Deck archetypes refers to how a deck plays, its overall strategy for winning, and what types of cards you can expect to see. In a broad sense there are hundreds of deck archetypes, in fact each deck could be considered its own archetype when you get down to colors, specific deck lists, and formats, but there is a simpler way to be divide these up. The 5 main deck archetypes are aggro, control, combo, midrange, and tempo. Understanding these deck archetypes can help you know how to improve your decks and their sideboards, as well as how to play your deck around your opponent’s deck.
Aggro decks seek to win the game as fast as possible. The majority of nonland cards in aggro decks are creatures that have a low cost but can deal a good bit of damage very quickly before the opponent has time to set up their defenses. Since the typical creatures seen in aggro decks are so cheap, they are also quite small in terms of power/toughness. On average these decks max out their creatures around 3/3 or 4/4.
While we’re talking about creatures, let’s look at the creature curve. Typically, you want to spend 1 mana for a 1/1 creature, 2 mana for a 2/2, 3 mana for a 3/3 and so on. Occasionally, some of the creatures in aggro decks can break this rule. For example, lets look at Judith the Scourge Diva. She is a 2/2 that costs 3 mana, below the curve so that’s not great, however she gives a +1/+0 boost to other creatures and when another creature dies she can ping something. Since aggro is combat focused, your opponent will try to block some of your creatures. Judith can make it so that a 1/1 creature can take out an opposing 3/3 creature by boosting the 1/1 to a 2/1 and then dealing a 3rd point of damage to that 3/3 creature when it blocks and kills your 2/1. Aggro also wants creature that have combat friendly abilities like haste, first strike, trample, flying, etc. Some of these keywords make it harder for your opponent to block damage. Aggro can also utilize combat tricks, auras, and equipment to make the creatures stronger going into the late game.
Aggro’s weakness lies in its ability to keep going. You only draw 1 card per turn, but you play 2 for the first few turns of the game (typically a land and a creature). Games usually start out easy enough and aggro can deal quite a bit of damage, but if the opponent can stabilize and start answering aggro’s threats, it gets harder and harder to close out the game. When playing an aggro deck, try to pace yourself. Don’t overplay your hand. You wouldn’t want to have 4 creatures in play with 1 in your hand and get hit by a board wipe. Always keep the board state in mind and evaluate and re-evaluate your plays so that you can deal the most damage to your opponent.
Control decks seek to win by answering the opponent’s threats or denying them resources, and then playing a huge threat of their own that’s hard for the opponent to deal with. Most of the spells in control decks are counterspells, removal spells, or spells that deny the opponent resources like discard spells. The few creatures that control plays serve as blockers and finishers.
Control decks require you to be judicious about when to play your spells. You’re not going to be able to counter every spell or kill every creature that your opponent plays. Sometimes you may have to let a spell resolve in order to save your answer for a bigger threat. For example, it’s turn 5 and your opponent casts a shock targeting you. You’re at 12 life, low but not critical. You only have the mana for 1 counterspellso sure you could counter the shock, but the next card they plan on playing is Rekindling Phoenix. If you choose to save your counterspell for the phoenix, you’ll go to 10 life, which is no big deal because your life total only matters once it hits 0. If you counter the shock, now you’ll need to come up with another answer for the phoenix which is much harder to deal with once it resolves and you have a max of 3 turns to do so.
Card draw is also important to control. If you are able to draw more cards then you have a better chance of keeping your hand stocked with answers and finding your threats. This is known as card advantage, but there is more to it than that so it will be another post on its own in the future.
As much as control seeks to limit the opponent’s resources, control itself has limited resources to work with. Leaving mana untapped allows you to bluff an answer. Whether you have an answer or not, the opponent should think twice about what spells they want to cast, but the opponent should also keep in mind how many cards are in your hand and how much mana is available to you. Once they realize that you can not disrupt their plans anymore, the onslaught commences once again.
Combo decks seek to win the game by using a few key cards that have a strong interaction. There are 2 types of combos: those that rely on certain interactions between a few cards and those that rely on a sequence of cards played in a correct order. Other than the pieces of the combo, combo decks rely on cards to protect the combo, cards that help you reach the late game, and cards that help you dig for the combo pieces.
Combo decks rarely interact with the opponent, but when they do it’s to defend the combo. For the first few turns, some combo decks play like control; denying the opponent resources and ensuring that they reach the late game so they can get their combo pieces assembled and go off. Some combos can come together quickly while some take awhile to find the right pieces. Since combos can be very complex, let’s take a look at one of the simplest combo strategies, reanimator. Reanimator decks like to use cards that force you to mill yourself or discard cards like Stitcher’s Supplier, Cathartic Reunion, and Grisly Salvage. Once you have a big creature in your graveyard, say Hellkite Overlord, you cast a reanimation spell like Zombify to bring that creature straight to the battlefield. Notice the mana cost of Hellkite Overlord is 8 meaning that the earliest it could be played is turn 8 under normal conditions, maybe a few turns earlier with ramp. By casting Zombify, a 4 mana spell, you are able to bring the dragon out early and for half the mana.
