What makes a control deck? It's a complicated question, partially because there is a lot of crossover between midrange and control decks. There's even some crossover between combo and control decks. This series isn't trying to create a comprehensive definition of what makes a control deck in Eternal, and instead I hope to look at some decks across the history of the game and discuss their card choices in regard to available card pool and meta they found themselves in. Meta note: this article was written before the release of Dark Frontier. Sorry for the delay!
Players in the community have defined the difference between a midrange and control deck as such: a midrange deck seeks to survive the early game and win using high-quality individual cards, while a control deck seeks the same but wins via card advantage. I'm not going to go to into card advantage, and instead point over to LocoPojo's article on card advantage (curiously called Valuetown and not Playing for Advantage). When I classify a deck as a control deck in Eternal, I mainly look at one thing: does the deck need to make it to the most expensive cards that it has in order to win?
Let's take a look at our first case study from the ETS Season 5 Invitational. Mouche's TJP Chalice has a lot of units at the low end that look like they belong in a faster deck than control. Desert Marshal is a mainstay of TJx control decks thanks to silencing problematic units and ensuring a good block thanks to how timing windows work, but Temple Scribe and Amber Acolyte are just as at home in tokens lists as this one. Working up the curve and into non-units, there is some removal in Vanquish and Eilyn's Choice, as well as classic card draw in Wisdom of the Elders. So far, this could easily be a midrange list that forgoes a strong play on 3 for extra staying power on turns 4 and onward. It's when we make it to the last 4 cards in the deck that it becomes clear that this is not a midrange list.
Earlier in the year, I would have said that you won't really find a serious midrange deck running Harsh Rules in the maindeck. Rule is often too slow when trying to stabilize against aggro (and doesn't hit Aegis units while killing your units that might block them), and is only good in the midrange mirror when you are behind. This is why it often shows up in the market of any midrange deck running J. In this list, Harsh Rule seeks to perform the same role as Wisdom by trading one card for more than one card of advantage. Note that this deck contains only cards from the first two sets and the first campaign, so no Hailstorm.
Lumen Defender seems like a silly inclusion in a control deck these days, but its inclusion makes sense here for two reasons. First, the overall card quality is lower when the card pool is smaller, so Defender is comparatively better in this deck than in, say, a deck with access to 5 sets of cards and 5 campaigns. The second reason for inclusion is thanks to the namesake card of the deck, Crystalline Chalice. Now we see the reason to play so many small units in combination with Harsh Rule. These units can trade or preserve health against aggro early, then draw cards later in the game. Each unit provides utility and card advantage in the right circumstance, and Channel the Tempest becomes the real finisher, since even at 4/3, that Amber Acolyte isn't going to go the distance on turn 6+.
It's that turn 6+ part that puts TJP Chalice into the category of control in my book (through 4x Harsh Rule is another good indicator). This deck isn't pressuring the opponent on turn 4 when it drops an Archive Curator instead of a Sandstorm Titan. It isn't getting ready to close out the game with some well-timed removal on turn 7. It's just getting the card advantage engine started at that point. This isn't to say all control decks can't turn the corner (go from a losing position to a winning one) quickly, but this one certainly doesn't. A fair amount of damage to the opponent is probably going to come from those Channels after drawing heaps of cards off of dorky units.
Chalice is a great example of a control deck that is more or less all-in on creating card advantage and finishing off the game at its own pace. One of the aspects that makes it great is that while drawing small units late in the game is ideal to get the extra card off of Chalice, they provide utility by blocking early and well. Next, we'll jump ahead to the ETS 2018 Season 1 Invitational, which had cards up through set 3 and campaign 3.
