Deck Archetypes and Player Styles
Magic is a not just a game of decks and players, but of deck archetypes and player styles. What makes most players go from good to really good, or even great, is they have the ability to identify their individual player style, and which deck of that style suits them the best for any given situation. In this article I will identify the three separate player styles, and the three (yes, just three in my overcrowded mind) deck archetypes. I will examine which decks fall into each category.
Some of the decks in here are decks I found online, and take no credit for creating them, but a few decks are mine and were either created a while ago, or simply created to give an example of a certain deck archetype.
The three main decks archetypes are as follows:
Now, the fun part of the article is that each individual deck archetype has a series of sub-groups. Each sub-group can also explain more of what a deck can do. It's never as simple as saying, “I'm playing control,” or “I'm playing Aggro,” etc.
Aggro is the first deck archetype I will explore for you today. By definition, Aggro decks are fast damage decks that can, at times, have a built-in control or combo element. The sub-groups for Aggro Decks are:
These are the decks that come out of the gates swinging for five or six damage by turn 3. Old style Standard Affinity was a great example of a Straight Aggro deck. Affinity can come out swinging on turn 3 for close to ten damage, and once Disciple of the Vault came into play every artifact sacrificed to your Arcbound Ravager it means a shorter life span for your opponent (and a bigger Ravager). Most games aren't meant to go beyond the turn 10 road-mark.
Most Affinity decks are capable of landing a turn 2 Myr Enforcer with alarming consistency. Blinkmoth Nexus can create a quick kill by sacrificing the Ravager to itself and dropping the counters onto the Nexus, often serving for lethal damage by turn 5. Not to mention a turn 3 Cranial Plating coming into play, equipping the first turn Ornithopter drop and flying in for an easy seven plus damage.
The goal of an Aggro control deck is to blend both of the elements of aggression and control or disruption together into a cohesive deck, to either quickly overrun your opponent early or control the game until overwhelming your opponent in the mid- to late-game. Red/Green, Black/Green, and Blue/Green Madness decks are prime examples of the aggro-control play style. Red/Green had haste and direct damage to exploit. Black/Green had discard and creature kill that could slow an opponent down enough for your creatures to out-smash your opponent. Blue/Green had countermagic, card drawing, and flying, excellent tools to out-flank your opponent.
Sleight Knight is another good example of an Aggro-Control style of playing. The main objective of the deck is to play out your White and Silver Knights along with Coast Watchers, and then Mind Bend or Alter Reality them to the most prevalent color your opponent is playing. Then turn your cardboard ninety degrees and terrorize your opponent's red zone while leaving one or two guys back on defense.
With ten counterspells, four creatures that double as counterspells, and in some versions a fast-killing Karma, Worship, and Sanctimony, this deck is more controlling than most. However, with sixteen efficient creatures it can create a quick clock against some decks and lock your opponent down with worship against mono-colored decks if that version is in use.
By definition, an Aggro-Combo deck is any deck with fast damage and a combo as an integral part of their speed, but does not need the combo to go off to ensure the win. The combo helps to facilitate the win, but sometimes it will not immediately win the match. But the main key is to deal fast damage and back it up with a combo that can either kill your opponent or leave him open for a kill the next turn.
Elfball is prime example of an Aggro-Combo deck. It uses quick cheap mana-producing elves, Wirewood Lodge, and Priest of Titania to generate copious amounts of mana to power out any huge random X spell, be it Blaze, Fireball, or Lava Burst.
The deck is pretty simple: your elves generate a boatload of mana quickly - with Seeker of Skybreak and Wirewood Lodge to untap your Priest of Titania - and Fireball your opponent out of the game. Wirewood Herald is beautiful in this deck, because you can search out any elf you need at any given time for your combo. Steely Resolve keeps your creatures in the game, and Wellwisher keeps your life from dropping below zero against other Aggro decks.
Food Chain Goblins is another example of an Aggro-Combo deck. By using Goblin Recruiter to topdeck many goblins, and with Food Chain Combined with Goblin Ringleader, you can quickly and easily flood your side of the board with a large number of hasty goblins. Capable of performing as a combo deck, able to outpace most beatdown and Aggro decks, and being the beatdown against control, this a potent deck for the Aggro player making a leap to the combo side of the game.
