While any number of different card combinations can form a deck, there are only so many valid strategic approaches to winning a game. It is a deck's chosen approach that motivates its design. Decks that share approaches share many of the same fundamental elements and can be classified together for practical purposes. For example, a given deck might be good against all or most decks that win primarily by attacking with creatures, but weak against all or most decks that win (essentially) by establishing a dominant board position, even if those decks use different cards entirely. We can design a deck to be robust not just against some general field, but against several types of decks. If a deck is already performing well against one entire type, we can try to improve its strategy against another type.
These are the basic deck types (the descriptions below are taken from Wikipedia - I couldn't say it better myself!):
- Aggro is a strategy that aims to win by producing maximum damage output in the shortest number of turns. This strategy often places a heavy emphasis on using creatures as efficient damage sources. Aggro strategies can be slow and relentless or fast and ruthless, in both cases attempting to overwhelm the opponent's defenses and reduce them to 0 life.
- Control is a strategy that attempts to interfere with, prevent, deny, or otherwise cancel the opponent's actions. It attempts to establish a superior board position and then use that position to win.
- Combo is a strategy that utilizes the interaction of two or more cards (a "combination") at the same time or in sequence, resulting in a powerful effect. This strategy can also refer to using a single powerful spell to instantly win the game while the rest of the deck is designed to ensure its success. Many decks have smaller, combo-like interactions between their cards, which is better described as synergy. A good combo should be fast (achievable early enough in the game to matter), consistent (regularly achievable), and powerful (so the effect translates into victory).
Subtypes also exist:
- Aggro-Control is a strategy that combines efficient creature-based damage (aggro) with heavy disruption elements (control). A common decktype.
- Aggro-Combo is a strategy that combines efficient, creature-based damage (aggro) with the ability to unleash an extremely powerful internal synergy (i.e., something capable of winning the game by itself - a combo). A relatively rare decktype, as aggro cards and combo cards don't usually have much strategic crossover.
- Control-Combo is a strategy that combines heavy disruption elements (control) with the ability to unleash an extremely powerful internal synergy (i.e., a combo). Requiring specific cards, but having lots of strategic crossover between them, this is an uncommon decktype in shallower formats (Block and Standard), but such decks are regularly seen in Extended, Legacy, and Vintage.
- Aggro-Control-Combo is a strategy that combines efficient, creature-based damage, heavy disruption elements, and an ability to unleash an extremely powerful internal synergy. This very rare decktype is usually only seen in deeper formats that feature enough specific cards and enough powerful cards to allow decks that are strategically very versatile.
Subtypes trade the power and focus of single-minded strategy for versatility and robustness.
Let's look at some practical characterizations of the basic decktypes.
This is Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's aggro deck from the Top 8 at this year's World Championships:
What are some of the things we can glean from this example and others like it?
Damage-Based: Aggro decks almost always win via damage (rather than, say, by decking, or by achieving a dominant board position so that victory is inevitable). This means that lifegain/damage prevention cards are at their best against aggro decks (as well as in bizarre cases when certain combo decks are only capable of dealing low amounts of total damage, eg 20-30). (Hero's Reunion, Worship)
Focused Spells: Aggro decks have an extremely straightforward gameplan: to reduce the opponent's life total to 0 as quickly and efficiently as possible. Peripheral "catch-all" spells (Naturalize) are not conducive to this end. Your trump cards (Worship) are likely to have full effect against agro decks, because they don't have room for much defense-at least in the maindeck.
Early Game Bias: Aggro decks are built to capitalize during the early turns of the game, before other decktypes are able to cast their expensive spells. This makes spells that try to stunt a deck in its early game (Stone Rain) weak, and spells that are active in the early game (Mana Tithe) strong. Another note is that, when playing Aggro, ensuring you will have good mana right off the bat by perhaps overcompensating with multi-lands often outweighs drawbacks like extra damage. (Karplusan Forest)
Mild Disruption: Though Damo da Rosa's deck doesn't illustrate this, many aggro decks employ mild forms of disruption, like land destruction, or pick-and-choose discard spells to hit problem spells, for maximum effect. (Stone Rain, Distress)
Fast Goldfish: Against a dummy opponent, depending on the format, an aggro deck should win on turn 4 or 5. A deck must have sufficient early-turn defense in order to survive long enough to play more expensive powerful spells.
This is Tiago Chan's control deck from the Top 8 at this year's World Championships:
Few creatures: Control decks tend to play very few creatures. You'll want enough removal to handle the problematic ones (in this case, Lightning Angel), but in general it's not very good here.
Expensive spells: Control decks win by stalling the game and then employing powerful late-game strategies that other decks can't compete with. This usually means a higher dependency on mana than other decktypes. Denying a control deck mana, or otherwise exploiting its expensive spells, is a potent strategy. (Stone Rain, Mana Leak)
While Damo da Rosa's deck only plays 21 land, Chan play 23 and 6 additional mana sources (Signets, such as Azorius Signet). This is indicative of the different decktypes' mana dependencies.
Powerful spells & Card Advantage: On the same note, it's usually pretty difficult to keep up with a control deck once it gets to the late game. One basic way a control deck gets ahead is by trading spells one for one (like a removal spell for a creature) and then playing card-drawing spells. If you're not playing control but are planning to play the late game, make sure you have a good plan to beat a hand full of good cards. (Gigadrowse + Calciform Pools)
Countermagic: Chan is only playing one spell that counters spells (Remand), but control decks using blue usually play more. Good approaches against countermagic include: cheap spells, cheap discard spells, instants that can be played at the end of an opponent's turn, and (obviously) uncounterable spells, or specific cards that make it so instants can't be played during your turn (Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir; Defense Grid).
Mass Removal: Considering they play so few creatures, an easy way for control decks to both gain card advantage and defend against early creature rushes is playing mass removal spells (Wrath of God and its Planar Chaos mirror-image Damnation). For a creature deck, playing against mass removal is a huge consideration. If you do not expect mass removal, it is best to play out as many of your creatures as you can. Against it, you will often have to ration out your creatures. Good approaches against mass removal are: playing around it, playing resistant creatures (Phyrexian Totem), playing creatures who have value despite potential mass removal (Giant Solifuge), using discard or countermagic to nullify it (even though this is a one-for-one trade, control decks often rely on their mass removal to handle creature decks, and may not be able to survive without it).
Slow Goldfish: Even though they are usually ahead in the late game, control decks can take a long time to actually win. This means that you will have plenty of time to try to enact a strategy, but that it must be a robust one. (Calciform Pools/Gigadrowse, Haakon, Stromgald Scourge/Court Hussar).
This is Makahito Mihara's World Championship winning combo deck:
Few real creatures: Combo decks don't usually win by attacking, at least not in a traditional sense. If they use creatures, it's either to help enable the combo (Sakura-Tribe Elder) or as part of the combo itself (Bogardan Hellkite). Creature removal is usually very inefficient against combo decks, unless you have reason to know otherwise against a specific combo deck (for instance, Wrath of God might still be necessary against Mihara's Dragonstorm deck in case he just starts playing out his dragons one by one).
Few non-land permanents: Many combo decks play few non-land permanents, or if they do, often don't play them until the turn they're ready to try for the win. A good place to attack a combo deck is the hand, with discard spells (Distress). Sometimes, though, against certain combo decks, a timely enchantment removal spell or counterspell can be enough.
Life-total clock: The more cards a combo deck has access to, the more likely it is to successfully get off its combo. This means a combo deck will usually take as long as possible to win (i.e., the turn before it would otherwise die, or until it has a definite win) to get as many draw steps as possible. It's important to put pressure on combo decks, either with creatures or threatening spells, to force them to try and win prematurely.
Narrow strategy: Combo decks tend to be highly focused, aimed at enacting their combo. If you can disable the combo, there's not much they can do (e.g., Cranial Extraction against a combo deck with a single kill card).
Weak defense: Additionally, combo decks are usually so busy setting up their combo that they don't have much room or time for responsive spells.
Specific: More than any other deck type, combo decks are unique from deck to deck. Enchantment removal might be great against one but useless against another.
Fast Goldfish: The same rule applies as with aggro: a deck must have sufficient early-turn defense to survive against a combo deck.
"Attacking is the nut low. The strategy simply is not viable." - Gadiel Szleifer
Gadiel, a Pro Tour Champion, describes aggro strategies as fundamentally weak, but remember is that the metagame is self-correcting. Even if an aggro strategy is weak, if few enough decks are designed to handle an aggro strategy, that decktype can win. In this way, it is difficult for any decktype to dominate or be dominated by the others.
For further reading, check out the Wikipedia article on Magic deck types.
That's it for now. Join me next week when we look at the basics of tournament play.