In the card game Magic: The Gathering, there are, broadly speaking, four general deck archetypes. These archetypes are aggro, combo, control, and mid-range. One of the most popular archetypes, and my personal favorite to play (especially in MTG Arena), is the control deck archetype.
In this guide, I will be going over all the main aspects of this archetype – from how it plays, to the philosophies behind it, to which colors are best at it, etc. I am going to be using specific examples from MTG Arena (and more specifically its Standard format), as it’s much easier to start trying out Magic via its digital version.
Let’s dive in and talk about control.
Foreword: Tempo and Card Advantage
The first thing we need to discuss is two of the fundamental principles behind Magic – tempo and card advantage.
In Magic, every card other than land cards will have a number in the top right corner of the card. That number is the card’s mana cost. This determines how much mana (and which colors of mana) are needed to play the card.
In most cases, players can only play one land per turn, which means that on turn one they will have one mana, on turn two they will have two mana, and so on. Naturally, this is assuming that they play one land every turn.
This all means that the mana cost on a card, roughly translates to the earliest turn of the game on which the card can be played. A four-mana card will rarely be played before turn four and so on.
This is where the principle of tempo comes in. Tempo in Magic is all about gaining advantage through either playing your cards earlier than your opponent, or delaying/outright stopping your opponent from playing their cards. In other words, it is an advantage in timing.
Card advantage in Magic is a much simpler, more straightforward concept. In essence, it is having access to more cards than your opponent. This is usually achieved by drawing cards but can also be done by adding cards to your hand in other ways, accessing cards in your graveyard, filtering your deck, etc.
Every archetype in Magic makes use of some combination of tempo and card advantage to win, balancing the two in some form. Control is no exception.
Control Deck Basics in MTG Arena
There are two primary ways to win with a control deck in MTG Arena. The more common method is to slow down the game until the control deck can play out a high-costed win condition. such as a strong evasive creature with good protection.
The slightly less common method is to slowly drain your opponent’s life total through loss of life effects or burn, while controlling their board to make sure you don’t die before they do. There are of course other corner cases such as mill, but these are the two staple methods a control deck uses to win games in MTG.
Slow Your Opponent’s Tempo
Whatever kind of control deck you decide to build, it is crucial to control your opponents in order to win (I mean it’s in the name, right?). This is necessary because you are playing a deck with a low tempo. Your game winning cards often have a high mana cost (in other words – very low tempo). If you’re slowly burning/draining your opponents, their tempo will also be lowered to match yours.
Decks like aggro attempt to win via being very high tempo, playing low-cost cards that can kill you in the first few turns. Since control is slow, it needs to slow down its opponents in order win. There are a couple main methods that control decks can employ to do so:
- Removal spells – cards that get rid of cards on the field.
- Bounce spells – cards that return cards on the field to the hand.
- Counter spells – cards that counter cards on the stack and prevent them from hitting the field.
- Discard spells – cards that discard cards from your opponent’s hand directly.
Maintain Card Advantage
But if control decks are so slow that they have to stall their enemy just to keep up, how can they be good? Aren’t they just playing catch up to aggro decks and the like? This is where card advantage comes in.
Card advantage is the life blood of control decks. You need to have access to a lot more cards than your opponent. That way you can expend cards countering and removing your opponent’s threats, all while maintaining your hand size. If you play control correctly, when you do win, you will often have a full hand of cards. Meanwhile, your opponent will have no cards in hand, no board, and zero life.
Even if you were struggling earlier in the game, it will typically look like you crushed your opponent. Conversely, if you do not have adequate card advantage, you will quickly run out of answers and their threats will overwhelm you.
An important thing to note about card advantage is that it is a relative property. What I mean is, if you have seven cards in hand, that’s great! But if your opponent has fourteen, you don’t have card advantage. Conversely, if you only have three cards in hand, but your opponent has zero, you do have card advantage. The goal is to make sure you have more cards in hand than your opponent whenever possible.
Best Color for Control Deck in MTG Arena
Majority of Magic players are familiar with the acronym WUBRG (white, blue, black, red, and green). These are the five colors of Magic, and each one comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. So the question we have here, is which colors are best for playing a control deck in MTG Arena?
Each color can play control to some degree, green being by far the weakest. But when it comes to control, no two colors are more synonymous with the archetype in MTG than blue and black.
