Required Reading: The Deckbuilder’s Doctrine Part 2 – Aggro Decks

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Welcome back everyone! It’s been quite a while since I did a Required Reading, but with both Standard and Historic settling down a little bit, it’s time to go back to the fundamentals. Before continuing, please make sure that you have already read the first part of this series as a lot of the points I’ll be touching upon will be from there. Nevertheless, I’ll give a brief recap for our valued readers.

My entire deck building argument revolves around two important factors:

  • Power is a deck’s ability to win games and also it’s subjective strength relative to the subjective strength of the format.
  • Consistency is the ability to constantly enact a game plan.

All caught up? Let’s continue.

This isn’t a universal principle, but when I think of aggro decks, I tend to view them as the gatekeeper of that format’s metagame. This isn’t to say that they’re the best deck in every respective metagame, but they’re the functional bar that every deck has to meaningfully clear in order to be a respected strategy. Aggro decks constantly prey on slower, clunkier strategies, so if a deck you are trying to build can’t beat aggro, you have three choices: Take the L and continue playing the deck, abandoning the deck altogether if it can’t beat aggro, or teching your main and sideboard to beat aggro decks. Depending on the prospective meta game, any of these options can be the correct choice.

Let’s use an example we see time and time again. A new Standard set comes out and brewers rejoice as they try to break the format once again. Lots of cool cards and interactions are now available so there’s a wellspring of ideas amongst the community. A week down the road, the first Standard tournament with the new set is on the horizon and everybody is hyped. A lot of new decks show up, some look great, others look not so great, but everyone is more or less excited by the happenings.

However, what deck wins the tournament you ask? Mono Red, every time. Okay, not literally every time, but tell me it doesn’t feel like it’s always Mono Red. The reason this happens is that, with most new brews, the biggest flaw tends to be the aggro matchup. While people try to one up each other in power level, aggro decks are there to kneecap them when they aren’t looking. However, right after Mono Red wins the tournament, an obvious shift happens. The winning list or similar lists explode in popularity, but everybody now over prepares for them. That means next week, although many of the aggro decks will still do well, they’ll be appreciably worse because so many people are now hard teching to beat the matchup. Thus on week 3, people stop bringing aggro decks and people start getting more greedy to combat control mirrors. Then of course, week 4, everyone stops caring about beating aggro decks and aggro comes back full swing to send the greedy decks packing.

This is the cyclical nature of the metagame, but also shows how important aggro is in the archetype paradigm. It’s a strategy that needs constant respect, or it’ll come by to destroy the competition. Now I know what you’re thinking, how does this have anything to do with deckbuilding? Great question! Understanding aggro’s role in the metagame will give you insight on how the deck itself should be constructed, whether its week 1 of the format or in a well established metagame, but first, let’s go over the basics.

POWER AND CONSISTENCY

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As I said before, no matter the strategy we’re building, it will always come back to the power and consistency of it. Consistency with Aggro is not that dissimilar to consistency in other archetypes, but the metric of power can be quite different depending on the situation. Let’s first take an example from this Standard format that has power in a way more similar to other archetypes.

Gruul Aggro 

Creatures (29)
4
Kazandu Mammoth
4
Edgewall Innkeeper
4
Brushfire Elemental
3
Rimrock Knight
3
Scavenging Ooze
4
Bonecrusher Giant
4
Lovestruck Beast
3
Questing Beast
Spells (5)
3
Shatterskull Smashing
2
Primal Might
Artifacts (5)
4
Embercleave
1
The Great Henge
Lands (21)
4
Cragcrown Pathway
4
Fabled Passage
8
Forest
5
Mountain
Cards (60)
Sideboard (15)
2
Embereth Shieldbreaker
4
Scorching Dragonfire
2
Klothys, God of Destiny
1
Phoenix of Ash
2
The Akroan War
2
Ox of Agonas
1
Vivien, Monsters' Advocate
1
The Great Henge

This is a stock Gruul list from about one month’s time ago, but not much has changed with the list. This is an Aggro deck that showcases the more traditional concept of power, the main reason the deck has been so successful within this metagame. It utilizes the powerful Adventure package, Brushfire Elemental and Kazandu Mammoth are great aggressive tools, Questing Beast is a pile of text and it’s rounded off with the Legendary Artifacts in Embercleave and The Great Henge. Even the least powerful card in the deck, Rimrock Knight, is quite reasonable in conjunction with Edgewall Innkeeper and is an additional body for Embercleave/Henge.

This deck is looking to close out games quickly with powerful cards, and Gruul is very good at doing that. So, what other types of power could an aggro deck have if it’s not chock full of powerful cards? Well, if an aggro deck can’t utilize powerful cards, it can instead swap raw power for velocity. This is an old example, but the best for the concept of velocity sometimes being equivalent to inherent power of a deck. Let’s leap back 6 years for the best deck that exemplifies this principle.

Tom Ross Boss Sligh 

Creatures (26)
4
Akroan Crusader
4
Firedrinker Satyr
4
Foundry Street Denizen
4
Legion Loyalist
4
Rakdos Cackler
4
Ash Zealot
2
Rubblebelt Maaka
Spells (9)
1
Blinding Flare
2
Shock
4
Titan's Strength
2
Lightning Strike
Enchantments (8)
4
Dragon Mantle
4
Madcap Skills
Lands (17)
17
Mountain
Cards (60)
Sideboard (15)
1
Mutavault
2
Magma Spray
2
Eidolon of the Great Revel
1
Lightning Strike
1
Mizzium Mortars
1
Searing Blood
1
Seismic Stomp
4
Skullcrack
1
Harness by Force
1
Peak Eruption

Ain’t she a beauty? To be honest, I think this is one of the decks that truly made me fall in love with Magic and I was blown away by how bad it looked but how well it played. What’s even the most powerful card in this deck? Legion Loyalist? How can you combine a bunch of weak cards to get a strong deck? As I said before, what this deck lacks in raw power, it makes up in speed. If you can kill the opponent turn 4 consistently by playing a bunch of insanely cheap cards and a few lands, isn’t that powerful? I previously described power as a deck’s subjective strength against the rest of the metagame, but couldn’t that definition be distilled down into a deck’s ability to win a game? It doesn’t completely encapsulate the meaning, but if it’s capable of getting wins against other top decks, it’s clearly a powerful strategy.

What about the consistency of the strategy in relation to its power? Well as you can see, since a lot of the cards are roughly the same power level, the deck is very consistent in enacting it’s gameplan. Play a few one drops, pump them up, kill your opponent. As I said, the consistency element is the same as we’re normally acquainted with, but the more liberal definition of power isn’t. Although this deck is clearly powerful (it did win the SCG Invitational in 2014) and it’s consistent in its game plan, what could the deck be lacking? To answer that, let’s jump ahead 4 years. Guilds of Ravnica just came out and there were a lot of cool decks happening with Boros Angels, GB Explore, and UR Phoenix to name a few. However, my good friend MPL member Chris Kvartek had much bigger plans and he quickly broke the format wide open.

GRN Standard Monowhite 

Planeswalkers (2)
2
Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants
Creatures (25)
4
Dauntless Bodyguard
4
Hunted Witness
4
Skymarcher Aspirant
4
Adanto Vanguard
1
Martyr of Dusk
4
Benalish Marshal
4
Venerated Loxodon
Enchantments (12)
4
Legion's Landing
4
History of Benalia
4
Conclave Tribunal
Lands (21)
21
Plains
Cards (60)
Sideboard (15)
1
Plains
3
Baffling End
3
Sorcerous Spyglass
1
Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants
3
Settle the Wreckage
1
Shalai, Voice of Plenty
3
Lyra Dawnbringer

I bet you weren’t expecting that were you. You have some traditionally powerful options in Venerated Loxodon, Benalish Marshall, and History of Benalia, but the rest leaves a lot to be desired. Skymarch Aspirant and Dauntless Bodyguard are also solid, but Hunted Witness? MARTYR OF DUSK? Some of these cards I wouldn’t play in Draft, how was this deck excellent? Well for starters, Chris was the functional trophy leader in the Standard MTGO Leagues with only Mono White. I say functional because he split his time playing on his account and helping me learn the deck on my account, but he had a pretty heavy hand in most of my matches. Within a few days time, we amassed a collective 16 trophies with many versions on Mono White.

The bigger question is though, what was so good about this deck and how does this relate to Mono Red Sligh’s inherent weakness? Mono White had a lot of resiliency. Resiliency, a subset of consistency, is how effective a deck can still operate when the opponent is attacking your resources. With cards like Dauntless Bodyguard, Hunted Witness, Adanto Vanguard, and Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants, the threats in this deck, although most of them not terribly impressive, were very annoying to remove. This matched up extremely well with the rest of the format where removal wasn’t that prevalent and the removal used was mostly 1 for 1 pieces. If we look at Boss Slight, it’s clear Tom Ross took advantage of a metagame that clearly wasn’t interested in interaction. With cards like Titan’s Strength, Madcap Skills, and Dragon’s Mantle, clearly he was banking on his opponents not having removal, a decision that paid off handsomely. That was a smart choice for his tournament, however if that deck were to be played in a format where people are looking to interact, the deck would be laughed out of the room. I mean, playing all 1 drops and pump spells? Ridiculous! For most metagames it would be, but knowing when to use that is the important part. 

