Tearfully, the Complete Aggro-Ideal – Part 2

Mike completes his examination of the Aggro-Ideal archetype with a look at the matchups to be faced in the current Standard environment. He supplies handy sideboarding tips, and outlines the strategies you need to pilot the deck to a successful finish. Yes, the deck has a couple of high-profile bad matchups… but the good matchups are abundant. Is this the deck for you? Read on to find out!

Yesterday, I brought you the best deck I’ve ever created…

Today, I give you a matchup rundown:

The Matchups

Red Beatdown (all)
We tested innumerable games against Heezy Street. The version of Aggro-Ideal posted here is slightly better than a 7-3 favorite over Heezy Street. The reason the percentage fell is that we added the Ghost Quarters fairly late, and they de-stabilized Aggro-Ideal’s ability to hit short-game colored mana.

The main inducement to playing the deck, though, is its utter dominance over all the other Red beatdown decks. Aggro-Ideal is Dan Paskins nightmare. We used Heezy as the baseline, with it being the most successful tournament Red beatdown deck of the last six months, but rotated all the other decks in five game sets. By and large, Aggro-Ideal would go 5-0 and we would simply move on to the next Red beatdown deck. I spent a session actually hitting Josh with Ninja of the Deep Hours repeatedly and threatening Trygon Predators – which should by all rights spell poison – with Sea Stompy, and never came close to winning a game. I insisted on playing Zoo during the same session, until I could take a game. It took seven duels, and Josh mulliganed to five and hit his only Green via suicide Ghost Quarter (his first land being a Boseiju). Julian, who had run the Swiss with Boros at Regionals, lost an entire set to Josh one Sunday afternoon at the Flores kitchen table, and refused to continue playing when he got his best possible draw on the play and Josh’s first land was Boseiju.

Aggro-Ideal will only lose to Red beatdown if you keep a bad hand. Obviously blowout games are possible, for Heezy in particular (the only deck featuring Giant Solifuge, Flames of the Blood Hand, and Scorched Rusalka for lifegain defense), but Aggro-Ideal can muck up the early game with Snake Shamans into Elephant Clerics, and then boasts a hellish sequence of middle turns that mixes up removal, dedicated lifegain, and combination elements. Josh once famously (in our circle, anyway) lost a game where he opened on Boseiju, kept Plains, Plains, with no Green, no Top, and no Tribe Elder. That is basically how bad your hand has to be.

In game 1 situations in these matchups, a resolved Ideal has been a win for us 100% of the time in testing. You move to stabilize with Faith’s Fetters and pull out of the possibility of being burned out; the deck will win by itself from that point, as long as you don’t hand the opponent the kill.

Sideboarding is next to irrelevant. You can bring in Condemn or not; it doesn’t matter. What matters is swapping out a Boseiju for Ghost Quarter and getting the fourth Faith’s Fetters into the deck. I don’t really care what you cut (as long as it isn’t one of the "bone you" four-casters). I’d say cut Confiscate because there is nothing you would ever want to steal, except it is often humorous to take the Jitte when it is attached to one of their only attackers and already comes laden with something like six charge counters.

Non-Red Beatdown (G/W and B/W)
Julian and Josh had a hard time winning against Husk for a while early in testing… and we never figured out why that was. I ended a session with a clean six-game streak against the both of them, proving the dominance of Ideal over Husk, but Julian says that I just drew more Wraths than he did. I’ve only lost one game to Husk that I can think of, and it was to Osyp when I stalled on two (I certainly don’t want to make it out like a 100% matchup, because there’s no such thing. Every other playtester dropped multiple games to Husk, but I can’t for the life of me explain why). Shrug.

Your trump card is the aforementioned Wrath of God. Draw it, kill Maher, and you will win. Sensei’s Divining Top is also awesome. I won every single way, from straightforward G/W beatdown like a bad Glare deck, to board control into City-Tree like a bad Counter-Post deck, to this deck’s actual long-game plan of attrition into Ideal (I took the Jitte when Josh had drawn four Mahers to my four Wraths, and the pointy stick had six counters on it).

The non-Husk B/W decks are kind of a joke. The only reason Husk is hard is because they can kill you out of nowhere. You aren’t going to lose to random 2/2s, though you may have to get creative with the midgame. Decks like B/W Rats are actually the perfect opponents, because they are slower than Red beatdown decks and do you the favor of setting up the Life from the Loam that you are going to use to blank half their cards for you. It’s hard to explain why this deck beats the B/W decks because you beat them so many different ways, so I think you’d have to test it to see for yourself. The short answer is probably that their plays are mostly irrelevant. You have more acceleration, trump from Wrath of God, and enough card advantage to keep up with Bob and Ghost Council while sculpting a long game from which they have essentially no chance of escaping. Just keep in mind their scariest disruption is going to be Castigate, and you are a Top deck with multiple draw options (Reach, Gifts, Loam), so the math heavily favors you. Yes, yes, I always kill Maher.

You can sideboard one of two different ways in this matchup. The way that I did most of my MTGO testing was to go down to two Enduring Ideals (even when I had four in an earlier build) and cut the Form of the Dragon (only uncastable card) to give the expected Cranial Extractions less impact. Obviously, you want the Boseiju out as well. I always brought in the Fetters and some offense, but it varied from build to build. You are still a general favorite with this swap:

-1 Enduring Ideal
-1 Form of the Dragon
-1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All

+1 Life from the Loam (discard) or Debtors’ Knell (attrition)
+1 Faith’s Fetters
+1 Ghost Quarter

Because he has much more respect – or perhaps wildly less respect – for his opponents, Steve always uses the most extreme sideboard swap the deck is capable of:

-1 Confiscate
-1 Debtors’ Knell
-3 Enduring Ideal
-1 Form of the Dragon
-3 Gifts Ungiven
-1 Zur’s Weirding

+1 Faith’s Fetters
+4 Condemn
+1 Ghost Quarter
+4 Simic Sky Swallower

Against dedicated Rats, you side in all the Loams.

This presupposes he is fighting three or four Extractions, four Mortifies, and four Kamis or some such. This configuration is an easy win because the "prepared" B/W opponent is going to aim his midgame cards in the wrong direction. If you aren’t blown out by a Jitte, you are just going to always win as long as you keep hitting your land drops (note you have another land as well). You lose the bulk of your second plan, but luckily you are a better mid-range creature deck than B/W when they have no positive interactions. You still have Wrath for trump, you can eat their Mahers with one mana… Oh, and you have a 6/6 flying murderer that they can’t target and can’t block, let alone kill. Trade, trade, race in four. You may be wondering why we both leave in the Fetters and go up to four, while taking out more powerful and strategic enchantments. The reason is that Faith’s Fetters always trades with value. It doesn’t matter if you are locking down a Jitte, paralyzing a Kami, or drawing a Mortify… The card always trades with something and gives you a Ghost Council’s worth of life to manage your race. If it sticks, all the better, but you don’t actually care if it does as long as you are staying even and managing Maher. You don’t actually have to manage Maher if you stick Elephant, Cleric, Dragon, Leviathan; they have to manage Maher.

As it is a better deck in general, G/W is more problematic than B/W. Julian and I did a fair bit of testing between G/W and an earlier version of Ideal way back in May, and came to the conclusion that G/W was the favorite, albeit slightly. In reviewing the Nationals deck lists, I would not say that continues to be true, though it is still problematic because G/W possesses relevant interactions. You see, the version of G/W we were testing was my Teams deck, which includes Shining Shoal, multiple Seed Sparks, Chord of Calling, and Nikko-Onna main. Obviously there are incentives to Congregation at Dawn and one Indrik Stomphowler, but they are not productive in this matchup. The problem, previously, was that Ideal Plan A is equally effective, or slightly less effective, when compared with G/W’s plan. Moving to Weirding for the long game, the Chord version could call Nikko-Onna and then kill the next n enchantments with any kind of hand. Congregation decks actually have to put Stomphowler where Weirding can get it, and even if they can stick it, it will only hit once. The other changes, namely the addition of Watchwolf, are not productive, again, in this matchup (I must admit that Julian caught me with the Shining Shoal against Form of the Dragon early in testing, which taught me never to fall to that again). We did not test the matchup after May, or with the newer versions of the deck; Steve drew with G/W at Nationals due primarily to a lack of familiarity, though he was a mortal lock to win the third when he ran out of time (full no enchantments swap, as above… you can’t Glare a Simic Sky Swallower).

Steam Vents, et al

The beauty of the deck is that it effortlessly crushes creature decks and control decks. Wafo-Tapa, the closest thing to a true control deck in the known Standard universe, is one of the easiest matchups. The deck was consistently posting about a 7-3 against this deck… and then Josh actually figured out the correct strategy matchup. It is almost embarrassing that we were playing for a straight attrition-into-Enduring Ideal game plan in hindsight, because I don’t think Aggro-Ideal ever lost another test game once Josh’s plan was revealed. He figured out that you can’t lose if you don’t play Ideal. The biggest barrier, apparently, was getting locked by Epic when it looked like you were going to win, and then punting to a Repeal or a Confiscate, or multiple Repeals, Boomerangs, and Confiscates. Josh’s math – simple, straightforward, and ultimately brilliant – was "they’ve got four Dragons, we’ve got four Wraths, let them screw up." Ideal would set up Boseiju if possible, but could always lean on Faith’s Fetters & co. for time if need be. Actually winning came from every possible avenue. The most common? Decking.

