Getting Aggressive

You’ve probably asked yourself, “Who’s the beatdown?” during a game of Magic, but have you ever asked, “When’s the beatdown?” GP Baltimore champion Matt Costa tells you how you can use aggression as a way to “control” the game.

How many times have you lost to a lethal Devil’s Play in a game you thought you had locked up? Gained control but died to a pair of freshly drawn Huntmaster of the Fells a few turns down the line? I bet you’ve even felt great in games of Limited, only to succumb to the Bloodgift Demon you knew they had but didn’t have any answers to.

These scenarios are a natural part of Magic and part of what makes the game great. There’s nothing better than a come-from-behind victory. That said, many players inadvertently open the door for their opponents to win games from behind.

I logged on to my StarCityGames.com Premium account after returning from GP Minneapolis to find an article by Sam Black that really got me thinking. Sam talks about the difference in deckbuilding theory between two masters of control: Andrew Cuneo and Patrick Chapin. The main divergence in their styles is that Patrick focuses on winning the game by finding the best trump to end things quickly once he has taken over. Cuneo is much more at home with very few win conditions, relying on an overwhelming amount of answers and pure card advantage.

The danger with Andrew’s strategy is that current Magic design promotes powerful and difficult to answer threats. Many cards require multiple or very specific cards to fully answer them; Huntmaster of the Fells, Strangleroot Geist, Primeval Titan, and Geist of Saint Traft are good examples of this. In addition, threats are also capable of ending the game more quickly when they go unanswered, making it difficult to search for an answer you don’t have. Even while digging for an answer, your opponent might be stockpiling another wave of similarly versatile threats.

Now think about landing a Grave Titan or Consecrated Sphinx against most Standard decks. Not only do these cards invalidate much of your opponent’s board presence, but they threaten to end the game quickly—denying the opportunity for a comeback victory—whether via burn spells, removal spells, or a fortunate series of consecutive threats off the top.

This brings me to my main point. In a world of powerful, resilient, and diverse threats, you’re often better off not wasting time sculpting a hand to eventually win the game.

Just. Kill. Them.

People like to throw around the word “inevitability” a lot. But what does that even mean nowadays? Let’s look at the Standard format for a minute. Cavern of Souls. Kessig Wolf Run. Moorland Haunt. Gravecrawler. These cards provide the inevitability for their respective decks, not Blue Sun’s Zenith and Nephalia Drownyard. Traditionally, card advantage and counterspells are a great combination to completely lock an opponent out since counters are the broadest type of answer. I believe that no longer holds true, at least for this environment,  

Historically, control decks have flourished because of the pure power of their spells compared to the rest of the format. Something like Wrath of God was the best possible card against a huge percentage of the field, as it was good against any creature deck. Now we can look at three linear aggro decks in standard—G/R, Zombies and Humans—and note that you need a different subset of answers to beat each deck. Keeping in mind that these decks occupy only one portion of the metagame gives a sense of how hard it is to build an answer-based control deck that’s capable of beating everything, especially in an unpredictable field.

Quickly look at Dustin’s Taylor’s winning deck from the recent SCG Open Series event in Providence. Every non-Bird, non-Elf creature is either a two-for-one or has haste/flash. Combined with equipment, burn spells, and Kessig Wolf Run, this deck is an absolute nightmare for control decks.

Looking back a few years, the most successful blue decks in recent history have been Faeries and Caw-Blade. How often have you heard someone mislabel these decks as control? Sure, many games against them may feel hopelessly out of reach, but that’s because they’re beating down with a Mistbind Clique or Stoneforge Mystic and have exactly enough answers to maintain control of the game until the game is over.

Players frequently discuss or complain about how stunted these decks were when they didn’t draw their two-drops. While I think that fact is fairly overstated, it does have some merit to it. They need to find a threat to win sometime and before the well of answers runs dry.

In Standard, some recent Delver lists illustrate this point as well:

The Consecrated Sphinx sideboard plan is something we implemented for GP Minneapolis, mostly as a way to combat the rise in G/R Aggro decks. G/R is the type of deck that Delver has problems being aggressive against, so it’s more beneficial to turn into some sort of control deck. Looking at these lists, though, you don’t actually have very many permanent answers to their threats. However, you can become a Patrick Chapin “Battlecruiser” deck against them. Vapor Snag and Timely Reinforcements buy you time and preserve your life total, and Consecrated Sphinx takes things over.

This plan works even better if they dilute their aggressive game by boarding in answers to Geists and Swords, which are conveniently hanging out in your sideboard.

Buy time. Stay alive. Play a Sphinx. This invalidates their threats, cuts down on their outs, and wins the game.

In general, the role of Delver in most matches is misunderstood. The deck is seen as purely aggressive, but the reality is that it doesn’t have enough early threats to always play that role on the first turns of the game. Sure, there are draws which contain Delver into Geist, and it’s important to recognize those and exploit them. However, many games involve turning aggressive on turn 4 or on turn 7. It’s very important to realize exactly when to start applying pressure, so as not to get run over in the early game but also avoid getting outgunned in the late game.

Decks like Faeries, Caw-Blade, and Delver are packed with powerful cards, which is an undeniable fact of why they are so successful. However, part of this success also lies in their ability to pressure an opponent, which magnifies the power and consistency of their interactive spells and also forces the opponent to make plays under pressure. This leads to mistakes.

This lesson is applicable beyond just the decks that are designed to take advantage of it. In games of Limited, when an opponent misses a land drop or two you should try to put pressure on them and win before they can draw out of it. There’s an old adage about trying to beat a mana-screwed player as quickly as possible, because they have a grip full of spells and will be in a good spot to win the game if they are able to stabilize.

Similarly, if an opponent plays a bomb in game 1 of a Limited match it’s natural to check your sideboard for answers, even in different colors. However, sometimes there isn’t a convenient answer available, and most people might just resign themselves to the fate of hoping the bomb never shows up. Another option would be to put yourself in the best position possible to win before or immediately after the bomb comes down. Lower your mana curve, cut a land, and add in some cards that provide reach; Lava Axe comes to mind as a general example, but something like Essence Harvest would work in Avacyn Restored draft.

It may seem like these principles only apply to decks that aren’t always the aggressor, but I think many of these skills translate to those of a good beatdown player. Playing an aggressive deck well relies on your ability to apply exactly the right amount of pressure; this allows you to play around decks’ ways of interacting with you. Part of this is recognizing when and what you can afford to hold back without giving the opponent extra time or options to stay alive.

You’ve probably been told a million times to not overextend, but you also shouldn’t underextend, playing with a fear of what they may have. This will result in the same amount of losses as overextending without the added benefit of your opponent simply “not having it.”

Hopefully I’ve been informative on using aggression as a way to “control” the game. Putting pressure on your opponent not only cuts down on their options to win the game, but it also punishes them for their mistakes.

I’m sure you all have the classic question, “Who’s the beatdown?” at the back of your minds whenever you’re playing a game, but I’d like to leave you with something new to think about.

At what point should you “get aggressive”? How can your opponent claw back in, and how do you end the game before that happens? In other words: “When’s the beatdown?

Thanks for reading,

Matt Costa

Bonus Delver Update: