Standard Aggro

Life has been crazy lately. As a philosophy instructor, I have been busy teaching classes four days a week. I also play indoor soccer and help my wife care for three parrots (two Senegals and one Blue and Gold Macaw). My wife (who recently earned her PhD in Sociology from the University of Michigan) just accepted a job in Nashville, so we plan to move in about 5 weeks. We are happy to return to TN because that is where we grew up and went to college. Our families live there and it is warmer than MI. (If anyone reading this knows about the MtG scene in TN, especially Nashville, please let me know.)

This weekend, my wife and I hurriedly put together my TN Bar application to avoid a $100 late fee. The application still costs nearly $1000, but $100 saved is $100 earned. The plan is to finish the semester (finals are next week), begin prepping for PT Dragon’s Maze and our impending move, then head south the day after I fly back from San Diego. That will give about two months to settle into our new apartment (for which we have already signed the lease), prepare for the TN Bar exam, and begin developing connections to the TN legal market in hopes of finding a job in Nashville sometime this year. Ideally, I will be employed in a legal capacity and we will be on the market to buy a house in Nashville within the next year.

Needless to say, I haven’t had much time for Magic lately. I have only played about 5 events this month, all on MODO. Somehow, though, I managed to Top 8 the 281-person MODO PTQ on Saturday, April 13th. In the quarterfinals, I lost a close Game 3 to a clannie. I was playing Mono-Red and he was playing UWR Midrange. He finished me off with Aurelia while he was at 1 life, then lost in the finals to Junk Rites. This article is about how I topped the PTQ, including my current thoughts on Standard.

The 2013 Season 2 MOCS, held on March 2, was Standard. I was qualified for this event but had not played standard in about 9 months. At the time, Naya Humans was big. It had recently won Grand Prix Quebec City and was generally doing well. A friend had the deck to loan me online, so I copied the list and threw my hat in the ring:

This deck is very straightforward. It plays the fastest, hardest-hitting creatures in the format. With 12 1-drops, which can all reach 3 power (or more), the deck has the potential for blazingly fast starts. Also, because of its low curve and the presence of Burning-Tree Emissary, the deck can run on just 20 lands. This deck performed decently for me, taking me to a Top 32 finish.

When the online PTQ season came around, I tried this deck again. Unfortunately, I went 1-3 drop, but a version of this deck won that PTQ, so I didn’t feel too bad about the deck choice. Still, I had a troubled feeling about the deck. Playing 3 colors on just 20 lands, many of which are shocklands, made me uncomfortable. Frontline Medic did not impress me (I never used him to counter a Sphinx’s Revelation), and Boros Elite sometimes sat there as a 1/1. I decided that the human theme wasn’t quite good enough, so I cut the W. In the next PTQ, I ran the following Gruul Aggro list:

I built this deck in about an hour before the MODO PTQ on Sunday, April 7, so the sideboard isn’t very well-tuned, but this deck worked decently. Being just green and red meant the mana was more consistent and I had to take less damage off of shocklands. The deck still got to run 12 1-drops. It gained Domri Rade, which gives the deck more long game against control decks. The deck also gains Rancor, which can do a lot of early damage and is a nice way to utilize mana off of Burning-Tree Emissary. Rampager was great at blasting through a flashed-in Restoration Angel or just as a 4-point burn spell and synergized with Domri Rade’s fight ability. I finished the PTQ at 6-3, which was good for Top 64.

However, I noticed some problems with the deck. There weren’t many control decks, so Domri Rade wasn’t as good as I had expected. Moreover, Experiment One bothered me. He was sometimes 1/1, usually 2/2, and rarely 3/3. The only creatures that pump him to 3/3 are Flinthoof Boar (with a mountain out) and Ghor-Clan Rampager, which the deck rarely wants to hardcast. It is important that Experiment One gets to 3/3 because that is what gives him protection from Supreme Verdict. Overall he was better than Rackdos Cackler but was still unimpressive. After this PTQ, I played some casual games with friends to test Mogg Flunkies as a way to increase the odds of getting Experiment One to 3/3, but Flunkies just weren’t good enough. I also tried Hellrider as a way of increasing Experiment One’s 3/3 potential. Hellrider was better than Flunkies, and made me feel good about Experiment One’s place in the deck.

I decided not to play this deck again and instead to build Mono-Red. Red had put a deck into the Top 8 of a couple MODO PTQs and ended up winning the April 7th MODO PTQ. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that Red was just better than Gruul. The green cards didn’t add much, and mana consistency is an issue even with only two colors. Red gets to play all mountains, which means no lands come into play tapped (like Rootbound Crag) and you never have to shock yourself (as with Stomping Ground). Moreover, most of the Gruul sideboard cards were already red; green has very little to add in the way of sideboarding.

The list I ultimately played was as follows:

The deck is very aggressive and powerful. Not only did I Top 8 with this deck, but a friend playing a similar list went 6-3. With 12 burn spells, you almost always have removal for problematic creatures. Ash Zealot is an excellent 2-drop that is awkward to play in Gruul. Its graveyard ability is very relevant in this format due to the presence of Snapcaster Mage, Think Twice, Unburial Rites, and Lingering Souls. Boros Reckoner is also a powerful addition. Red only gets 8 1-drops, as compared to Naya and Gruul, which each get 12 1-drops, but the benefits of playing one color outweigh that consideration.