White Wafo-Tapa came directly out of the playtest session where this plan was revealed. Wafo-Tapa needed a way to buy time against multiple creatures in play, and Electrolyze wasn’t doing it. Additionally, Debtors’ Knell broke the "four versus four" math. Add Ghost Quarter and Hinder, and it was actually a fight… Ideal is still favored in this matchup (again, decking is the most common victory condition), but White Wafo-Tapa, unlike earlier versions, has an actual chance.

When we hit the serious period of pre-Nationals testing, ‘Tron was the deck du jour on MTGO. An amateurishly reanimated cadaver can win six games out of ten against the MTGO versions of ‘Tron that we were consistently playing (read: SSS), a skilled player obviously more (I just want to differentiate against Ben Lundquist deck, which has Confiscates and certain other changes that we hadn’t played against in some months, and no Simic Sky Swallowers, though possibly it could still fall to the "four [Keigas] versus four [Wraths]" described above). Basically, we found ‘Tron to be kold to a Vitu-Ghazi.

For real.

What can they do?

Are they going to deploy some Dragon? You just Fetters or kill it.

How about Wildfire?

You are the Loam deck with Sakura Tribe-Elder and Kodama’s ReachWildfire puts them behind.

All you need to win is a dude ranch… but you might as well hassle with every other threat in the deck.

‘Tron won, not surprisingly, primarily on Demonfire. Think about it for a moment. If this is their only plan, they can’t even use Wildfire for token defense! There are many strategies to fight Demonfire, the most obvious being to soften the other guy up with Elephants and the best to lock him out with Yosei, but an over-reliance on Faith’s Fetters, at least when you had other options, would just get you killed by Repeal about half the time (a poor strategy). Once we added Ghost Quarter, we lost to Demonfire less, though ‘Tron was ever a respectable deck in that it could actually post a substantial (if not advantaged) number of wins in every set.

It is probably important to explain Ghost Quarter math for those of you who haven’t already figured it out. The majority of MTGO ‘Tron decks have no basic lands. Therefore if you hit any Urza’s Tower, you were just getting a Strip Mine (great). Steve seemed particularly good at drawing one Ghost Quarter and then running Gifts for another one, two more bone yous, and Life from the Loam. As far as I recall, he never got a perfect victory, though.

Player A:
[Urza’s Tower] [Urza’s Power Plant] [Urza’s Mine]

Player B:
[Ghost Quarter]

Karoo math tells us that Tower is worth about three cards, Power Plant and Mine two each. That is very good if you have these lands assembled. Now imagine you are playing against Ben Lundquist or Tim Aten version of ‘Tron, which has multiple basics. When you trade a Ghost Quarter for Urza’s Tower, the opponent summons up an Island. If not a Strip Mine, what exactly are you getting?

Player A: -3, +1
Player B: -1

Are you netting two virtual cards? That’s pretty good, right?

Actually, no. If you did it right, you are also blunting the other two ‘Tron lands… The opponent who has Tower, Power Plant, and Mine (3 + 2 + 2, or 7) who ends up with Island, Power Plant, and Mine, or 3 from 7, loses essentially four virtual cards for the price of your Ghost Quarter. Obviously it is insane if he has no basics, but disrupting the ‘Tron even in the face of basics – if you’re not cooked yet – will often ensure that you have the time you need to smash him. We found that not only was Ideal generally ahead of ‘Tron because it had no strategic plays other than "Demonfire you," ‘Tron was consistently behind against the multiple Quarter / Loam combination; if it hadn’t won in the early game, it wasn’t going to win.

Vore is a deceptively easy match. I know it doesn’t seem like it should be easy, but Ideal has many ostensibly non-strategic advantages that happen to fit together into a positive win percentage. The most random, and ultimately unbeatable, is to just run out Zur’s Weirding when Vore is tapped. If you have seventeen life (discount against any relevant spells of two classes that have been played) and he is holding neither Eye of Nowhere nor Magnivore, you win on the spot. That’s it. If you have a clock, you win faster. If you don’t, Vitu-Ghazi and Life from the Loam will eventually show up and you will get him with progressive damage over time.

