Aggro Doran started as just another aggressive rock deck when Mat Marr won the Worlds PTQ with two copies of Doran, the Siege Tower in his otherwise normal-looking Rock deck. Since then, the deck has gained a ton of popularity and has been finely tuned into an extremely potent weapon.
Perhaps the first wake-up call from Aggro Doran to Extended was the Bluegrass Magic Winter King, where Tom LaPille and Owen Turtenwald ran into each other in the quarterfinals playing the nearly-complete mirror. Tom lost this mirror match and Owen went on to win the tournament.
A few weeks later, and my partner-in-crime Steve Nagy is playing at this past weekend’s Neutral Ground PTQ. Clocking in at 180 players, this eight-rounder managed to produce a Top 8 that included six copies of Aggro Doran, with Steve among those proud few. While he lost the semifinals to (obviously) the mirror match, the fact that 75% of the Top 8 was the same deck means that it’s something that needs to be looked at.
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Eternal Witness
- 1 Elves of Deep Shadow
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 3 Loxodon Hierarch
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Doran, the Siege Tower
Steve’s deck is nearly identical to the one that LaPille and Turtenwald played in the Winter King. The only changes from Tom’s deck are in the sideboard, where Steve ran Gaddock Teeg instead of extra discard spells.
Five-Color Zoo — The world has seen Zoo fight against Aggro Rock before, and things have honestly not changed much since then. Zoo will open up with blistering speed, though the one-drop that you truly fear is Kird Ape, and Rock will try to keep up by trading off with the Zoo deck until its big spells come online and put the Zoo deck in a hole. While this can be relatively easy to accomplish in some games, letting a Dark Confidant draw the Zoo deck some extra cards is going to put you in a very bad position, and it’s likely that you won’t be able to recover from a second-turn Bob that you fail to remove.
The Doran deck has three creatures that are a big problem for Zoo: Doran himself, Tarmogoyf, and Loxodon Hierarch. Other men, such as Dark Confidant and Eternal Witness, are alright to good, depending on the situation, but those three are the ones that will truly win you the game. Spending your smaller men early is a fine thing to do, since you just want to make sure that you have a decent life total when you start dropping the heavy hitters. Profane Command is obviously good in the late game, but it’s also fine early on, often taking out something like Dark Confidant on the third turn, while bringing back the Birds that obviously needed to be killed.
Sideboarding is relatively straightforward. You have six discard spells that you simply don’t want to draw, and you’ve got Pernicious Deeds and Umezawa’s Jittes to fill the holes you’ve left behind. Games 2 and 3 are often much easier without the dead weight of the first game’s Cabal Therapies. Jitte isn’t as amazing now as it has been before, but it’s still a huge problem for Zoo when it’s active, especially since it automatically wins Tarmogoyf fights. Lastly, in all but the rarest of cases, you can get away with planning to Deed for two mana, since it’s not too often that you’ll run into a Zoo deck packing a three-drop. As a result, you might consider slow-rolling it for a turn if you’re worried that you’re going to lose your sweeper to Vindicate.
Enduring Ideal — A simple way to look at this is that Ideal is racing to their eponymous spell, while you’re racing to twenty damage. That’s a little bit near-sighted, though, because you can interact with them in non-damage ways ahead of time (Thoughtseize and Therapy), and you might be able to interact with their Ideal after it resolves, depending on what they fetch up. Two very important things, then, are maximizing your Cabal Therapies and maximizing your Vindicates.
Obviously you’d rather see their hand with a Thoughtseize before you go casting Cabal Therapy, but when you’re going in blind you’ll usually name Burning Wish, simply on the numbers. Something to think about, though, is what turn you’d like to cast your disruption spell. If you’re going to miss casting Confidant on turn 2 or Doran on turn 3, you probably just want to fire it in there on turn 1. If, on the other hand, you’re going to have a spare mana lying around, waiting is usually better since it gives them a bigger chance to draw the cards you want to hit. The second factor to consider is whether or not your opponent has a Top in play. With Top working, good players will know to float their key spells to save them from just this situation, so you’re much less likely to want to change your plan to fit a slowrolled discard spell into your third turn. Lastly, you’ll want to think about the chances that they’ll defend themselves with Orim’s Chant. If you plan to wait until your third or fourth turn to maximize the chances you’ll hit, you might get ruined by a Chant on your upkeep.
When thinking about Vindicate, you need to decide if you want to cast it pre- or post-Ideal. If you’re able to keep them off of combo mana by hitting their lands, then that might well be the right way to go. However, if you’re able to put enough pressure on the opponent that a resolved Ideal will have to be defensive, then saving Vindicate to hit their Form of the Dragon or Solitary Confinement is sometimes going to be a better move. You need to be sure that they’re not able to go for Dovescape if you give them this chance, though. After all, Dovescape plus Solitary Confinement is a lock against Doran pre-board.
For sideboarding, you have five very good cards waiting, in Gaddock Teeg and Indrik Stomphowler. Teeg shuts off your opponent’s namesake card, and Indrik lets you blow away whatever they search up, regardless of any Dovescape shenanigans. Take out the dead Smothers, and the slow Hierarchs to make room for these guys. Your plays with hand disruption will change post-board if you’ve got Gaddock Teeg in your hand; now your goal is simply to defend him. The big target is still Burning Wish, since they’ll usually have Pyroclasm (and possibly more) that they can wish for to get rid of him, but you might also be looking to clear out something like Fire/Ice.
Counterbalance — The other 800-pound gorilla in the room. I’ve heard two different ways of approaching this matchup; one from Steve Nagy and one from Tom LaPille. Both are people that I listen to on a regular basis, and both have experienced success with the deck, so I don’t know right now which of them is correct. Because of this, I think the best thing would be to share how both of them think about the matchup, and let people decide for themselves who they want to listen to.
One way to look at it is as a race. The Doran deck starts out way ahead, with amazing threats and the disruption and removal to back them up. Thoughtseize and Cabal Therapy will clear the way for your spells, and Smother and Vindicate will make sure that your Confidants, Tarmogoyfs, and Dorans connect with your opponent and not their own guys. The opponent, though, is racing to lock you, either with Counterbalance + Top or with Vedalken Shackles. Unfortunately, once Balance/Top is active, you’ll have trouble resolving anything that isn’t Loxodon Hierarch or Profane Command, and Shackles will completely turn the game around against you, especially since they don’t even need to worry about their Island count to take your Doran.
Another way to look at it is as a grind. Here you’re still starting out ahead, but you believe that the game doesn’t necessarily revolve around the resolution of Counterbalance or Shackles; they are just hurdles to overcome. The disruption and removal that you pack should be able to handle the locks that the Counterbalance deck will try to assemble, so you’re looking to maximize you long-game power. In other words, you believe that you can weather the storm but will only do so narrowly, and will therefore want every card you draw off the top of your deck to impact the game as much as possible.
These two perspectives share some common ground; both believe that Doran starts out ahead and both worry that something is going to take the game over for the Counterbalance deck and stop you from winning. However, they lend themselves to different sideboarding philosophies. First though, look at what you can bring in: two Indrik Stomphowlers and two Pernicious Deeds, both answers to Counterbalance and Vedalken Shackles. Now decide how you want to look at the games. If you don’t want to try to weather the storm, you want to stop it from happening, you’ll want to take out the slowest cards in your deck: three Eternal Witnesses and a Loxodon Hierarch. If you’re not worried about something slipping through the cracks because you think that you’ll be able to handle cleaning up the board, then you’ll want to board out the four Cabal Therapies; they might be great on turn 1 or 2 but they’re the last thing you want to draw off the top of your deck later on, especially if your opponent has already assembled Balance/Top.
Affinity — Without Pernicious Deed in the mix, game 1 against Affinity is going to be a little bit rough. Given the right draws, the Affinity deck can Thoughtcast its way straight through whatever defenses you’ve managed to set up. However, you do have a good shot at avoiding losing to Fatal Frenzy, since people tend not to go all-in when there’s a chance that you’ll simply cast Smother and win the game. Additionally, Doran messes up a lot of their plans in the first game, shutting down both Cranial Plating and Fatal Frenzy (though a trampling Atog might be enough without the bonus).
Like in the Zoo matchup, you’re looking to dump your discard spells after boards. You obviously want Pernicious Deeds, and Indrik Stomphowlers are fine, even if they’re a bit slow, but then you have one more card to play with. Steve and I believe that the correct answer is to bring in a lucky Jitte; it’s not going to be active as often as you’d like against Arcbound Ravager and Atog, but if it gets there it’s good, and it’s certainly better than either of Thoughtseize or Cabal Therapy. Also like the Zoo matchup, shedding the discard spells for relevant removal will make your life much easier, though Affinity remains Affinity and can still do dumb things and kill you on the third turn.
In addition, they’re going to bring in some cards against you that you need to be aware of. It’s rare to find an Affinity deck these days that isn’t packing Spell Snare in the sideboard, since it stops Hurkyl’s Recall and Kataki. While it’s not going to stop you from Deeding their board away, it will stop you from Smothering the 26/12 Atog that’s coming to kill you, so you can’t rely on that plan as much as you’d like. The card that will stop you from Deeding their side is Pithing Needle; not all decklists I’ve seen recently still run the Needle, but most do, and so you can’t always ride a Deed to victory. That’s not to say that you don’t want to draw Pernicious Deed, just that you need to make sure that you aren’t overvaluing it when you make your mulligan decisions.
Dredge — In game 1, the Doran deck is a pretty big underdog to the Dredge deck, due to its lack of ways to interact with the opponent. The two best chances you have to steal wins are Cabal Therapy and Smother. Cabal Therapy has the potential to hose a hand that was reliant on Breakthroughs to get off the ground, and it doubles up on the second pass, managing Bridge from Below in addition to knocking whatever you fear out of their grip. Smother can stop Putrid Imp (or Tireless Tribe) from going long, but its best use is as an ambush on their Bridges when you kill your own creature with it. You’re going to have to have a lot of things go right for you to win before you sideboard, though.
Your board has ten very potent cards in it, which you’ll need. Leyline of the Void has all of its usual applications, Gaddock Teeg stops Breakthrough and Dread Return, and Pernicious Deed will keep you from dying to a horde of hasty Zombie tokens. What you’ll take out is under a little bit of debate; Steve and I agree that the four Vindicates and two Profane Commands should come out of the deck, but the last four cuts aren’t as easy to figure out. We’ve settled on the three Hierarchs and a single Eternal Witness; while they have applications to the matchup, they are slow and won’t usually have the time to come online.
Post-board, the hand disruption is actually extremely useful. Pre-board, you were trying to mise into wins where you knocked a key spell out of their hand, and that might still happen, but you’ll also be using them to defend your board cards. The obvious Therapy blind name when you’re sitting on a Leyline is Chain of Vapor, though some people play with Echoing Truth, Echoing Calm, Simplify, or any of many possible cards. Still, Chain of Vapor is the answer you’ll usually run into, and it also happens to be an answer for Gaddock Teeg and Pernicious Deed, so absent other information, it’s the card to call.
Hopefully this overview has helped prepare you to play Aggro Doran, either with it or against it. While it may seem that Counterbalance decks are poised to truly take over the world, this deck is likely one of the few that will stand up to it for a long time. I think that it’s a very reasonable choice if you’re looking for your next PTQ deck, and it seems as though the results agree with me.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM