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Overcoming Physical Challenges with Control


Playing a Control deck can be a real physical challenge.

The biggest reason is the clock. With a slower deck, it is quite possible that you might approach the end of the round every round. Over the course of a long tournament like a Grand Prix, this can mean something very real, physically: exhaustion.

I've played Lantern Prison ('Lantern Control', if you prefer) at big events and had people tell me, all day, "I can't imagine playing that deck in a big tournament - you never get any rest between rounds!"

There can be some truth to that. However, there is a larger element at play most people don't realize. As a general observer of human behavior and a somewhat particular lover of process efficiencies, I see this all the time:

People's physical way of playing slows down their game.

You can see it all the time if you're looking for it. The most obvious example is the horribly slow beginning of the turn: a player slowly untaps every permanent, they move their hand over to their library, touch it, move the card down to the table, slide it over, then put it into their hand. I've watched players do this with every draw step, adding perhaps ten seconds to most of their draws, and then wonder why, after 29 turns over three games that they've run out of time.

After Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, Wizards of the Coast changed the rules of tournament Magic so that play areas were more standardized, in large part because of the negative response to my usual way of playing, "upside-down", with my cards oriented toward my opponent.

Marshall Sutcliffe commented that playing upside-down was how I learned to play, which isn't at all true.

I started playing that way back in Weatherlight, when the Psychic Vortex deck I was working on kept being not just picked up by my opponents, but dragged across rough-hewn tables at my regular game night. This was an era before sleeves and playmates, and I was prone to playing this way as a means to protect my cards from damage.

Later, though, the entire reason I continued to play this way is that I noticed that it saved time. Players were less apt to ever even ask to pick up a card because they could read it straight away. Further, if they did pick it up and put it down, it was a quicker event. Especially since I often played strange cards and played control decks, I saw that it was saving me enough time in matches it was worth continuing to do so.

Once they changed the rules, I stopped playing that way in all of my matches, not just the camera matches where it was initially required. I noticed that even at the top levels of play, playing "normally" (right-side-up) was adding minutes to my matches. Players, especially the best players, simply read cards to verify their understanding of what is going to happen.

After 18 years of playing that way, I can no longer make use of that method to help add time to the clock, but I have noticed pitfalls that happen with many people that could be avoided. Here are some of the most important.

As Simple as Paper

Tracking life is important. Amazingly, it is also one of the ways in which I most often see time wasted.

Unwieldy notebooks or other recording items take their toll, and they take their toll very measurably. Opening and closing a notebook repeatedly for every life total change or for every note adds up fast. If you've engaged in organized play, you're well aware of the cramped nature of even "spaciously" seated events.

However you record your life total changes, if you need to repeatedly open and close your notebook, use another method. There are a ton of ways in which to record life in a game, so if you're using a method which ergonomically saps you of time, if you're a control deck or other slow deck, you're only robbing yourself.


When you know your deck well, you can do a lot of planning of what will happen next, even during an opponent's turn. This is especially true if there isn't much in the way of hidden information.

There are few decks that have less hidden information than Lantern.

Check out how smoothly Luis Salvatto takes his turn in this Pro Tour Finals match at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan:

Did you miss it?

If you blinked, you might have.

Now, obviously, Luis is one of the best players in the world, and he was dealing with a situation with literally zero hidden information. He knew his deck and his opponent's deck fully. But even in a less perfect example, one can emulate this kind of play.

If your hand is full of more expensive spells in a Golgari deck, and you only have the ability to play one card, if your opponent has a lethal Crackling Drake in play, you can ignore the idea of playing a newly drawn Carnage Tyrant; the Carnage Tyrant being in your hand is new information, but if all that matters is not losing the game in that moment, who cares?

This is not to say that one should rush decision-making; if there is a major flaw that I have in the game it is definitely making unforced errors from simply rushing through an analysis of game states. It is to say that you can think about your options before you get to your turn; oftentimes, a choice is not obviously changed by a draw step, and you can add lots of time to your clock by simply using that time wisely.


Check out this deck:

How many times have you seen this kind of thing happen:

Your opponent casts a Legion Warboss. They reach into their deckbox/tower, and pull out a Goblin token. They put it into play, then close up their deckbox/tower. On the next turn, they re-open their deckbox/tower and take out a single Goblin token. Then they reclose it. You kill all their creatures with a Cleansing Nova, and they scoop up all of their tokens, and put it in the deckbox/tower. They drop a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, just like they did in the previous game, and a few turns later, they use Teferi's ultimate ability, getting an emblem. Again, they re-open their deckbox, and slowly dig out an emblem.

Before Game 3 can conclude, time is called. Draw.

It is totally reasonable to keep tokens and emblems hidden until an opponent knows about them. After, though, keeping them handy, particularly if you are going to be regularly creating them, saves a ton of time. Whether it is a card like Legion Warboss or Dawn of Hope, I've seen players add minutes to the game by how slowly they manage their tokens.

This is easily rectified by keeping them handy once your opponent knows about them.

Many times, you can even continue with your actions in a game verbally before you even have the token. For example, against an opponent with no creatures in play, if you've dropped a Legion Warboss on turn three, verbally saying, "I'm going to attack you with the token; take one. Your turn."

When there are literally no other decisions to be made, making clear what is going to happen in this way is a clear time saver.

Transform and Top Decks

In a similar vein, the transform mechanic should be something you manage well.

Take this 6-0 deck from the Legacy Challenge from this weekend:

Some cards have physical mechanics. With Delver of Secrets, it is a card that cares about the top of the library and will also physically flip over.

If you are going to use cards that have physical mechanics, get used to the way you engage with that mechanic. Whether it is Delver of Secrets or a Miracle card making you care about the top of your library, get used to what you're going to do to manage the top of your library from a physical standpoint. The same is true for a card like Experimental Frenzy or Lantern of Insight. Be used to the physical choices required to work with these cards. The more cumbersome you are, the more you are bleeding time.

When it comes to cards that transform, be they Delver of Secrets, Arguel's Blood Fast, or Search for Azcanta, the physical element of this matters too. There are a large number of ways to manage these cards; find one that works for you, and use it consistently so you are physically better at doing it. A Search for Azcanta flip could easily happen on your side of the table five or more times in a match (Delver of Secrets, many, many more!), so if you're fumbling with the card every time this could easily be a thing that means that you don't get one final turn in a game approaching time.


If you're a player that goes to time, this is something that is under your control to a greater degree than you might acknowledge. The physical mechanics of how you play can be a huge part of helping to alleviate this problem, without even getting to the question of simply approaching the game in a more efficient way mentally.

When appropriate, ask friends to watch your play, to see if there are any things that they notice about the physical way you play which is slowing your game down. Don't worry about them or nitpick at them, but try to be aware of them. When you have the mental energy to address them, the payoff will come into nearly every game you play moving forward. Unintentional draws are one of the aspects of the game that most people could experience less if they put the energy toward growing in this aspect of the game.

If you put the energy in, it will only affect 'the scorecard' by inches, but in a game this competitive, it is worth it.

- Adrian Sullivan

Follow me on Twitter! @AdrianLSullivan

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