Play Fundamentals: Playing Control Faster

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Magic: the Gathering is a very hard game with many moving pieces. One of the harder ways to play this game is to play a dedicated control deck. Where other decks are proactively developing their gameplans, the control deck is all about pushing back against opposing gameplans, dictating the flow of the game until they can take the reigns and win. As a result, there's a tendency for players to under-test their control deck and then play too slowly, agonizing over what to interact with and what to let slide.

As I mentioned months ago, playing faster and testing better are critical to success in Magic. I was quite vague at the time about how to do both when it came to control decks. The issue is that all that advice applied equally well to control as other archetypes. However, there's a perception about control that makes players more resistant to faster play, especially coupled with testing inadequacies and win condition choices that can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The General Problem

Control is the slow archetype. Aggro and combo are both interested in doing their thing and ending the game as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, control is about lengthening the game by preventing others from executing their plans. This necessarily means that control requires a lot of thought, patience, and decisions to play correctly; you want your games to go long, and long games have more turns, which means more decisions. Consequently, control players tend to play very slow deliberately, and feel perfectly justified doing so.

Unfortunately, that slow-deck concept is frequently used as a shield and justification for playing too slowly. In fact, some play so passively and defensively that they miss chances to win and end up with worse records than necessary. This in turn can lead them to abandon control as an archetype.

The Playtesting Problem

The first problem I see with players trying to play control decks is that they're inexperienced. Not just with playing a given matchup, but with the deck itself. This leads them to play slowly and poorly. As mentioned in the previous article on the subject, players already don't goldfish their decks enough. Suggesting that they goldfish a control deck frequently is met with scorn, if not outright derision. "How can you goldfish a control deck?" they will usually cry; "it's an interactive deck, and everything is contextual. You can't make plays without something to interact with or contextualize!"

No Excuses

I'm not moved by those excuses. Players must determine if their deck works. BEFORE they start playing actual games! This is true of every deck. It is particularly true of control decks, where every card slot is critical. Control decks have less forgiveness in their deck construction relative to aggro decks because there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers. Any creature that can attack can end the game, and so can never be completely dead. An answer that doesn't answer anything will always be dead.

Playtesting and goldfishing are far more important for control decks than other decks precisely because they're interactive decks. It is essential to iron out the kinks in testing because any inefficiency or poor choice will be amplified in-game. Control decks need to have the right answers at the right time and be able to cast them, which is a far more precarious strategy than playing creatures and attacking. Thus, they must find out if it works.

How to Goldfish a Control Deck

Everything I said about goldfishing other decks holds true for control. However, some questions from that article need to change when dealing with control decks. Here are the things to focus on when playing a control deck against nobody.

#1: Does the Mana Work?

The first reason to goldfish is to see if the mana works. This is true for all decks, even control decks. Goldfish the deck a few times to see if it can cast spells. However, for control decks, the principle should be modified to:

Does the mana work on time?

Missing an early land drop is always crippling for a deck's development. It can be fatal for control, as they fall behind and are overwhelmed. Control goldfishers need to ensure, first and foremost, that they aren't missing early land drops.

Additionally, control decks want more lands than most decks. Aggro rarely wants or needs more than 3-4 lands in a whole game. Control will need more to cast their top-end, and frequently wants as many as possible to cast as many spells as possible. How often will the deck hit the needed number of lands in the relevant time period? This is easy to find out in goldfishing.

#2: Does the deck do The Thing?

Finding out if the deck's strategy works or not is always important. Obviously, this will be hard for an interactive deck as there's nothing to interact with. So we'll modify the question to:

What can the deck interact with?

Take an opening hand. What sort of deck would it be good against? Play it out, imagining enemy plays, and see if that would continue to be true. Then ask if those decks are decks you'd be likely to face. At the same time, keep track of how long it takes for a given start to interact with other decks. A control deck that produces many hands that beat other control decks, but can't cough up removal against aggro, needs reevaluation.

Questions #3 and #4, How Quickly Does the Deck do The Thing? and Do I Know How to Do The Thing?, don't need to be altered for control.

#5: Is The Thing worthwhile to do?

It is always hard to evaluate whether or not a deck is doing something novel and good, or is just a worse version of an existing deck. This is true of all decks, even control decks. However, for control decks, there needs to be an addendum:

Is it possible to control the game?

Actually taking control of the game in the traditional sense is hard, and dependent on metagame and cardpool. The right mix of answers, card advantage, and win conditions may not exist at all in Standard, or be worse than all other option in older formats. Goldfishing will show if the deck is doing something powerful enough to work, or if the format is pushing towards a midrange strategy that just plays the control role in aggressive matchups.

Playtesting Control

Once goldfishing is done, then it's time for playtesting to determine actual viability. This is where a lot of players stumble, because they don't play enough test games with their control deck. Control decks are generally harder to play, and their games take longer. Therefore, players will get tired of playtesting a control deck more quickly than other decks (or, in fewer games), and may hastily decide whether control is either great or terrible.

