Philosophy of Control

Posted in Play Design on October 6, 2017

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

Hello and welcome back to Play Design. This week we'll be talking about R&D's philosophy of control decks in Standard. My plan is to write about our philosophy behind all the Standard macro archetypes over time (Check out "Philosophy of Combo" here). Let's begin!

What Is Control?

A control deck is a deck that tries to outlast the opponent with counterspells and removal spells, then win the game by doing something more powerful than the opponent. A control deck defends itself early, and once the opponent is light on resources, the control deck then plays a powerful late-game win condition and ends the game in short order.

The deck I described sounds very much like a ramp deck, but there is a key difference between these two archetypes. While both decks are trying to survive the early game and play something powerful late, ramp decks are investing resources (usually cards such as Rampant Growth or Explosive Vegetation) to get their big threat onto the battlefield. Control decks are usually trading spells with the opponent's spells, while playing lands every turn, and then casting their late-game win condition when the time is right.

So how is control different from midrange? Midrange can often play a game similar to that of a control deck, but the difference with midrange decks is that midrange decks are often not reacting to what the opponent is playing, but rather playing an efficient threat or spell every turn of the game. Midrange decks can adapt to play an aggressive or controlling role depending on the situation, whereas control decks are (mostly) always reacting to what is played against them.

There are always going to be control decks in a metagame, because there are always going to be reactive and defensive cards that can stop faster opponents, no matter how fast or slow the format is. If control were absent from a metagame, we would consider that metagame unhealthy. Control should be a viable strategy against most decks in a given environment.

Counterspell Control Decks vs. Other Control Decks

We consider counterspells at their healthiest when they are protecting you against key cards or against something that your deck has a hard time dealing with. For example, a blue-black control deck will usually have a hard time removing artifacts and enchantments, so having counterspells to hold off those permanents and removal spells to defend against creatures and planeswalkers is ideal for this type of deck.

Counterspells that we consider unhealthy are "curve" counterspells. Curve counterspells are counterspells that you'll play on every turn of the game. It doesn't matter what your opponent is doing; they'll spend mana doing their thing while you spend mana countering their thing. Effectively, this play pattern turns your counterspells into removal spells for anything. When that happens too frequently, those spells aren't playing the role they're intended for.

We like counterspells, and we craft environments so that counterspells, like removal spells, line up against different threats in the format. You'll choose what types of removal and counters to play based on the metagame.

Shock, Roast, and Pyroclasm are all strong red removal spells, but they all play different roles. In the same way, Negate, Disdainful Stroke, and Essence Scatter are all strong counterspells, but all have their strengths and weaknesses. None of these cards can deal with everything. This is not to say we don't like universal answers. If you want to play a counterspell that can deal with anything, you can play Dissolve or Disallow for one more mana. In the same way, Fatal Push and Walk the Plank have a low mana cost, but have their limitations. Players have the option of Vraska's Contempt for more mana if they're looking for a more universal removal spell.

A removal spell such as Swords to Plowshares is much too efficient for what it does. It can exile any size creature for only one mana. It feels bad to spend resources ramping into something with a high mana cost, like Verdant Force, only to have it get killed for one mana (yes, this happened to young me many times). We'd never reprint Swords to Plowshares in a Standard-legal set. In past Standard formats, we've had low-cost spells like Immolating Glare or Silkwrap to deal with some types of creatures (attacking creatures and those with low converted mana costs, respectively), and Banishing Light or Cast Out at more mana to deal with anything. The gameplay is more dynamic and fun when the cards line up in a way where you're making decisions about what to cast your removal on, and what removal to include in your deck based on what you think you'll play against, while also considering your curve and land count. The same is true for counterspells.

Shota Yasooka played the following deck to win Pro Tour Kaladesh. He played three hard counterspells as well as a few cheaper situational ones.

