Welcome back to Meta Watch, where each week we discuss a different deck archetype that is driving the competitive metagame. Last week we discussed Rush, a deck style that seems to be absolutely dominating the metagame lately. This week, I want to talk about one of the deck types that might have the tools to stand up to even the fastest rush decks out there.
There are lots of different styles of board control decks but simply put, this style of deck likes to see a whole bunch of powerful creatures and artifacts out on their side of the board and next to nothing on their opponent’s side. But playing big creatures isn’t the only part of focusing on board control, there are a lot of different tools that can help a deck control the board and capitalize on that control.
What is Board Control?
While it might seem like an obvious term to a lot of players, we’re gonna go ahead and define it anyway. Board control is all about maintaining an advantage on the board by have more creatures and artifacts with powerful abilities than your opponent. Beyond these powerful creatures and artifacts, there are a lot of tools that can help establish and maintain this control.
Fight Enablers: The first of these tools are what I call “fight enablers” or cards that allow you to use your creatures to fight more often than you would normally be able to. Examples of this include Gauntlet of Command, Relentless Assault, The Grey Rider, and Scout. Fighting is going to be your primary strategy for getting your opponent’s creatures off the board but playing a creature and then waiting at least one turn to fight with it can often be too slow against really dangerous threats like Witch of the Eye or Tezmal. For these situations, being able to play a creature and immediately fight with it using Gauntlet of Command or They Grey Rider can make a huge difference. On top of this, if your opponent doesn’t have any creatures out for you to fight, some of these cards turn into free reaps, meaning you will get value out of them even if (or maybe especially if) you are unable to fight. Simply put, having these fight enablers allows you to play faster, giving you a response to decks trying to end the game by turn 8.
Removal: Next up is removal. Against elusive, taunt, or Shadow Self, fighting can be very inefficient for removing your opponent’s threats. For these situations, having targeted removal can be extremely valuable. Against creatures with taunt and/or elusive, cards like Relentless Whispers, Twin Bolt Emission, and First Blood can effectively get around fighting restrictions to remove threats that are protected. Unfortunately, against Shadow Self, removal based on damage will still be pretty ineffective. For this reason, destroy effects like Hand of Dis, Bulleteye, and Bouncing Deathquark are at a premium in a board control deck. In a pinch, cards like Standardized Testing or Coward’s End can do the trick but run the risk of hitting your own board pretty hard without adequate setup.
Control: Cards that can control or restrict your opponent when they remain on the board can do a lot of work in maintaining dominance. This includes reducing an opponent’s hand size with Succubus, Streke, Tocsin, or Subtle Maul and restricting their house choice with Restringuntus or Tezmal. Additionally, creatures like Witch of the Eye or Novu Archaeologist can be used to recur action cards like Control the Weak, Nature’s Call, Scrambler Storm, or Miasma that can control opponents in one way or another. Ember Imp is often one of the best cards for maintaining board dominance, as it prevents your opponent from dumping a hand full of creatures on the board to combat your own creature presence.
Protection: To make effective use of these powerful but fragile creatures, it is important that you have the ability to protect them. Creatures with taunt like Yxilx Dominator or Rothais the Fierce can prevent opponents from fighting your creatures to destroy them, while Shadow Self prevents any damage until it is gone. Additionally, upgrades like Flame-Wreathed, Killzord Mk. 9001, and Armageddon Cloak can make those creatures much more difficult to take out.
Having some combination of these resources on top of a high number of large creatures is what makes a board control deck run away with games, rather than fizzle as creatures accumulate more and more damage from fighting turn after turn.
So a board control deck is one that, rather than using primarily action cards and play effects, focuses on using powerful creatures and creature/artifact abilities to get ahead. But given that there is some measure of board control within every deck, it can be tough to define what makes an effective “board control deck” rather than just a deck with a lot of board control. While any deck can have strong board control or board presence, the best board control decks have a way to capitalize on having that board control in a big way. This can include cards like Smith and Flaxia that give you aember bonuses for having more creatures than your opponent, creatures who reap for two aember like Dew Faerie and Foozle, or Crystal Hive which can turn each your creatures into Dew Faeries and Foozles.
At the recent Italy vault tour there was a deck in the top 8 (the only AoA deck to make it that far!) that checks all of my boxes for a great board control deck.
