With Mono-Red aggro lighting up the stage in Standard, I want to take a look this week at what makes the aggro archetype tick. By breaking down and examining how these decks are built to be powerful, we can begin to understand why there will almost always be aggressive decks running around any given format!
Consistency in Deck Building
A card game that utilizes a resource system is bound to have consistency issues. While deck-building restrictions and a large card pool may allow for players to maximize the consistency of their decks (e.g. the four-card rule, similar cards such as Fyndhorn Elves and Llanowar Elves), there will be issues when it comes to finding many copies of different cards that have overlapping effects. Although Grim Flayer and Tarmogoyf may serve similar functions, there are key differences that prevent them from being thought of as interchangeable. Aggressive decks are generally filled to the brim with cards that serve, for the most part, the exact same roles as the other cards in the deck. Here's a Mono-Red deck from current Standard:
Mono-Red Aggro by Caleb Scherer, 10th Place, SCG Open Indianapolis 2019
|4Ghitu Lavarunner||1Lava Coil|
|4Viashino Pyromancer||4Lightning Strike|
|4Goblin Chainwhirler||4Light Up the Stage|
|4Skewer the Critics|
|3Electrostatic Field||3Lava Coil||2Act of Treason|
|2Direct Current||3Fiery Cannonade||1Risk Factor|
Viashino Pyromancer, Shock, and Ghitu Lavarunner are different cards, but they are all cards that are expected to deal two points of damage every time they are cast. Compare that to the previous example of Grim Flayer and Tarmogoyf in a Modern Jund deck – what are their roles? They might be there to put early pressure against combo decks, but they also might serve as cards that try to present a roadblock against aggressive strategies. In the cast of Grim Flayer, it sets up graveyard synergies and filtering, whereas Tarmogyf is solely there to take advantage of a filled-up graveyard as a payoff. It makes sense, then, that an archetype that can repeatedly execute its game plan will have a certain edge in a given situation.
Understanding Virtual Card Advantage
The concept of card advantage is one that players quickly learn when they begin playing Magic. The simplest conception of it is a card like Divination – a card that draws two more cards. If we are to judge the "power" of a given play by how much card advantage it can generate, we quickly come to the conclusion that any strategy that generates large amounts of card advantage – i.e. drawing cards – is the most powerful. A deck, for example, that answers its opponents' threats one-for-one and then pulls away by out-drawing them would seem like the most powerful archetype available in any given format. In some cases, these decks are indeed the best decks in the format, as was the case in Pro Tour Magic 2015. Here is Ivan Floch's tournament-winning deck in all its draw-go glory:
UW Control by Ivan Floch, 1st Place, Pro Tour Magic 2015
|26Lands||4Other Permanents||30Instants and Sorceries|
|2Azorius Guildgate||1Elixir of Immortality||4Azorius Charm|
|4Hallowed Fountain||3Jace, Architect of Thought||4Dissolve|
|4Temple of Enlightenment||2Syncopate|
|1Temple of Epiphany||3Divination|
|1Temple of Triumph||3Planar Cleansing|
|2Archangel of Thune||1Deicide||2Dispel|
|1Elspeth, Sun's Champion||2Gainsay||1Jace, Memory Adept|
|2Last Breath||4Nyx-Fleece Ram|
Aggressive strategies are built as polar opposites – their cards rarely generate value, and their strategies don't revolve around trading one-for-one. Rather, many lines of play often involve plays that generate card disadvantage and would seem to run counter to the idea that card advantage is king. However, aggressive strategies themselves don't completely abandon card advantage; instead, they work with the idea of a virtual card advantage.
Virtual card advantage boils down to the idea that the cards stranded in an opponents' hands because they couldn't cast them is just as valuable as card advantage. If an opponent loses a game with seven cards in hand versus your hand of zero cards, you had an overwhelming virtual card advantage because those cards could not be cast while you cast all of yours. By embracing virtual card advantage, aggressive decks can end games before card advantage can bury them in value.
Low Curves and Mana Screw
Variance is a part of any game of Magic: The Gathering, and there are going to be many games that will force players to keep hands that are light on lands. Aggressive strategies take advantage of this fact that either decks in any given match will inevitable stumble. By having a low-to-the-ground curve, aggro decks can get away with keeping hands that are light on lands, and even function when their mana might not be optimal. Let's take a look at this Five-Color Human deck, one of Modern's premier aggro decks:
Five-Color Humans by Drake Sasser, 11th Place, SCG Open Worcester 2019
|4Ancient Ziggurat||4Champion of the Parish||4Aether Vial|
|4Cavern of Souls||4Noble Hierarch|
|4Horizon Canopy||3Kitesail Freebooter|
|1Seachrome Coast||4Thalia's Lieutenant|
|4Unclaimed Territory||4Thalia, Guardian of Thraben|
|3Auriok Champion||2Gaddock Teeg||2Dismember|
|2Izzet Staticaster||2Kambal, Consul of Allocation||2Knight of Autumn|
One of the big things that stick out is the number of one-drops that are in the deck. These allow the deck, if need be, to operate on one or two lands for a majority of the game. More importantly, one of its one-drops is Noble Hierarch, a mana dork that both functions as an accelerant as well as means of buffing attacking creatures. By working double duty as a mana source and a creature buff, the Humans player doesn't have to sweat even if he or she has to keep a hand with one land – the ability to deploy one-drops can largely negate the effects of mana screw.
When the mana screw happens on the other side of the battlefield, aggressive decks are ready to pounce on the advantage. Because aggressive strategies present "questions" in the form of threats and force their opponents to "answer" them, aggro decks can play to the board and build a board state which forces their opponents to tackle the unenviable task of both smoothening their mana out and dealing with the threats. In other words, aggressive strategies are in the best position when it comes to coming back from mana screw and taking advantage of it. This puts the archetype in a unique and very powerful position in games of Magic.
And that wraps it up for this week – I hope you were able to come away with better understanding of why aggressive decks find success in various formats, and perhaps its given you an insight into how better to approach them the next time you're sitting across one!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.