Control has existed since the birth of competitive magic. From the period of Ice Age to Onslaught, control had been defined as a “draw-go” style of play, meaning it was 70-99% reactive and not very proactive. Reactive control, sadly, is a thing of the past. Draw-go or reactive control is a style of play where your plays depend solely on the actions of your opponent. You counter a spell here and there, use spot removal on a target or two, and then when the game seems unwinnable, a well-timed Wrath of God pulls you out from the teeth of defeat. Burying your non-control opponent under card advantage was the basis of those previous plays. Each color has its own ways to provide true card advantage, but blue is the constant winner in the race for more spells.
Control has had a heavy shift from reactive to proactive. It turns out that decks like “classic” U/W, Tap-Out U/W, U/B Control, and other current-day variants have to be the aggressor in many scenarios. It seems that we're always in a race against time. The ramp decks are breathing down our necks, and we know our late game is trumped by theirs. Our only option is a turn 4 Baneslayer, attack with Celestial Colonnade, and aggro them down before it's too late. Planeswalkers have also added to this new dimension of control. The fact that control decks have to dedicate spots to creatures, sorcery-speed removal, card draw, and four-mana-plus planeswalkers means we don't have the luxury to sit back and develop board control at instant speed.
Previous control lists that we'll take a look at utilize instants and win conditions that provide card advantage. There's a pattern to both Standard and Extended control lists; however, we'll be examining the Standard shift, being that it's a more relevant format for most readers and players at this time. That being said, let's take a look at Nassif's old decree list:
2 Akroma's Vengeance
1 Barren Moor
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Chainer's Edict
4 Decree of Justice
2 Decree of Pain
2 Eternal Dragon
1 Haunting Echoes
4 Renewed Faith
1 Secluded Steppe
3 Skeletal Scrying
2 Undead Gladiator
4 Wrath of God
2 Circle of Protection: Red
3 Engineered Plague
1 Haunting Echoes
As you can see, this list contains a majority of cards termed as “reactive.” The effectiveness of cards such as Akroma's Vengeance, Cabal Therapy, and Duress depend largely on what the opponent is playing. This deck, like many control decks of its time, performed the majority of its actions on the opponent's turn. Also, this list contains only four creatures, and all of these can be cycled if drawn in the early game. The early control decks seek to counter a spell here and there, kill a creature, and then generate massive card advantage to create an unwinnable position for the opponent. Let's look at another example of an older control list following the “reactive” style of play.
3 Chain of Vapor
3 Circular Logic
4 Coastal Tower
4 Decree of Justice
3 Deep Analysis
4 Exalted Angel
4 Flooded Strand
4 Mana Leak
2 Skycloud Expanse
3 Wing Shards
4 Wrath of God
3 Ambassador Laquatus
1 Deep Analysis
2 Ray of Distortion
4 Silver Knight
Once again, this list is highly reactive, and the majority of its cards can be played on the opponent's turn. This list contains only four creatures and sixteen instants! The instants are all designed to either generate card advantage or answer early threats by the opponent. Mana Leak and Circular Logic answer the threats that cannot be defeated by Wrath of God or Wing Shards. Powerful cards such as Deep Analysis and Standstill provide raw card advantage, and finally, when the game is unwinnable for the opponent, Exalted Angel swoops in for the kill. Control decks followed this general strategy for several years.
The obvious question is: what happened?! How did control all of a sudden swing to the proactive style of play? There is only one card that can answer that question…
R&D prints Bitterblossom…
This two-mana enchantment allowed the creation of an aggro deck that could play all of its threats during the opponent's turn at instant speed, thus allowing this deck to dominate traditional-style control decks. Bitterblossom allowed the Fae to create threats constantly on their opponent's turn while maintaining the ability to disrupt a reactive control player enough for a victory. This resulted in the death of the traditional, reactive-control style of deck. During the Fae era, I tried many times to build a successful reactive control deck to no avail. Several horrible tournament finishes later, I opted to play a ramp-style deck, which led to great success.
