Feature Article – Redefining a Moniker, Part 2

The deck that most casual players will gravitate towards, and in my experience stick with the longest, is the Medium Aggro deck. In part this is because so many cool linear mechanics like Tribal come out, largely spread across the full casting cost range (yes, it goes beyond 4). It’s fun enough to play in a slower format like Limited, where there’s almost no way to avoid playing it, and is relatively forgiving.

Welcome back to another installment of Redefining a Moniker. I hope you haven’t become too jaded and dazed by the stuff that every other writer on this site has written to read my stuff. God knows I want that privilege. This installment will cover the next deck archetype, medium aggro.

The deck that most casual players will gravitate towards, and in my experience stick with the longest, is the Medium Aggro deck. In part this is because so many cool linear mechanics like Tribal come out, largely spread across the full casting cost range (yes, it goes beyond 4). It’s fun enough to play in a slower format like Limited, where there’s almost no way to avoid playing it, and is relatively forgiving.

As an archetype, it tends to have a glut of effects from 3-5 mana, so many properly build decks will have spells that tend to focus on either accelerating to that 3-5 mana range or surviving until you can play those cards. In some cases, it can also support spells that cost more than 5 mana, such as Vigor, but most competitive decks rarely run much beyond 4 mana. With regards to creatures, it runs about the same count as a true aggro deck (18-24), but like every other comparison with it, all the spells tent to be more expensive and swingy, and thus more prone to mana screw, massive creature stalls, or both.

One of the deck types that in the past has been defined as “mid-range,” this deck archetype has often been avoided for the timing of its power. For example, a true aggro deck will have its peak power early, tapering off as the game goes on; a true control deck will have the reverse pattern. Mid-range decks typically get into their stride in between those two points, often beating the true aggro deck and outracing the true control deck. Seen from another perspective, however, it could also be seen as losing to both of them.

Many of its cards are also deceptively powerful, such as the recently printed Incendiary Command. Not really any one card, it functions as a reach card, a board sweeper, a mana-screwing tool, a hand refiller for combo decks, and a way to destroy Planeswalkers. Neither of these functions on their own really fits any one deck, so cards like it are often dismissed. Others, such as Stinkdrinker Daredevil, are lauded for their cool/dumb names but dumped on for their fragility. Still others get labeled inconsistent, such as Chance Encounter, which had a very powerful ally in the form of Planar Chaos (the card, not the set) and, more recently, Frenetic Sliver. Thus, a great number of the core cards of medium aggro are only conditionally good, first utilized by the Johnnies of the Magic world before being adopted by the Spikes. Here are some examples of decks that use them:

The Rock and His Millions
Chris Woodruff

4 Birds of Paradise
3 Deranged Hermit
3 Llanowar Elves
1 Phyrexian Plaguelord
4 Ravenous Baloth
1 Spike Weaver
4 Spiritmonger
4 Yavimaya Elder

3 Duress
1 Living Death
4 Pernicious Deed
2 Recurring Nightmare
3 Vampiric Tutor

2 Dust Bowl
7 Forest
2 Gaea’s Cradle
4 Llanowar Wastes
4 Swamp
4 Treetop Village

3 Chainer’s Edict
3 Choke
3 Coffin Purge
1 Duress
2 Spike Weaver
3 Uktabi Orangutan

The Rock appeared on the Extended scene some years ago and has built in popularity since then. Devoted to ramping out a Spirimonger or Ravenous Baloth, the original deck also packed the Deranged Hermit + Phyrexian Plaguelord for some efficient removal. Though Harmonize had not yet been printed, there was enough graveyard recovery to recur threats fairly efficiently. As one of the few medium aggro decks that could nicely control combo — through Pernicious Deed, Duress, and Cabal Therapy – it has cemented its legacy throughout the years.

As previously mentioned, one of the Rock’s systemic weaknesses was that its power peaked in the mid-game, leaving it vulnerable to both true aggro and true control. In a format full of increasingly fast formats, the combat step also seems somewhat less relevant, barring haste. The deck has persisted largely through the utility of its manabase, in that it can easily run hosers like Destructive Flow to shut off some of the more potent decks of the day. Unfortunately, like a bad spin-off, its moniker will continually be misapplied unto eternity. Such is the legacy of success.

