A control deck is one that avoids racing and attempts to slow the game down by executing an attrition plan. Once it does, it capitalizes off its slower, but more powerful, cards.
Playing against control decks can be frustrating; you may be spending the majority of the game playing on your opponent's terms. This is especially true if you make plays according to your opponent's exact preparations. Certain strategic approaches are better than others to beat control decks, especially considering that games go long enough to allow a few different maneuvers.
For reference, in his introduction to building for this archetype, Ben Rubin gives us this sample list:
General Anti-Control Strategies
There are two ways to consider playing against control. The first is in-game; doing the best with what you've got. The second is pre-game; either designing your deck or sideboard to be robust against control strategies. Both are important.
Use Their End Step: The best time to pick a fight (play a contentious spell) with a control deck is usually during their end step. Due to control decks' tendencies to rely on instants, their end step is a weak spot. This is because if they spend mana to respond here, then they will be left open once you untap.
Overload Their Mana: A variation on this theme is applicable when considering how to play when you must decide between trying a card now (against a potential or certain counter) or waiting until a later turn. If you have more land than your opponent, or if your spells are cheaper than their counterspells, or if (as above) you have instants to lead with during their end step, it can pay to save threats in hand until they exceed the number of solutions your opponent can pay for, regardless of if they have them.
Example: Your opponent's at 2 but has six Islands in play and a full hand. You draw 3 Volcanic Hammers in a row, and play them as you draw them. Each one gets Canceled. Instead: you hold each one in hand. Finally, the first two get Canceled, but the third one resolves, as your opponent is tapped out.
Avoid Their Traps: Play smart. Many control decks make use of mass removal cards like Wrath of God to stabilize the board. Don't overextend if you suspect your opponent might be playing such a card.
Example: You have two Kird Apes in play. On your fourth turn, you can either play a Rumbling Slum or a Lightning Blast. If you know your opponent isn't playing mass removal, the Slum's probably the best play. If you suspect he is, best to wait.
Consider Specific Cards: Control's long games mean more time to glean information, and more opportunities to use this information. If you know cards your opponent is playing, or has in hand, consider this information, and play accordingly.
Example: Your opponent played a Mana Leak on turn two. Now, you draw a Shivan Dragon, with 8 Mountains in play and 1 more in hand (already played one this turn). Your opponent has two cards in hand (one of which you think could be a potential Mana Leak). Best to wait on the Shivan until next turn.
Take Damage to Gain Advantage: Since a Control deck has limited ability to race with you if you get low on life, you have increased license to trade damage to yourself for advantage.
Example: Against aggro, you would be wary about using City of Brass, even to play a valuable spell at a favorable time. Against control, you will tend to use it whenever is most convenient, mostly disregarding the damage aspect.
Pre-Game (Deck Design):
Use Disruption: Disruption is especially effective against control. Not only is it good in the early game (to capitalize while they're weakest, and to extend the early game), it's also cheap and fine in the late game (when you can store it up to overload their defenses). Disruption includes: land destruction spells (Stone Rain), discard spells, especially focused discard (Coercion), and countermagic of your own (Mana Leak).
When people include disruption in their deck, it is for control and combo matchups.
Use Difficult Threats: Control decks avoid racing in favor of playing an attrition game. Use threats that resist attrition; that are unprofitable or awkward to remove. Depending on the specific answers control decks are using, this can mean different things. Typical choices include: untargetable or uncounterable creatures, creatures that benefit from being destroyed, and cards that can recur themselves or otherwise provide card advantage even from the graveyard.
Again, cards' drawbacks that involve inflicting damage to you are diminished when playing against non-aggressive control.
Example: Academy Ruins used in conjunction with Triskelavus challenges a control deck with the difficult task of having to deal with big creatures not just as their opponent draws them, but every single turn.
Avoid Dead Cards: Ben Rubin notes that one of the key ways a control deck devalues the other deck's cards is by making certain cards in that deck useless. Since control decks tend to play so few creature spells, cards like Terror often might as well be blank against them! You can diminish their advantage here by avoiding including cards that are weak or outright useless against them.
Attack Pressure Points: The nature of a control deck is to answer an opponent's threats over a prolonged period of time. This nature allows the possibility for opposing decks to enact long term strategies (perhaps involving multiple cards) that capitalize off the control deck's blind spots. This is especially possible if you know beforehand the specifics of control deck you will likely be playing against.
Sometimes a control deck will have obvious weaknesses. Does an early Defense Grid render all of their countermagic useless?
Aggro against Control: An aggro deck intends to end the game, or severely wound their opponent, before having to worry about engaging in an attrition battle.
Tactics here should generally be focused on making the racing strategy more robust rather than trying to compete with the control deck on its terms (unless the aggro deck happens to have access to very powerful attrition cards).
Anti-control disruption suits aggro's natural approach perfectly.
Sometimes aggro will damage a control opponent but not be able to finish them off as they begin to takeover. Because control takes so long to kill even after it takes over the game, just a few uncounterable damage cards (Urza's Rage) can provide a very important contingency plan.
Control decks often have to tap out aggressively in order to stem aggro decks' offense (say, with Wrath of God) in the early game. This will provide an opportunity to play powerful hoser or finisher cards (say, Citadel of Pain).
Combo against Control: Unless a combo deck has a fast enough draw to beat the control deck before it has a sufficient defense (fairly rare), the battle is likely to revolve around inevitability. If, given a long game, the combo player has a dominant strategy, the control player is put in the awkward position of having to defeat the combo player prematurely. If the control player has the dominant long-term strategy, the combo player faces the uphill battle of trying to force a few significant spells through often-heavy disruption.
Not all control decks have countermagic; some control decks rely primarily on black removal and disruption instead, for example. Card-drawing spells are good in combo against almost any type of control.
Control against Control: Control mirrors are notoriously slow and meticulous processes.
Because games go so long, and players' cards are so reactive (can gum up the hand), mana sources are a very valuable commodity. Land-heavy draws and mana-building spells are typically good in the control mirror.
It's important to avoid being wrecked by certain devastating spells. Tapping out for a Tidings may result in being hit by a full-force Persecute! Play carefully, take only calculated risks, or aim to safely further your position during your opponent's end step.
Inevitability (including library size) is always a consideration in the control mirror. Aim to have a dominant long-term strategy. It's also important to carefully ration your threats. Often both decks will have more answers than threats.
One common sideboarding strategy for the mirror is to board into aggro. An unprepared opponent, stuck with dedicated and slow anti-control cards, will find themselves quickly bowled over.
That's it for this week. Join me next time when we'll consider how to attack aggro!