Sullivan Library - Distinctions in Strategic Archetypes
Talking about Magic is one of the greatest pleasures to come out of the game. I’ve had a lot of occasion to talk to some really fun people and it has done so much to remind me about why I love this game. It’s been exciting talking on the phone with Patrick Chapin sparring over theory and trying to figure out decklists. I’ve greatly enjoyed years upon years of conversations with Ken Krouner usually about social aspects of the game ethics and the state of Magic in general. Locally I’ve always been blessed by a large number of incredibly bright people like Brian Kowal and Ben Dempsey working over the fine points of deckbuilding in whatever format we’re discussing or chatting with I@n DeGraff about Legacy and Vintage or the fine points of classic Magic theory.
One of my favorite people Jacob "Danger" Janoska is making a trek back to the good ol’ Midwest and he called me up to make sure I’d be around. Inevitably we started talking about Magic. War stories mostly but also a bit of theory and a bit of player analysis like the difference between a Mike Hron and a Dustin Stern. Good stuff.
One of Jacob’s classic thoughts when it came to how Magic players develop strategically centered around the question of shifting gears. Jacob always felt that one of the most difficult skills to acquire was understanding the correct moments to change a plan whether tactically or strategically and in understanding the less obvious roles that we play in a matchup.
This reminded me greatly of a discussion I had over the weekend of Grand Prix: Madison. I was incredibly excited that we were having such a high-profile event in Madison (though I was frustrated that it was placed out in the ‘burbs and was from such a relatively unpopular format) and there were a lot of people to catch up with.
As always Magic conversations of all sorts cropped up. The weekend was rich with it. By the end of the weekend I was talking with teams from all over the country about their own experiences with Team Constructed their opinions on that years’ Invitational war stories of good and bad beats and opinions on Ravnica Block in general. But it was a conversation with a pair of younger but very seasoned players that really got me going. In the swirl of conversation that happens in between matches my teammate Ben Dempsey and I got into a conversation about matchups and two of our opponents joined in.
"The sheer amount of Orzhov decks here is a testament to the power of Aggro-Control in this format" on said. "You can beat people down but at the same time you have the control cards to have game against the really fast Gruul and Zoo decks."
"Black/White beatdown isn’t Aggro-Control by definition" I replied. Yeah yeah yeah — I’m getting grumpy in my old age. We went back and forth for a little while before he finally said this:
"It doesn’t matter what you call it. The deck does what it needs to do."
And there my friends is the problem because it really really does matter.
Defining Aggro and Control
The misuse of the term Aggro-Control is so prevalent that you’ll find Randy Buehler misusing it on webcasts the rank and file of Internet writers tossing the term about incorrectly and see that misuse trickle down into the tournament scene with abandon. Essentially the reasons for the misuse come down to this: people have decks that they know are not purely aggro decks and not purely control decks but rather somewhere between the two. Maybe someone somewhere started saying "You know it’s kinda a control deck and kinda an aggro deck — Aggro-Control you know?" and the ball just kept rolling from there.
So first the two big strategic schools in Magic defined loosely:
Generally win the game by dropping fast creature-based threats and reducing the opponent’s life total.
Employ disruption augmentation or burn to extend the reach of their creatures.
Can be said to have a lot of "questions" i.e. threats. (Quoth Dave Price: "There are no wrong questions only wrong answers.")
Raphael Levy’s "Gaea’s Might Get There" a fast Domain-based Extended aggro deck running Gaea’s Might Boros Swiftblade and Tribal Flames.
Rakdos Aggro a Black/Red Standard deck running Dark Confidant Rakdos Guildmage and Giant Solifuge supported by a large amount of burn spells often including Hit/Run.
Kavu Justice a White/Green splash Red Block deck running Tarmogoyf and Kavu Predator with Fiery Justice and other burn spells supporting large creatures.
Seor Stompy a very fast Mono-Green beatdown deck using Winter Orb and Giant Growth effects designed by Bill Macey and Paul Gallagher.
Hatred a Mono-Black beatdown deck using discard and/or mana disruption to supplement fast creatures capable of killing instantly via a Ritualed Hatred.
