Welcome to the fifth and final installment of Bolt the Bird’s series on competitive deck building! Our final topic will be how to build a competitive control deck. If you missed the previous articles in the series you can find them here:
- How to Build a Competitive MTG Deck Part One: Aggro
- How to Build a Competitive MTG Deck Part Two: Tempo
- How to Build a Competitive MTG Deck Part Three: Midrange
- How to Build a Competitive MTG Deck Part Four: Combo
Reviewing the Basics
Playing more than 60 cards hurts your consistency and the chances of drawing the cards you want. The only reason to ever deviate from 60 cards is if you are playing Yorion as a companion.
Your deck should also have a clear plan. As implied by the name, a control deck’s primary goal is to control the game. A properly designed control deck will also have more inevitability than other decks. If the control deck is able to successfully drag the game out long enough by controlling the opponent, their superior inevitability should ensure an eventual victory. For more on the concept of inevitability see here: Understanding the concept of going over or under other decks.
Your cards should all work together toward a goal and further your deck’s plan of staying alive and then dominating the late game with more powerful threats and better draws. For control decks, your cards should all work toward controlling the opponent, keeping you alive, and ensuring that your deck has strong inevitability. Control decks are not looking to play small aggressive creatures, for example. Control decks are reactive far more than proactive.
Next, you need to ensure you have a solid mana base with enough mana sources of the correct color. A great place to start is referencing Frank Karsten’s 2022 updated article about crafting the perfect manabase.
You also need to have a solid mana curve. Control decks often tend to have a noticeably higher mana curve than most other decks because they want to play a long game. So it makes sense you would want to run some high mana value cards. That said, you need to ensure you have enough early plays that you can successfully survive the early game. Too greedy or clunky of a deck will get you run over.
How to Build a Competitive MTG Control Deck
We’ve covered the basics, but what separates a competitive control deck from a janky one? Here’s what you need to know.
Control decks typically play a higher curve than other decks and, therefore, will usually want to run a relatively high land count. Control decks tend to run anywhere from 25-29 lands. Hitting your land drops is very important for control, so don’t skimp on lands or other mana sources. It’s tempting to jam in more spells at the cost of cutting lands. But this is a mistake seasoned control players know to avoid.
As control wants to play a slower and longer game, a handful of lands that come into play tapped may be worth running If they offer some benefit. A good current example in Standard would be the Triomes.
In addition to considering tapped lands, many control decks will try to get additional value from their lands by using lands that can provide some additional utility. Lands such as Blast Zone can help deal with troublesome permanents and Demolition Field keeps you safe from creature lands and other problematic lands. Cards like Mirrex or Hall of Storm Giants can be run as a win-con for the deck or a control mirror breaker.
Refining Your Plan
Broadly speaking, there are a couple of different approaches you can take when building a control deck. The two main styles are draw-go control and tapout control.
Draw-go gets its name from the typical play pattern of the deck: draw for the turn, play a land, then say go (pass the turn). These decks operate primarily at instant speed. The plan is to keep mana open for counterspells or other interaction and to only make a move at the end of your opponent’s turn if they haven’t played something you need to counter. Playing countermagic allows draw-go to drag the game out without having to worry about the opponent top-decking some game-winning bomb.
Within draw-go, there are even more distinctions to make. You need to decide if your deck will run a win condition. Most draw-go decks plan on eventually turning the corner and killing their opponent, but there is an especially hated type of draw-go deck referred to as win-conless control that doesn’t actively try to kill the opponent. The name, however, is a bit of a misnomer because win-conless control does technically have a win-con. The idea is to run a handful of cards that allow you to recycle cards back into your deck (typically from your graveyard) so that it is impossible for you to deck yourself. Then you proceed to completely and utterly lock your opponent out of the game with a combination of permission, card advantage, or resource denial, and just sit back and wait until the opponent dies by naturally drawing out their whole deck (or being forced to mill) and decking themselves. Think Lantern Control in Modern. The majority of opponents will realize that they are completely locked out and quit before actually decking themselves, but that is technically the win-con of the deck.
One thing to keep in mind is that it’s not always possible to build lockout/winconless control depending on what tools you have access to. The last time a true wincon-less control deck was strong in Standard was when Teferi, Hero of Dominaria was legal.
