Define This: Deck Categories
- Leo Bartolome
Magic is a game of terms. There are dozens of aspects of the game that are poorly defined and many unoffical words have become standard issue. In this article, Moudou will define and codify various deck categories in this, the first part of a longer series on Magic terminology.
The first important step here is establishing what I mean when I talk about deck categories. A deck category has nothing to do with its colors. It has to do with the strategy behind it. This means that you will find no help here if you are trying to build a deck based on colors, arts, editions, or formats. Now that this clarification is out of the way, let's get started!
An Aggro deck is a deck that is very proactive and that will go for the opponent's throat. Aggro is a diminutive form of "aggressive", which perfectly illustrates the style. Aggro decks have almost always been around, with moderate to crushing success. Examples of successful Aggro decks across several formats would be Mono Red in the current Standard, Affinity in Modern, Burn in Legacy or Kari Zev in Brawl.
On the Color Pie, Red has always had one foot and a half in aggression. However, you would be sorely mistaken if you thought that all red decks are Aggro, or that all Aggro decks are red. The former could be easily proven through the likes of Temur Energy or Jund in previous Standard formats, both of which were archetypical Midrange decks. But here is a Mono Red deck that is not Aggro and that Ben Stark took to the finals of a Grand Prix:
|3Dunes of the Dead||4Bomat Courier||3Chandra, Torch of Defiance|
|13Mountain||3Soul-Scar Mage||2Magma Spray|
|4Ramunap Ruins||2Kari Zev, Skyship Raider||2Shock|
|2Scavenger Grounds||3Rampaging Ferocidon||3Abrade|
|3Sunscorched Desert||1Hazoret the Fervent||4Lightning Strike|
|3Sand Strangler||2Treasure Map / Treasure Cove|
|2Chandra's Defeat||2Magma Spray||2Release the Gremlins|
|1Soul-Scar Mage||1Abrade||1Rampaging Ferocidon|
|1Chandra, Torch of Defiance||2Hazoret the Fervent||1Glorybringer|
|2Cut // Ribbons|
The second myth I must bust a little tricky, though still easy to correct. The first example for this would most likely be Craig Wescoe's winning deck at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze:
|9Forest||4Dryad Militant||4Advent of the Wurm|
|9Plains||4Experiment One||4Call of the Conclave|
|1Selesnya Guildgate||4Judge's Familiar||1Civic Saber|
|4Temple Garden||4Loxodon Smiter||4Rootborn Defenses|
|4Voice of Resurgence||4Selesnya Charm|
|2Druid's Deliverance||1Gift of Orzhova||2Glaring Spotlight|
|4Trostani, Selesnya's Voice||4Unflinching Courage||2Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage|
Wescoe has become famous as the best “White Weenie” pilot in the world (the at least the most persistent). This is a kind of strategy that tends to play Aggro without playing red. But here is another one, food for thought before we go to the next definition.
A Control deck is a deck that is very reactive and will wait to set the game up in its favor before moving forward. As its name states it, this kind of strategy is looking to control the opponent and the game more than it is looking to win fast. Examples of successful Control decks across several formats would be Esper Control in the current Standard, UW Control in Modern, Miracles in Legacy or Nicol Bolas in Brawl.
On the Color Pie, Blue has a natural tendency to fit right in Control Strategies. It provides Card Advantage to sustain long games, as well as many permission spells to control the stack. However once again, Control and Blue are two different things. A blue deck is definitely not always a Control deck, much like Modern Merfolk for instance.
Finding a Control deck without blue is much harder than finding an Aggro deck without red. However, in recent Standard, we have seen examples of such decks, heavily based on white and setting up an Approach of the Second Sun:
|2Arch of Orazca||1Authority of the Consuls||1Settle the Wreckage|
|3Field of Ruin||4Baffling End||4Fumigate|
|14Plains||2Thopter Arrest||3Approach of the Second Sun|
|4Scavenger Grounds||4Cast Out||1Thaumatic Compass / Spires of Orazca|
|3Shefet Dunes||4Ixalan's Binding||4Treasure Map / Treasure Cove|
|2The Immortal Sun|
|3Walking Ballista||2Authority of the Consuls||3Adanto Vanguard|
|3Adorned Pouncer||4Regal Caracal|
A Combo deck seeks to assemble a several cards that will win the game on the spot. Combo stands for "combination". The combo may or may not be vital to the deck, some people dislike calling a deck "combo" if it isn't fully dedicated to assembling it. Examples of successful purely combo decks across formats would be Storm in Modern, Ad Nauseam Tendrils in Legacy, Paradoxical Outcome in Vintage. Some combo decks that are not as fully dedicated to assembling a winning combo would be Rally in previous Standard or Valakut in Modern for example.
There are decks where the line is thin, and one can tweak them to go more or less towards a combo in the deck. The most notorious example for this would be Vizier Company in Modern. A deck can be built to rush to the combo and win on turn 2, like this:
|2Burrenton Forge-Tender||2Shapers' Sanctuary||2Defense Grid|
|1Qasali Pridemage||1Scavenging Ooze||1Selfless Spirit|
|1Reclamation Sage||2Tireless Tracker||3Obstinate Baloth|
Even though the combo has a strong part in the deck, there is a real option of just attacking with creatures, getting value from them and winning the game in a fair way. There have been several examples of this across Magic history, and combos can be used as finishers in Control decks, as they will get the situation under control before slamming the combo. On of the best examples I can come up with here is Splinter Twin in Modern before it was banned. Does that make them Control or combo? You'll have to make up your mind on your own I guess. But trickier still, what about a deck that seeks to assemble a combination of cards that does not win the game on the spot? Is that a combo deck too? Was this a combo deck? Food for thought, you can draw the line yourself…
|4Aether Hub||4Rogue Refiner||2Chandra, Flamecaller|
|3Botanical Sanctum||1Tireless Tracker||4Attune with Aether|
|2Cinder Glade||4Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger||3Censor|
|1Mountain||4Glimmer of Genius|
|2Shrine of the Forsaken Gods||4Woodweaver's Puzzleknot|
|4Spirebluff Canal||4Aetherworks Marvel|
|1Shrine of the Forsaken Gods||2Dispel||3Aether Meltdown|
|1Negate||3Sweltering Suns||2Tireless Tracker|
|1Confiscation Coup||2Ulvenwald Hydra|
A Ramp deck seeks to produce absurd quantities of mana as soon as possible. Ramp refers to launching ramp, as this strategy tends to take some time gather mana in the first few turns before really taking off and playing huge payoffs. Most notable Ramp decks are RG Ramp in past Standard, Tron in Modern, Cloudpost in Legacy or Azusa, Lost but Seeking in Commander.