Shota Yasooka's Grixis Control – 1st Place, Pro Tour Kaladesh

Download Arena Decklist

Creatureless vs. Creature Control

Some decks don't use creatures to win, and this is fine. In fact, one of the successful control decks in Standard right now, White-Blue Approach, doesn't play creatures at all. Sometimes creatureless control decks can be unhealthy, especially when their win conditions are hard to interact with. White-Blue Approach wins the game by playing two seven-mana sorceries. While Approach of the Second Sun is hard to interact with, you have to be pretty far ahead to be able to cast it, and there is a deck-building cost to including multiple copies of this card in your deck. We consider this to be a healthy deck in the current metagame.

When removal and card draw are much too efficient, control decks become about trading one-for-one and then getting ahead with a big card draw spell. When this happens, the longer the game goes, the more of an advantage you will have, and it doesn't matter what the win condition is. One example of a deck that does this is Ivan Floch's Elixir of Immortality Control deck. The sole win condition is the one Elixir, and the deck just recycles all its spells forever until the opponent gets decked. When this happens, the game is over far before it concludes, and the opponent just sits there and continues to play a game they have no chance of winning. This is far less healthy than the White-Blue Approach deck.

Ivan Floch's White-Blue Elixir Control – 1st place, Pro Tour Magic 2015

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We definitely like what this deck is doing, but we don't like its win condition. This type of play pattern (shuffling all your removal and counterspells back into your deck and redrawing them with Sphinx's Revelation) is not fun for the opponent, and is sometimes not even fun for the pilot of the deck. When a game is essentially over, you'll ideally play a card that can help end the game in short order, and creatures are one way to do that.

We position some creatures to be control finishers, like Pearl Lake Ancient, Sphinx of the Final Word, and Torrential Gearhulk. These cards are hard for some decks to get off the battlefield and are perfect win conditions for decks like the Ivan Floch control deck, but at the time, Elixir was just a stronger card than the creatures that were available. Planeswalkers are another efficient win condition for control decks. They can be hard to remove and control decks are naturally good at protecting them.

Here's an example of a control deck that wins using creatures:

Scott McNamara's Grixis Control – 10th place, SCG Dallas 2017

Download Arena Decklist


Control decks are about outlasting the opponent. They aren't about countering every spell thrown your way. That said, counterspells are healthy for Standard. A lot of decks are going to be proactive, and control decks can tailor themselves to beat those decks. Then, the proactive decks can evolve to beat those control decks—that's how the metagame evolves over time. Evolving metagames keep Magic fresh and give players a puzzle to solve when building and choosing decks. Control decks are always going to be part of a healthy metagame, because there will always be proactive decks in a format.

Thanks for reading. Next week will be the return of the M-Files, Ixalan Edition!

Melissa DeTora

Play Design Story of the Week

Written by Andrew Brown

All of These: A Play Design Story and Manners Retrospective

As tournament Magic players, we have had a fair amount of interesting interactions with our opponents. We all have our own manner set and favorite ways to play Magic. When I played in the real world, I opted to be stone-faced and said very little non-Magic talk. If I had the win, I would let my opponent know as soon as possible. I would always offer the hand when I lost, and not force the issue if I won. Travelling many weekends and playing hundreds of tournaments, I found this to be an acceptable way to conduct myself.

This could not prepare me for one of the biggest manner tragedies I have ever witnessed, which occurred last Thursday. We were playtest drafting a set currently in development, and the rest of us were waiting on the conclusion of the match between Ian Duke and Melissa DeTora. It looked like a close game and both sides appeared to be fighting hard. On the decisive turn, Ian attacked with all of his creatures, leaving Melissa at 2 life, thought for a second, then calmly passed the turn. Melissa untapped, drew a card, but then Ian stopped her. He then said, "During your upkeep, I will [face-burn spell] you." To think of doing that in a playtest! Unheard of! But then Ian dropped the bombshell. "I also have [other face-burn spell]."

While there are arguments for saying Ian played correctly, the sanctity of the playtest must be upheld. Sure, it was 5:45 on a Thursday. Sure, the Dukes are known for being the most pleasant Magic players. Sure, I could be grossly overreacting. Sure, I could be rambling incoherently. But there is one thing I know: Ian had all of these.

—Andrew Brown

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