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In Development – Building Up From Good Enough

 

It’s hard to improve on a good thing.

I don’t mean it’s hard to make a good thing better, although that is certainly true. I’m also not talking about diminishing returns when we try to make improvements, although that’s certainly worth talking about at some point in the future. Rather, I’m talking about how it can be difficult to approach a deck design with a critical eye when it seems to be working just fine as is.

This is the experience I’ve been having with Nayamorphic. It flows, and it flows nicely. It serves up early beats and then comes through at the end to finish off the opponent, whether they’re playing another Naya aggro variation, some kind of Jund, or Planeswalker Ascension control. Given how effective the deck has been so far, I might be tempted to let my thinking on the design stagnate, and just keep running it as is, without ever asking if it could be even better.

Of course, I should ask just that question, and that’s what I’ll talk about today. This will also serve as a window for thinking about aggro in general, and those beliefs about contemporary aggro deck design that we take for granted, but perhaps ought not to.

For reference, here’s what I was running the last time I checked in with my aggro deck of choice:

Nayamorphic

Nayamorphic tries to stick an early, powerful beater – either a Lynx or a Nacatl – and then follow that up with a Bloodbraid reload, a Knight, or one of the two reach options from the Elspeth and Naya Charm package. All in all, pretty standard stuff.

Aggro beliefs

When the core Nayamorphic build randomly turned up as one of the Daily Deck Lists back at the mothership, I searched around a bit online to see if anyone outside of the ChannelFireball.com audience was giving it a shot. Pleasingly, people were. Unsurprisingly, there were some negative remarks about one particular aspect of the deck – those four Terramorphic Expanses in the manabase. All the downchecks on that aspect of the design could be distilled down to the idea that Terramorphics were too slow for an aggro deck, and would hinder your ability to hit an early one drop, thus screwing up your plan of attack beyond repair.

Obviously, I disagree here. Most of the time, this deck neither needs to nor ends up sacrificing a Terramorphic on turn one, instead bringing the land in as the second or third drop, powering up a Lynx or a Nacatl and rarely screwing up the deck’s curve otherwise. I say “rarely” due to one card in particular that I’ll address below. There are times when you do end up dropping a Terramorphic on the first turn, and in those cases, they effectively count as four more one-drops, bringing us to a total of twelve.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out Peter Grube’s successful Naya Aggro list from the Philly $5K:

Peter Grube’s Naya Aggro

Peter’s Naya Aggro deck runs four copies of Jungle Shrine along with its own octet of one drops in the form of four Nacatls, two Goblin Guides, and double Scute Mob. This is a moderately less aggressive collection of one drops, since the two Scute Mobs are really late-game players, meant to be tutored up by the Rangers to help close out an opponent. Nonetheless, this build highlights the fact that you can do just fine with an aggressive deck that has a handful of lands entering the battlefield tapped.

My own preference for Terramorphics over Jungle Shrines arises from the other differences between the two builds. With Steppe Lynx, Wild Nacatl, and Knight of the Reliquary, Nayamorphic benefits tremendously from having eight fetchlands in the deck. Jungle Shrine fixes your colors somewhat more readily, but Terramorphic “fixes” your Nacatls and pumps your Lynxes. Additionally, it powers up the Knight engine, which is helpful in turning your Knights into game-ending threats should the board stall out, as well as thinning your deck to help raise the likelihood of useful draws at the same time.

I think the distaste for Terramorphics really is an issue of failing to revisit our beliefs. We were introduced to Terramorphic Expanse at a time when we had access to the duals from Ravnica. As Ravnica rotated out we gained the Lorwyn tribal duals and Vivids, and even though the Vivids let us accept the idea of color-intensive aggro builds that were willing to sacrifice a bit of tempo to let them do ridiculous things like play Putrid Leech and Cryptic Command in the same deck, we remained attached to the belief that “Terramorphic Expanse is bad in Standard.” As a consequence, we are willing to accept Jungle Shrine entering the battlefield tapped, but still can’t quite accept the idea of running Terramorphics in an aggro deck.

But it really is good, and in a deck featuring Steppe Lynx and Knight of the Reliquary, it’s ridiculous. One of my favorite plays to date involved using Knight to tutor up and sacrifice a Terrmorphic, powering two Steppe Lynxes up into 4/5s and swinging for 8 damage.

The other response the original Nayamorphic build has received in the comments right here is that it, and indeed any and all Naya aggro builds, needs to run Woolly Thoctar. Given how well the deck had been playing for me, I wasn’t feeling that need – and that brings us to the concept I mentioned above. Just because it’s working well doesn’t mean we can’t improve it. Does the deck need Thoctar? No, but it might be a better deck with Thoctar, and we should take the time to figure that out.

