Threat Theory, Answer Theory
Threat Theory, Answer Theory
"People like control because they think it shows that they're good Magic-players. Active decks, on the other hand, produce threats, and control decks must have the right answer to the right threat. If not, they're in trouble... while there are wrong answers, there are no wrong threats."
This simple statement from the King of Beatdown articulates one of the most fundamental, yet complex, principles of the game. The active deck -- which we generally term the"beatdown" deck in the matchup -- sets up a threat or series of threats, and the control deck has to find answers for those threats, or lose. Classically speaking, the active deck tries to repeatedly"push" the control deck, busting it to the point where it runs out of answers. At that point, the active deck operates like a crack in a dike, and that is bad news for the control deck. On the other hand, if the control deck is operating correctly, answering threats and drawing cards, it can surround itself with a defensive fortress, shore up a couple of turns, and then take (yes) control of the game.
The active deck is typically really quick. It has cheap creatures, like Jackal Pups or 1-drop Zombies. These monsters threaten an opponent and force him to answer... or lose. Because of the low casting costs associated with active decks, they can typically swarm an opposing deck, and beat it before it has the mana to respond. An easy way to analyze the limitations on either side of this matchup is to simply look at the casting costs: Jackal Pup and many other dangerous beatdown creatures only cost one mana. With just two or three mana, a quick deck can deploy a dangerous set of attackers. Responses generally cost more mana... most constructed quality permission spells cost two mana (twice as much), spot removal like Expunge or Dark Banishing is around three, a sweeper like Wrath of God, Living Death, or Winds of Wrath is four or five mana. Therefore, the reflex point is whether or not the control deck can overcome the initial rush from the active deck (with its main restriction being on mana); usually a recovery from that point will yield victory for the control deck.
Consider a recent playtest game that I had, playing mono-red v. Living Death:
I had an explosive opening, initially rushing my opponent with Goblin Lackey on turn 2, and had a number of aggressive creatures out. A disruptive draw allowed me to Waste a City of Brass and Pillage two other lands. My opponent was down to 3 life; unfortunately for me, I had only a single Shock for burn, which had already been used to polish off a Bottle Gnomes.
We thrusted and parried for a few more turns; I continued to apply pressure, he valiantly answered. Over the course of a few turns, a Bone Shredder defended well, and we were both left with very little. I had a Reckless Abandon in my hand, but nothing to use it on. My opponent, due to my disruptive draw, was left with only three land, two of which were Cities of Brass. He played a fourth, a Thran Quarry, and tapped that land for a Birds of Paradise. At that point, I knew that this turn was the make-or-break. I could draw a small burn and kill the Birds (and with it the Thran Quarry), or I could draw any creature and Abandon him, or I could lose. I chose to lose, and drew a Mountain. My opponent untapped, went to 1 life from his Cities, and cast Living Death... the Shredder, some Avalanche Riders, and three Bottle Gnomes came back from the netherworld; my returning forces were clearly overmatched.
So what happened there? Both decks operated well, and were played correctly. The active deck went for the beats, and got the opponent low enough that it could topdeck any number of cards for the win. The control deck answered, struggled, and survived to a turn where the tide would be turned for the rest of the game. Here it was a dramatic Living Death, but it might have been a Capsize-lock, a Corpse Dance with buyback (probably for a life-gainer), or repeated Whispers of the Muse with buyback. The active deck had a window where it could win, but in this situation, it was also forced into a possible situation where it, the active deck, was in the"answer" position:
The Birds of Paradise was a threat. It represented a Living Death that would clearly win the game. Its demise (and that of the Thran Quarry) would have put the control deck in a nearly unwinnable situation: 3 life with 2 Cities as most of its mana, and the active deck with a Reckless Abandon in hand, would not have been an enviable position.
But that is actually how most aggressive decks lose most of their games. When the beatdown deck is put into a position where it has to answer and not just attack, whether or not it can get past such a riddle will often determine the outcome of a game. Just look at mono-red against white weenie:
Usually mono-red can race with the best of them, but sometimes, it hits a"stop sign." At the point where the white weenie deck has out a Soltari Priest and a Warrior en-Kor, the mono-red deck better find an answer -- a Cursed Scroll, Torture Chamber, or the like -- because ordinary red removal is not going to cut it. The same can be said of mono-black v. white weenie. Dauthi Slayer isn't going to do much hating when Soltari Monk is waiting on the other side.
Situations like these are basically the same as the above Birds of Paradise position. If the active deck can overcome the hurdle,"be the control deck" for a turn or so, it can return to its own plan of attack and usually win the game by superior pressure. If not, the problem cards on the other side are only going to compound, and the active deck might never again have an opportunity to go for the throat.
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