Blue is a key control color, because it gets access to counter spells, bounce spells, and the best card draw in the game (as a general rule). Black has decent card draw (though usually being more conditional than blue), discard effects, and by far the best creature removal in the game. However, black does struggle to deal with non-creature artifacts and enchantments, but most of the threats you will deal with are creatures. Luckily, black is the Swiss army knife of killing creatures.
There are many different kinds of control deck, but (especially in the Standard format) Dimir decks (aka. both blue and black) are the most common in MTG Arena. While both individual colors are good for control, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
With blue you can primarily focus on drawing cards and countering spells, while black adds in the creature removal to deal with threats that dodge the counters. Together, they become a truly deadly combination. Additionally, combining the colors gives you access to powerful mutli-color cards that are often much stronger than one color alone.
Common Control Mistakes in MTG Arena
Now I want to go over some common mistakes/misconceptions about the control deck archetype in MTG Arena. It’s not enough to know how to play control, but how to play it well.
First, control isn’t a more intellectual or advanced form of playing Magic. There are many control players out there who act as though control is an archetype that requires superior intelligence to play compared to others. The stereotype is often that an aggro deck just plays creatures and turns them sideways every turn without thinking, while a control deck has choices, options etc.
The truth of the matter is you can play any archetype in a brain-dead manner, and you’ll probably lose. Aggro decks are more than just doing all-out attacks every turn, and similarly, control decks are more than just counter every spell your opponent attempts to cast. Both are equally bad strategies.
There’s More to Control Than Removal
Going off of the above point, there is the misconception (or perhaps misperception would be more accurate in a lot of cases) that control decks do nothing more than counter/remove their opponent’s cards. It gets to the point that the color blue is often talked about as though it contains nothing more than counter spells and card draw to draw into more counter spells.
This idea stems from people’s dislike of playing against control decks. It isn’t fun to have your cards countered and your creatures removed. Then confirmation bias kicks in, and you only remember the times your stuff is countered or killed, and so that becomes all you associate with control.
This is a problem not only for those playing against control, but those playing control as well. If you build a control deck that is nothing but counter spells and card draw, you are all but guaranteed to lose. There is almost no way to counter every card in your opponent’s deck, and even if you can, you have no way to win yourself.
Removing/Countering All Your Opponent’s Cards
There is a common saying amongst control players and those teaching others how to play control. To paraphrase, knowing what not to remove is more important than knowing what to remove.
This may sound a bit odd, or perhaps pretentious, but allow me to explain. It is a simple fact that you are not going to remove or counter every single card your opponent attempts to play. From a purely mathematically perspective, it won’t happen. You just won’t have enough removal to do it.
Even if you don’t run any win conditions in your deck, you will still need lands to play all your control pieces, so you simply cannot guarantee that you will be able to answer every card your opponent plays. What you need to do is learn to recognize which threats require an answer, and which ones you can let through.
If you try to counter or remove every single card your opponent plays, then you will quickly run out of removal, and their real threats will get through. At that point, you will be screwed.
Life Totals Don’t Matter
This one may seem kind of clickbaity, and to a degree, it is. What I mean when I say this is that when I play control, I am not focusing on life totals as a resource, whether it’s my own or my opponent’s.
Keep in mind that life totals are a resource. If you play MTG Arena, you’ve probably seen the loading screen tip that goes something like ‘Don’t be afraid to use your life as a resource. After all, winning at 1 is just as good as winning at 20.’ This is true.
Going back to our earlier point, remember that some hits will get through because you can’t remove or counter everything, nor should you try. Therefore, you need to learn which hits you can take and which you cannot. Sometimes you may die unexpectedly, but learning when you can afford to take that five damage to the face is an important skill for any control deck player in MTG Arena.
As for your opponent’s life total, that doesn’t really matter either (in most cases). What I mean by this is that when I play control, I am not focused on lowering my opponent’s life total. Instead I am focused on lowering their hand size. Now we are back to card advantage.
In my personal opinion (and experience in many cases) you can often win the game as a control deck when your opponent is still at twenty life and you are at one life. If you use card advantage right, then you can get into a position where you have a full hand of cards and your opponent is top-decking.
