Three Aggro Options For SCG Dallas

When the rest of the field wants to play big, slow decks, the conditions are perfect for aggro to take the crown! Ross Merriam examines three Standard decks that could put a speedy end to SCG Dallas!

Hydroid Krasis is the most powerful standalone threat since the days of The Scarab God and Hazoret the Fervent. But unlike those cards, which end the game quite quickly by either creating an overwhelming advantage on the battlefield or going straight for the opponent’s life total, Hydroid Krasis encourages long, drawn-out games of battlecruiser Magic, with each player looking for progressively more powerful weapons to bring to the fight.

With Sultai Midrange serving as Public Enemy No. 1 for the Standard portion of last weekend’s Team Constructed Open in Baltimore, the arms race was on, with Esper Control emerging as the most popular weapon to go over the top of Hydroid Krasis and friends. There were seven copies in Day 2, tied with Sultai Midrange for the most popular deck in the room. And while only one of those seven Sultai players found their way to the Top 8, four of the Esper pilots did.

But the race to the top eventually leaves cracks in the armor at the bottom, letting aggressive decks take advantage of increasingly inbred and clunky midrange lists while also rushing the control decks that are built to handle big, powerful threats rather than hordes of smaller ones. It was Azorius Aggro, in the hands of Jacob Hagen, taking home one of the three trophies last weekend, and that was no accident.

The success of going under the current metagame is even more apparent when looking at the results of the Standard MCQ on Magic Online. A Bant Nexus deck took home the trophy, but it was a list clearly built with aggressive decks in mind, utilizing four copies of Revitalize in the maindeck to buy time and a creature package in the sideboard to dodge Negate and gain even more life so as to ensure that the game goes long and the powerful Wilderness Reclamation engine gets online or, failing that, the powerful creatures take over by themselves.

Looking further down the list of top-performing decks, we see a sea of aggressive blue decks, with four copies of Izzet Drakes in the Top 8 as well as one copy of Mono-Blue Aggro. The 21-point bracket in the tournament goes down to 24th place and contains three more copies of Mono-Blue and two more Drakes decks, though one plays green for Hydroid Krasis and Growth Spiral. There are a couple of Esper Control lists lurking in the 21-pointers as well, but the deck wasn’t nearly as successful online as it was in paper.

In weighing the results of these two tournaments, we must put an asterisk on the Open since it was Team Constructed, so the success of any individual deck may not be commensurate with that of their team. Still, Team Constructed events tend to be a strong referendum on the state of the metagame, since top players will rise to the top more easily by teaming with other strong players, and thus their deck choices, even if suboptimal, will become more prevalent as the tournament goes on.

With aggressive decks doing well online, you may fear a reaction in the metagame for this weekend’s Open in Dallas, but in my experience the paper tournaments have a greater effect on the metagame, since they get significantly more coverage. Many will have their sights set on Esper Control this week, and that’s a great thing for players who want to get started on Turn 1.

Beyond still being under the radar, tackling the Hydroid Krasis metagame from an aggressive angle has several advantages. First, you get to take advantage of all the extra life that shockland-heavy manabases cost their users. Izzet Drakes, Mono-Blue Aggro, and Azorius Aggro may not have the reach of Mono-Red Aggro, but they’re all able to end games quickly and two to four life will cut a full turn off your clock in plenty of games.

This will not only raise your percentage of runaway wins but will also force reactive opponents to either play a mana or two behind to save life or utilize their removal – especially sweepers – sub-optimally to protect their life total, giving the aggressive player a better shot of recovering and winning with their second or third wave of attacks.

Against the bogeyman of Week 1, Mono-Red Aggro, the decision to protect your life total was fairly simple. That deck is so full of burn spells that life often translates into extra cards, but these other aggressive strategies are happy to have the tempo from players that play skittishly with their shocklands.

Azorius Aggro can use that time to build a huge battlefield and set up a devastating attack that two life will do little to hamper, and the base blue decks can use that time to land a key threat with a protection spell up and start riding that threat to victory. These are difficult decisions to make for the midrange and control decks, and while Magic players like to feel smart, it’s better to put the tough choices on your opponent rather than make them yourself.

