Why Aggro Died

Remember Zoo? How about the glory days of Maverick? Legacy Affinity, anyone? Here, Carsten gives a great explanation for the multi-faceted death of these strategies. A little Legacy theory would do you good before #SCGINVI!

There is no question that, strategically speaking, Legacy is an incredibly diverse format. When you sit down to play, you don’t know if your opponent will
be trying to end the game on the very first turn or will instead attempt to grind you out over dozens. Some people will try to play a fairly regular game
of Magic with creatures, removal, and planeswalkers slogging it out on the battlefield, while others will attempt to sidestep those battles by relying
mainly on spells instead of permanents to shape the game – be it the ultra-aggressive approach of a Storm combo deck or the long march to death that is
Miracles – and yet others will try to completely circumvent such common trappings as using mana to cast spells.

Hi, Manaless Dredge.

There are combo decks, control decks, aggro-control decks, prison decks, ramp decks, midrange decks – basically any archetype you can think of is
represented in Legacy. Except one. Good old regular aggro. This is a strange coincidence, right? One of Magic’s “natural” archetypes – natural as in an
archetype that most players discover for themselves shortly after learning the game – is the only one absent from the Legacy metagame.

Why would exactly one archetype be utterly absent when everything else is thriving? Today I’ll be exploring a couple of different aspects and developments
that lead to this current state of affairs, a voyage that should also shed some light on the fundamental demands Legacy makes of a deck so as to allow it
to be viable. I hope you’re interested because we’re starting right now.

What is an Aggro Deck?

The first step towards understanding why there is no successful aggro in Legacy is to understand how an aggro deck is supposed to work. As I’m sure you
already know, an aggro deck’s gameplan is to get the opponent dead as soon as possible by casting cheap creatures and attacking with them. A burn finish is
commendable but optional.

That doesn’t mean all aggro decks look the same or play the same. You can have something like Zoo that curves out with efficient standalone threats or you
can have something like Tempest era Mono-Red Sligh that works a lot like a glorified burn deck where the creatures are mainly meant to deal the first ten
or so points of damage to prepare for the flurry of burn spells to finish the game. On the other hand, aggro could also mean a deck like Modern Affinity
where a ton of mediocre cards combine to make one huge threat, or a tribal aggro deck such as Onslaught era Goblins that swarms the board with creatures
that voltron up to provide the beatdown.

And yet in spite of these disparate-looking scenarios, at their core, all of these approaches are essentially facets of that one fundamental idea: deploy
your threats faster than your opponent can answer them and bring them down to zero before they can stabilize.

Understanding that makes it easy to see the two main problems that keep the archetype from performing in Legacy.

Facet #1: No Interactivity

As a result of this gameplan, the cards in an aggressive deck are chosen for one thing only: how efficient they are at killing your opponent. If you look
at the aggro deck’s gameplan, it becomes obvious that it employs a philosophy very close to what I advocated in my Stormboarding article:

Present the threats and let your opponent scramble to answer them.

That means the first thing you look at when considering a card for your deck is how fast it can dish out the damage. Every single card in your deck is
chosen with the idea in mind that you’re beating down, and anything that doesn’t either help get them dead or remove any roadblocks they might put up
simply isn’t meant to be in your deck.

However, there’s obviously one huge problem with that gameplan: your opponent might simply not care. If your clock is slower than what your opponent has
brought to the table, you’re dead in the water because your deck is incapable of interacting other than killing a random permanent from time to time. Given
that the fastest aggressive decks can regularly goldfish in Legacy somewhere close to turn 4 and that turn 4 kill is laughable for most of the formats
viable combo decks, we clearly have a problem. Playing creatures and attacking simply isn’t the best way to put pressure on your opponent in this format.
Chaining a bunch of spells into Tendrils of Agony, Show and Telling in a 7/7 lifelinking demon, or casting Natural Order for Craterhoof Behemoth are.

That tells us already that the very approach of the aggro deck is flawed on a fundamental level against a certain portion of the Legacy metagame. That
sounds harsh on first sight, but in fact, isn’t actually a deal breaker. There are two things that point to that fact.

First, from a theoretical perspective, having a couple of terrible matchups is, in fact, acceptable. After all, Burn is actually a deck, and it has exactly
the same problem with combo usually being faster. As long as combo is a small enough part of the field, losing to it most of the time doesn’t matter as
you’re unlikely enough to face it. You also know beforehand that those matchups will be bad and can prepare yourself with sideboard hate, allowing you a
decent shot at mising at least one of your combo opponents.

Second, the past of the Legacy format tells us that aggro definitely can coexist with combo in the format. Zoo was a thing in Legacy for the longest time while all of the current combo decks actually existed in very similar forms. Sure, Storm had to use Ill-Gotten Gains instead of Past in Flames,
Elves won through big Glimpse turns, and Show and Tell deployed Progenitus (or one of the lesser Eldrazi) instead of Griselbrand, but all of these decks
still easily put it to shame on speed alone. If aggro was viable then, it should be just as viable today if combo was the real thing holding it back. So
while combo clearly is part of what is holding aggro back, it can’t be the root cause.

