Hello and welcome back to the weekly column that explores all things casual. Today’s article is a direct
continuation of last week’s article.
You’ll probably want to check it out before reading today’s article, or else you might be a little lost.
This is my most ambitious series of articles since Building Your First Five, and may end up being more
ambitious than that!
To recap briefly, I am writing a series of articles that explores the casual metagame, which is far more vast than
any given competitive metagame. Any competitive metagame will have only a handful of decks at the top at any time.
Even the best metagames, with a variety of solid, winnable decks, would probably not have more than a third of the
Subtypes listed in the Framework, if that.
Therefore, one of the keys to understanding the casual metagame is to understand the underlying framework.
Today I am going to explore the first Archetype on the Casual Player’s Framework: No-Holds-Barred Aggro. I
want to take a look at the Subtypes in more detail and give some decklists to show exactly what I mean when I distinguish
between various Archetypes and Subtypes.
As a reminder, No-Holds-Barred Aggro is one of five Archetypes in which I’ve divided most Magic decks.
NHBAggro contains decks that win by attacking with creatures. NHBAggro decks are concerned with breaking through,
around, over or under their opponent’s defenses with their creatures, not with removing the creatures en masse.
Sure, any deck can use a smattering of removal or tempo without becoming those Archetypes. The same is absolutely
true of all of the NHBAggro Subtypes as well. These decks often have a handful of removal for either tough defensive
creatures or a major threat of the opponent’s. After all, you want some way to off a Peacekeeper if it gets
played, as an example.
I suspect that more decks fit into NHBAggro than any other archetype. I don’t know why we are so drawn to it.
Maybe it is because these decks are easier to build than others. Maybe we just like having decks that don’t
require too much concentration to play. Or maybe we are just reminiscing back to the days when we first began playing
and everybody built their own deck, which was almost always an NHBAggro deck.
Whatever the reason, I believe that more decks fit here than any other Archetype. What I’d like to do is go
over each of the Subtypes in detail. The previous article had five Archetypes and thirty-one Subtypes, plus any
I’ve added since then from your suggestions. That is a lot of Subtypes, and each one only had a paragraph in my
first article. Now it’s time to focus.
As a reminder, here is the NHBAggro section of the Framework.
Archetype #1 — No-Holds-Barred Aggro — Win by playing creatures and swinging with them,
overcoming opposing defenses
Swarm Deck — Outnumber the opposing defense
Big Creature Deck — Outsmash the opposing defense
Sneak Deck — Outflank the opposing defense
Growth Deck — Outgrow the opposing defense
Alpha Strike Deck — Outmaneuver the opposing defense
Ability Deck — Outverbage the opposing defense
With that out of the way, let’s head into the first Subtype.
The Swarm Deck (Outnumber)
The key part about a Swarm deck is that this is an NHBAggro deck that tries to outnumber the opposing defense. This
deck plays more and more creatures before trying to punch through opposing defenses. If you imagine an American football
field, the way the Swarm deck scores a touchdown is by having more players on the field than the other team.
Because this deck has to play a lot of creatures, there is a tendency for this deck to be a weenie horde, but that is
not always the case. Note that I named this Subtype the Swarm deck, not the weenie deck. Small creatures are merely a
means to an end, and you can find small creatures dominating a lot of decks in different NHBAggro Subtypes.
One way to build a Swarm deck is to include a large number of cheap creatures, moving up the mana curve like a Sligh
deck. You’ll have twelve one-drops, maybe eight two-drops, six or so three-drops, around four or so four-drops,
giving you thirty creatures. Then you add a few extra cards to adjunct your strategy, and you have a deck.
Obviously, not every Swarm deck will follow this strategy. Another way to build a Swarm deck was alluded to earlier.
You could play, for example, a Green/White deck with Watchwolf, Fleetfoot Panther, Mystic Enforcer and/or Loxodon
Hierarch, and tons more cheap beef. This deck would also be a Swarm deck, with a lot of creatures, but the creatures
would be bigger than the previously mentioned mana-curve weenie deck.
