If you’ve been playing Magic for a while, you’ve probably heard the term “control deck” thrown around from time to time. But what exactly is a control deck, and how do you build one?
Whether you’re a beginner looking to expand your knowledge about the game or a veteran player who wants to fine-tune their control deck, read on! I’ll be going over what makes control decks so powerful, how to build one, and what kind of plays you should make once you’ve actually put your own control deck together.
What is a Control Deck?
Control decks are reactive decks, choosing to answer their opponent’s threats rather than create threats of their own. A typical control deck will play a lot of board wipes, removal spells, and counterspells, but aren’t limited to those tools to control the game.
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How Do Control Decks Win?
Of course, a control deck that is 100% reactive would be great at not losing, but eventually, it has to win, right?
When playing so many answers to their opponent’s threats, control decks have little space to play threats of their own. Sometimes, control players will need to be creative when turning their reactive cards in proactive ones. Take Jace, the Mind Sculptor for example:
Jace’s first three abilities are great at controlling the board and gaining incremental advantages. But they’re mostly reactive abilities, and while they help you stave off defeat, they don’t actually bring you closer to victory. That’s where Jace’s fourth ability comes in. After you activate that final ability, your opponent will only have a few turns before they run out of cards and lose the game.
Control decks also like playing creature lands, like this one:
Because this proactive creature is also a land, it doesn’t take up the valuable deck space reserved for board wipes, removal spells, and counterspells. That way, the control player can answer the opponent’s plays, wait until the coast is clear, then attack with their creature land over the course of several turns.
How Do You Play a Control Deck?
Control decks are tricky to play, and not always intuitive. This is because control decks are reactive decks (as opposed to proactive ones), therefore you have to focus on your opponent’s gameplan more than anything else. In order to succeed, you must understand what your opponent’s strategy and know how to stop it with the cards you are given.
Aggro vs Control
An aggro deck will try to win the game as fast as possible by attacking early with creatures. As a control deck, you want to do everything in your power to keep as few creatures on the battlefield as possible. Sometimes, you won’t have enough removal spells to destroy every single one of your opponent’s creatures, which is why board clears come in handy. To turn the tide in your favor, you can use card draw spells to gain card advantage and generate value by putting planeswalkers onto the battlefield and protecting them.
Midrange vs Control
Midrange decks will want to win the game with value. To stop them from achieving this, you need to save your counterspells for their most valuable cards (such as planeswalkers), even if that means letting less valuable cards resolve, such as smaller creatures. If you try answering a midrange deck’s threats on a one-for-one basis, chances are they will outvalue you and win the game that way. Knowing what cards to stop and what cards to let through is a skill you’ll develop over time.
Combo vs Control
Against combo decks, all you have to do is stop key combo pieces. As long as you always have a counterspell or two at the ready, you should be safe. The rest of the game is about gaining incremental advantages with your planeswalkers and other cards.
Control vs Control
Finally, if you’re playing against another control deck, your goal is to make your big threats (like your planeswalkers) resolve without letting your opponents play threats of their own. That might mean waiting a few extra turns so you can play a planeswalker and a counterspell in the same turn. Generally speaking, whoever plays their planeswalker first without letting it be countered will gain a significant advantage and usually win the game.
Pro tip: If an opponent counters your planeswalker (or any other card, for that matter), you can counter their counterspell! This is why counterspells like Dovin’s Veto are so powerful; they can’t be countered and thus act as the final word in a counterspell battle.)
How to Build a Control Deck
In my How to Build an MTG Deck guide, I broke down Magic decks into four categories: aggro, control, midrange, and combo. “Control” is a broad category used to encompass many types of MTG decks. That being said, they all share some things in common.
How Many Creatures Should a Control Deck Have?
A control deck might play anywhere between 0 and 12 creatures, depending on how reactive they want to be.
However, this doesn’t mean that a control deck should insert a bunch of random creatures and call it a day. Creatures in control decks tend to help their primary gameplan of staving off the opponent’s threats. Consider the following two cards:
Both of these cards have excellent abilities when they enter the battlefield. Solitude can remove an opponent’s creature (sometimes without even paying mana!) and Snapcaster Mage lets you reuse a spell from your graveyard, whether that’s a removal spell, counterspell, or board wipe.
Sometimes, a great control deck creature might look like this:
What makes Baleful Strix so good in control? Well, it has flying and deathtouch, meaning it can block just about any creature and destroy it. Plus, it draws you a card, which is always useful since control players like having lots of cards so that they always have an answer for whatever their opponent throws at them.
In general, try to limit the number of creatures you play in a control deck. The creatures you do play should in some way help prolong the game while providing some sort of advantage.
How Many Lands Should a Control Deck Have?
With 60-card decks, aggro, midrange, and combo decks will usually run anywhere between 20 and 24 lands. Control decks can go a bit higher, often settling in the 25-26 land range.
Because playing a land every turn is part of how control decks gain incremental advantages. With enough lands in play, control decks can play proactively and reactively at the same time.
Having a lot of lands in play allows a control deck to play a planeswalker and a counterspell in the same turn, or a board wipe and a counterspell in the same turn. It also lets them activate their creature lands such as Hall of Storm Giants while still having enough mana to react to threats the opponent may play.
