In the popular TCG Magic: The Gathering, there are four major deck archetypes: aggro, control, mid-range, and combo. There are other subcategories and deck sub-types such as white weenie or ramp heavy little Timmy decks, but those four archetypes are the main broad deck types that exist in the game. And these standard archetypes are no different in MTG Arena, the current online Magic video game.
In this guide, I will go over the basics of these four deck archetypes. In the future I will do more in depth guides to some, if not all, of these deck archetypes. But for now, I will go over a brief summary of each type, so you can become familiar with them.
Foreword: Tempo and Card Advantage
Before I can properly outline these four deck archetypes and how they play, I need to first go over two key Magic game terms, those being tempo and card advantage.
In Magic, the cards you play have what’s called a mana value. This is a number up in the top right corner of the card that determines the mana cost to play the card. Because different cards have different costs, that means some cards can be played earlier in the game than others. This is where tempo comes in.
Tempo is about when you can play certain cards, and gaining advantage through tempo is about playing your cards earlier than your opponent’s cards to gain tempo, or delaying them from playing their cards until later to disrupt their tempo.
Card advantage is a bit more self-explanatory than tempo. Card advantage is all about having access to more cards than your opponent. This is usually done by having more cards in your hand than your opponent, but can also be achieved in other ways.
For example, certain decks can play cards or bring back cards from your graveyard, making your graveyard essentially a “second hand” and giving you access to card advantage that way. There are many ways to play cards in Magic, but card draw is the most common form of card advantage.
The Four Major Types of Decks in MTG
And with those two basic explanations out of the way, we can get into discussing the basic deck archetypes in Magic the Gathering.
Aggro is short for aggressive. Aggro is all about maximizing your tempo in order to defeat your opponent. All five colors in Magic have, in one format or another, access to a viable aggro strategy of some sort. That being said, the color red is far and away the best color for aggro in all of Magic.
In MTG, all players start with 20 life points. If your life points drop to 0 first, then you lose. There are other ways to win and lose in Magic, but this is the basic idea. When I say aggro is all about maximizing your tempo to win, what I mean is that in aggro decks you play lots of low cost cards that can deal damage directly to your opponent as quickly as possible. The goal being to reduce their life total to 0 before they have a chance to properly react.
Aggro decks usually don’t have great access to card draw, and as a result they won’t have great card advantage. They also don’t play big, powerful spells. But if built right, an aggro deck won’t need either. If you play aggro properly, then you will kill your opponent within the first few turns of the game.
The idea is to establish your board presence first, and deal enough damage to your opponent that even if they can build up a board of their own, it will be too late to save them. That is how aggro defeats extra cards and more powerful spells, by killing their opponent before they can use them.
In many ways, the control archetype is the opposite of aggro. Control largely sacrifices tempo. When control decks win, they usually do so late in the game with powerful spells to finish the fight once they’ve built up the mana to cast them.
Unlike classic ramp decks though, control decks don’t get that extra mana early to play their big cards sooner. Instead, they slow down the game, giving them time to build up. There are also some control decks that slowly chip away at their opponents over time rather than going for big plays at the end, but these are less common. Most colors can play control in one form or another, green being the color that has the hardest time doing so. Meanwhile, blue and black are by far the best colors for playing control.
There are two key aspects to control that make this low tempo playstyle viable. One is card advantage. Control decks tend to be the best at drawing cards, or otherwise gaining card advantage. More accurately they have to be in order to defeat other decks like aggro.
The other key aspect is to nullify, or at least slow down, your opponent’s tempo. This is where the “control” part of control come in. This is done primarily in two ways. Either you remove your opponent’s cards from the field once they have been played, or you use counter spells to counter their cards on the stack to prevent them from being played in the first place. There are other avenues such as bounce and discard, but removal and counter spells are the best/most common forms of control.
Since control decks use a lot of their cards to remove their opponent’s cards, the card draw mentioned earlier becomes vital. If you make sure you always have more cards in hand than your opponent, you will be better able to control their cards, giving you the time you need to assemble your own win condition.
As the name suggests, mid-range decks fall somewhere in the middle between aggro and control decks. Mid-range decks don’t focus solely on tempo like aggro decks do, nor do they play as slowly as control decks. So how do they play?
Well, they sacrifice a bit of aggro’s tempo in order to play some slightly bigger threats and gain more advantage, ideally allowing them to stabilize early while still applying pressure to the board. Every color in Magic can play mid-range, depending on the format. Green is by far the best color for mid-range. Though with that being said, many mid-range decks like to run two colors, some times more.
The key to a successful mid-range deck is to play relatively early threats that either have an instant impact on the board or are difficult to remove from the board once played (ideally both). One of the best examples of this from all of Magic’s history is the card Siege Rhino.
Siege Rhino is an abzan card (meaning it has the three colors white, black, and green) that costs four mana. That paired with its three colors means it is likely to be played, at the earliest, turn four. It has four power and five toughness. And to cap it off, when it enters the battle field each opponent looses three life and you gain three life.
When Siege Rhino was in Standard, it dominated the format. You could play it turn four and its relatively high stats made it a decent threat that was hard to remove. Finally, it had an instant impact on the board, gaining you life and causing your opponents to lose life as soon as it was played.
If you played it against an aggro deck, not only did you gain some life and set back their aggressive strategy, you also would get a 4/5 blocker that could stop most of their threats. This combination could effective cripple an aggro deck’s strategy.
Alternatively, if you played it against a control deck, you would still get advantage from the card if they removed it right away. As long as it resolved, then you would still gain three life and make them lose three in return.
Ultimately mid-range plays a straightforward game plan of playing decently sized threats to overwhelm your opponent and give you immediate advantage. While straightforward, it doesn’t mean the mid-range archetype is necessarily simple or easy. If you just play strong cards with no impact on the board, then you will be easy pickings for control decks. And while you aren’t playing as fast as aggro, if you take too long to set up then those same aggro decks will run right over you.
The final of the four major archetypes in MTG is a bit of a strange one. We’re talking about combo decks. Combo is potentially the least popular archetype, with the possible exception of control (it really depends on which players you ask).
Combo is often accused of playing solitaire rather than Magic. In other words, combo decks don’t really interact with or (to some degree) care about their opponent’s cards. Combo just cares about what itself is capable of doing, not what their opponent does. All five colors can play combo, and it really just depends on the format you are playing.
As the name implies, combo decks are focused around some game winning combo (or ideally game winning at any rate). What that specific combo is varies from deck to deck and format to format. However, the consistent theme is that the deck is all about achieving that combo as consistently, and sometimes early, as possible.
A classic example is the infamous Grindstone + Painter’s Servant combo. Grindstone is a card that let’s you pay three mana and tap it to mill your opponent two cards. Then, if those two cards share a color, you repeat the process. Painter’s Servant says that when it comes into play you chose a color and make all cards (even those not in play) that color. So if you have Painter’s Servant out, then you activate Grindstone, your opponent will mill two, see that those two card share a color, and do it again. This will continue to happen until your opponent has no cards left in their library. Thus, when they next go to draw a card, they lose the game.
Combo decks really only care about achieving the given combo their deck is based around. That being said, the deck will include the given combo, as well as cards to make sure you get that combo as early and consistently as possible. Additionally, the deck will have cards to prevent you from losing until your combo is achieved and you win.
Some combo decks veer more towards the control end of the spectrum, slowing down/stalling their opponent until they achieve their combo. Other combo decks focus almost exclusively on drawing cards or searching directly from the deck in order to get their combo before their opponent’s can stop them.
There are two main things to be careful of when playing a combo deck. First, aggro decks can rush you down and kill you quickly if you have no defense. Second, you have to be careful when attempting to play your combo, because a control deck might be able to counter or remove a key piece of the combo. This can easily leave your deck unable to win and essentially ends the game right there.
Join the High Ground
And there you have it – the four major archetypes in MTG. Ideally, we’ll more in-depth guides on some of these archetypes come the future, but this hopefully will give you a good idea on the basics and help build you some decks.
If you think there’s another crucial aspect we should cover or have any questions, leave a comment below! And make sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter for more content!
Good luck brewing!