3 Best Control Decks in LoR and What They Tell Us About the State of Late Game Strategies
If you watched the top cut games of the last Seasonal Tournament, you might have noticed that control decks were very popular. Decks like Darkness, Lee Sin, or Bandle Tree aren’t frontrunners on the ladder, but dominated in the tournament meta, overshadowing the powerhouses like Draven Sion and Zoe Nami.
This shift started more than a month ago, during the World Championship, when Yamato amazed the community with his Darkness gameplay, showing that the deck’s power level was higher than most gave it credit for. That trend continued during the European Masters with the rise of Lee Sin, establishing itself as one of – if not the absolute best – Draven Sion counters in the game.
If you’ve been following our latest articles, you might also have noticed that we’ve recently updated the Turbo Thralls deck guide. It is a deck that resurfaced specifically because of its ability to counter control strategies, which is another testimony of their growing impact on the metagame.
A metagame filled with midrange decks is usually not a great field for control strategies in LoR. The continuous value that pesky midrange decks can generate is often too much to handle for strategies looking to out-grind their opponents. So what happened? Why are control decks suddenly doing so well recently in what usually would be a bad environment?
The answer is – the best control decks all have access to powerful win conditions and quick finishers.
Nowadays, barely any deck looks to take things past turn 8 or 9. And this take is true both for ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ decks. Even control archetypes now have a clear way of closing the game, one that is flexible and powerful enough to rival a leveled Sion or Gangplank.
So let’s throw the memory of the old Commander Ledros + Atrocity trick out the window, and let’s talk about how during this season late game strategies in LoR have evolved to be able to close games faster and rise to the top of the tournament meta.
When the expansion came out in August, I was amongst the ones who believed the Senna Veigar archetype will work out, but likely end up too slow for the average pace of the game.
And to be fair, at first it looked like I was right, as the deck was showing a bad win rate for the first month of play. Little did I know that the actual problem was not with the archetype itself but with how players approached it.
Once control experts started to work on the archetype, we saw 2 main changes to the deck:
- The average mana cost of the cards became cheaper. If you go check out some Darkness decklists from 2 months ago, you will likely see three copies of The Rekindler, or maybe a Piercing Darkness. Although these are good cards, their high cost makes them fairly unflexible and easier to play around for faster opponents. Now, the deck is playing cards like Conchologist, Otterpus, Stress Defense and cheaper spells.
- The deck became much more efficient at interaction. At first, we all thought that Darkness would heavily focus on Senna and Veigar with the goal was to keep them alive at all cost. As such, Mist’s Call was a very popular card intially, while now it is considered to be more of a tech. Once the lists started focusing on slowing down the opponent and maintaining tempo instead of maximising its own synergies, Senna and Veigar also started to feel better. Now they were able top enter much more manageable board states, while in the past they were too often thrown into the fire.
The simple fact that a leveled Veigar can represent lethal with 2-3 Darkness spells is a major factor in how this control deck is played. The pilot isn’t only focused on countering the opponent’s strategy – we are playing to set up a certain scenario that wins us the game if we reach it. Darkness, just as other best control decks nowadays have a clear and hard-defined way of ending the game.
This forces midrange decks to manage their resources differently, as they are aware that at some point, their health will become the concern. Those matchups aren’t played on the scale of value anymore, but rapidly become a tempo-based battle, turning into a full-on race once we enter the later turns and the champions have leveled.
Darkness is an example of a defensive deck that evolved to become faster and more competitive – and nowadays, it is capable of beating the best midrange decks in the game such as Draven Sion and Zoe Nami, both of which can be considered even or slightly favorable matchups.
Zoe Lee Sin became so appealing in a tournament setting, players were willing to give up Nami Zoe (or remove Zoe from it). That is a testimony of a good deck!
Lee Sin is a well-known champion who had his fair share of controversy in the past, but it’s undeniable that this time he had a very difficult start to the season. The deck was in zero lineups at Worlds – even though Sivir Akshan, one of its direct counters, had just got nerfed before the competition.
