Is Aggro In Modern A Lost Cause?

Patrick Chapin takes a look at the results from Grand Prix Brisbane and unpacks what that says about the health of the format as a whole.

Grand Prix the week before the PT are always a slightly different animal than your run-of-the-mill Grand Prix. They’re never the same format as the PT, and there is a different level of preparation when people are focusing their testing energy on the Pro Tour. The quantity of Pros at a GP can vary a lot, depending on the proximity of the GP to the PT. Sometimes the percentage of pros is higher, but this weekend was a definitive pro-lite weekend, with GPs over 4000 miles away from the PT location.

The American GP this weekend had the advantage of being Theros draft on Day Two. Sadly, Day One was sealed deck, so I’m off it. It sure would be awesome if someone could invent a better format, a better set of rules that would be functional at the 2000 player level, while providing a more satisfying limited experience than current-format sealed deck.

For constructed, we turn to GP Brisbane in Australia. Modern is certainly a hotly-debated format, but one thing that seems clear is that WotC is committed to giving it the support it needs. Support is not the only thing it needs, however. What Modern really needs is an identity.

There is a definite top tier that emerged and GP Brisbane is a pretty perfect cross-section of the format at the moment. The winner? Affinity, the one aggro deck that can actually compete with the raw power of Junk and Jund, the one aggro deck that can actually compete with the “unfair” synergies present in decks like Pod and Tron.

Why can it compete? Because it does unfair things and is half combo deck, itself. Wild Nacatl being banned is understandable, given WotC’s stated goal of deck diversity. The thing is, Nacatl was only as popular as it was because there weren’t enough aggro cards at a power level comparable to Scapeshift + Valakut, Urza’s Tower + Expedition Map, Kiki-Jiki + Creatures that untap Kiki-Jiki, to create real diversity. Banning Nacatl has been tantamount to banning beatdown, because WotC’s stated goals for the format call for diversity and for games to have an expectation of lasting four or more turns.

Notice how beatdown being playable isn’t listed as a goal.

The result? A format full of midrange “good stuff” B/G/x decks fueled by Deathrite Shaman and combo decks that rely on the format containing so many combo decks that people can’t actually prepare for all of them. As mentioned, Affinity really does function a lot like a combo deck, relying on card synergy to make for how poorly aggro scales in powered formats.

That aggro scales poorly the more sets you add is pretty obvious. How much aggro do you see in Legacy? Non-zero, to be sure, but not all that much. Now, how much aggro do you see in Vintage? Let’s imagine for a moment that you’ve seen any Vintage this year. How much aggro would you have seen? Probably none.

One of the big questions still to be answered about Modern is if it is OK that beatdown is just a fringe strategy in the format. Legacy has flourished in a format dominated almost entirely by aggro-control and combo, with control and beatdown as fringe strategies. Is the same set-up appropriate for Modern, but with mid-range instead of aggro-control? I’m really not sure.

Here’s a radical thought: What if the following cards were unbanned:

You could even potentially unban Sword of the Meek, Green Sun’s Zenith, and Golgari Grave-Troll, depending on how much you are willing to risk the unhealthy things they promote. What does that format look like? What if Modern had a somewhat rotating banned list, where it was known that a card being banned didn’t mean it was banned forever, and if, for instance, Jitte proved too strong, it could be rotated back out six months later.

There is an argument for stability, for making Modern a format where players can always play their Modern deck that they own. That’s fine, but is the format so fun to play that people just want to play the same decks in the same metagame year after year? Maybe. I have doubts, though.

Anyway, no one can be faulted for calling Affinity an aggro deck, meaning this weekend was won by aggro. The Top 8 featured:

  • Two Affinity decks
  • Two Junk decks
  • Two Tron decks
  • One Jund
  • One Pod

Once again, no control, which from my experiences playing Modern in recent months feels right. This is just not the greatest time to play control (or aggro). Want to win at Modern? My advice is to play Deathrite Shaman, a synergy-driven unfair strategy, or both.

Let’s take a look at the winner’s list:

All five colors? Hot!

If nothing else came from this weekend, at least WotC has conceded that the name of the Affinity deck is Affinity. It’s not like it’s even a bad word! Obviously, the fact that Affinity is back to featuring an affinity card kind of kills the number one argument against that, but honestly, if we were naming it after the most important mechanic in the deck, it would be called “Metalcraft.”

Of course, trying to get people to call Affinity “Robots” is about as likely to succeed as telling people to call Junk “Necra”. You know why Junk is called Junk? The community needs an easy word to describe this color combination. As soon as WotC comes out with Wedges of Alara and renames the five enemy wedges with short, catchy, easy-to-remember names, I suspect there will be a lot less “Junk” decks. The B/G/W mid-range decks of today are often nothing like true Junk decks!