Before we were calling it "Vore," Josh played against this now known archetype the first round of the 2005 World Championships with Wild Gifts:

"Round one of Worlds I played against Simon Carlsson playing the Swedish Magnivore deck. I didn’t think much of this deck when I saw some random playing a sorcery deck before Day 1 started. After our match I determined that it is definitely not a joke deck, but it is probably your best matchup possible. Game one I had to mulligan twice, and when I resolved Gifts Ungiven on turn 6 after getting Stone Rained a couple times, the game was over."
(from "Wild Gifts at Worlds" by Josh Ravitz, emphasis mine)

Note that Wild Gifts and Aggro-Ideal play essentially the same Gifts / Loam engine, but that Aggro-Ideal has Kodama’s Reach (a two-for-one) where Wild Gifts had Farseek, and that rather than playing Wildfire, which may or may not be what the opponent wants to hit, this deck has twice as many ways to contain a Magnivore, a better board… as well as the turn 3 kill on Zur’s Weirding.

You will lose to Vore one of two ways. Either you get blown out on the draw (Eye of Nowhere on turn 2, followed by all the toys), or you get hit with one or two giant strikes. Small Magnivore is strategic folly in this matchup because of Wrath of God and, to a (far) lesser extent, Faith’s Fetters and Confiscate… You have to play the ‘Vore like a Cranial Plating. You have to make the hits count if you are on the other side of the table. Aggro-Ideal will wile its way out of almost every other situation. One somewhat odd interaction I found was to just go for Form of the Dragon, which blanks the Magnivores short term. If you’ve done anything – and certainly if you have Weirding access – Form is potentially golden.

-4 Wrath of God
-1 Enduring Ideal
-2 Faith’s Fetters
-1 Form of the Dragon

+2 Life from the Loam
+2 Ghost Quarter
+4 Condemn

In the boarded games, when Ideal has the Condemns, extra Loams, and extra mana in, the matchup goes from incidental advantage to a full on blowout. They just have too many cards that are kold to Life from the Loam, not to mention the cards Ideal plays for its own advancement (Tribe Elder, Reach, Top), and Ideal has too many efficient ways to fight Vore’s game plan. Again, you lose to the big namesake Lhurgoyf; don’t get fancy if you can help it.

The Barriers

So if the deck is so unbeatable, why weren’t there two if not three copies in the Top 8 of U.S. Nationals? The short answer is hubris on my part, as above, but the long answer is more complicated. Despite being the best deck in Standard at equilibrium, it is possible that Aggro-Ideal ceased being the deck to play somewhere around the middle of last week.

We were aware to two bad matchups. Heartbeat fell off the radar by itself, which is why we cut all the anti-Heartbeat cards (incremental Weirdings, the one Mask, all the Ancient Laws). We also knew about Solar Flare. We knew about Solar Flare. We didn’t need Blisterguy’s article, or even to watch the cobbled lists that were starting to show up on MTGO… Josh was in contact with Kenji himself, and we were using Kenji’s list for our playtest deck (Julian would later use the playtest deck to win a Grinder). Ideal never won a single game in playtesting against Solar Flare, but we only tested short sets, assuming that Americans would not have the tech, at least not in volume, or at least not in time.

The problem, specifically, was timing.

Blisterguy’s article went up last Wednesday. It went up in time to show a dominating number of Solar Flare decks in the Top 8 of Australian Nationals, enough time for Americans to get fired up about the new deck, but not enough time for them to test against, say, Vore or any of the innumerable common matchups where the deck is behind. I am not saying Solar Flare is a bad deck, per se – it is possibly the second most powerful deck in the format and has certainly proven itself in Australian and American Top 8 play – but given the variety of options for the field, it is probably fair to call the deck over-represented. Consider by contrast the JSS Championship, a day removed, where Flare-hating Heartbeat of Spring and Magnivore moved to the finals despite – or perhaps because of – the new deck’s ascendant popularity.

Ant wasn’t beating the French Hussar deck (he was the only one who tested the matchup), and coupled with the Solar Flare spike, audibled to G/W at the last minute. He made Top 8, but with his draft record, any deck would have given him Top 8. Steve didn’t actually lose a match with Ideal… He just drew two of his matches. One was to Santa-Tron. He played Weirding in a spot where he was 100% to win but for sixth land, six, six, six or ‘Tron piece, ‘Tron piece, X-spell, X-spell; the devil got him and Steve lost to the former. Was this a bad play? There were really only two hands that he would lose to. Upon reviewing the Santa-Tron deck you may notice that it plays only one Demonfire, which is in the sideboard, meaning that he is only down to one hand. The sometimes dual-edged Weirding states that if you are ahead you win, and if you are behind you lose 100% of the time if the Weirding was played correctly and neither player screws up. Bad beat. Steve won the next game but ran out of time; the G/W draw I already talked about. Josh was 2-1, losing only to Solar Flare… He utilized the Solar Flare sideboard strategy, but lost in Game 3 when he mulliganed to five. Clearly n is infinitesimal here, but even with the six matches played, one can hardly indict the power and consistency of the deck.