This Icaria Blue deck by trumpets offers a different texture of control deck than Chalice. There are some shared cards in Eilyn's Choice, Wisdom, and Auric Runehammer, but all of the T cards have been swapped out for F cards. We still see 4 Harsh Rule for stabilizing and providing card advantage (assuming the opponent has overextended into it), but Hailstorm also shows up as a 3-of. Like the last deck, IBlue hopes to win the game via its namesake card, Icaria, the Liberator. We see some silence in Valkyrie Enforcer and extra armor for a buffer or bigger weapon with Throne Warden, but Icaria steals the show as THE way to finish the game. Considering 4x Rise to the Challenge means Icaria comes out as a 7/5 as often as she doesn't, we can again see that this deck would struggle to close out games without reaching 8 power. It's nice to see the Starsteel Daisho and Sword of the Sky King in as extra targets for Rise that attack on a different axis. The increased card pool at this point has led to a diversity of threats from other decks, meaning a more diverse range of answers and win conditions is required. Imagine trying to play the above Chalice list after your opponent hits your first Chalice with Vision of Austerity from the second campaign.
We also start to see in this list a tendency towards cheaper interaction. The Chalice deck had just 4x Seek Power at 1 and 2 copies of hard removal at 2-cost (as well as 4x softer removal in Marshal). IBlue has 4x Torch at 1 alongside the Seeks, and 4x Vanquish + 4x Kaleb's Choice at 2. At this point we're back to the question: can this deck win without the expensive stuff at 6+? I would say it fares only a little better than Chalice. Hailstorm actually kills the best turn 3-4 threat of Enforcer, and you're probably using Hailstorm often just to stay alive. Rise for Runehammer on 5 might be a good clock against an enemy player with no board, but looks pretty silly against any type of presence from the opponent (including Vara's Favor and Nightfall). Again, we've checked all of the boxes for identifying a control deck, and learned a bit about their construction along the way.
We finally make it to DWD moneyed tournaments with Reunion. This event had cards all the way through set 4 and campaign 4 available. Fall of Argenport saw probably the biggest deckbuilding shakeup in Eternal's history with the addition of markets. This addition cut both ways for control decks. Access to a market meant that at least some of the expensive win conditions could be excluded from the maindeck and accessed only when they were castable. It also meant that more narrow answers to problematic or otherwise difficult-to-interact-with cards could be accessed regularly without being a dead draw in some games. On the other hand, markets meant that decks hoping to beat control before it turned the corner had access to markets full of new attack vectors and inexpensive removal when they needed it most (I'm looking at you, Permafrost/Vanquish).
The FJS Control list by crankypanda nixes P entirely for the more efficient removal offered by S. Looking through the list for the hallmarks of a control deck we see... 4x of one unit below 4-cost, and a total of 10 units under 6-cost. That's probably not closing out the game too quickly, although one should never underestimate the power of a Vara, Vengeance-Seeker on an empty board. The loss of P means no Hailstorm, but Devastating Setback can do similar work in some situations. Cauldron Cookbook replaces Wisdom as the "pay 3" draw mechanism of choice, and Icaria returns alongside SotSK as finishers. Rizahn has the ability to turn the corner (especially with the original text requiring 3 spells in the void for Lifesteal), but without presenting all that many targets for the opponent's removal before playing Rizahn, he's likely not long for this world. The other notable contradiction to my pending definition of what makes a control deck is Statuary Maiden. Maiden alongside removal can beat down very quickly, but with only 2 in the maindeck and no way to protect her, I see similar problems to assuming that Rizahn will go the distance. These early units seek to slow the opponent down and draw out removal to make Icaria harder to answer.
Players may look back on this iteration of FJS with affection, mostly thanks to the next main iteration that can be found after Defiance dropped in the Burning Hope ECQ. trumpets's FJS Control list shares similarities with the previous one, but the main card advantage engine of the deck moved from what was considered a fairly answerable (albeit annoying) card in Cookbook to the boogeyman of the format: 8x smuggler + Xo of the Endless Hoard. The rest of the deck is roughly similar, although Display of Ambition offers extra lategame strength without sacrificing a deck slot of midgame removal. Can this deck win without reaching the top of its curve? Red Canyon smuggler is a good card, but actually only offers 1 extra point of damage per turn over Ixtun Merchant. Vara and Maiden are both good midrange threats, so I would say this deck leans the most towards midrange of any of the lists featured so far. Jumping straight from 4 to 6-7 on the curve does indicate that there is some expectation that the deck will reach those higher costs, so that's something. I think the most telling feature that the deck isn't purely control is the lack of Rule. Playing those extra smugglers provides a board presence and decent bodies that seem silly to wipe away on turn 5 alongside maybe 3 of the opponents units, effectively trading 2-3 cards for 3. It's an open question, but it does well to prepare us for the control deck we all love to hate.
Feln Mid/Control is a deck that has always been around in Eternal. This list by Johnkkez from The Winter Crown ECQ is one of the more recent iterations. The deckbuilding concept is entirely transparent: P is good at drawing cards, S is good at killing units. If I kill enough units while drawing cards, eventually my opponent won't have units and I'll still have cards. If we look at this list which has the benefit of years of Feln decks to learn from, we can see 14 removal spells, 10 draw spells (+3 to one of those two for however you categorize Dizo's office), 4 merchants, and 12 other units (shoutout to Vara's Favor for being bad beats Seek Power). With a spread like this, the only thing stopping Feln mirrors from being complete standstills is the extra virtual units out of the market in Dark Return + Vara, Fate-Touched and Champion of Cunning's Aegis.
Can the deck win before reaching the most expensive cards? No, especially since Vara will often be the first unit that gets played and may not even be played on curve if there is a removal spell with a target or cards that can be drawn. So why is this deck sometimes classified as Feln Mid? Well, for one the curve is lower. Topping out at 7 for a site, 6 for a single playset of a unit, then everything else under 6-cost means that the deck plays what could be considered midrange threats (those that come out in the midgame and have a good impact on the board). The deck also has the capability to run out a threat on turn 4-5, then back it up with removal all the way to a win. Both of these aspects mean that Feln Mid is a label on this sort of deck as often as Feln Control is.
For the second time then, is this a control deck? The first definition gives us an unclear answer, since this deck seeks to win both through card advantage and card quality. All of the answers are efficient. All of the units are independently good. There are a lot of similarities to FJS control in that regard. As to our second definition, I think it becomes only a little more clear. Can the deck win without reaching 6+? Yes. Is that the main objective or the means by which it wins often? No. Just like a combo/synergy deck can sometimes jank the opponent out with bad 3/1s or whatever, Feln Control sometimes just kills you with a solo ChaCu. That isn't the game plan from the starting gun, however.
So multiple iterations of control decks, some hazy definitions, and lots of analysis lead us to this point: I don't particularly like playing control decks. I appreciate that they offer decision points that carry more weight than a midrange (or aggro, if you prefer) deck might. I appreciate that they balance out the meta by having decent matchups against midrange and worse matchups against aggro in most cases. I appreciate the players who are able to play them quickly and expertly so their opponents don't spend 20 minutes losing to the 3rd ChaCu after finally running out of removal. Recently I played a control deck that I liked and it was mainly because... it was more difficult to play?
Enter 4f Exodia by Batteriez. This deck is messed up. We see Marshal make a triumphant return from the earlier Chalice deck and 8x smuggler from FJS (no Xo backup, however). There are 6x Rule effects and basically no real win conditions before 8 (though I have smacked some people to death with Stormhalt Knife). Note: Martyr's Chains was nerfed to 9 in the most recent balancing, so now you can not win early in a whole new way! The deck has Recon Tower because it is king durdle and sometimes needs power to either get to 8+ or get empower triggers after playing a big relic. Card quality is not great (I see you there, Display of Vision). It all comes together to make a deck that shouldn't work. It has a bit of early interaction, but not enough to shut down aggro. It has some removal and smuggler bodies for the midgame, but nothing that stands up to SST, Vara, or really anything seeing play right now. It tops out with singleton copies of 2 of the 3 most expensive relics in the game when most players have relic removal in the market. It melts my brain every time I play a game and I love it.
Have I reached a breaking point with all of the greedpiles running around the meta and just like watching them suffer? Maybe. Ok, definitely. Have I gotten sick of watching my baby Xenan Mid get beaten up by FJS Xo, JPx Palace, and FTP peaks? Yes. Will there be better footage in the next installment of this article? Hopefully. Also some control lists from rekenner, who has way too much data on beta decklists. Up next I discuss how removal in decks is tailored to the meta and why Temporal is really just the worst.