Learning From The Flaws Of Aggro Decks In Vintage – What They Did Right

My last article talked about the basic flaws in aggro decks and why they were historically annihilated. Now I’ll to try to help you out a bit when constructing an aggro control / combo deck for Vintage. We’ll start by breaking down some of the more successful aggro decks of the past and see what can be applied to today’s models.

My last article talked about the basic flaws in aggro decks and why they were historically annihilated. Now I’ll to try to help you out a bit when constructing an aggro control / combo deck for Vintage. We’ll start by breaking down some of the more successful aggro decks of the past and see what can be applied to today’s models.

Olden Deck #1: Mono-U, U/R and U/W Fish

Average Fish deck breakdown

Mana denial effects: 8-11

Counterspells or creatures that double as a counterspell effect: 11-14

Global lock effects: 0-4 (Meddling Mage)

Removal: 3-6

Discard: 0

Draw effects: 9-12

Tutors: 0

Creatures total: 16-22

Mana: 23, 18-21 lands, 1-4 artifact sources

Wasteland, Strip Mine and Null Rod have are been standard in Fish decks for a long time. Some also include Crucible of Worlds to supplement the strips and the other lands in the deck. It may not seem like a lot, but supplement it with counters and card-draw and suddenly these small numbers add up real fast. The second part of their disruption package is the ability for them to say “no”. All Fish decks run 4 Force of Will and the majority run Daze, Misdirection and/or Stifle in addition to it.

Strength #1: The ability to run a large number of cards that fall under multiple categories of disruption and the ability to effectively run two different forms of disruption.

Sounds kind of stupid, doesn’t it? I mean, can’t a lot of decks run cards that do that? The answer, surprisingly, is no. A deck like Tog or Control Slaver runs counters and a little discard, but running Duress hardly constitutes having a heavy second disruption base. If you look at Fish and other aggro-control however, you’ll notice a usual theme of mixing disruption bases. If you look at the Fish breakdown up above you’ll notice the deck runs a hefty compliment of mana denial and counters, typically taking up nearly a third of the deck.

Ask yourself what other deck really runs such a combination? The non aggro-control deck closest matching that sort of value, variety and quantity of disruption is Stax. Considering how well both types of decks can effectively use their disruption nearly every single game and you can imagine the sort of advantage this can give you at times.

Next comes the draw and this is a simple set of cards to cover. Ancestral Recall = 3 cards for U, Standstill = 3 cards for 1U and Curiosity = draw 1-4 cards usually for U and time. Simple enough? The creatures are also rather simple to describe, they are all utility based and focused on helping the deck strategy rather than beating down.

And so forth and so on… that brings us to a second strength the Fish deck illustrates.

Strength #2: Running low mana cards and being on a mana curve.

There lies a running theme in all the cards I’ve listed for Fish thus far. They all cost between zero and two mana (with a few exceptions), which is pretty much the epitome of a very light mana curved aggro deck. Note though, the majority of the spells are still very useful disruption and some utility. The key to the Fish deck and what it serves as an example as to other aggro decks is that a mana curve within your means is one of the most important issues when building an aggro-control deck.

By running cards that cost so little, you can maximize your mana every turn, usually better than the opponent can. As a result, you can typically cast multiple spells per turn and have much less restriction on countering opponent’s spells. That is one of the major advantages of aggro-control, maximizing your resources while minimizing the opponent’s.

Back to Fish and I’ll be perfectly blunt here; Fish beats flaws 2, 3 and 4 wonderfully, but still has the fatal flaw. It has plenty of the right kinds of disruption, it has decent threat density plus draw and really no deck is like Fish in Vintage right now. The problem has been and will always be its utility creatures simply aren’t very good at beatdown. Half your threats are 1/1’s which are simply too small to be reasonable threats against anybody. You need a minimum three power on the table and usually you’d prefer having four. Sadly this is hard to ascertain at times and hence why Fish gets bogged down and eventually destroyed in an attrition war.

The obvious solution is to use bigger guys, but that creates the issue of increasing the overall mana curve and taking away some useful disruption (Nearly every guy is utility based). So some of the key to “fixing” Fish is one of two possible solutions.

1. Use bigger guys anyway, consequences be damned. Or find a way to make Null Rod not worth running so you guys can use Umezawa’s Jitte or Sword of Fire and Ice (or use them post board against other aggro-control at least) to pump your creatures to gigantor levels. Cloud of Faeries becomes far scarier when it can strike for five every turn.

2. Trading some guys in for minimum two power (Or damage dealing) bodies. For example, Voidmage Prodigy and Ninja of the Deep Hours are at least two power and have useful abilities. In addition, running more disruption is a must (sounds weird right?), because the time these guys need to work, will obviously be longer than the normal Fish clock provides. Gorilla Shaman, Winter Orb and maindeck Red Elemental Blast are all distinct possibilities to help provide more disruption.

Olden Decks #2: 4-LED Madness and 5/3

Average 4-LED Madness deck breakdown

Mana denial effects: 0-1

Counterspells or creatures that double as a counterspell effect: 0 (Until boarding anyways)

Global lock effects: 0

Removal: 3-5

Discard: 0

Draw effects: 9-12

Tutors: 0

Creatures total: 14-18 (This counts Anger and Wonder)

Mana: 26-30, 14-18 lands, 11-14 artifact sources

4-LED Madness was arguably the best aggro-combo deck ever created; it certainly ranks high up there anyway. The ability for turn 1 and 2 kills while combined with a rather consistent turn 3 win + a large and consistent card drawing engine. Think of it, as a faster Ravager Skullclamp deck, if that would put it in perspective for some of you. Now if you’re staring at the deck looking for any sort of disruption, don’t bother, you won’t find any here. The deck was built around immediately putting all the pressure you could on the opponent and making them deal with your threats.

With literally no real disruption to speak of, I’ll get to the heart of the deck, the creature and draw bases. The creatures it runs are all monsters compared to most aggro creatures, Basking Rootwalla, Wild Mongrel, Arrogant Wurm and Roar of the Wurm (close enough) fill out the beats department. Every creature being a potential 3/3 or bigger allows for far quicker kills than any other creature-based deck really was capable of. As for actual utility, Anger and Wonder allow them to strike quickly and fly around potential blockers*.

A spiffy old chap named BoB, also known as Bazaar of Baghdad, heads the draw department up. For the price of a single land drop, you could give a madness creature a new home in your hand or on the board smashing faces and caving skulls in. The ability to draw two cards and power out Madness creatures or drop Flashback cards into the graveyard every turn is simply too good to pass up. Deep Analysis is usually trade two mana and three life for two cards, which is just one more life than you’d pay for Night’s Whisper anyway. The rest of the draw is slightly up for debate among Madness players, but it was either running Careful Study as a limited one shot BoB effect. The alternative was running multiple Draw-7’s to power out ‘combo’ kills better. Since you could usually grab a LED or other mana off of it and have haste for any creatures you played that turn (Or just pump Wild Mongrel with the extra cards) you did have a decent chance of winning the same turn you cast it. It’s basically running risk vs. reward analysis on potential power of the Draw-7’s against how useful Careful Study is early on in the game.

*Yes blockers actually existed back when this deck was played, Psychatog, Su-Chi, Karn, Silver Golem and so on.

The only other thing to note is the deck actually ran Madness burn spells in Fiery Temper and Violent Eruption. So you may be asking “What does all this matter?” seeing as the deck had one of the main components restricted and it’s from a metagame that no longer exists. Well it illustrates an obvious strength of an aggro deck, but in a bit of a subtle way as far as Vintage is concerned.

Strength #3: Forcing the opponent to deal with you and your threats.

