Sucking With Aggro In Vintage

Did you know that Fish sucks? The format’s perennial Aggro strategy has taken a stout beating of late… but Josh believes the tools are there for the Fish decks to return with a bang! This interesting article examines the tools required to make Fish a competitor in the modern game, and presents three fresh Fish decklists for the old-school Aggro player. Perfect preparation for the upcoming SCG Power 9 events!

So, did you know Fish sucks?

… Stupid question, of course you did. One of the more notable things in the Vintage metagame is the complete failure of Fish in recent tourneys. It’s odd, since just a few months before there were seemingly three or four Fish lists coming out that seemed to have real potential. Other aggressive decks haven’t fared all that well either, with few new lists coming out, and little work occurring on the actual strategies used past “graft your draft deck around four Null Rod.” The single new plan (and I use that term very loosely, since it’s essentially another ported Extended deck) is the abuse of Dredge cards with Bazaar of Baghdad and Ichorid / Ashen Ghoul.

How do I know this? Well, other than the obvious dearth of Fish in the Top 8s of large (or even small) tourneys for the last few months, my friend and teammate Mike Lydon ran the numbers on Waterbury and both days of the SCG Richmond P9 tourneys. Aggro hasn’t done too badly, but has put up minimal numbers compared to Drains or Rituals.

At the Waterbury TMD Open, roughly 69 aggro, aggro-control and aggro-combo decks were played. This is probably the high point of aggressive decks coming back into the limelight since an aggressive deck (GAT) actually won Waterbury. Not to mention five aggro decks actually making it into the Top 16 cut-off; before anyone gets too excited, consider that half the Top 16 were Drain decks.

For reference, the five aggro decks that made Top 16 at Waterbury were: Gro-a-Tog, Goblins, R/G Beats, Bird Sh** (GUW Aggro), and U/W Fish.

At Richmond, Day 1 showed the metagame that Waterbury was a bit of a fluke. Only one aggro deck actually made Top 8: Friggorid (Meandeck Dredge). The rest of the Top 8 was a mish-mash of Control Slaver, combo and a single Stax deck. The silver lining is that four aggro decks finished just out of the Top 8; however, that still isn’t good when you consider 58 aggressive decks were played. Even if we limit this analysis to “good” aggro, we end up with one aggro deck out of roughly 35 viable builds making Top 8. Compare this to Control Slaver, which had ten players and three making Top 8. Let’s even take it to the extreme of only considering Friggorid as a viable aggro deck. Seven people played it and only one made Top 8. Consider ten people played Slaver and three made Top 8.

Day 2 was even more of a disaster, with no aggro decks even making the Top 16! The only excuse that aggro has is that after the majority of aggro players got ruined Day 1, they either didn’t play Day 2 or switched decks. As a result, there were nowhere near as many aggro decks as Day 1.

We need to ask ourselves a question then. What does Fish need to compete in the current metagame?

This is tough to answer precisely. As usual the Fish deck will be full of “hate” cards, but the exact contents of the Fish deck is up for debate. Hell, the best hate cards are still up for debate in the current metagame.

Examples of top tier disruption:
Meddling Mage
Tormod’s Crypt
Cabal Therapy
Chalice of the Void (sort of)
Null Rod (sort of)
Jester’s Cap

Meddling Mage has basically been ubiquitous with Fish decks ever since Fish moved to two colors. This is for good reason; Meddling Mage provides a powerful effect at a cheap price, and is attached to a bear. You can’t really ask for much more in a Fish deck, and only Dark Confidant really competes with him in terms of efficiency. Despite this, he forces you into W/U; this is a dangerous limiter, as it tends to put blinders on people for building the rest of the deck. There aren’t very many other White cards you really want in Fish, and it forces you into three colors if you want to run Black (for example).

Tormod’s Crypt, on the other hand, has been almost exclusively sideboard material for years. However, in the current metagame – where nearly every deck abuses the graveyard either via Yawgmoth’s Will, Goblin Welder, or any other mechanism – Crypt provides a zero-mana solution to the problem that can slide into play before Duress or Mana Drain come online.

Duress and Cabal Therapy are two of the best hand disruption spells ever printed. Personally, these two both make the top 3 list of best dedicated (no Hypnotic Specter or Balance) discard spells ever (the other being Mind Twist). Decks like Gifts and most Storm combo are really kicked in the nuts by these spells, let alone if you ever get something wacky off Therapy such as hitting a Mana Drain, reusing it and then nabbing two Brainstorm. Obviously, Therapy’s best place is in Ichorid decks where the creatures come back, but the utter lack of use in any other deck is disturbing.

Chalice of the Void and Null Rod both work well in aggro strategies, because these types of decks are usually the least inclined to fully abuse Moxen. Hence the symmetrical nature of the cards is broken, and you get to mess with literally every other type of archetype, all of which are using full sets of artifact mana.

Trinisphere should be obvious, as it’s the only card on the list that’s restricted. Jester’s Cap, however, is like Tormod’s Crypt; it’s very good right now because of how the majority of decks are designed. Popping a Cap into someone is almost always GG, or at least a severe blow to deck functionality. Even against decks that don’t auto-lose to it, like Control Slaver, they still take a huge beating on the Tinker and Will front. Obviously these don’t apply for Fish decks, but I wanted to be thorough.