Hydroid Krasis is the most powerful standalone threat since the days of The Scarab God and Hazoret the Fervent.

This ability to punish stumbles also carries over to players who have color issues in their three-color decks trying to cast Absorb on Turn 3 and Kaya’s Wrath on Turn 4, or curve Jadelight Ranger into Vraska’s Contempt. When you’re trying to go over the top of your opponent, they have time to draw out of an early stumble, but go low and that time vanishes. We’re still in the early part of the format where decks are being tuned and I want to punish every mistake.

The other advantage of these decks is that they have built-in disruption for Wilderness Reclamation strategies. Control decks have counterspells and Thought Erasure to help there, but also a pile of removal that does little to nothing in those matchups, and Sultai Midrange is mostly hoping to curve some early explore creatures into a Vivien Reid to blow up Wilderness Reclamation before bringing in a pile of counterspells and discard to turn the matchup around.

Azorius Aggro is doing something similar to Sultai, but with a much faster clock and a much cheaper answer in Conclave Tribunal or Deputy of Detention. And the blue decks have maindeck counters, in particular Spell Pierce, which is excellent against players trying to resolve Wilderness Reclamation and Nexus of Fate. Not having to rely so heavily on your sideboard against a significant portion of the metagame is a huge advantage in deckbuilding and another reason to get aggressive in Standard right now.

The only problem I have is too many decks to choose from. Each of these decks is a strong option for this weekend, but let’s look more closely at each one to see where they differ:

Azorius Aggro

Of the three, this is the one I have the most experience with, having played the Boros version at the Season Two Invitational last year to a 7-1 record and a Top 16 finish. Small sample size aside, I was very impressed by the deck. I had never seen a deck with such a low curve have that high an individual card power level. Adanto Vanguard, History of Benalia, and Venerated Loxodon are all very powerful and the one-drops are an assortment of Savannah Lions with upside and Kjeldoran Outposts.

With that many powerful cards and a low land count, you can win on Turn 4 or Turn 10, which isn’t the case for most aggro decks. So when my teammate for last weekend, Jim Davis, asked about what I thought of him playing Azorius Aggro last weekend, I was all for it. Especially considering the deck he was testing before that produced the following hand:

There’s not a lot of room to maneuver the list, with the primary decisions being which one-drops to play and whether to play Tithe Taker over Adanto Vanguard. Put me firmly in the camp of maximizing the Savannah Lions and playing the two-drop that attacks better into Jadelight Ranger and company.

Tithe Taker helps a little with Finality but still dies completely to Cry of the Carnarium and is significantly better against all the other sweepers in the metagame while applying more pressure in general. There’s only so much you can take away from a deck’s natural aggression in order to gain resilience before it becomes a net negative, since Hydroid Krasis will take over a game given enough time, no matter how many 1/1 tokens you have lying around after removal.

Tithe Taker is helpful against blue decks that are either trying to Absorb or Spell Pierce your History of Benalia on Turn 3, so if the metagame shifts in that direction I’d gladly revisit the debate, but right now I want tried and true.

This is the most aggressive of the three decks, and the fact that it doesn’t sacrifice in power level to achieve that aggression is notable. But the cost of that is opening yourself up to sweepers. Cry of the Carnarium, Kaya’s Wrath, and Finality aren’t nearly as effective against Mono-Blue Aggro and Izzet Drakes as they are against Azorius Aggro, and with many of your draws there’s nothing to do but cast your creatures and cross your fingers they don’t arrive in time for the opponent.

More specifically, the shift from Jeskai to Esper as the control deck of choice is a net loss for the white deck. You’d think Deafening Clarion is the better sweeper for the matchup since it’s cheaper, but it was also easier to play around because of Venerated Loxodon surviving alongside Adanto Vanguard. The shift to black also means more –X/-X effects that can handle Vanguard rather than the damage-based removal of red. The loss of Niv-Mizzet, Parun is significant, but the cheap removal and sweepers do the heavy lifting here, not the finisher.

