Well, that last article generated quite a bit of discussion! My eternal thanks to everyone who took the time to post in the forums or write directly; I appreciate all feedback!
This article shouldn’t be quite as controversial, but it’s still a heavily-debated topic. See, there’s this guideline I have when I’m playing Sealed or Draft and I don’t know what to do; kind of a philosophy, really. It helps in Constructed matches, and even in deckbuilding. Furthermore, I know that a lot of players who I have great respect for follow this idea.
Curious? I call it The Savage Rule.
The Savage Rule:
All else being equal, when you have the choice between being aggressive or defensive, it’s better to be aggressive.
Before I get into why this idea has been good to me over the years, I’ll define the two important terms:
- Aggression: This is a very big concept. It’s not exactly speed… Although it often can be. I define aggression as minimizing the number of draw steps your opponent has.
- Defensiveness: Maximizing your number of draw steps.
Why do I like the idea of being aggressive? Here’s the thing: When I play Magic, I’m really pessimistic. I always think there’s some card lurking in my opponent’s deck that reads:
“Sucks For You”
Destroy all your opponent’s creatures. And do 8 damage to him. And draw 4 cards. And punch him in the nose. And so on.
Now, I know for a fact I don’t have that card in my deck – but more realistically, who knows if there is a Slice and Dice or Akroma, Angel of Wrath lying in wait? Or three Smothers in a row, or a Dirge of Dread, or any of the hundreds of cards I don’t want to see? Since I can’t remove them from my opponent’s deck, I’ll do the next best thing and deny them the time to draw it.
Playing aggressively is playing to win. A lot of defensive players think they’re playing to win… But in reality, they’re playing not to lose. These types of players will avoid taking damage whenever possible, even if it means sacrificing board position or card advantage. Chump-blocking early, bouncing a creature just to avoid taking damage, casting Sacred Nectar… All are examples of this style. While it’s technically true they’ll live longer, it’s illusory; they have no chance of winning. They set themselves up so there is not one draw to garner a win. In poker terms, they are drawing dead.
The aggressive player has an opposite situation. Instead of eventually setting up to be drawing dead, the aggressive player will be trying to maximize every card – including those yet to come. There are opportunities to draw a card that will cinch your victory. In Magic terms, this is known as the topdeck.
If you’re reading this and can’t remember a time when your opponent drew that one card that he needed to win, please re-read this article when you’ve played your second week of Magic. It sucks to lose to pure luck, I know. Except…was it luck? Sometimes, it takes a lot of skill to even get to a situation to be lucky.
I was playing an Onslaught/Onslaught Legions draft recently, and I had a fairly slow but powerful G/B deck. My opponent was with R/U. In the third game, I had a horde of beasts in play and was poised to kill him the next turn. My opponent had seven lands in play, no creatures, and only one card. I was at ten due to early damage, but I thought I was invincible. I couldn’t even imagine a single card that would save him from a loss, barring something bizarre I hadn’t seen yet, like Insurrection.
Well, during my end step he tapped four and Solar Blasted me. Then he untapped, drew, and slammed Searing Flesh down for the game and match.
Sure, I lost to a topdeck. He had something like a one in twenty-five chance to win… But I wouldn’t say that I lost to luck. My opponent was aggressive, sneaking damage in when he could, even at the cost of his own life. He correctly identified that the longer the game went on, the less likely his chances were… And perhaps most importantly, he was able to recognize his only chance to win. He changed his odds from zero percent to one in twenty-five – which is pretty amazing, really.
So with all this pro-aggression talk, when is it okay to be defensive? This is a valid question – and the answer is kind of complex. But for The Savage Rule, the important part is”all else being equal” – namely, without relevant information, aggression is the way to go. If you’re playing defensively and looking to maximize your draws, what are you drawing into? Is there a single card that if you draw and play, you can’t lose?
Let’s go with the best-case scenario: Mana costs and color quality issues aside, I don’t think there’s a single card in Limited that I’d rather play more than Akroma, Angel of Wrath. (A case could be made for Visara, but I can’t imagine a creature you even care about when Akroma is in play.*)
So if you have Akroma in your deck, should you play defensively, maximizing your life and draws until you can cast her? Well, there are a few problems with that strategy: The simple one is, what if she’s the last card in your deck, or she gets countered? If I somehow got the vibe that my opponent built his or her entire deck around one card, I would definitely bring in every Voidmage Apprentice I had.
But here’s the real big problem: What if playing Akroma isn’t enough to win the game?
All the time you’re trying to gain to draw and play Akroma, or Visara, or anything else… That gives your opponent equal time to draw solutions, which they will. Your Akroma gets Pacified, your Visara gets burned out, your Starstorm meets an Akroma’s Blessing….
So the question still remains: When should you be defensive?
Inherently, by pre-design, I believe never. However, it is often completely correct to transform into a defensive style. Wall of Hope is a horrid starter, but it can be a great sideboard. The Savage Rule refers to uninformed decisions, such as before or during game 1. Once you have more information, you can make a more knowledgeable decision. In very simple terms, it’s your job to determine who does better in the late game and who wants to reach it, and alter your style accordingly.
In game 1, you should err on the side of aggression, even if you think it’s likely you’ll transform for the next couple. This is for two reasons: One, you know nothing about what bombs are in their deck – and anything that kills them before their bombs kill you is a good thing. Two, they could have a really slow or inconsistent build. You can just steal a win while they’re fumbling around with their mana.
But after game 1, you know what their deck is capable of. Hopefully, you’ll be aware of their low end (Glory Seeker, Goblin Turncoats, Skirk Drill Sergeant) and their high end (Enormous Baloth, Pit Fighters, lots of Invokers). It’s rare for a deck to have a strong early and late game. Your task is to identify their vulnerability and exploit it. Again, using very general terms, be more aggressive if you lose the late game and more defensive if you’re weak early but dominate late.
What about Constructed? I’ve talked a lot about this rule in Limited because that’s where I think there are more options – at least in aggression/defense dilemmas. The same basic problem applies: Minimize their draws or maximize yours? However, it usually comes up way before players face off – during deck design and construction.
The deckbuilder has a decision to make right in the beginning: Whether to be aggressive or defensive. Should you choose aggro or control? The best decks pick a path and stick to it. R/G and U/G are aggressive, trying to end the game as quickly as possible. Tog or Wake try to live long enough to get to a point where they can’t lose – a situation that’s near-impossible to achieve in limited. R/G and U/G do have some late-game punch, but that’s more a function of card mechanics (read: flashback) than deck design. Similarly, the Tog or Wake player can get the super-aggressive draw and win quickly, but that potential is from these decks needing a quick victory condition, and not from any overall strategy.
I know there’s a lot of information here, but it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Aggression theory is a gigantic aspect of Magic. It’s fun to discuss, but experience is always the best teacher. When you’re going to play a card, consider whether it’s being used for aggression or defense, and if that’s really what you want for the situation.
I hope my reasons for choosing aggression were clear: You need to beat them before they can topdeck, it makes your topdecks more effective, it punishes poor draws and builds, and it generally increases the likelihood of a win. If there was a strategy mentioned here that resonated with you, or if you’ve disagreed with anything I’ve said, please post your feedback in the forums. Good luck!
Noastic on MODO
* – Yes, yes, I know – sometimes the card you need to win is Demystify or Brightstone Ritual or even Run Wild, but we’re talking generalities here.