Alright, so you knew all this? Good. Then why are you still playing the same Fish deck from ‘03 with minimal changes?

That’s what I thought. This is my problem. People play Fish, change 4-6 cards, and think they’ve done extensive work on the deck when the same problems are still there. I don’t claim to know the answers to the problems the deck currently faces, but I do realize that the current “solutions” are anything but.

What Fish needs to compete is three things: A consistent draw engine, flexible / strong hate, and answers to commonly seen sideboard cards.

The first notion is probably the easiest to fix, with the printing of Dark Confidant. However, even before Bob came on the scene, Curiosity plus small creatures was one of the most mana-efficient and useful draw engines available. Ninja of the Deep Hours is currently used by some Fish decks in the same vein, with some amount of success. In fact, the use of Ninja and lower usage of maindeck removal seems to sign that Curiosity could come back into favor if someone took a chance on it. Heck, despite Standstill being terrible… it still combos with Aether Vial! Personally, I think the Ninja is useless outside of Vial builds, but if you can make it work in “normal” Fish, more power to you.

Good hate is essentially all the top tier disruption, though Chalice of the Void and Null Rod are arguably much weaker than Duress or Meddling Mage in general, let alone on the draw. Yeah, I’m sure Control Slaver gets hurt by Null Rod… whoopity-do. Gifts, Stax, Grim Long, and Oath sure don’t care the majority of the time. Chalice of the Void gets much weaker when not played on turn 1, and is practically a dead draw after turn 3.

Duress is always useful as long as they have a card or two in hand, if nothing more for the information you gain. Meddling Mage can shut off a key component of the deck, to lower outs the opponent can draw when you’re in a winning position. Tormod’s Crypt is good against the graveyard in general, and Will… which half the decks in the format run.

It’s also a question of how many disruption spells we want to run versus cards that are in the deck to save ourselves against broken cards. For example, Swords to Plowshares are run in a good number of Fish decks, and that’s amazingly narrow except for a few situations, almost all of them involving Tinker. Junk like Pithing Needle is also amazingly inefficient for aggressive decks, but it can shut off Goblin Welder, Triskelion, and Bazaar of Baghdad, which is enough for some players to use them.

Possible draw engines:
Dark Confidant
Ninja of the Deep Hours
None (i.e.. relying on an Ancestral Recall and Brainstorm plan)

Other disruption cards that weren’t listed above:
Orim’s Chant
Rootwater Thief
Hide / Seek
Pyrostatic Pillar
Root Maze
The blasts (Red Elemental Blast and co)

Answers to sideboard cards:
Absolute Law
Kira, Glass Spinner
Running bigger creatures

So what do these Fish decks look like when we attempt to put some of these concepts into practice? I’ll show you some of my efforts, and hopefully they’ll jumpstart your own thinking processes. (Just to be clear, I don’t recommend playing these at any tournament without some amount of tuning; they are unrefined lists)

This version of the Fish deck was born of my desire to abuse Curiosity and get the most damage out of these smaller creatures as possible. Orim’s Chant and Abeyance act as pseudo-Time Walks to allow for free attacks. Meanwhile, nearly all of your men can be pumped by Lord of Atlantis or have very useful abilities. Rootwater Thief only needs to strike once or twice to cripple most decks.

The disruption base is geared specifically towards hitting key cards in the opposing deck.

A pretty simple design: it’s a modified version of Rian Litchard (Kirdape3) old W/U Fish, but with Black over White for Withered Wretch, Duress, and Bob. The main plan is just to beat down while using a multi-pronged attack in the opponent’s mana, graveyard, and hand.

Other possible inclusions:
Mesmeric Fiend
Cabal Therapy
Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
Old Man of the Sea

This was my first attempt at a tri-colored Fish deck in quite some time. Aether Vial seemed like an auto-include; dodging Mana Drain and fixing any mana problems the deck may encounter. The disruption consisting of Duress, Therapy, Fiend, Force, and Tormod’s Crypt combine to annihilate opponent’s hands and nullify Yawgmoth’s Will. The notable part of the disruption is the low casting cost of all the cards included, making countering a poor experience for the opponent. Even with Brainstorm, keeping his hand safe is a true challenge.

And… that’s it! Hopefully you learned something, and you guys can make a better Fish deck now.

Music Recommendations:
Kors K vs Teranoid – Tripping Contact
I doubt anyone except the IIDX fans in the audience will have any clue who Teranoid is or what this sounds like. Basically Teranoid is a Japanese DJ who recently released both of her (yes, it’s a she) albums in late March. Her music tends to go from Happy Hardcore to Gabba to Hardcore Washing Machine*. This is one of her hardcore songs she mixed with Kors K (Another Japanese DJ); the rhythms are great, you actually enjoy the slight repetition, and it’s a unique sound unto itself. It also sounds like a RPG boss battle.

*You have to listen to Gigadelic to get this one

Tatsh – Zenius –I- Vanisher
Think of it like this: its Electronica mixed with a hefty amount of piano. C’mon… piano! You know you want to sound all sophisticated and crap while actually liking the song.

Kors K – SigSig
It’s Happy Hardcore; what else is there to say? It’s very upbeat, very fast and very fun to listen too, despite the repetition.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom