Switching Roles: When Do You Play as the Control Deck or the Aggro Deck?

A very important but often overlooked aspect to playing Magic is when to switch between playing as the control deck or the aggro deck. Often times players get stuck in the habit of playing one way or the other, often going through countless numbers of games playing one way when it would’ve been better to play from a different angle. So today we are going to discuss the implications of deciding whether you are the aggro or control player in a given game. This idea won’t apply to every match-up, and in general combo decks do not really follow these rules, however midrange, tempo, aggro and some control strategies are definitely affected by this concept.

For this article I will be using Modern Merfolk as an example. Here is a deck list for those unfamiliar with the deck:

Modern Merfolk

Lands (20)
Cavern of Souls
12 Island
Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
Oboro, Palace in the Clouds

Creatures (26)
Harbinger of the Tides
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Lord of Atlantis
Master of Waves
Master of the Pearl Trident
Merrow Reejerey
Silvergill Adept

Instants and Sorceries (6)
Mana Leak
Vapor Snag

Other Spells (8)
Aether Vial
Spreading Seas

Sidboard (15)
Ceremonious Rejection
Spell Pierce
Tidebinder Mage
Ghost Quarter
Grafdigger’s Cage
Hurkyl’s Recall
Relic of Progenitus
Unified Will

When playing a specific match-up it is important to note whether you are the control or aggro player in said match-up.

It is important to know that various situations can come up which can change the tides of a game and how you play, such as: whether you are on the play or not, what deck your opponent is playing, what they are playing on the early turns, and what your hand looks like. All of these factors can contribute to how you should or could play a game optimally.

Traditionally Merfolk is an aggro-tempo deck, meaning that it tries to gain incremental value out of its few spells, and close out with very powerful creatures to win games. In the majority of match-ups a Merfolk player will be on the aggro plan, however there are some situations where it is more optimal for a pilot to switch over to the control plan. For example, the deck Zoo is much faster than Merfolk, but suffers from land removal and mana base issues. So in a game against Zoo, it is more optimal for a Merfolk deck to play a tempo control plan, opting to play more defensively and utilize spreading seas to get an opponent off of the colors they need. Not to mention Merfolk just can’t keep up with Zoo in terms of pure speed and ability to deal damage quickly. However if you take the same Merfolk deck and pit it up against a Grixis Delver deck, then it is entirely correct to be playing the aggro plan. Against Grixis, which is a much slower deck, the Merfolk deck is going to be the deck laying down all of the threats quickly, and the Grixis deck is the deck that is going to have to be using its various counter spells and removal to keep up. In general this rule applies to almost every match up that involves regular aggro, tempo, and control decks.

Sometimes whether you are the aggro or control deck can even change depending on if you are on the play, and based on what your opponent plays on the first few turns. It is important to pay attention to how your match-up pans out, and be prepared to switch your plan from aggro to control based on what is going on in the current game state. For example if a Jund player has 1 card in hand, and three goyfs on board, and you have only two Merfolk lords but 4 other spells in your hand, what would typically be the control deck (Jund), has now turned into the aggro deck. In situations like this it is incredibly vital to realize and read the board state to alter how you play out in a specific game. While yes you could play another lord to get through damage, it might be better to use your Harbinger of the Tides to bounce their goyf and hold up counter magic for when they play it again.

What about combo?

So that’s all good, regular fair decks are fairly straight forward, but you might be wondering what about combo decks? How are you supposed to gauge whether you are the control or aggro deck against a combo match-up? And to this I say, neither and both. In a combo match up your goal should not only be to disrupt their combo, but also push through damage and efficiently close out the game. In the case of Merfolk this would mean don’t just play out all of your Merfolk as quickly as possible as you would in an aggro match, but hold back mana for counter spells, and use keep up lot’s of disruption for your opponents combo. Don’t neglect your creatures however! It is still very important to get through damage against most combo decks, because even if their initial combo is stopped they can always rebuild, and sometimes all you can do is drastically slow them down, just buying yourself enough time to deal sufficient damage to win, all the while having the threat of the combo looming over. Typically playing against a combo deck is a race against yourself, how quickly you can hinder their plans and how efficiently you can deal damage to them at the same time will ultimately decide the outcome of the match.

What about similar match-ups?

The concept of aggro vs control also applies to mirror matches and similar match ups. However depending on if you go first or second and what your hand is consistent of is what really affects how you should be playing. If you are on the play in a mirror match, typically you will be playing as the aggro deck, and thus it is important to sideboard appropriately. However if you are on the draw it is more likely that for that match you will be a step behind your opponents board state, and more likely to be made the control player in that match. But again it is also important to read your opponents plays and board state, in a mirror match the tides of who is who can change very quickly based on what both players have in their hands and on board. So just be aware that you may need to switch to either an aggro or control plan depending on what transpires in a given game.

Basically when you are playing midrange, tempo, and aggro decks, it is important to understand how to gauge match-ups and the state of a game to decide whether you are the control player or the aggro player. Being aware of this can help you play more optimally and perhaps win games that previously seemed unwinnable. By no means is this a magical answer to playing perfectly, or winning bad match-ups, but it can really help to understand how to do. So the next time you’re playing a game, try and figure out whether you are the aggro or control player in that match-up and it just might help you win the match.

I hope this article was helpful to you in some way! Do you have any experience with this concept or any fun stories involving it? If you let us know in the comments below!

And as always, happy gaming!



Sylvan Studies Team
- A swords a day keeps the goyfs away.

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