PV’s Playhouse – Aggro


Today I’m going to start an article series that talks in some detail about each of the macro-archetypes you can find in Magic – Aggro, Control and Combo – as well as aggro-control and perhaps midrange, if I can sneak that in somewhere (though why you’d want to know anything about that is beyond me). Ideally, each article will be focused on building and playing the archetype, and today I’m going to start with Aggro, for no particular reason other than that I felt like writing about aggro first.

The first thing to remember is that, though I’m dividing all the decks in this spectrum, even within those categories they are not the same – every single deck is going to play differently, and more, even the same deck is going to play differently from game to game. Still, if you’re going to generalize in any way, I feel like this is the best way to do it, since decks within each of those classifications are more similar among themselves than anything else you use. That said, let us begin!

We’ll start by going back to 1996 – the year I started playing. At this point, I’m a mega noob and I don’t know anything about Magic (or about most things, really, given that I am eight years old). One of the little things that I do know, though, is that the more powerful a card is, the better. I just knew that I wanted to play the most powerful cards I had access to, and mana cost was not really a consideration – If anything, it made a card even more attractive, after all if it costs more it’s gotta be more powerful. II recall my friend had a Clockwork Beast and I remember that acquiring it was my heart’s desire back then.

Then, at some point in my life, someone threw reality at my face, and killed me before I could cast any of my spells – it was my introduction to the power of a curve. Mahamoti Djinn was good, but it didn’t matter if I got overran by all those bad guys before I could cast it. In that same year, Paul Sligh threw that same reality at the faces of everybody else, by placing second in a qualifier with a deck that featured a lot of what were, at the time, very unconventional card choices:

[deck]2 Dwarven Ruins
4 Mishra’s Factory
13 Mountain
4 Strip Mine
4 Brass Man
2 Brothers of Fire
2 Dragon Whelp
3 Dwarven Lieutenant
2 Dwarven Trader
2 Goblins of the Flarg
4 Ironclaw Orcs
2 Orcish Artillery
2 Orcish Cannoneers
2 Orcish Librarian
1 Black Vise
1 Detonate
1 Fireball
1 Immolation
4 Incinerate
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Shatter
3 Active Volcano
1 An-Zerrin Ruins
1 Detonate
1 Fireball
4 Manabarbs
1 Meekstone
2 Serrated Arrows
1 Shatter
1 Zuran Orb[/deck]

Sligh is probably the most famous aggro deck of all time, aggro’s counterpart to “The Deck”, also from 1996. Sligh’s deck created a new concept, one in which power was not the king – or at least not the only king, as we now have Stannis Baratheonmana curve also vying for supremacy. Mana Curve is, to this day, the bread and butter of beatdown decks – if you remember nothing else, remember this. The easiest way you can misbuild your aggro deck is by messing up its curve, and the easiest way to beat it is disrupting said curve.

As a general rule, aggro decks are not as powerful as the other decks, and have more situational cards, though it’s a different kind of situational than you might be used to. This creates an interesting situation in which your cards are incredibly synergistic early on, but lose usefulness as the game progresses – ordinarily, one would think the late game would be good for a synergistic deck (since you have more cards to synergize with), but that is not true with aggro. Because of that, you have a goal – you need to win the game before your weaknesses come back to haunt you. With an aggressive deck, your focus should be the early game – that is your domain. Your cards are much better early than anyone else’s, but their cards are better later – as such, you want to kill them before they can play all of them, because they don’t get bonus points for having Titans in their hand when they die. There are two main types of aggro decks – ones with reach and ones without.

Aggro decks with reach

Those are the best kind of aggro decks, because they have more free wins and less free losses than the other kinds. By reach, it is to be understood a way to close the game after the opponent has dealt with your early assault, usually burn. Of course, most burn is also good for killing creatures, but the most important aspect of having burn spells is what I like to think of as the “burn phase” – the point where your only way of getting through is burn spells. If you have too few burn spells, then you get to “burn phase” later, when they’re at a lower life, but you run the risk of not having them even if they’re lower, whereas if you run too many, then you run the risk of them getting to “burn phase” at too high a life total that even having lots of them won’t help. Decks will have different degrees of reach, but most aggro decks that have Red in them will have between 8 and 12 burn spells.