Sunday’s runner up was the classic Deathrite Shaman deck, B/G/x. This time around, x = Lingering Souls. Bloodbraid Elf being banned has definitely had a diversifying effect on people’s Deathrite Shaman/Tarmogoyf/Dark Confidant decks. This particular model is part of the recent minimalist trend, trying to play as close to pure B/G as possible. Two shocklands, fetchlands, and Deathrite Shamans fuel a light white splash for Lingering Souls and a couple sideboard cards.

Unwin has replaced some Abrupt Decays with Maelstrom Pulses, a trend that has become standard operating procedure with the increased need to be able to destroy cards that cost 4 or more (not to mention added utility against tokens).

Notice both Fracturing Gust and Stony Silence out of the sideboard. This is a man that gives Affinity the respect it deserves . . . and still lost to Affinity in the finals.

Junk (and pure B/G) isn’t the only way to use Deathrite Shaman to fuel a mid-range deck. Despite no longer having access to Bloodbraid Elf, Jund remains a force, filling the void with Huntmaster of the Fells, Thundermaw Hellkite, and Olivia Voldaren. What’s better? These three or Lingering Souls? It really depends on what you are facing. Lingering Souls is good against removal, the mythic creatures are good against those with less removal. Red also brings Lightning Bolt, which is pretty sweet, but white has slightly better sideboard cards. Red generally has slightly worse mana, except for the fact that it gets to play Raging Ravine instead of all Treetop Villages, which is a minor upgrade in power.

So far, it would appear that Tarmogoyf is winning the head-to-head against Scavenging Ooze, but the battle is far from over.

With the return of Thoughtseize in Standard, are we going to be seeing more decks like this in that format?

More and more, it seems the most interesting element of these decks is the sideboard. How many slots do they allocate for Affinity or Eggs, with cards like Ancient Grudge and Shatterstorm? How many cards go to Tron or Scapeshift, with Fulminator Mage and Sowing Salt? How many cards go to various Pod decks, with Grafdigger’s Cage and Torpor Orb? Notice how each deck is attacked from multiple angles.

Speaking of Pod, Birthing Pod is definitely one of the pillars of the format, serving as the unfair deck that everyone knows exists and prepares for, but also the one that is particularly difficult to completely hose. It’s just stronger than most of the combo decks, so it can endure more hate.

Obviously the twin tutor engines of Birthing Pod and Chord of Calling lead to a deck full of one-ofs. This leads to a lot of opportunity for creative sideboarding. Avalance Riders instead of Sowing Salt, Kataki instead of Fracturing Gust, Aven Mindcensor instead of Grafdigger’s Cage, and so on.

Despite all of this, including multiple artifact-destroying creatures, we see multiple Ancient Grudges and multiple Path to Exiles. This just goes to show how much respect Affinity pulls from other players, and yet Affinity won again. While Affinity is never that high a percentage of the field, I think it is safe to say it is one of the pillars of the format, alongside Pod and B/G/x, with all the fringe combo decks rounding things out.

If there’s a fourth pillar of the format, it’s definitely Tron. It consistently puts up respectable numbers despite being somewhat the Dredge deck of the format, often leaving little room to do much of anything but throw your cards at the other person. There are a lot of ways to define interaction, but there’s no denying that this deck is all about hoping that your opponent can’t disrupt your mana engine so that you can present degenerate game-winning threats quickly.

The inherent redundancy makes these decks respectable against the mid-range decks, though they often lose the race against other combo decks. They just don’t have many ways to meaningfully interact, and they are at least a turn slower than most of the other unfair decks.

I like the use of cards like Nature’s Claim, Spellskite, and Torpor Orb to try to get wins where you can while not bending over backwards to try to play around opposing hate. Sometimes they are going to Sowing Salt you, and it sucks, but you just take your lumps and keep moving.

Where is Modern going? Every indication is that it is moving further down the road towards mid-range and combo. Is this a good or bad thing? It’s hard to say. Would you rather see more cards banned, more cards unbanned, or nothing changed for another year? On the current path, there is little reason to believe that aggro is going to become a major strategy in the format, beyond Affinity. Is that OK? Maybe it is. I don’t know, though. I feel like aggro decks being good promotes healthier things than a dozen different unfair combo decks trying to dodge the sideboard hate cards that cripple them.

As for Standard, I’m in Dublin this week. The SCG Castle is pretty sick, and at last count, I think we’re up to 23 rooms that we’ve found. We didn’t even discover two of them until yesterday, as there are a lot of passages throughout the castle that are hard to find. Coverage of Team SCG and our exploits in the castle can be found here.

As for the format itself, it’s interesting that this week’s SCG Open featured zero blue decks in the Top 8 after last week’s blue-dominated weekend in Worcester. Sphinx’s Revelation and Jace, Architect of Thought were two of the defining forces in Return to Ravnica Block, but an increase in good red cards, more good green creatures, and access to Thoughtseize really changes the landscape.

Fall rotations are always the best time of year for Standard, with so much to figure out, so much up in the air, so much to try. I haven’t locked in a deck for the PT yet, so any suggestions would be much appreciated.

See you on the other side . . .

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”