Happy/Miserable Election Day to all my US readers! Regardless of what actually happens tonight, the world is certainly ending for half of my readership. Before you celebrate or run off to join Jordan in Canada, I have some unfinished business to attend to. Two weeks ago I claimed that the problem with control wasn't that control was bad, but that it was misbuilt. Today I am going to explain that statement.
By complete coincidence, this is a rather timely piece. The finals of GP Dallas were a control deck versus a sort-of control deck. In fact, the winner, Kevin Mackie and his Skred Red deck, seem to have already picked up on a lot of what I'm going to say today. If true, bravo sir. You may be clairvoyant. I'd also like to point out that I mentioned Skred's power several months ago. No point to make, just shameless bragging.
I also want to give a shoutout to 12th place finisher Zane Houston. Zane frequents the same game shop I do and regularly demolishes my Merfolk with his Rock deck. Nice job getting a stream highlight and a Top 16! And especially nice job on doing so well with an interactive deck.
To summarize and paraphrase the opinions that I commonly hear, and those expressed in the comments of my first article on aggressive decks, Modern is too diverse and fast for a control deck to thrive. There are simply too many decks that attack from too many angles to for a deck to defend against. There are incredibly fast aggressive decks, decks that play creatures that scale, midrange decks, toolbox decks, fair combo decks, degenerate combo decks, and Dredge. Trying to have answers to all of those decks puts too much strain on your resources and the lack of a universal answer à la Counterspell leaves control players stretched too thin to survive.
The difficulty associated with answering every deck means that action is favored over reaction. The more time you take not trying to win, the more likely it is that your opponent will find what they need to win. You can't answer everything. In order to accommodate this reality, decks that want to take the control role have to play a midrange game of disrupt-and-interact so that they can drop their own threat and then ride it to victory. One problem with this is that if you're going midrange you're going to be up against Jund. And no deck has proven that they can be Jund as well as Jund. Thus the only viable path for those who don't like aggressive decks or combo is to play Jund or worse Jund.
I sympathize with this point of view. I really do. However, the time I've spent thinking about how Modern behaves and what decks constitute the metagame has changed my perspective.
How Players See Control
I think that when players approach control in Modern they are making two mistakes. One is a conceptual mistake about what it means to be control and the other is a perceptual mistake about Modern itself. I think that players have an unrealistic view of what it means to be control in Magic and they look at the Modern metagame incorrectly. From my perspective, the format is ripe for a correctly built control deck to succeed.
Based on conversations I've had about control and comments on the subject from many different sites, I believe that most players think of control in terms of Legacy Miracles. Decks that play entirely reactively, answer everything the opponent does, and win the game well after the opponent has lost. Their win condition is becoming undefeatable. This is not surprising, as early Magic was dominated by draw-go decks that did exactly that, to the point that Wizards has been leery of counterspells ever since. Ravinca-Theros Standard's Azorius Control is another excellent example. Decks like this aren't viable in Modern.
The problem I have is that if you define control in those terms you are disregarding the vast history of control decks. If you go back and do the history, that type of control deck has been far less prevalent than the control archetype as a whole. Midrange style control, commonly called tap-out control, and combo-control decks have a long and decorated history in Magic.
Toward the end of Affinity's time in Standard, mono-blue decks packing lots of counterspells began to gain metagame share. These decks spent the first few turns staying alive and then dropped Keiga, the Tide Star and took the initiative, tapping out every turn to overpower their opponent with their more powerful win conditions. The following Standard saw Gifts Ungiven control decks that won by tutoring up a recursion engine that they'd tap out for every turn. 5-Color control took the control role until it landed Broodmate Dragon and suddenly seized the initiative. Next-Level Blue did this in Extended. There's more to control than being an answer deck.
How I See Control
When I think about control, I think about decks with a large number of answers and a small number of threats. Each threat is not only capable of winning the game by itself, it can shape the game around itself. Once it's on the table, it becomes a must-answer threat and forces the opponent to yield the initiative. They cannot continue to pressure the control player because their win condition will kill them if left alone. How and when the threat is deployed is less important than how it changes the dynamic of the game.
I also believe that a real control deck should maximize its hard answers. Lightning Bolt is a good, efficient answer, but it's still a soft answer because it asks if the target has three toughness or less. When I'm playing control, I want my answers to ask only if they can target the threat. If they can, it's dead. Period. This is why I have long thought of Jeskai Control as a slow burn deck rather than a control deck. Control answers should be hard answers.
When I think about control, I see a deck that wants to deplete opposing resources and then force the opponent to answer it instead. True "control" like Miracles is unnecessary—its goal is to invalidate the opposing strategy. Therefore, I have no problem with the fact that draw-go isn't viable. What I don't like is for control decks to only masquerade as control decks. As much as possible, they should be decks with hard answers. This is one reason Jund does so much better than Jeskai.