Right now, you’ll find most Aggro with reach in modern – Zoo, Boros, Affinity with Blasts, things like that. Most of the time, the good creatures are in different colors than the good burn/removal, and aggro mana bases are very sensitive (i.e. you must be able to play your spells early on or you lose), so you’re more likely to see something that has both in a format where players have access to better lands. Zoo is perhaps the most famous aggro deck with reach of our time, here is Owen’s latest list (the lists in this article are just to exemplify the concepts, they’re not necessarily what I recommend):

[deck]4 Lightning Bolt
4 Path to Exile
3 Seal of Fire
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Kird Ape
4 Loam Lion
4 Steppe Lynx
4 Lightning Helix
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
4 Marsh Flats
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Arid Mesa
2 Misty Rainforest
2 Stomping Ground
2 Sacred Foundry
1 Temple Garden
1 Mountain
1 Plains[/deck]

Owen’s list is a little more on the lighter side than you’ll usually find, with 16 one drops, but that’s a consideration to the metagame and it will change from season to season.

In Standard, we have two aggro decks with reach, though they both have so little reach that they’re almost just aggro decks – Zombies and RG.

[deck]2 Mortarpod
1 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Sword of War and Peace
1 Phyrexian Metamorph
4 Diregraf Ghoul
4 Geralf’s Messenger
4 Gravecrawler
4 Phantasmal Image
4 Phyrexian Obliterator
4 Geth’s Verdict
4 Tragic Slip
1 Liliana of the Veil
4 Distress
14 Swamp
4 Darkslick Shores
4 Drowned Catacomb[/deck]

This list won the last standard SCG tournament – its reach includes two Mortarpods, four Messengers, and five ways to copy it (as well as four Geth’s Verdicts, I guess). It’s not a lot, but it’s not nothing, and a deck like that will win many games on its ability to finish them through blockers even if it’s minimal. The Red version has less clones, but Brimstone Volley, so more reach.

For RG, we can take Jason Yap’s deck from Kuala Lumpur:

[deck]4 Copperline Gorge
7 Forest
2 Kessig Wolf Run
6 Mountain
4 Rootbound Crag
1 Acidic Slime
4 Birds of Paradise
3 Hellrider
4 Huntmaster of the Fells
3 Llanowar Elves
2 Phyrexian Metamorph
4 Strangleroot Geist
1 Thrun, the Last Troll
4 Galvanic Blast
3 Green Sun’s Zenith
3 Incinerate
1 Red Sun’s Zenith
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
3 Sword of War and Peace[/deck]

This deck also has some burn in the form of Incinerate, Galvanic Blast and, to a lesser extent, Hellrider and Huntmaster of the Fells. It also has the next best thing in terms of reach, Kessig Wolf Run – it won’t beat removal but it will beat a big blocker.

There is also a deck known as “burn”, with which you enter “burn phase” as soon as the game begins – those decks are horrendous. The main reason they’re so bad is that none of your cards do anything except for the seventh – if they’re at 8 life, then Lightning Bolt does nothing, you actually need three of them for them to be any useful. They can completely ignore the first six things you do, as long as they can stop the finishing blow, then it’s like you didn’t do anything at all. In fact, some burn decks look more like combo than aggro (you need a certain amount of resources and if you get that you win, if not you lose), but since they’re completely unplayable it doesn’t make a difference what we call them.

Aggro decks without reach

Aggro decks without reach are usually White or Green based, and they don’t have Red. As a general concept, they’re very bad, despite what my latest deck choices would have you believe – they’re the ones that are less likely to ever get to “burn phase”, but if they ever do, then they’re doomed because they, well, don’t have any burn. Not having burn will make it so that you have a lot of “free losses” – that is, there are some games you lose and can’t do anything about. If you play Bolts, then you know that there is always some sequence of draws that you can have that will win you the game (if you have something like Tribal Flames, they’re pretty much never safe), but with a deck that has no reach then you’re just drawing dead, and they know it! If you have burn in your deck, then they will have to make worse plays not to die to those even if you don’t have them, but if all you have is basic Plains they can happily go to two life and win, you make their life much easier. To make matters worse, those Green and White based decks usually don’t have any ways of stopping you from doing whatever it is you wanna do, so their only resource is to either hope that what you’re doing isn’t enough to stop them or to kill you before you get to that point. Two quintessential reachless deck is White Weenie, and since humans hasn’t made any splashes lately, I’m going to post our version of Tempered Steel from Worlds as an example:

[deck]4 Inkmoth Nexus
2 Moorland Haunt
9 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Etched Champion
4 Glint Hawk
4 Memnite
1 Mikaeus, the Lunarch
4 Signal Pest
4 Vault Skirge
4 Dispatch
4 Glint Hawk Idol
4 Mox Opal
4 Origin Spellbomb
4 Tempered Steel[/deck]

It’s easy to see that this deck is very fast, incredibly synergistic, and incredibly resourceless – the only plan you have if anything goes wrong is Inkmoth Nexus. When you play an aggro deck with no reach, you are usually gambling on the metagame – there are many things you just can’t beat, though you will usually beat everything else, and you’re basically hoping that the thing you can’t beat is not very popular. Needless to say, I’m not a fan of the approach, and I have to be really sure of the metagame before I commit to something like that.

Aggro decks with Disruption

A third approach is the Aggro with Disruption – those decks do not have any reach, but they have answers, and they can stop the opponent from doing whatever it is they want to do. There are two main forms of disruption – counterspells and discard. Aggro with Discard has fallen a little out of favor since Suicide Black became bad, and now the closest we have to that is Jund, though Jund is not really a pure aggro deck. In the counterspells department, we have a lot more examples – UW humans with Mana Leak is one. The place you’ll find the most Aggro with Disruption is not Standard, though, it’s Legacy – take Caleb’s deck from the last GP:

[deck]4 Misty Rainforest
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Taiga
2 Tropical Island
3 Volcanic Island
4 Wasteland
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Nimble Mongoose
1 Scavenging Ooze
2 Snapcaster Mage
2 Tarmogoyf
4 Brainstorm
2 Chain Lightning
4 Daze
4 Force of Will
1 Forked Bolt
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Ponder
1 Predict
4 Stifle
1 Thought Scour[/deck]

This deck might look like aggro-control, but it really isn’t – it’s an aggro deck. “But PV, it has counterspells, card drawing and removal, why isn’t it aggro-control?” – Because you don’t ever use those elements to control the game! You see, terminology is not actually important – you don’t get match points for correctly identifying what a deck is called. If you want to call any deck with creatures and counterspells aggro-control, be my guest – as long as it makes sense to you, it’s fine. What you do get points for, however, is playing your deck correctly, and this deck will not play like an aggro-control deck, it will play like aggro. Every control element that you have you’re using to kill them. You don’t want the game to go any long, you want it finished as soon as possible, because, much like aggro, your cards get a lot worse in the late game. In fact, I’d say Standard Delver itself is already on the verge of being an aggro deck to me, since it shares a lot of those traits (though ultimately I think it has enough control in it that it plays like aggro-control, otherwise nothing would be aggro-control).

I’ll be honest – I don’t like this deck. I’ve never liked any of those Legacy decks – they’re sooo situational, and they have the worse topdecks in the history of mankind. Take Stifle – sure, it’s good early on, but what if you draw it later, it doesn’t do anything! The same with Daze, and even the creatures which might just get outclassed very soon. If you draw every element in your hand, then it’s good, but if you don’t (or if they disrupt you) then every card in your deck is bad, and I don’t like this kind of variance, especially in a format as powerful as Legacy – I’d rather play a ton of 8s than a bunch of cards that are either 9s or 4s depending on when you draw them. If you do decide to play them, though, remember that they’re aggro decks and your plan is to kill your opponent before his better cards take over (and believe me, he will have better cards if that is what you’re playing).

Building an aggro deck

The good thing about aggro is that, when it comes to building, they’re not situational – aggro will mostly play its own game against everyone else, and you don’t really care about what they’re doing. The unknown might be slightly problematic for you, as in “I wish I had Grim Lavamancer instead of Kird Ape”, but you’ll very rarely mess up horribly, since the cards are mostly equivalent and if one is better it’s probably better against everything. You’ll never say “dear god what did I do, I’m playing four Lightning Bolts and four Tarmogoyfs in this metagame!”, whereas with a control deck a wrong card choice will be devastating. As someone pointed out in my last article, Aggro is not necessarily easier to play (i.e. don’t play aggro just because you think you’re worse than the opposition), but it is easier if you are ignorant of what is going on. It requires the same amount of skill but less knowledge, so if you stopped playing for two years and just came back, then aggro is the deck for you.

With aggro, your goal will generally be to get the fastest possible kill coupled with the most resilience – that is, you want to be able to kill them very quickly, but if you don’t, you don’t want to automatically lose the game as a consequence. This means you can’t really play forty 1 drops, even if that’d be very quick, because then if they deal with your early rush you can’t possibly win, unless you’re sure no one can deal with your rush (Kuldotha Red I’m looking at you). You also can’t clog your hand with three and four drops because, by the time those come online, they’ll either have their own creatures or their answers ready, and then they won’t be as effective. Enters the mana curve – you want to build your deck in a way that you can play a creature turn one, one or two creatures on turn two, a creature and a removal spell, or maybe a big creature on turn three.

It’s hard to say which curve is ideal – it’s going to depend on what you have available and what you’re trying to beat, but as a general rule curve will take precedence over power, i.e., if you need a one drop, you’ll play anything, even something that might not be very good, whereas if you already have enough three drops then it doesn’t really matter how good they are, you’ll not play extras. Just to give you an idea (and not to spawn infinite discussion on probability), the chances of having a one drop in your opening hand with 8 one drops are 65%, and with 12 they go up to 81%. If you want to see if you can also cast them, assuming you have 15 sources, the probabilities go to 56% and 70%. In the ideal world, I’d have 10-14 one drops in my aggro deck, then 6-8 two-drops, 3-4 three-drops and the rest spells.

Mulliganing with an Aggro deck

Each card in an aggro deck gets exponentially more powerful in context – that is, in a hand with Kird Ape, Tarmogoyf, Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile, each of those cards is way more powerful than they would be in a hand with themselves and land. You might think this is always true, but not necessarily – a turn four Wrath of God is good if you have or if you don’t have a turn three Esper Charm, but a turn two Goyf is going to be considerably worse if you don’t have a turn one creature to complement it, a turn three Path is going to be a lot worse if you don’t have any pressure, and so on. As such, you need to mulligan hands that do not have a good mix, because, by themselves, your cards don’t do much. Of course, you have the downside of having less cards to synergize with, but in the end it’ll be worth it, because you’ll get six good cards instead of seven mediocre ones. To exemplify (with numbers I just made up, obviously): if you have a Kird Ape and 6 lands, Kird Ape is worth 1. If you have Lightning Bolt and 6 lands, it’s worth 1. If you have Tarmogoyf and 6 lands, it’s worth 1. If you have Lightning Bolt AND Kird Ape (and 5 lands), they’re each worth two. If you have Ape AND Bolt AND Goyf, then they’re worth three each – your hand is not three but nine times better.

There are two things people do wrong with mulliganing aggro hands, and both come from the same misconception. The first is “there are very few lands left in my deck, I can’t draw many more” – why, you actually can. You know the reason aggro decks have few lands? Because they don’t need many, and they can’t afford many. A hand with five lands in it is as good as mulliganed already, since you’re not going to need the fifth most of the time, but sometimes even four lands is too many – you need your business. The other is “there are 12 one drops left in my deck, I’m bound to draw one” – again, the reason there are 12 is because you need one, it’s not so that you can afford to keep lands without them! If you could do without one drops, you’d play less – if you play that many, then you need a better than ordinary hand to keep with no one drops (though there are exceptions if you know the matchup).

Sideboarding with an Aggro deck

The main point of sideboarding with aggro is that you, unlike a control player, are not looking to improve what you’re already doing, because, most of the time, you can’t – your maindeck will already have the most effective cards in each spot in the curve, as well as the best removal spells and the best burn (or the best pump, the best counterspells and so on). Instead, you should use your sideboard to do radically different things, which are either a different approach, such as going big in aggro mirrors, a way to deal with a troublesome permanent, or something to battle their sideboards.