A third and quite interesting way to build a Swarm deck is to use a permanent or spell to give you a lot of creatures
and then outnumber your opponent’s defenses that way. You could have Mobilization that pumps out a bunch of
solider tokens before overwhelming your opponent. You could also make those soldiers with a Decree of Justice. Perhaps
you’d prefer making Saproling tokens with Aether Mutation, Artifact Mutation, or the Supply side of Supply/Demand.
These Swarm decks are just as viable.
These methods can be combined as well. Let’s take a look at a Swarm deck I just created.
As you can see, this deck packs a lot of creatures. Every spell and creature can make or is a creature except for
the four Swords to Plowshares. Let’s just look at the creature side of the deck for a moment. Llanowar Elves
helps accelerate into faster creatures, but it can also swing for damage when needed. Mana elves like these are great in
Swarm decks, as opposed to stuffy old mana artifacts.
I included two different creatures at the two spot. The first is the big, beefy Watchwolf. I’m sure you
don’t need me to list all of the reasons Watchwolf is worth playing, just remember he’s a 3/3 for two mana
with no disadvantage. The other two-drop is the recently printed Mistral Charger. This is a splashable creature that
can defend or attack through the air. I wanted at least one flyer to have some presence on that front.
Ravenous Baloth and Mystic Enforcer reward the player by giving two nice high-end creatures. The Mystic Enforces
will eventually fly as well as become great 6/6 creatures for just four mana. Until then, the Baloths are your biggest
creatures, and they can also keep you alive if you suffer an attack from a similar style deck.
After the creatures, the deck has some spells that generate Saproling tokens. Aura Mutation and Seed Spark are
removal that also doubles as a creature maker. These are needed for defensive cards like Engineered Plague and
Supply can make you a bunch of Saprolings to add to your force. It’s too bad this card is a sorcery, because
it’d make a great instant. Saproling Symbiosis makes a Saproling token for each creature you control. In this
deck, you could easily have eight or ten creatures out, and doubling that total with Symbiosis can win you the game.
Remember, the Symbiosis can be played as an instant, so cast it at the end of your opponent’s turn, then attack
with your horde of creatures.
I also tossed in four Swords to Plowshares. These are the ubiquitous removal spell in White, and are included only
to take out serious threats that may get in your way, such as Akroma. Lastly, two of the lands are Vitu-Ghazis so the
deck will have a way to grow more creatures. These work well to re-establish your horde after a mass removal spell hits.
This deck is a Swarm deck in every sense, and I hope you can feel it. Remember, the key to a Swarm deck is
outnumbering your opponent.
The Big Creature Deck (Outsmash)
The Big Creature Deck is all about playing one or more big creatures and smashing with them through opposing
defenses. If you imagine an American football game, the way the Big Creature Deck scores a touchdown is to run a huge,
muscular, barrel of a man up the middle that plows through the defense.
The traditional Big Creature Deck in focused in Green where it can harness comparatively cheap large creatures that
can smash face. Silvos and Child of Gaea are particularly good choices for this deck because they are big, cheap, and
have both trample and regeneration. Regeneration is an under-appreciated ability in a fatty. You have the ability to
swing into opposing defenses with impunity, with no fear that two 4/4 creatures are going to kill your 7/7 trampler and
still leave one alive.
There are other ways to play the Big Creature Deck, especially now that casual Magic players across the world were
gifted with Akroma. A deck designed to power out Akroma is another example of a Big Creature Deck.
The other three colors can also host Big Creature Decks on their own, like a Dragon oriented theme in Red, a Mahamoti
Djinn oriented deck in Blue or a classic Lord of the Pit style deck in Black.
In fact, there are many modern ways to build a Big Creature Deck. Coldsnap can have the snow deck with Rimefeather
Owl. Affinity, before it was broken, often featured a very large Broodstar as its winning condition of choice.
What I am going to do is build a traditional Big Creature Deck. It will be very Green.
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Priest of Titania
- 2 Timberwatch Elf
- 4 Weatherseed Treefolk
- 4 Fyndhorn Elves
- 4 Silvos, Rogue Elemental
- 4 Wirewood Guardian
- 2 Krakilin
- 2 Child of Gaea
- 22 Forest
- 2 Gaea's Cradle
This deck features a large quantity of creatures, which suits any NHBAggro deck fine. Although this is not a Swarm
deck, if you were to draw a bunch of elves and attack, pumping the one that gets through with a Timberwatch, that’d
be fine. Obviously, however, this deck wants to make creatures with a big ass.