Jim Davis

3 Gempalm Incinerator
1 Goblin King
4 Goblin Matron
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Goblin Ringleader
1 Goblin Sharpshooter
3 Goblin Sledder
4 Goblin Warchief
4 Mogg War Marshal
1 Siege-Gang Commander
4 Skirk Prospector

4 Chrome Mox
4 Rite of Flame

4 Barbarian Ring
4 Ghost Quarter
11 Mountain

2 Flaring Pain
1 Gempalm Incinerator
1 Goblin King
1 Goblin Sharpshooter
4 Overload
1 Pendelhaven
1 Siege-Gang Commander
4 Sulfuric Vortex

Goblins, the beloved deck of face smashing, was truly born during Onslaught block. More than any other cards, Goblin Warchief and Goblin Piledriver really brought this deck home. Part aggro, part combo, it has seen unprecedented success in almost all formats in which it was legal. It only gets better in Legacy, where it has access to Goblin Lackey and a number of older combo cards like Fecundity, Food Chain, or Living Death. No longer is it purely a silly tribe of little Red men (now Black men) throwing themselves away with Goblin Grenades.

Nonetheless, it is a medium aggro deck in that many of its best cards are in the 3 to 5 mana range, no matter how small they are individually; they’re goblins, not beasts. Instead, it wins based on the cheap, hasty products of Goblin Warchief, the hand refilling of Goblin Ringleader, and the extreme face smashing of Goblin Piledriver. Every time it looks beaten, Goblin Matron refills the gas again; every time it looks stalled, Goblin Sharpshooter can combo out for the win. Though defined more by its linear mechanic more than huge creatures, it will never be forgotten.

My own medium aggro decks have never really been much to talk about, though they were fun to play. The only deck that really did well was one build during Mirrodin block for PTQ, when Affinity was running rampant. Many others have come and gone, including an attempt at trying a different sort of Threshold deck with Mulch and Grizzly Fate; none were spectacular, so I have chosen to post the most fun one instead, just in case any casual reads want to try out something new.

Green Eggs & Ham

4 Llanowar Elves
3 Vine Trellis
3 Llanowar Sentinel
4 Troll Ascetic
3 Fangren Firstborn
3 Hunted Wumpus
2 Baru, Fist of Krosa

4 Beacon of Creation
3 Chimeric Egg
4 Horned Helm
3 Wear Away
4 Kodama’s Might

3 Llanowar Reborn
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
15 Forest

4 Splinter
4 Hailstorm
4 Fecundity
3 Dosan the Falling Leaf

Green Eggs & Ham is a reasonably balanced and good Green beatdown deck, though more money could certainly be added to it. The name originally derives from the Eggs (Chimeric Egg) and Ham (Hunted Wumpus), but the inspiration was largely in the Ham. You see, Hunted Wumpus is remarkably fun and ballsy card when used right, but few competitive players would touch it with a ten-foot pole. It’s analogous to the recent Shah of Naar Isle or other strong, but penalized, fatties. Even Wumpus’s Kamigawa block variant, Iwamori of the Open Fist, was hedged around.

Why? Well, players really, really dislike giving opponent any sort of advantage. This is why Howling Mine and similar Green effects have been so unpopular on the tournament scene. But consider; if you drop the Wumpus on turn 3 versus a deck with relatively light removal, what can actually stop it? In my time, there were a handful of tournament staples that could, Arkoma, Angel of Wrath among them. Everything else was blown out in a frenzy of chump blocking. Iwamori was slightly more played, but still I would hear tournament players say things like, “well, I’ll only side him in if I’m sure they’re playing no more than 2 legendary creatures”. Who cares? Run them over! If you thought a 6/6 was bad, try an even larger trampler!

This deck, unlike some, has a great deal of raw power in it. Standard players are, once again, getting introduced to the joy that is trying to deal with an equipped Troll Ascetic. They’ve probably forgotten how potent Beacon of Creation and Fangren Firstborn are, or never had a chance to try them out. The Chimeric Egg is admittedly not that impressive in a duel, but it becomes downright silly in multiplayer; Weatherseed Totem is a good replacement for it. Similarly, Horned Helm is a weak equipment, but it does its job well — cheap to play, cheap to equip, makes the thing bigger, and gives the thing trample. It can even be done at instant speed to muck with blocking plans. If you could reliably punch through damage, Sword of Light and Shadow would actually be the best equipment for the deck; I remember fondly recurring a Tangle Golem for 1 mana with it many a game.