Let’s recap. We’ve talked about power in aggro decks and how it can be defined more traditionally or by a deck’s velocity. We talked about consistency with a deck being able to enact it’s gameplan, whether that’s by having redundant cards with Monored Sligh, or by being very resilient like Mono White Aggro. So, how do we put this altogether to effectively brew a new aggro deck, how to tune an aggro deck, or even how to select an aggro deck?

HOLES IN THE METAGAME

There’s a lot of good ways to build aggro decks, but the best way is going to be completely dependent on how the metagame is going to shape up. Gruul, compared to the other examples, is more endemic of the strength of new card design as that deck is able to do functionally everything well. It’s fast, it’s consistent, it’s resilient, and it plays powerful cards. For the life cycle that Gruul is going to be legal, it’s going to be a reasonable option to play considering just how many things it does well. However, for less well rounded options like Mono White or Mono Red, you have to properly identify the metagame that can allow those decks to flourish.

Let’s go back to the week one Mono Red example. Extremely linear decks tend to flourish earlier in a metagame not only because people tend not to respect them, but because people aren’t looking to heavily interact week one. I’ll expand more into this in the fourth part of this series, Control, but it’s hard to build a deck heavily reliant on reactive spells week one as you don’t know what you need to plan for. When decks aren’t looking to interact, fast, linear decks can reign supreme as they can enact their game plan faster than other decks. However, if we go back to the Mono White example, a lot of the projected top decks were pre-emptively packing interaction, so a fast, linear deck wouldn’t be able to do well there. That’s why it had to pivot and lean on resiliency, or forcing through the consistency of our game plan, to carry the deck across the finish line.

This deck evolution is endemic to all metagames and all archetypes, but I believe aggro decks are the most affected by these shifts as it’s also the archetype that’s the easiest to “hate out” by configuring your deck in different ways. That’s why it’s so important to be able to build your deck in such a way that attacks the metagame from an angle it wasn’t necessarily expecting. If a lot of Standard decks start all playing 4 Flame Sweep to combat Aggro, you pivot to creatures with more toughness. If it adjusts to play board wipes, you play stickier permanents like The Great Henge or Vivien, Monsters’ Advocate to have board presence afterwards.

Once the metagame adjusts to combat the stickier permanents, go much leaner, trim the slow stuff, and focus on velocity while the opponent’s fumble with their slower answers. To survive as an aggro player in Standard, you need to be able to constantly change up your decks game plan as needed. It’s not often in Standard that an aggro deck can just permanently exist with very little changes. Midrange and Control can generally get away with this as it generally only needs to change some cards to combat meta shifts, but aggro decks need to work a bit harder to keep their relevance. At best, you can have a strategy like Gruul where the core can remain the same, but you can just shift the cards to subvert the expectations of the format.

The first iteration of Gruul played 4 Embercleave and a lot of Questing Beast. The next iteration of Gruul started to play some The Great Henge to grind more effectively in the mirror and against decks looking to prey on Gruul and started shaving Questing Beast. Later, The Great Henge and Vivien started to be played in equal numbers or even more than Embercleave as people wanted stickier permanents to help grind through slower decks and Questing Beats has functionally been cut from the strategy. Now we reach present day, where a lot of the decks in Standard are prepared to deal with the now slower iterations of Gruul. So, based on this article, how should Gruul decks adapt to the new metagame? If it were me, I think it may be time to go back to 4 Embercleave and Questing Beast to catch these decks off guard, we’ll see if others think the same way.

Thank you for reading! If you like my content and want to see more of it, you can check me out on Twitch. Have a great day!

Required Reading

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DoggertQBones

Robert "DoggertQBones" Lee is the content manager of MTGAZone and a high ranked Arena player. He has one GP Top 8 and pioneered popular archetypes like UB 8 Shark, UB Yorion, and GW Company in Historic. Beyond Magic, his passions are writing and coaching! Join our community on Twitch and Discord.

2 Responses

  1. SerGerwyn says:

    Just wondering if there is a part 3 or beyond for this series!

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