The Case for Aggro, Part II
How I learned to stop worrying and cut the bomb.
After a brief Paris and Mirrodin Besieged-related interlude, I’m happy to return to regularly scheduled programming. Cube design is a delicate process, and the real beauty of it is that even a single card can make for a radically different experience across different drafts or between two Cubes. This creates a wonderfully dynamic experience with even just a passing effort on the part of the Cube owner. Simply updating the Cube with the introduction of each new set could suffice for some, and given Wizards’ new conception of power level and where it can be pushed or restricted, the Cube will even evolve naturally to correct imbalances.
My goal, however, is to identify the best way to jumpstart this process. In Part I I described the causes of Aggro’s innate inferiority to Control in a powerful environment like Cube and why it’s important to address them, along with how to take the first step by adding consistent and powerful aggressive cards (which you can find here).
Unfortunately, this only gets you so far. The central problem is that the best cards in the history of Magic are not aggressive. So, in order to see Aggro thrive in an environment defined by Magic’s most powerful spells, sacrifices have to be made. Now, I recognize that Cube owners greet cutting cards with all the enthusiasm of a potential amputee patient, so it’s important to bear in mind that you are creating a format. And just like in Standard, Extended, or Legacy, a healthy format is defined by the number of viable archetypes- few people enjoy playing against the same dominant deck time and again, as evidenced by the number of complaints during the reign of Faeries, Jund, Affinity, etc. A single exceptionally powerful strategy stifles creativity. Even the rogue elements are forced to design within a box whose dimensions are dictated by the dominant strategy. Similarly, Cube is less enjoyable when every deck is either playing blue cards or trying to find the best angle of attack against them.
The only way to address this problem, as painful as it can be, is to cut the cards that directly oppress aggressive strategies. This flies in the face of a common refrain among many Cube owners that goes something like, “Don’t cut good cards, add good answers.” Unfortunately, this isn’t a very satisfying remedy. Indeed, it’s the main reason that Aggro decks are so underpowered in the average Cube. Aggro decks become “solution” decks that spend an inordinate amount of resources trying to destroy permanents or prevent combo-ing and they lose focus – the most important ingredient to a successful aggressive deck. Not to mention, these cards are considered powerful for a reason, and they aren’t easily answered.
Luckily, I’m ruthless when it comes to cutting cards from my Cube, as I don’t get too attached to anything and I aim to prioritize the health of the format above everything else. Adopting this mindset is absolutely necessary if you want to make each drafting experience an interesting one. I know it’s difficult, so I’ll do my best to ease you into it.
Of course, Cube is all about playing powerful spells, so I don’t want to make it sound like we’re cutting the fun stuff. Rather, I just want to discuss the cards that serve as particularly burdensome obstacles to Aggro’s success. I’d like to start with the card whose inclusion is the single biggest mistake a Cube owner can make:
Sol Ring is universally regarded as the best card in Cube, and for good reason. The tempo advantage generated by this one little artifact is insurmountable, but for none more so than an Aggro player. Aggro decks are designed to prey on phase I of a given game, and Sol Ring catapults its owner into phase II at the cost of 1 mana and a single card.
For a deck that lives and dies by 1-mana 2/1’s, the ability to play a 4-drop on turn 2 is utterly backbreaking. I’ve seen Baneslayers resolved on turn 2 with a Sol Ring, and the stars hardly had to align for it to happen. More onerous still is that Aggro decks can’t get nearly the same mileage out of this as a Control deck. A 4/4 on turn 2 dies just as easily to a Doom Blade as a 2/1, and having low mana-cost spells in general means the payoff is far too short lived. This is a hotly debated card in the Cube community at large, but to me the decision couldn’t be any clearer – if you want Aggro to have a respectable shot in your Cube, start by separating yourself from this monster.
Along the same vein, though to a lesser degree of magnitude than Sol Ring, the Mox and Signet cycles give Control an avenue out of phase 1 that is far too accessible. If you include both cycles in their entirety, that’s 15 mana accelerators that even provide mana-fixing with no questions asked. If you asked Cube builders two years ago what the automatic staples of a Cube are, the Signet cycle would almost unanimously be listed. The biggest problem when you do this is that acceleration becomes less of a prize and more of an expectation. This encourages lazy drafting, where normally vital mana-fixing can be passed for strictly more powerful spells, because you’ll always be able to pick up a few Signets here and there. As a result, you trend toward what Sam Stoddard terms the “Dragon Cube” where games revolve around blue-based Control decks ramping toward the most powerful Dragon, answering your opponent’s Dragon, and hoping to ride it to victory. Aggro isn’t a concern because, after all, you’ll have a Grave Titan when they are still casting 3/3’s.
Additionally, this critical mass of accelerators greatly devalues the role of green. Green’s only real strength is its ability to generate mana advantage, and Signets obsolete that one niche entirely. Moreover, you encounter a problem unique to the Cube, whereby green’s monsters are simply inferior. In a normal Limited environment, it wouldn’t matter much that the other colors can ramp up as quickly as your green deck, because you have access to more high quality fatties. However, in each set, Wizards tends to include a rare Dragon in each color that has Obliterator 9 or some other such nonsense and these bombs end up saturating the Cube.
As a result, green’s fatties are easily outclassed by the likes of the Titan cycle, Keiga, and Sundering Titan (Luckily, this is changing, but the difference in quality is still stark). If you decrease the availability of easy acceleration to other colors, Green regains its (slight) advantage by at least being able to go big more reliably. I still have a few carefully selected Signets, but including the whole cycle is excessive.
Wraths create an interesting paradox in that the more frequently they appear, the less effective they become. They’re almost always good enough for Cube, so it becomes very difficult to resist including them.
Wraths offer a blank check for dealing with whatever interesting creatures your opponent manages to throw at you, and thus discourage players from over-extending. On top of that, it renders the individual challenges introduced by certain creatures pointless. Protection? Regeneration? Huge… -ness? No need to worry, just Wrath them away! Of course, the natural response is to just play one sweet creature at a time, at which point Wraths become wholly unexciting. The best solution, then, is to cut wraths down to the minimum number. This is the easiest section to cut, because you’ll find the value of Wraths skyrockets once there are only a few.
In my 475-card Cube, I have only 3 strict Wraths alongside a few more conditional ones, and the results have been very satisfying (For reference, they are Decree of Pain, Damnation, and Wrath of God). They are once again high picks, and create the sort of blowouts you should expect from such a powerful spell. Select only the ones you like best, and part with the rest . Mutilate, Barter in Blood, Hallowed Burial, Day of Judgment (Or Wrath if you prefer the regeneration love), Akroma’s Vengeance, just to name a few, are totally expendable. I guarantee you won’t look back once they’re gone.
Spot Removal – Most Cube owners actually have an impressive grasp of this, which surprises me. Nonetheless, as with Wraths, it’s easy to go overboard. Again, think of your Cube as a limited format, and how often spot removal is typically available in (for example) MSS.
Using the most liberal definition of the word “removal” I could muster, I counted 25 common and uncommon removal spells in Scars of Mirrodin, or 9.4% of the set. My Cube, by contrast, consists of 13.6% removal spells using the same metric. Note that this includes burn spells often intended for some poor sap’s face and no allowance for the occasional rare, and that the creature quality in Cube dictates a firmer reliance on removal. Still, I could probably trim my removal down to 12%.
While the number is entirely arbitrary, Wizards’ has an excellent handle on balancing Limited formats at this point, so provided you aren’t wildly out of range with their numbers, you are probably on the right track. I’d love to find out if they have a formula for how they determine the appropriate amount of removal, but until that time, I have to use this sort of spotty guesswork.
