you’re planning to netdeck, it’s easier to analyze the deck yourself, so you know your exact impressions of the deck and how you want to run it, since your play style is unique.


I hope this article was able to help enlighten both control deck builders and control deck players. Noticing the reasons a deck is losing will help you realize what elements your deck is missing and can thus lead to better building skills and better test results. Should there ever be a next time I will venture deeper into the land of advantages.

*In this article, I make references to an article by Michael Flores, which is here.


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