Feature Article – Redefining a Moniker, Part 1

If you’re like me, you’ve gone through various stages in your Magic career. You likely started out as a random scrub, impressed by the power of a Dragon Whelp but willing to trade it for some Jumps. Gradually you fine-tuned the rules and became more competitive, until either all the local players left or you were happy where you were. In time, you also likely discovered that you had an affinity for a particular color or play style. In my case, the style was the mid-range U/G deck. Over the years since Fallen Empires, I found I had built far too many of these decks, and all those Walls of Blossoms and Ertai, Wizard Adepts were starting to run together. So I set myself a simple-sounding project…

[Editor’s Note: Mark Young is ALSO having a week off… he too will be back next Thursday!]

Hi! I’m Zach Thorp, and I was a Magic: the Gathering addict. Only now, with the help of my friends, am I finally close to quitting it. I hope my story will inspire others in your local chapter of MPA [Magic Players Anonymous].

If you’re like me, you’ve gone through various stages in your Magic career. You likely started out as a random scrub, impressed by the power of a Dragon Whelp but willing to trade it for some Jumps. Gradually you fine-tuned the rules and became more competitive, until either all the local players left or you were happy where you were. In time, you also likely discovered that you had an affinity for a particular color or play style. In my case, the style was the mid-range U/G deck.

Over the years since Fallen Empires, I found I had built far too many of these decks, and all those Walls of Blossoms and Ertai, Wizard Adepts were starting to run together. So I set myself a simple-sounding project: play a deck of each color and 2-color combination. Over the years, I’ve largely stuck with this, and managed to diversify my play style, learning to run anything from combo to aggro to control. I’ve also had to develop a more intuitive system of naming and classifying the decks that I had built, to keep myself from repeating the same thing over in over.

One of the things this project has created is a legacy. There was a time when I had 13 decks put together and refused to take any apart. Now, I have three together, plus a Standard deck. Along the way, I not only conquered my addiction to card gaming — a very difficult process when you were in as deep as I was — but also created a great variety of decks. Some were great, some were okay, and some were downright lousy, but for those that were the most fun — which could fit into any of the three categories — I have had the greatest desire to pass them onto others. By and large, this effort has been a failure, which is one reason why I was inspired to write these articles.

The other, main reason for writing these articles is that of a pet peeve. In the process of this project, I’ve run afoul of a term in the Magic writer’s world far too many times: “aggro-control.” Widely used, the term is so badly defined and misapplied that it has ceased to really have any meaning. For example, a White Weenie deck running a handful of Mana Leaks is suddenly a control deck, or a U/R control deck running Izzet Guildmage and some of the Urzatron is suddenly an aggro deck. Laugh if you will, but I’ve seen this kind of thing too many times.

In principle, there are several possible reasons for this problem. It could be the unwillingness of competitive players to acknowledge the “mid-range” deck archetype, given the well-established triangle of Aggro-Control-Combo. It could be that people are confusing what a deck does with what individual cards do. It could be that a given color has been associated with a trait (aggro, control, etc.) for so long that it can’t be defined any other way. Or it could be that the term is so ill defined that no one really knows what they’re talking about.

In this series of articles, I will endeavor to try and clear up this confusion by defining the deck spectrum, the four basic categories on it, and how they are usefully defined. One might hope that if enough people read this series, they start cleaning up their speech. I don’t expect it, but I’d love it. Along the way, I hope you learn (or re-learn) something else as well.

In my categorization system, I have four categories: true aggro, medium aggro, medium control, and true control. Each individual deck type will be discussed at the start of the first four articles, and pulled together in the fifth article. For each deck type, two of my better creations will be discussed as well as some of the historically powerful decks that fit the model. Combo decks, the non-deck in some ways, will be detailed in the fifth article.

First on the list is True Aggro. This style of deck that usually runs between 18 and 24 creatures, and is focused on getting as much damage in the red zone as possible. Spells like Might of Old Krosa or Lightning Bolt support this, with the focus on damage and speed rather than something slower like card manipulation. While the vast majority of the effects are between 1cc and 2cc, there will often be up to 10 cards that range in the 3cc to 4cc range. Popular as an “answer” to combo decks, it takes a very specific pool of cards to make it truly good for a given color combination, since the usual result is simply a bunch of Grizzly Bears with a Loxodon Warhammer. Note that many fast formats, like Legacy, will force all decks to resemble true aggro in order to survive, even if that’s not what they were originally built as.

True aggro decks are typically what any set reviewer with any competitive experience will mean when s/he’s calling a card “good for aggro.” Unfortunately, the only real in-play advantage a true aggro deck has over other archetypes is speed; if it fails to win within the first five or so turns, it proceeds to lose. This has prompted it to push for more absurd and more undercosted creatures to fill the curve, to the point where two of the most competitive true aggro decks in Legacy are the Fish deck and Threshold. These decks pack things like a 4/4 for 1W or 1G, a 3/3 with shroud for G, up to an 8/9 for 1G, 2/2’s that can shut down entire decks, and 1/1’s for 1G that grow to enormous sizes. The list goes on.