Combo decks have quite a few weaknesses depending on the deck, but the payoff can be well worth the risk. It takes time to bring a combo together even when your deck plays smoothly, time which aggro decks will do their best to deny you. It also takes the right pieces to bring a combo together, pieces which control will do their best to take away once they figure out what you are trying to do.
Midrange decks seek to win the game by making better and better plays as the game progresses. There is no overall win condition strategy for midrange deck; each deck has its own. Most of the time it is reducing your opponent’s life total to 0 through attacks, but not like an aggro deck that runs out cheap creatures and curves out early. It’s not fully control either because it doesn’t rely on shutting down your opponent until you can play a huge threat to close out the game. It can be described as a blend of aggro and control while sideboarding can easily shift the deck into either strategy. Midrange decks are constructed using cards that are good on their own, which is why you may notice most of the cards in midrange decks are usually rares and mythics.
Midrange decks develop their board and interact with the opponent only when necessary. In the early game they prefer spells that can generate late game value and move on to spells that are hard to deal with. Let’s take a look at Modern Jund as an example. After playing a land and fixing their mana, turn 1 usually consists of an Inquisition of Kozilek or a Thoughseize. This disrupts the opponents hand, gives the player an idea of what they are up against, and also helps to buff their Tarmogoyf when it comes down on a later turn or their Scavenging Ooze. Turn 2 will either consist of a removal spell to get rid of a threatening creature, or a Wrenn and Six if the opponent can’t handle planeswalkers, or a Tarmogoyf if they can’t handle creatures, or a Scavenging Ooze that will get bigger over time forcing the opponent to use a removal spell. Turn 3 may include another removal spell, or a Tireless Tracker for later value, or a Liliana of the Veil to get rid of another creature or more discarded cards to grow the other creatures.
The weakness of Midrange decks is the fact that although it can imitate aggro or control decks, these decks can out aggro and out control midrange. Against something like goblin tribal, midrange is too slow, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hold its own with the right plays. Compared side-by-side, goblin tribal will put out more creatures that midrange can before and after sideboarding. Likewise, compared against a control deck, the control deck will be able to answer more threats and protect their own finisher better than midrange. That doesn’t mean midrange can’t beat these archetypes, in fact most players say it’s the strongest one, but aggro and control in their purest form are just better at what they are trying to do. To help illustrate this, imagine you’re having some plumbing problems in your house. You can do some research, watch tutorials online, read some DIY books or articles about it and tackle the problem yourself. Even though you did fix the problem yourself, an actual plumber would probably do a much better job, and faster too.
Tempo seeks to win the game through timing and mana advantage. Mana advantage is answering a threat for less than that threat costs to play. For example using an Unsummon (1 CMC) on an opposing Scarab God (5 CMC). Tempo decks use cards that can function as both proactive plays and reactive plays. Looking at the card Unsummon again, you can bounce an opposing threat, but also bounce one of your own creatures to protect it or recast it to use its enter-the-battlefield trigger again, like Frilled Mystic which not only counters a spell (reactive), but also serves as a decently sized body that can attack (proactive) or block for you.
Like midrange, tempo is about getting the most value out of your cards. Every play needs to propel you forward or force your opponent back, or do both at the same time. Tempo may look like a control deck at first glance, but they are very different. Control plays very few creatures and those that they do play are late game threats that are hard to fight against. Tempo decks can play smaller creatures that are easily protected by the rest of the deck, like the interaction between Unsummon and Frilled Mystic mentioned earlier. The creatures in tempo decks are used to chip away at the opponents life total over the course of the game like aggro, but at a much slower pace. Some tempo decks may be able to win with maybe 2 or 3 creatures being cast over the course of the game.
Tempo is one of the stronger archetypes and as such they are more rare to come across than the other archetypes. The best way to beat a tempo deck is by trying to bluff and trick them. Pay attention to their resources and how they use them like how you would play against a control deck. Once their guard is down or they are unable to respond, take advantage of the opportunity to get the game back into your favor. You can also use cards that deny them interaction such as spells that can’t be countered or creatures that have evasion like hexproof.
That wraps up this post on deck archetypes. For more on how individual decks play or to get better ideas for decks be sure to check out the deck analysis pages for modern, pioneer, and commander. New decks for those formats will keep on coming so be sure to come back weekly and check them out. If there is any deck you want to see, leave a comment and make a suggestion. The same goes for this series which delves into additional information about the game of Magic: The Gathering.