How Burning-Tree Emissary Is Bringing Aggro Back To Historic

Burning-Tree Emissary’s return to Historic almost got lost in the Standard banning news. Todd Anderson sets things right.

Burning-Tree Emissary, illustrated by Izzy

Lotta stuff been happening over the last few weeks. Lotta cards getting banned and even a few cards getting unbanned. Now that the dust has settled and Omnath, Locus of Creation no longer looms over Historic or Standard, it’s time to focus on something near and dear to my heart: Omnath in Pioneer!

Rebuilding Aggro with Burning-Tree Emissary

Burning-Tree Emissary

The seven most beautiful words in the English language: “Burning-Tree Emissary is unsuspended in Historic.”

I get it. Some people hate Burning-Tree Emissary. Those people are wrong or have never had the pleasure. Historic doesn’t quite have all the goodies that Pioneer does just yet, but what we do have at our disposal is a boatload of aggressive threats that vary greatly in casting cost and importance on the curve.

When I see Burning-Tree Emissary I think of Naya Blitz, the three-color aggro deck I built with Brad Nelson back during the initial release of Gatecrash. That deck utilized the solid mana of shocklands and Cavern of Souls to spray the battlefield with a variety of hard-hitting cheap creatures. Every Human was potentially on the table, but any Human that could be cast off Burning-Tree Emissary was high on the list. Building around Burning-Tree Emissary felt challenging but very rewarding. The same is true for Burning-Tree Emissary today.

The second thing I think of when I see Burning-Tree Emissary is Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. While it isn’t currently on Magic Arena, there will be a time in the future where it is legal. They’ve already expressed their interest in merging the Pioneer and Historic formats in the near future and I couldn’t honestly see a world where Nykthos was legal and Burning-Tree Emissary wasn’t. It’s like peanut butter and jelly, or peanut butter and banana, or even peanut butter and chocolate. (Excuse me, I’ll be right back. Gonna need a snack.)

Brewing with Burning-Tree Emissary is a bit strange because it hasn’t been suspended for all that long but there have been a lot more cards added to the pool and a few cards banned since then. It might not be easy, but I’m sure it’ll be fun, so let’s get started!

This version of Gruul Aggro plays out a lot like the older versions of Gruul popularized by Brandon Burton, aka SandyDogMTG. His prowess with an aggressive strategy is unmatched and his constant stress-testing of aggro in every format has been invaluable for the archetype. Before the suspension of Burning-Tree Emissary and the release of Amonkhet Remastered, the decks looked a whole lot like this. Each body needed to be somewhat valid on its own but lethal in conjunction with other elements. To that end, I’d like to do some more experimentation inside this particular archetype, but this will be the starting point.

Domri, Anarch of Bolas

Having a static way to give more punch to your weaker creatures is huge. Domri, Anarch of Bolas boosts everything, including Llanowar Elves and Burning-Tree Emissary. That alone is almost enough to make this iteration of Domri playable, but it has two more activated abilities to parse! For starters, using your big doofus monsters to fight an opposing creature is about to get a lot juicier. The banning of Omnath, Locus of Creation has opened up a lot of space to explore in the early turns, so I’m looking for versatile heavy hitters and I think Domri is right up there with the best of ’em.

Cragcrown Pathway

Probably the biggest upgrade for Gruul Aggro in the last two months is Cragcrown Pathway. The Pathways are perfect for aggressive decks with light mana constraints. Few creatures in this deck strain the mana much, which means picking red or green in the early turns shouldn’t be too damning down the line.

Any two-color land that can cast Llanowar Elves on the first turn and help you cast your red spells later on is huge. That’s an ideal two-color land for a deck dominated by one color while just “splashing” another. The reintroduction of Burning-Tree Emissary to this archetype helps alleviate some of the red mana pressures as well, and especially so when you factor in both cards giving you essentially free access to your secondary color.

Bonecrusher Giant

Stomp might actually be the best card to pair with Burning-Tree Emissary since Nykthos. The two go so well together than I can’t imagine playing any red deck with Burning-Tree Emissary without Bonecrusher Giant. Spells with variable casting costs are often clever pairings with cards that generate extra mana at random times. Having that variable cost allows you to utilize the extra mana in situations where that wouldn’t normally be applicable.

Kazandu Mammoth Spikefield Hazard

I think all the DFCs that are remotely playable are quite good. These don’t really do the same things but I think both are excellent. I’ve been trying to find the right way to describe them to get my point across about how good they are by comparing them to things that already exist. Hornet Sting that can be played as a land is about as good as a Hornet Sting can get. The same is probably true for Kazandu Mammoth.

Remember that thing I said about the variable nature of some of these aggressive cards? Bonecrusher Giant and Kazandu Mammoth give you an absurd amount of flexibility during gameplay to ensure you always curve out, always use your mana, and rarely get flooded. An aggro deck having tools like these is exceptional and it’s even more of an argument for banning the likes of Uro, Oko, and Omnath because they were able to almost singlehandedly contain these monsters all throughout the last year.

Burning-Tree Emissary’s role here is to flood the battlefield with a bunch of bodies. Any body combined with Domri, Anarch of Bolas is relevant. Flooding the battlefield with a bunch of threats is how you beat decks that just play one or two cheap interactive elements. Due to the variable nature of many spells in your deck, it doesn’t seem too hard to find ways to use that extra mana from Burning-Tree Emissary. That free body can go a long way in stealing games, especially when you’re on the play. But what are we building toward?


One thing Amonkhet Remastered brought to Historic is Glorybringer, something seemingly overshadowed by all the wicked and wild stuff going on. For those of you who’ve been brave enough to venture into Pioneer territory, you’d know just how good Glorybringer can be in a format dominated by creature-based strategies. When all the broken stuff gets banned or is contained by the tools in the format, efficient threats that double as removal are king. Specifically, Glorybringer is the king because no one can hold up mana anymore!

If we’re getting a little bit bigger with Llanowar Elves; extra land drops; and Domri, Anarch of Bolas, it only makes sense that we fill our curve with heavy hitters as we move up the chain. Why stop at Questing Beast if we’re going to hit our first five land drops basically every game? The addition of Spikefield Hazard and Kazandu Mammoth almost ensure that we’re able to hit Glorybringer on time. The sequences available almost always allow for Glorybringer to come in hot and heavy when you hit five mana.

The exert ability on Glorybringer obviously bangs against an opponent with small- to medium-sized creatures, but how good is it against the more ridiculous stuff in the format? It seems even the busted decks are creature-oriented, or perhaps the flying is important as well. Regardless, Glorybringer brings a little sauce for everyone involved; you’d best just hope the king’s on your side.

Lovestruck Beast Domri, Anarch of Bolas Legion Warboss

There is a small amount of tension in the deck and that is Lovestruck Beast plus Domri, Anarch of Bolas. The buff given to your creatures makes Lovestruck Beast unable to attack, but I see that as more of a temporary setback than an actual downside. For the most part, turning that 1/1 Human token into a respectable threat is nothing short of miraculous. If you’re really worried about this “nonbo,” you can always replace Lovestruck Beast with Gruul Spellbreaker. I highly recommend sideboarding Lovestruck Beast, as we did in the other version, in that scenario.

There is some crossplay between your cards too. Lovestruck Beast can attack when you have an active Legion Warboss ramming in. The tokens from Legion Warboss get pumped by Domri, dealing massive amounts of damage in a short period of time. If any two of these cards come down together, there’s usually some good stuff happening. Just be aware that a Lovestruck Beast basically can’t attack when Domri is on the battlefield, but remember that you can sequence things so that you can minus with Domri twice over the course of three turns.

This iteration of Gruul Aggro probably wants Elvish Mystic in the format at some point. I don’t think Gilded Goose or Arboreal Grazer is good enough, but I’ve definitely been wrong before. I also think this deck could gain some serious traction once Chandra, Torch of Defiance is legal in the format. With Kaladesh Remastered on the horizon, that could be very soon.

The Great Red Revival

Gruul isn’t the only color combination that can use a free 2/2 body. I’d argue that the most valuable aspect of Burning-Tree Emissary is flooding the battlefield for an aggro deck to simply bowl the opponent over before they can put up any real resistance. Mono-Red Aggro has used Burning-Tree Emissary to great success in multiple formats in the past, but does Historic offer enough outlets for the free mana? Are the cards powerful enough to bring Mono-Red Aggro back into the spotlight?

