Controlling your opponent's game can be a huge part of success in Magic. If you can literally dictate the way your opponent can play by forcing them into fewer decisions than they had previously, you will be able to leverage far more wins than you might otherwise. "Control" in Magic is not just about what we classically think of as control decks as a strategic archetype; it can also be about taking a game and shoving the opponent out of the ability to make any relevant decisions.
People's ideas of who I am as a Magic player often have a lot to do with what era they first got to know me. For several years, I was the dedicatedly "rogue" player, building strange but powerful decks and even founding a Magic think tank called Cabal Rogue. Somewhere in there I became a bit more known as a control player, with some successes with countermagic, whether it be the first Counter-Oath of Druids deck, various Thieving Magpie decks, or the first Scepter-Chant deck. At another set of moments, though, some people knew me as "the red player," with me stringing up some success with various different red strategies. Today, if you're just getting to know me, you're probably more used to me as a control player, currently as one of the vanguard (along with Andrew Cuneo and Stanislav Cifka) bringing U/B Control to the forefront in Standard or, previously, with innovations in U/W Control.
So, for me, it wasn't much of a stretch in seeing the similarities in how playing this...
... could be like this...
I was reminded of the different ways you could control your opponent because of some Magic Online drafting that I've been doing this week in Brussels in preparation for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. It's only the second Pro Tour for Team UltraPro, and prep for Limited begins as soon as possible. The Madison core of the group (me, Bob Maher, Sam Black, Brian Kowal, Justin Cohen, Matt Severa, and Ben Rasmussen) typically have an extensive weekend of drafting right after the set comes out, and an incredible number of drafts happen over the course of two days.
I learned a lot, but in the week since that draft weekend, I hadn't had much opportunity to draft. After arriving in Brussels initially, I was very set to get some drafting in, but the internet connection was so horrible in our first test house location in Brussels, by the time I got to where we'd be staying for the duration of the Pro Tour, I was chomping at the bit to draft, and pretty immediately got in three drafts. These were my first drafts since draft weekend, and I felt they were long overdue.
I had great records, but during one match, I was reminded of the true nature of control when the following situation came up:
I'm at four life with a Swamp in my hand, and my opponent is at eight life with three cards in hand. After trading creatures in combat with a trick, they tap out to play Dromoka, the Eternal, and they have only lands and the following creatures in play, all of which are untapped:
Any two creatures combine to kill my opponent.
If I just attack with my Acid-Spewer Dragon, this would clearly be the worst choice of all, as I would die on the swing back and my team would be used horribly ineffectively (Risen Executioner does have a drawback, after all). If I attack with the Dragon and the Executioner, my opponent is forced to make some block or die, but they have a lot of choices. One of those choices could be to let my Dragon through and eat my Risen Executioner with their Dragon (or to just chump block it if they fear a trick). If I add the dasher to the mix, now two blockers are required. This still means that they have a lot of great choices, however.
If I just swing in with everything, they have fewer choices yet. Every creature that they have will die. Most of mine will as well, but more importantly, I will have forced their Dromoka to an early grave. If they want to live, they have no choice.
When discussing my idea of The Philosophy of Fire, Patrick Chapin said that one of the things that your life total affords you is the ability to make a choice. At just two more life, my opponent would have options. They could let an extra creature through, hope I don't have a trick, and swing back for a potential kill with Dromoka.
In essence, putting your opponent to this kind of decision is a lot like having a Phage the Untouchable in play.
Hypothetically, if your opponent has Phage the Untouchable in play, every turn that it attacks, you have to do something. Phage represents the end of the game, so not blocking it isn't an option.
This is an exaggerated example, of course, but it illustrates the point.
The Case of Planeswalkers
A similar situation occurs with cards like Planeswalkers. They have a life of their own, so to speak, and in attacking a Planeswalker, you can put a player to a decision about whether or not they're going to do something to protect it. This can be seen again and again in Standard and Legacy (and more rarely in Modern), where a Jace or a Nissa is being attacked, and the player who controls it has to figure out what they are going to do, if anything, to protect it.
The difference here, of course, is that you only lose the Planeswalker when it runs out of loyalty, you don't lose the game. This means that there are more choices available to you, but if you want your Planeswalker to stick around, you're going to have to do something about an attack that threatens its life.
Take a card like Xenagos, the Reveler. In many situations, the satyr that it makes might just end up needing to sit back and block unless you're okay with a dead Planeswalker. If you're facing off with an opponent who is on defense, recognizing that your opponent might be interested in keeping a Planeswalker alive can cause a similar kind of forced blocking that might make them unhappy.
Putting pressure on small, finite resources is something that aggressive decks can do to control the flow of the game. In many cases, it is the mere threat of a card that can cause this situation.
Take, for example, the case of the Burn deck from PTM15 versus Sphinx's Revelation in U/W Control. One of the most interesting interactions would come from this interplay:
Improperly played, the U/W Control deck could be easily dominated by Burn. If you watch the matchup between Matt Sperling and Ivan Floch, this was a rematch of the Swiss, where Sperling easily 2-0'ed Floch, in large part because Floch made some choices that allowed Sperling to actually "out-control," so to speak, the control deck. But how?
The nature of the R/W Burn in that matchup is actually setting up an incredible tension where it is almost acting like a goldfish, but it is working to dodge the counters of the U/W deck. In addition, even without any counterspells, being so impactful with damage, the Burn deck can take a deck like U/W down so low that it can respond to numerous plays with this question: Are you dead?
