Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Principles for building a good Control Deck in Magic.

By: Sanjay Roopnah

I have been playing magic since the release of Urza's Legacy. I used to play quite a bit, but because of this thing called work, I only get to play at prereleases, a weekly draft and maybe FNM. I am a degenerate Control addict and will only play a control deck at constructed tournaments; if I ever play a non control deck, you can safely assume that aliens have abducted me and done 'bad' things to me. My love for control decks is so great that even my draft decks tend to sway towards control. Today, I will give beginners insight on how to build a good blue based control deck.

Building a control deck is very simple, yet it's very difficult as well. The most reliable control decks are usually based on a Blue White shell; there are other decks that can also be built, such as Grixis (Blue, Red & Black), but those that have white are generally better because of mass removal cards like Terminus and Supreme Verdict. You can choose to play a stock standard UW deck; however, with the current state of standard it is advisable to splash a 3rd color. You can play any of the following configurations:
a) Straight Blue White (UW) deck
b) Bant - UW Splashing Green
c) Esper - UW Splashing Black
d) American Control - UW Splashing Red

The main reason to play Bant is for Farseek, Thragtusk & Centaur Healer. Farseek will accelerate you into potentially a 3rd turn Verdict followed by Tusk on Turn 4 & blinking it on turn 5 with Restoration Angel. Alternatively, you can play an Azorius Charm on Turn 2, followed by Centaur Healer & blinking it with Resto the following turn. So if you are a fan of life gain, this is the deck for you.

Esper is currently not so good because Watery Grave is not in print yet. Playing Esper gives you access to cheap removal cards such as Ultimate Price, Tragic Slip, Curse of Death's Hold as well as discard spells such as Duress, Distress and Appetite for Brains.

American Control will give you Pillar of Flame, Searing Spear, Counterflux, Rolling Tremblor and Thundermaw Hellkite a.k.a. Banslayer 2.0.

American Control is my preferred control deck currently because it gives you the best mix of cards to fight the current decks in the format. It also allows me to play with 4 of the 'best' cards in standard currently.

There are some basic principles involved in building a control deck (the easy part).

1. A stable mana base. This is the most important aspect to take into account when building a control deck. If you do not have the mana to cast the relevant spells in your deck, you will most certainly lose. Having access to the shock lands is key, since they smooth out you mana, and enable you to play the other dual lands untapped. This is precisely why Esper is not good enough currently, even though it has some very powerful spells. The other important part of your manabase is the amount of lands you play. Back in the good old days, we used to play 24, but we also used to play a lot of card draw. These days, it is imperative that you play 26 or more; you can sometimes get away with 25, but you then need to play at least 8 cheap cantrips.

2. You need to have cards in your deck that will allow you to deal with the early onslaught of aggro decks. These are:
Azorius Charm
Feeling of Dread
Dramatic Rescue
Augur of Bolas ~ I personally hate this one, but I've been told it's very good.
Pillar of Flame & Searing Spear for American Control
Centaur Healer, Thragtusk & Farseek for Bant
Tragic Slip & Ultimate Price for Esper
Snapcaster Mage depending on which deck you are playing.

3. Access to mass removal cards. This is very important, especially against decks that tend to swarm you with a lot of creatures. If you use one spell to deal with two or more creatures, you have started to gain an advantage over your opponent, since he will have one (or more) less cards than you. The relevant mass removal spells in the format are:
Supreme Verdict
Rolling Tremblor
Curse of Death's Hold (to a lesser extent, but it will shut down certain decks once you have achieved control).

4. Card draw spells are very important. You will typically be trading cards one for one in the early stages and when the dust eventually settles, your card draw spells will enable you to get ahead of the aggro decks. In the control matchup, the one that has the most cards and lands will eek out the win and this is depends on who draws and successfully casts the more card draw spells. The best card in standard currently is Sphinx's Revelation and it is the premium card draw spell in the format. The other viable options are:
Thought Scour
Think Twice
Amass the Components

5. The use of Countermagic has waned significantly these days. I remember playing with 12-16 counterspells previously; ah, the good old days of Magic. You need counterspells to prevent your opponent from casting game winning cards. You options are:
Essence Scatter - not so effective because of Cavern of Souls

6. The kill conditions. Traditionally, control decks had between 4 & 8 creatures with 4 power or more as kill conditions. With the current state of standard, you need at least 10 creatures and this is the ABSOLUTE minimum you must have in you deck. You need to have cheaper creatures (hence with less power) these days to be able to interact with the fast decks. You options are:
Angel of Serenity
Restoration Angel
Snapcaster Mage
Augur of Bolas
Baneslayer 2.0
Centaur Healer

The difficult part of building a control deck is choosing the right cards for the current metagame and more importantly, the right amount of each card to play in the deck. Getting this balance of cards right is the key between a good control deck and a bad one. I am not going to be giving out any decklists purely and simply because I want you to experiment with the cards available and arrive at the final configuration of YOUR deck. After playing with the deck once or twice, YOU must realise which of the cards are good, which ones are suboptimal and which ones are just bad. If you are lazy, just go on the internet. You will also learn what the "right" amount of each card is correct for you. The biggest thing that can happen to improve your deck building skill is actually LOOSING!!! You must then analyse the match and decide what cards are missing in your deck, and which cards are ineffective. This will also help in choosing the right cards for your sideboard.
There are a lot of people that will always say that certain cards that you play are 'bad cards' (I am one of those people unfortunately), but you must not let them affect your card choices. By all means, listen to the reasoning behind the inclusion or dropping of a card, and if it makes sense, then include/drop them, especially if your deck is not giving you joy. But, if your cards choices have been effective for you, why change??? I mentioned my hatred for Augur of Bolas previously; I ABSOLUTELY HATE THE CARD! I understand how good it is, but, based on my past experience, I refuse to play it.. So, build and play with the cards that you feel are most effective in your deck.

I have not included a section on Planeswalkers, because new players tend to play them incorrectly. Once you have built and tweaked your deck, you will realize which planeswalkers will improve your deck and can then adjust your deck accordingly. Feel free to include them in your deck if you believe you are good enough to play with them. The relevant ones are:
Jace, Architect of Thought
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage

The last aspect of deckbuilding, and most likely the most important is your Sideboard. You cannot build a control deck that deals with every deck in the format (remember the 'balance / mix' of cards I mentioned previously). Your sideboard allows you to shore up the weaknesses your deck has against specific matches. For example, as powerful as Angel of Serenity is, it's effectiveness against a really fast red deck is reduced substantially. Having one of them in your opening hand is tantamount to playing with a six card hand. You need to assess the metagame and figure out which cards are needed for which matchup, and build a sideboard accordingly.

Have fun building and playing your control deck.

Scaly Injun

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