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How to play the control game in multiplayer

A Controlling Interest

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The letter H!ere's a humbling experiment, when you're feeling pretty good about your Magic skills:

Try to end a multiplayer Magic game with every opponent controlling no non-land permanents.

It happens every once in a while, of course. But it happens a great deal less than it does in duel. And it still doesn't guarantee you'll win the game, since something as simple as a Fireball can still take you out.

Nevertheless, trying to take out every nonland permanent will teach you in practice something that's really easy to blow off in words: control in multiplayer is harder than aggression or other strategies. (By control, I mean the broad set of strategies, including countermagic, permanent removal, discard, etc. that stop people from doing what they want with their decks. I don't mean you actually must get rid of every non-land permanent! That was just a teaser to get you thinking.) Here's what control faces:

  • Aggression generally relies on creatures, while spot control generally relies upon sorceries or instants. A creature stays on the board, can attack different players at different times, and can be (at least in part) replaced by any other creature card that happens to be in your deck. Meanwhile, a sorcery or instant kills one thing – and then it's gone. And while a Grizzly Bears can do an adequate job of duplicating what a Hill Giant does, most control spells (except blue's counters) can't control all permanents equally well. Since there are different kinds of permanents, there are different ways of controlling them. Swords to Plowshares and Disenchant do different things – and a good control deck will want both, unless it relies on mass destruction. Which brings us to our second point.
  • Mass control nearly always happens at sorcery speed. The exceptions every reader wants to point out – Evacuation, Rout, Tsabo's Decree, etc. – only prove the rule. That means your hopes rest on a single turn (your own) and you have very little to say on other people's turns when it comes to mass destruction. It's true the aggressive deck must also attack on its owner's turn as well, but it builds up a reusable army over time, can attack in multiple directions, and generally can't be stopped by a single Counterspell.
  • Control isn't a path to victory in and of itself. You can have terrific control over the board and still not get anywhere closer to a win. Aggressive decks can have every card geared toward the win condition, sparing a few slots for control as an option. But for control decks, making room for something that actually wins isn't an option. This increases the risk that you will not get the card you want, when you want it. The path to victory may show up too soon, while the control cards you need in the early game show up late.
  • Continuous control – the sort afforded by enchantments and artifacts – usually depends on fragile elements. Every once in a while a control deck will get lucky and a single Ensnaring Bridge will do the job – everyone's playing with huge green creatures and no Naturalizes. But more often than not, the continuous control player will need everything out to make stuff work – the Ensnaring Bridge to stop creatures, the Null Brooch to empty the hand and stop the Hull Breaches, and the Subversion (or whatever) to actually win. Decks like this win all the time. But they're notoriously unreliable, for the same reason combo decks are unreliable in group play – the chances someone can wreck you easily go up with each additional opponent, and you have no Plan B.
  • Control decks bore people. Win or lose, people like to play their game. If you're in a showdown between two aggressive decks, you watch the fireworks go off one way and then the other and then the first way again – but no matter who wins, both players have seen their decks push hard. In a battle between aggression and control, the control player's success depends upon the other guy doing nothing. Translated to multiplayer, the control player would ideally like everyone to do as little as possible. When players see a control player, they gang up on them (if they're smart). That way, they can do what they want unimpeded.

Generalizations like the ones I've made above always spur protests: "My control deck beat ten people using only half a card and no lands!" "My control deck doesn't suffer from constant attention, because everyone loves it when they do nothing and I win!" Or some such. If you're enjoying unalloyed success with your control deck, why are you reading a column on how to do it better? Off you go, back to nirvana.

But if you're struggling with playing a sound control deck in multiplayer (and I suspect this is more true than most of us would like to admit), then perhaps you're open to some advice.

There are five principles to effective control in group games. In no particular order:

  1. You need focus on controlling the sort of spell or permanent most deadly to your path to victory. Put another way, control deck builders need to build decks just like everyone else: figure out how you want to win first, and then defend the path to victory. Control decks simply put more emphasis on the defensive scheme.
    If you start your deck deliberations by saying, "I wanna blow up enchantments!", your deck won't be much more than nine variations on Tranquility. But if you start your deck deliberations by saying, "I wanna win with a single large creature!", you'll find yourself building a deck that can protect that creature from spot removal, and then adding those elements in to make sure stuff like Cowardice or Moat can't trip you up.
  2. Know what your colors can and cannot do. If you are playing a green-black deck, you have your bases covered. You can kill creatures, artifacts, and enchantments – the critical control trio. If you are playing blue-red, you can deal with two of those three – and you have to have a plan for enchantments.
    Your plan doesn't have to be splashing white for Tempest of Light. It can be as simple as gunning for the enchantment player first; or as complex as adding in cards that counteract the effect of the worst enchantments you can imagine. For example, I have a Riptide Shapeshifter deck that would fall to pieces if Centaur Glade showed up. My solution? A single copy of Memnarch (the only wizard in the deck).
    In a mono-black deck that controls creatures really well but falls to artifacts and enchantments, you may want to consider heavier use of discard. (And you may want to be smarter about what discards you force.) We'll talk about this particular strategy more in a future (and imminent) theme week.
  3. Prefer visible control. While I'm as big a fan of the sudden smash as much as anyone (Tsabo's Decree can be a true backbreaker), control gains an awful lot from just sitting back and threatening devastation if someone twitches in the wrong direction. I've written extensively enough about "rattlesnake" cards not to belabor the point here. The closer you are to Pernicious Deed, the more you understand where I'm driving at.
  4. Seek dual-purpose cards. There is nothing that says that a control deck can't be aggressive. Man-o'-War is the perfect example of a card that serves both purposes – it slows down an opponent and swings for two damage. Large regenerating creatures can stay back to block for a while, swinging only when the other control elements of the deck have done their job. And Furnace of Rath can find use both as an aid to creature control (making Earthquakes twice as effective) and victory path (giving your direct damage a clear boost).
  5. Use your control judiciously. It is so very, very tempting to let loose with the Wrath of God when one player has three Wild Mongrels out and two of them keep coming in your direction. But unless you're drawing like a maniac and have two more already in hand, you are taking a terrible risk by letting loose with mass destruction too early. First, you're wasting a 3-for-1 when you might get a 6-for-1 or better one turn later. Second, in this case you're sending a sorcery-speed signal to the board, which simply gives everyone an incentive to beat the heck out of you before you can cast another one on your next turn. Third, you might need that Wrath of God a great deal more later on, when there's a Multani, Maro-Sorcerer on the board but everyone else has a Fog Bank.
    Gauge your threats carefully. Rely on instants when you can, so you're able to make a decision as close to the point of threat as possible. And only strike when your interests are in clear danger.

Bonus Control Freak Section: Team-format Tips

Most of the advice I've given you on playing control assumes a chaos (or free-for-all) format. But what of other non-sanctioned formats, especially team formats like Two-Headed Giant or Emperor? In those cases, consider the following:

  • Control becomes a great deal easier, and more advisable, in team formats. Why? Because you generally only have "one" opponent – the other team – and every control spell you fire at them hurts their chances of winning, just like in a duel. In addition, you have teammates who can take over the burden of an actual path to victory. All you need to do is keep pumping out Hull Breach and Rend Flesh.
  • Control can completely lock down one flank in an Emperor game. In normal Emperor games (range of 2 for most spells), a lieutenant with a control deck can give the opposing emperor fits. I like that lieutenant on the right of her emperor, since the slot to the left should remain a highly aggressive deck seeking to force a 3-on-2 game. Often times, the "control" lieutenant can do just fine by drawing countermagic and removal on horrific spells like Unnerve and Lightning Rift, while the "aggressor" lieutenant pops out Grizzly Bears and Hill Giants with the other team tapped out.
  • The more sophisticated the team play, the better discard gets. Again, we'll talk about this more in a later column (and now I must do my best to remember that!); but for now it's enough to say that experienced players don't overextend and leave good cards in hand – and team play provides some forgiveness for the discard player who can't remove every permanent on the board.
  • The more control strategies you see out there, the better discard gets. People are holding back cards to control the board – thus, discard has fertile ground.
  • The more discard you see out there, the better aggression gets. Yes, it's a little like rock-paper-scissors.

Extra-bonus Control Freak Section: Mana Denial

There was a mana denial theme week a couple of years ago on this site, and I did a fairly extensive treatment of the topic then. My views haven't changed too much: I'm not a big fan of mana denial as a strategy; but I don't mind the occasional deck that uses it creatively (e.g., throws a Terravore in there for mercy's sake).

Should you use mana denial in your control deck? I don't believe it's that necessary, to cope with the sorts of decks I see in our group and from players around the world in Magic Online. While I do have a voice that whispers in the back of my head whenever I see a Tooth and Nail or Blatant Thievery deck, there are other ways to deal with those strategies, and I find those alternatives more satisfying. I don’t think I have a deck based on land destruction – haven't for years.

That said, I would like to say a word to those on Magic Online who whine about land destruction (and I'm not just talking to the 1/1/1 Emperor crowd – in fact, I find it more annoying in the other formats): Stone Rain is a legitimate spell. It's a real Magic card. If you can't handle it, your deck needs work. See it as a challenge worthy of your attention, not a threat to your ego.

Good luck with your control strategies – keep those cards going to the graveyard!

Anthony cannot provide deck help. He can't control the flood of requests any Internet writer gets when he offers.

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