This is the epitome of practically every aggro deck created in Vintage over the past year and half. Flores covered this sort of concept in his article about the limit of interactivity and can be seen in the Extended metagame with the widespread wins of Red Deck Wins.

4-LED Madness was unique in the regard that it used very little standard disruption to force the opponent to deal with you. Instead it relied on its incredible speed of pumping out oversized Madness creatures (which range from 1/1 and 2/2 pumpable creatures to 4/4 and 6/6 monsters) and the ability to draw into more for cheap. By threatening such quick kills, other decks were forced to get into an attrition war they normally had no chance of winning. Trading card for card was sheer folly as your life dwindled and had to worry about being burned out or a hasty 4/4 trampler coming off a Bazaar discard. Remember the Ravager comparison I gave earlier? It’s really more or less the same concept, but a different format.

By overwhelming the opponent with real threats to his life total before they could get their own game plan online, 4-LED Madness forced many decks to play into their type of game. With newer refinements made, resulting in speedier combo, this type of single-minded strategy may be past its prime. But the strength it has shouldn’t be lost; it shows a few early powerful threats can force the opponent to deal with you. The fact that it takes a little real disruption in conjunction with you shouldn’t discourage you. An example nowadays that illustrates a powerful threat following some disruption, is a Trinisphere followed up by a 4- or 5-power creature.

Analysis of dealing with aggro flaws.

#1: Yep. The deck is as fast as most combo decks and all of its threats can become huge problems.

#2: Actually, technically it fails this. As I said above, 4-LED Madness created its own sense of disruption with all of its large threats and the speed it could lay them down. Despite lacking actual disruption cards, the creatures and speed itself become disruption.

#3: In spades. At least 12 efficient beatdown machines in the deck, with another 12 ways to draw into them, including a reusable madness and draw source.

#4: Owned. No deck at the time, nor in the current day, could match 4-LED Madness in the ability of pure rush. It was like combo that wasn’t easily hosed by a card or two.

Average 5/3 deck breakdown

Mana denial effects: 4-5 (Trinisphere falls under global lock)

Counterspells or creatures that double as a counterspell effect: 0

Global lock effects: 4 (3Sphere! Woo!)

Removal: 3-8 (Original builds ran little removal, others ran Swords to Plowshares, Triskelion, Duplicant, etc.)

Discard: 0

Draw effects: 5-8

Tutors: 1-3 (I loosely count Tinker here)

Creatures total: 11-15

Mana: 27-29, 18-20 lands, 8-9 artifact sources

5/3 is one of the most recent decks in a long line of effective aggro-control decks. So what’s different about this than the majority of other decks? Look at how much actual disruption the deck typically runs. It’s a very low count, only five strips (backed by Crucible though) and Trinisphere making up the core disruption of all 5/3 decks. The fact is Trinisphere was such a huge tempo swing and created multiple Time Walk’s for the deck, since it ran Mishra’s Workshop (and some with Ancient Tomb) and artifact mana. By following this up with a large threat (Juggernaut, Tinker for a large artifact guy, Razormane Masticore, etc.) you could be down to five or ten life b} the time you could even first cast a spell to deal with either the Trinisphere or threat. This illustrates another strength aggro-control has.

Strength #4: The ability to effectively use global lock effects.

Aggro decks are usually the most suited to use and abuse the global lock effects some cards allow. For example, Chains of Mephistopheles effectively shuts off all draw spells and effects. Aggro can easily be built around relying on the bare minimum of draw effects by running a multitude of threats, while control and combo heavily rely on being able to break the one draw a turn rule. Null Rod is in the same vein; aggro typically runs a far smaller mana curve than most non-aggro decks, hence it relies on moxen a lot less than others. The ability to quickly follow up these powerful effects with a threat is an effective and proven strategy for aggro to rely on. Typically aggro can best use these effects compared to the other archetypes, giving them another slight edge.

