Tapping into your inner control player can be tough at times. Even I have felt the need to play an aggro deck in a major event for multiple reasons. Though I feel that control is superior in ten out of ten scenarios, I think that finishing rounds early has a huge upside. I find myself often envious of friends that are watching my match as I'm barely finishing game 1 with my Drownyard deck. As I shuffle up for game 2, they are on their way to enjoy a bite to eat. When less turns are involved, that inherently creates less decision making, which leads to fewer mistakes.
I have said on multiple occasions that aggro is easier (generally) to play than control, which created a debate or two. I think that most people can agree, however, that if the game ends sooner rather than later, the chances for making a mistake decreases, even if by a slim margin. I have written articles in the past about what makes an aggro player different than a control player and tossed some combo stereotypes in as well, but this article will be more focused on a pathway for play style conversion.
I will be your control minister and try to bring you towards the light of mass removal, card draw, and general card advantage. After that, I will hop off the soapbox and discuss a few cards that have been spoiled thus far and how I think they will impact Standard.
Use Your Cards Wisely and Prepare for the Late Win
Aggro is all about the here and now. You have limited time to win the match, and if you are slow in doing so, generally speaking your chances of victory diminish by the turn. You are the hare in the race and attempt to speed across the finish line by cluttering the board with constant offense and finishing them off with a spell or two. That mindset has to change when converting to a control deck and mentality.
The goal shifts to preventing that quick death from occurring by using cards that block, remove creatures (preferably more than one-for-one), and replenishing your hand once the magic word "stabilize" happens. That is the easy part about playing control. It isn't skill intensive to prevent death against an aggro deck due to the limited decisions you are open to making. When discussing skill involved in Magic, it can turn into a controversial topic, but I try to defend my points with a "majority rules" standpoint.
Skill Building: Aggro
Even though there are crucial decisions to be made when you are battling with Bant Control against Mono-Red Aggro, the majority of the time line A and line B of plays will yield the same result. The control strategy against these aggro decks is to simply not die, which gives you a clear road for victory after the early turns have elapsed. The mistake that new control players make is to rush to victory and not prepare for outs that aggro players have even though they are few and far between. If you can only lose to a Thundermaw Hellkite, then be sure to leave yourself outs to that particular card. Never give the all-in deck an easy out to steal victory.
Other times, the mistake is much more subtle. For example, say you are at three life and holding Azorious Charm and Ultimate Price with an attacking Lingering Souls token and one left behind to block a possible haste creature. You played correctly by holding back the token, but you don't use the Azorius Charm to gain the one life and then die to a ripped Searing Spear. It isn't an attractive option to gain one life there, but you have to cut down on the possible outs your opponent can have when playing a blitz-style aggro deck.
Having a sideboard dedicated to aggro is the key. A lot of cards in the control arsenal have multiple uses, especially in the sideboard. You have Evil Twin for scary creature decks, Curse of Death's Hold for creatures that have toughness problems, and Feeling of Dread for Mono-Red and Zombies.
The last card is only brought in against decks that have red creatures that have haste and deal lots of early burst damage. I never bring Feeling of Dread in against other decks even if it might be slightly useful by tapping a Behemoth or a couple Thragtusks. Sideboarding against aggro decks is pretty simple since we all know that counterspells aren't that great against them and expensive spells don't do too much if you can't survive to the late game. The real challenge for an aggro player when switching to a control deck is to properly playing against midrange and control mirrors.
Skill Building: Midrange
Midrange is almost as tough to battle against as the control mirror. All their cards net advantage, whether its Huntmaster pumping out Wolves, Thragtusk doing his annoying thing, Garruk drawing infinite cards, Kessig Wolf Run making every creature lethal, etc. I am using the Four-Color Midrange deck as an example, but every midrange deck has elements that make it resilient against both aggro and control decks.
When mapping out your plan to win against midrange, you have to use cards much more conservatively than in aggro matchups. Also, the midrange decks will punish you for misplays much harsher than other decks. I had to learn the hard way to keep mana open for Negate and take a further beating from multiple creatures. Failure to do so results in an instant loss at the hands of Garruk, Primal Hunter. Another game, you may think you're safe when you drop down Tamiyo and tap down a random land only to be punished by a Rakdos's Return to bin all your cards and kill the planeswalker simultaneously. You could have used Dissipate and avoided this travesty, but the mistake was made and will cost you the win.
The midrange cards are so powerful and dangerous, the only way we can gain an advantage is to use our instants to prevent their expensive sorceries and planeswalkers and refill our hand using a timely Sphinx's Revelation or a couple Forbidden Alchemy flashbacks. To add to the headache of the matchup, sideboarding is a challenge. I personally add a Negate in to back the Dissipates up to keep planeswalkers off the board and my hand intact.
Midrange is easily the toughest matchup in current Standard due to the inherent power of its creatures. The midrange decks of old with Troll Ascetic and Swords were almost laughable when battling against a control deck, but now it is truly the scariest of all the matchups. As a new control mage, you have to play this one a lot safer as described in order to achieve victory. When I mentioned conservative use of spells, I mean you need to take a beating before clearing the board in many cases. A mistake that new control players make is Wrathing too early or making plays that are slightly weaker than the alternatives.
For example, if you are facing down a Thragtusk and a Beast token and you have a Sorin, play it! The ability to stick a planeswalker and nearly guarantee its survival, even if it goes to one loyalty, is absolutely worth it. Once you untap with the heavily wounded planeswalker, you are free to play Supreme Verdict, Lingering Souls, and/or use the rest of your sweet spells AND tick the walker up with additional protection and board advantage.
Of course, every scenario is different, but as a general tip for control play it is correct the vast majority of the time. The midrange battle is not a race to survive for the first five turns but a fight for card advantage. Don't let those green decks take victory from you with an easy Garruk or Rakdos's Revenge from left field; play is slow and cool until your walkers have taken the board.
Skill Building: Control
The control mirror is one of my favorite matchups. In this day and age, it is all about Nephalia Drownyard, which started as a four-of in the sideboard of the original Esper list from the release of RTR. Now we see black as the fourth color of Bant in order to splash for the milling nuisance. We have also seen a rise in the popularity of Esper thanks to Nick Spagnolo and his 400-land Esper creation that has four maindeck Drownyards. Nick has always played good control decks and I respect his deckbuilding, but I am a 25-26 land max kind of guy, so you will always see clear differences between the two of us.
Since the control mirror focuses on milling, you have to be even more careful in this matchup than against midrange. It is not all about card advantage and is much more about who blinks first. It is devastating to jam a Jace, have it be Negated and then have your opponent get their own Jace in play. That can result in an early and sudden loss. Jace does multiple things in the control mirror today in the form of card advantage, board advantage, and neutering our army of Lingering Souls. Even though Jace is the scariest of all the walker lords, each other brother (Sorin) and sister (Lilliana, Tamiyo) can prove to be devastating as well. Each has to be answered immediately or prevented to win a control faceoff, and that is where a bulk of the skill comes in to do so.
As a new control player, the key to this matchup is a plan of action. You can't play control mirrors effectively by making each decision on the fly. At first, it seems easy, and you feel that you are in the game. But the reality is you have made some huge mistakes, and it is only a matter of time until you have a dwindling library against two Nephalia Drownyards. What happened? It is all about where you want to be with your particular hand in X amount of turns. Also, you have to prepare for your opponent crafting perfect strategy.
An example is dropping Lingering Souls on an empty board with a Negate and mana available. They dissipate it, and you allow the counter to resolve quickly and pass the turn. Your opponent believes the coast is clear and slams Tamiyo, and you negate it swiftly. As you untap your mana, you casually play a Tamiyo of your own, a Sphinx's Revelation, or whatever bomb you have been holding eagerly, and victory comes that much closer. As I said earlier, with these examples I understand there are a lot of other factors at play here that may cause this decision to not be fully applicable, but the lesson to learn is to do the old bait and switch with your spells in order to outplay your control opponent.
The same rules from the midrange matchup apply in the control mirror when it comes to playing conservatively. Tapping out isn't the primary concern later in the game due to Revelation being trumped by multiple Drownyards, but you only own a couple of each planeswalker, your Alchemies have the potential to drop precious commodities into the graveyard, and counters are more applicable in this matchup than any other. While commanding a control deck, it is unwise to Drownyard early when you are playing against Reanimator and midrange decks. In the control mirror, after a few card selection spells, it is time to get to work. You will be surprised how many matches come down to a few cards left in your library.