In regards to sideboard, the deck only really needs protection against a handful of annoying conditions, as the sheer size of the creatures usually does the job. Any cards will do for this purpose, depending on what you feel most confident about. For example, the 20-kill-spell deck (Fecundity), the deck that loves its instants too much (Dosan the Falling Leaf or Defense Grid), goblin-like attack swarms (Hailstorm or Thunderstaff), and the occasional Isochron Scepter (Splinter).

Unlike some of my other decks, this one has performed rather well at PTQ. It was exceptionally good at cutting through true aggro decks because of the size of its team; it could do well against control variants with the Beacon; and could fight against Affinity better than anything else in the room. That matchup in particular was hosed by the ultimate anti-Affinity card, Hum of the Radix. It gave all artifacts anti-affinity, effectively preventing the deck from playing more cards. Later versions of it routinely blew up Uwezama’s Jitte with Splinter all day long. The only problem for it was trying to get past the walls of Eternal Witnesses and illusion tokens off of Meloku the Clouded Mirror; I really wish Baru, Fist of Krosa or Overrun had been available then.

Brimstone Coffee

2 Rakdos the Defiler
2 Seizan, Perverter of Truth
2 Gutwrencher Oni
3 Razorjaw Oni
2 Mausoleum Turnkey
3 Ogre Marauder
4 Takenuma Bleeder

3 Hideous Laughter
3 Macabre Waltz
4 Kiku’s Shadow
4 Rakdos Signet
4 O-Naginata

1 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
2 Tomb of Urami
3 Rakdos Carnarium
3 Tainted Peak
12 Swamp

Brimstone Coffee has, hands down, got to be the most fun deck I’ve ever played. The guiding principle was to take the linear mechanic of Ogres and Demons, which neutralized each other’s penalties, and make them better. In large part, this was by playing creatures as big as the best W/G creatures of the day, and then making them very large tramplers via O-Naginata. Graveyard recursion helped in the pursuit of this goal, and it the game was capped off either by the life loss from Seizan, Perverter of Truth or from a swing from a (foil) Rakdos the Defiler.

The deck runs fairly simply, in that it can slow roll threats one at a time. All 18 creatures can equip the O-Naginata, and since it’s so cheap to both play and equip, it’s often possible to drop an 9/x trampling creature every turn. It really only takes two swings to seal a game that way. When you run out of cannon fodder, Macabre Waltz and Ogre Turnkey provide recursion, while Seizan helps you draw. When moving this to a larger card pool, I also considered dropping Hideous Laughter for Infest, but the instant-speed trickery can actually be quite effective at times. If there’s any real weakness, it’s that true aggro decks run you over, and that your own built-in life loss can easily put you into burn range.

Rakdos himself is the trickiest piece to run, as one instant-speed removal spell and you’re down to half your board. That being said, every other demon you have out reduces this loss. If nothing else he’s an amazing threat, even if he never attacks. He forces your opponent to hold mana and spells just in case he does attack; in the meantime, the rest of your team has an easier time getting to the red zone. And if he does manage to get through… well, the sacrifice trigger will probably give you the victory right there.

The sideboard for this particular deck is an incomplete one, so I haven’t included it on the list. Mainly, it includes Distress and Pain Magnification, the latter which triggers on every attack, in order to become a discard deck upon demand. Wall of Souls or Auger of Skulls may have a home there as well, if you find yourself matched up against too many true aggro decks. Finally, the recent mono-black bone crank, Curse of the Cabal, could help compound the effect of Rakdos, or clear the way for him to safely attack. It’s all a matter of what you can find space for.

What unites all four of these decks? The desire to play potent creatures. Anyone can make a deck full of 1- and 2-drops, but it takes real skill to make a more expensive card set do the same job reliably and quickly. When it does work, mana problems notwithstanding, the end result can be pretty impressive, be it a pair of growing 6/6’s beating you in the face or a lethal Saproling Burst (for combo variants; see part 5). Thus, the problem is not the viability of these decks, but the willingness of players to test them out. Sure, Loxodon Hierarch and Grave-Shell Scarab look good, but will they ever come out fast enough? If enough people can stop themselves from asking that question, and simply see if they do, then maybe we’ll see this style of deck show up more often on the tournament scene, rather than the FNM scene.