In Magic: The Gathering, many players talk about a "control finisher" -- some kind of big back-breaking spells that (usually) seals up your victory. I guess you could say that, if you boil down a control strategy to "don't lose the game long enough that you can win it", the finisher cards in your deck are providing the "win it" part.

In the past, these have been fairly modest singleton creatures in otherwise creatureless permission decks, whittling away at an opponent's life while you lock your opponent out with counterspells (most notably, Serra Angel and Morphling). More recently, cards like Cruel Ultimatum, Grave Titan, and Consecrated Sphinx have all been described as "control finishers". I've seen the label applied to Celestial Colonnade as well.

What characteristics make a card a good choice for the "finisher" role?

When is a generally strong and cost-efficient card in your deck's colors (a nasty creature or planeswalker, especially) not a good control finisher?

3 Answers 3


Here's my logic: when you have control of the game, it doesn't matter what your finisher is, so you should pick something that helps you out as much as possible when you don't have control. (I originally read this in Randy Buehler's description of his 1998 Worlds deck, in which he used Rainbow Efreet.) This holds true for essentially all of the common control finishers in Standard today:

  • Consecrated Sphinx lets you draw a ton of cards. Even using its ability two or three times can give you enough card advantage to match your opponent spell-for-threat.
  • Wurmcoil Engine gains you lots of life and can also trade for up to 3 of your opponent's creatures or removal spells, which is a huge setback for an aggressive deck. This is why it's a popular finisher against aggro decks, but not so much against other control decks or combo decks.
  • Sun Titan lets you get an extra use out of one or more of your spells, often something like Oblivion Ring or Ghost Quarter, which can help you regain control when facing down troublesome permanents. It plays a similar role to Consecrated Sphinx.
  • Grave Titan is basically a horde-in-a-box (actually in a card): getting three creatures out of one card, especially given that one is giant and has deathtouch, can shut your opponent's entire attacking force down. Plus, if they don't deal with it immediately, you get two more creatures every turn.
  • Going back a bit, Celestial Colonnade helps you when you don't have control in a different way: it can't be countered, and it requires instant-speed removal to get rid of. This is more of an anti-control finisher, since when you're playing another control deck, not having control of the board generally means that you're outmatched with counterspells or removal spells. The Colonnade lets you put pressure on your opponent without having to fight through a ton of counterspells. (Same goes for any other "manland.")
  • Morphling was a good anti-control finisher for a similar reason to the manlands: the ability to give it shroud and pump its toughness made it very difficult to kill.
  • Sword of Feast and Famine was the namesake finisher of the Cawblade deck. Its power came from the fact that it allowed you to get double use out of your mana, once for advancing your own board and once for countering your opponent's spells. So even if you were somewhat behind in the game state, once you started getting Sword hits in it became fairly easy to recover. (To be fair, Cawblade wasn't a true control deck, but it did fall into that role sometimes.)
  • Planeswalkers generally tend to have very powerful abilities that can go a long way toward helping you gain control of the game. This is why Jace, the mind sculptor was so good: it could bounce a creature, draw you cards, or shut your opponent out of good draws. It was like the control player's Swiss army knife. Gideon Jura is a popular choice these days because it can stop your opponent from attacking you, saving you some life, and it acts as a repeatable removal spell as well, so it's difficult for any creature-based deck to play around it. And of course, with both of those planeswalkers, once you've used their removal capabilities to their full extent, they give you a direct win condition as well.

You'll notice that all these cards have big, game-changing effects: 6-power creatures, 4-power flyers, removing your opponent's entire library from the game, etc. This means that if they're not dealt with, they let you win very quickly. There is something to be said for this strategy, because it minimizes the amount of time that you need to maintain control of the game, but in a proper control deck it's not necessary to have a big flashy finisher. Something like Fiend Hunter, for example, would not be too bad because it exiles one of your opponent's creatures and then can sit around and block. Back in the days of the original Caw-go deck, even Squadron Hawk filled the finisher role well because you could play one to attack and it came with 3 buddies who could either block or add to the pressure on your opponent. However, Wizards is making it rather difficult to create a true control deck these days, mostly because counterspells are just not as efficient as they used to be. So I wouldn't actually suggest using something like Fiend Hunter as your only finisher.

When choosing a finisher, the cards I would stay from are those that don't do anything to help you regain control of the game when you are losing it. As a concrete example, you could imagine "losing it" to mean that you're at 4 life and facing down three 2-power creatures; or perhaps you're at 7 life and your opponent will be able to cast Devil's Play to burn you out in two turns. Kindercatch would be a great example of a bad finisher because it just doesn't do anything to help you get out of either situation. Sure, it can block one of your opponent's creatures, but you need something to deal with multiple creatures and non-creature threats.

I would actually say something like Progenitus is only a mediocre finisher, because the only sense in which it deals with anything is by killing your opponent before they get the chance to cast that lethal Devil's Play or whatever. Admittedly it is very effective at that, but you have to consider that a giant creature like that is of absolutely no use in the early game, before you've accumulated the 10 mana required to cast it, which is when you typically need the secondary effects of your finishers most.

EDIT: See this video, specifically game 1 of match 3, for a great example of Snapcaster Mage being used as a finisher.

  • 1
    Excellent point that in many ways a really good control deck can use anything as a finisher, as long as it can lock up the opponent's game well enough. Having nothing except 1- and 2-power creatures is probably a bit slow, but there's nothing to stop any medium-sized evasive beater from getting the job done. The "ideal control finisher" for a deck probably therefore depends on the deck! Nov 7, 2011 at 8:05
  • Oh, and I'd argue with you about Progenitus being a "mediocre finisher" to an extent - it's an amazing, possibly the best finisher in a vacuum, though the downside of it being really hard to get into play is very real and rules it out for most decks. I don't think a finisher has to be of use in the "early game", because I would define a true control deck as one that weathers the early game, locks up in the mid-game, and eventually does something to win in the late game, possibly 20 or 30 turns later! Mid-range decks have been more successful recently, it's true, though. Nov 7, 2011 at 8:19
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    Well, if you define a good finisher as a card that can kill your opponent very quickly and is extremely difficult to deal with, then yes, Progenitus qualifies as one of the best. I guess I'm saying those are not the criteria that make a finisher good for a control deck. Of course a control finisher does not have to be useful in the early game, but all other things being equal, a deck with a finisher that has some use in the early game will do better than a deck with a finisher that doesn't. (cont.)
    – David Z
    Nov 7, 2011 at 10:14
  • (cont.) As I wrote in another answer, control decks need to make the best possible use of every card (including the win conditions) to survive the early game against aggressive decks, where they typically struggle the most.
    – David Z
    Nov 7, 2011 at 10:15
  • True, Progenitus is a dead card in your opening hand... I don't think it's ridiculous for a control deck to have 1 or 2 "big finishers" as the eventual win condition, but if you can get away without any such cards in your deck it's a good thing. Which is why Celestial Colonnade is such a good candidate for these types of deck - if that's all you need to reliably "finish" your deck is excellent! Nov 7, 2011 at 10:24

First of all, you can use pretty much any win condition as your finisher once you have reached board control. You can use a small creature early on, or a big guy very late, or anything in between.

Logically then, what really makes a good finishing creature are its abilities. Use whatever creature supplements your strategy best. A few properties to look out for in a finisher are:

  • Power of 4 or more
  • Built-in protection, such as protection from color or Shroud/Hex-proof to minimize your burden of protecting your finisher
  • High resistance to direct damage, i.e. regeneration, graveyard recursion, or high toughness
  • Defensive abilities such as Vigilance or life gain
  • Evasion such as flying or being outright unblockable.
  • Generates card advantage e.g. through token generation or card drawing

You should look for creatures that combine at least two or three of these properties; the more the better of course. Mana cost should not be much of a concern for a control deck. Cost-efficiency is only important for aggressive decks. In a good control deck you can simply wait until you have enough mana and board control to cast anything you want.

Obviously, anything that is not a good finisher is a bad finisher - any creature without abilities are usually bad finishers, or creatures that are easy to dispose of (this also depends on meta), or aggressive creatures that bring a significant disadvantage to you as well, such as putting time pressure on you (many black and/or red creatures are guilty of that)

I won't give examples because specific card answers depend on the format and will change over time as formats shift, new expansions come out, and rules change.

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    "In a good control deck you can simply wait until you have enough mana and board control to cast anything you want" -- seems like delaying is just feeding your opponent additional chances to break a board stall, especially in control vs. control.
    – Alex P
    Nov 6, 2011 at 16:47
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    About stall: That's the idea of a control deck though. You typically set up some cards (e.g. counterbalance + divining top or Zur's weirding + firemane angel etc.) to lock down the enemy, or you gain repeating card advantage somehow. That allows you to keep the enemy down indefinitely. Eventually you cast the finisher and go in for the kill. About power: 4 is a magic number because you can kill in 5 swings, as opposed to 7 swings at power 3. You could also say 5 power for 4 swings, but 4 power is good enough for a control deck.
    – Hackworth
    Nov 7, 2011 at 1:46
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    @Alex: fair point... I guess the reason I didn't explain the "what" is that I don't think it's as simple as a checklist of attributes. To be honest, other than generating card advantage, I don't think any of the characteristics Hackworth lists are particularly important. (No offense!) You have to think about the "why" to choose the best finisher for your deck, i.e. think about what characteristics are going to help you out of a jam, and if the creature with those characteristics happens to be a vanilla 2/1, that's fine.
    – David Z
    Nov 7, 2011 at 21:09
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    @DavidZaslavsky If card advantage is the only thing that matters, then why do you list so many cards as finishers that do not generate card advantage? You cite power 4, hard to kill, shroud, flying etc. as desirable in a finisher, just like I did.
    – Hackworth
    Nov 8, 2011 at 14:16
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    I missed this latest comment until now... anyway, I did not cite 4 power, evasion, or resistance to being killed as desirable attributes. They can be useful if your deck can absorb the cost, but they are not necessary. The key is that every one of the finishers in my list generates card advantage, either by trading for multiple removal spells or creatures, or by rendering the opponent's removal dead in hand. (Or, in the case of the sword, by forcing discards)
    – David Z
    Nov 25, 2011 at 8:52

Surely this card was the absolute benchmark for a control finisher:

enter image description here

Highly resistant to removal, can't be chump-blocked, kills an undamaged opponent in two swings.

Though I say was rather than is: Wizards, to my vague disapproval, has continued to print cards "in the style of" Progenitus, but with increasingly less prohibitive mana costs:

enter image description hereenter image description here

You can tell they're intentional control finisher designs because they are hard to cast, exceptionally hard to deal with, can win in one and will almost always win in two swings, and have that fiddly "can't be put in the graveyard from anywhere" clause to prevent them from being completely abusive in any reanimator strategy.

So these cards do it all on their own. You can get away with using less expensive and absurd finishers, but only if your deck can do the things that these cards can do on their own: protect the finisher from removal, win the game in a short enough window of time once the finisher comes down!

  • I didn't play during the Alara era. Were there actual tournament decks that would hardcast Progentius? (I know there were decks that would hardcast Cruel Ultimatum, Nicol Bolas, and Sphinx of the Steel Wind; but the only decklists I've seen with Progenitus are cheaty combos like Burning Shoal.)
    – Alex P
    Nov 6, 2011 at 17:32
  • I can't imagine any except the most casual deck trying to hardcast Progenitus really - you'd have to devote too much of your deck to ramp and colour fixing for it to function well as a deck any more. I think cheating most of these big guys out is the order of the day. Nov 7, 2011 at 8:02
  • If you can't even cast these without tricks like Twelvepost and Tinker, are they really control cards, though?
    – Alex P
    Nov 7, 2011 at 13:28
  • I'd think Polar Kraken from Ice Age was probably the first creature with as much power "out of the box" (cost: 8+3Blue, 11/11 trample, cumulative upkeep: sacrifice a land), though it doesn't have the super-effective protection. I successfully cast it once or twice in casual play for the shock value, but by that time the opponent had effectively lost already.
    – Erik P.
    Nov 7, 2011 at 21:23
  • These cards are not control finishers ... they're completely uncastable until you've already won the game. Good control finishers must do something even before the time has come to win.
    – Allure
    Jun 8, 2019 at 14:46

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