As a general rule, speed goes down in post board matches – they have cheaper reactive cards no matter what they’re playing (or you have more reactive cards, if they’re playing combo). This means speed based cards (such as the Goblin Guide and Steppe Lynx that I mentioned in my last article) get a lot worse, while slower, more powerful cards (Knight of the Reliquary, Ranger of Eos) get better, since you’re no longer as likely to beat them on speed, leading you to increase resiliency.

Against control, aggro won’t side in many cards most of the time, and removal/burn will be what you take out. The more controllish they are, the worse burn is, since it’s more likely that you’ll end up with six points of burn in hand while they’re at 12 and have killed all your creatures. If they are the creature sort of control (i.e. they’re going to kill one guy and play a Titan), then you want some burn because if they get to their dudes then your dudes won’t do anything, and you need a way to kill them.

The biggest thing with sideboarding is, yet again, curve considerations – it’s very easy to destroy your curve while sideboarding and you shouldn’t do that. I remember Worlds 2006, we were playing Boros in Extended, and we had four maindeck Molten Rains; after board, we’d bring in Sulfuric Vortexes against most control decks, but then we’d have to take out Molten Rains – it’s not that they were bad, in a vacuum they were better than, say, Silver Knight, but we just couldn’t afford this many heavy cards, and a hand with Knight + Vortex was a lot better than a hand with Molten Rain + Vortex.

The second biggest thing is threat density – you really do not want to clog your deck with answers, you’re an aggro deck and you need initiative. Their plan is to 1 for 1 you and then beat you with a superior spell, and if you cast something like Naturalize, then you’re doing their job for them. Most of the time, it’s not worth having those reactive cards, even if the card you’re reacting to is very good – when I played Faeries, I’d be glad every time someone boarded in a way to deal with my Bitterblossom in an aggro deck, because they’d handicap their deck so much that, by that point, I would not need a Bitterblossom to beat them. Again, this will usually take precedence over pure power.

Against combo decks, then you need to bring in the big guns – a small improvement isn’t going to work, you want something devastating, while preferably observing the same two principles – curve and threat density. Hate bears are excellent for that, since they don’t slow you down and they make sure you don’t stand there with three hate cards in your hand but no clock. The counterpoint is that people are bringing in removal against you anyway, so those will end up dying. The ideal scenario is to have some of the cards that they can’t kill, and some of the cards that they can kill but also apply pressure – a sideboard of 2 Ethersworn Canonists and 2 Mindbreak Traps will usually be a lot better than four of one or four of the other, and if you can get a Rule of Law mixed up in there that’s even better. Generic counterspells, such as Negate, are also good, as long as you don’t overload on them – as a general rule, the more creatures you have, the better counterspells are. In our Zoo deck for Philly, we could afford many of them, since we had Noble, Nacatls and Zeniths, so we had time to play a guy or two (such as t1 Nacatl t2 Zenith for Nacatl) and then we’d be able to just attack with those and keep open mana.

Against other control decks, though, all bets are off – you can cast aside curve and density a little bit. The reason is that, it doesn’t matter much what you have, they’ll kill it, and you’ll do the same for them, so all you want is to have the bigger guy in the end. Popular cards for aggro mirrors are big creatures (Hero of Bladehold, Thrun, the Last Troll, Gideon Jura, Knight of the Reliquary), sources of card advantage (Kitchen Finks, Ranger of Eos, Elspeth) and equipment, which trumps combat and makes it so that they actually have to kill every guy you have. For a while, I think it was correct to draw in some aggro mirrors, but I don’t think there is any like that those days – you want the initiative of being able to kill their guys and hit them, or just the ability to hit with your t1 Lions/Apes while they can’t block with theirs.

If you’re playing an aggro deck with no reach, then it’s a little different, because reach is usually the removal you use to kill their guys. It’s possible that you have a ton of white or black removal, but it’s not likely, and if you don’t, then we go back to curve – people aren’t killing every guy the other person plays anymore, so having a good mass of creatures is better than having a powerful one left, because you’ll never get to the scenario where there is only one man standing and even the biggest of guys will be overpowered by a good curve.

