The Challenge of Playing Control in Commander
One of the greatest things about playing Magic the Gathering, is that there is so much to the game itself. With seemingly endless card choices, a variety of formats to play in, and a wide array of archetypal strategies, there is something for everyone. Magic players over time gradually learn the intricate details to different types of decks: where it flourishes, its strengths, its weaknesses, and the best cards to further a deck’s strategy. With so many variables involved in Magic, there of course are going to be cards, decks, and strategies that sit above the rest. While many of these all stars and MVPs can see play across multiple formats, due to the different ban lists and nuances of different formats, these top card picks waiver just as much as strategies do when you move from one format to the next.
One such variant is the strength of control in the format known as Commander or EDH. A newer player to EDH might assume that if decks in the format have access to cards to like Counterspell, Force of Will, and Mana Drain, that control would be strong and consistent much like decks in the Legacy and Vintage formats. Despite this line of reasoning, this is not the case. Control, while still a strong archetype, faces many challenges in a multiplayer game of EDH that it does not have to deal with in any other format.
Before I begin to explain my argument, it is important that you understand the clear distinction between a true control deck vs a pure combo deck or value deck in EDH. Many decks in EDH that sport blue in their color palette use it the way it was intended, as a support color. Often times, commanders such a Kruphix, God of Horizons or Riku, of Two Reflections will run a handful of control spells to support their line of play which is often ramping and drawing cards into large amounts of value that overwhelms the other players at the table. Decks like these will employee many different types of cards and are what I would call a “good stuff” deck. These decks are usually some of the most fair, simply playing strong spells in their color identity as they try to kill their opponents whether it be through combat or a combo. These decks are not control decks. It may seem that way at times when they draw so many cards, but they often only ever use counter magic and other control elements for things that directly threaten their game play.
While control and many other decks often try to end the game on a combo, their primary goal is not to combo off. A pure combo deck is easily identifiable by the deck structure. They will often run approximately 32 lands where as most decks are on 35 to 38 lands. They will run a large sum of fast and free mana such as Dark Ritual, Mana Crypt, and Lotus Petal, they use as many cheap tutors as possible to enhance the consistency of their deck, and make use of low converted mana cost counter magic to help protect their combo such as Dispel, Mental Misstep, Negate, Force of Will, and Pact of Negation. These decks look to close out a game as fast as possible. With the capability of winning turn one, true combo decks in EDH hope to never see the game go past turn four. Examples of these decks are General Tazri – Food Chain, Thrasios, Triton Hero/Tymna, the Weaver – Protean Hulk, and Scion of the Ur-Dragon – Hermit Druid/Necrotic Ooze. These decks are also not control decks. Control decks are playing the long game and do everything they can possible to make it past turns 4, 5, 6, and beyond.
An honest and full-blown control deck will almost always win with a combo of some sort. The combo will be extremely limited, and will not be the focus of the deck. Control decks in EDH will often play some amount of land or artifact ramp, a ton of card draw, and then as many ways as they can to inhibit their opponent’s ability to play the game. There are several types of control in EDH including counter control, board control, and probably the most potent staxx/prison control. However, unlike other constructed formats, control decks in EDH don’t have the luxury of being able to play multiples o f a card.
While it is easy to find another ramp spell or creature to abuse, there are an extremely limited number of strong and efficient draw, counter, and removal spells. Control decks have to analyze the pace of the deck their playing and build accordingly. Trying to navigate the waters of surviving the early game, stabilizing in the mid game, and taking over in the late game, just like control decks have always done, is no easy task when only using one of each card. This must be accomplished through varied converted mana costs of card advantage spells and versatile answers to different types of threats. The problem of not being able to run multiples of cards in EDH for control is only worsened when the notion of three opponents is introduced. Having to control multiple people at one time is the second reason why control is so difficult to play in EDH.
Each opponent (in a typical pod of four) is probably playing a different type of deck and a control deck is suppose to be ready for all of it. With so much variance, control decks are faced with balancing cards like Vandalblast and Creeping Corrosion with the use of targeted removal such as counter magic and spells like Swords to Plowshares and Return to Dust. Control players in EDH must often make quick decisions about the threat level of any spell any player plays while considering the notion of what another player might do when the control deck has less resources during their turn than anticipated. The reason? Because more often than not, when someone does find a foothold against a control deck in EDH, they will use it to kill the control player while they have the chance. Which is another reason why playing control is difficult in EDH. Playing control in EDH will most often make you the initial and primary target of the other three players.
People often consider EDH to be somewhat of a casual format, playing by the philosophy that decks should be more focused on themselves than what other players are doing. Whether or not you agree with this idea, for many people, when they see you are playing a form of control in EDH, they will try and band together with the rest of the pod and kill you first before continuing with their game. For a more seasoned EDH pod or play group, players should recognize the importance of having a control player at the table to help keep the other players in check. A smart EDH player will sit and wait for the opportune moment to move ahead of a control player when they are distracted by what someone else has done the turn or two before. For experienced players, if you see someone targeting the control deck with no real reason other than that they are playing control it means one of three things. Either that player has the means to handle the rest of the board, are preparing to win the game, or both.
Politics of an EDH pod are very important to pay attention to when playing control. Trying to remain as neutral as possible helps you survive to the late game but is never easy when telling players ‘no.’ When a pod sees you counter one player’s spell but then also sees you disrupt another player’s combo, you will be quickly viewed as an ally. Go overboard and stop too many players and you will be seen as a bully. The same is true if you pile drive your opening seven into the dismayed face of the person directly to your left.
With practice and much trial and error you can play control in EDH; but, if your playgroup is filled with experienced players who are not new to the format, do not think it is going to be a cakewalk. Control requires extensive knowledge of many cards, the practice nuance of negotiating your way through a multiplayer game, a well trained eye for assessing threats that are attempting to resolve and connect with their intended targets, and the hard work required for refining your deck. However, the end result is an incredible EDH control player who can pilot a deck with deadly precision. To quote a friend of mine “The oppressive fist of blue doesn’t crush you, it wears you like a glove” and that should be your goal every game.