Two Moats and the Walls of Doom – Specifically Moat, both the vanilla and Teferi varieties, Wall of Denial, and Wall of Reverence. These four cards see play with varying frequency across a wide variety of Cubes and they serve only one purpose – to keep down an archetype which needs no help being kept down. Both Moats offer complete protection from the average Aggro deck in the form of one of the most difficult card types to deal with. Wall of Denial is similar, in that it does nothing more than offer an obstacle that can hardly be removed, and exists only to make an Aggro deck’s life miserable.
Wall of Reverence is the easiest to deal with but also the hardest to come back from. If you answer a Moat 6 turns after it resolves your 4 guys will still close out the game. If you answer Wall of Reverence 6 turns later, your opponent has gained an amount of life equal to the firepower of half of your deck.
It’s possible that Gideon Jura and Ajani Vengeant belong on this list, but that’s part of a much longer discussion on planeswalkers, which actually harm Control decks more than anything else. So, I’ll save that can of worms for another time.
My biggest qualm with these cards is they ask very little of the caster. He need only survive until the turn they come down. You don’t need to prioritize removal or counters, convince your opponent to over-extend, or transition to the beatdown with any urgency. You just play your permanent and ship the turn until everything falls into place. Very few cards target aggressive strategies so specifically, so it’s a small sacrifice to keep the most frustrating of them on the sidelines.
Hate Bears – By hate bears I don’t mean Gaddock Teeg or Ethersworn Canonist, I mean the little protection critters that have somehow made their way into every Cube and thus earned my undying hatred. Silver Knight, Kor Firewalker, Paladin en-Vec, White Knight, and Spectral Lynx top this list, and they are egregious offenders (for the record: Soltari Priest and Monk are entirely reasonable inclusions; their inability to block makes this point inapplicable to them). Very few Cube owners include cards like Eyes of the Wisent, Red Elemental Blast, or Guttural Response (for obvious reasons) but strap the same sort of effect on a 2/2 for WW and suddenly it’s an indelible part of the Cube. When you include cards that only exist to hose one deck, you end up with a number of negative consequences.
First of all, you are (once again) directly limiting an archetype that already has trouble (and, ironically, white aggressive decks are already the best decks against Mono Red). Second, you introduce a section of cards that wheel around the table until they are last-picked, where they are then shoved into a sideboard only to be brought out to trump the one Mono Red player. Lastly, you include a bunch of two-drops with double-colored casting costs, meaning they often can’t be cast on curve anyway. Thus, the damage is two-fold: you hose one deck by forcing it to combat creatures it can’t realistically deal with, and you hose another deck by forcing it to play with creatures it can’t cast. Consequently, I find this to be the most frustrating list of Cube staples, and I’d die happy if I could change this single habit.
On top of the direct benefits of all of these cuts, making your Cube smaller indirectly makes Aggro a consistent and reliable draft strategy. The smaller your Cube gets, the easier it is to rely on seeing certain cards. Aggro benefits from this most: it is absolutely dependent on seeing certain irreplaceable effects, like Armageddons, 1-drops, fetchlands, and equipment each draft. Control decks, on the other hand, are influenced very little by Cube size, as there is enormous redundancy in Magic when it comes to removal spells, counterspells, Dragons, and card draw. So, I try to keep my Cube as close to 500 cards as possible, a number I’ve arrived at through extensive research in the field. And, if you follow along with these suggestions, I think you’ll see Aggro flourish in a way that it simply can’t in most Cubes, no longer held in check by the unfettered inclusion of powerful cards without regard for the format’s health as a whole.
Yet, I think you will still find one strategy lacking. Some will defend the white aggro in their Cubes until they are blue in the face, but after carefully tracking match results in each draft for some time now, I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to overcome the last hurdle, you need to really get creative. Next time I’ll discuss the options available to the most open-minded of Cube designers, and one solution I’ve implemented myself to great success. Until then, let me know if there are any cards you’ve decided to sacrifice on the altar of Aggro’s viability, and if there are any Cube related topics you’d like to see covered!