On the Color Pie, this is where Green shines. Now, of course, not all green decks are Ramp decks, as we have seen already, but almost every Ramp deck has some amount of green in it. I could only think of one counter-example for this, so if you have some more examples of Ramp decks that play no green, please share them with me!
A Prison deck, much like its name inspires, is set to lock opponents out of doing one or several actions. This can be casting spells via Blood Moon, attacking via Ensnaring Bridge or even drawing good cards with the combination of Codex Shredderand Lantern of Insight. Famous Prison decks involve Lantern Control in Modern and Mono Red Prison in Legacy, but there are many kinds of prison. In a way, Miracles was a prison deck before Sensei's Divining Top was banned from Legacy.
Most lock pieces are quite common: Chalice of the Void, Blood Moon, Ensnaring Bridge, the best cards to lock someone out of a game are known already. It is unfortunately quite hard to find a prison deck that sets new standards of originality.
Tribal is nothing but a word that adds itself to a deck, but it does not designate any particular kind of strategy. It only implies that the deck is relying on synergies related to creature types, rather than other options. However, if this is not in itself a clear description of one's strategy, most tribes are iconic and mentioning the tribe often implies a certain strategy. Most notably, Modern Humans is a known deck, and if someone mentions that they play Tribal Humans, you might at the very least expect some aggressive and disruptive behavior. Same goes for Legacy Goblins for example.
However, do not jump to conclusions when someone mentions they are playing Tribal Constructs in Standard, as it could designate several strategies with equal likelihood. I'm sure you can see how this deck is quite aggressive:
|4Blooming Marsh||4Walking Ballista||4Karn, Scion of Urza|
|11Forest||4Llanowar Elves||4Adventurous Impulse|
|2Ifnir Deadlands||4Metallic Mimic||2Fatal Push|
|4Woodland Cemetery||4Winding Constrictor|
|4Duress||2Cast Down||2Crushing Canopy|
|3Lifecrafter's Bestiary||2Manglehorn||1Scrap Trawler|
|1Hour of Glory|
However, this is another Tribal Construct deck that has seen about as much play, and it is much more passive and combo-ish.
So don't forget: "Tribal" alone, much like the card type, does not mean anything. It is only a shortcut meant to imply some information regarding the tribe.
Midrange is a term that designs a strategy that is hard to define properly. I think we can say for sure that Midrange decks are built and played to have the flexibility of choosing to be the aggressor or the defending player, and to switch easily from one position to the other within a game. This is a vague definition, and I have made it such on purpose. This definition has been the subject of a years-long discussion with my friend Gold Pro Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, and I would be making noxious shortcuts by trying to define it more than that.
There have almost always been successful midrange decks across all formats. B/R Vehicles is the best one in Standard right now, Modern Jund might just be the best illustration you'll ever get for a Midrange deck, and Grixis Delver would be a good example in Legacy. However, there are some very interesting ways to build a Midrange strategy, so I'm sure you'll find plenty of examples of unorthodox Midrange decks. There is no mold here.
Drawing the line between Aggro-Control and Midrange is very tough, but I'll try and give it a shot. According to me, an Aggro-Contro deck is an aggressive strategy that incorporates disruptive elements to control at least a bit the opponent. I am sure you can see how similar this is to a Midrange deck, as a Midrange strategy will incorporate some proactive elements as well as some reactive ones as well. The difference lies within the orientation of the strategy. While a Midrange deck will easily accept to take a defending position, an Aggro Control deck will have trouble if it ends up in that spot.
Some classic examples of true Aggro-Control decks involve Patrick Chapin's U/R Delver back in the 2015 Players' Championship, in U/R Delver in Legacy and in U/R Wizards in current Standard. I think you get the jig now: this kind of deck tends to look like a U/R Control deck with some early aggression that the deck can protect over the course of a few turns. As always, nothing is set in stone, but this is the style of deck we're looking at.
We shall conclude this brief review with another hybrid category. Aggro-Combo designs an archetype that is mostly aggressive, but that can close a game out of nowhere due to a certain combination of cards. Said combination is most often not a game-winning combo in any circumstance, but it gives a huge boost to the strategy.
Much like Aggro decks, the boost in the deck does not have to make your opponent loose life points to be relevant. Classic examples of this are Modern Infect, Atarka Red from Tarkir Standard and Elves in Legacy. The presence of Archive Trap in the aforementioned U/B Mill deck can also be seen as an indicator of an Aggro-Combo deck.
This is the end of this first chapter. I realize that entering a complex game with a complex vocabulary can be daunting. I want to help all newcomers understand a game that no one can dislike. Which is why, if you guys liked it, let me know down in the comments and I'll keep going. Anything you'd like to understand? Let me know about it! I'm happy to help and to change a bit my expected program to help you with my articles. So cheer up, have fun and I'll see you next time!
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