By Imshan AKA Sinis
It is a common adage among Commander players that aggro – a deck archetype that attempts to hammer out damage as fast as possible typically via creatures and burn spells – is not particularly viable. Part of the reasons cited are the format’s high life total and a popular phenomenon of ‘sweepers’ like Wrath of God and its ilk. Add to that the inability to have multiple copies of aberrantly powerful creatures and aggro seems less viable, especially at cutthroat tables. While I think that aggro is undersold, it is a fair sight harder to do when playing against double life totals, and nearly the entire game’s legacy of degenerate combo pieces, control spells and tutors. Additionally, as the table has more players, the less likely it will be for an aggro deck to succeed by sheer amount of damage needed to be done for victory.
While combo and control decks use a dire threat and answer model of deckbuilding and play, an aggro deck in Commander is going to operate differently; the only realistic way of bashing through 40 life per player is to use a lot of low-curve creatures, and the prohibitive cost of back-breaking threats will prevent this deck from winning before it loses. A deck primarily constructed of creatures fare better than one of burn spells, as creatures continue to deal damage until destroyed.
The first hallmark of aggro’s weakness in Commander is a card advantage problem. In order to start rapidly chipping away at a table’s life total, an aggro player is going to have to play a lot of creatures. When another player inevitably plays a Wrath of God-style effect, the typical aggro player is left with an empty hand and a full graveyard. Enemies are left at some non-zero life total which becomes insurmountable for the aggro player. The quick and dirty solution for this is to play draw spells. While it sounds silly, this comes with a few caveats: the spells that draw cards either have to draw huge amounts, provide a constant stream of cards for use, or key off the number of creatures or the damage a player does. In the first camp, my favourites are Wheel of Fortune, Wheel of Fate, and its new and exciting cousin Reforge the Soul. Since an aggro player is going to be playing many more cards than their opponents, wheel effects nearly always disproportionately benefit an aggro player. The second is of a kind like Phyrexian Arena, and Necropotence. There are others, like Graveborn Muse and Bloodgift Demon, which double as creatures to do damage. Draw effects that are worth considering, like a select few saboteur abilities like Tandem Lookout or Coastal Piracy. Others that defy categorization, such as Slate of Ancestry, and the Wrath-defying Fecundity, are often worthwhile inclusions as well. There are also cards that will do more than put a single creature on the battlefield. Generating tokens is a fine way of getting more creatures without having to suffer the loss of cards in the event of a sweeper.
The second problem for aggro decks is related to the first. Aggro decks do not develop mana the same way combo or control decks do. When another player sweeps the board, the aggro player not only loses all the creatures they laid out, but effectively loses the mana spent on them as well. For newer players searching for a word to reference this aspect of Magic, it’s commonly called ‘tempo’. Mana acceleration is going to have to pay large dividends; Sol Ring is sufficiently productive, but a standard mana rock like Mind Stone will not be. The best mana acceleration available comes in the form of the Medallion cycle from Tempest. Emerald Medallion and friends will pay out more mana as you play more creatures. Cloud Key will make all creatures similarly cheaper. There are other more narrow options, such as Etherium Sculptor, which will only work in specific kinds of decks. To be sure, how an aggro player plays the game is going to matter; you will have to hold creatures back to play after some calamity, or lose all of them.
Once you’ve got enough creatures and can get a continuous or sustainable supply of them, they’re going to need to be made more powerful. Simply playing creatures and attacking will not be enough. Giving global bonuses to creatures rewards your investment in them. Global power bonuses are rarely permanent; something like Overrun, Overwhelming Stampede, Dark Triumph (sacrifice a lethally blocked creature for maximum value) or Torrent of Souls will give you a quick burst, perhaps enough to kill a player or two. Craterhoof Behemoth is a particularly dire version of these that comes with a body. More permanent bonuses can be found in Marshal’s Anthem, Gaea’s Anthem and similar cards.
Global haste is found almost exclusively in red; In the Web of War and Mass Hysteria/Concordant Crossroads effectively grant you an extra turn’s work out of your creatures. To get even more mileage out of your creatures before a sweeper hits, getting in extra attack steps (via Relentless Assault) or taking extra turns (Time Warp) will let your creatures do much more. Something like Savage Beating epitomizes this. All the creatures will do extra damage. Twice.
With all this talk of playing creatures and attacking with them, it’s important not to neglect finishers. While Overrun effects may kill a player or two, it does not hurt to keep a few effects in reserve to finish a player off. My personal favourites are Squall Line and Hurricane. These not only increase the aggro player’s capacity to finish a player off toward the end of the game, but can remove troublesome blockers. Similarly, Devil’s Play, Exsanguinate, and a handful of others will work well enough without accelerated mana, once the creatures have done most of the work.
Part of the focus on creatures means that we’re going to have to play a lot of them. It is not uncommon for my aggro decks to have 35 or more. This means that some effects, especially removal, are going to need to be doubled-up on. Answers to certain cards can be easily found on bodies: Wickerbough Elder is a passable creature with a good removal ability. Similarly, Shriekmaw has decent power, evasion and can kill a problematic creature, and Bellowing Tanglewurm gives evasion to several creatures while being a passable body. Creatures with Battle Cry, such as Goblin Wardriver can also easily generate a fair amount of damage while being bodies with power themselves.
Most of the features of what an aggro deck needs are going to best available in some kind of tribal deck. Tribal lords, like Goblin King, are usually the first kind of global bonus players think of. Coat of Arms and Door of Destinies are well known to cause inward giggles. The goodies have not stopped; for nearly every aspect, there is some benefit for running a tribal deck. Extra cards and tempo can be found in Descendants’ Path and Call to the Kindred, and bonuses for even the most obscure tribe can be had from Adaptive Automaton. Some older goodies, like Urza’s Incubator, Cover of Darkness and Steely Resolve can provide solid advantages to investing in a single creature type. Unifying bonuses need not be exclusively tribal. Earlier, I mentioned Etherium Sculptor as a mana accelerator. Combined with Tempered Steel and Steel Overseer, there could be more reason to focus on artifacts. A deck full of flying creatures not only has an edge through evasion and cards like Favourable Winds, but can take advantage of Earthquake-style effects for extra damage and removal.
Finally, the general of an aggro deck is going to need to do at least one thing from the long list of things required to make aggro viable. A general will either have to provide global bonuses, draw cards(or otherwise extend resources. My personal favourite is Seshiro the Anointed, because he provides a flat, persistent power bonus (albeit to a narrow set of creatures) and also provides a way of getting more resources. These are arguably the two most important aspects; doing enough damage and getting enough resources to continue. There are many others that provide decent global bonuses and resources, like Stonebrow, Krosan Hero, Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer, Agrus Kos, Wojek Vetaran, Wort, Boggart Auntie, Sygg, River Cutthroat, and last but certainly not least, Edric, Spymaster of Trest.
At the end of the day, aggro will likely not stand a chance against the really dedicated cutthroat combo or prison decks, but neither will most decks people play. Some of them will be abject failures, like my own personal experience with Lovisa Coldeyes, who looked great on paper for providing both haste and +2/+2. But others, you may find more successful, and a change of pace might be welcome for a group where every player is hoping to control the game, or racing for a combo.
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