- 4 Gempalm Incinerator
- 4 Goblin Lackey
- 4 Goblin Matron
- 4 Goblin Piledriver
- 4 Goblin Recruiter
- 4 Goblin Ringleader
- 1 Goblin Sharpshooter
- 1 Goblin Tinkerer
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 3 Siege-Gang Commander
The last variant of the Aggro family are the Weenie decks. White Weenie, Goblins, and Red Sligh, are just a few deck titles in this large sub-group of the Aggro family. By definition, Weenie decks use creatures and spells with a casting cost of three or less in an effort to win with sheer numbers, or with numbers and direct damage. Lenin once said “There is a quality in quantity itself.” I would like to take a look at Boros Deck Wins for this example.
Some call it Boros Deck Wins (BDW), and to others it is Burning Weenie. Either way, it is an Aggro deck that uses small creatures and direct damage to break out fast while never letting up. It retains the quick speed of a White Weenie deck, but in can also shave off a turn or two with both Char and Lightning Helix. The best element of this particular build is the interaction of Boros Swiftblade and Umezawa's Jitte, essentially generating four charge counters per turn.
Final thoughts on Aggro decks
With simple game plans, efficient creatures, and the ability to create a fast clock for your opponents, Aggro decks are by far the best decks to start out playing with. They offer many variations and can become the springboard for players looking to add control of combo elements into their repertoire. Most players without tutelage start out with Aggro decks, before moving on to most complicated decks.
Control decks vary by person in their definition. The basic definition of a control deck is any deck that stops your opponent from playing spells or keeping the board clear of their creatures, land, etc. Control can be broken down into several sub-groups but I find that three sub-groups will suffice for this article.
Mother, may I? Blue Permission is a style of playing that relies heavily on dealing with threats by countering them, bouncing them, or splashing a second color into the deck to make sure that said resolved creature, enchantment, or artifact won't stay in play for long. Draw-go, Stasis, and Psychatog all fall into this wide category.
Psychatog is a great example of Blue control with an additional color providing support for trouble. It is a pure control deck that seeks to deny or kill any threats, while proceeding to build up for the eventual win. Like any control deck, Tog will try and survive the early game because Tog is a very reactive deck... a defensive deck, if you will.
The main difference Tog has over its mono-Blue control cousins is the Black component. Black has better options than Blue when it comes to dealing with creatures quickly. Instead of waiting a few turns to wipe them all out with a Power Keg, Smother drops weenies as fast as they are laid down. And with all the card drawing the deck sports, it rarely runs out of an option to play at any given time.
Creature Control decks are similar to Blue Permission control decks, in that they try and control the board position of the opponent. After that, they differ greatly. Where as Blue Permission decks seek to counter and bounce your spells and creatures, Creature Control decks destroy your creatures, or rip them and your spells out of your hand before you get the chance to even cast them.
Mono-Black Control is a general term used to describe any deck that utilizes only Black spells, usually using Cabal Coffers for large quantities of mana, Skeletal Scrying for card drawing, Corrupt for life gain, discard spells, and Innocent Blood, and/or Chainer's Edict for creature control. They also have quick “balloon-able” creatures for the win.
This sample deck list is Mono-Black Control at its (almost) best. With thirteen answers to creatures without flashbacks, opposing creature-based deck would be hard-pressed to keep their board position. Cards like Duress and Mind Sludge quickly reduce opponents to an empty hand, while Laquatus's Champion and Nantuko Shade provide a quick and nasty win. Like all control decks before it, Mono-Black Control is balanced, cohesive, and focused on its job of dealing with opponents.
Red/White Rifter is also a Creature Control deck at heart. With Humility and Lightning Rift, it can kill any creature and draw a card to boot many times over. Life gain, creature control, and several utility spells keep this deck afloat long enough for it to either recur an Eternal Dragon or cycle out a massive Decree of Justice at the end of your opponent's turn for at least ten attackers.
Resource Control is different then Blue Permission, because instead of being a reactive deck casting the majority of your spells on your opponent's turn, your goal is to be as proactive as possible during your turn. Land destruction is the best example of a resource control deck. By denying your opponent any lands, you control the entire flow of the game.
Opening up on turn 1 with a Dark Ritual and Rain of Tears to nuke your opponent's first land drop can sometimes be enough to induce a scoop. Especially if they kept one land in their opening hand, and had hopes of drawing into a couple of lands over the next few turns. With eleven land destruction spells and six creatures capable of nuking both non-basic and basic lands at a moment's notice, this deck's sole purpose was to clear your board a leave you bereft of lands before it took the whole game right into your face.
In contrast to pure land destruction, a Blue-based Resource Control like the one below plays out cards like Mana Web, Psychic Venom, and Erosion to deny several lands from your opponent, quickly manipulating them into what lands they can use. Along with Icy Manipulator, Twiddle, Power Sink, Early Frost, Mana Short and cards of that nature, you can completely control which lands (if any) your opponent can tap for mana.
The whole deck is designed to not just control the mana your opponent can utilize, but also to annoy them to point of puking coat hangers all over their cards. The Thieving Magpie is just there for card drawing, to make sure you never run out of land-denying spells like Psychic Venom or Erosion. Decks like this usually make you want to punch the guy playing them.
Final thoughts on Control decks
Annoying, manipulative, and capable of stretching out single turn for up to twenty minutes, control decks are always hated by new players because of being able to simply say “no” to almost any spell. They are revered by professional players for the ability to control their opponent's move from start to finish, making them potent in almost any format. And even more potent in the hands of a very competent player.
Combo decks are mainly creatureless offerings that can kill in a single turn, usually within the first six. These are decks that have been honed to pull the necessary cards out as fast as they can. Sometimes they pack powerful control elements, to protect the combo before it goes off and thus assuring maximum effectiveness. The three sub-groups I'll deal with today are:
This deck is an easy Combo-deck for beginners to play out. Once you have your three lands in play you cast a copy of Attunement. Then you draw as much of your library as you possibly can, while dropping every one of your enchantments into your graveyard. Once you found Replenish you can now bring them all back into play as big fat (read: huge!) creatures due to Opalescence. Obviously, this deck could use just a splash of Red for Pandemonium for a quick kill from direct damage, or Mass Hysteria for a massive creature rush. Either way, it is a fun deck to play.
You may notice that 25 lands are in the deck. That is because you want to cast Fanning the Flames for 20 and buy it back if anything goes wrong. Why is Planar Birth in here? Mainly because every land is basic. With Scouting Trek, you can actually get all 25 lands in play on a pretty regular basis. This deck is rather simple - yet elegant - to play.
This is a relatively new deck in the grand scheme of things. Surprisingly cheap to build, Heartbeat decks can search for everything. Muddle the Mixture can find Weird Harvest, Savage Twister, Bound / Determined, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and Boomerang. Drift of Phantasms finds Maga, Traitor to Mortals (your win condition); Recollect; Heartbeat of Spring; Kodama's Reach; or Early Harvest just as quickly. You need board removal? Transmute Muddle the Mixture for Savage Twister. Next turn transmute Drift of Phantasms for a Heartbeat of Spring. Personally speaking, in this type of deck you might want to drop every single mana on a Maga, Traitor to Mortals, to see if you can get your opponent down to -50 life. Never do that. Always leave at least two Blue mana open when you cast Maga, Traitor to Mortals. Sure, your opponent may be playing mono-Red and have no counterspells... but what if he has Parallectric Feedback?
Alt-win decks are decks that use those wacky win conditions, like Battle of Wits or Chance Encounter. Most are rather slow, and in the hands of an inexperienced player they flounder quite quickly. But in the hands of an experienced player, they can be an attractive way to gain cool points with the hot chicks that are always at the PTQ! Believe it or not, some Alt-win decks actually make it into professional play.
With just one copy of both Well of Lost Dreams and Words of Worship in play, you can gain around ten to fifteen life per turn. This can quickly put you out of your opponent's attack range, and eventually put you over fifty life for a victory via Test of Endurance. A lot of people remember hearing about those life decks that were played in Extended last year. It is rather simple to play. You just need to resolve a copy of Well of Lost Dreams and a Words of Worship, and every turn you can gain a minimum of five life. I personally maxed out at gaining forty-five life in one turn during my draw step. This may not be very competitive, but it will be fun to play in a casual environment.
Final thoughts on Combo/Alt-win decks
Combo decks are a beautiful creation, be they Dutch Tendrils or the Heartbeat Combo. Straight Combo and even Combo-Control decks are not for the faint of heart. They are tough for new players to get into, because they don't understand why certain cards are in the deck or why they are played in a specific order. Alternate Win decks are fun to play, mainly because they allow you to win through something other than dealing damage to your opponent. Most Alternate Win decks suffer from the fact that they are either incredibly slow and can be outpaced by faster decks, or by the simple fact that a well-timed Disenchant or Counterspell can ruin the entire deck. Although they are cumbersome and sometimes flounder before turn seven, Alternate Win decks have a special allure that other decks don't have.
The Three Player Styles
Along with each deck style I have discussed so far, there are also player styles that need to be identified and either nurtured or destroyed for your own good. Each play style has its very own distinct advantages and disadvantages. Two of the three play styles also blend into one another somewhere down the line, and in some cases the styles takes on a neutral stance that makes it hard to distinguish.
The first play style we will look at is the Spike Syndrome. Or the “viciously beat you about the head and neck” guys.
Spike is not who you actually think he is. He is what some Harry Potter people call a Beater. He plays the most aggressive decks out there. The passion in his heart burns for Affinity, Gruul Beats, mono-Red Goblins, Boros Deck Wins, or other such creature-heavy deck. He treats counterspells (and the majority of most Instants) as trivial. He believes that Umezawa's Jitte is the best thing to ever see print on cardboard. This is a savage game where only the barbarous come out on top. His decks are not simple to play, but they have a basic game plan to smash his opponents and watch their cardboard friends take a one way trip to the graveyard. These people aren't stupid, just really mean. “Schoolyard bully” mean.
The Spike Syndrome is very attractive to new and younger players, because the decks are straightforward in strategy and attitude. Later on, when the Spike Syndrome patient gets whipped by a mono-Blue deck with twenty-one counter spells and five creatures, he begins to have a better understanding of control, and instantly tries to go out and build a pure control deck. However, his love for those precious sorceries overcomes him initially, and he is hampered by his inability to determine which spells are important to counter and which ones you should let through. Eventually, he settles on hybrid decks that combine both aggressive and controlling abilities into the deck, and learns to play a controlled beatdown variant. Sometimes he even ventures into combo decks with aggressive underpinnings. Aggro-Control decks are good for Spike, because he can be as aggressive as he wants, but he still has trouble getting the control part down.
Christina, like most girls, is a control freak. She is the type of girl that had a full play set of Astral Slide, Lightning Rift, and cycling lands when Onslaught came out and played them more then P.M.S. But Christina has had help developing her skill. Both siblings and close friends play control, and she learned from them and applied what she learned to the world of cardboard. Crafty and wise, she only plays countermagic against the spells that harm her most. A Lightning Bolt for three when she is at twenty life at the beginning of the game is no worry for her. Armageddon, on the other hand... almost the entire hand will be spent trying to counter that one card. Simple yet effective control decks and girls have perfected their ability to just say “NO” whenever it suits them in any environment.
These are the players that cast Upheaval with fire in their eyes after the three mana they floated is used to drop a Psychatog and win the next turn. Pure control players like these eventually branch out into either Combo decks with controlling elements like Duress, Force of Will, or Mana Drain. And before long they end up playing deck like The Perfect Storm or Gifts Control. Decks that are rife with controlling spells and sweet combos. Some of them will follow what Spike does. They expand their forte with a combination of aggressive beats and controlling elements. But Christina has the experience of a control player, and can level out the aggressive beats with counters and bounce.
Timmy is our combo boy. Whether his started out playing as a Spike or as a Christina is irrelevant. The fact that he started playing as one of them is what matters the most. If Timmy began as Spike, his decks would surely contain some cards like Ichorid, Goblin Ringleader, or Wirewood Herald. Aggro-combo decks are a Spike-like Timmy style. The early beats, backed up by either a devastating combo to win, or a devastating combo to drop your life enough that his aggro elements can overwhelm you next turn.
If Timmy starts out as Christina then he is very controlling like a female who catches you stealing her Valentine's Day chocolates! His decks are decided by how many Force of Wills and Mana Drains he can cram in there. He doesn't play Worldgorger Dragon decks. He plays Dutch Tendrils, Control Slaver. Cards like Duress and Force of Will are best friends to him.
Final thoughts on player styles
Most players can be categorized in this respect. Most of us can trace out lineage back to one of the abovementioned players and/or decks that were listed. I myself started as a Spike, playing aggressive decks until I gradually went into the control side of my play style. Right now I run a lot of decks, but I stick to mostly Aggro-Control, Control, or just Straight Aggro. I have tried to play Combo and Combo-Control decks, but I just don't have the patience to learn them.
So... what style are you?
Free Tibet, no grapes, all that!