If you are interested, here is our anti-Solar Flare swap:

-1 Confiscate
-1 Debtors’ Knell
-3 Enduring Ideal
-1 Form of the Dragon
-3 Gifts Ungiven
-1 Zur’s Weirding

+1 Faith’s Fetters
+4 Condemn
+1 Ghost Quarter
+4 Simic Sky Swallower

There is no doubt Solar Flare has the edge in the matchup, but none of the reasons it is ahead are strategic. They are all incidental, a product of the cards each deck plays rather than genuine interactions sculpted by the winning magician… This actually makes Flare a more difficult opponent to fight. First of all, they sometimes randomly get position on Persecute. That’s not strategic: they only have two, and they might actually name the wrong color due to Aggro-Ideal being a rogue deck (all things being equal, isn’t Blue the scariest color in Magic?). In fact, you have good Persecute defense being three colors with Tops, Loam, and many routes for extra cards in hand. The second advantage is that they have Mortify, meaning that they can break your late game if they have clocks. All well and good. Neither edge would be enough to make this an X-0 game 1… The real problem is that they have more fat flyers than you. Idiotic, right? That’s it. You have four fairly ineffective 4/4 creatures and three 5/5s. They have Kokusho, Yosei, Meloku, and Angel of Despair… and sometimes Ink-Eyes. You both have Wrath. They have some Remands of minor significance. Ultimately, it comes down to their advantage in the sky and the fact that if you can’t stick Debtors’ Knell against their Mortifies and Miren against their Miren, you are eventually going to lose to double Kokusho or all-in Meloku. I beat Joshua Ravitz, a much stronger player than am I, every single game in testing – perhaps seven in a row before we quit on Game 1 as hopeless – and never once did I feel like I really "deserved" to win it, that I had the wheels turning the proper direction. I just played late game Court Hussar and paired Dragons correctly, then peeled Zombify. I had the Meloku and gave Josh two turns to find the Wrath with a Remand in my hand and he didn’t draw, Top, or Gifts into it. If Solar Flare actually had a trump game plan, it would be infinitely easier to figure out how to win. The fact that its cards just fit into the puzzle of the matchup better makes the fight… infuriating.

Our sideboard swap is an attempt to win the fatty war. That’s it. They have to have Wrath for your Simic Sky Swallower. You can remove and race on Condemn. The plan certainly isn’t perfect, but it gave us tools that we could use in other fights while making a reasonable amount of sense at the same time.

There you have it. The best deck, with the most positive matchups, that will probably never, ever, win anything. Given that Solar Flare ended up doing so well – meaning that its popularity will not die down before we have a whole new Standard – it is likely Ideal will never be vindicated. Even if it can still get value given the configuration of Standard moving forward (say sub-50% Solar Flare and Heartbeat), my guess is that few players will bother testing it to validate for themselves the remaining blowouts. It’s also possible that we missed the metagame by a half-step, but even if that were true, I don’t know what the right deck to audible to would have been, though my guess would be Vore (1), followed by the underplayed Heartbeat of Spring (2). Josh said that last year White Weenie was the fad deck – basically Solar Flare’s 11th Hour position for U.S. Nationals this year – and he beat it three times to make Top 8 with the awesome Culling Scales sideboard out of Kuroda-style Red. Where is my Culling Scales, Mike?

I really should have just played Ideal at Regionals.


Bonus Section: Props

I want to shout out to my friends and playtest partners. It was a blow to the ego to see my U.S. Nationals Top 8 streak snapped, but I am still proud of the work we put in. Not to say that it isn’t always a collaborative effort, but this one really was, with Josh Ravitz, Steve Sadin, and the not qualified Julian Levin (a.k.a. Mother Superior) all putting in Saturday and Sunday afternoons at my faraway abode. Julian, the reigning New York State Champion, finally broke his Premiere Event ch- um, ICE, and won a Grinder. Gratz.

Also, Props to Pat Chapin… he added the three Brushlands. (I hate the way you make mana… You know what’s great when you have the best deck? Being able to cast your spells.)