The Control archetype is simultaneously easy and difficult to define. What makes a Control deck different from every other Commander deck is its reactive nature. Other archetypes have a plan to win: ramp up to big creatures, load up the general for 21 damage, drop a game-ending combo, send creatures to the graveyard and reanimate them, swarm your opponent with tokens, et cetera. A control deck lacks this proactive strategy – it seeks simply to not lose long enough to win the game.
So, control decks are reactive. The definition seems simple enough, but there are many ways of achieving this “not losing the game” goal. Many decks are what I call “soft control” decks – they employ control elements as part of their win strategy, but don’t actively seek to dictate what is allowed to enter and/or stay on the battlefield. Pillow Fort is a perfect example (and one I will cover in detail at a later date.) Pillow Fort decks seek to put up as many defensive and deterrent measures as they can to stay alive. While they certainly employ control elements, they don’t seek to control the battlefield – just keep themselves quarantined from it long enough to employ their win condition.
What I will cover in this Archetype Analysis is what I call “hard control” decks. These decks seek to control the pace of the game through the use of various measures and mold the game state to their greatest advantage (or least detriment).
ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1. This archetype controls the pace of the game, and keeps it honest. Without a control deck at the table, combo decks are free to ignore the other players while they dig for their combo pieces, knowing that the disruption they face will be minimal. Ramp decks can throw out ten pieces of land by turn five and put un-answerable creatures into play, thus running over the table. Aggro decks can dump their entire hand onto the table and run over decks that aren’t prepared for it, because they’re not afraid of losing those creatures and stalling out.
If, however, there is a control deck at the table, then the situation becomes far more complicated, and each player is forced to take into consideration your hand size and untapped lands. That ramp deck waits to cast Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre until you’re tapped out and unable to counter it. The combo deck waits to go off until its player has a reasonable ability to protect the combo. Players with even a modicum of skill realize not to cast any creatures they can’t afford to lose, or spells they can’t afford to be countered.
2. Control is very hard to disrupt. Because you don’t have a proactive plan for winning, you can focus on what the rest of the table is doing, knowing that their ability to disrupt your game plan is very limited until you decide it’s time to start winning. Even with multiple control decks at the table, those players probably aren’t going to get in each other’s way much, until the win conditions start coming out.
3. Control is strong in the late game. If you can stay alive and control the board in the early game, you are in a very strong position in the late game. Other decks are racing each other to see who can accomplish their victory condition first. Control decks, on the other hand, sit back and play a war of attrition – and these decks are built to ensure that they will win the card advantage fight. If you’ve played your deck well, then in the late game your opponents will be in topdeck mode while you have a full hand – giving you massive advantage.
4. Control is fun for players who enjoy the political aspect of multiplayer games. Because your deck has the ability to interact with your opponents’ decks at a maximum level, this gives you leverage. You get to decide what spells get countered and which ones don’t. Which creatures live and which die. On what turn the sweeper you’ve had in your hand since turn one actually gets played. This gives you the power to make threats, seek deals and alliances, and send your opponents at each other’s necks so they do your dirty work for you.
5. Control is a versatile archetype. Because it has so many means of controlling the zones of the game, and its lack of an inherent win strategy, you get to pick whatever win conditions suit your fancy (within your colors). Unlike other archetypes, control is not beholden to its general for anything other than color identity, so you can choose a general for any reason you want. Most control players choose a general that helps them out as a win condition, some choose those that give them even more control options, and some use the opportunity to play a “useless” general they like the art/flavor of.
DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1. Control requires a high level of skill to pilot effectively. Control is not an easy archetype to play in a one-on-one matchup, and becomes even more difficult in a multiplayer matchup. Simply put, you can’t counter, destroy, bounce, or discard every threat that enters the stack or battlefield. You have to constantly assess your own ability to react to threats, and gauge the threat level of the spells your opponents are attempting to utilize. Doing so effectively requires a strong knowledge base in order to evaluate whether a particular card is part of a combo, or presents a serious threat to you. Likewise, because your own resources are limited, you have to judge whether to use a counterspell on one particular player’s turn, thus leaving you tapped out for other players to put their plans into motion unmolested. Every time the board changes, you must reassess it. This is NOT an archetype for newer players, or less-confident ones.
2. Many (especially newer) players do not see Control as a fun archetype to play against. As I discussed in item #1 of the Advantages section, the presence of at least one control deck at the table serves to keep at bay the worst excesses of the format. However, it becomes difficult to remember that when you’ve been sitting at a table for twenty minutes and have never had the opportunity to attack, because the control player has singled you out to counter your spells and destroy your creatures. This is another reason for this archetype not to be piloted by inexperienced players – if the players at your table aren’t having fun because you’re there, then you probably won’t find yourself playing very many games with them. This does NOT mean that you have to let the player packing The Mimeoplasm have zero resistance when he creates a copy of Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon with 8 +1/+1 counters on turn five. Far from it – that kind of situation is where a control player proves his value to the table. However, if you’re keeping players at the table from playing their decks in any meaningful way, then you are creating a negative play experience. It’s a difficult balance to maintain – and it isn’t for everyone.
3. The power level of your deck decreases as the number of players at the table increases. You only have so many cards to cast and lands to tap. Against one opponent, it’s difficult to keep up the war of attrition by answering every one of his/her threats – but far from impossible. Add a third player, and now your limited reaction power is stretched thinner. Once the fourth and fifth players show up, you’re starting to look at a lost cause, and have to save your best reactionary spells for the most dangerous threats. Meanwhile, the battlefield is being developed outside of your control. One can still win five-player games with a control deck, but doing so is much more difficult.
4. Your color options are somewhat limited. Blue, White, and Black are your best friends when you’re playing control. Green has very limited control options – practically no sweepers, its primary means of dealing with creatures is the Fight mechanic, and its draw mechanics are slim, so you will struggle for card advantage. Red is slightly better than green, though its primary means of control is land destruction (particularly recurring and mass land destruction), which is heavily frowned-upon in most Commander play groups.
BUILDING AND PLAYING CONTROL
There are four elements to consider when building a control deck: limiting your opponents’ options, destroying opponents’ permanents, card advantage, and win condition. Of these, win condition is the easiest – it’s whatever your colors can support. You will be seeking to put your win condition down in the late game, when your opponents have been weakened (if you’ve been doing your job right). By this point, you should have either drawn into your wincon pieces, or can tutor for them. Many control decks implement an infinite combo, of which their general is a piece. Others employ a general with evasion or high power to do 21 combat damage. I recall one control deck that waited until it could produce a large amount of mana to fuel a kill spell like Comet Storm. There isn’t really a wrong answer here, so go with whatever tickles your fancy, and don’t spend more than 10 card slots in the deck pursuing it.
Card advantage comes primarily from card-draw effects like Mind’s Eye, but can also come from high-efficiency cards. Hex, for example, destroys six creatures for the cost of one card. Most sweepers fall into this category when used properly.
The following are various means of controlling the game:
Sweepers: Because of their high efficiency value, it is accepted that most Commander decks keep a couple sweepers in their 99 cards, like Day of Judgment. Expect control decks to have far more than a few. Sweepers are how Control decks come back from behind in the early-mid game, and how they keep the board clean in the mid-late game. You should probably have no less than five of these in your control deck, unless you’re some kind of genius pioneering mono-green control. Sweepers are also important for eliminating creatures with Hexproof and Shroud.
Counterspells: Counterspells interact with your opponent’s spells on the stack, and are the near-exclusive domain of blue magic. Nothing makes an opponent think twice before casting like having a couple islands untapped. If you have blue in your color identity, you should definitely have at least a couple.
Spot Removal: You don’t want to cast Akroma’s Vengeance just to get rid of one or two problematic creatures or artifacts. For situations like these, targeted destruction effects are called for. Given their popularity in the format, it never hurts to have artifact destruction (bonus points if you can use it more than once, like Ancient Grudge). The best spot removal spells, however, are the ones that can destroy more than one type of permanent.
Discard: If you’re unable to interact with your opponent’s spells on the stack, then you can make sure they’re never able to cast them in the first place by knocking them out of their hands. Though it is a “weaker” form of control than counterspells, it can become its own win condition through support cards like Quest for the Nihil Stone, Megrim, Liliana’s Caress, The Rack, Geth’s Grimoire, Painful Quandary, and Iron Maiden. If you can get into play a card that sends discarded cards into the exile zone, like Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void, hand destruction becomes very powerful.
