This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series No Uncertain Terms

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

For the last few weeks “No Uncertain Terms” has focused on deck archetypes. We continue and conclude the series today by examining Aggro-Control. If you need to catch up on the previous entries in the series, you can read up about Aggro, Control, and Combo, which I’ve covered already.

 

 

What Is Aggro-Control?

Unlike the other terms we’ve been discussing lately, Aggro-Control is really only used in this one context. It’s the name for a deck archetype, a family of decks that use similar strategic elements. The name derives from the deck’s mix of both aggressive and controlling cards, which is simple enough. However, precisely what “Aggro-Control” means in a practical sense isn’t always self evident, especially among newer players.

 

To be perfectly clear: An Aggro-Control deck combines the threats from an Aggro deck and the disruption from a Control deck. No other combination of cards or strategic properties produces Aggro-Control.

 

This specific mix is necessary because it’s the only one that produces the game plan to match our archetype’s name. You start out the game with an early aggressive threat, then you transition quickly to playing a disruptive, controlling strategy. From this, it’s easy to see that combining other groups of cards would not produce what we’re looking for here. To remove any element is to take away an essential piece of the strategy. To include anything else only adds bulk to an already streamlined vehicle.

 

In the real world, the distinction between different deck archetypes can become blurry. Some decks are capable of adopting a different strategic stance in each game depending on their draw and sideboarding. It’s important to remember that Aggro-Control is capable of playing out its games as either a pure Control deck or an all-in Aggro deck, but that flexibility is what sets it apart from other archetypes. Again, not all versatile decks should be labeled Aggro-Control, but a bonafide Aggro-Control deck will always display versatility.

 

What’s in an Aggro-Control Deck?

The first thing to notice is the threat selection. It’s often the first card you’ll see from their deck, it’s the card that will kill you, and odds are the deck is named after these threats (like “Delver” or “Merfolk”). The threats will be cheap, mostly costing one mana, but no more than three. The threats will have a high power-to-mana ratio. Think of cards like Tarmogoyf or Wild Nacatl. The key here is efficiency. Aggro-Control can really only thrive in a metagame when the cards are efficient; that is, the power level of cheap cards is comparatively high relative to other decks. Lastly, look for the threats to have some ability that frustrates the opponent somehow. Evasion and Hexproof are good, but cards like Gaddock Teeg and Mother of Runes are even better.

 

Next is disruption. In my article on Control, I discussed that the selection of disruption in a Control deck is meant to protect us from what the opponent’s doing. The specific answers they play are in line with that purpose.

 

Now contrast that with the goal of wanting to delay an opponent’s development and increase their vulnerability to our pressure. You’ll find the same types of cards in both Control and Aggro-Control shells: discard, counterspells, creature removal, but the purpose is very different. A Control deck only plays the disruption that it needs to protect itself. An Aggro-Control deck will play anything that makes the opponent hurt. To that end, A-C decks will usually have a broadly diverse set of cards that let them interact with the opponent on every conceivable axis. In addition to the disruption listed above, you could find land destruction, graveyard hate, noncreature removal, and matchup specific hate cards.

 

You may also see some type of card drawing depending on the deck’s colors. This will usually be light, maybe just four copies of a single card like Brainstorm. Card advantage is less important to this archetype because the strategy is focused on deploying resources early and denying resources to the opponent. Every card an opponent can’t cast before they die is effectively dead weight in their hand, generating a corresponding advantage for us. With that frame of mind, drawing more cards than the opponent isn’t strictly necessary. The right cards will win; anything extra is often wasted effort.

 

Lastly, the manabase of an Aggro-Control deck is going to be light and fast. The deck is balanced between many different concerns: playing three or more colors, needing untapped lands on turn one, playing as few total lands as possible, playing utility lands like Wasteland, and so on. In one word: greedy. Aggro-Control decks are often vulnerable to the same types of disruption that they play themselves, their only saving grace is that their spells are cheaper and can be deployed more quickly. A good Aggro-Control deck is capable of functioning with very few lands, especially after the early turns have passed.

 

What Won’t You Find in an Aggro-Control Deck?

Expensive spells of any type and especially large, slow creatures are not going to show up. These types of cards would push the deck into the territory of a tap-out Control strategy. Likewise, having too many cheap creatures would push the deck into a more typical Aggro identity. The key is the balance and the selection of disruption. Aggro-Control doesn’t want more threats, just the best threats.

 

A good rule of thumb is three or less. Everything in the deck will have a mana cost of three or less, taking into account the idea that some cards can be cast off alternate means like Gush. A few exceptions exist for truly special cards like Jace the Mind Sculptor and Cryptic Command, but they’re relatively rare. Past that, you’ll probably see three or less distinct threats, totalling up to about twelve copies. You mileage may vary with this heuristic, but it’s a good place to start.

 

Historical Aggro-Control Decks

Let’s finish by looking at some of the best Aggro-Control decks from Magic’s past.