Lee Sin Zoe didn’t need to find a new reliable win condition to burst onto the front stage – the blind monk was already perfect in that role. Instead what the deck needed was some stability and consistency to reliably get to Lee Sin win condition.
First, there were two big problems to overcome, Aloof Travelers and Minimorph, both cards being extremely difficult to come back from as they were immediate answers to Lee Sin with no possibility of using a Deny.
The answer to Aloof Travelers was found rather quickly in the form of Scattered Pod, a 6-mana unit that would take the fall for Lee Sin and get discarded instead. The solution to Minimorph was never really found – hence the reason why Lee Sin never really caught on fire on the ladder. But fortunately enough, tournaments do have a ban phase.
Once these two issues were sorted out, Lee Sin Zoe was ready to become a juggernaut in the tournament meta, sporting one of the best win rates against Draven Sion in the game, and showing off every aggressive deck’s worst nightmare: Eye of the Dragon.
The modern Lee Sin Zoe builds are mostly geared towards beating board-centric decks, with Concussive Palm and Will of Ionia being featured in most lists, even Sunburst making an occasional appearance to completely bury Sion into the ground.
Lee Sin is a great example of an old archetype that reinvented itself in order to stay relevant in a metagame. In the past, the deck would prey on slow metagames where it had enough time to level and abuse the blind monk.
Now, in a much faster environment, Lee Sin acts as the final payoff of a defensive strategy. As such, the deck isn’t too focused on Lee Sin flip condition (even though it will still happen naturally during the course of the game) but instead, players are looking to find the perfect balance of tools to disrupt opposing tempo as much as possible.
Do you remember how back in August and early September, this deck was pairing Bandle City with Bilgewater? At the time, the focus was on forcefully summoning as many different units as possible to complete the Bandle Tree, and to that goal, we would play cards like Marai Warden and Double Trouble.
Well, those times are gone, and now Noxus is the clear best region to support the Bandle Tree strategy – thanks to Ravenous Flock mostly, but also because House Spider replaces Marai Warden perfectly.
With Noxus, Bandle Tree doesn’t have to enter into a war for board control. The deck is fine letting the opponent take on the aggressor role to adopt a more defensive stance instead.
To become more of a competitive force, the archetype needed to work on its midgame balance. If you can’t beat Bandle Tree fast enough, you will simply lose to its landmark. Once deck-builders figured out that part, the need for any aggression in the gameplan was eliminated, substituting pressure tools with stalling tools.
Just like with the Darkness, it is easy to recognize the ticking time bomb that this control deck puts on its opponent, and while the means to defend our Nexus are vastly different, the core of the gameplan is the same: hold down the fort until you turn the tables.
In order to build the best Bandle Tree list, players abandoned the concept of pressure. Instead, the deck focuses on generating value (Loping Telescope,
And once again, without the precious Bandle Tree serving as the main win condition, this kind of deck would never be able to exist. Its units can not reliably pressure decks like Draven Sion, GP Twisted Fate Bandle, or Sivir Akshan Demacia for example.
One year ago, to be a control deck meant running either a combination of Shadows Isles and Frejlord – or a Karma as your champion. Both approaches only had one goal in mind – winning the card advantage battle while surviving on health.
Go Hard might have been the first step towards the new direction – the key card in the deck serving defensive purposes but also acting as the deck’s finisher.
It took a couple of months until Lissandra came around to become of the most controversial decks ever – to this day, I can still hear arguments on whether it was a control or a combo archetype.
After the arrival of Shurima and the rise of the midrange decks led by Nasus and Sivir, it felt like control decks needed much more than what they had in order to be relevant again. It took almost 2 months for the player base in order to get to the bottom of it, but now is finally be the time where the control decks are back atop the tournament meta. All they need is one simple thing: a win condition.
Thanks for reading folks, hope this piece helped some of you understand better why the rise of the control decks in the tournament meta happened at the end of this season.
I’d also like to thank all the readers for another great season, using this platform to connect with the community has been one of my favorite parts of my LoR experience.
As usual, feel free to join us on Discord or find me directly on Twitter for coaching and card game talk.