Back in December we discussed the Aggro archetype, which ultimately seeks to deal 20 damage as fast as possible. With the current trends in Standard, however, we’re seeing a bit of a rise in Control decks, so I’d like to discuss the other side of the spectrum this week. Instead of a quick game like you’ll see with Aggro matches, Control wants a battle of attrition, dragging the game out for the long haul, thus allowing the Control player more opportunities to generate card advantage, which will eventually bury the unprepared opponent.
The first priority during the early turns for a Control deck is making sure to hit all of its land drops. Missing an early land drop is usually death and, to avoid this most grisly of fates, most Standard Control decks opt to run 26 or more lands. Utilizing the incremental draw spell Think Twice, as well as the 4-card dig spell Forbidden Alchemy, Control players will tend to do very little in the start of the game, save for sifting through their deck, stocking their hand for the long game, and hopefully hitting every land drop along the way. Leaving up Mana Leak mana is crucial, with Geist of Saint Traft and other powerful third turn plays. Both Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy can be cast during the opponent’s End Step, allowing the Control player to keep their mana available for counterspells during the opponent’s Main Phases. Once turn four comes around, it is often time to start casting spells, and a common theme is to clear the board on turn four or five with a sweeper effect like Day of Judgment or Black Sun’s Zenith. Ideally this will start to generate some card advantage by clearing away multiple opposing creatures. I like to call this 2-or-more-for-1 exchange ‘breaking card parity’ and it will be a common theme among Control decks. Simply put, this means card efficiency, and is a staple for generating card advantage in a longer game. Aggro decks will usually excel in the early game and, if an Aggro deck is going to beat a Control deck, the early game is where that happens.
Once we get into the intervening turns of the game, the Control player will start casting more spells and causing more headaches. With one-for-one removal spells like Doom Blade, as well as untargeted removal such as Geth’s Verdict for the assortment of Hexproof creatures out there, moving into the middle of the game a Control player should have started generating some card advantage, and will now begin to reap the benefits. With a crafted hand full of answers thanks to early card draw, Control players begin to take over the game by having answers to each individual threat the opponent casts or, better still, by having counterspells available to prevent them from resolving in the first place. The more card advantage that the Control player has been able to generate, the more effective their parity spells like Doom Blade and Mana Leak become. Ramp decks start to shine against Aggro decks in the mid game, but can have particular difficulty against a good Control build, since the Control player will almost invariably have more answers than a Ramp deck has threats. By simply countering each threat as it gets cast, or Doom Blading those that resolve after the Control player taps out, the Control player can usually force the opponent into topdeck mode in the mid game. That is to say, they have run out of cards in hand, the board is mostly clear, and the opponent is hoping for an out to the situation during their draw step.
Once the opponent is in topdeck mode, we’re out of the mid game and into the late game. This is where Control really tends to get moving. With plenty of land to fuel their shenanigans, the Control player will start dropping bombs with counter magic to support it. Control players love the late game, since they are so favored with card advantage and card quality. Once they’ve got 8 or 9 lands out, and the opponent is on the ropes, it is usually time to start casting the finishers to end the game. One of my finishers of choice is Consecrated Sphinx, which can not only kill the opponent in just a few turns, but also doubles as a source of major card advantage, assuming it doesn’t get killed immediately. Outside of Consecrated Sphinx, there is usually one specific criterion that Control’s finishers have to meet, which is to affect the board immediately on their arrival. Grave Titan is one good example of this, as he leaves behind 2/2 Zombies if he gets bounced or killed. Karn Liberated is another finisher which immediately helps to further lock down the board, exiling prime targets, or just keeping the opponent’s hand empty. Karn’s ultimate ability restarts the game with the exiled permanents in play under your control, making the new game strongly favor his controller and can often lead an opponent to concede immediately. Finally, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite has become one of the most abused finishers in Standard, given the prevalence of small creatures in the format. Her ability immediately affects the game by often clearing opposing boards with her -2/-2 static debuff. Her +2/+2 to friendly creatures doesn’t typically do much in a Control deck, given the general lack of creatures, but the debuff is frequently all it takes to close out a game.
Of course some Control decks don’t even play creature finishers, since that gives the opponent something to do with the removal spells that Control has done so well in avoiding so far. These decks will tend to use Planeswalkers like Gideon Jura to keep the opponent’s creatures at bay, with Karn Liberated and Liliana of the Veil to help keep these creatures from getting out of hand. Once they’ve established firm control over the board, they can start milling the opponent with Nephalia Drownyard, generating swarms of tokens with Elspeth Tirel or Sorin, Lord of Innistrad, or, as before, simply restart the game with Karn for a quick finish.
Control decks are always forced to evolve with the meta in order to stay competitive. This means implementing new tech to shore up your poor matches while maintaining a strong game against the other, more favorable matches. For example, recent months have shown Curse of Death’s Hold to be a stellar addition to the Control archetype. Not only does this curse end Lingering Souls tokens, shut down Gravecrawler, and clear Snapcaster Mage and unflipped Delver of Secrets in various Aggro matchups, but it shores up the already favorable Ramp match by shutting down Inkmoth Nexus. Another great example is the frequent exclusion of Wurmcoil Engine which, on its surface, is an amazing tool to blunt Aggro’s assault. In the context of the current meta, however, with Vapor Snag seeing more play than most forms of removal, it becomes pretty weak, given its lack of impact when it hits play. More often than not, you’re going to spend two or more turns just trying to resolve your Wurmcoil Engine, which is often plenty of time for the more aggressive player to finish you off.
Q: My opponent controls Liliana of the Veil with 1 Loyalty counter, after using her -2 ability. During my turn, I cast Hellrider and attack. Can I redirect Hellrider’s damage to Liliana, while still attacking the player directly? If my opponent controls multiple planeswalkers, and I’m attacking with multiple creatures, do I get to distribute Hellrider’s damage as I like, or does it all go to the same planeswalker?
A: Yes. When you declare an attack while Hellrider is in play, his triggered ability triggers for each attacking creature, including himself. Since you control the source of the damage, you have the option of redirecting the damage to a planeswalker that player controls. Finally, since his ability triggers separately for each attacking creature, you can choose to redirect the damage in increments to planeswalkers that player controls, rather than being all or nothing as is the case with the second mode of Slagstorm, which would require you to redirect all 3 damage to a single one of their planeswalkers.
306.7. If noncombat damage would be dealt to a player by a source controlled by an opponent, that opponent may have that source deal that damage to a planeswalker the first player controls instead. This is a redirection effect (see rule 614.9) and is subject to the normal rules for ordering replacement effects (see rule 616). The opponent chooses whether to redirect the damage as the redirection effect is applied.
Question of the Week