Deconstructing Constructed – Aggro Control in Extended

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After asking readers if they wanted to see Vintage or Extended, the majority came back with the latter (I blame Gush) so that’s what we’ll be discussing today. Last week I covered the main graveyard based combo decks that you can expect to play against, so this week we’ll be branching out into the aggro-control segment of the meta…

After asking readers if they wanted to see Vintage or Extended, the majority came back with the latter (I blame Gush) so that’s what we’ll be discussing today. Last week I covered the main graveyard based combo decks that you can expect to play against, so this week we’ll be branching out into the aggro-control segment of the meta. I’ll mainly be covering the decks that are seeing play on MTGO, along with one or two more experimental variations that I’ve kicked around. This will largely be a “getting to know them” article, so a lot of this will be basic information and generalities.

G/U/B Trinket Goyf
This deck is effectively a divergent evolution of the original U/W/R Trinket Angel decks, with the main differences stemming from the use of Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf as cheap threats and to support the search engine. Many builds run the Top — Counterbalance combination, since they already like Sensei’s Divining Top as a Trinket Mage target. Not to mention a high number of decks have moved to cheaper threats (see any of the Red lists posted in the last two weeks), so Counterbalance is even more powerful than last season.

The other key changes occur in the removal suite, where Fire/Ice and Lightning Helix are largely replaced by Smother and Putrefy. Some builds have eschewed maindeck removal altogether, relying on Engineered Explosives and Umezawa’s Jitte to rise to the occasion. Speaking of the artifact selection, many Trinket builds have switched over to running multiple maindeck Tormod’s Crypt and running multiple Academy Ruins to help reuse both the Crypt and Engineered Explosives.

The advantages of this type of Goyf deck are the large numbers of answers they can run to stop or trump opposing Goyfs, as well as effectively dealing with many of the same answers when put up against them. A short list of maindeckable cards that help win the Goyf mirror consists of Smother, Spell Snare, Engineered Explosives, and Tormod’s Crypt, almost all of which you’ll see between maindeck and sideboard. I expect to see Spell Snare rise in popularity, once people realize how many cards it hits in the format. I mean, just stopping Tarmogoyf, Bob, Counterbalance, Cephalid Illusionist, Isochron Scepter, Burning / Living Wish, and Lightning Helix are good enough, but then you gain value against common removal in the format.

As for a mid-game, if you can set-up recurring Engineered Explosives, you can constantly wipe out swarms of little Red dorks with help from Counterbalance, and transfer Goyf from defense to offense. Blah blah, Counterbalance wrecks cheap aggro if it hits turn 1 or 2, etc etc. You know all this already. The basic point is the deck is solid against graveyard combo by virtue of having Spell Snare and grave hate, can last against opposing Goyf decks, and has the weapons to fight control. The major downside is how rough you have it when just about all of your creatures roll over and die to burn, and how easy it is to get swarmed if you don’t resolve an early Counterbalance or multiple Trinket Mage / Goyf, or Loxodon Hierarch if you run the White splash.

The big selling point for this type of deck is that you have plenty of ways to survive the early game against decks that seek to ignore you, while not just scooping it up to a deck that wants to engage you on the ground. A midrange deck like Gifts Rock or Aggro Loam is a major pain in the butt, but at least with this type of deck you have the resources to not get buried under card advantage. You have ways to stop the inevitability (grave hate is good against Loam and Genesis, I hear), so you can convert your short-term removal and counters into buying enough time to swing four times with Goyf.

Further notes on the speed of the format… If you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice that almost every deck in the format is running Chrome Mox. The format is simply so fast now that only a precious few decks can afford not to gain as much speed as they can. If you look up any of the Premier Events on MTGO you can see at least half, if not more, of the decks are running Chrome Mox. This means the cheaper removal and disruption you can pack into your deck, the more effectively you can deploy your mana and take advantage of the extra card if you don’t run Chrome Mox. The only aggro deck that’s shown that ability so far is Domain Zoo, largely because it already runs the most cost efficient high-power creatures you can in the format. The deck is extremely streamlined, and this may lead more decks to cut back on the Mox in the future as various archetypes become tighter, but as it stands, expect two-drops on turn 1 every game.

The biggest single card issues these decks have are with mass sweepers that can hit multiple types of cards. Engineered Explosives set at two, and Pernicious Deed*, can nail a large number of permanents if you don’t properly set up your resources. Another single card issue involves the strong enchantments, to which this deck runs very few answers. Sure, you can Pithing Needle something like Seismic Assault, but if you don’t happen to have Trinket Mage around, or it’s an enchantment like Solitary Confinement, you can get knocked out of commission in a hurry. Let’s not even get into the disgusting things Turbo Ideal can do if they actually manage to resolve Enduring Ideal.

* Speaking of which, P. Deed is one of the few cards that rewards not playing Chrome Mox, and is worth the large total mana cost to sweep the field. It’s rare when you’ll hit less than three of the opponent’s cards when you blow it, and when combined with Duress, Cabal Therapy, and Spell Snare, it really isn’t difficult to buy enough time for it to come online. Even against other aggressive decks, in a deck like Rock, you’ve got Wall of Roots as the ultimate stall plus acceleration play into a Deed for two or three.

U/W/B “Fish”
This seems to be more of a theory-driven deck, but I’ve seen it played in a few eight-man tourneys, so I figure it bears monitoring. In case you’ve never seen the Legacy version of this deck, the basic principles are using a lower than normal land count along with a multitude of cantrips, with fetches to quickly dig through the deck. Although Extended is missing Brainstorm, many of the matches are slow enough to allow Sensei’s Divining Top to become an adequate replacement. Such a deck is of questionable value if the format has as much Red in it as some people expect, but if it becomes largely combo versus midrange versus aggro-control versus one type of Red deck, then this deck can easily make a nice niche for itself.

The basic building blocks of the deck are more or less the same build-to-build: 8-12 cantrips, with Serum Visions, Sleight of Hand, and Sensei’s Divining Top being the favorites, with Ponder likely to be added once it becomes legal. The rest of the deck is largely countermagic and disruption along the lines of Duress, Spell Snare, Counterspell, and sometimes even Force Spike. The rest of the spells typically include Smother and Umezawa’s Jitte to give the deck some game against other types of aggression.

As far as creatures go, the deck consists largely of utility creatures along with one or two high-powered finishers like Exalted Angel or Jotun Grunt. The utility men are largely dependent on what you expect to play against, but a general list includes: Sliver Knight, Withered Wretch, Spectral Lynx, Yixlid Jailer, Dark Confidant, Meddling Mage, Tombstalker, and Glowrider. The idea is to take about 16-20 men or so that are tailor-made to beat certain archetype classes, and then gain an automatic advantage over a portion of the field. For example, Spectral Lynx is rather bad on its own, but when facing down Goyfs he’s exceptional. In addition, he can still hold up and be a very effective Jitte carrier against the midrange decks, thanks to his regeneration.

Post-board, the deck can adapt to fighting decks on a direct level. Threads of Disloyalty will give most Goyf and Zoo decks fits, while narrow cards like Deathmark and Vindicate can be brought in against typical anti-aggro midrange decks. Hierarchs aren’t quite as amazing when they get blown up, and Armadillo Cloak loses much of its luster when you have a large possibility of getting two-for-one’d in the process. Otherwise just use your imagination.

The obvious failure here lies against decks with similar disruption plus beat strategies featuring larger creatures. Black Fish really doesn’t have issues dealing with one or two large creatures, but if the opponent have a combination of, say, Ravenous Baloth, Loxodon Hierarch, and Tarmogoyf together, it becomes nearly impossible to crush all the fat without a Spectral Lynx plus Jitte start. Life is also a precious commodity here, so once Red decks have answers to Jitte it’s possible to get knocked down into burn range by turn 4 or 5. Again, if a deck like Gaea’s Might Get There is the top choice by normal aggro players, this deck probably will stay a very small portion of the online metagame.

Gro / GAT / Threshold
This is one of those decks that see sporadic amounts of success throughout the season ever since Gush was banished from Extended. I’m not going to cover all the variations, or the multitude of cards you can run in the deck, but if you’re really interested I’d recommend the StarCityGame.com forum thread here. Although you’ll have to catch up around the last three pages or so, there are a number of people in the thread that have a solid grasp on what makes the deck tick, and have actually played the deck in Extended tournaments versus pure theory.

To summarize, the deck is essentially a post-rotation version of the original Gro decks, only forced to run more lands. All of them run various suites of cantrips, although the only one everyone can universally agree on is Serum Visions, or Careful Study, Mental Note, and even Mishra’s Bauble in some cases. For pure card advantage, Gush has been replaced by its creature counterpart in Fathom Seer, although some complain about the amount of mana that needs to be invested and run Dark Confidant as a card-advantage-gaining creature that can also beat early on.

Counters are lead by Spell Snare and Stifle, and for what it’s worth, whenever I’ve tried the deck these cards are the main reasons to consider it in the first place. Both allow for the maximization of laying protected threats and building up tempo in the early game. Removal tends to be Ghastly Demise for the Black builds, and mostly just a few Echoing Truths / Engineered Explosives for the G/U builds.

Creatures have seen a vast improvement since the last time Gro was carried into battle. Tarmogoyf and Tombstalker both give the deck huge and (most importantly) cheap threats, to fight while keeping counter mana open. The extra hard-to-kill factor these guys bring to the table against Red decks is a huge boon, although Fathom Seer is also is an effective way to soak up a burn spell.

The biggest beef with the deck is it’s just so underpowered compared to other decks you could be play. Many matches you absolutely need to resolve Duress / Spell Snare / Cremate (depending on what configuration) game 1, and post-board has to be reserved largely for Dredge decks, since if you can’t stop the first Breakthrough / Tolarian Winds you’ve pretty much lost already. Maindeck, you only have 4-6 cards that can reasonably do that, so a big overhaul is typically needed if you want to consistently bash them in the head. Otherwise the deck is basically a stripped-down version of Legacy Threshold, which is a good thing since Thresh is the best deck in that format anyway.

If the deck gets off to a good start, not many decks can recoup a major tempo loss in a timely fashion to beat this thing. If you aren’t dragging it into an attrition war, or just trying to crack it on one huge turn, more power to you and good luck.

Pretty Hate Machine or G/W Stax (G/W aggro)
I talked about the deck last week, and all I have to really say about it now is that Root Maze is insane. If you thought the card looked good in theory, actually test it out. If you run a normal manabase, you can gain multiple Time Walks against nearly any deck in the format, save some versions of RDW. Despite the fact that something like Domain Zoo may have more power and a cleaner curve, slow it down a few turns and see how well it grinds out against a deck that’s packing multiple life-gain creatures post-board. Really, Tog is the one big pain in the butt match if you can’t resolve Chalice of the Void early, because it’ll go toe-to-toe with your few threats and runs enough land / draw to shrug off most of the mana disruption. Otherwise, you can hate on everything else so much that many times combo needs multiple answer cards just to have a chance at going off.

That’s all for now! If you have any specific Extended decks you’d like to see covered, please let me know.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom