Deckbuilding: Deck Archetypes and Deck Strategy

While it is impossible to classify every deck into a concrete category, the vast majority of tournament-level decks fall into one of three categories. There are control decks, aggressive decks, and combo decks. While it is not a definite rock-paper-scissors scenario, aggressive decks tend to beat control decks more often than not. However, it really depends on which kinds of decks they are. Control decks can often win against combo decks but only if there is a lot of countermagic in the control deck. Combo decks can often win against aggressive decks simply because they can ignore the pressure and win immediately at a certain point.

The control deck utilizes cards that can neutralize the opponent's threats. Counterspells, creature elimination, and other threat neutralization cards form the backbone of a control deck. Direct damage can be used defensively to destroy creatures, but has the flexibility of being used to damage the opponent if necessary. Blue-red decks were once a popular phenomenon based on this theory. Counterspells could take care of any major threats while direct damage either destroyed opposing creatures or worked at finishing off the opponent directly. Cards that can tap creatures or prevent them from attacking are also useful in a control deck. Threat management is the critical idea here. Being able to deal with opposing threats means preventing the opponent from winning. By being able to prevent the opponent from winning, the control player allows himself to win.

How the control player wins is usually unimportant. A single large creature is usually fair game, while cards such as Millstone(1) are also popular in this kind of strategy, in order to run the opponent out of cards. While damage is the most common method of victory, forcing the opponent to not be able to draw a card is an often-overlooked method of winning. Control decks can be any color, but often use blue for countermagic. White has mass destruction cards such as Armageddon and Wrath of God to destroy lands and creatures, red has direct damage to augment countermagic, and black has discard and more efficient creature removal. Green is not too popular as a control color but has cards such Wall of Blossoms(2) that make for good defense.

Aggressive decks often take the form of a creature swarm strategy. If you can present the opponent with more threats than he can deal with, you will be able to defeat his control strategy. Conversely, though, if the control player can assert himself before the swarm strategy wins, the control player can take victory for himself. Sometimes the game is not over immediately after it seems the control player has his plan working, it can happen that the swarm player uses a sneaky tactic in order to win his victory back. Usually a Wrath of God will put a gaping hole in the creature-based deck's plan by destroying all the creatures he has already played. However, once more creatures hit the table the control player will either have to come up with another Wrath or lots of creature elimination.

Sometimes the aggressive deck takes on other forms. A deck relying mostly or even totally upon direct damage cards can be effective. In this case, creature elimination attempts are futile. A "burn" deck can cast lots of direct damage spells like Shock, Lightning Bolt, and Fireblast(3) with one simple goal: To bring the opponent from 20 to 0 life. With plenty of Mountains in this all red deck, Fireblast makes for a great finisher. In order to beat a burn deck, the control deck has to either use a lot of countermagic, or a lot of life gain.

Another aggressive deck, usually a creature swarm deck, will have a greater chance of winning against a burn deck. Bringing out large amounts of fast creatures can often overwhelm the burn deck, and force the burn player to be defensive. By forcing the aggressive player to play defensively, that puts a large hole in his plans and ruins his strategy. Sometimes, however, the creature swarm deck will get a slow start and the burn deck will win. Anything can happen in the world of Magic.

The third major type of deck is the combo deck. While many players frown upon many kinds of combo decks, this reigns to be one of the most effective strategies in Magic. Over the course of Magic history there have been many famous Magic decks based around combos. While I will not go into detail about them, I will explain the concept. Zvi Mowshowitz, a student at Columbia University, designed a deck in 1998 that he dubbed TurboZvi. The deck brought out a card called Dream Halls(4) very fast, which allowed both players to play spells practically free. The deck drew lots and lots of cards up until the point where it could either create a lot of mana to win with a large direct damage spell, or make the opponent run out of cards. With a large mana engine, anything is possible.

If Zvi played against a creature swarm deck, he would just ignore the threat and win third or fourth turn, before his opponent had any chance of winning. Since the creature swarm deck offered no threats, he was completely safe from its simplistic strategy. Even still, the deck had some countermagic in it in order to save itself just in case. Against a control deck, though, the deck became a lot tougher to play. If the opponent played his cards right he could easily win.

Dream Halls helped the countermagic user more than Zvi. The deck was okay but not as good as other combo decks such as Prosperous Bloom, named by two of the main cards in it, Prosperity(5) and Cadaverous Bloom(6). This deck was very famous, and brought Mike Long victory at Pro Tour: Paris. By generating a large amount of mana with a card combination that just about works itself together very easily, this deck was powerful in its day. Of course, there were ways to beat it, by using effective enchantment removal and countermagic. Mike knew how to play his deck to perfection and took on the competition his best.

While combo decks, creature decks, and control decks are the three main types of decks which have presented themselves, there are many decks which fall into more than one category, and even some which fall into none of the categories. However, it is safe to generalize that the vast majority of decks are one of these types. I have played many decks and I see that these kinds of decks stand out about all others. How does a given deck perform? That is the next question I will attempt to answer.


Footnotes:

  1. Millstone: Artifact, 2. Pay 2 and tap to take the top 2 cards from any player's deck and put them in his discard pile.
  2. Wall of Blossoms: Creature - Wall, 1G. When Wall of Blossoms comes into play, draw a card. 0/4. (Walls cannot attack).
  3. Fireblast: Instant, 4RR. Does 4 damage to a creature or player. Caster can sacrifice two Mountains instead of paying the casting cost.
  4. Dream Halls: Enchantment, 3UU. Instead of paying the casting cost of a spell, any player may choose to discard a card that shares one or more color with the spell.
  5. Prosperity: Sorcery, XU. Each player draws X cards.
  6. Cadaverous Bloom: Enchantment, 3BG. Remove a card in your hand from the game to get 2 green or black mana.

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