This week is the reverse. Let's be mostly positive.
After the most recent bans Standard is a fairly open format, but among the things that are certain is that aggro is good. Between Mardu, Mono-Red, and the Night Market Lookout scale of Mono-Black to B/R, there are three fairly distinct decks. If you look through Shaun Mclaren's Top 16 Standard deck rankings last week you also get to see some even odder aggro options like W/U Auras or the Path of Mettle W/R deck.
Like I said, this is the inverse. How do you build a good aggro deck, why are these decks good, and especially what might have improve with the midrange metagame shift from Temur to Grixis, G/R, and G/B?
Tempo and Resources
Basic definitions time.
Magic is about three resources: life, cards, and untapping (mana). Life is largely non-renewable, while cards and mana are both renewable. Which renewable resource you are limited on usually changes as the game progresses from mana to cards.
Card advantage should be obvious. You make a play that puts you ahead on cards. The less obvious part is that this is largely a count of useable cards. Your seventh land in aggro likely isn't a real card.
Virtual card advantage is making a play that doesn't physically place you up cardboard, but makes some of their cards unusable. You Wasteland their Underground Sea and activate Rishadan Port, their True-Name Nemesis and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are unusable.
Tempo is the act of attempting to convert mana and cards either directly into damage or into temporary card advantage that you can then leverage to produce real damage or cards.
Not all aggro is tempo. Aggro largely applies to any deck where if given the decision between including a card focused on exchanging resources or focused on profitably attacking or dealing damage, you choose the later. The lines are blurry; you might play Fatal Push because it clears a path or play Glint-Sleeve Siphoner because it's hard to block and the card stream keeps you in the driver's seat or you might sideboard into a control role against a faster deck, but in most matchups your goal is going to be proactively killing them.
That all said, let's get going.
Fallacy One: Card Parity
Your opponent by default draws the same number of cards as you do in a game. Maybe it's plus or minus one due to a mulligan, but in useable card count that's within mana flood margins.
The biggest failure mode for recent aggro decks is to structurally fall into game play sequences where they are playing card for card against midrange.
If your opponent's deck can curve Longtusk Cub into Whirler Virtuoso into Glorybringer, you cannot reasonably expect to match them threat for threat every turn. They will just two-for-one you a bunch and bury you.
The most common way to build a bad aggro deck is try to curve out one, two, three, four with cards that aren't actually drop-for-drop better than your opponent's cards. Unless the opposing decks are really bad, you can't hope they just fail to curve out. Your deck is going to do the same almost as often if it looks like theirs.
Good aggro decks are all about finding ways to properly skew the curve outs to your side.
The Failure of Two-Drops
One of the most telling indicators of how you need to build your aggressive deck is how your two-drops line up against opposing two-cost spells.
In Theros Standard, the Devotion-centric two-drops simply weren't things aggro decks could play card for card against. Stretching up the curve wasn't much better in the face of Master of Waves and Desecration Demon. Tom Ross was successful with Boss Sligh by playing almost all one-drops. Shove first, ask questions later, and hope they forgot their Drown in Sorrows. If they play one good blocker or a removal spell on turn 2 on the draw, you can just have four or however many good attackers the next turn and force through relevant damage.
In pre-ban Ixalan Standard you would think the same logic applied. Longtusk Cub and Harnessed Lightning handled two-drop parity well but not a horde. The issue was that there just weren't playable one-drops. Past Soul-Scar Mage and Bomat Courier, both notably base one power, you had Rigging Runner, the turn one 1/1, and…some stuff with menace?
Whirler Virtuoso was also another huge issue. A single card could easily erase any low end advantage you could gain on turn 3. This would be similar to Tom's Boss Sligh deck playing into a field of maindeck Drown in Sorrows. Again, you had to add bulk to your deck and compete on the higher threat level of Rampaging Ferocidon and Hazoret the Fervent.
Right now life is a bit easier. Fatal Push lets other decks trade early, but Longtusk Cub is no longer a pure brick wall on turn 2 post-Attune with Aether. People are playing less bulky low drops, less Whirler Virtuosos, and most importantly, Rivals of Ixalan contained quite a few good one-drops. I'm a little skeptical of my Consuming Fervor Pirates list from last week given the presence of Fatal Push, and I'm a little skeptical of B/R Pirates for the same "how can you ever cast spells" reasons I had last week, but it feels like we are getting closer to being able to go under opposing decks effectively.
One thing that caught my eye on one-drop searches is that Skymarcher Aspirant lines up with mana that casts Toolcraft Exemplar a little better than Inventor's Apprentice. I don't think Mardu Vehicles can give up Unlicensed Disintegration, but if you wanted to push your deck lower to the ground, another white one-drop might be better than the red alternatives.
Note that you don't always need to do a full refocus. When Faeries was rampant in Standard, it was way too easy for them to pick off generic 2/2s at low cost via Agony Warp and tokens. Similarly, those cards failed to perform in mirrors or versus Kitchen Finks. Most of the successful refocuses of Kithkin kept a low curve but played more first strike attackers, like Knight of the White Orchid, or just their own Kitchen Finks. They were largely the same Spectral Procession plan, but they just changed over to good attackers.
In current Standard this is a large part of the difference between base-red and base-black aggro. The difference is just a level extracted. Against green decks, Dread Wanderer is relatively easy to start profitably blocking. In the Temur era of bigger Longtusk Cubs and Bristling Hydras this was even more pronounced and hit Scrapheap Scrounger as well. It was better to just play Earthshaker Khenras because despite the recursion, you were never getting a good attack past turn 5, regardless of how long they stuck around. This also applies to mirrors: a bonus attack is just better than not dying most of the time, especially when end games are largely impossible to kill Hazoret the Fervents. On the flip side, if your opponent is all Fatal Pushes, the recursive threats are much better, and Whirler Virtuoso is basically unstoppable by either side.
If you're expecting tons of Grixis Energy, the black creatures are probably better; if your opponents are more likely to play G/B Energy or Thrashing Brontodon, I would lean towards the red cards.
Aside from mana curve, the other way to end up playing card for card with your midrange opponents is literally just drawing the same number of cards as they do. Let's look again at the Boss Sligh deck as a great example of this.
- 4 Akroan Crusader
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 4 Firedrinker Satyr
- 4 Foundry Street Denizen
- 4 Legion Loyalist
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 2 Rubblebelt Maaka
- 17 Mountain
If you load up your deck with high velocity, low impact cards you can't afford to only draw a few of them. You need to draw spells in large amounts and keep drawing them.
Let's talk about some numbers in terms of casting spells.
If you are going to hit your fourth land on time for some big whammy like Hellrider or Hazoret, you are going to want 23 or 24 lands.
If you are mostly capping out at hitting three mana on time, 20 to 22 is the right spot depending on how well you operate off a land or two.
If your deck doesn't really need that third land on time and can run off one mana sometimes, that's when you get into the seventeen to ninteen range.
Playing the wrong number of lands for your spells results in flooding out and drawing too few spells to win, or not drawing enough lands to cast your game winner on time and dying. That's generally called "losing games" and not "winning tournaments."
Creature-lands or similar cards are huge game changers in this arena. You can effectively move your deck up the curve without reducing your ability to keep producing threats.
Where does that leave our current Standard aggro decks?
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 1 Ammit Eternal
- 4 Toolcraft Exemplar
- 3 Veteran Motorist
- 3 Hazoret the Fervent
- 2 Pia Nalaar
Mardu has to play 23 or 24 lands. The math of actually being Mardu doesn't work out otherwise. It compensates via having lots of per card impact. Scrapheap Scrounger recursion, 4/4 flying vehicles, Unlicensed Disintegration, and Hazoret as the four-drop of choice now that Gideon is gone. Technically, it had creature-lands last year to mitigate this, but they rarely ever mattered and it was more of a case where anything attached to your Stone Quarry was good enough.
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Ahn-Crop Crasher
- 4 Earthshaker Khenra
- 2 Glorybringer
- 4 Soul-Scar Mage
- 4 Hazoret the Fervent
- 2 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
Mono-Red needs to adjust in a post-Ramunap Ruins world. It used to have a way to leverage a higher land count, but Sunscorched Desert is a joke and Scavenger Grounds is super conditional. Hazoret doesn't have to be cast on turn 4, and honestly, barring mulligans it never attacks then. I think Tristan playing Glorybringer is a bit ambitious and that you certainly don't want six colorless lands, but the raw number is right.
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Dread Wanderer
- 4 Gifted Aetherborn
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 4 Night Market Lookout
- 4 Ruin Raider
Mono-Black is where you really want to start skimping on lands. You don't have four-drops, you have twelve one-drops that really aren't good going late, and between Fatal Push and Supernatural Stamina your spells keep the low curve going. This list is a bit old, but the same principles still apply. There wasn't even a black card banned! How lucky!
Okay, what is actually lucky is that you can play Grasping Scoundrel and go full blown sixteen two- power two-drops. There really aren't that many Sweltering Suns floating around yet, and I'm unsure how many more there can even be. Harsh Scrutiny is a fine answer to Whirler Virtuoso, which is the only other card a low to the ground deck like that is super afraid of.