I see many mages adding Jace, Memory Adept to the deck, and I'm not a huge fan for one simple reason: it's expensive. I know, I know...I love expensive spells! However, when sideboarding, you want to bring in Negate and Duress due to their effectiveness and mana cost. I don't like bringing in five-mana spells that are easily answered by cheaper equivalents, especially when the games come down to a draw-go Drownyard fest. If you resolve Jace, it might be a headshot for your opponent, but the chances of you being Drownyarded or it being answered well before is relevant is much more when playing against a skilled control opponent.
I'm not going to lie to you; playing control is tough, and it is at its toughest level when playing the control mirror. Mistakes are a lot more subtle and add up like an avalanche ready to crash on top of you. Sometimes you are mana screwed and get hit by every planeswalker and Lingering Souls without a counterspell due to a weak hand, but more often are you nickel and dimed to the point of no return due to misplays or lack of understanding the matchup.
When you draw your seven, take a look, know what cards you want/expect to draw, and formulate a plan to win right off the bat. Be sure to shift your plan as your opponent makes plays and as you add more weapons to your arsenal and you'll do fine. As a fresh control wizard, this skill will build with practice. At first, you'll hate the control mirror, but eventually you will grin when your opponent plays a turn 1 tapped hallowed fountain.
Finally, our mana becomes perfect for Esper! Pick up your duals because we will be running a near full load of shocklands after the release of Gatecrash. Upon the new set's arrival, we will welcome Lilliana of the Veil back to the deck, as well as any new cards that prove to be useful. At this point, I don't see anything I would slam into the maindeck except the land reprints. However, there are two cards I am keeping my eye on as possible win conditions.
Obzedat does a few neat things that could land him a spot in our control deck. His immunity to sorcery speed removal and Ultimate Price makes him a fantastic prospect in the control mirror. Against other decks he's good because of his natural drain and large power/toughness, but he might have to be used for defense. In that case, he becomes much more vulnerable to removal and shenanigans, but at the five-mana slot I think he is very fairly costed.
Stolen Identity is a card much more exciting in theory. I play Evil Twin currently because of all the great creatures I can copy and abuse, and this card takes it to a new level. At nearly all points in my matches, I have a stray Soul lingering on the battlefield. The ability to copy Thragtusk, cipher onto a token, and copy Thragtusk again seems absurd to me. At this point, I see it as a sideboard card, but I will bring this in against every green deck and makes the planning process I described earlier even more complicated. If you set this up correctly against a slew of decks, I can see you swinging a losing game into the win column pretty easily. The biggest advantage of this card has to be surprise because no one pays any mind to a single Lingering Souls token, which will cost them dearly.
I rarely say this about any planeswalker, but I think the new Gideon is garbage. I don't think he is ok or mediocre; I think he is trash. The definition of a good planeswalker is one that either protects itself or draws cards—this guy doesn't do either. Aggro decks in today's Standard will stomp you into the ground with a Hellrider and an Ash Zealot, a Thragtusk and a Huntmaster, or, hell, just a Thragtusk. Gideon cannot be played unless the board is pristine clean, and even then he is very unimpressive. If Gideon's first ability added the "must attack" clause, then I would upgrade him to mediocre, but in his current form I find him to be unplayable against aggro and midrange decks.
Against control he is…ok. Is he a must counter? No. Is he hard to kill in the control mirror? No. On an empty board, you have about 100 turns to draw an answer or just Drownyard them out. If they decide to attack you, there's a normally dead Azorius Charm waiting for him. Every control deck runs a couple Detention Spheres and/or Oblivion Rings, which all deal with Gideon after he has done absolutely nothing for the owner. No cards, no protection, and no play for Gideon, Champion of Justice.
Thanks as always for reading, and I hope that a few of my pointers will help some of you or at least reaffirm things you already practice and are aware of. I am currently playing the same Esper list that was posted in my previous article, and I will be battling in Atlantic City this weekend with it. If I change anything from the list prior to the tournament or right after, I will update you guys on Twitter, but the big changes will be happening next month after the release of Gatecrash. Until next time, ladies and gentlemen, I wish you good tournament luck.
Twitter - @shaheenmtg
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