Magic the Gathering: Agency vs Control



Last night I played the paper version of Magic: the Gathering for the first time in years. A gracious player at Yancy Street Comics & Games created a draft game using his own cards as the source material, and he invited several people – including me – to play. There was no pressure to spend money (the cards were provided) and there was no prize at stake other than the thrill of friendly competition. I built a deck overflowing with Thallids and Saprolings and managed four wins, four loses, to come in fourth place in the impromptu tournament.

Everything went swimmingly, and I had a great time, until I ran into the Control Deck.

There’s no single strategy to winning at Magic: the Gathering. You can generate hordes of weak ‘weenie’ creatures to overrun your opponent’s defenses, like I did with my Saproling deck. You can play ‘aggro’, loading your deck up with fast, mean, underpriced creatures, like the Goblin / Giant deck that narrowly defeated me in the second round. You can try strategies involving life-gain, or card-milling, or flying creatures. So long as in the end you burn through your opponent’s library or pummel them into oblivion, anything goes.

So why did I have a beef with the Control Deck? Well, Control Decks are built entirely around shutting your opponent’s strategy down. It’s all about denying them agency, undoing any attempt that they make to build a path to victory. When I faced the Control Deck, powerful red spells murdered my Thallids before they could sprout Saprolings. Some blue spells countered my cards in mid-cast, causing them to fizzle out like a wet firecracker. Other blue spells bounced my cards back into my hand or back onto the top of my library, thus preventing me from drawing suitable replacements. The momentum of the games ground to a shuddering halt, and all I could do was sit there and take it, because none of the cards at my disposal could offer an effective counter-strategy.

I didn’t mind losing. In fact, I relished the losses that grew out of close contests, where the uncertainty of the outcome kept both players on pins and needles. What bothered me was the impression that I couldn’t even play. Every move I made was denied, denied, denied. Sorry, Charlie. No Magic for you.

Blue Control is based on a broken design philosophy, one that grants one player a greater degree of agency than his or her opponent. It makes every game asymmetrical, but not in a balanced or entertaining way.

(Post scriptum: Jace Beleren is a jerk.)

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