Learning From The Flaws Of Aggro Decks In Vintage

Once upon a time, aggro decks actually succeeded in Vintage. Then people got smart and started playing the really good cards in the format instead of trying to simply beat for two every turn. Why do aggro decks fail today and what can be learned from these important flaws? That’s the topic we’ll be addressing today, class, so follow along.

This time, I plan to talk about a brief history of various aggressive decks and point out the various flaws of aggro decks that still apply today to aggro in Vintage. If you just want the meat, feel free to use the find command on “flaw #”.

As many of you may realize by now, the typical aggro deck in Vintage isn’t pure aggro anymore. They were simply underpowered compared to the other 3 main archetypes (combo, control and prison), but continued to do well early in Vintage’s lifespan due to the fact that it could beat down quickly and consistently. At the time “consistency” in a Vintage deck, outside of running 3-4 tutors and large overcosted draw spells, was for wimps and Type 2 players. So awful aggro decks such as Stompy, Sligh and Suicide continued to do well against Keeper, each other and the occasional Trix, Reap-Lace or badly built Neo-Academy decks.

And for a time, it was good.

Then came along Fact or Fiction, which disrupted the flow of things. Suddenly control decks could trade 1 for 1 or 2 for 1 all day with your threats, then simply draw into 3 more cards with Fact or Fiction off Moxen and Mana Drain mana. Meanwhile the Sligh player would be sitting there with 3 or 4 lands on the table, with one card in hand staring at the top of his deck for an answer to a horrible situation. Suddenly discard was found to be lacking as a Suicide player had used nearly his entire hand to slow the opponent down, meanwhile his only insignificant threats had been countered and the opponent refilled to take care of whatever you drew off the top while waiting for Morphling to swing 4 times.

This last paragraph illustrates the first conceptual flaw in many aggro decks – did you spot it?

Flaw #1: The aggro deck is too slow or lacks significant threats.

This isn’t the typical “lolZ0r you can’t goldfish faster than combo!” comment, I mean you simply cannot kill the opponent in a reasonable amount of time before they recover and smash you. Suicide is a good example, over half its game plan was to blow up mana sources and throw discard at you. The problem was, while it was doing this, the deck did very little in the way of killing you. It’s fastest threat, Phyrexian Negator, took 4 turns to kill you, plus the turn you took playing it! Considering it only takes one mana and one card for nearly any deck to kill or significantly delay it, it’s safe to say this was a bad plan.

Fish is another major offender of this rule. Remember when it used to have a good Slaver match? Then people figured out since you have until turn 10 or 11 before you’d actually die against them, you could build up enough resources to trump their strategy. How you may ask? By playing the oldest and simplest answer to the plan of winning with small guys, playing someone bigger. Yes, with mana denial and counters you can stall the opponent for a significant amount of time, allowing the usage of smaller creatures. But with only 1/1’s and 2/2’s hitting you, eventually some decks will be able to slip a decent sized threat through since Fish takes so damn long to win.

Remember the better the disruption and the more of it you have, the longer it will take for the opponent to play something threatening, but it’ll eventually happen so you have to win before that point!

Back to the brief history of aggro…

Then came Blue Tubbies and Stacker. These were the original Workshop aggro decks; they were designed to drop large threats like Juggernaut and Su-Chi while backing them up with burn, mana denial (Winter Orb and Wastes!) or Mana Drain and Force of Will. These aggressive decks also took advantage of Fact or Fiction and could reinforce themselves just as much as the control decks at the time, putting them on an even playing field.

And for a time, it was good.

Skip ahead a bit and see that combo has become more refined, while aggro at large has stayed mostly the same with the exception of Tools and Tubbies. Tools and Tubbies became the premiere new aggro deck on the block, in large part due to the ability to drop large threats and find more of them quickly. Aggro-control has really gone up a peg; Gro was brought to Vintage in large part due to Pat Chapin. Fish was slowly rearing its head, but it would be a while before it would become really popular. Mask was also appearing as a decent aggro-combo deck, the first of it’s kind at the time. The downside was Keeper was slowly but surely becoming more focused in its goals and combo was starting to pick up with the invention of the original Dragon decks.