Raising the curve and losing a card
This deck just won a Pro Tour:

Rubin Zoo

 

The much-commented creature choice here was triple Baneslayer Angel in a Zoo deck in Extended, changing the top of the curve from the conventional three mana to a whopping, mirror-match dominating five. However, I recommend checking out the whole creature curve on this deck, which starts with a mere seven one drops, adds in seven more two drops, and then goes up from there. This deck almost challenges us, asking “If I can top out at five mana in Extended, why are we reluctant to pump up our curve in Standard?”

 

The question that sparked this reexamining was about including Thoctar, but I decided to broaden my scope a little and look at higher-cost cards that might, potentially, make the cut. Here’s what I considered after a pass through Gatherer (with comments on the stand-out features of each):

Ant Queen – 5/5 for 5, makes dudes
Baneslayer Angel – 5/5 for 5, evades and races
Spellbreaker Behemoth – 5/5 for 4
Uril, the Miststalker – 5/5 for 5, shroud(ish)
Woolly Thoctar – 5/4 for 3
Hell’s Thunder – 4/4 for 3 and then 5, evades
Thornling – 4/4 smorgasbord for 5
World Queller – 4/4 for 5, Braids(ish)

With honorable mentions to Mycoloth and Realm Razer as cards that made me pause, but that I don’t think realistically offer even as much as the cards I included above. Naturally, I’m being pretty liberal in the cards I touched on above. As always, I prefer to be liberal in my up-front inclusion of cards for consideration, as erring in that direction helps me avoid missing interesting or powerful cards I might have glossed over if I were being stricter in my initial valuation. That said, I also think I made an interesting cognitive error in generating my list. Testing caught and corrected this, as we’ll see below.

Before I tested any of these, I was faced with the initial question of what I was going to remove in their place. Curiously enough, when I thought about that my mind kept going to the Elspeth/Charm reach package, Bloodbraids, and Knights, none of which I really wanted to remove. It was only when I made myself walk up through the mana curve that I realized I’d been overlooking the Qasali Pridemages. In a sudden moment of clarity, I realized the Pridemages had to go.

This is an approach I recommend when you find yourself stuck in a line of thinking, whether you’re trying to optimize a deck list or analyze a technical document. Force yourself to be rigorous and walk, step-by-step, through the material.

Pridemage is not a bad card. It’s a Watchwolf on its own, a +1/+1 bonus to your Nacatls and Lynxes, and a way to kill a pesky Ascension. But the sheer fact of its nonexceptional place in my mind after running the deck for two weeks suggests that we can, indeed, do better. In fact, if we look at the discussion of Terramorphics above, we realize that Pridemage actually occupies an awkward place in our curve, requiring GW if you want to drop it on the second turn. This interacts poorly with both Terramorphic Expanse and any red mana source. Also, I’ve found that there isn’t a lot of call to kill enchantments and artifacts just yet.

With four slots open in the deck, I started testing the cards I listed above. Most of them dropped out quickly. Spellbreaker Behemoth is big, but has little more to offer. Similarly, Uril, for all his semi-shroudiness, is just a dude who attacks and blocks. At the end of the day, we either need to have our big beaters do something tremendous, or have them come down much sooner. This essentially clarifies our options down to Baneslayer, Woolly Thoctar, and World Queller, which occupy the role of finisher, early beater, and lockout, respectively.

Testing highlighted a second important point – it’s easy to make a good thing worse. Although Pridemage was not particularly good for the original Naymorphic deck’s curve, yanking out the two-mana slot and trying to replace it with anything upward of three mana was an uncertain proposition at best. Thus, it should be no surprise to anyone that I settled on Woolly Thoctar in its place. Where the deck flowed well before, it now hums along smoothly, skipping from the one drop to the three drop spot, meaning that the occasional turn two Terramorphic is no problem at all. That gives us this revised version:

Nayamorphic, Thoctar edition

What, then, of Baneslayers and such?

Toggling the reach

What I like to call the “reach package” in the current Nayamorphic build is a two-two split of Elspeths and Naya Charms. Both cards can be very effective game enders, as I’ve discussed previously. Naya Charm in particular is fascinating, as I find myself using it not solely as a Falter, but also, and perhaps more often, to re-buy Path to Exile to take out some key blocker or opposing win condition. Much like the overall Nayamorphic build, this package seems to have been working just fine.

This is our cue to once more turn a critical eye toward more things that seem to work. The two-two split in this case was mostly because I couldn’t decide which approach I liked more. Both cards in the pair have their positives. Elspeth generates a continuous supply of threats, and provides evasion and a power-up for one of your three- or four-mana beaters. In contrast, Naya Charm lets you go for a game-ending turn, lets you avoid a game-ending turn from the opponent, and as I just pointed out, lets you re-buy a key card at will. Neither set of traits argues effectively for any specific distribution of cards, and thus I ended up with a two-two split purely out of a dearth of useful data to push me in any other direction.

Having decided to stick with Thoctars over Pridemages in the attacking wing of the deck, I slotted my bigger-mana creatures into the reach package instead. Once more, we’re pretty much stuck with Baneslayer and Queller as our sole real options, as the other fatties above don’t offer anything that we can’t already get with our cheaper creatures. Now, instead of having to select a proper mix of Charms and Elspeths, I had to generate the right set of Charms, Elspeths, Quellers, and Baneslayers.

World Queller proved ineffective in the finisher role. Braids was cool because she came down turn four and ate your opponent’s game plan. Queller comes down on turn five and eats a Bituminous Blast to the face instead.

The real shocker was the ineffectiveness of Baneslayer as a finisher. This may seem especially surprising inasmuch as Ben Rubin and Brian Kibler just showed us that you can win by packing three Baneslayers in Extended, but the devil here is in the format-specific details. In Extended, at least circa Pro Tour: Austin earlier this month, much of the removal in the format focused on fast creatures, and as such was not well-prepared for dealing with a five mana 5/5. In contrast, the winning Jund deck from Philly has Terminates, Maelstrom Pulses, and a medly of burn spells. There’s all sorts of removal out there in Standard right now, and much of it deals with a Baneslayer just fine. As a consequence, Baneslayer switches from “game-winning play” into “just one more creature to kill.”

The reason behind Baneslayer’s surprise ineffectiveness clues us in as to why the split of Naya Charms and Elspeths was working out so well, and why, in testing, going for four Charms or four Elspeths also seemed to cut into the deck’s win percentage. The Charms and Elspeths are both, in their own way, orthogonal to the main threats of the deck. Imagine the typical Jund matchup if we ran just creatures and burn spells. Our theoretical Jund opponent doesn’t have to think all that hard about their plays. They point removal at creatures and attack us back. Now, imagine that we have the possibility of playing a planeswalker. The Jund player has to hold onto their Maelstrom Pulses, or be very confident that they can attack into our planeswalker before it becomes a problem. When we add in the potential for Naya Charm, Faltering their team and re-buying our spells, they can no longer rely on their creatures to deal with our potential planeswalkers.

It is, in a word, complex. Generating this complexity for our opponent increases their tendency to make sub-optimal plays and lets us remain true to our overall “beat face and burn them out” game plan.

Lessons learned from a closer look

At the end of all this re-evaluation, I feel I’ve learned a few things about effective aggro in the current Standard, and how best to optimize Nayamorphic.

First, a curve of one- and three-drops is far more effective than my previous mixed curve of one-, two-, and three-drops. This generalizes to the observation that the first and best place to optimize an aggro deck remains the mana curve.

Second, a suite of dissimilar finishing options is superior to objectively more powerful finishers that operate along the same axis as our main game plan. Baneslayer is a powerhouse, but it dies to Terminate just like every other creature in our deck, and that means that we’re not introducing sufficient complexity to disrupt our opponent’s plan and let us carry out our own.

Finally, consider this entire exercise as an example of the fact that while you shouldn’t assume you’ve found the optimal design, you also shouldn’t make change for its own sake. In revisiting and retesting Nayamorphic, I fundamentally upgraded the creature suite by replacing Pridemages with Thoctars. At the same time, no change in the set of finishers was superior to the original choice. At least for the current environment, I hit the right set of cards on my first pass. It happens.

Vines?

I’ll close here by touching briefly on the new sideboard (you noticed that, right?). Vines is back, and it’s back specifically because taking a big Tendrils from the Vampire deck will ruin your day. Ascension as a sideboard card against do-little control decks continues to be the real deal, and I expect to see more of the better “quest” cards showing up in aggro decks of various stripes in the near future. Finally, we have brought along a backup Elspeth for those cases where three is just that much better than two. Once again, these sideboard changes reflect today’s theme. Vines was a starter, then it went away when it wasn’t good enough, and now it’s back because nothing is ever gone and the current environment demands it. Ascension was in my first sideboard and has stayed in, because it’s just that good. The point of questioning our choices is neither to overturn nor to confirm, but just to improve.

Discussion

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