How I see Modern
I see Modern with a lot of deck diversity, but not much archetype diversity. It is dominated by aggressive decks with a small number of midrange and combo decks. There may be a wide variety of decks that see play, but most will fall under some part of the aggressive deck banner as I've been discussing for the past few weeks. And all of these decks are vulnerable to hard answers.
I'll prove it. Open the Top Decks page in a new tab. Look at Tiers 1 and 2. Count the number of aggressive decks, fair decks, combo decks, and ramp decks. As I'm writing this article, I count eleven aggressive decks, three fair, one combo, and three ramp decks. I count Abzan Company as an aggressive deck, but I won't fault you if you count it as combo. Regardless, aggressive creature decks outnumber all the other decks combined. This is an aggressive format.
As a result, control decks can afford to focus on those creature decks and accept some weakness to the other archetypes because they're not likely to see them at all! You are far more likely to enter a field full of aggressive creatures than of Tron and Jund. I think that control players should just accept this reality and take advantage.
How Do I Approach the Problem?
I'll lead off by saying that Counterspell would not solve the problem that players believe control has in Modern. It would definitely induce more players to pick up the archetype, but it doesn't change the underlying reason that control decks struggle in Modern. Let me explain.
I don't see the lack of control decks in Modern as the result of control being bad in Modern. I see it as the result of control players stretching themselves too thinly and allowing themselves to become bad Jund. Because I see Modern as an aggro-dominated format, and because I understand statistics and can read the Top Decks page, I know that if you want to answer the format you do that by answering creatures. Not just small creatures, but any creature. I blame the focus on Lightning Bolt for Eldrazi's rise and Jeskai Control's downfall. Control struggles because they don't play the right answers to the metagame now, answers which do actually exist.
Because control decks need to answer creature decks, I believe that they need to actually answer them. Not hope that they hit the right answer at the right time but that any answer drawn anytime will do the job. Some may work better than others, but one of them should be a hard answer that cleanly one-for-ones any creature it targets.
I acknowledge the speed of the format and the ability of many decks to hemorrhage threats faster than you can answer them. This is why I also believe that control decks need some forgiveness built into them. They aren't required to keep up with aggressive decks exactly, just enough so that they survive to sweep the board and recover. Lifegain is also a good idea. I also dislike control decks that are vulnerable to hate. Auto-losing to Blood Moon or Rest in Peace is not where I want to be with a control deck.
Therefore, as I see it, the problem with control isn't control itself; it's players misunderstanding the metagame and subsequently misbuilding their control decks. They're casting too wide a net and their results are suffering.
"What if I hit a combo deck?" is the frequent whine I receive in response to this position. Players are deathly afraid of running into a deck that they cannot answer and just losing. This is behind the impulse to play proactive decks that pressure slower decks so that they don't just durdle around and lose. My reaction is always, "So what?" Combo is a very small portion of the metagame. Yes, you lose to Grishoalbrand. No, it doesn't matter because that deck isn't barely Tier 3 in most metagames.
Be realistic; the odds of hitting any combo deck is very low and The Fear they cause is entirely irrational. The combo deck you are most likely to see is Ad Nauseam, which is only 2.1% of the metagame as I write this sentence. The aggro decks just of Tier 1 constitute 36.6% of the total metagame. You are far more likely to be matched against aggressive decks than anything else. So stop worrying about other decks. That's what a sideboard is for.
Players that want to play control should play a control deck. Not a midrange deck, not a glorified burn deck. A deck that targets creatures with hard answers, has hard-to-answer threats that win the game, and has some forgiveness built in to compensate for a slow start. And I know that such a deck is viable in Modern. I lose to it frequently.
There are several players in my local metagame that regularly run a UW Control deck that matches my exacting standards. When I'm on Merfolk I have to get lucky to beat them. When they're running well, they dominate the normally aggressive metagame I play in. Jund is no worse than a coin flip for them and even Bant Eldrazi is beatable (when they don't get really broken Eldrazi Temple draws). If you want to run a real control deck, I think you should start with their example.
I don't have the lists they currently play available (nor would I post them if I did) but they look very similar to this list:
Now this is a control deck I can get behind. It is effectively pre-boarded against aggressive decks and leaves worrying about combo or control decks to the sideboard. It's a bit soft to Tron even with Crucible and Ghost Quarter, but you cannot be strong everywhere. You should pick your battles based on what you are most likely to see, and then prepare for eventualities. You may not beat everything reliably, but you can beat aggressive decks and Jund consistently. I know because I've seen it happen.
Go to War Against the Enemy You Know
I do not understand how players complain about Modern being overrun by aggressive decks, and turn around and complain that the format is too diverse and large to answer everything. If the format is as aggro-dominated as they claim, why not target those decks? If it really is as linear as they claim, then it should be fine to ignore the other archetypes.
The format cannot be simultaneously as narrow as they claim and too wide to respond to. I think that there are a lot of aggressive decks, and thus I see an opportunity for control decks. Narrow your focus and build according to the meta as it actually exists. I think you'll find control isn't that difficult to build.