This is a mistake. Control matchups are dictated by experience as much as the cards themselves, and over time, a matchup may shift based on familiarity. Often, the early success or failure of a control deck in testing comes down to inexperience with or against the deck. More matches are necessary to get that experience, and then find out how good the deck actually is.

Playing Control Faster

The other issue is that players frequently fail to win the game as a control player. There have been many eras of my competitive Magic career where the X-X-1 bracket was known as the control mirror bracket. Even after extensive playtesting, the pressures of an actual game will make a control player slow down, or at least feel pressure to do so. This will lead to running out of time and therefore unintentional draws. Following the advice from my original article on the subject will help out considerably here.

However, there are two problems unique to control decks when it comes to speed. The first is playing too passively, and the second is not playing enough win conditions, and/or only expensive win conditions. It seems counterintuitive, but a big reason that players go to time with control decks, and not even in mirror matches, is that they spend too much time playing to not lose rather than win. I've often said that Modern UW Control wants to win only by concessions, and many players act like that's no joke. They don't want to win the game; they want the opponent to acknowledge their victory. That's great for boosting egos, but terrible for win rates because of time rules.

The Passivity Problem

The key to winning with control is remembering that a control deck will be behind early. It's reactive and won't be playing threats out, and therefore it isn't trying to win the game, but to not lose. At some point, the control deck turns the corner, gets ahead, and starts winning. Most players are good at the first part but fail to recognize the latter, which means they fail to actually win the game.

I have watched a frustrating number of players, both in videos and in person, refuse to play out a win condition when the opportunity presented itself, and lose as a result. The opponent being tapped out and you having five lands with Counterspell in hand is a golden opportunity to land that Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and start putting away the game. Instead, they'll do nothing and wait until they can cast more than one answer alongside Teferi. However, that opportunity never comes, and they start to fall behind and eventually lose.

I've seen countless Pioneer UW players sit on Shark Typhoon, refusing to either cast it or cycle it because they don't want to, quote, "expose themselves." Expose themselves to what, precisely, I never get an answer for, and it frequently makes no sense as they've got the game otherwise locked up. Each turn the opponent gets another draw step that might turn the game around. There's no reason to fear the unknown and wait. Once the game is stabilized, take it!

Hoping for Perfection

The same problem applies to answering threats. Too many control players wait too long to deal with threats, meaning they're at low of life when they finally start trying to win. If anything goes even slightly wrong, they're dead. Players will wait for absolutely perfect circumstances to maximize their spells and just let themselves die to answerable threats. In my opinion, Gabriel Nassif is a poster child for this mentality, frequently holding answers for potential threats and falling to far behind against actual threats.

Thus, the biggest ways to play faster as the control player are actually answering threats and playing to win the game, not just survive. There are windows where the corner can be turned, and missing them pushes towards actually losing. Take the opportunity to actively get ahead and close out the game. Never assume the opponent will give up.

Lossett's Lesson

What really annoys me is that Magic's history shows that active control win conditions work as well or better than the few big threats. Legacy Miracles was the most successful control deck in Magic's history. From initial genesis in 2011 as UWx Counterbalance until Sensei's Diving Top was banned in 2017, the deck was the premier control deck in Legacy. It even lingered on in diminished form until Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath arrived.

Probably the most successful Miracles player was Joe Lossett. He was a demon of the Star City Games circuit and frequently Top 8'd Legacy Grand Prix. When Top was banned, many players said that if more Miracles players played like Joe, there'd have been no need for a ban. He was so practiced that he could quickly Top, navigate complex board states, and then know exactly when to turn the corner and win the game. In other words, he did everything I've been discussing today.

The Key

However, a forgotten piece of Joe's success was that he rarely received unintentional draws, especially against the mirror. His personal speed was a piece of that, but he was also actively trying to win the game quickly. The typical win conditions in Miracles were exactly two each of Snapcaster Mage, Entreat the Archangels, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Joe ran those, plus an additional Snapcaster, three Vendilion Clique, and two Venser, Shaper Savant.

His intention was to play more as a tempo deck in the mirror and avoid the drawn-out card advantage fights that other Miracles decks were notorious for. He could also use Karakas to protect his legends or reuse their abilities. This meant that Joe never missed an opportunity to start winning the game; in fact, he was usually actively looking for the chance. Control doesn't need to have a slow and expensive win condition. It can win with anything, including a humble 2/1, so why not win quickly?

Play to Win the Game

Control is a slower archetype than combo or aggro. That is no excuse for how slowly so many players play it. Take testing and goldfishing more seriously, and speed will come naturally. Additionally, there's no reason to take forever to win the game. Control players will naturally play faster if they start more actively looking for the opportunity to win rather than continuing to not lose. This is a simple change that any control player can make. Or don't, and let me keep beating Legacy Uro decks on Magic Online because they clocked out. It's your choice.

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