Have you ever been in a conversation with a couple veteran Magic players? First of all, my sincerest apologies. Secondly, you might have noticed a plethora of strange slang terms being used with frightening comfort.
People talking about “archetypes”, “vanilla creatures,” “chump blocking,” and “aggro decks” can be confusing and maybe a bit intimidating to newer players learning the game.
For those checking out Magic for the first time, it feels like that unique language begins right away – in the deck-building process. Players often describe entire decks with a handful of gaming-specific terms. Online guides throw the phrase “midrange” around like the proverbial stone I’m currently throwing from my glass house. It can feel like everybody is expecting you to immediately know so many specific and new terms.
As you might expect, knowing some of that jargon can really simplify discussing and understanding Magic: the Gathering. As you might further expect, we are going to help. In this article, we will outline the major deck archetypes, their strengths and weaknesses, and what their goals are. Hopefully, that can give new players a stronger foundation when talking about their favorite decks and facing their opponents’.
What is an Archetype?
A deck archetype is a name that we give to a common recurring strategy that a lot of different decks use. For instance, people noticed that many decks try to win quickly before other decks can stop them, so they gave that a name.
Any deck that arguably fits into one of those larger trends is considered that archetype.
Here are the major ones:
MTG Archetypes: Aggro
Aggro decks are designed to win quickly, usually trying to overwhelm their opponents with damage or creatures. These decks employ low-cost, efficient, damage-focused spells.
A good example of an aggressive MTG archetype is Mono Red Aggro.
This deck uses small creatures like Fervent Champion, Scorch Spitter and Robber of the Rich in order to win with quickly. They all have low mana costs and specialize in dealing damage to the opponent, before they can set up their defense.
This deck would not use Storm’s Wrath, a potentially good red card, because it doesn’t line up with that aggressive, damage-oriented strategy. However, it might include Bonecrusher Giant or Footlight Fiend since those cards can help with direct damage.
When you play an aggro deck, you play fast. I don’t mean you should click as quickly as you can in Arena. I mean that, whether you win or lose, your games are decided quickly. There are a couple benefits to this:
It can be simpler to learn from your games when they take fewer turns. You can more easily identify the moments that decided the game (win or lose).
In Arena, you can increase your rank faster since you can play more games in the time you have. If you have a win-rate over 50%, you will see the benefits more quickly than people who play slower decks.
You also generally control the pace of the game in the first few turns. Unless you are playing against another aggro deck, you are the one playing proactively. You spend your turn playing something that can hurt your opponent, and they have to spend their turn responding to what you did instead of enacting their own plan.
Lastly, if you play an aggro deck, substitutions are a bit easier. If you don’t have a particular rare card, it’s very likely that there is another card you have that fits your deck’s goal. Don’t have a Robber of the Rich yet? Maybe a Bolt Hound can help.
That fast nature can be a blessing and a curse. Playing an aggro deck all but ensures that you will empty your hand early. Hopefully, you have won the game around that time, but if not, a lack of meaningful cards to play can spell disaster.
Relatedly, if you do not take control of the game in the first few turns, your opponent might stabilize. If you are playing against a slower deck, it’s likely that each of their cards is individually more significant than yours. If the two of you wind up playing one card per turn because your hand is empty, the odds are against you. Your Pelt Collector might become a 3/3 on turn 3, but Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath is likely going to accomplish more than that tenacious elf.
As an aggro player, your plan might also be fairly predictable. If your opponent sees a turn-one Fervent Champion, they can already start making some informed decisions about how to play.
MTG Archetypes: Control
Now this is more my speed. Control decks usually rely on singularly powerful creatures, noncreature spells, or synergies to win the game. Since those cards often have high mana costs, these decks play fewer creatures in the early turns. Therefore, control decks spend the early turns trying to stall (or control) their opponent’s plan with removal spells or defensive creatures.
Let’s use Blue/White Control as an example.
This deck uses large threats like Shark Typhoon and Dream Trawler as its win condition. Like most other control decks, most of the other cards are there to buy time until those are playable. Brazen Borrower, Shatter the Sky, and Dovin’s Veto can prolong the game until you get the chance to play your signature spells.
Seasoned Hallowblade would be a great card in an aggro deck of these colors, but it does not align with this deck’s goals. However, stalling cards (like Absorb) or high-cost threats (like Yorion, Sky Nomad) could be added.
It probably comes as no surprise that control decks thrive in longer games. If you can make it past the early turns with your disruption and removal, then you can go on the offensive. This gives you some decent matchups. Against the other slow decks, you will likely get to play your win conditions and see an advantage. It is only aggro decks that will consistently make you fight for your life.
All of that disruption at your disposal also means that you have answers. There are very few situations that you cannot handle in some way. If they create a metric ton of tokens, Ritual of Soot. If they are about to cast Zenith Flare on your face, save the mana for Absorb. They slam a Terror of the Peaks down? I don’t know – just play Heartless Act or something. You’ll figure it out.
The point is that most control decks are built with other common strategies in mind, so you will rarely face a situation that your deck can’t theoretically answer.
I worded that last sentence carefully. Control decks often have a “toolbox” approach. This means that you include all kinds of disruption, counterspells, and removal to respond to different kinds of threats. If something bad happens, you probably have the answer somewhere in your library.
