Some time back, I said that Magic is all about resources, loosely discussed as card advantage and tempo. If you were playing checkers, milking card advantage would be like sneaking more pieces onto the board, while milking tempo would be like sneaking more turns with the pieces you already have.
Card advantage deals with draw steps (see”The Ten-Second Card Advantage Solution“); tempo, loosely, deals with land drops (see”Counting Tempo, Part I“), mana, (see”Counting Tempo, Part II“) and attack phases/life points (see”Counting Tempo, Part III“). Then I said the values of these fluctuate (see”Counting Shadow Prices“).
Dark Ritual is a great card, just not on turn 20.
Many beginners have a hard time understanding why early tempo is so crucial in Type I that you’d always go first and would always Force of Will a Dark Ritual against a deck with a lot of one- and two-drops.
Yes, even so-called card advantage decks have quite a lot of cards that don’t generate CA, but preserve tempo to buy time for the CA engines. Force of Will is only the most important one.
Segue: Zvi Mowshowitz and the Fundamental Turn
Zvi Mowshowitz isn’t known for theory, but he coined one of the enduring theories that relates to interactions between whole decks and not just individual resources. The Fundamental Turn is a given deck’s flashpoint, that turn when its strategy is in place and it’s hit critical mass (see”Clear the Land and the Fundamental Turn“).
Picture an aggro deck bringing an opponent down to zero, a combo deck going off, a control deck wrenching control, and that precise frame where you can see that silver fashion accessory of Janet Jackson’s.
In the original context, Zvi determined that the original High Tide decks went off on Turn 4. Thus, for RecSur (Recurring Nightmare / Survival of the Fittest) to fight it, Zvi picked out cheap disruption such as Duress, Red Elemental Blast, and Thrull Surgeon, then Boil to seal the position before High Tide could recover. When High Tide got Frantic Search, however, it went off a turn earlier, and this sideboard plan became unworkable.
The same concept readily translates into Type I, but it can get absurd because of all the powerful mana producers available. People who exaggerate liken Type I to a coin flip because you can get so much mana just on turn 1, with Mishra’s Workshop or zero-cost artifact mana. The DCI lets the hammer fall whenever a combo deck hits a Fundamental Turn of 1, but they usually let anything close to just 2 slide.
In other words, an aggro deck has to deal with combos that expect to goldfish on Turn 2 or 3.
Ironically, it can’t.
Aggro archetypes were the original poster boys for tempo theory, in the same way”The Deck” was the grandfather of card advantage. Mana curve theory is a specialized application of counting mana and tempo (see”Counting Tempo, Part II“), and it came on the heels of”The Deck” when it was showcased in the original Sligh deck (see”A Mana Curve can be a Line or a Blob“).
You can milk tempo by paying the lowest possible mana cost for something. Thus, Jackal Pup doesn’t have a drawback as much as it’s a package for the same two-power as Gray Ogre, at one-third the price.
So, I say it’s ironic because aggro decks just can’t play the tempo game anymore. Yes, Jackal Pup’s two-power-for-one-mana is a 200% power-to-mana ratio, but until DCI gets hit by a bus and prints a one-mana 5/5 and thoroughly dumbs down the game, 200% isn’t even enough (check out Tom Carpenter’s”Power Gap Theory“).
Remember The Last Samurai? Yeah, just imagine the meanest samurai pulling some intimidating sword moves only to have Tom Cruise pull out a revolver and give him a piece of lead between the eyes (which makes you wonder where his revolver went at the end of the movie, for all his trouble).
Game 1 of aggro against combo is a real goldfish since they fight on different planes. One attacks on the board; the other on the stack. Again, there’s no way you can win on the board, since there are more three-mana-for-one-mana cards than five-power-for-one-mana creatures. Complaining that Sligh was too slow for 1998 Type II and the format was degenerate, Cathy Nicoloff quipped:
“Red’s primary problem is obvious. It has mucho death and no disruption. Any combo deck that can kill before red deals the final hammering can twiddle itself in peace for four turns without worrying.” (see”Study Extended and Grow Strong“)
Thus, aggro is dead.
Beating the Fundamental Turn
In the aggro portion of The Control Player’s Bible, I said aggro has two general sideboarding philosophies (see”Deck Deconstruction: Aggro v. ‘The Deck’“).
First, aggro can play beatdown and try to win even faster. Again, though, fat chance of that without printing one-mana 5/5s. The only deck that can manage it is classic Stompy, bringing down its power-to-mana ratios even more with Rushwood Legate and Hidden Herd (see”Head to Head: Stompy“).
