Competitive Magic: The Gathering – Control Primer

Published: October 7, 2016 11:00 AM /



In our last entry in TechRaptor's Magic: The Gathering archetype primer series, we took an in-depth look at the Aggro archetype and the Mono-Red Burn deck. As a reminder, Magic: The Gathering consists of nine archetypes: the three general archetypes (Aggro, Control, Combo) and their permutations (Aggro-Combo, Combo-Aggro, Combo-Control, Control-Combo, Control-Aggro, Aggro-Control). And again, this archetype primer series is only looking at decks in the Modern Magic: The Gathering format; Legacy and Vintage decks will be covered at another time, and Standard typically consists of Control, Aggro, and Aggro-Control, making it a poor learning environment for the purpose of this series.

The below infographic illustrates each of the nine archetypes in Magic: The Gathering, and what qualities they possess (when decks want to win, how decks want to win, and how they interact with their opponent).

Magic: The Gathering, Control, Jeskai, Harbinger, Archetype
Our nine archetypes and what qualities they possess.

This week, we'll be taking a look at the Control archetype and at one of its representative decks, Jeskai Harbinger—Jeskai referring to the Blue/Red/White wedge of Khans of Tarkir, and Harbinger referring to Nahiri, the Harbinger. Jeskai Harbinger is an evolution of Jeskai Control and other U/W/X Control-archetype decks, which had long been regulated to Modern's Tier 2 due to Tier 1 becoming over-populated by hyper-linear decks. The advent of cards like Eidolon of the Great Revel also helped to push Control decks down to Tier 2, as Control relies heavily on fetch lands and shocklands for the mana base; taking damage from Eidolon of the Great Revel strains our already precariously thin life resources.

Additionally, Jeskai Control and other Control-variants had to fight for space against Blue/Red Splinter Twin, a fight that it was ill-prepared to deal with as Splinter Twin was simply much stronger and much faster than Jeskai Control.

The banning of Splinter Twin created a vacuum for Control decks; this vacuum went unfilled or addressed until Shadows Over Innistrad released and Magic: The Gathering's Eldrazi Winter came to a close, and Jeskai Control was revitalized with the printing of Nahiri, the Harbinger. The conditions were right and Jeskai Harbinger rose to claim the throne Splinter Twin left open.

Before we cover Jeskai Harbinger in earnest, we need to figure out how the Control archetype works. So, let's begin: what is the Control archetype?

Magic: The Gathering Archetype - Control

Control is a reactive archetype that focuses on surviving to the late-game through the use of disruption tactics and counterspells. Unlike Aggro, which uses creatures for their presence on the board, Control utilizes "utility" creatures, which have a desirable effect when they enter the battlefield. Decks in the Control archetype are "non-linear"—we interact with our opponent at every possible instance—and tend to win by using semi-fair strategies, advancing towards victory by denying our opponents resources and threats while improving our hand and our next draws.

Control archetype decks carry "semi-redundant" cards—cards focused around two or three similar effects. Playing semi-redundant cards means that Control has a lot of leeway in terms of design space, but here-in lies one of the major flaws of Control in the Modern format: there are simply too many decks for us to account for every single strategy that we may encounter, and thus we have to have a keen awareness of our meta environment so as to not run inefficient cards.

In general, decks in the Control archetype are strong against Combo archetype decks; Combo decks typically focus all of their efforts into a one-shot kill combo and have little in the way of disruption or counterspells to protect themselves in the main board. In Combo, every card is important and there is little redundancy, making it easy for Control to disrupt win conditions by countering a certain spell or bouncing Combo's finisher back to their hand once they've exhausted their mana acceleration spells.

On the other hand, Control decks are weak against Aggro decks; Aggro decks are able to put direct pressure on Control in the early game, either using Sligh strategies (lots of small creatures) or Burn strategies (lot of cheap direct damage spells). Additionally, Aggro decks are very redundant in their card choices and play very linearly; no one card is Aggro's win condition, which makes it difficult for Control to exhaust their resources or throw them off balance with disruption or counterspells.

Unlike Aggro, which has a small, sometimes simplistic decision tree, Control decks tend to have very complex and large decision trees, requiring us to carefully apply our removal and counterspell cards and be able to read what our opponent is doing by their boardstate. Misplaying, misreading, or answering the wrong threats with a Control deck leads to defeat, similar to the issues with Aggro not pacing itself and running "out of gas" too early.