If you find yourself in that position, then you can easily control their board and manage any threats they might draw, almost guaranteeing you the win right there. I say “almost” because sometimes they top-deck their win condition out of nowhere, and there is nothing you can do. But, for the most part, if you’re in that position as a control deck, you’ve won the game.
To recap this point (because I think it’s one of the most important), when I play control, I try to drain my opponent’s hand, ensuring that I always have significantly more cards than they do. This is how I most effectively win. Once you’re in the position where your hand is full, and your opponent’s is not, it’s challenging for them to come back from that.
Don’t Play Cards
This is also a bit of a clickbaity header, but no less valid either. What I mean when I say this is that when playing control, players often make the mistake of playing cards during their turn. This is sometimes the correct thing to do, but often, the correct play for a control player is to untap, upkeep, draw, play a land, and then pass the turn.
Many players are familiar with this classic control play, but many may not be familiar with exactly why it is such a good play in MTG Arena. The cheeky answer is that control players just take their turn on their opponent’s end phase. While true, it doesn’t explain much. Ideally, almost every non-land card in your control deck will be an instant. This enables you to conserve your mana during your turn and react to your opponent’s plays on their turn.
Let’s say my opponent has a nasty 5/5 creature I want to remove, and on my turn I draw an instant speed kill spell. In 99% of cases, I should not cast that kill spell on my turn. I should wait until their turn because they might play a creature that I want to remove even more, and then I’ll be glad that I didn’t waste the kill spell.
For a second example, let’s say my opponent doesn’t have anything on the board that I want to remove. I have four mana available on my turn, an instant speed kill spell, and a counterspell in my hand, both of which cost three mana. Then, I draw an instant speed draw spell that costs three mana and allows me to draw two cards, which would effectively double my hand size.
Should I cast the draw spell? No, I should wait until my opponent’s turn. If they cast a spell I want to counter or play a creature I want to kill, I should save up my mana so I can play the counter or kill spell. And if they go their whole turn without playing anything I want to remove, I can still cast the draw spell on their end phase.
I didn’t have enough mana to play two out of the three cards in my hand, but by waiting until my opponent’s turn, I could ensure that I played the optimal card from my hand. If I had played a card on my turn, I would have limited my options with no added benefit. Perhaps I would have to play my counterspell, and in that case, I wouldn’t get to draw any cards this turn cycle. However, if you’re playing control, you need to be patient and take your time. You can always draw cards later on.
Best Control Cards in Standard
Now that we have covered the main points about playing a control deck, lets go over some examples from the Standard format of good control cards and why they’re good in MTG Arena.
Card Draw/Card Advantage
The first card I want to highlight is Memory Deluge. Memory Deluge costs two generic and two blue. It is a rare instant that allows you to look at the top X cards of your library, where X is the total amount of mana you spent to cast Memory Deluge. Then you pick two of those cards to add to your hand, and the rest go to the bottom of your library. Additionally, you can flash it back (cast it from your graveyard then remove it from play) at a cost of five blue and two generic.
Memory Deluge provides excellent card advantage for two main reasons. First, you can cast it twice, spending four and then seven mana, respectively. This means that for the cost of one card, you can potentially get four cards, and you have some control over which cards you choose.
The second significant advantage that Memory Deluge has is that it is an instant. Referring to the examples I mentioned in the previous section, having instant-speed card draw provides many more options than if it were sorcery speed. You can hold your mana to deal with threats, and you can still draw cards if no threats arise.
Even the Score
The second card advantage card I want to highlight is Even the Score. Even the Score is a mythic instant that costs X and three blue. You draw X cards, and Even the Score costs three blue mana less to cast if your opponent drew four or more cards this turn.
Now, crafting a mythic can be challenging, but it is undoubtedly worth it, and you don’t necessarily need a full playset. In my current Standard control deck in MTG Arena, I am running two copies because of how flexible it is.
Once again, it is an instant, so you can play it whenever you have an opportunity, and you can decide how many cards you want to draw. It is great for replenishing your hand when it’s empty, and you have no other mana expenditures. Additionally, it is useful if you have extra mana at the end of your opponent’s turn.
For example, suppose your opponent drew four cards on their turn, and during their end phase, you have four mana available. In that case, you can cast a clever Even the Score and draw an equal number of cards, maintaining parity in card advantage.
Moving on to black, there’s Blood Pact. This common instant costs two generic and one black and makes the target player draw two cards while losing two life. Drawing two cards for three mana is a fantastic deal in black, particularly when done at instant speed.