The deck contains eight one-drops that all tap for a Green mana turn after turn. It also contains eight two-drops
that either tap for mana or get you a Forest. If your turns 1 and 2 simply consist of dropping two mana elves, then you
can play Weatherseed Treefolk on the third turn. If one of those mana elves is a Priest, you can drop a Child or Silvos
on the third turn. This deck can explode into a large amount of mana very quickly. Let’s take a look at what you
can do with it.
Krakilin is a make-your-own-monster that fits in well with the deck. It regenerates and it is a big creature. When
you are making a really large Krakilin, make sure to leave open the two mana to regenerate it.
Wirewood Guardian gets you an extra Forest in the early game and becomes a 6/6 beater later on. When you play it, as
an Elf, it will help the Timberwatch and Priests. It’s just a 6/6, but since you really want it to smooth the
mana, getting a playable 6/6 creature later when you no longer need the mana is great.
Desert Twister and Creeping Mold are the removal for the deck. All six cards will take out a crucial land,
enchantment or artifact. The two Desert Twisters can be coaxed to also take out a creature in an emergency.
Timberwatch Elves have several functions in the deck. As the only three-drop, they give you something to do with
your mana on turn 2 if you didn’t draw a second mana elf. They also help the Priests and pump a creature up
nicely. A couple of Timberwatch Elves with a few other elves in play can make big creatures on their own, without any
I threw in a pair of Gaea’s Cradles to increase the likelihood of an explosive hand. They are a bit expensive,
so if you ever wanted to build this deck, you might have to go elsewhere.
This isn’t a new deck, and these sorts of decks have been around since Urza’s Saga printed both Cradle
and Priest. However, this gives you an idea of what a Big Creature Deck might look like.
The Sneak Deck (Outflank)
This deck tries to outflank the opponent by playing creatures that it cannot block. These might be flying, shadow,
landwalk, fear, horsemanship, protection or more. This deck understands that it might leave the traditional routes to
victory open, so it may play some defense in the traditional areas in order to concentrate on getting through unblocked.
If Magic were an American Football game, you might imagine that this deck scores a TD by running the ball outside the
boundaries and into the endzone.
There are several ways of building a deck that does this. One way is to play hard to the outflank strategy. If you
have tons of cheap creatures with solid power, you can load them up and ignore any semblance of a defense. This version
might look like a Swarm deck at first due to the large umber of creatures, but it doesn’t concentrate on
outnumbering so much as outflanking. A shadow deck with tons of shadow creatures would be an example of this strategy.
Another example would be a deck that throws down a small resistance before blasting through with unblockable
creatures. Black, for example, has lots of creatures with fear and swampwalk. One of those creatures should be able to
get through against almost any deck. If the Black deck ran a few blockers like Will-o’-the-Wisps and Wall of
Souls, then it could play the fear and swampwalk creatures and attack with one or the other with little impunity.
Another version of the deck would use light taxing to slow down attacks while building an unblockable army. A Blue
deck could run Propaganda to slow down attackers while also running its own large contingent of unblockable creatures and
then dealing damage through Phantom Warriors and similar creatures.
Yet another version of this deck could play life gain or Fog effects to keep attackers from killing for long enough
to see the unblockable creatures win the game. Playing Fog effects that can be used twice (like Moment’s Peace) or
work for two turns (like Tangle and Spore Cloud) works well with Green’s large number of landwalkers. An Anaconda
and a Dryad Sophisticate can kill in four turns. Combine that with the two turns you save with a Moment’s Peace,
and you can see how this kind of deck can win.
I am going to choose a simple version of this Subtype in order to illuminate the deck.
- 10 Plains
- 10 Island
- 4 Coastal Tower
Azorius Herald is the perfect card for this strategy because it gives you a bump of four life to help against burn or
attackers while also lending a two power unblockable attacker for three mana. It’s a great card as a result.