Now when was the last time you saw Stompy Top 8 a Dülmen?
Second, aggro can add control elements and effectively steal turns.
Remember, I said that a turn is broken down into four parts (see”The Ten-Second Card Advantage Solution“):
Restriction 1: You draw one card per turn
Restriction 2: You untap your cards once per turn (your mana producers, most importantly)
Restriction 3: You play up to one land per turn
Restriction 4: You attack up to once per turn
A number of disruptive cards actually steal turns by canceling out mana with an opponent. A counter or removal spell wastes the mana an opponent just spent on a spell or creature. A land destruction spell like Sinkhole moves the opponent’s mana one turn back. A discard spell like Duress might snag the spell he’d have played that turn, wasting that turn’s mana.
When you use your mana for a turn and cancel out the opponent’s mana, but you have creatures on the board, you’ve gained a free attack phase.
Thus, the original post-board Sligh with Red Elemental Blasts would lay a couple of Pups, then sit back with a couple of Red Elemental Blasts, to be used like Time Walks.
This, however, is an aggro-control plan, not pure aggro (see”What is Aggro-control?“).
Examining the New Aggro
For most players, aggro’s last hurrah came with Tools ‘n’ Tubbies,’ (see”Head to Head: German TnT“) and the high point was probably when Hill Redwine took that Paragon-infested Virginia States side event and before the rise of Growing ‘Tog.
Now, you might argue on this point and name any of the new aggro decks out there, but my point is that many aren’t really aggro decks.
Food Chain has a combo mode for faster kills in the same way Roland Bode’s new Mad Dragon incorporates the Worldgorger Dragon kill (see”Deconstructing Darksteel, Part IV: Instants“). Even Vengeur Masque has a built-in combo, albeit slower, and it can double trample over Academy Rector with two Phyrexian Dreadnoughts. And contemporary Vengeur builds still have to pack Duress and Force of Will.
Perhaps the highest-profile new aggro is the mono-Green Oshawa Stompy, which replaces the classic Stompy weenies with Wild Mongrel and friends. However, taking another look, you see that Oshawa needs to run things like Root Maze and Null Rod. It took a while to get noticed, being Green and all, but you realize that Root Maze powerfully stunts a deck that opens with broken mana producers.
Mishra’s Workshop-based aggro decks like the mono-Red Stacker 3 cheat a bit since they can treat three- and four-drops like one-drops, but you note that even they have to run disruptive permanents. Note, loosely speaking, Chalice of the Void, Sphere of Resistance, Trinisphere, and Tangle Wire, with Pyrostatic Pillar also skewing the clock.
When you think about it, given the speed of Type I, many so-called aggro decks are really moving closer to a Suicide Black or Gay Fish skeleton. You traditionally associate aggro-control Black or Blue, a bunch of creatures backed by proactive (discard) or reactive (free counters) disruption. But start counting disruptive permanents, and you see similarities in the strategies. (And note that even Suicide Black has long since incorporated the artifact disruption.)
Further, not only do newer decks spend early turns canceling out mana with the opponent to push back the Fundamental Turns a bit, they plan longer-term with cheap card-advantage engines such as Survival of the Fittest and Bazaar of Baghdad. This only shows you how weak the”efficient weenies” strategy of Zoo days has become, again since you can only be so fast with power-to-mana ratio.
All this is reflected in slot counts as well. Note that the number of actual creatures is generally lower now, especially compared to the extremely high counts of past aggro decks like Stompy and Goblin Sligh (see”Head to Head: Goblin“).
So what does this rough trend mean? First, a lot of gameplay changes with this shift from trying to beat the Fundamental Turn head-on to subtly cheating it by wasting each other’s turns on disruption. Instead of the older and more elegant threat-answer, threat-answer, threat-answer pirouettes, you have slugfests of disruption and mana squeezes.
Second, I suppose that the death of aggro might solve itself in some metagames. The brawn of the pure aggro strategy does better now against more fragile aggro-control creature bases, especially since aggro-control is no longer the Growing ‘Tog that could set up fast enough to outmuscle aggro with 10/10 Quirion Dryads and 20/21 Psychatogs.
Sigh. Again, my biases show. I found simple seesaws of clean control against aggro matchups the most fun back in Beyond Dominia days.
Oscar Tan (e-mail: Rakso at StarCityGames.com)
rakso on #BDChat on EFNet
Paragon of Vintage
University of the Philippines, College of Law
Forum Administrator, Star City Games
Featured Writer, Star City Games
Author of the Control Player’s Bible
Maintainer, Beyond Dominia (R.I.P.)
Proud member of the Casual Player’s Alliance