It costs you two life, but that is a very small price to pay. Remember how we discussed using your life total as a resource? Well this is a prime example of that concept. Unless you are desperate, two cards are far more valuable than two life.
Lastly, I’d like to give an honorable mention to an entry in the card advantage category – Invoke Despair. This rare sorcery card costs five black and forces your opponent to sacrifice a creature, an enchantment, and a planeswalker. For each one they cannot sacrifice, they lose two life and you draw a card.
Invoke Despair is an honorable mention because it does not guarantee you card draw, but it is powerful enough to warrant a mention. It is a sorcery and does cost five black, both of which are steep drawbacks. However, Invoke Despair provides solid removal and card draw or a mix of both.
On one extreme, you can remove three of your opponent’s permanents for five mana, which is not a bad deal. On the other extreme, you can draw three cards and make your opponent lose six life, which is also not a bad deal for five mana. The in-between options are great here as well. Invoke Despair is just a really solid card overall.
For this category, I will be highlighting creature removal spells specifically, as creatures are the most common card type in Standard and are what control decks want to remove the most. For other cards, you should primarily use counter or discard spells to get rid of them preemptively.
It’s worth noting that each card in this category (with the exception of the honorable mention) is mono-black.
First, I want to talk about Infernal Grasp. Infernal Grasp is a common instant that costs one black and one generic. It destroys a target creature and causes you to lose two life.
It’s good because it only costs two mana, which means you can play it early, and you can easily weave it into later turns if you have extra mana. Additionally, it has no conditions on the creatures it can destroy, and two life is a small price to pay.
“Hero’s Downfall” and “Murder”
Next, I want to mention Hero’s Downfall and Murder. Hero’s Downfall is an uncommon instant that costs one black and two generic. It destroys a target creature or planeswalker. No explanation is needed for why this card is good.
Murder is exactly the same as Hero’s Downfall, except it can only target creatures, not planeswalkers. It shows how good Hero’s Downfall is if a strictly worse version of the card still makes this list.
Anoint with Affliction
Next is Anoint with Affliction. It is a common instant spell that costs one generic and one black. It removes a creature from the game if its mana value is three or less.
However, if the opponent has three poison counters, Anoint with Affliction can exile any creature, regardless of its mana value. Although this spell may be more limited, it only costs two mana and is a common card in MTG Arena, so it’s still worth considering for your control deck.
Void Rend (Honorable Mention)
Finally, we have the honorable mention, Void Rend. Void Rend is a rare instant spell that costs one white, one blue, and one black. It cannot be countered and destroys a target non-land permanent.
It’s one of the strongest removal spells in Standard, but it only receives an honorable mention because it requires three colors. For most control decks, it is not worth splashing white just to include Void Rend.
Discard is probably the weakest form of control in Standard because it is too situational, but there are still a couple of cards worth mentioning. As with the removal spells, these are all mono-black
Duress is a common sorcery spell that costs one black. It makes your opponent reveal their hand, and you can choose a non-creature, non-land card for them to discard.
This spell is effective because it only costs one mana, and it can severely disrupt your opponent’s plans. It does not target creatures, but that’s what kill spells and counter spells are for.
The other card worth mentioning for discard is Pilfer. It is an uncommon sorcery spell that costs one black and one generic. It makes your opponent reveal their hand, and you can choose a non-land card for them to discard.
It costs two mana to cast, but it can target anything other than a land. Not a bad card!
All my recommendations for counter spells are mono-blue. In the current Standard, there are not any multi-colored counter spells.
“Spell Pierce” and “Bring the Ending”
First, I want to mention Spell Pierce and Bring the Ending. Both cards are rather similar, so I’m mentioning them together. Spell Pierce is a common instant that costs one blue. It counters a spell unless the opponent pays two mana.
Bring the Ending is exactly the same, except it costs one more generic and comes with the added bonus that if your opponent has three poison counters, their spell is countered without the ability to pay two and avoid the counter.
Spell Pierce is better because it only costs one mana, making it much easier to play. However, it is what is called a soft counter, which gives the opponent an out to avoid the counter spell by paying two mana.
Bring the Ending is also a soft counter spell but can turn into a hard counter spell (one that doesn’t give an out) if its conditions are met. Hence, you might want to run it in addition to or instead of Spell Pierce.