Commander Eesha would be better if she weren’t legendary. A 2/4 flyer that has protection from creatures is a
perfect blocker that can hold back a larger monster or a larger army. Once you have established a defense, you can
attack with Eesha, because protection from creatures means unblockable. Beloved Chaplain would also fit, but I
didn’t think having a one powered attacker was worthy in this deck.
Phantom Warrior and Plasma Elemental are two other unblockable creatures. The Phantom Warrior is your typical
two-powered unblockable creature for three mana. For six mana you get Plasma Elemental, which can single-handedly win
the game in five turns.
For defense, this deck turns to Sunweb. Sure, it will let the small stuff through, but this deck can trade damage
with Grizzly Bears. As a flyer, it blocks aerial creatures just as well as those bound to the earth. As a five power,
six defense creature, it can stop and/or kill creatures with a much higher casting cost.
Court Hussar is a nice card. It plays solid defense and draws you a card. If you wanted another card with a similar
stalling ability, a cheaper cost, and life gain instead of a card, look no further than Temple Acolyte (T.Aco. —
To protect your creatures, I tossed in a set of Confound. Not only will it counter removal, but you get to draw a
card off it too — nifty! Impulse adds to the card drawing power of your deck, and between Impulse and the Court
Hussar, you should be able to find something quickly.
Finally, I put in a suite of Swords to Plowshares. Emergency removal is always useful. It’s interesting to
see these different decks use Swords to Plowshares, demonstrating that decks are what make the card, not vice versa.
This deck gives an example of what the Sneak deck is trying to do. As you can see, despite some defensive elements,
it is still an offensive deck and correctly classified as a NHBAggro deck. Still, the different elements of the Subtype
make any such deck an interesting choice.
The Growth Deck (Outgrow)
The Growth Deck tries to build its creatures to a crescendo and then attacks through defenses. Although the
creatures in a Growth Deck are often small, they build over time. This is different than the Big Creature Deck, which
often plays one or two big creatures, and doesn’t grow most or all of its army. To continue my American Football
analogy, this team scores by popping steroids while on the field that cause them to get stronger and the bowl over the
There are several ways to build a Growth Deck but I suspect that the overwhelming favorite is the Tribal deck. These
decks build around a creature theme then use some method to pump their own creatures. A solder deck, for example, could
run Field Marshal and Daru Warchief. Having out one of each turns a 2/2 soldier into a 4/5 with first strike. Giving
all of your soldiers +2/+3 and first strike is a classic example of a Growth Deck.
Another type of Growth Deck revolves around playing an enchantment like Sunken City, or Bad Moon, or Crusade and
Glorious Anthem. You play these enchantments and pump your creatures. A White deck has a variety of these enchantments
to choose from, and can often get a significant bump from just a Crusade and an Anthem being out.
A third type of Growth Deck, and a little rarer, is the deck that tries to build around +1/+1 counters and uses cards
like Thrive, and Elven Rite, and Decree of Savagery, and Titania’s Boon. The deck could use Spikes, Simic
creatures with graft, or other creatures like Triskelion and Pentavus.
The result of this archetype is to play creatures of small or medium size and then jump them in size permanently.
Please note a deck that focuses on cards that temporarily increase size, like Overrun, does not fit here.
Again, please note I’m not saying that Overrun does not fit in a Growth Deck, any more than I’m saying Sword
to Plowshares does not fit in an NHBAggro deck. I’m simply saying that a deck that focuses on Overrun effects
instead of permanent creature enhancers does not fit the Growth Subtype. Let’s take a look at a deck.
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Jugan, the Rising Star
- 4 Spike Feeder
- 4 Mystic Enforcer
- 3 Kaysa
- 4 Juniper Order Advocate
- 2 Tolsimir Wolfblood
- 4 Watchwolf
- 12 Forest
- 8 Plains
- 4 Elfhame Palace
This deck uses Kaysa, Tolsimir, Juniper Order Advocate and Glorious Anthem to permanently pump its creatures. If one
of each of Kaysa, an Advocate and an Anthem is out, all of your Green creatures gets +3/+3 which will turn even a Birds
of Paradise into a 3/4 flying beater.
