It is that time of the year again: a new block has been released, the new limited format is super sweet, Standard is a brewer’s paradise that has been broken this very week-end, and the Pro Tour is right around the corner...
But all I do is play Modern.
No reason here, I just did not have time to dive into Standard so far, spending quality times with my friends in South Africa instead. So, I decided that I would just tell you about this, instead of piling on the hype.
A Typically Non-Aggressive Format
Historically, Modern has never been an aggressive format.
It first originated with Pro Tour Philadelphia 2011, back when nonsenses like 《Rite of Flame》 and 《Blazing Shoal》 were legal. Back then, the format was a combofest, and every single round was about doing the most degenerate thing you could. I remember showing up with an Elves combo deck that had an insanely high turn 4-combo rate, only to lose on turn 2 or 3 every game for the first 2 rounds (and then facing 《Punishing Fire》 - 《Splinter Twin》). More than half of the format was combo back then.
Following that dark era, a ton of bannings happened, but still, Combo was all the rage: for a long time, the format was basically 《Splinter Twin》 vs. 《Birthing Pod》 with every other option being an inferior choice, except maybe for yet another combo deck in Bloom Titan.
《Birthing Pod》 finally got the axe (I was very sad, but I do think it was the right call), and we had a somewhat more midrangy year, with Abzan taking most of the spotlights (it was by far the most played deck at Pro Tour Fate Reforged in Washington, for example) as a strong Midrange deck fought a lot of games against 《Splinter Twin》. But still, 《Splinter Twin》 was felt as too strong and got banned as well, only for the world to slip into a few sad, colorless months of Eldrazi winter... which was pretty much the only time an aggressive deck ever stood at the top of the Modern food chain.
More recently, Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan in Bilbao was won by the most unaggressive deck ever designed: Lantern Control. And to pile on, Wizards followed that up with the double unbans of 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》 and 《Bloodbraid Elf》 which, at four mana, can not really be described as tools to push Aggro.
And yet, aggression is now at an all time high. So, what happened?
A Brand New, Hyper-Aggressive Metagame
As of today, 05/14/2018, the Magic Online metagame has the top 5 Modern decks as follow:
In other words, 4 of the 5 most played decks right now are hyper-aggressive, with the fifth one being “only” Midrange-Aggro. Every league I play, I face 2 to 3 aggressive decks, when that was more like 1 out 5 before Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan.
How did this happen? Well, 2 reasons.
The first one is that people took a little while to realize that both Humans and BR 《Hollow One》 are actually 2 very strong decks, not one-time wonders that will only take a little adaptation to crush. This not only created 2 great, proven options for those who were already Aggro players at heart, it also made other aggressive decks better. See, both Human and BR 《Hollow One》 are ideally tuned to beat control strategies, because they combine a lot of staying power with insane speed and a lot of play against both countermagic and removal. To some extent, they are even strong against sweepers, either because they prevent it from being efficient (《AEther Vial》, 《Meddling Mage》) or because they just win through it with ease (《Bloodghast》, 《Flamewake Phoenix》).
That insane speed (backed up by 《Thalia, Guardian of Thraben》 in the case of Humans) also helps giving you a lot of wins in game 1 against combo decks as soon as possible, simply because you are so good at punishing them while they ever stumble.
On the other hand, they sacrifice a lot when it comes to defending themselves. 《Thalia》 is quite the embarrassment when you face infinite creatures, 《Bloodghast》 simply cannot block, and both shells lack almost entirely the option of playing removal. For that reason, it did not take long for other players to realize that they could just try and be just as aggressive, if not more. This is where Affinity comes into play (I believe that Burn is just the kind of deck that will always be there at 3 to 5 percent, not a metagame call by any mean), as an even more explosive Aggro deck which main weakness has always been its vulnerability to interaction, which the aforementioned decks just do not have.
The second reason is much simpler: 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》 is a cool card.
It is emblematic, it does just about everything, activating it feels better than actually winning, and people have always heard that it is busted. Well, it is not. Not when everyone and their friends are bashing with multiple low-cost beaters that you have zero interest in bouncing, and who might easily have haste and / or evasion. 《Jace》 is just plain embarrassing against the top 3 decks of the metagame, but still heavily played by every blue mage, so I do not see why Aggro players would quit punishing us for our errancies. As a matter of fact, they even have a guarantee that we will keep trying to cast a 4-mana do-little against them, just because not playing 《Jace》 would mean giving up all the blue mirrors - and we are definitely not at this point yet.
Adapting to Aggression...
As a transition, I thought I would ask : “So, does this mean we all have to play Aggro now?”, but the answer is so obviously no that I did not. Even though I just did, so I guess I ask half-stupid questions. Meh.
There are a bunch of ways to beat those Aggro decks. The main thing to consider is that they all follow the same game plan, but through vastly different tools. What I mean by that is that all of them rely on under costed creatures, resilience to countermagic and some degree of interaction between their beaters (Humans through 《Thalia's Lieutenant》 and 《Phantasmal Image》, BR through the Delve + 《Flamewake Phoenix》 and 《Hollow One》 + 《Flameblade Adept》 mechanics, and Affinity through literally its entire deck), but none of them fold to the same hosers:
《Ancient Grudge》 is insane versus Affinity, but embarrassing against Humans, while 《Rest in Peace》 stops 《Hollow One》 but basically boosts your devotion to white versus Affinity, and so on. Therefore, you cannot rely on hosers: you need to play cards that are generically good versus Aggro, and since those cards are not as impactful as traditional hosers, you need to play a lot of them: in other words, you need your entire deck to build an anti-Aggro strategy, because you will not have a get-out-of-jail-free card for every match-up.