“Essence Capture” and “Negate”
The next two counter spells I want to highlight are Essence Capture and Negate. Essence Capture is an uncommon instant that costs one generic and one blue, which counters a creature spell and lets you put a +1/+1 counter on one target creature you control.
Negate is a common instant that also costs one generic and one blue, which counters a non-creature spell. Both are conditional, but counter spells for two mana are very strong and worth considering for a control deck in MTG Arena.
“Dissipate” and “Erati’s Scorn”
Then there are Dissipate and Ertai’s Scorn. Dissipate is an uncommon instant that costs one generic and two blue to counter a spell and exile it.
Ertai’s Scorn is also an uncommon instant that costs one generic and two blue to counter a spell, but it costs one less blue mana if your opponent has cast two or more spells this turn.
It’s worth noting that according to MTG rules, you can use Ertai’s Scorn to counter the second spell your opponent casts in a turn and still get the one blue mana discount.
Finally I want to mention Syncopate. It is a common instant for X generic and one blue . It counters and exiles a target spell unless that spell’s controller pays X. This is a soft counter, but given it is so variable and it exiles, it’s well worth considering.
Win Conditions for Control Deck in MTG Arena
In the current Standard format, I do not think there are really any bounce effects worth mentioning. Plus, bounce is one of the weaker forms of control anyway, so I am going to skip it and go straight into a few win conditions for control decks in MTG Arena.
First I want to highlight Tolarian Terror. This is a common 5/5 creature for five generic and one blue. It has Ward 2, meaning if an opponent targets it with a spell or effect, they have to pay an extra two mana or the spell/effect is countered. It also costs one generic less for each instant and sorcery card in your graveyard.
Since we are control, there will be a lot of instant and sorcery cards in our graveyard. This means Tolarian Terror can in theory be a 5/5 that is hard to remove and only costs one blue. That’s really strong and amazing value.
Next, I want to mention Haughty Djinn. It’s a rare creature that costs one generic and two blue. It has flying, which means it can only be blocked by creatures with flying or reach. It also reduces the cost of all your instant and sorcery cards by one generic while it’s on the field.
Haughty Djinn has four toughness, but its power is equal to the number of instant and sorcery cards in your graveyard. In a control deck, that could theoretically mean Haughty Djinn can one-shot your opponent. At the very least, a two-shot is quite common.
Phyrexian Fleshgorger is the first black card I want to mention as a potential win condition for control decks in MTG Arena. It’s a 7/5 mythic creature for seven generic. Alternatively, you can also play this card as a 3/3 for one generic and two black. It has menace (cannot be blocked except by two or more creatures) and lifelink (any damage it deals, you gain as life).
Also, it has Ward. The cost of its Ward requires paying life equal to Phyrexian Fleshgorger’s power. So your opponents will have to pay either seven or three life to even target it, depending on which version you cast.
Because Phyrexian Fleshgorger has good protection and evasion, it’s an ideal win condition for control. The fact that you can play it for three mana as an early tempo play if you need to is a nice bonus.
Sheoldred, the Apocalypse
Up next for black win conditions is Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. She is a 4/5 mythic creature that costs two generic and two black. She has deathtouch, which means any damage she deals to a creature will kill it. While she is on the battlefield, whenever you draw a card, you gain two life, and whenever your opponent draws a card, they lose two life.
She does not have good evasion or protection, but Sheoldred’s ability means she has to be dealt with immediately, or she will become a significant problem.
Finally, I want to mention Phyrexian Obliterator. It is a 5/5 mythic creature that costs five black. It has trample, meaning it deals excess combat damage to the opponent. Whenever it takes damage, your opponent must sacrifice that many permanents, including lands!
This ability makes Phyrexian Obliterator hard to deal with because unless you can outright kill it or counter it, dealing with the Obliterator will cost you a lot of cards. This makes Phyrexian Obliterator a win condition that also functions as removal, an incredibly nasty combination.
Join the High Ground!
Well, this was a long one folks. But if you stuck with it, I hope this guide has taught you how to properly play a control deck in MTG Arena. Have fun countering, killing, and most importantly, drawing cards!
If you have any questions or think we should cover something else, let us know in the comments below! And make sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter for more gaming content.
Good luck building and playing your decks!