Generally wins the game by nullifying threats and then following a path to victory.
Employs some combination of "active" card advantage cards (Fact or Fiction Careful Consideration) and "passive" card advantage cards that grant card advantage if your opponent lets it (Damnation Engineered Explosives) in addition to one-to-one responses to cards (Duress Counterspell Lightning Helix).
Can be said to have a lot of "answers" to problems.
UrzaTron decks in Extended combining light countermagic to build up to a massive mana advantage via Urza Lands allowing them to win from their expensive spells.
Various Black/Blue/X decks that have been dominating Time Spiral Block running little to light countermagic massive card drawing off Careful Consideration and Mystical Teachings and copious amounts of both board sweeping removal and point-and-click removal.
Prison a White control deck sometimes splashing into other colors that locks down lands with Winter Orb and Icy Manipulator and then wipes the board with Armageddon Balance and Wrath of God.
Stasis generally a Mono-Blue or White/Blue control deck that drops a Stasis to control the table and feeds the Stasis off either Howling Mine Gush or (rarely) Squandered Resources.
Archetypes must be distinguished from roles. As Mike Flores so correctly wrote in his career-spawning classic article "Who’s the Beatdown?" nearly every deck pairing comes with one player in the "beatdown" role and one player (usually the other player) in the "control" role. Archetypes on the other hand exist separately from roles. A Rakdos Aggro deck continues to be an aggro deck even if it finds itself playing the "control" role when paired against Gruul.
Generally speaking the pile of cards you have in front of you has an archetype and that archetype won’t change without you changing the cards that are in it no matter who you are playing against. Being a part of an archetype is not a strategic straightjacket however. You aren’t strictly limited to the general strategy of a particular archetype if you want to take the best course towards winning a game. The thing is the farther you stray from the nature of your general archetype’s strategy the weaker you tend to be. In Mike’s classic article he mentions the problem that Hatred (Black Beatdown) has had historically against Sligh (Red Beatdown) which can be boiled down to Hatred’s inability to succeed as a Beatdown deck versus Sligh but it’s weakness as a Control deck. (As an aside if you haven’t read "Who’s the Beatdown?" I suggest you take the time to do so immediately — this is essential Magic reading.)
With just the two most basic archetypes defined it becomes immediately apparent that an Affinity deck in Extended is "aggro" just like it is incredibly obvious that Luis Scott-Vargas’s GP-winning Block Black/Blue splash Red Teachings deck is a "control" deck. Things get somewhat more confusing when we start seeing decks that have at first glance what appear to be both aggressive and controlling elements. Our eyes see for example a Tarmogoyf and a Troll Ascetic and we can see the aggressive elements. When we see it paired with Cabal Therapy Putrefy and perhaps Pernicious Deed (the "control" cards) maybe we want to call it "Aggro-Control" ("it has both kinds of stuff!"). There is a certain kind of truth there — it just feels right doesn’t it?
But it isn’t.
The mostly forgotten archetype: Midrange
One of the champions of the midrange archetype prefers to be called "The King of the Fatties." Jamie Wakefield whether he meant to or not ended up being one of the most influential proponents of midrange decks with a huge variety of decks built with this principle in mind. He even coined a maxim that has always helped me to understand midrange:
"The last fattie that they don’t deal with kills them."
Richard Feldman’s article "What’s in a Midrange?" gives a fantastic summation of what it means to be Midrange. In essence a lot of what defines midrange is the manner in which it chooses to answer the questions posed by aggressive decks and the kinds of questions it poses to the more controlling deck. Many times this is with the same card.
Take Wakefield’s classic Brothers Grimm:
Jamie expects that a card like Steel Golem while a potential liability with so many other creatures (18 total) will do one of two things. Serve as an answer to the beatdown deck (or question to the control deck) or be killed. He doesn’t care if they kill it. At the time that this deck was made the typical beatdown deck would have to expend a lot of effort to kill a 3/4. After they did lo and behold he’d have another one. Versus the control deck the situation was slightly different. They could easily answer it with a single card (typically a Swords to Plowshares or Wrath of God) but after they did there were plenty more cards that he had that could threaten them.