A good example is, to the surprise of no one, UW control. You want to keep the general strategy of card draw, permission and powerful mana: you want to change everything else. Therefore, first, no more clunky cards like 《Search for Azcanta》: now, you want at least a pair of 《Wall of Omens》 to keep the cards flowing.
And for the sideboard, well, you have all the tools. I think 《Timely Reinforcements》 is quite good at this point, and would advise at least 2, possibly a third main deck even. I even tried crazier stuff like 《Baneslayer Angel》, and quite liked it.
Here is a list that caught my eyes (and actually made me want to write this piece in the first place). I would not necessarily go as far as this guy Curryvore went, but I think it is a great example of all the options at your disposal to adapt going forward. I especially enjoy how he solved our main issue UW versus Human, which is the lack of spot removal that let you kill a 《Thalia》 when you need to, but simply jamming creatures and save time to drop more lands into play:
2 《Hallowed Fountain》
4 《Flooded Strand》
4 《Celestial Colonnade》
2 《Mystic Gate》
1 《Glacial Fortress》
4 《Field of Ruin》
-Land (25)- 4 《Wall of Omens》
3 《Kitchen Finks》
2 《Vendilion Clique》
3 《Restoration Angel》
1 《Serum Visions》
1 《Spell Snare》
4 《Cryptic Command》
1 《Settle the Wreckage》
1 《Wrath of God》
1 《Supreme Verdict》
4 《Spreading Seas》
3 《Detention Sphere》
2 《Jace, the Mind Sculptor》
However, even though it costs me, an easier route to go might be adding red to your deck. I never quite liked Patriot, mostly because 《Lightning Helix》 felt subpar in almost every match-up. That is just not true anymore: playing the full 4 makes perfect sense at the moment, since the life gain just became very relevant, and I have even seen someone on Magic Online siding in 《Isochron Scepter》 for those match-ups, which looked at least interesting in the sense that it could also catch midrange decks after they side out their 《Abrupt Decay》. I do not love it since it might just make their discard package a little bit too good, but who knows?
Jund is another example of a deck that can adapt easily, and we see more and more players cutting discard or 《Kolaghan's Command》 in favor of either 《Kitchen Finks》 (which I like a lot) or 《Courser of Kruphix》 (which seems a little bit too long term for my taste right now).
Or Not Adapting at All!
But even if you want to jump ship, it does not mean that you have to go through an attack step every turn - or every game, for that matter. I think there are at least 3 decks that are now well placed to fight back.
The first one is (obviously) BG Tron. What I like about it is that its general strategy is good against Aggro, or at least against Human and BR 《Hollow One》, which will both struggle a great deal against both 《Wurmcoil Engine》 and 《Ugin, the Spirit Dragon》, and lack interaction to stop you from dropping them onto the battlefield early. Hence, despite what I said earlier, you can just play a bunch of Affinity hosers and be done with it.
Next up is GW Hexproof, which makes things even easier: you build a giant Lifelink dude, he attacks, they die. There is a little concern that a turn 2 《Thalia》 on the play can let Humans stop you dead in your tracks, but that is pretty much it. I won't bore you with a list just yet, the deck has been the same for years, and you do not even need to tweak it for an Aggro metagame, just play the most streamlined list and execute your plan.
The last, more exciting option that I wanted to introduce is good old Storm. This is a deck that has been popping more and more online, and I love how simply it deals with the issue at hand. They do not want to interact? You neither. They are fast? You are faster. They can win through removal? Hold my beer buddy.
3 《Steam Vents》
4 《Scalding Tarn》
4 《Spirebluff Canal》
3 《Shivan Reef》
-Land (18)- 4 《Baral, Chief of Compliance》
3 《Goblin Electromancer》
4 《Sleight of Hand》
1 《Noxious Revival》
4 《Desperate Ritual》
4 《Pyretic Ritual》
4 《Gifts Ungiven》
2 《Past in Flames》
This list is pretty typical, with just a few smart adjustments to keep things interesting. I love playing 3 《Grapeshot》, since drawing them naturally is a guarantee against 《Thalia》 and can give you 2 to 3 extra turns to set-up a lethal 《Past in Flames》. Obviously, we keep 《Pieces of the Puzzle》 for the sideboard against Control and Midrange, since it is way too slow.
The main idea here is that, if your opponent cannot deal with 《Baral, Chief of Compliance》 or 《Goblin Electromancer》, Storm actually becomes a turn-3 deck, while the Aggro decks typically kill on turn 4, with a few occasional nut draws on turn 4. With that, you are hugely favored win anytime you are on the play, and still have a very even game on the draw.
Additionally, I like how Storm does something that is weak to all the cards that people do not want to have in their decks against Aggro: discard, countermagic, 《Vendilion Clique》...
As you can see, all the options are still open: Control, Midrange, and even the combo-est deck of all are fine options if you put in the effort to adapt. Have fun beating Aggro!
Until next time,