Tapout control is a style of control deck where you tap out (of mana) on your own turn far more often than you would with a draw-go deck. Rather than relying so much on counterspells, draw-go tends to rely on extremely strong sorceries and permanents to control the game. Stax or Prison-style decks, for example, would be a subtype of tapout control. You may want to consider playing tapout control if the format you play has access to extremely strong sorcery speed spells and permanents that are good at controlling the game. Think cards like Farewell and closers like Breach the Multiverse. You should keep in mind, though, that it is much harder to completely lock down and control the late game without counterspells. Therefore, tapout control is often much more concerned with turning the corner and closing out the game than draw-go tends to be.
Cards to Play in an MTG Control Deck
Spot Removal – Targeted permanent removal is an important part of a good control deck. It’s often not possible to counter every single play your opponent makes. Spot removal helps clean up threats that your opponent might manage to slip past your countermagic or threats that can be easily answered and aren’t worth wasting a counterspell on. Things to look for in your removal would be:
- Versatility is strongly desirable in a removal spell. Narrow cards run the risk of sitting in your hand unplayable while your opponent beats you to death with something your removal spell can’t hit. (Narrow hate cards can sometimes be worth using after sideboarding, though).
- Strong, “playable” removal spells (or counterspells) that also incidentally happen to gain you life can help keep you alive.
- Instant speed removal is superior to sorcery speed for keeping your options open.
- Exile-based removal tends to be the strongest as it gets around indestructible, death triggers, recursion, etc. Effects that give -x/x tend to be good too.
- In a format with lots of small creatures red-based damage spells might be your best option as they are usually cheaply costed and instant speed
- In a format where creatures with big butts are prevalent you’ll likely want to lean more on Doom Blade type removal or exile effects.
Board Sweepers – Some decks flood the board more quickly than you can use your spot removal, or with more creatures than you have removal to use. Board wipes let you catch up and reset the game. Playing a sweeper that nets you an additional advantage like Sunfall, for example, can be very strong.
Counterspells – An important component for many control decks is a clean way to answer problems that would otherwise be impossible to cleanly answer. They really help the control deck to actually take control of the game.
Card draw and other forms of Card Advantage – Spells that give you card advantage let you win the long game. If you end up with more resources than your opponent then you are favored to win.
Prison effects – Cards like Ensnaring Bridge can sometimes be an effective tool for control decks to dictate the pace of the game. One of the potential downsides of using this approach is that prisons can be vulnerable to removal where instant and sorcery based answers are not.
Card selection – Sources of card selection can provide a form of virtual card advantage by allowing you to loot away dead cards and dig for answers you need. The Celestus is a good example for Standard. (Plus it ramps too!)
Discard spells – Are strongest versus other control decks and some midrange decks. They tend to be rather weak versus aggro. For this reason, discard is often kept to a minimum or not included at all in the main deck and brought in after sideboarding. This can be meta dependent, though.
Win conditions – If you’re playing a deck that wants to turn the corner (most control decks ultimately do), you need something that allows you to finally kill your opponent once you’ve established control of the game. Types of things you can use as a finisher:
- A powerful creature. The best creature-based finishers for control will likely have attributes like flash, uncounterable, or being extremely resilient to opposing removal. Although it has fallen out of favor lately, Hullbreaker Horror is a good example.
- Tokens from a land like Mirrex or Castle Ardenvale, or from a planeswalker like The Wandering Emperor.
- Creature lands like Hall of Storm Giants
- A burn finish (x damage spell to the face for 20) this tends to be a less common method but can still be viable.
- A combo finish.
- Mill them with cards like Jace, the Perfected Mind.
Planeswalkers – Offer a form of turn-after-turn cascading value and help ensure inevitability by accruing this value. Planeswalkers that affect the boardstate in some way tend to be best, and planeswalkers that can act as a defensive measure but can then eventually help you turn the corner and win the game are very strong as well. The Wandering Emperor is a current good example. Instant speed exile based removal that incidentally gains life attached to a planeswalker that then creates board presence and can eventually win you the game.
On Creatures in Control Decks
Control often runs very few or even no creatures. If a control deck does play creatures they will typically be finishers, or smaller creatures that help you stay alive or generate card advantage.