Facet #2: (Creature) Power Creep

Yes, I understand it might seem strange to hear that the reason the aggressive creature decks aren’t doing well is that creatures have kept getting better
by leaps and bounds throughout the last years. Better creatures should mean that you can bring the beatdown even better, right?

That oversimplifies things, however. An aggressive deck is looking for a very particular kind of creature – one that is cheap and kills fast. However, the
only two creatures that even remotely fit that bill that have profited from modern creature power creep are Goblin Guide and Delver of Secrets. Now, Goblin
Guide is very good in an aggressive creature deck, but Delver already disqualifies itself due to its flip condition (you really want to have a lot of
creatures in your deck if you want to win by curving out with them).

It all started with Tarmogoyf, which at least had the decency to be solid as an aggressive threat but was already much better at defending against that
angle of attack. The other marquee cards that can serve as examples in Legacy of how good Wizards has been making creatures lately are Stoneforge Mystic
(fetching its buddy Batterskull), Knight of the Reliquary, True-Name Nemesis, and Deathrite Shaman.

These aren’t particularly good cards for a dedicated aggro deck. They’re midrange cards. Stoneforge Mystic takes two turns until it finally starts dealing
damage. True-Name Nemesis is three power for three mana (aka Trained Armodon). Deathrite Shaman is a Llanowar Elves with lategame implications. Those
aren’t cards you want to attack with. All of them have a very high power level, but the kind of games they lend themselves to are long, drawn out battles
that are decided by who can create more value and have the last man standing, not who kills who first.

At the same time, all of these creatures are simply formidable on defense. Stoneforge Mystic deploys a 4/4 lifelinker on turn 3. True-Name Nemesis is
essentially a three mana Progenitus on defense. Deathrite Shaman turns your dead creatures into more work for your opponent. Knight is a ridiculous-sized
blocker that will create value at the end of each of your turns. Yes, you can fight this axis to a certain point by using a smattering of removal and burn,
but that still means your consistency goes down (can’t attack with that Path to Exile, bub), and you will lose random games where you don’t have it
(putting you in a position similar to the one against combo decks where your original gameplan simply isn’t good enough some percentage of the time).

By the way, this trend towards overpowered creatures that fit into midrange decks is also what I believe ruined Wild Nacatl’s fun in Modern. The combo
decks may not be as oppressive and worst offenders Stoneforge Mystic & True-Name Nemesis aren’t part of the format, but midrange with all kinds of
creatures that are overpowered when you’re playing on the battlefield is everywhere anyway. That isn’t the kind of metagame you traditionally want to run
aggro in.

Increased resistance isn’t the only problem the creature power creep has produced for dedicated aggro decks, however. It has also led to a weird form of
competition. Because these single creatures are such powerful threats, it’s reasonably easy to win the game with them without having to clutter up the rest
of the battlefield with more creatures.

I mean, look at RUG Delver. The deck has a lot of draws – usually starting with a turn 1 Delver of Secrets that flips instantly – that can actually rival
the speed of a Zoo deck. Against no interaction with your board, it’s often completely feasible to just kill your opponent on turn 4 or 5. (I’ve certainly
done it enough in testing, and I haven’t even played the deck much.) However, instead of running 28+ cards totally dedicated to beating down, you get to
run twelve and fill the rest of the deck with library manipulation and disruption – and still get to threaten to straight up race the dedicated
aggro deck.

In a strange way, the printing of such high power standalone threats has made the idea of using a multitude of cards to create a fast clock essentially
obsolete. Creatures have just gotten too good for us to be playing dedicated aggro decks.

How Predators Die Out…

Traditionally, the dedicated prey for fast aggro decks are decks that aim to play the long game, hard control decks in particular. Over time, and with new
printings, however, these archetypes have either become mostly extinct or been enabled incidentally to deal with a dedicated aggro strategy easily.

As single threats have become more and more powerful, control decks from most color combinations have been forced to either integrate overpowered midrange
creatures of their own to give them a secondary angle of offense or defense (Shardless BUG, the different Blade variants), gotten removal that is efficient
enough to deal with just about any kind of threat-draw imaginable, including a dedicated aggro rush (Terminus says hi and Snapcaster Mage doubling up on
Swords to Plowshares gets am honorable mention), or died out (sorry, Landstill).

That leaves us with a metagame in which every deck is either a) inherently favored against traditional aggro because its strategy is superior in direct
contrast or b) has a number of trump cards that will invalidate aggro’s gameplan almost on their own even if the rest of the deck should, in theory, be
easy to take apart.

So to answer our opening question, like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, aggro decks simply have run out of prey in this format now that even its target audience can
just go over the top instead of trying to stop it from implementing its plan. Sadly, short of banning all the overpowered threats (with Delver of Secrets
as offender #1 in this particular context), I don’t see how the situation could be rectified to a point where dedicated aggro is actually a valid choice
over something that tries to just ride one of the big standalone threats instead.

Goodbye old foe, I’ll miss the rush of trying to stave off your threats for long enough to gain control of the game!