With a large amount of mana available to play artifacts, 5/3 could afford to play larger threats like Juggernaut and also better disruption like Trinisphere. The combination of the high-end creatures and disruption combined with a few broken cards lead to a very effective rushing package. To back this up the deck typically ran Thirst for Knowledge to draw into more threats as well as Goblin Welder to bring back previously used ones. The deck was not only focused, but also highly resilient as a result of these various cards.

Analysis of dealing with aggro flaws.

#1: Yep. Every single threat is either 4- or 5-power or has the ability to recur the threats that are killed off.

#2: Despite packing few disruption sources, the ones that were packed, are generally considered some of the best mana denial of all time. Trinisphere and strips created a large amount of auto-wins and were incredibly good disruption in the deck.

#3: A decent amount of draw with some threats but it was still arguably lacking if the first threat or two could be effectively dealt with. Despite all the things that 5/3 did right, this is the one point it could’ve tended to improve upon.

#4: Though it was similar to Stax, the deck was unique in its ability to commonly follow up Trinisphere with an effective threat.

Olden Deck #3: 4-Gush GAT

Average 4-Gush GAT deck breakdown

Mana denial effects: 0

Counterspells or creatures that double as a counterspell effect: 10-12

Global lock effects: 0

Removal: 0!

Discard: 0-3 (Some ran Duress)

Draw effects: 12-15

Tutors: 5-7

Creatures total: 7-8

Mana: 18-20, 13-14 lands, 4-5 artifact sources

4-Gush GAT was a monster in its time; it had a huge amount of power and the ability to disrupt and cripple nearly any opponent it came across while smashing face with a huge creature. This deck is much like a culmination of various strengths and specifically avoiding the flaws I had mentioned in my last article. It combines a huge number of cheap draw spells (Gush, cantrips, etc.) with an equal number of free and cheap counters. Despite only running a few threats by comparison to other aggro decks, every single one is very capable of ending the game in just a few turns. Both Quirion Dryad and Psychatog will become larger with the more cards you go through and draw.

Analysis of dealing with aggro flaws.

Flaw #1: Check. Dryad and Tog are incredibly strong game-ending threats.

Flaw #2: Check. Plenty of counters and sometimes including Duress.

Flaw #3: Check. With a bunch of tutors and a dozen or more draw spells, the deck certainly has no trouble finding a lethal threat.

Flaw #4: Check. 4-Gush GAT essentially was Tog (Or a good aggro-control-combo deck) with a good draw engine and the ability to win in the first few turns of the game.

Basically in summation, the moon rulez. *

*The Moon being 4-Gush GAT.

Strength #5: Synergy, also known as, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This applies to every deck, but it is especially valuable to keep in mind when building aggro. With combo you can afford to have some situational cards, because so many of your cards simply say “I Win” on them. Control can afford to lack some synergy because of the sheer amount of draw each deck packs. Aggro on the other hand generally needs every card to have a specific reason to exist in a deck and it needs to clearly help out. You can run conditional cards in aggro, but they must by a common condition to meet (i.e. Equipment in decks with 14 or more creatures, Null Rod against decks with artifact mana, etc.). Otherwise you risk drawing six- or even five-card opening hands* when you really need to squeeze out as many resources as you can out of every hand.

*Meaning drawing dead cards in an opening hand, effectively reducing your hand size.

I think that covers everything, in the final article in the series, I’ll write about some concept aggro decks that could be worth a shot now. And yes that includes Bird S*it, so feel free to shuddap about it until next time. In closing I leave another list, this time about the best animated comedy shows I’ve seen on TV. Since… well…. cartoons rule.

1. Duckman

2. Family Guy

3. Simpsons (The older seasons)

4. Clerks

5. Dilbert

Honorable Mention: The Flintstones.

I’m out, later.

-Joshua Silvestri

Team Reflection: Innovators of Drain Slaver, Drain Power into Cateran Slaver 4L

Josh.Silvestri at gmail.com