Control decks have been a mainstay of competitive Magic more or less since its inception. They’ve changed in composition, style, speed and power over the years, but they’ve all got something in common – they all play powerful control finishers that are designed to close out a game one it’s been wrested under control.
A good finisher will provide utility to the overall game plan, or sit quietly out of the way while the sweepers and counters do their work before being deployed to mop things up once and for all. Whether your control deck is from 1996 or 2021, there’s more in common with their finishers than you might think – let’s have a look at some of the best from Magic’s history!
Like so many other players, I started playing Magic around the time Return to Ravnica was released. Within a year or so of this massive boom in Magic players around the world, Standard was dominated by one of the most ruthless and brutal control decks the game had seen. With Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation, this deck was built to play a long, long game – although, to begin with, it would end things quickly with Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.
Elspeth was great because she could immediately stabilize your board, either by killing all their massive threats or creating three blockers (which also defended her from attack). Over a few turns, you’d build toward the ultimate, then kill your opponent in one fell swoop with an army of 3/3 flyers.
But then control players began to ask – do we even need Elspeth? Sphinx’s Revelation had led to players essentially drawing their entire decks, and so Elixir of Immortality began to see play so you wouldn’t mill out. Elspeth started to get cut, until, by mid-2014, some lists were playing a single Elixir as their only win condition.
Azorius Control by Ivan Floch, Pro Tour Magic 2015 Champion
As I get older, I’ve had to come to terms with some of the stuff that comes with aging. My knees make odd noises when I bend them, I don’t know the difference between a Tik and a Tok and I’m constantly worried I’ve become one of those out-of-touch boomers that kids seem to complain about so very much.
But then, sometimes, I get reminded that there’s no way this could be true, because I’d never ever describe a card like Millstone as a good control finisher. You would have to have been kicking around with ancient relics of the past like dinosaurs or Neanderthals or fax machines to remember a time when Millstone was a playable card.
But it was! By all accounts, it really was. In fact, it won the very first Pro Tour back in 1996, in a period known to historians as the Dark Ages, a time before Google or Austin Powers. Michael Loconto won PT New York with this magnificent concoction:
Millstone Control by Michael Loconto, PT New York 1996
If Blinking Spirit didn’t get there, Millstone would! What a time to be alive – four main deck Disenchants, a bunch of incidental life gain and cards like Recall and Feldon’s Cane in case it all goes wrong. Also – 62 cards. They don’t make ’em like they used to.
In any case, Millstone’s legacy is secured. Even if young zoomers these days don’t respect it as a control finisher, they still use the nomenclature it spawned – nomenclature that was recently made official by Wizards, when they finally keyworded “milling” as a mechanic.
Morphling is another old favorite – my old coverage colleague, Tobi Henke, characterizes it as the control finisher du jour 20 years ago. It seems pretty bad by today’s standards, as a five-mana 3/3 that doesn’t have a built-in cost reduction mechanic (Stormwing Entity) or generate seven power (Regal Caracal) or make a 3/3 that kills something (Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves). But it was good – really good – as former Wizards R&D member Zac Hill puts it:
When damage could stack and creatures (and therefore mass removal) were way worse, it's almost impossible to convey how brutal Morphling was to play against. It like killed all your guys and killed you, and you couldn't kill it, and you couldn't kill them.
— Zac Hill (@zdch) May 5, 2021
Years later (along with Elspeth and Elixir, funnily enough), we’d get Aetherling, which seems to put Morphling to shame. Years before this, however, Morphling was the one out there taking names and finishing games for control. An evasive ability, a self-protection ability and a crisp four-turn clock – Morphling could get the job done, it seems.
Morphling was so iconic that it spawned a cycle of other “-ling” creatures, all of which have the “gets +1/-1 or -1/+1 until end of turn” ability, alongside another ability that offers it some self-protection (Brightling bounces back to hand, Thornling gains indestructible, etc). For players newer to the game, it might not be obvious the impact that Morphling had in its prime, but clearly it’s got a real legacy behind it and left a strong impression in people’s minds!
Even if newer players don’t remember Morphling, they’ll remember Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Not only was this card a Standard superstar, it was the first good white-blue planeswalker ever printed, and was quickly amongst the best ever printed altogether, seeing play in Modern.
Costing an effective three mana with his first ability, Teferi would close games quickly by drawing extra cards, enabling extra interaction and providing a devastating ultimate. While he’s not as popular as he used to be – he does his best work as a control finisher in Historic, these days – Teferi is still amongst the best finishers ever printed.
UW Control by Brad Barclay, 1st Place - Zendikar Rising Championship
Where he gets really obnoxious is with his “tuck” ability, an ability that can, rather absurdly, be used to tuck Teferi himself. This means that, with a single uncontested Teferi, you can’t get decked. As long as your opponent can’t kill you with what they’ve got, you can just continue to -3 Teferi into an empty library every turn and wait for them to lose to decking instead.
And then, just when we thought Teferis didn’t get any better, they printed Teferi, Time Raveler – and I suppose in a certain light that was also a control finisher, as it would often finish the game then and there as you’d concede to it on turn three. Gross.
If there’s one thing that remains true of control decks throughout the ages, it’s that they all try to devote as few slots as possible to actually winning the game. As Ivan Floch showed us, a single Elixir of Immortality was enough for him – why waste card slots on win conditions when you can instead fill them with more card draw, more sweepers and more counterspells?
To that end, control players are always happy to sneak their win conditions in amongst their lands, and have been since 1996, with the printing of Kjeldoran Outpost. How far we’ve come from Kjeldoran Outpost, which made you sacrifice another land, to Castle Ardenvale!
Whether it’s creaturelands like Celestial Colonnade, Mutavault or Creeping Tar Pit, or lands that have a spell-like ability that will – eventually – win a game like Nephalia Drownyard, there’s no doubt that using your mana base to win a game of Magic is something that unites control players of all kinds.
Stalking Stones, Mishra’s Factory, the list goes on – control players love winning with their lands. I mean, you have to play lands anyway, right? You might as well get a bit of extra value out of them!
Whether you love or hate control decks, it’s control finishers like these that make them possible and I’m sure everyone reading this has done their fair share of winning with them (or losing to them, I suppose). There are so many more – in particular, I’d like to apologies to the angry boomers who are furious Psychatog didn’t make the list – but at the end of the day, these control finishers all share something in common: maximum impact, minimum deck slots.