I have cheap Watchwolves in order to play a nice 3/3 creature on the second turn. It can start serving for damage
anytime. It gets a remarkable +2/+2 from Tolsimir alone, turning a Watchwolf into a 5/5 creature of death and
Mystic Enforcers are great because with threshold they are already a massive flyer. They love Tolsimir and work well
with the other growth effects as well. They are a perfect target for a dying Jugan, or even a Spike Counter or two.
Spike Feeder is a solid defensive creature. Getting a creature that can block, throw counters, or sac for life is a
nice move. If you need a serious life boost, toss a dying Jugan’s gift onto a Spike Feeder for serious life gain.
Jugan is great in this deck. As a natural flyer, he loves getting pumped by the various effects in the deck. He is
also a threat on his own. He’ll probably be public enemy #1 while he is in play, and that really fits your deck,
as a dying Jugan can bequeath his strength to another of your creatures. Although any creature likes a dying Jugan,
several creatures really play nicely with it. A humble Birds of Paradise, for example, becomes a 5/6 flying
creature that scares off angels and vampires.
I tossed in a full set of Naturalizes in order to take out any annoying cards opponents are playing with. You never
know when you run into something that hoses you, like a No Mercy. Always be prepared.
The Naturalize slot is a great example of the premise I mentioned earlier with the Overrun. Even if you tossed in
Overruns for he Naturalize, you can see how the deck would still be focused on the permanent growth of its creatures, and
not a temporary method.
I hope that you enjoyed this deck since it shows what the Growth Subtype is all about. Note that this deck also
reuses a couple of cards from an earlier deck, namely Watchwolf and Mystic Enforcer.
The Alpha Strike Deck (Outmaneuver)
The Alpha Strike Subtype includes any deck that focuses on getting in a hit with its creatures. It still plays
creatures and it plays a lot of them. However, if it hits a stalemate, it already has a way to win in its deck. My
American Football analogy: This teams scores by fouling the defense and scoring while they are wounded and hurt.
There are several ways to build an Alpha Strike deck. One is to prepare by having a few cards that temporarily pump
your creatures and get them over the defending army. This is where the aforementioned Overrun would be a great sample.
This deck is built around the idea that giving out these bonuses like trample and size buffs are important to defeating
your opponent in one turn.
Another way to build an Alpha Strike deck is to focus on a permanent that makes blocking very difficult to
impossible. Red rules this area, with enchantments like Goblin War Drums and Bedlam. If you don’t win in the
first attack, you have set yourself up for future attacks.
A third way to build this deck is to focus on spells that will get your army through for one big hit. Cards like
Falter, Wave of Indifference, Winter Blast, Word of Binding, and Predatory Focus are good examples of this sort of
strategy. Unlike the permanent option above, there is no chance to keep up the attack, but there is also no chance your
opponent will use something like Bedlam against you either.
I haven’t used Red or Black yet in decks, so I’ll build a Red deck this time.
- 2 Kumano, Master Yamabushi
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Balduvian Horde
- 2 Tahngarth, Talruum Hero
- 4 Suq'Ata Lancer
- 4 Goblin Legionnaire
- 4 Skyknight Legionnaire
This Red/White deck uses several methods to break through opposing defenses if a stalemate should evolve. Wave of
Indifference keeps creatures from blocking for a turn, while the Chaos half of Order/Chaos does the same.
The White Order half and the Lightning Helix are available as removal. Each of these cards can take out opposing
creatures. The Order combined with Chaos makes it arguably the best card in the deck.
The deck has two full sets of hasted three-drops. The Lancer is great with haste and flanking, allowing it to swing
with ease into slightly large creatures that may have been played. Feel free to attack into a Watchwolf, for example,
because a trade is good for you. The other hasted three-drop is the Skyknight Legionnaire, which gives you a flying 2/2
creature. It is your only flying creature, so be careful with it.
Tahngarth and Kumano team up to take out the occasional creature, ad they’ll help to end stalemates by killing
things. If you can’t kill the important things, you can at least have them as backup removal.
Mogg Fanatic is the ubiquitous one-drop that your deck wants to get in early damage, or stop a crucial birds of
Paradise or Llanowar Elves.