Knowing this, let’s take a look at Jeskai Harbinger in depth. What cards do typical builds use?

Jeskai Harbinger: Planeswalkers and Creatures

Jeskai Harbinger's namesake is, quite obviously, the Planeswalker card Nahiri, the Harbinger, and the entire reason this deck is currently Tier 1 in the Magic: The Gathering Modern format. A combination of high starting loyalty and a high positive loyalty ability means she's ready to ultimate two turns after casting. Her +2 ability allows you to shape your hand by getting rid of unwanted lands or spells, while also setting your graveyard up for Snapcaster Mage. Her -2 ability isn't as good as her first or final ability, but lets you take care of an annoyingly large number of threats that Control passionately hates. We really want her for her final ability, which lets us grab Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and swing with her while our opponent is unprepared to deal with her. Run four copies of her.

Jeskai Harbinger doesn't run very many creatures, but the few creatures it runs are utility creatures—the value isn't in the card itself, but in the effects it generates (a Mulldrifter, rather than a Baneslayer Angel, for those familiar with Next Level Deckbuilding by Patrick Chapin).

This deck runs exactly one copy of the Eldrazi Titan Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Emrakul is a card we would expect to see in Modern Tron, as Tron focuses on hardcasting it and the other Eldrazi Titans using the Urza lands. Instead of hardcasting it, however, Jeskai Harbinger cheats it into play using Nahiri's ultimate ability. While Emrakul is not exactly game over for our opponent, it's a card that is very, very hard to come back from, regardless of what deck our opponent is using—no deck wants to lose six permanents from Annihilator.

However, while Emrakul is our win condition, it is also our weakest link. Without the use of Urza lands, it is impossible to hardcast and is a dead draw if we draw into it. Having it in our hand means we can't use Nahiri to summon it with her ultimate, requiring us to take a turn to filter her into our graveyard  (and thus back into our library by her "put into the graveyard" effect). This also gives our opponents a chance to exile Emrakul, as Emrakul hits the graveyard before her reshuffling ability triggers. The graveyard reshuffling doesn't play well with Snapcaster Mage either and puts our used fetchlands back into our library increasing our number of dead draws. As a result, some decks have taken to running a secondary win condition of Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Restoration Angel to attack for infinite damage via creating infinite Restoration Angel tokens.

In addition to Emrakul, we also run four copies of Snapcaster Mage, which is a great card to use in Control decks as it not only is a decent 2/1 body, but also lets us answer any of our opponents threats and make use of cards we filtered away previously with Nahiri. As mentioned above, it doesn't play very well with Emrakul's reshuffling ability. Run four copies.

Our final creature is a single copy of Vendilion Clique, which we use to check and make sure the coast is clear before dropping a Nahiri, using her ultimate to summon Emrakul, or activating an alternate win condition. It can also disrupt opponents and help players choose the right options in play.

"Nahiri, the Harbinger" - Artwork by Aleksi Briclot

Jeskai Harbinger: Card Advantage Options

Control relies heavily on having the right answers at the right time and ignoring certain threats spells is game over for us. In order to remove some of the randomness of our draws, we employ a number of spells that improve our card advantage, letting us draw additional cards, set up later draws, or improve the quality of our hand. We don't want to run too many of these types of cards; they're helpful in the early stages of the game but are dead draws late game when we should be focusing on our opponent.

In a perfect world, we would run Preordain or Ponder, but alas, both are banned in Modern so we have to make due with their strictly-worse cousin Serum Visions. Not that Serum Visions is bad by any stretch of the imagination, as it's still an incredibly useful spell and one we want to see in our opening hand and still has some late-game relevancy. Serum Visions' main purpose is in setting up our next few draws, helping us to stabilize in the early-game. Run three to four copies.

Ancestral Vision is also another great spell we want to see on our opening hand as it gives us massive card advantage, but unlike Serum Visions, it's horrible to see late game, making it a prime target for filtering away with Nahiri. The four-turn wait is problematic against very linearly-slanted decks that can kill us in that time; run anywhere from two to four copies in your maindeck and run the remainder of the set in the sideboard.