Any deck that pops up in Standard that can even vaguely rival those absurdly good creatures automatically gains tremendous success. Case and point, the two decks below.

Ravager Affinity – Extended

4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Arcbound Worker
4 Disciple of the Vault
4 Frogmite
4 Myr Enforcer
2 Somber Hoverguard

4 AEther Vial
4 Chromatic Sphere
3 Cranial Plating
3 Tangle Wire
4 Thoughtcast

2 Ancient Den
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Darksteel Citadel
2 Glimmervoid
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Vault of Whispers

3 Cabal Therapy
3 Chill
3 Engineered Plague
1 Gilded Drake
3 Kami of Ancient Law
2 Seal of Removal

Ravager Affinity reared its ugly head during Mirrodin block, and has been around since. It gained so much popularity, in part for the extreme cheapness to build it, that it actively drove down tournament attendance and got itself banned. It survived wave after wave of hate dedicated to blowing it apart, though in part that was because effective cards such as Shatterstorm, Meltdown, Energy Flux, Hum of the Radix, Seeds of Innocence, Krosan Grip, Sudden Shock, and Kataki, War’s Wage were either not available or not used enough. It continues to rise whenever people take out their sideboard hate for it, and has even raised its head in the much-hated Flash deck.

Affinity won, not because of having very cheap creatures, but because of having a broken linear mechanic that made them cheap. Drop out lands that are artifacts, 0- and 1-cost artifacts, then play some huge, expensive thing with affinity. Add Cranial Plating to make every creature a deadly threat, even Ornithopter, and add Arcbound Ravager to make most removal moot. Shrapnel Blast and Disciple of the Vault gave the deck reach, if not full-blown combo power. Though very difficult to play optimally (from what I’ve heard), you could stumble around all day and still win matches. If Wizards ever makes another affinity-like mechanic, they’d better have learned their lesson.

Gruul Deck Wins – Ravnica Standard

4 Giant Solifuge
4 Kird Ape
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Scab-Clan Mauler
3 Sulfur Elemental
3 Tin Street Hooligan

4 Call of the Herd
4 Char
4 Rift Bolt
3 Seal of Fire
1 Thunderblade Charge

7 Forest
4 Karplusan Forest
5 Mountain
2 Skarrg, the Rage Pits
4 Stomping Ground

3 Magus of the Moon
4 Moldervine Cloak
2 Riftsweeper
2 Scorched Rusalka
4 Tormod’s Crypt

Gruul Deck Wins largely capitalized heavily on the “OMG, I’m so freaking huge” factor for its success. Much like the similar Zoo decks, it was a monster that was largely immune to Pyroclasm, had enough burn or pump to kill two players even without combat damage, and came flying out of the gates so fast it could be terrifying. Any deck that stumbled at all against it, or God forbid tried to drop early blockers, lost very quickly. True, it could be beaten, but only if their draw was light and you had a gassy hand of removal paired with some solid life gain.

Gruul gained some popularity for its cheapness factor (though the lands were expensive), but in larger part it was due to the “multicolor discount.” That is, the more colors you put in the casting cost, the cheaper the overall card becomes; more so if it’s enemy colors, such as in Spiritmonger. W/G decks have taken advantage of this with cards like Mystic Enforcer or Anurid Brushhopper. This leads to huge creatures for relatively cheap prices, though often at the cost of bending over backwards in your manabase. Beyond that, the deck had enough reach to easily kill any opponent.

Neither of these decks are good examples of the ideal of a true aggro deck, in that neither of them, properly costed, would ever be viable decks. Instead, they’ve cheated their way to bigger bodies for lower costs. While the great bulk of true aggro decks will never reach their sort of power, they have two huge advantages for the budget player — ease of play and cheapness of construction. Even the lousiest of them can be piloted for wins on a sleep-deprived, caffeine-stoked mind, while simultaneously constructed for $40 or less, in most cases. Combined, these two advantages are at least one reason why true aggro is such a popular archetype at big, open tournaments such as States.

Speaking of the budget players, here are two effective budget decks that I can attest are worth trying out:

Troll Haven

4 Llanowar Elves
2 Icatian Javelineers
3 Ronom Unicorn
3 Watchwolf
2 Whitemane Lion
4 Hedge Troll
3 Hunting Moa

3 Condemn
2 Temporal Isolation
4 Evolution Charm
4 Vulshok Morningstar
3 Pentarch Ward

2 Safe Haven
2 Pendelhaven
4 Selesnya Sanctuary
8 Plains
7 Forest

Troll Haven was a FNM creation from about six months ago. Inspired by a desire to see combined effects of three Limited-playable cards in Constructed — Evolution Charm, Hedge Troll, and Pentarch Ward — it has worked surprisingly well. This is doubly surprising given its total lack of rares, if one considers that all the timeshifted cards included weren’t rare originally. It follows all the principles of a true aggro deck, yet does better than some colors simply because it includes Green, much like the above Gruul Deck Wins.