To start, this beauty has 25 creatures, most of which are either big bodies like Lollop the Titanic and Titan Mechanic or small creatures with powerful abilities like Professor Sutterkin and Logos Ambassador. It has fight enablers in the two copies of Ganger Chieftain and the Logos Ambassador, it has removal with Flamewake Shaman, Poke, and Bingle Bangbang, it has control with Harland Mindlock and value with Professor Sutterkin, and it has protection with Blood of Titans, Archimedes, and Abond the Armorsmith. Above all, this deck has ways to capitalize on its board control with Grump Buggy, Proclamation 346E, and Might Makes Right. Both Grump Buggy and Proclamation can increase the cost of your opponent’s keys by keeping large creatures on your side of the board and destroying creatures opposite you. Packing eight creatures with power 5 or higher plus “Lion” Bautrem to potentially increase that number to ten, this deck has the potential to increase key cost to +12 at the maximum and can reliably increase cost to at least +3 or +4. All this power and key control comes at the cost of relatively low aember generation, but this is where Might Makes Right comes in. With over 100 power across creatures in this deck, getting to 25 for Might Makes Right is a breeze, meaning the deck really only needs to forge two keys with aember, potentially fewer if it can cycle fast enough to play Might Makes Right multiple times. And to top it all off, if the creatures sacrificed for the effect are next to Archimedes and thus archived, it’s just about as close to a totally free key as you can get.
How to Beat It
Staring down a board full of beefy creatures with powerful effects can be quite daunting but worry not, there are a few strategies you can employ to take down even the most impenetrable fortresses.
Board Wipes: For most board control decks, a board wipe like Unlocked Gateway or The Spirit’s Way can be absolutely devastating. Even the above deck was taken down by a very well-timed Coward’s End (among other things) in the top 8 match in Bologna. In many cases, however, a single copy of one of these cards isn’t going to be quite enough to overcome the sheer number of creatures your opponent is putting down. To consistently overcome a board control deck, you’re going to want at least two board wipe-type cards including Gateway to Dis, Key to Dis, Numquid the Fair, Coward’s End, or even Save the Pack or Standardized testing depending on your opponent’s board state.
Artifact Destruction: It is almost never a bad idea to pack a bit of artifact control in your deck but against board control, it can absolutely make or break a match. Grump Buggy, Proclamation 346E, Lash of Broken Dreams, Iron Obelisk, and Pile of Skulls can all be huge roadblocks to you forging keys, Haedroth’s Wall and Banner of Battle can make enemy creatures really tough to take out, and almost any combination of three shards can have a huge impact on a match. Being able to take out one or more of these artifacts can often give you the boost you need to edge out a victory. Important to note here, however, is that effects that just use or bounce your opponent’s artifacts to their hands likely won’t be very effective against board control, since almost all of the above artifacts have static effects that are always active regardless of whether the artifact is exhausted or not. Additionally, considering the sheer number of high-impact artifacts your board control opponent might have, a single copy of Poltergeist or Destroy them All may not be enough. The best answer here is hands down EMP Blast, as long as you aren’t destroying too many of your own artifacts or stunning your own creatures.
Board Presence: Many of the strategies board control decks employ rely on being ahead on the board. If you have a similar number of creatures to your opponent, Unguarded Camp and Pandemonium lose a lot of effectiveness and if you are ahead on creatures, Flaxia and Smith lose their aember bonuses. Additionally, Grump Buggy can be used to your own advantage by increasing your opponent’s key cost and you can nullify Proclamation 346E by possessing creatures from three houses (note: any three houses will do here, so cards like Hypnobeam or Collar of Subordination can be used to steal a creature from a house that isn’t in your deck to act as extra insurance). If the only creature that can be fought on your side of the board Is an Yxilx Dominator or a Rothais the Fierce, fight enablers become much weaker and so on and so forth. By presenting your own powerful board presence, you can prevent a board control opponent from capitalizing on their board state, even if that board presence is just a handful of big taunt creatures.
The top 8 finish of Harley, l’Acuto dell’Obitorio Leggero at the Italy vault tour suggests that board control focused strategies are some of the most effective coming out of AoA and I for one am excited to see how these decks can stand up to the deluge of Rush decks that seem to be dominating at the moment. The next vault tour is in just over a week in Nürnberg, Germany and with an Archon Survival main event, there is a lot of potential for players to really shake up the metagame. Who knows, maybe we’ll see one of these board control decks take the whole tournament. Until then, happy reaping!