Sacrifice Effects: Many token decks and sacrifice/recur decks lock down the board though the use of cards like Grave Pact, Attrition, and World Queller. Sacrifice effects are necessary to deal with Indestructible permanents. All is Dust is a powerful sweeper because its effect is a sacrifice effect. Barter in Blood is worth considering in this format because of all the Hexproof and Indestructible creatures that can hit the board. Killing Wave is another strong sacrifice effect.
Land Destruction: The primary domain of red magic, every control deck should consider packing some degree of targeted land destruction to deal with powerful lands like Vault of the Archangel and Kessig Wolf Run. Just be very careful before sleeving up mass land destruction like Armageddon and Devastation. There is a (very small) place for mass land destruction in the Commander format, but it is never to be used lightly.
Prison Effects: Prison effects are about changing the rules of the game so that your opponents can’t do what they want to do. Stranglehold, for example, prevents your opponents from searching their libraries (no tutors or fetch lands!) and taking extra turns. Linvala, Keeper of Silence keeps your opponents from activating the abilities of their creatures. This category also includes “taxation” effects that make it more expensive for opponents to do things. Aura of Silence makes artifacts and enchantments more expensive to play. Grand Arbiter Augstin IV makes all your opponents spells cost more to play. There is an archetype which aims to lock the board down with resource denial spells like our prison and tax effects, but for the purposes of this article, our aim is to control the board, not prevent anything from happening to it. For “hard control” decks, definitely consider including these type of cards to curb the worst excesses of the format – but don’t seek to completely prevent your opponents from playing their decks outright.
Tuck Effects: Your opponents’ generals will become a menace if allowed to keep returning to the command zone, and you can’t counter them forever. The solution to this problem is to shuffle them back into the library, though effects like Terminus, Spell Crumple, Condemn, Spin into Myth, Chaos Warp, and Bant Charm. If you are in colors that can run them, you should definitely consider including a couple in your deck.
Devaluation: Sometimes, the best course of action is to allow your opponents to let their permanents hit the battlefield, and then turn them into non-threats. Humility is the king of creature devaluation, and Blood Moon rules over land devaluation. Stony Silence shuts up artifacts. Torpor Orb removes the value from value creatures. Glaring Spotlight lets you ignore Hexproof. There are many example of devaluation cards, and all are strong inclusions in a control deck.
CHOOSING A CONTROL GENERAL
As with most archetypes, the most important aspect of your general is its color identity. You should have solid options with any general who isn’t mono-green, but the “best” color combination for control is Esper (White-Blue-Black.) As long as you have at least one of these colors in your identity, though, you should have plenty of control options.
Though certainly not required, having your general incorporated into at least one win condition will make piloting a control deck easier. Here are a few popular Control generals:
Sen Triplets: The triplets are a very strong choice for general, being in the Esper colors. What puts them over the top is their ability to give you a degree of protection against other control decks. During your turn, your general locks down a player, making them unable to cast spells during your turn (like counterspells and destruction). A skilled Sen Triplets player can weaken his control-playing adversaries by using their own removal against them (and other players). Then, once their competition is weakened, they can rip the win conditions right out of the hand of players who share a color and use them.
Child of Alara: This general gives you access to the control spells of all five colors (and simultaneously presents the challenge of the five color mana base). Her ability means that you have a sweeper available from the Command zone whenever you need it (and have the mana to pay for it).
Thraximundar: He gives you access to the Grixis colors (Blue, Black and Red), and wants to utilize sacrifice effects to great effect though the abuse of spells like Grave Pact and Anowan, the Ruin Sage. If you’re controlling the board well, then you’ll get up to 21 general damage in no time.
Sharuum the Hegemon: This general is capable of being played in so many different archetypes it’s crazy. She’s best known for Combo and/or Artifacts, but she’s also strong in Reanimator, Ramp, Voltron, and yes, Control. Of the “generals who are part of a combo” that you can select for your Control general, she’s at the top of the list. She’s in Esper colors, and can fetch important control pieces like Oblivion Stone and Smokestack out of your graveyard. To say nothing of the combo debauchery she is capable of, if you’re into that sort of thing for your win condition.