The tricky thing is that having a perfect answer in your library is not the same thing as having a perfect answer on time. Your opponent’s gameplan and your stalling cards may not line up that well, especially in a best-of-one format where you only play one game against that player. Randomness can hurt control decks while they are on the defensive.
That leads to the other significant weakness – the aggro matchup. If you are not prepared for turn-one aggression, you are going to be at a disadvantage. You may have a big impressive removal spell that costs four mana in your opening hand. That could mean three turns of life lost if you do not have other spells to help dig you out of that hole.
MTG Archetypes: Midrange
Midrange archetypes try to marry the strengths of control and aggro. These decks are built for flexibility, but they do have their own identity and gameplan. Midrange decks generally rely on creatures that cost around four to six mana. Excelling in this window of the game creates some unique matchups.
Against aggressive decks, they utilize control tactics to keep themselves safe, but they play their own threats earlier than control decks.
Against control decks, they instead spend those early turns setting up their win conditions. This might mean “ramping” – generating mana faster than one land per turn – with cards like Cultivate. It might also mean setting up other effects for future payoff – think Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath or Glorious Anthem.
Flexibility is the key here. Midrange decks are not as bullied by the aggro archetype as control decks are. These can get on the board faster than control decks with some significant creatures. Playing Elder Gargaroth on turn four in Arena can send aggro decks scrambling for the “Concede” button.
Midrange decks have a different gameplan for slower decks: be a bigger aggro deck. You want to be aggressive and apply pressure to control decks as quickly as you can to force in that same defensive position we outlined for them earlier.
Control and aggro players both are trying to execute specific plans that are based on their deck’s makeup. However, midrange decks have more room to tailor their plan to their opponent’s deck.
In best-of-three formats, these decks can perform some substantial changes with their sideboard. Those 15 cards can be filled with early aggression and big threats. You can use what you need and really change your deck to create more favorable matchups. That flexibility really sets these decks apart.
The control matchup is the big one here. If your first meaningful creature comes out on turn four, then a control deck can probably handle it easily. They can kill it with a targeted spell. They can let you put down another creature or two before playing Shatter the Sky. They can counter it before you get it on the board and have a whole turn to themselves.
While aggro decks force control decks to hope for specific cards, midrange decks are not usually that fast. Control players have time to find their spells, and they will need fewer of them to deal with a midrange deck’s gameplan.
The point here is that the flexibility that makes these decks interesting can also make them more difficult to use. Your outlook on the game changes based on your matchup. That means that you are trying to get information and adapt pretty quickly each game. That need for quick adaptation is especially relevant in best-of-one formats.
MTG Archetypes: Combo
A combo deck is built around a small number of cards that, when played together, secure victory. That card combination can win directly, or it can make victory imminent.
The most famous combos are made from older cards. The classic combo of Protean Hulk and Flash can overwhelm the board on turn two to the pain-wracked sobs of their opponents. Splinter Twin and Pestermite used to flood the board with endless Faeries that end the game on the spot.
However, examples of this are uncommon in Standard. One example that I have seen lately uses Fiery Emancipation, Fling, and Beanstalk Giant to beat their opponent in one shot. The rest of the cards in that deck are sources of extra damage or produce more land – all in service of the combo.
Something that may still be confusing is the difference between combos and card synergies. The consensus seems to be:
Combos are win conditions. A deck is built around those 2 or more cards. Everything else in the deck is trying to facilitate that combo. The deck I have been playing most lately is built around Teferi’s Tutelage and Peer Into the Abyss. Those two cards played together will essentially remove my opponent’s deck and win the game. It is a combo.
Synergies are just beneficial interactions between your cards. That same deck I play has Teferi, Master of Time which synergizes with Teferi’s Tutelage. Those cards work well together and I might use them to win if I cannot play Peer Into the Abyss. However, they are not a combo since those two cards alone are not my win condition.
The pros of a combo deck vary wildly and depend on the combo in question.
Some are late-game combos that use control strategies to buy time. These decks have many of the same strengths as control decks. Once you make it to the late game, your victory can be all but inevitable.
One shared strength is the consistent strategy. Unlike midrange decks, your plan changes very little. You know your plan before you even see your opening hand. This can make these decks easy to learn and hard to master.
On that note, a combo deck’s major weakness is its consistent strategy.
The moment your opponent catches a whiff of what you are trying to do, they will begin playing around it or trying to disrupt it. Once players see Teferi’s Tutelage, they immediately know the targets of their counterspells and enchantment removal.
Predictability is just a fact of the deck that you will need to build around.
These deck archetypes are a constant factor in Magic and other card games like it. It can be really helpful to know this information in order to understand your deck and play against your opponents’.
We don’t have enough time to get into all of the Magic short-hand terms out there. That’s a shame, because trust me, some of them are hilarious. However, the terms outlined in this article can build a good foundation for you to better understand the game and the players around you.
If you want to learn more about Magic, some of the following articles might help you:
- How to Get Better at Magic – 8 Tips to Become a Better Player
- Best Buys for MTG Beginner
- MTG Deck Building Guide
- How to Reach Mythic on Arena
Anyways, that’s all about MTG archetypes, have fun and may this new information serve you well.