More specifically, the Green inclusion means that some of the better beaters in it — Watchwolf, Hunting Moa, and Hedge Troll — are all bigger than normal for their cost. Hunting Moa only encourages this, along with the surprisingly effective Vulshok Morningstar (or Empyrial Plate, if it had been reprinted). The Evolution Charm provides three extremely useful effects in one card. The mixed removal package compliments this focus on creature size, and all the other elements of the deck are fairly standard support elements, save one: Pentarch Ward. This little enchant creature not only cantrips, but also deflects point removal, damage, and any attempt at blocking by a mono-colored deck. It’s even effective against two-color decks, so long as most of their creatures or removal are in one color.

Finally, there’s Safe Haven, the oft-reprinted, always-ignored land that provides an amazing degree of protection from removal, Wraths, and combat tricks. When you’re short creatures in play, but have 3 or more under it, you blow it up to keep on swinging. To note, it’s not really a land; it just looks like one. The only case where it is a land is where it bounces back to hand to play Selesnya Sanctuary.

Fiery Tribes

4 Tireless Tribe
4 Suntail Hawk
4 Patrol Hound
4 Goblin Legionnaire
2 Anger

3 About Face
2 Rites of Initiation
4 Howling Mine
4 Fiery Temper
2 Divine Sacrament
2 Violent Eruption
4 Battle Screech

4 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
3 Boros Garrison
7 Mountain
7 Plains

3 Gilded Light
3 Kataki, War’s Wage
4 Disenchant
3 Boros Fury Shield
2 Glory

Fiery Tribes was built for the Legacy format, and has a core based on an old Odyssey-block W/R madness deck. There was one thing missing from that format that could have made this deck amazing- About Face, an Urza’s Legacy card. Between that and a Tireless Tribes, a turn-two win is possible, and the chances of the right pieces coming together only go up as time goes on. For all that, however, it is a very different deck than Troll Haven. While still aggressive, it often cannot compete against even an x/3 creature, forcing it to either win very early or use one of the tricks like Rites of Initiation in conjunction with a twice-used Battle Screech. It can often stall against bigger creatures and more aggressive decks, banking on time to find the opening it needs.

Most of all, however, it likes to discard. Though Fiery Temper, Violent Eruption, and Anger are all great choices for this, one of the most frequent discards are land, possibly off the back of a Boros Garrison. Once it has two red and two white sources in play, for a total of 4 mana, all further land is discard fodder. While “wuv muffin” may not look impressive as compared to Silver Knight, he is often just as effective, if easier to kill. Sudden Shock, and anything that handles Goblin Lackey, are a problem for the whole deck, however.

It took me a while to figure out how to correctly calculate the chances of that turn two win, but after a recent semester’s course on Statistics, I found it: the Hypergeometric Distribution (solved for “draw at least 1”). In brief, the Stupid win requires a resolved, unblocked Tireless Tribes and an About Face; an ideal hand also includes an early Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]. Excluding other tangential factors such as Fiery Temper, it looks something like the following. Note that the chances change by +3-5% based on the number of cards drawn. Note also that the deck will not be able to match the power of TEPS or the like; they have too much redundancy.

Turn-Two, Going Second: 0.445 x 0.391 = 17%
Turn-Three, Going Second: 0.488 x 0.427 = 21%
Turn-Four, Going Second: 0.528 x 0.462 = 24%
Turn-Five, Going Second: 0.566 x 0.495 = 28%
Turn-Five, Going Second: 0.566 x 0.601 = 34%
Battle Screech w/Rites or Sacrament
Turn-Five, Going Second, Total = 62%

In brief, here’s a sideboard breakdown: Boros Fury Shield against monstrous Goblin Piledrivers or other fatties (followed by an alpha-strike); Kataki, War’s Wage against Affinity or Prison decks; Glory for those cases where unblockable is better than haste; and Guilded Light against Orim’s Chant and Storm shenanigans. Alternate ideas include Tividar of Thorn (against Goblins) or Reciprocate (against reanimation, when you don’t want them gaining life from StP). Usual slots to pull include About Face or Howling Mine, though most of the non-creature spells can be removed at will.

I’d also like to make another note here: too many true aggro players obsess about their 1-drops, and indirectly any land that comes into play tapped. Really people, stop it. Even the best true aggro hand will on occasion miss their 1-, 2-, or 3-drop and thus playing that CIPT land or artifact mana really isn’t a penalty. In fact, for those two-color decks in today’s Standard running 10th edition painlands, Terramorphic Expanse really is a necessary addition in the name of color fixing, even if the basic land enters play tapped. If you really want to win with a quick aggro deck, don’t obsess over your Graven Cairns; instead, obsess over your reach cards — Overrun, Char, Glorious Anthem, Safe Haven, etc. You’ll find the deck works much better afterwards.

What unites all four of these decks? A penchant for speed and, usually, very cheaply build decks. True aggro decks will continue to be the popular alternative to anything that requires thinking for years to come, and thus with the casual crowd. Many spoiled players may not realize it, but casual players really do make up the majority of the sales, so really, stop complaining that the only things good in a set like Future Sight are Korlash, Heir to Blackblade and Tarmogoyf. If you’re not going to bother branching out your play styles, then kindly don’t trash everyone else’s attempts to use those “sub-par” cards.

Until next time!