Let’s throw around some loose terminology…. I say “a control deck.” What does that mean? We use a Magic term like “control” and it simultaneously expresses a concept that is immediately recognizable even to a novice but can elude quality definition by even a seasoned pro.
The overwhelming majority of quality Magic decks ever conceived seek to “control” something. Life total, board presence, mana tempo, options, resources, etc. Decks that are good in the abstract tend to do something specific very well and focus on controlling some facet of gameplay and/or interaction:
Aggro – Controls opponents’ “life totals.”
Midrange – Controls “the battlefield.”
Prison – Controls opponents’ “mana.”
The one archetype that does not seek to “control” anything in particular are “pure combo” decks that do not interact with an opponent in any way, shape or form and are instead looking to assemble the condition of “win the game” as quickly as possible. However, as soon as a combo deck adds cards that interact with an opponent, or an opponent’s cards (that interact with the combo, for example) the combo deck is now seeking to control something beyond just executing a victory condition.
So, if all archetypes seek to control different types of resources and strategic points of engagement, what does a control deck actually control that makes it so unique and distinct relative to other decks (which mostly seek to control some aspect of gameplay)?
I think the most obvious (and incomplete) answer is that control decks control resources, often via card advantage; it’s too nonspecific a definition for me (an avid lover of the control archetype). Aggro decks attack life totals and life totals are a resource. Prison decks attack an opponent’s access to mana and mana is a resource. Midrange decks attack an opponent’s cards in play and control the battlefield.
I think the reason players tend to associate control decks with controlling an opponent’s resources because “control decks” tend to win via attrition, i.e., running an opponent out of cards. However, it is in the concept of victory via attrition that we are able to pinpoint exactly what a control deck controls: an opponent’s viable “options” or inroads to actually win the game. When an opponent runs out of cards that “matter,” they have no plays that “matter,” are thus out of “options” and viable ways to win.
Essentially, control decks are more concerned with creating a tactical scenario where an opponent can no longer win the game and can then win in an arbitrary de facto fashion.
Control decks seek to limit their opponents’ options and eventually progress the game to a state where an opponent, or opponents, no longer have meaningful plays to make, i.e. they have no options.
It’s much easier to build attrition-based control decks for one-on-one duels for the simple reason that it is much easier to limit the options of one player than three players. In a one-on-one duel, I start the game with seven cards and my opponent starts the game with seven cards. We each draw one card per turn. All I need to do to achieve the conditions of running my opponent out of options is to trade one-for-one and cast a few well-timed extra card draw spells along the way.
In Commander, our combined opponents start the game with three times as many cards as we do and draw three times as many cards per turn cycle as we do. If we try to trade our cards one-for-one against three opponents, we’ll run out of cards very, very quickly.
The reason for playing control in Commander is that we need to focus on what the archetype does best: limit and eliminate our opponent’s most meaningful options until we can either render their options meaningless or outright kill them.
100-card Highlander decks almost always tend to be some hybrid of archetypes because deck builders have access to such a wide range of different types of spells. In general, I think that control tends to be one of the strongest archetypes in Commander because the format is multiplayer in nature. It’s easier to play defense and “not die” than it is to beat down three opponents with 40 life each.
I think decks with infinite combos tend to be the most powerful in Commander because they present singular lines of play capable of killing all opponents or winning the game outright. If I were trying to build what I considered to be the objectively most powerful Commander deck for a format like cEDH, my choice of archetype would be a control shell with as many infinite combos as I could squeeze in.
I’ve been working on a U/B Commander deck for a few weeks now that I’d like to share:
Dragonlord SIlumgar EDH by Brian DeMars
I could consider my deck to be a pure control deck in the sense that it has virtually no other plan to win the game other than to completely shut all of my opponents down. I don’t have an infinite combo that kills all of my opponents to set up. My creatures don’t pressure life totals effectively and are intended to generate resources and curtail pressure.
I’d day my deck is unoptimized cEDH or a 10-power level Commander deck.
I set some rigid constraints for myself. For this list, I wanted to make a pure control deck in the sense that I don’t have any infinite combo tutor packages or viable beatdown plan. I would have no issue playing this deck in a cEDH deck as is. I think this deck is also fine in any Commander playgroup where players tutor, use Reserved List cards and have infinite combos in their decks.
At the LGS I’ve been playing, a large percentage of the players have cEDH decks and cEDH “lite”/”Commander+” and I think that deck falls into that range. More realistically and accurately, I’d say the power level of my deck is: “big budget.”
So, the way I’d approach making my deck more competitive/powerful would be to add more money to it:
Power Artifact creates an infinite combo with Grim Monolith.
Or, I could have included an Isochron Scepter and Dramatic Reversal (both worthy inclusions individually that make infinite mana together with the help of a few pieces of artifact mana).
It’s also hard to imagine a deck with nine basic Islands wouldn’t be improved by adding…
If I were to truly make this deck “competitive,” I would stray from limiting myself to playing pure control and would hybridize to play combo-control. Building this version of Dragonlord Silumgar was more of a thought exercise for me to think about what an extremely powerful pure control deck would look like.
I also don’t play some of what I consider to be the overall most powerful cards in the format in my color identity on purpose on principle:
In “casual” or “friendly” play, I think running people out of ways to win already pushes the envelope in terms of being a “fun” dynamic but cards like Rhystic Study and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale go way beyond what I’d consider to be casual or friendly. They are tedious, annoying and take up a ton of game time while also managing to be absurdly powerful.
I’ve never heard a player tell me that Rhystic Study is a positive card to exist in Commander. In fact, several players have straight-up told me they won’t play with it because they recognize it’s bad for the game and that resonates with me. For me, a good rule of thumb is that I won’t play with any card that I personally dislike existing in the format.
I would do anything for love (of a good control deck)… But I won’t do that….
I also think Xanathar, Guild Kingpin is an objectively more powerful (and probably flavorful) general for my deck (seeing as how I love a good Mindslaverin‘) but I don’t feel any connection to Xanathar whereas I have tons of fond memories of brewing, tuning and playing Khans Standard Esper Dragons with Kyle Boggmes back in the day.
I feel like having a secondary Mindslaver in the deck (Worst Fears) kind of pushes that dynamic too far (I would probably cut Worst Fears if I play the deck again) and a Commander with a similar ability is kind of obnoxious. The fact that you don’t have to tutor for it and set it up (it’s just there in the command zone) kind of feels icky powerful to me. I kind of like how Silumgar doesn’t have any clear synergy with the deck other than being a great control legend with a UB color identity.
Timetwister is in my deck because it is inexplicably legal in Commander and one of my favorite cards of all time. It is also the case that Timetwister is probably the most powerful card legal in Commander that does not produce mana. In fact, most of the “win conditions” in my deck…
And the Wizard package are completely unnecessary when there is a Timetwister in the deck (since it allows a player to restock their entire deck) and unlike Time Spiral, Timetwister does not exile itself and can be rebought and recurred to continually restock one’s library.
I would actually say the power level of my deck is a 10 but if I removed Timetwister, the power level of my deck would be closer to a nine.
The fact that my deck plays win conditions like Exsanguinate is really just a mercy to end games rather than loop. The key here is that when playing a control deck that seeks to run three other players out of options it is extremely necessary to have a way to restock one’s deck. It may likely take every card in your deck more than once to best three other decks of similar power level.
You may also have noticed that I play:
These are all cards that allow me to replay cards that I’ve already played again. While my deck does not go “infinite” in the sense that it can make infinite mana or infinite damage, it does have the built-in ability to never run out of cards and outlast any opponent(s). These are all incredible tools of attrition that can bolster any deck’s ability to exert control over an opponent’s options.
Since we will have multiple opponent’s to out-control, I play a lot of sweepers:
It’s also worth noting that one of the most powerful things a control deck can do in Commander.
Cyclonic Rift + Notion Thief + Timetwister = GG
It’s an incredibly powerful sequence that essentially forces all opponents to pick up all of their nonland cards in play, then we force them to shuffle them all back into their deck while blocking their ability to draw cards when we cast a draw seven. For those that don’t have $8,000 to spend on a Timetwister, you can run the same sequence with a budget replacement like Windfall.
I would say that, while this “feels” like a combo because it’s a sequence of powerful cards that have incredible synergy together, that it’s actually a control deck move since it doesn’t technically do something that “wins the game” but rather whittles all opponent’s options down to essentially none. Speaking of things that feel like combos but stay in line with removing options, how about removing an opponent’s ability to play the game?
Looping a Nexus of Fate with any source of damage in play (Trinket Mage or Creeping Tar Pit) will win the game because your opponent’s cannot make meaningful plays anymore, i.e., they have no options. “Time Walks” like Nexus of Fate that allow a player to take an extra turn are a type of spell that actually improves its power in multiplayer relative to one-on-one.
The original playtest card for Time Walk famously said “Target player loses next turn.” This was ambiguous and playtesters thought it meant they lost the game, but the heart of that wording is “target player skips their next turn.” In one-on-one, Time Walks function like a “skip” in Uno, but if we extend the multiplayer Uno analogy “skip” and “take another turn” are not equivalent. ‘Take another turn’ is essentially three skips!
If you skip every other player’s turn for a cycle, it takes away their ability to take meaningful actions which is the bread and butter of playing control.
Mindslaver and Worst Fears function in a similar but even more powerful way. They allow you to take control of another player’s turn and use their cards to harass other players instead of you. Mindslaver can also be recurred with Academy Ruins to permacontrol another player. It’s kind of like conscripting a teammate to make the game two-on-two rather than three-on-one. Mindslaver is basically the primary way control players make friends in multiplayer.
One of the most important and iconic elements of a good control deck is the ability to just say no:
What if somebody wants to play a spell that would create an infinite combo and win the game?
Anything that can’t be stopped by a sweeper needs to be answered by a counterspell, including other players’ counterspells cast in response to our spells. With the exception of cards that allow us to take extra turns like Nexus of Fate and cards that steal other players turns like Mindslaver, there are no other spells that more embody controlling an opponent’s options than counterspells. It’s like an opponent had the mana and card to make quality action happen but the control player uses one spell to say “that’s not happening!”
I’ll also point out that Mindbreak Trap is one of the most important counterspells in a control mage’s arsenal. When somebody casts Worldfire or Tooth and Nail with Boseiju, Who Shelters All mana, Mindbreak Trap’s ability to exile spells from the stack (rather than counter them) is critical. It’s an extremely versatile counter for “uncounterable” spells that also has the ability to counter all storm copies at once (for free!).
Other miscellaneous cards I’ve included:
I’m playing mostly basic lands anyways and Back to Basics is a great way to fight against decks that play more colors than I do. One of the primary ways my deck will lose to other powerful decks is that they have greater access to more powerful spells than my two color deck. I can easily hamstring three or more color decks with Back to Basics and also shut down opponent’s from reusing multiple utility lands such as Gaea’s Cradle or Cabal Coffers turn after turn.
I don’t have any creatures with activated abilities and so this is kind of a no-brainer.
My “catch all.” I can run all of my recursion through a Capsize (even with Back to Basics in play).
The best graveyard hate ever printed.
Looping Mindslaver or Ghostly Flicker are both recursion engines so potent and abusable that they provide the functionality of a game-ending combo. I ended up with a bunch of tutor Wizards (Trinket Mage, Spellseeker, Venser, Shaper Savant, Baleful Strix, Agent of Treachery, Riptide Laboratory) and my Pauper years immediately sent my brain thinning about Ghostly Flicker and Archaeomancer. It’s also fine to simply blink out Grim Monolith or Mana Vault to function as a makeshift ritual effect.
I don’t understand this card’s legality in the format. Every deck playing black is vastly improved by adding it. Where there’s a Will there’s a way (and I ain’t talkin’ bout Will Kenrith).
The key to thinking about control in Commander is to imagine building a deck that will outlast every single thing all three other opponents will throw at you. I always assume I’ll be playing one against three when I play a control deck. It comes with the territory – at some point in the game, the other players tend to figure out they’re all in big trouble as you begin to tighten the screws and narrow their combined paths to victory.
The strength of control is its ability to keep itself alive while facing three opponents. I tend to believe the archetype is made even more powerful by fusing it with searchable infinite combos to win games where control over all opponent’s options cannot be achieved. Decks that can do more than one thing (combo or control) tend to be significantly more flexible (especially in a format where so many tutors are legal).
The other great strength of a control deck is its ability to recur and loop its cards over and over again. While my Silumgar cannot make infinite mana or deal infinite damage with a single sequence, it does have the ability to restock it’s entire library, replace its drawsteps and find and recur whatever the most effective spells in the deck are in context. So, part of the art of building a good control deck is deciding exactly “what” it does beneath the card draw, tutors, counterspells and sweepers. Those are just “good cards” that do efficient things that help facilitate your strategy, whereas the “bombs” are the strategy.
When you have a combo kill, the combo will be the strategy. Once you’ve stabilized enough to present the combo – you do. My Silumgar deck can “bounce the board” for value by looping Cyclonic Rift or Crush of Tentacles. It can add the coup de grace with a draw seven and Narset or Notion Thief. It can conscript a teammate with Mindslaver.
Realistically, these are the powerful “control things” and so those are the elements I chose to build my control deck around. I built this deck to sort of showcase how strong the things “control elements” can add to a deck. Even without infinite combos (the best strategic element in the format), I would have no issue with playing this 99 at a table of optimized cEDH lists. I may not be the frontrunner to win, but I’d certainly be a dark horse that would have some serious agency in the game with my counters and sweepers.
When you’re up against three opponents, it doesn’t hurt to think about building some ways into your deck to curtail their options for winning the game. Game-ending combo aside, it’s easier to play defense than offense in Commander, simply by virtue of needing to deal 120 damage to win the game! Today’s article covered some of the principles of how to control the game with some powerful examples put into practice and if all else fails just a add Timetwister!