What is the Best Control Deck in MTG?
The best control decks in MTG are generally blue-white control decks. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, especially since it can depend on what format you’re playing, but if you aren’t sure what colors to play, blue-white is generally the way to go.
Almost every single control deck in MTG uses blue because that’s where all the counterspells are. Counterspells are a key tool to stopping an opponent’s threats, so if you’re building your own control deck, make sure you’re playing blue cards.
However, blue decks aren’t very good at removing cards (creatures in particular) that are already on the battlefield. This is where the white cards come in. White has some of the most powerful removal spells out there, such as Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares, and March of Otherworldly Light. White also has some of the best board wipes in Wrath of God and Day of Judgement.
Some control decks might even play a third color, usually red. While red’s removal spells (Lightning Bolt, Anger of the Gods, etc.) might not be as powerful as some of white’s, they’re often more efficient and versatile. This comes in handy against fast aggro decks, since red cards might be able to compete with their speed while white cards might not.
The other color you’ll most often see in control is black. Black has access to nifty discard effects (Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, Hymn to Tourach) which are especially good at disassembling combos from combo decks. Black also has some great removal spells in Go for the Throat and Doom Blade.
Overall, you’re generally best off running a blue control deck with some white cards to deal with threats. Red and black each make good third colors depending on what kinds of decks (aggro, midrange, combo) you’re most likely to face.
Unconventional Control Decks
This section is all about control decks that don’t fit the typical format of board wipes, counterspells, and removal spells. You might be surprised at what kind of unique ways players have come up with to control a game of Magic.
Ponza is a deck that controls the game by limiting the number of lands its opponent can play. It does this by destroying lands with Stone Rain, Molten Rain, and similar cards while developing its own board presence. By the time the opponent can regain its footing, the Ponza deck will have too much of an advantage and will finish the game by attacking with big creatures.
I think Lantern control is the most unique MTG deck of all time, not just for control decks. It functions by controlling the top card of the opponent’s library! Using Lantern of Insight to view the top card of each player’s library, it can then use mill effects like Codex Shredder to mill any cards that may pose a danger to the deck. If the opponent’s about to draw a harmless card (such as a land), the Lantern control player will let it pass and only mill the important cards.
It then wins the game by, you guessed it, milling the opponent until they have no cards left in their library.
8-Rack is a dedicated discard control deck. With copies of Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, Wrench Mind, and more, it reduces the opponent’s hand to zero cards so that they can’t play any threats. To win, 8-Rack decks play The Rack and Shrieking Affliction to quickly reduce the opponent’s life total to zero.
Are Control Decks Good?
Control decks always tend to perform well, whether you’re playing a four-player game of Commander, a two-player game of Standard, and every imaginable format in between. This is because control decks are extremely versatile and can be fine-tuned to adjust to any decks they may face.
If creature decks happen to be the most popular deck at the moment, a control deck can always run a higher number of board clears while skimping a little on counterspells. If spell-heavy decks are more prevalent, board wipes may be less useful, and maybe a greater number of counterspells may be needed.
Control decks are good, but only if you build them according to what decks you may face. To further ensure that you’re prepared to face the most powerful decks out there, consider building a sideboard. Don’t know how to build a sideboard? Find out in our sideboard guide!
How to Beat a Control Deck
I love playing control decks, but I also understand that playing against them can be frustrating. Control decks always seem to have the answer for everything, no matter what cards you throw at them. Beating a control deck may depend on the deck you’re playing, but there are a few common pitfalls you should avoid.
You may be tempted to put as many creatures onto the battlefield as possible, but that isn’t always the smartest play. If you suspect that your opponent may have a board wipe in their hand (like Supreme Verdict), the best play might be to keep a few creatures in your hand and attack with what’s already there. That way, once your opponent does play their board wipe, you’ll have the cards necessary to rebuild your board.
Play Around Counterspells
It may also be tempting to play your best cards first and your worst cards last. Again, against a control deck, you might need to go against your instincts. If you play a super-duper powerful card right away (like a planeswalker), don’t be surprised if your opponent counters it. A way to get around this is to play a weaker card first (like a small creature). If your opponent counters it, great, that’s one less counterspell you have to worry about. If your opponent lets it resolve, also great! You can keep playing weaker cards (and attacking with them) until you’re absolutely sure the coast is clear.
If a control player plays one of their planeswalkers right away without having a way to protect it, you should almost always attack that planeswalker instead of the player itself. Otherwise, your control opponent will overwhelm you with cards and abilities, and pretty soon, you’ll be the one trying to answer threats, which is never a good sign. Deal with their planeswalker first, and then you can worry about reducing their life total.
Conclusion – MTG Control Decks: What They Are, How to Play + How to Build!
This should give you a good idea of what control decks are all about. With the fundamentals of how to build and play a control deck, maybe becoming a control player will be less daunting. But, no matter how much research you do on how many creatures to play, what kind of cards you should be playing to close out games, and all those other tips, the best way to become a good control player is through practice. So go out there, play your control deck, and have fun!
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