Playing aggro

There are two key scenarios that have challenged aggro players throughout the ages – “how much do I commit to the board” and “do I burn them or their guy?”. Obviously neither has a direct response, and it’s always going to depend on the game state, but there are certain criteria that we can observe to help us make a decision. In both cases, it’ll usually be a function of what you can beat if you do it, what you can beat if you don’t, and what you think they’re likely to have. I understand this is very vague, but I’ll try my best to explain – basically, what you need to know is if you can beat their sweeper, and how much playing around it is going to cost you. In the easiest scenario, you have the game locked up, or as close as it’s going to get, unless they have the sweeper – in this case, obviously don’t commit anything else to the board. In the other extreme, you cannot beat a sweeper no matter what you hold in your hand, so, again, obviously commit everything to the board. It gets tricky when it’s in the middle – you might win if they have a sweeper, you might lose even if they don’t.

What I do, in my mind, is assign a certain value – I don’t actually use numbers, but I think in terms of “likely”, “very likely”, “extremely unlikely”. I’ll then try to identify the situation that is best for me – for example, let’s assume I have two 2/2s in play, and I have a third 2/2 in my hand. My opponent is playing UB control and is at two. If he has 3 lands in play, the worst thing that can happen is that he goes land, Black Sun’s Zenith. I don’t really need to overcommit here, since I’ll likely win anyway if he doesn’t have it, and, if he does, I have a much better chance by holding my guy back. If we work values, let’s say, by playing the guy, I become a 100 to beat non-BSZ and a 50 to beat a BSZ, whereas by not playing it I become a 90 to beat non-BSZ and an 80 to beat BSZ – a much better outcome, even if I’m not sure he has the BSZ.

Now, imagine I have three 2/2s in play and another in my hand, and my opponent is at four life instead of two. He also has five lands now. Regarding Black Sun’s Zenith, that’s pretty much the same – not playing it is better – though I now have the added information that he had the chance to play Black Sun’s Zenith already, but didn’t. There is something else, though – in this scenario, he can play land, Grave Titan, and in this case me having the 2/2 in my hand is going to help exactly zero. The percentage is still 100/50 versus 80/80, but now if I play my guy and he plays Grave Titan, I win 100% of the time, whereas if I do not and he plays the Grave TItan, then I’m reduced to winning 10% of the time (say drawing one of my Galvanic Blasts). In this case, it’s worth overcommitting and getting beaten by Black Sun’s Zenith because you can still beat BSZ even if he has it, but the other play can’t beat a Titan – overall, that works better for you. Basically, it does no good to play around a card if that leaves you even “deader” to something else, and it doesn’t have to be something as radical as a Titan – sometimes, you’ll play around Wrath of God and it’ll turn out that you now lose to Path to Exile as well as being in a horrible position if they do have Wrath, in which case it’d be better to go to an even worse position if they have Wrath but make that their only out.

The “who do I burn” is not much different – usually, you want to burn creatures, unless you can’t win the game without burning them, in which case you burn them. In my experience, though, people radically overvalue the amount of games they can win without burning the opposition – most people will lean towards not burning their opponents enough. You’re likely one of those people, so if you want to correct that, start burning the player more when you’re in doubt. I remember we were trying Zoo for Worlds, and I was not actually convinced that the Big Zoo beat the Small Zoo anymore, so we played, and I found out that I was winning more than other people with Small Zoo because I was going to the face a lot more – there were spots in which the small zoo player would have a Kird Ape facing a Kird Ape, then they’d Bolt it and attack only to have their own Kird Ape killed, whereas I would save the bolt and then, at some point, amass enough burn spells in hand that I’d be able to kill them even though their guys were a lot bigger. As a general rule, in the beginning, when you are relatively sure your guys are going to connect, you can burn their guys and the creatures will usually make up for it, but, later on, be a little more conservative with your burn, you might have gotten to “burn phase” already even though you don’t know it yet.

Well, that’s about it – I’m not sure there is anything else I can tell you about aggro decks. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and, next week, control!



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