Despite aggro’s prominence at the time, there was a major flaw here.

Flaw #2: Lack of disruption and mis-assignment of what is useful disruption.

Disruption is good – it’s practically required in some form or another in a Vintage deck unless you’re turn 1 combo. And even then it’s usually helpful to have some form of disruption just in case. The problem with early aggro decks and what I see in aggro-combo decks nowadays is that they lack a suitable amount of disruption. In other cases they have the right idea, but the completely wrong tools to disrupt the opponent. Here’s my basic list for the ranking of disruption effects in aggro decks of all forms.

1 – Mana denial (Strip Mine, Trinisphere, Sundering Titan, etc.)

2 – Counters (Force of Will, Mana Drain, Daze, etc.)

3 – Global lock cards (Chains of Mephistopheles, Possessed Portal, Zur’s Weirding, etc.)

4 – Discard (Duress, Cabal Therapy, Mind Twist, etc.)

5 – Cards that deal damage to the opponent for playing spells or resources (Pyrostatic Pillar, Ankh of Mishra, Spellshock)

Mana denial is obviously the best kind of disruption purely because it preemptively stops spells (Discard’s advantage), limits how many spells can be cast in a turn, and turns expensive cards useless until requisite mana is created and limits how useful draw is (Global lock’s advantage). It simply does the most for the amount of resources you typically invest in the type of spells.

Counterspell effects are next on the list, because they allow you to stop the opponent from continuing with his game plan at any time. Plus it makes the amount of resources they put into the spell (the mana involved, if they tutored for it and other factors) go to waste.

Next are the global lock effects. These cards don’t usually affect your mana, but typically limit opponents draw and search abilities. Other cards like Smokestack and Tangle Wire can also loosely be considered under this category, because they aren’t directly mana denial (i.e. they also affect other zones of play). The ability to disable an opponents draw engine for a significant amount of time with one or two cards is amazing. The obvious downside is they affect you as well (Hence global), but you have a strategy and deck in mind for the effect so it hurts you far less.

Discard is very low on the list purely because the effect isn’t very powerful. The best discard is surgical and generally only can hit single cards. So when given a choice between two powerful cards, you’re damned either way. The same goes with the complete inability to affect the topdeck or the ability to simply draw more cards. It doesn’t help nearly every single deck with blue runs 4 Brainstorm, which limits discard’s usefulness even further.

Finally there are the “damage when you do something” cards. These are by far the most ineffective except in specific situations (I.E. Pyrostatic Pillar against a storm deck or Ankh of Mishra against slow control). Hence they should not be relied on, merely because they are ineffective at actually stopping opponent’s spells or strategies.

The key to building a good aggro deck is running enough disruption to screw up the opponent’s main game plan and then buying enough time to win. Basing your deck around two of these types of disruption is typically the best way to do that. Counters and mana denial (Fish), mana denial and a global lock (Cerebral Assassin / Welder Reanimator) and counters plus discard (GAT) are just some of the proven examples of this.

Lack of disruption is just too big of a flaw to overcome nowadays, even with speed and resiliency on your side. Food Chain Goblins, U/G/R Bazaar Madness and some Affinity builds are all good examples of fast effective decks, yet they don’t do very well due to the lack of things they can actually do to stall the opponent. For a example actually current to the history, Masknought only had discard as disruption and generally suffered horribly for it.

And for a time, it was good.

Then everything good for the normal aggro player pretty much went right down the toilet. GAT was invented, which was a huge boon for the aggro-control and aggro-combo players, but the deck would be the death knell for normal aggro. This deck would completely destroy any sort of other aggro that had been created up until that point. In fact it’d just destroy a lot of decks period until Gush was restricted, severely reducing the power of the deck.