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Bone Picker
- 4 Dread Wanderer
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 4 Grasping Scoundrel
- 4 Night Market Lookout
- 2 Ruin Raider
- 4 Vicious Conquistador
- 19 Swamp
I think this list might be a little heavy on three-drops, and unfortunately, I don't think you can play Heart of Kiran with all these 1/1s. This deck also has a huge issue with control, where in addition to your removal, cards like Bone Picker are basically blanks, and I'm not sure this comes close to solving that.
Race to the Finish
Last week I made a comment about how Ramunap Ruins wasn't even that good in Standard prior to the ban updates. In a post-Temur world it had a better outlook, but there's good discussion behind why this was true.
Once the opposing decks turned the corner, Ramunap Red died fast. As in too fast to even activate Ramunap Ruins more than once. There weren't a ton of games which fell in the window where you drew six lands, dealt them sixteen damage, and couldn't deal the last four. Your opponents' Glorybringer, giant Longtusk Cubs, The Scarab God, or just Angel of Inventions would just close games before you could reach much further. Earthshaker Khenra was in a similar position where the Zombie version was rarely relevant outside of mirror matches.
If you're going to attempt to have a long game plan as an aggro deck, it needs to actually be something you can execute before you are actually shut out. If that's a concern, the best long game plan is kill them faster. Whether that shutout is because your opponent hits some huge life swing like Sphinx's Revelation or just kills you doesn't matter.
In current Standard this is more of an issue against G/R Monsters than it is against Grixis Energy. This is also really fortunate for the aggro decks because low to the ground beats are much more effective against the deck with no Whirler Virtuosos and no Fatal Pushes. The big takeaway here should be that Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer aren't cards you want against the G/R deck.
It seems like similar logic should apply to the G/B Winding Constrictor decks, but in practice the matchup plays out very different from the G/R one. Their threats just aren't sticky, and importantly their biggest creatures die to Abrade. You can't just get boxed out of relevant interaction on size, so having larger threats that kill their stuff is an effective route to victory because you can configure to play card for card with them.
The flip side of don't try to go toe-to-toe with midrange is... except when you just can. My statement about shifting to controlling plans is not often possible, but this is exactly where you want it. You need removal already to beat their early Winding Constrictor starts. Their creatures are all things you can kill without throwing multiple cards against them. You have access to specific cards that are both good against them and provide massive standalone advantages in Glorybringer and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Possibly most important: just attacking with dorks has a big flaw in Walking Ballista for two. Not only does your control plan work, but your aggressive plan is on shaky ground so you need the swap to happen.
I mentioned non-tempo aggro, but haven't really talked about any decks in that category yet.
If you want to think about non-tempo aggro, think about Zombies from Amonkhet Standard or Mono-Blue Devotion from Theros or Kithkin back in Lorwyn. You are largely aggro, but your plan is accumulation of permanent synergies that keep your attacks profitable. The reason these decks are typically tribal is that is the most common theme that rewards you for just having a ton of stuff on the battlefield.
Merfolk in current Standard tries to play this game, but it fails as it lacks the standalone impactful cards. Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca isn't a Cryptbreaker that single-handedly runs up the score by making more Zombies. You don't have single card whammies like Liliana's Mastery or Master of Waves. Your best threats just die to spot removal, unlike Thassa, God of the Sea or Cloudgoat Ranger. Your enhancements also are easy to kill and don't stick like Honor of the Pure or Thalia's Lieutenant.
That might sound like a lot, but it's really just one problem. The best way to describe this issue is single card vulnerabilities. Merfolk has a couple key cards that provide the incremental advantage. None of them are sturdy. None of them leave around value. If your opponent just casts Harnessed Lightning, you are back to almost nothing, and unlike Modern Merfolk where every card is a lord, it is very easy for them to have more answers than you have real threats.
Like I said: none of your support cards are standalone threats. The relevant ones all die to removal. They don't create a lasting advantage. If you want a successful non-tempo aggro deck, you need to be sticky or redundant. Look to Oketra's Monument for that, not Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca.
Why The Beatdown?
Aggro often gets a bad rap as the easy thoughtless archetype. I think over the last decade or so the play skill portion of this has slowly been eroded by truly great players like Paul Rietzl and Tom Ross, but there's more to Magic than just game play. As scripted as some aggressive decks might look, the process of finding the good one definitely requires finesse.
Deck building and deck selection are hard. Take time, think about it, and make good decisions.