Modern Misfits: Aggro

Anthony kicks off his series focusing on Modern by discussing a few of the different aggro decks that exist and what could be done to improve them.

Modern has long been the "black sheep" format of Magic. It was the format that was only really played because people had to play it. Some even touted the overall redundancy of the existing decks, claiming that you’re either playing a bunch of "good stuff" or an over-the-top combo or interaction.

For others, however, it was a builder’s paradise.

Modern quickly became my favorite format because of how unrestrictive the card pool is compared to Legacy. While there are more actual cards in Legacy, many of them are deemed unplayable due to something that I like to call the "nope" factor. Cards like Force of Will and Show and Tell, Daze and Wasteland, while all essential to the relative stability and health of the format, are also things that keep many potential ideas suppressed. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s not something I prefer when going about a format. I’m all about having the freedom to play what one desires within reasonable self-limits, not the limits of outside factors.

In this series, I will explore some of the lesser known and more interesting decks, variants, and builds of Modern and look into potential additions and tweaks in an attempt to make them better while also opening up the possibilities for those looking to get into the format, displaying the sheer amount of options established archetypes have, and showing just how open and diverse the format can really be.

The aggressive decks in Modern, with the exception of a few, have a lot to live up to. The pressure of the combo decks combined with how much disruption there is across the board can make life incredibly difficult for even the most experienced attacking mages. Decks like Affinity do well because they have the resilience to withstand disruption and the explosiveness to take out combo decks before they can kill you. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need both of those traits to do well, but it does mean that you need to have some sort of identity. Let’s look at some of the notable aggressive decks in Modern in no particular order.

Soul Sisters
R/G Blitz
Mono-Red Aggro
W/B Tokens

That isn’t a large list and could be made even smaller if we put R/G Blitz under the Zoo category. This might seem a bit worrisome, but there’s no shortage of options available within these decks.

Let’s start with R/G Blitz.

If you’re looking for something fast and stable, then this build is for you. One of the biggest attractions to this deck is its resiliency to one of the most played sweepers in Pyroclasm, with tons of three (or more) toughness creatures and Hellspark Elemental dodging it altogether. Adding a color seems to be very easy, especially if it’s for more high-powered cards. Champion of the Parish can work as Experiment One numbers five through eight and splashing for that opens up some sideboard options as well.

Here’s what I would start with:

The first thing I want to look at here is the mana base. Ancient Ziggurat has the upside of making all of your creatures castable, but the number of downsides adds up. It doesn’t help Flinthoof Boar get haste or +1/+1, doesn’t cast Lightning Bolt, doesn’t bloodrush Ghor-Clan Rampager, and doesn’t work with our noncreature sideboard cards. Even with all of those downsides, I think the singleton is worth playing over another Sacred Foundry, Temple Garden, or fetch land.

Secondly, let’s look at the cards that we aren’t playing. Rancor, while commonly seen in R/G builds, isn’t present here because of lack of space. We could put it in the sideboard for non Lightning Bolt / Path to Exile matchups, but it depends on what you want to hedge toward. Searing Blaze gets the axe for a similar reason, but the lack of synergy with Burning-Tree Emissary is another strike against it (though it’s very powerful at getting rid of early Tarmogoyfs and Liliana of the Veil).

Next up is one of the first decks I picked up during last year’s Modern season:

When we think of the term "aggro," we think of speed or explosiveness. W/B Tokens doesn’t really have either. In fact, it’s as close to a midrange deck that an aggressive deck can get, but it more than makes up for it with a high amount of efficiency, a ton of disruption, and arguably the most resilience in the format for aggressive decks. A deck like Jund can have nightmares utilizing their removal spells against two- or three-for-one creature spells, and some combo decks simply cannot answer a bear that also strips them of their best tool.

While the R/G based aggro decks had a lot of inherent defense against Pyroclasm, W/B has to work for it. You need to set up some combination of one or more anthems, Zealous Persecution, and Auriok Champion to keep the damage flowing. While not impossible, having those tools is asking for quite a lot here. Dedicated control and control-combo decks are also an issue, as they can outpace your disruption and take advantage of your relative slow clock and lack of raw card advantage with slingshot effects like Sphinx’s Revelation and Batterskull.

With those weaknesses in mind, we can look to shore things up a bit:

(Credit to Larry Swasey, Caleb Durward, and Travis Woo for the inspiration and ideas.)

I know, I know, the dreaded Pack Rat. The bane of Standard seems to fill a really nice role here in this particular build, as it’s another way to force the issue on your opponent and end the game quickly while still maintaining the efficiency and resiliency of the more stock W/B Tokens decks. Deathrite Shaman is also an easy inclusion due to how much more robust it makes the rest of the plan. Cutting Spectral Procession is a pretty big deal, however, since we’re losing a card that can single handedly win a game and replacing it with cards that are less powerful in the overall damage-per-card department.

Our mana base gets much more reliable, to the point where we can even play multiple copies of Mutavault and double black cards to add to the overall efficiency of the build. Another idea is to branch out and fully support green for things like Gaddock Teeg and sideboard cards. Red could give you Young Pyromancer, functioning as a +1 to every token generator, and Hellrider, an extremely powerful way of closing the game out quickly.

Soul Sisters is a unique aggro deck due to a different kind of resiliency. Instead of withstanding punishment or creating multiple threats with a single card (though it does possess some of those traits), it gains its resiliency through pure and simple life gain:

Having a potential 6/6 flying lifelinker on turn 3, sometimes even turn 2, is certainly nothing to scoff at, and this deck can achieve that moderately well. Your game against other aggro decks is already pretty strong, and the staying power of Ranger of Eos and Ajani’s Pridemate puts it all together. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter how much life you’ve gained when you’re facing down about a million-billion Pestermite tokens or if the game is restarted via Karn Liberated. The combo matchup needs work, and going into another color could potentially help with that considerably.

Aside from the obvious discard effects, adding black also gives us a way to safely extend more than we usually would into a sweeper, utilizing Blood Artist as a way to punish them for sweeping. Vizkopa Guildmage provides yet another way to drain your opponent in the midgame as well as another way of draining when you gain life and doubling the punishing factor of Blood Artist (a creature dies, you drain one, and your opponent loses another one for you gaining one). The inclusion of Thoughtseize may seem worse, but it just takes a slight adjustment in lines of play if things do get awkward for you. (For example, if casting Thoughtseize would bring your life total to below 30, then consider casting it after attacking with your Ascendant).

After exploring two different extremes of aggressive decks along with a unique approach of the spectrum, let’s end with one of the more snowball-effect type of aggro decks and a longtime fan favorite:

Merfolk has quietly undergone some major changes since the release of Theros, adding Master of Waves and Thassa, God of the Sea to its already potent arsenal. This gives the deck a feel strikingly similar to what you see in Standard with Mono-Blue Devotion but more protection and less inherently bad cards. Now you’re much more explosive on the top end, and Kira’s functionality goes from a nice cushion to an outright game winner.

Merfolk does lack in the versatility/utility department and can really suffer from constantly dealing with removal spells. Adding a color is one of the more obvious ways of mitigating this problem. We’d still have a pretty stable mana base while also becoming slightly better against either midrange, control, or combo depending on our splash color.

Looking at these two variants, you can certainly tell which build is geared toward defending against unfair decks and which is focused on fighting off creatures. The best cards in their respective colors are fairly straightforward for a splash though—Thoughtseize for black, Path to Exile and Stony Silence for white, Lightning Bolt and a wider array of sideboard options for red, and Tarmogoyf for green. If I had to pick a combination, I’d pick U/B, but I can see each of them being powerful.

This is merely scratching the surface of what you can do with decks that already exist in Modern. In the next part of his series, I’ll talk about some of the different combo variants out there, from Ad Nauseam to RUG Tron to . . . Twin Scapeshift? This’ll be exciting!