One of the things which attracts me about Magic: The Gathering is that there’s so much to learn and understand, there’s always something to discover or think about. I’ve spent a lot of time recently mulling over what different deck archetypes do and how they work simply because I find classifying and understanding these things fascinating in its own right.
That being said, there’s a great practical advantage to understanding what differentiates different deck archetypes – what makes each archetype different, how their similarities play off against each other, and so on. If you know, for example, that you’re building a tempo deck, you’ll want to aim for certain kinds of creature and certain types of spell. So, what ways of thinking are useful for describing deck archetypes?
Magic players tend to know exactly what they mean when they say “aggro”, “control”, and “combo”, so let’s start there. The main differentiator between aggro and control is easy to spot – it’s creature density. So that must be one of the defining features, but combo and control both tend to be low on the creature count – what gives? Well, the difference between control and combo is that control tends to interact a lot with their opponent – so interaction is another major factor. Now we’ve identified two major components which differentiate the three straightforward archetypes, we can use these parameters to form a pair of axes. Think of it as a kind of map – we’re going to place different archetypes in different regions of the map which correspond to different combinations of creature density and interaction. Let’s start by placing the idealized versions on the graph – a platonic aggro deck is 100% creature, a platonic control deck is 100% interaction, and a platonic combo deck is 0% of both.
I’ve also labelled two regions – where I think “fair” magic happens and where you get Powerful Magic (TM). Powerful Magic happens when you can stack your deck full of creatures or interaction, and still have a very high score in the other axis as well. Fair magic is more like Magic as everyone would like it to be played – with tradeoffs involved but an overall high power level.
Now no control deck is 100% counterspells , and aggro decks usually have removal, so most decks exist not as a single point on this map, but over a region. Let’s label roughly where the three big archetypes lie by marking out their territory.
Now we see that there’s a big no-man’s-land between control and aggro, and another one between combo and aggro. What gives? Well, those regions don’t tend to fit the game plan of the three main archetypes very well. A control deck which is 50% creatures and 50% interaction doesn’t function very well as a control deck. So, either no decks are competitive with an even split, or there are other game plans which can win with different tradeoffs. This is where the more difficult deck archetypes come in. Let’s explore it first by looking at decks which involve a lot of creatures, but still run a game plan which looks a lot like combo. I’ve not heard a convincing name for this archetype, so I’ll just call it pseudo-combo, but you might also call it synergy or creature combo. It lies right on the axis between combo and aggro.
But there’s an overlap! This represents the idea that combo and pseudo-combo are really very similar, and could in principle share the same composition sometimes. Let’s call that disputed territory on the map – where it’s not necessarily clear which archetype is what. Disputed territory is where this way of looking at things breaks down and you have to start looking at win conditions, but that’s another discussion. What about that long gap where fair magic happens but we’ve not assigned territory yet?
Well when it comes to other archetypes, we start to run into an issue – most experience players know what “midrange” and “tempo” mean, they just don’t often agree with each other on the specifics and definitions. Opinions on midrange span from “play big creatures” to “neither and both” to the “elegant sledgehammer” approach. Similar things happen when we discuss tempo. But the more you think about the empty regions of our map, the more you realize they fit tempo and midrange in quite nicely.
If you walk the line between aggro and control, you’ll find tempo and midrange along the way – the balance of creatures and interaction shifts to suit different game plans. Using our map, we can see how tempo and midrange are separated on more than one axis, reflecting their different approaches to winning. Contrasting still further, we can see clearly how midrange and pseudo-combo are different things, even though they share the same creature density – their interactivity is different.
Conceptualizing deck archetypes as living on a kind of continuum is very helpful for understanding how a plan to win translates into deck composition, and vice versa. It helps you bear in mind that archetypes can overlap and look very similar, so you can be on the look out for unusual win conditions and neat new ideas. This isn’t a foolproof or quantitative way of looking at things – there are always exceptions! – but it’s a useful tool that you can keep in your head to help you approach new questions.
So, next time you step up to make a new deck, it might be worth thinking about which territory you’re stepping into and how that affects your deck’s structure.