Despite these victories, I still mourned the loss of control. But control never dies; it simply adapts and becomes a different machine. The icy grip will never let go.
So why did R&D do it? Did they do it on purpose? I began to wonder if this was a plot to kill control; control surely did go into a coma at least. Was it for the casual players? Who doesn't remember the days when Magic was fairly new (at least, tournament magic) and having to stare down an arrogant opponent who counters everything?! When you finally do resolve a spell, they pretentiously remove it and still have seven cards in hand. Maybe this was a plot to make the game easier for the average folks and more fair and balanced, but then I snapped out of it.
The beautiful thing about Magic and why it has lasted as long as it has is because it's constantly evolving. Oh and by the way… what happened to Ponza and Land Destruction? (Coming to you in a future article!)
We've discussed the beginning of true control, the great change, and now control in its modern state. Here is U/W Control:
We all know this as the “Tap Out” Control deck. I prefer to call it U/W Control, because not all versions ran zero instants. As you can see, the number and quality of creatures has been raised significantly (Celestial Colonnade helped!). The new style of control has become more proactive and will often tap out every turn for its own threats rather than neutralizing threats from the opponent. In fact, this list contains only six instants!
The reasons for this new shift are twofold. The first reason is the invention of planeswalkers. Planeswalkers in the control deck serve as both card advantage and a threat, whichever the control deck happens to need at that particular moment. The other reason for the shift in control is the fact the power level of creatures in Magic has steadily risen since the days of Masticore and Morphling, while the spell power level (planeswalkers excluded) has gradually fallen. Creatures today are simply too powerful not to play in control. Baneslayer Angel, unanswered, will defeat any aggro deck by itself, with no thought required on the part of the user. Frost Titan answers almost any threat and creates a three to four-turn clock all by itself. The power level of these creatures speaks for itself.
Not only has the power level of creatures gone up, but the power level of instants has dropped dramatically. Don't hold your breath if you're waiting for Fact or Fiction to be reprinted! Cards like Gifts Ungiven, Brainstorm, and Thirst for Knowledge (still keeping my fingers crossed for this one!) have been replaced by Treasure Hunt, Foresee, Mind Spring, and Preordain. Where are the instants?
A similar conclusion can be drawn about countermagic. Cards like Condescend, Counterspell, Remand, and Daze have been replaced by Negate, Essence Scatter, Cancel, and, thank God, Mana Leak (we get one good one!). There was a reprint conspiracy across the board that put blue-based control in its place. Who didn't see this coming though? Did anyone dispute the fact that blue was the most powerful color throughout the history of tournament Magic? With that in mind, there is little pity and remorse over the weakening of the control power color.
Before I wrap up the article, I want to post my proactive control deck that I've had great success with:
I played U/B at States before the craze hit the web for the white-less new control. My record was 5-2, losing to Red, and I got knocked out of contention. Red was the obvious weak matchup for U/B, and I knew that going in (1-1 vs. Red on the day). My other loss was to Elves and was 100% punted to my opponent. I'll spare the details of my awful play game 3, but let's just say I left with a ton of confidence in the deck. Usually when I lose a PTQ or a tournament I begin to brainstorm a completely new control deck. This time was different, and I knew that the black disruption was key to my victories over the mirror, ramp, and R/U/G decks in my way. This wasn't the exact list I ran, but it was very similar.
Any questions on this list or the article in general, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org . This new list has been polished to an extent, and I've had a lot of success online and testing… try it out!
In conclusion, the days of reactive control decks seem to be over. Control was forced to adapt to faster aggro decks and control-killer cards such as Bloodbraid Elf, Bitterblossom, and planeswalkers. No longer can a control deck simply Wrath of God its way to victory.
But fear not! As I said before, control isn't dead, nor will it ever be. It has simply morphed into a more proactive icy grip of death. So go out there, and be proactive; send some powerful creatures at your opponent, and show him or her what the icy grip of control really is.