Anticipate gives you knowledge on the top three cards of your library and is one of the two Instant-speed cards we carry in our card advantage suite. It does cost one more to cast than Serum Visions or Ancestral Vision, but the plus side is that you can put Emrakul safely on the bottom of your deck if you were going to draw into it in the next three turns.

Sphinx's Revelation doesn't see as much use these days due to the speed of Modern, but it's still worth having one copy in your maindeck for hitting a big advantage late game.

Jeskai Harbinger: Counterspell, Disruption, and Removal Suite

Now we get down to the meat of the deck. Being in White, Blue, and Red gives us access to some of the best disruption, counter, and removal spells in Modern; even if we can't prepare for every single deck in the format, we still have access to a wide variety of options to build our deck around.

Our good friend Lightning Bolt makes a return here. Get used to seeing it pop-up in the TechRaptor archetype primer series, as it is one of the best Red spells in Modern (and, arguably, the entirety of Magic: The Gathering). Run all four copies.

We also run a Lightning Bolt derivative in the form of Lightning Helix. Spending one more mana to gain three life puts it on the same level as Searing Blaze in terms of usefulness and is very important in stabilizing in the early turns of the game against aggressive decks. Run one to three copies depending on your need and keep the extras handy for your sideboard.

Path to Exile is arguably the best White spell in Modern; it is, without a doubt, the best removal spell we have access to. This card gets around a number of cards that will damper our deck; it removes any big, bulky creatures that Lightning Bolt won't kill, avoids death triggers, and keeps graveyard recursion strategies from working to their fullest. Using it early game is, however, a major risk as it gets the opponent a basic land and an opportunity to get around our Mana Leaks later on. Still, run four copies.

Electrolyze is an iffy card to include, on account of how many creatures with three toughness or more are run in Modern as well as the casting cost. It does, however, replace itself, and against decks that run small creatures it can be a blessing, but it's one that's run best in very small numbers and only if your meta environment allows it to shine.

Cryptic Command is highly versatile and a veritable Swiss Army Knife for Control decks; however, the four mana casting cost gives us pause, not to mention that it also requires triple blue mana to cast it. Even with the land base we run, having that kind of mana open is hard to do (not to mention a massive tell for your opponent) and as a result the spell has somewhat fallen out of favor. Run zero to two copies.

Mana Leak and Remand both serve very similar purposes in delaying our opponent. Mana Leak answers early game threats when the opponent is unable to pay the mana cost to stop Mana Leak, and Remand buys us time to find answers for threats while also replacing itself with a new card. Both are inefficient against decks that play very quick, low converted mana cost spells and have their most use in the early game. Additionally, Mana Leak doesn't play well with early game Path to Exile. Run these two cards in a mix of anywhere from four to six copies.

Modern has a lot of very important two converted mana cost cards, and Spell Snare hits them all. There are cards outside of two converted mana cost, however, so having multiple Spell Snares in hand is a bit of problem. Run two to three copies.

Jeskai Harbinger: Lands

Jeskai Harbinger has a very greedy manabase, as we typically want to cast Serum Visions or Ancestral Recall on turn one and follow that up with Lightning Helix or Remand on turn two. Our card advantage spells help us out with that by helping us draw into additional lands, but to really be able to do that we have to run a pretty wide land base, typically twenty-three to twenty-five lands with a couple of flex spots for utility lands.

Let's begin with fetch lands: our three relevant fetch lands are Scalding Tarn, Arid Mesa, and Flooded Strand. Don't run any other color combination of fetch lands, these are all we need. Assuming we want to hit a turn one Serum Visions or Ancestral Recall, we're going to want to favor the Blue-colored fetch lands here in a mix of anywhere from eight to nine total fetch lands.

Next up are our shock lands, Steam Vents, Sacred Foundry, and Hallowed Fountain; again, don't run any of the other shock lands in your deck. You'll want to run at least one of each for a total of four to five shock land—and again, favor Blue.

Jeskai Harbinger also runs anywhere from one to three of the check lands: Sulfur Falls, Glacial Fortress, and Clifftop Retreat. They aren't legal targets for our fetch lands, but they do help with mana fixing and enter the battlefield untapped once you have a shock land or basic land on the battlefield. If you're up against more aggressive decks, they're also great for keeping your life total from dipping dangerously low.