I think it is.

Burning-Tree Emissary is doing double-duty in this archetype, acting as a way to gain some early traction on the battlefield while also adding to the combo element of Experimental Frenzy. Runaway Steam-Kin can lead to some landslide games and Burning-Tree Emissary allows for you to sequence it in the most powerful way possible. Playing an attrition battle? Go ahead and spew them onto the battlefield on the second turn. Have some wind-up time before you have to shoot your shot? Let’s get Runaway Steam-Kin down first and follow it up with a ton of spells, including Burning-Tree Emissary.

Experimental Frenzy Runaway Steam-Kin

When you’re “doing the thing” with Runaway Steam-Kin, there are few topdecks better than “free 2/2.” Cheap spells are the name of the game with both Runaway Steam-Kin and Experimental Frenzy. The two go hand in hand, giving you combo bursts full of tons of direct damage or just helping you establish a battlefield presence in the face of removal, sweepers, etc. If the format moves to the place I’m expecting it to, you could do a lot worse than Experimental Frenzy at the top-end.

Playing more “lands” in the form of Spikefield Hazard also makes playing more expensive threats a bit easier on your manabase. Because you’re playing a virtual 24 lands, hitting the necessary requirements for Experimental Frenzy isn’t always a sweat. If we find another red card to play as a land/spell, it could be even easier.

Soul-Scar Mage

This one was a real heater from Amonkhet Remastered. I’ve been absolutely loving this one in Pioneer, even more than Monastery Swiftspear. The ability to shrink opposing creatures is ridiculous! Keeping your opponent from having relevant blocks is just a huge deal in so many spots. It also doesn’t hurt that you’re regularly using your removal to kill a creature or two while attacking with a 3/4 Soul-Scar Mage. A one-mana investment for such a high-powered threat is pretty sick. Plus, it just so happens to work with the best card in the deck.

Wizard's Lightning

One of the best parts of the old Frenzy Red deck was your ability to burn the opponent out from a reasonably high life total. Part of that was the excess of “free” cards from Experimental Frenzy. The other part of that was getting to play actual Lightning Bolt in Standard for a while. Ghitu Lavarunner and Viashino Pyromancer are just good red cards and just so happened to be Wizards to enable Wizard’s Lightning. Soul-Scar Mage adds a third efficient beater to the mix that just so happens to also be a Wizard.

The tempo garnered from killing a creature for one mana can’t be overstated. Fatal Push is one of the reasons why Mono-Black Aggro is widely considered the best aggressive deck in Pioneer, even though it can’t really turn on revolt at will. Cheap removal that kills a wide range of creatures is a big deal. Wizard’s Lightning just needed another good Wizard or two to make it sick, and now it’s just busted.

There are a lot of different ways to build this archetype, including omitting Burning-Tree Emissary altogether, but I think that would be a mistake. This build tries to put Burning-Tree Emissary through the paces, giving you tools necessary to use the extra mana while providing you outlets to push that extra mana to its natural limit. Runaway Steam-Kin might be the true star when you’re comboing off, but the aggressive slant and free body of Burning-Tree Emissary is carrying a lot of invisible weight.

This version is also a lot more burn-heavy than other options, relying on the late-game power of Experimental Frenzy to weather the storm of interaction. If you want to beat card advantage monstrosities, your best chance is to go way under them or way over the top. Burning-Tree Emissary enables the first while being a particularly sweet part of the second. If your opponent can dismantle your normal draw, an Experimental Frenzy off the top might be your only real out.

Experimental Frenzy: now with less Teferi, Time Raveler bouncing it for free. Try it out today!

Historic is a wild and wonderful place. There seems to be a lot of space for innovation, and they’ve shown a willingness to ban or suspend cards that are overwhelming the format. In time, I do hope it becomes like Pioneer in all the right ways. I want more combat, less combo, and more creatures. I want interaction to mean something without completely burying the opponent. I want risk and reward. I’m hoping that the most recent banning helps with that. Omnath was too pure for this world.

It seems like we’re finally starting to settle down. I’ve heard a lot of chatter on social media about how much fun people are having in Standard and Historic this week. Let’s hope it sticks this time!