 

2008 “Canadian Thresh” – David Caplan

At GP Columbus 2007, Steve Sadin broke Legacy with a completely unfair use of Flash and Protean Hulk. In the wake of his GP win, the key cards from the deck were banned. Enter David Caplan, who then went on a tear of top finishes in the following Legacy season using a deck that was completely “fair,” i.e. no degenerate combos. For years eternal Magic had been dominated by fast combo decks, but the tables had now turned and 2008 would begin the inexorable rise of fair decks to a dominant position in Legacy.

 

The “Thresh” deck, named for its reliance on the Threshold mechanic, had existed previously, but the Canadian Caplan optimized the deck for use in an Aggro-Control strategy and popularized many of the cards that would become synonymous with archetype: Nimble Mongoose, Ponder, and Tarmogoyf. This list would see continued play and success in Legacy, eventually morphing into the modern “RUG Delver” lists discussed below.

 

2010 Grand Prix Madrid “Fish” – Kristoffer Nelson

Fish is the colloquial name for the Legacy and Modern Merfolk deck. Typically mono-Blue, but sometimes splashing Green or Black, the deck uses a variety of small Blue creatures like Cursecatcher and Silvergill Adept to apply early pressure. From there the deck can close out the game in several ways: turn up the heat with a Lord of Atlantis, spam counterspells, or bury an opponent in card advantage from a Standstill. Efficient, deadly, and lots of islands–fish is my kind of deck.

 

2011 Grand Prix Amsterdam “Punishing Maverick” – Fabian Gorzgen

Maverick is the working title for Green/White aggressive decks that play a suite of threats which are particularly annoying for the average Legacy combo deck to deal with. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Scavenging Ooze join a host of other beaters to deliver quick wins. The key to the deck is Green Sun’s Zenith, which can tutor directly for whichever creature is going to be the most annoying for your opponent to deal with. The deck is light on disruption, with just a couple of Wasteland and Path to Exile, because for the most part the threats all double as disruption. Fabian Gorzgen has long been a champion of the archetype in Legacy and is responsible for a number of key innovations such as the combo of Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows showcased in this list.

 

2011 Pro Tour Philadelphia 2nd Place “Counter Cat” – Josh Utter-Leyton

Traditional Zoo decks have been a fixture of competitive Magic since the very beginning. Small creatures–usually cats and gorillas–combined with burn spells for a quick win. This strategy also had traction in the budding Modern format, but the metagame was full of dangerous Combo decks. To even the odds, Team ChannelFireball innovated on the traditional Zoo design by adding Blue for countermagic. The deck could play an all-out aggressive strategy in game one to steal a quick win, but then morph after sideboarding through the addition of Flashfreeze and Unified Will. This allowed the deck to answer early combo attempts from the opponent. Combined with traditional Aggro-Control elements like Tectonic Edge, Gaddock Teeg, and Aven Mindcensor, the deck was a powerful disruptive force.

 

2012 Grand Prix Manila Champion “U/W Delver” – Yuuya Watanabe

Delver of Secrets is closely identified with this archetype nowadays, being that it’s ubiquitous in eternal formats where Aggro-Control is more popular. During its time in Standard, though, Delver was a real powerhouse. Turn one Delver, followed by transforming it on the second turn with a revealed Mana Leak was nearly unbeatable. Assuming you could survive that, the deck also packed Geist of Saint Traft–one of the most irritating threats of all time and the literal spirit of Aggro-Control.

 

2012 Player’s Championship “Eternal Command” – Shouta Yasooka

Shouta is one of Magic’s most feared competitors and venerated deck designers. At the inaugural Player’s Championship event in 2012, he showed up with a completely unprecedented list that took the other competitors by surprise. The deck revolved around the use of Aether Vial, which allowed Shouta’s threats to come into play at instant speed and avoid counterspells. Vial also effectively creates mana every time you use it, allowing Shouta to “spend” more resources in the early turns and create a big advantage. His actual mana was spent to cast a cadre of counterspells. The deck derived its poetic name from the typical win condition: casting half a dozen Cryptic Command through the use of both Eternal Witness and Snapcaster Mage.

 

2015 Grand Prix Seattle-Tacoma “UR Delver” – Christian Calcano

With the printing of Delver of Secrets, the RUG Threshold decks immediately adapted to include the card. For years the deck was relatively static atop the competitive Legacy tables; not always the best deck, but never far off. With 2014’s Khans of Tarkir, bringing several tools including the Delve mechanic cards Treasure Cruise, Gurmag Angler, and Dig Through Time, the deck was catapulted back into first place for a time.

 

Free disruption in the form of Wasteland, Daze, and Force of Will combines with powerful threats and dirt cheap card draw to create an incredibly fast, consistent, and resilient deck. A key strength of the deck is its breadth of disruptive cards. With main deck Deathrite Shaman and Stifle the deck is essentially pre-sideboarded against Dredge decks.

 

How irritated are you when your opponent counters all of your spells? Do you immediately scoop to Wasteland in Commander? Share your thoughts in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support Commandercast.com on Patreon.

 

-GG

Wherever knowledge goes, misinformation is sure to follow. Magic is confusing more often than not. “No Uncertain Terms” is meant to give all players the same base of requisite knowledge to completely understand an issue; to give all Magic players, new and old, the language to communicate and fully understand each other. This series functions as a curriculum of vocabulary, with each new segment building on the last.

 

 

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