The Blue/White manland Celestial Colonnade is one of the best manlands in Modern and can be used as secondary or tertiary win condition in case our primary win condition of Emrakul is unavailable. Needle Spire and Wandering Fumarole may look tempting as alternate choices, but they aren't worth using—just stick to Celestial Colonnade. Unconditionally entering the battlefield tapped isn't good for us, so only run two or three copies unless you're sure your mana base can support the full playset.

The filter lands Cascade Bluffs, Mystic Gate, and Rugged Prairie aren't ideal as by themselves they don't produce colored mana, but if you're needing to cast double blue or double red for a removal spell or counterspell that you don't have mana open for, they can be useful. Run one copy, as multiples makes us use our mana inefficiently.

Tectonic Edge, Ghost Quarter, and Desolate Lighthouse are various utility lands that each serve a specific purpose beyond generating mana. Tectonic Edge and Ghost Quarter are both used as land disruption, although Tectonic Edge has the unfortunate caveat of needing your opponent to have four lands on the battlefield before it can be used. Desolate Lighthouse is an effective filter tool alongside Nahiri, allowing you to further tune your hand or put a drawn Emrakul into your graveyard. We don't have much room in our landbase for these cards, so pick whichever works in your deck the best and run a single copy.

Finally, we run at least one each of the basic Plains, Island, and Mountain, and no more than four basic lands total. They're legal targets for our fetch lands, they don't cost life to enter the battlefield untapped, and they get around an opponent's Blood Moon.

Jeskai Harbinger: Sideboard

Having a deck in three colors grants us a lot of options for sideboarding. What gets played in your sideboard will heavily depend on what gets played in your local Modern Magic: The Gathering format scene (your “meta”), but there are some cards you should always have access to in your collection, regardless of what you’re up against. We can't cover everything here, but we will touch on some of the more popular sideboard choices.

Any card that's been previously mentioned in this primer that isn't run as a four-of in the deck—such as Lightning Helix or Ancestral Vision—is fair game for extra copies in the sideboard. You should at least have access to a full playset when you're constructing and fine-tuning your deck.

Leyline of Sanctity is our biggest defense against decks that run a multitude of burn spells, and also prevents Nahiri from being targeted by burn spells (as the spell has to target you, and once the spell is resolved the damage is redirected to Nahiri).

Celestial Purge is an alternative removal spell that hits a lot of very relevant meta threats. There are a lot of Red and Black permanents that pose a threat to this deck: Planeswalkers, Enchantments, creatures ... the list is quite long. It's not great when it's drawn in multiples though, which is why it isn't a mainboard card.

Dispel and Negate are our two spells that we save specifically for match-ups against other Control decks or for decks that rely on quick, low-cost aggressive spells.

Wrath of God is an unconditional mass removal card and the first thing you should be sideboarding in against decks that focus on tokens or other small creatures. Even though it's a symmetrical card, we don't have to worry about it as we don't play anything other than utility creatures. Anger of the Gods is also a great removal spell for the same reason, although it doesn't have quite the same effect Wrath of God does.

Stony Silence, Hurkyl's Recall, and the newly printed Fragmentize and Ceremonious Rejection are all great Artifact-hate, and Ceremonious Rejection has the added bonus of hitting the Devoid-bearing Eldrazi of Modern Bant Eldrazi.

Timely Reinforcements is Modern's premier anti-Aggro card, and if played correctly can turn the course of a game around. Do be careful to keep an eye on your opponent's side of the board, however; they can crack fetch lands or use removal on their own creatures to keep your Timely Reinforcements from working as intended or fizzing out entirely.

While we already mainboard Tectonic Edge and Ghost Quarter to deal with our opponent's lands, we also can sideboard Spreading Seas as a way to gain some additional card advantage while also messing up our opponents game plan. Crumble to Dust is also useful in environments heavy with Tron, Scapeshift, and other decks that rely on non-basic land cards as a part of their win conditions.

We don't want to devote too many of our resources to mucking around with our opponent's graveyard, but Relic of Progenitus is a cheap, efficient way to deal with an opponent's Snapcaster Mage or decks that Cascade into Living End. Surgical Extraction is an alternate way of interacting with the opponent's graveyard and has the added bonus of digging into their library and hand to remove additional copies. It's a good way of removing an opponent's win condition or some vital part of their combo.

"Path to Exile" - Artwork by Rebecca Guya

Jeskai Harbinger: Sample Deck and Match-ups

TechRaptor staff have created a sample decklist on for our readers to view. Take into account that this is a sample decklist: it is by no means definitive and doesn't have a sideboard as it doesn't take into account your meta environment.

Knowing how our deck plays against other decks is very important knowledge to have, as it will guide us on what cards to sideboard in after the first match. Therefore, in each article of our primer series, we'll touch on how some of our match-ups go and what cards we can use in matches two and three. Because the decks in Modern's Tier 1 change from time to time and are typically slanted towards linear gameplay, we'll focus on the decks that will be featured in our primer articles.

Mono-Red Burn (Aggro): A very bad match-up for us if they have a strong start. Our counterspells and removal cost too much to be effective in game one, forcing us to sideboard in Dispels, Negates, and Leyline of Sanctity to buy us more time while we get Nahiri set up.

Mono-Black 8Rack (Control-Combo): A very favorable match-up for us once we stabilize on the board. Multiple card advantage spells make disrupting our hand difficult, and we carry counterspells to interfere with their lock-down strategy. Our biggest issue is in games two and three if they bring Pithing Needle in and name any number of our important cards.

Affinity (Aggro-Combo): How we do against Affinity depends largely on how explosive of an opening hand they have, although we are strongly poised to win in games two and three after sideboarding in our Artifact-hate. Something to be wary of is them sacrificing Artifacts we target with removal to Arcbound Ravager, making it hard to clear their board state.

Mono-Blue Merfolk (Aggro-Control): Games with Merfolk tend to be much more grindy than other Aggro match-ups, as Merfolk runs a suite of removal spells that can interfere with our strategies. Merfolk is also capable of playing long into the late-game, something that pure Aggro isn't suited to do, making it hard to wait them out. Mainboarded Spellskites and Kira, Great Glass Spinners make landing a removal spell on the intended target very difficult. An additional point of concern is Harbinger of the Tides, which can be put onto the battlefield using Aether Vial and used to bounce our Emrakul back to our hand. While it doesn't prevent the Annihilator from triggering, it does keep Emrakul from damaging them and forces us to rely on Celestial Colonnades to deal damage.

Jeskai Harbinger (Control): The mirror is very much a game of chicken, with the first few turns spent casting our card advantage spells before someone cracks and fires off a burn spell. Jeskai Harbinger match-ups rely on very careful management of our resources, even more so than normal, and games two and three will typically devolve into "counterspell-wars," with our Dispels and Negates sideboarded in for full effectiveness.

Blue/Red Storm (Combo): Pure Combo is our easiest match-up, as we can disrupt their combo chain anytime we wish.

Black/White Tokens (Contol-Aggro): It's a bit of a bad match-up here, as Black/White Tokens also carries disruption and focuses on creating and buffing tokens. We take out one token, they just make more. Digging through our library using our card advantage spells also leaves us open to being hit with Aggro strategies.

Temur Scapeshift (Combo-Control): We can disrupt their attempts to dig through through their library for Valakut, or we can destroy simply destroy it with Ghost Quarter or Tectonic Edge. An additional strategy to consider is Enchanting their Valakut with Spreading Seas in games two and three or using Crumble to Dust to simply exile their Valakuts all-together.

Abzan Company (Combo-Aggro): Matches can go either way. While we do carry plenty of counter-spells and can dig for cards with our various card advantage spells and Nahiri, they can reuse Collected Company thanks to Eternal Witness to fill their board. We also carry a lot of single-target removal spells in our maindeck, with our boardwipes in the sideboard. Winning comes down to playing smart.

Generally speaking, most of our games bar Mono-Red Burn, Merfolk, Abzan Company, and Black/White Tokens are very favorable for us. Of course, how we do games two and three depends highly on how we constructed our sideboard and how smart we play, which is an integral part of Control, no matter what format you play in.

The next article in TechRaptor's Modern Magic: The Gathering archetype primer series will be on the general Combo archetype and the Blue/Red Storm deck.

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| Former Staff Writer

Brandon is a former TechRaptor Staff Writer, who primarily covered news and Tabletop - especially Magic the Gathering.