If the metagame progresses past Esper by this weekend and towards these aggressive decks, however, I’d prefer to be on the Azorius Aggro side of things when playing against Izzet Drakes or Mono-Blue Aggro. The Azorius deck has a lower curve than both and generally enjoys an early advantage in development that both Izzet and Mono-Blue find it difficult to recover from.

Izzet Drakes

This is the biggest of the three decks, and thus it can sideboard into a more controlling deck quite easily, so if you’re looking for versatility, you want the Izzet deck. That said, the addition of Pteramander, a card I’ve been impressed with enough to include it in Izzet Phoenix in Modern, has given this deck its most aggressive bend since the days of it playing Arclight Phoenixes of its own.

The early body doesn’t do a ton of damage, but this deck has always been more about playing some defense on the early turns and then turning the corner in a flash with the tempo swings provided by Dive Down and Spell Pierce. On those turns you should have several instants and sorceries in the graveyard, making Pteramander easy to adapt into a 5/5 to close out the game solo or alongside a Drake pal.

However, the early body still plays an important role in enabling Chart a Course to become a discounted Divination. Opening on those two cards sets this deck up perfectly to dominate the mid-game while providing more staying power for longer games.

My worry with this deck is the share of games where it spins its wheels too much on the early turns, either finding more lands or setting up its threat with protection. Cantrips, even cantrips that cost one and two mana, are negative tempo since they don’t affect the battlefield, so this deck is hinging on its protection spells to land and catch up if it falls behind. If one or two opposing removal spells land, the deck’s low threat density starts to catch up with it and the house of cards falls apart. And with a ton of Duresses around to combat Wilderness Reclamation and the emergence of Thought Erasure as a premier card in the format, that house of cards is looking weaker and weaker.

Mono-Blue Aggro

I have a good history with blue-based aggressive decks, having played Delver of Secrets and Master of Waves to sustained success in Standard formats past, so this deck has always intrigued me. It’s easy to dismiss a deck that plays nearly all commons and uncommons as too underpowered to be anything more than a niche deck in Standard, but that’s seriously underestimating the power level of Curious Obsession and Tempest Djinn. Plus, this deck now has the Tom Ross stamp of approval, which for monocolored aggro decks is worth a lot.

With its low curve and abundance of cheap counterspells, this deck is great at playing from ahead, which it should be doing most every game against Sultai Midrange and Esper Control. It doesn’t answer creatures on the battlefield, but Merfolk Trickster, Exclusion Mage, Entrancing Melody, and Sleep are an effective, if motley, crew of answers to opposing creatures, often buying just enough time for the fliers to get the job done. This weakness is why I favor Surge Mare as the last creature, since it can brick wall everything from Jadelight Ranger to Goblin Chainwhirler to Adanto Vanguard while also serving as a powerful attacker against creature-light decks.

This deck also has the worst sideboard of the three; no surprise, as it’s the only one without access to a second color. The weak “removal” spells are supplemented by more counterspells, which merely accentuate what the deck is doing in Game 1, rather than providing a second angle of attack to take the opponent by surprise. Treasure Map is meant to give the deck some staying power against removal-heavy decks, but it’s far from inspiring here.

Ultimately, the decision between these three decks comes down to the expected metagame. If Dallas turns out to be as heavy on decks going big as Baltimore was, then Mono-Blue Aggro is the best at exploiting them. Azorius Aggro will get better if the metagame shifts more towards these aggressive strategies, since its low curve, powerful creatures, and Anthem effects give it a consistent edge in combat. Izzet Drakes is the safest choice, splitting the middle of the other two. It’s not as exciting to take a middle way, but in a large field like an Open, it’s often a good decision.

Regardless, it’s clear that the early dominance of Hydroid Krasis in Standard isn’t here to stay. The card is a powerful option among many, and it looks like Standard is poised to carry the diversity it enjoyed last season through to this one. Mono-Red Aggro has fallen flat after early hype, but there’s plenty for us attacking players to get hyped about.