The so-called "final" version of PT Junk that Pete Jahn took to the final four of his Ultimate Extended Tournament is one of my favorite examples of a midrange deck of my own creation.
PT-Junk - Adrian Sullivan
3 Skyshroud Elite
2 Powder Keg
3 Cursed Scroll
4 Phyrexian Negator
4 River Boa
3 Seal of Cleansing
3 Demonic Consultation
3 Swords to Plowshares
3 Mox Diamond
4 Treetop Village
Clearly there are a few cards here that are designed to control a more aggressive deck (the Cursed Scroll the Powder Keg and the Swords to Plowshares) but one of the primary ways that it "controls" a more aggressive deck is by dropping a huge Blastoderm on turn 3 and then following up with another creature to put them into a position where Blastoderm is eating up creatures. Versus the control decks the creatures played the exact opposite role forcing the opponent to kill them or die.
Whether a card can be called midrange beatdown or midrange control is merely a factor of how much effort the deck places on the attack phase. Regardless once it gets into the specifics of any particular matchup specific archetype aside it will quickly fall into one of the classic "Who’s the Beatdown?" roles. It has several regular traits:
Generally wins the game by playing out large creatures that can alternately answer weaker creatures or be a threat to control.
Employs versatile answers to enable it to survive the early game from more aggressive decks so that its own creatures can come online but these same cards aren’t stranded in its hand when playing against a more controlling deck.
Can be said to have a lot of multi-purpose cards.
The Rock a Black/Green Extended deck that potentially splashes into other colors (generally Red) for specific answers/threats that are relevant in the environment. Typically uses Pernicious Deed Ravenous Baloth Duress and mana acceleration.
Ghazi-Glare a White/Green Standard deck that runs large efficient creatures in White and Green and locks up the board with a combination of Loxodon Hierarch Glare of Subdual and smaller creatures. Older versions included creatures like Yosei. [Aaahh memories... - Craig.]
PT Junk (see above)
Big Blue a midrange control deck that ran Control Magic effects and large Blue attackers with only a minimum amount of countermagic.
So yes that archetype you’re looking for to describe something that mixes elements of "aggro" and "control" is not "Aggro-Control" - it’s "midrange." So what is Aggro-Control?
The first reference to Aggro-Control that I’ve been able to find is Mike Flores’s references in "Finding the Tinker Deck" to the archetype he calls "CounterSliver". While I could be wrong I believe that the initial term Aggro-Control was coined on USENET by Rob Hahn though I can’t for the life of me find it. Aggro-Control can be defined as such:
Generally wins the game by playing out creatures quickly and then negating an opponent’s attempts to kill them long enough to win the game.
Employs cards that will nullify the played cards of an opponent in addition to any actual disruption that the deck runs.
Can be said to strategically be concerned with the time spent by an opponent to answer its threats.
Blue/Green Madness an Extended deck that plays out fast creatures that enable the Madness mechanic (providing discounts on their more expensive spells) with counterspells to protect the beats.
Counter-Slivers currently a Legacy deck that plays out Slivers backed by other powerful creatures (such as Dark Confidant and Meddling Mage) and countermagic
Donkey Pong a Block Blue/Green deck that runs inexpensive Green Creatures backed by Blue bounce countermagic and creature kill
All of these decks you’ll notice include Blue. There is a big reason for that. Blue is the only color that can consistently provide a counterspell.
The counterspell is a key element because of the nature of what exactly the Aggro-Control deck is controlling: time. A Duress is a fantastic disruption spell but it doesn’t necessarily steal any time away from an opponent. If you Duress someone and they reveal to you a Damnation and a Putrefy on their next turn they could use the spell you didn’t take to kill your creature(s). On the other hand if you instead counter that spell you haven’t merely eliminated the threat represented by the spell but you’ve also eliminated any of the mana that they expended on the spell.
There are a lot of ways that one can "pseudo-counter" a spell. If you use an Incinerate to kill the newly cast creature you might as well have cast a Remove Soul on it in general. Similarly if you cast a Giant Growth to nix a removal spell you have cast some variant on Counterspell with its own particular special advantage. The thing about these cards is that while it is possible that they can gain you a counter-like effect they don’t necessarily grant you that effect.
Any deck can "go Countersliver" (i.e. play in an Aggro-Controlling way) given the right circumstances just as any deck can "go beatdown" or "go control" but that doesn’t make them a deck of that archetype.
And why does it matter?
The thing about the two major strategic archetypes the aggressive deck and the controlling deck is that most decks can generally be slotted quite naturally into either of these two categories and of those that are left it is easy to place them into either midrange (between purely aggressive and purely controlling) or into combination decks (which can still of course play a beatdown or control role a la "Who’s the Beatdown?").
Aggro-Control has a very different strategic feel. A lot of people have used many metaphors to describe the feeling of playing Aggro-Control but they all seem to relate to the idea of trying to keep everything in control just long enough to win ("riding a bull that extra second longer than your opponent" "holding onto the reigns of the sled just until it hits the bottom of the hill"). When Rob Hahn coined the term (with apologies to whoever did if I’m wrong) there was a healthy population of rabid Internet theorist clogging up USENET and other online forums fighting about terms and essentially trying to make their mark. This is the place where a lot of us old dinosaurs (like me Flores Eric Taylor and others) all cut our teeth and made our beginnings in the world of theory. That initial crew of people and all of the avid readers online generally knew what "Aggro-Control" meant.
As the word has been misused one of the classic problems that comes out of this is something that "Who’s the Beatdown?" addresses very clearly: misidentifying of roles. There is no surer strategic way to turn what should be a win into a loss than the misidentification of roles.
It is widely agreed that Aggro-Control strategies play a kind of trump on Control strategies. A large reason for this is the time it takes a Control deck to play their creature control cards. A Wrath of God costs four mana. That’s a significant amount of time to use up only to have it countered while you eat damage. Against a lot of combo decks Aggro-Control is also often thought to have an edge for a similar reason.
Let’s pretend that you are a beatdown deck and you decide that your matchup against combo needs help. If you don’t understand what "Aggro-Control" means and you read the advice that is offered in numerous articles you might decide that you need to make your deck into what you think is an Aggro-Control deck in order to defeat your opponent. But because you have the wrong idea about what to do you end up instead with a midrange beatdown deck not realizing your error. Midrange beatdown has had historically some of the least success against combo of any archetype unless it has very specific answers to the problems offered by a specific archetype.
On the other hand if you understand what it means to be Aggro-Control you could make strategically stronger choices when preparing your deck. One great example of this is Mark Gordon’s fantastic win at Grand Prix: Kansas City almost 10 years ago.
When he was playing against High Tide rather than playing a losing game by attempting to disrupt his opponent with Duress he was going to become a transformed deck essentially a "Counter-Pup" deck with access to eight incredibly efficient counterspells for his opponent. Again Mike Flores goes into excellent detail of this in his article "The Craft of Sideboarding."
The other side of role misidentification comes from one of Aggro-Control’s typical weaknesses the more aggressive pure beatdown deck. For an Aggro-Control deck they often have problems in this matchup because they have similar sized creatures but their controlling cards are slower or inefficient compared to threats from an opponent. If a midrange deck mistakenly sees itself as Aggro-Control it could leave in its "answers" like Duress believing it needs to maintain its archetypical nature to keep itself as "true" to itself as possible.
The actual Aggro-Control deck will actually generally have to become a much more controlling deck to handle the more aggressive deck. Note Paul Nicolo’s 4 Pyroclasm in the board of his Threshold deck at Grand Prix: Columbus this year. Midrange strategies on the other hand sometimes simply want a card that will buy them time for their archetype to start working.
Also notice how an Aggro-Control deck would generally want to drop a clock on the table as quickly as possible whereas a midrange deck might be interested in disrupting a combo or a control opponent off of the bat. I imagine that The Rock and a CounterSliver deck both facing off against the same deck are going to have vastly different priorities.
If you have any particular questions about these distinctions do throw them out in the forums and I’ll be happy to respond.