Goblin Legionnaire is one of the last creatures in the deck, and he’s a two-drop. As a 2/2 for two mana, he
can compete with similarly powerful cards in other colors, and his sac abilities are both very useful to your deck.
The last card I tossed in were a set of Balduvian Hordes. Again, this big creature for its size can compete with the
big creatures in other colors, allowing this deck to keep up with the Joneses. However, this deck has four 4/4s, four
5/5s with no ability, twelve 2/2s, and four 1/1s. I think you can see how, despite the removal, this deck could wind up
in a stalemate.
This deck gives you a good idea of how an Alpha Strike Deck looks. As you can see, it relies on the unblockable
spells to really ensure a win. Sure, it can win by getting a hand that resembles a swarm or through Kumano blasting
away, but the likely winning condition is through one major alpha strike.
The Ability Deck (Outverbage)
This deck is the least commonly played of the NHBAggro Subtypes. In fact, it’s been months since I’ve
seen one, and I play a lot of casual Magic on Saturdays at the local cardshop with a variety of people and decks.
This Subtype is very simple. Unlike the Growth Deck, which focuses on pumping its creatures through various
permanents effects, this deck focuses on giving its creatures abilities through various effects. It does not try to make
bigger creatures, but better creatures. This offense scores a TD by having players with better technique then
Note that if this deck were to just play Levitation and give flying to its creatures or Dauthi Embrace and give
Shadow, it would probably qualify as a Sneak deck, not an Ability deck. The abilities these decks bestow are ones that
assist in combat. Examples include first or double strike, trample, regeneration, and so forth.
There aren’t really a lot of versions of this Subtype since it is a more limited type. Let’s take a look
at such a deck:
- 4 Skyshroud Elf
- 2 Obsidian Acolyte
- 3 Might Weaver
- 2 Crimson Acolyte
- 3 Boros Guildmage
- 4 Watchwolf
- 4 Rumbling Slum
This deck uses several methods to make its creatures better. Let’s take a look at the creatures for a second.
Skyshroud Elves are perfect in a Red/White/Green deck. They tap for a Green mana and they can change an unlimited
amount of mana over to White or Red. Playing one gives you all the Red or White mana you need, plus an extra Green.
Watchwolf is your typical big creature, and it joins Rumbling Slum. Together, these creatures are big and ready to
deal some damage.
I have included several enchantments that give abilities your creatures. Haste, first strike, trample, vigilance,
and the ability to block flyers, and when blocked they get bigger are all included. Use you Sterling Groves to search up
the ones you need, or to protect the group.
There are also some creatures that do the same. Might Weaver can give every creature in the deck beside itself and
the Skyshroud Elves trample. It’s also a cheap two-powered two-mana creature, which fits nicely into the deck.
Boros Guildmage is a 2/2 for two mana, and it also can give first strike or haste to any creature. Both the
Guildmage and the Weaver add some decent cheap creatures to the deck while adding more abilities.
The two Acolytes can give protection from Black or protection from Red. This can make unblockable creatures against
these colors. It can also make “hard to kill” creatures, “unable to take damage” creatures, or
nothing at all if you aren’t playing someone with those colors.
After that, I felt it necessary to toss in a Jabari’s Banner, just for fun, before adding several lands that
smooth out the mana.
Well, we are now done with the second part of this series, which is a closer look at No-Holds-Barred Aggro. I hope
you enjoyed this little trek through all things creature. Next time we’ll take a look at the Controlling the Board
Archetype as the journey through all decks casual. For now, I’ve detailed the six NHBAggro Subtypes, with various
ways to build them plus a decklist for each.
As a reminder, although this series is trying to catalogue all major Subtypes of decks playable in the casual game,
many of these Subtypes succeed at the competitive game as well. Not all of these Subtypes are suited for competitive
play. Of the six NHBAggro Subtypes, I’ve never seen a Sneak, Ability or Alpha Strike Tier 1 competitive deck. On
the other hand, I have seen Swarm, Growth hand Big Creature Subtypes at or near the top.
Later in the series, after fully exploring the various Archetypes and Subtypes, I’ll move into what Subtypes
are usually found only in casual Magic alone, and how you can prepare your decks for the casual metagame.
For now, however, I must bid you adieu.