Wrexial, the Risen Deep: Wrexial gives you access to blue and black, and a very powerful general ability. If you’re looking to attack your opponents’ libraries (looking towards either Mill or Reanimation as your win condition) then this is a general you should strongly consider. Adding more Memory Plunder-type effects allows you to turn your opponents’ decks against them. What makes him so good is that, every time your opponents want to cast an Instant or Sorcery, not only do they have to worry that it will be countered, but that at a later time it will be used against them. He’s just a solid control general with many wincon options.
Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter: Vish Kal does a little bit of everything as Control general. He gives you access to black and white, wants you to run sacrifice and recursion effects, comes with a form of removal, can get up to 21 damage quickly… and he is downright unfair when paired with Horobi, Death’s Wail.
Grand Arbiter Augustin IV: Augustin is the patron saint of Taxation decks, which slow your opponents down by making their spells cost more to cast. The benefit of Augustin to a control deck is the increase in casting cost efficiency he gives you, in addition to the access he gives you to blue and white.
Gaddock Teeg: Teeg is traditionally a Prison-style Commander, but is also a strong choice for Control because of his immediate impact in the early game, making your job as controller easier.
Once again, though… Control decks are less beholden to their generals than other archetypes. If you don’t need your general to help you out as part of a win condition, go ahead and show off your style by running Sivitri Scarzam just because you like her art (which is awesome, no doubt.)
SAMPLE DECK: MONO BLUE CONTROL
Old-School Mono Blue Control
1 Talrand, Sky Summoner
1 All is Dust
1 Devastation Tide
1 Wash Out
1 Time Warp
1 Time Spiral
1 Merchant Scroll
1 Recurring Insight
This deck is an old-school “draw-go” style mono blue control deck. Older players will recognize the Urza’s Cycle “free spells” in the deck that untap lands when they come into play, so you can have some board presence while still having lands untapped for dirty work during your opponents’ turns.
I chose Talrand, Sky Summoner for the general to give the deck a somewhat more proactive game plan. Classic draw-go gets very boring after a while, because you’re not advancing your own goals, just trying to stay alive. Having Talrand in play during the mid-game allows you to advance your own board state with 2/2 flying Drake tokens, just by doing what you already should be to control the game – casting instants and sorceries. If you control the game very well, then you will have a sizable swarm of flyers with which to attack. If you’re not doing so well, then you have chump-blockers to defend with until you CAN stabilize and regain control.
In addition to the drake tokens, there are a couple combos available to you as win conditions. Palinchron and Caged Sun together are capable of generating infinite mana, with which you can turn an X-Draw spell like Stroke of Genius or Blue Sun’s Zenith into a kill-spell, old-school style. The deck is also capable of taking infinite turns by recurring Time Warp, using either Mnemonic Wall or Archaeomancer, enchanted with Followed Footsteps.
There are also spells in the deck capable of stealing your opponents’ nastiest creature and using it against them. And sometimes? Well, sometimes you just need to hit people in the face with Kederekt Leviathan. Whatever works.
The biggest control measure this deck possesses is Counterspells, as is normal for a draw-go style deck. While you might think this is weak in multiplayer, it slows down the game and gives you political leverage because EVERYONE is eyeing your untapped islands. The player to your left is the first one who has to decide whether or not to play the “is this spell getting countered” game. Inevitably, this player will begin to question why he should draw out your countermagic when his/her other opponents don’t have to. This line of thought will continue until you reach the player on your right, who has the responsibility of ridding you of your countermagic thrust upon them. They don’t want that responsibility either! So, everyone at the table plays a tighter game, which slows the pace and suits you just fine.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the entire table gangs up on you. This is always a possibility for ANY multiplayer game, and many times it’s just not fun to have this happen. However, when you’re packing nearly 20 counterspells in your decks and several other control options, you get to make it clear to the table there is a price to be paid for allying against you. Sure, you can’t stop the entire table – but you sure as heck can stop one of them! That player, facing the full brunt of your control spells, will be in no position to fight back against his/her current allies once you’re taken out of the game. So, either the alliance against you breaks, or you get to decide who’s going down with you. It’s a better position to be in than most players are when faced with a table allied against them.
Spot removal is somewhat light, being in mono-blue, and is restricted to Pongify and Rapid Hybridization. There are a few targeted bounce effects (like the awesome Capsize) to deal with creatures that are immediately threatening you, but this isn’t where the deck derives its power. It wants to beat your opponents on the stack with counterspells, or sweep the board if your opponents get aggressive.