After that point, aggro of all kinds struggled for a while, though Fish was finally coming into the world in it’s own right. Combo simply was becoming much more powerful (even when it was only Dragon and Rector Trix) and suddenly aggro had to contend with Workshop lock decks (MUD and Stax). The newer versions of TnT finally started running some sort of mana denial and the new version of Stacker ran a massive amount of disruption purely to smash combo and Tog. This in of itself is a flaw I hadn’t quite realized when making the deck…

Flaw #3: Lack of threat density or the ability to find threats.

Masknought is a perfect example of this flaw in aggro decks. When Masknought was considered viable, it only really had 4 major threats, the Phyrexian Dreadnought. Stop one or two of those (or the Mask they needed to play it) and you could shut the deck down for a significant amount of time. The deck had a collection of lousy tutors and limited draw to find what it was looking for and it paid for that badly against control or decks with a decent amount of artifact hate. Stacker 3 was another perfect example, when I originally made the deck; it was made with the concept of disruption over threats, so it only had about 12-15 creatures with maybe 3-4 draw spells. This philosophy proved to be correct when facing combo and some control decks (ones with more drawing than actual answers to problems), but was a massive failure against other aggressive decks (which could trade cards and who disruption didn’t affect nearly as badly) and control with more spot and artifact removal.

Unless you have at least 20 or more threats, you absolutely need a way of fishing them out of your deck, such as Survival of the Fittest in TnT or Thirst for Knowledge in 5/3 and such. In fact, running a few significant threats and a large number of ways to find them has been proven quite an effective strategy (see GAT and 7/10), but one with it’s own critical faults. The obvious downside to finding threats is it takes time and resources while giving your opponent leeway before your next threat can be played out. This can be seen in examples like destroying Cerebral Assassin’s first reanimated threat or an early Welder or blowing up a 5/3 player’s Crucible of Worlds and Juggernaut with Rack and Ruin. At times this sort of time loss can be a significant disadvantage, but one you have to figure out how to deal with and how large of a disadvantage it shall be.

All right, I’m bored of reeling off history since, if you’ve been playing for the past year, you already know about what’s been going on. And I think if I say “it was good” one more time, I’ll be getting sued. So let’s get straight to the final flaw, which some aggro decks have.

Flaw #4: Making sure you don’t do something another deck already does better

Gro / GAT is at a crossroads right now in its life, because right now without Gush to compliment it’s draw engine, the deck isn’t significantly different than Oath. Meanwhile Oath has more of a draw engine, more versatility, more counters (in some builds), and a better threat than the GAT deck. So then you have to ask yourself, why exactly do you want to build your deck in the same skeleton as Oath and not just play Oath? Similarly when creating a new aggro deck, ask yourself if you’d be better off as something else unless you make a significant change to the deck design. For another example, Suicide is slow, has a low threat density and half of its disruption elements aren’t even that helpful. Then we trade up to Masknought, which solves problem 1 of being incredibly slow and instead becomes merely slow. So then we eliminate all of the crap and convert the deck into a faster combo (DeathLong) that makes flaw 2 and 3 irrelevant.

Wasn’t that fun and enlightening? That’s all for now, but on a complete side-note, I like music. Go figure. So for kicks I’ll list off my favorite 5 techno-ish, but not completely, songs you probably never even heard of.

1. Horizon by Lia

2. Ageha by Ryu

3. Evolution by Ayumi Hamasaki

4. Angelfalls by Ayla

5. Burning Heat (3 Option Mix) – Gradius 3 soundtrack

Wow, lists are fun. I should do that more.

Next time, I’ll breakdown a few of the more successful aggro-control and aggro-combo decks and how they avoid the flaws on the list.

Joshua Silvestri

Team Reflection – Unleashing Rich Shay on you since ’04

Email: Josh dot Silvestri @ gmail dot com (Remove the ‘dot’ plzkthx)