We can see how Ivan Floch tries to navigate this (from roughly minute ten to minute seventeen), here:
Now, it's important to note that Floch actually opened the door here to a loss by taking two damage from his Hallowed Fountain to cast a Sphinx's Revelation for one more card (and life), a pretty horrible mistake. Sperling, for his part, missed the potential to take advantage of it, attacking with a Chandra's Phoenix and Mutavault instead of casting Warleader's Helix and attacking with the Phoenix, resulting in only two damage instead of four, due to an Azorius Charm. This particular play would result in a win for Sperling six minutes later, but it was a hard one to find--I certainly didn't see it until Burn-master Seth Burn pointed it out on Twitter or Facebook shortly after.
The interesting thing about this example, though, is that it is Sperling who is dictating the nature of what Floch is even able to do. With perfect information, Floch would easily be able to dominate Sperling in this matchup, but without it, the entire game is played on a tightrope wire, secure in the knowledge that, constrained by mana, any Sphinx's Revelation could be effectively countered by Skullcrack, and the life total is so precious that at any moment it is possible that simply taking an action can result in the Burn player overwhelming the U/W Control deck's mana with too many game-ending threats. Conversely, by simply acting first, the Burn player can open the door to a game-ending Sphinx's Revelation being unanswered (or being answered by Skullcrack and counter-answered by a counterspell); as a result, the game, properly played, is likely to lean towards a moment of stasis where both players just sit and wait.
But the interesting thing about this situation is that it is the Burn player who is dictating this choice to wait. Simply by leaving two mana open, the Burn player is saying to the U/W Control player, "Hey, buddy. Just so you know, I'm the one in charge of how this game goes."
Leveraging the tension in life total is one of the things that more aggressive decks can do to dictate the terms of a game. It's a kind of pressure that few "true" control decks are ever able to take advantage of.
Take, for example, these three decks:
Jim Davis's control deck has a lot of things going on that are completely classic: counter spells, gain life, remove creatures. But after a few weekends of play in events, commentator Patrick Sullivan noted something important about Davis's deck: End Hostilities wasn't doing a great job of keeping Davis alive.
A lot of the reason was this plucky guy:
- 2 Ashcloud Phoenix
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Fanatic of Xenagos
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 4 Heir of the Wilds
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 2 Polukranos, World Eater
G/R Monsters could simply put enough pressure on the board that an End Hostilities would be required, and at the same time, if you cast it, the follow up (typically Stormbreath Dragon but also of Goblin Rabblemaster and Ashcloud Phoenix) could just immediately recreate the same problem of pressure. Even more problematic was that the deck, full of so many cards that could create this problem, could force the issue by making choices like adding even more threats onto the table into a potential End Hostilities, expecting to follow it up with something powerful, but not giving the U/W deck even the option to choose to take another hit in favor of good card draw or other choices.
Take a deck like this, with newer cards, sure, but it plays much the same:
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 3 Heir of the Wilds
- 4 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Thunderbreak Regent
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 3 Surrak, the Hunt Caller
Surrak, the Hunt Caller can amp this up even sooner. A deck like this can say to a control player, "you must act."
By putting on enough pressure, an opponent can't actually make another choice. They must, in essence, get out of position as a control deck, tapping down to solve the problems at hand, and as a result, be punished by something even more threatening.
Taking this approach to the game is very important. Imagine, for example, if you decide that you are going to be concerned with preserving your cards in the face of a potential End Hostilities. This can even be correct if your hand is incredibly threat-light. However, what you ideally want to be doing is putting enough pressure on the "control" player to force them to act; you want to make them your puppet. Your plan in the follow up of this should be a play that is devastating so that despite having acted, they are now again under the kind of pressure that made them your puppet in the first place.
I felt this situation very acutely with the R/W Aggro deck I won a $5K in Columbus with early last year. I would make several Top 8s with it, including an SCG Open, but the deck felt like a huge favorite against the control decks of the era, typically Esper Control, which I defeated many times.
A big part of it was being able to force the opponent to make certain moves in order to stay alive, and then being able to "counter" the effect with a sandbagged Boros Charm or choosing to follow up with cards like Stormbreath Dragon to keep things going. Either way, the only way to force the opponent to do this is pressure on the table followed with reserves in hand.
This is one of the reasons that this gameplan often doesn't work for a deck like Mono-Red Aggro or the newer versions that splash Atarka's Command. They simply don't have the reserve force to be able to punish an opponent for tapping down. These decks must put the pressure on all at once, and then they typically need to rely on burn to finish things off after the reset. Of course, there are ways to resist this by sidestepping the problem.
Dash neatly manages to handle the conundrum of a control deck's typical answers, but it doesn't actually make the aggressive deck take control of the pacing of the game. No worry, though; making a puppet of your control opponent isn't a necessary aspect of being a good control deck, it is just a nice upside to have when you can have it.
In preparation for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, there were many aggressive decks that I examined, but as much as I like Mono-Red aggressive strategies, none of my testing made me consider Mono-Red over another option. A large part of the reason was that I wanted to feel as though I was directing the hand of my opponent rather than simply laying threats and having them be answered (or not).
In the current Standard, single creatures can hit so hard, this is a very realistic possibility. If you want to be capable of directing your "control" opponent's hand, the way to do this is by having a deck filled to the brim with pipe-swinging monsters. After the Pro Tour, we may see that someone has a different solution, but for now, my recommendation for any beatdown deck is to fill your deck with card after card that can force the opponent to take action, and show them who is really the boss.
As you read this, I'm likely to be playing Magic here in Belgium for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir with Team UltraPro. It's a great crew that includes a lot of talent. I'm hoping we can continue to make the splash that we did at the last Pro Tour (Justin Cohen, 2nd) and the last several Grand Prix.
I know that we're all going to hope to show everyone that we came to take control of our games. Wish us luck!