One of the benefits to running no creatures at all is that it blanks opposing decks’ removal spells. Causing all of your opponent’s removal spells to be dead draws and sit useless in their hand can act as a form of virtual card advantage. Running no creatures also has the additional benefit of making your board sweepers more asymmetrical; you gain more of an advantage if you lose nothing to the sweeper. Finally, running no creatures main deck can allow you to throw your opponent off by adding a few creatures to your deck post-sideboarding. If your opponent has cut most of the removal from their deck for game two, they may have a hard time answering your creature.
When building and tuning your control deck one of the keys to success is finding the right balance in how many sources of card advantage you run versus how much interaction you run. Spin your wheels too much and you die, too little card advantage puts you at risk of not being able to take control in the late game.
Consider the Meta
As always, you need to be careful about falling into the trap of only considering your deck in a vacuum.
First of all, you need to consider if control is even worth building in your format. In Standard, for example, control (or certain types of control) is sometimes not viable as an archetype when it lacks the tools it needs to stay in control of the game. The answers in a format need to be strong and versatile for control to be good. Having access to good, playable counterspells helps too.
Supposing you do have the tools to build a competitive control deck, you should also consider how well positioned your deck will be in the meta. Control tends to be weak versus aggro and tempo decks, while usually being good versus midrange and combo. This is a general rule of thumb, and there can always be exceptions.
A big problem for control decks’ viability can be in a format where midrange decks are capable of outvaluing the control deck and grinding them out. A good example of when this happened was when Temur Clover decks were able to grind out control in Standard a few years ago or how decks with Fable of the Mirror-Breaker did the same more recently.
You also need to take into consideration how your control deck matches up versus other control decks. You don’t want to be the control deck that loses to other control. Cheap countermagic, instant speed threats, discard spells, mana generation, planeswalkers, and sources of card advantage are the most important cards in a control matchup.
How to build your control deck is very largely influenced by what the meta looks like. Your answers need to line up well with what people are doing. Control can be difficult to build right at the beginning of a new format because there isn’t an established meta yet. No established meta makes it hard to know what to tech against and what answers you should be running. Control is by nature the most reactive of deck types, so it helps to know what you’re reacting to.
Priorities for Control Decks
When brewing, keep in mind that a control deck’s priorities are:
- Control the game (AKA don’t die)
- Generate card advantage / ensure inevitability
- Win the game
Control decks will want to prioritize staying in control of the game and generating card advantage/inevitability as its main priorities. Winning comes in a way distant third as far as priorities go and is almost an afterthought. Stay in control of the game, and a win will come eventually.
Applying Control Deckbuilding Principles
I typically like to wrap these articles up by highlighting a competitive deck for the archetype in question. Today I’d like to highlight Standard Esper Control:
Esper is a strong deck because it follows the deck-building principles for a good control deck. It uses the strongest spot removal, board wipes, and countermagic available in standard to control the game, and uses one of the strongest planeswalkers in standard as well as the best card draw spells in standard to pull ahead and dominate the late game.
Disdainful Stroke, Negate, and Make Disappear are the best 2 mana counterspells in Standard.
Dissipate acts as a dependable hard counter
Cut Down and Go for the Throat are efficiently costed, instant speed, and some of the best removal spells in Standard.
Void Rend and Sheoldred’s Edict are both excellent not only for being instants, but for their versatility as well.
Memory Deluge, Siphon Insight, and Silver Scrutiny are some of the best card draw spells in Standard.
The Celestus ramps, gains life, and provides card filtering as well.
Farewell is a super versatile exile-based sweeper
Sunfall is an exile-based sweeper that nets you a useful incubator token.
Sunset Revelry is a bit of anti-aggro tech
The Wandering Emperor is one of the best planeswalkers in standard. It keeps you alive and can then win you the game!
And one very last thought regarding Esper control is that Wilds of Eldraine brings some new tools that look like they are worth testing in the deck:
Virtue of Persistence is a removal spell with incidental life gain that can eventually turn into a win-con.
Horned Loch-Whale is another “removal” spell that turns into a win-con later in the game.
Restless Fortress also looks like it should be a welcome addition to the deck.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for today! Control decks can be a ton of fun to play and can be very competitive when piloted well in the right meta. With a little practice, and by following the principles in the above guide, I’m confident you can brew a great control deck!
Thanks for reading and happy brewing.