The list that won the PTQ was basically the same as this list except that it only played 3 Hellriders and 2 Pillars of Flame. In the remaining slots, it played 3 Firefist Strikers. I did not test Firefist Striker, but it just didn’t seem very good to me. I could be wrong about this card, but 2/1s aren’t great in a format with Augur of Bolas. Also, Striker is not a 1-drop and does not have haste, which are what this deck most wants. Usually you can clear blockers out of the way with burn, so Striker’s ability isn’t very relevant. I suppose it’s there to get past Thragtusks, but I found you can usually push through Thragtusk with removal. Also, with Restoration Angel in the format, Striker’s ability gives your opponent the potential to get too much value off of an attack. Imagine you attack into an Augur of Bolas with Stromkirk Noble, Firefist Striker, and Ash Zealot. Your opponent might flash in Restoration Angel, blinking Augur of Bolas and killing two of your creatures. Striker just seemed to invite poor combat results.

The PTQ-winning list also ran 3 Tormod’s Crypts in the sideboard against Junk Rites. I thought these were not needed because a friend, who plays Junk Rites, said that aggro is difficult for Junk Rites to beat. While I did beat a couple Junk Rites decks in the PTQ, the matches were hard and I had to get a little lucky. They would have been easier with some graveyard hate.

If I were to play this deck again, I would switch the Frostburn Weirds in the board with either Tormod’s Crypts or Grafdigger’s Cage. Cage has a more powerful and permanent effect, but is vulnerable to Abrupt Decay, which Junk Rites is sure to bring in from the board. Crypt might be powerful enough without allowing for that loophole. This is something I would like to test.

Moreover, I am not exactly sure why Frostburn Weird is in the sideboard. It was in the board of several red lists, but in my opinion it is not powerful enough. My best guess is that Weird is meant to complement Volcanic Strength for three reasons. First, because of its 4 toughness, it cannot be burned out in response to Strength. Second, once Strength resolves, even Mizzium Mortars cannot kill the Weird. Third, Weird can pump up to 8 power once it is enchanted. However, 4x Mizzium Mortars, 4x Volcanic Strength, and 3x Frostburn Weird are a lot of cards to bring in against Gruul and Mono-Red. In those matchups, Volcanic Strength is good enough on its own. I would rather use sideboard space to target other decks, such as Junk Rites.

Skullcrack was very good. It is great against control and midrange decks, especially decks that like to use Fog or Rhox Faithmender. In one match against Junk Rites, I attacked my opponent down to 12, then did the rest of the damage with Brimstone Volley, Searing Spear, and 2x Skullcrack (which prevented him from gaining life off of Thragtusks). I also won a match by using Skullcrack to stop the lifegain off of Sphinx’s Revelation.

In my opinion, Mono-Red is the best aggro deck in Standard. It has a great early game, solid removal, and powerful finishers. Also, because it is so streamlined and plays Burning-Tree Emissary, it only has to play 20 land, which is essentially a form of card advantage. It never takes damage off its lands and all its lands come into play untapped. Its worst matchup is probably Bant because Bant gets Centaur Healer, Rhox Faithmender, Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, and Sphinx’s Revelation. It also has a hard time dealing with Esper Control and UWR midrange because those decks are removal-heavy and have Sphinx’s Revelation.

I hesitate to make the claim that Mono-Red is the best deck in Standard. It might be that midrange is just better right now due to Thragtusk and Restoration Angel. In fact, that is probably true. I am undecided about what to play in the next PTQ. It will either be Mono-Red or Junk Rites. I am interested to see how the format shifts after Dragon’s Maze is released, and am even more interested to see whether Thragtusk is reprinted in M14. If Thragtusk leaves, then I would expect Mono-Red to be extremely good through the end of the summer. If you are new to Standard, I recommend Mono-Red as a good place to start. However, Mono-Red rests hard on Stromkirk Noble, so the deck might not survive the next rotation.

Regardless of what deck you play, the most important part of improving is playing against good players. You can learn more in a single loss to a great player than in ten wins against mediocre competition. Standard PTQ season lasts for a couple more months, so get out there and battle!

  1. Great analysis of the current aggro scene, Dustin!
    I have lived in Murfreesboro for about three years. I work for Vanderbilt, though, so am in Nashville itself very often. Unfortunately, I have a crowd of children that makes it tough to get out to IRL Magic. I played seriously about 10 years ago, when I lived out West. These days, I play on MTGO several times a week (user name: beardo). With the ridiculous number of hours that I work each week, I have not been able to keep up with Standard for several years, just sticking to Limited. All of that said, I have been wanting to venture back out, just needing a play group. Maybe we’ll bump into each other?

  2. Great analysis of this archetype. I usually don’t bother with standard because so much research is involved and the decks are pretty expensive but this looks interesting. Maybe I give it a spin.

  3. Great article as always, a lot of insight, and the thougths you give are very clear and well argumented. Guess it comes with the job.

    Now, as to Red, the strength of this deck is pretty obvious through it’s popularity on MTGO, i could swear that 40% of the matches i played lately was against MonoRed or very aggresive gruul (so really a mono red) variants. Ppl start to realise that – I’ve seen monoRed maindecking Volcanic Strenght.

    Myself, testing Zegana Bant now I was surprised how effective can this deck be against 4 thragtusk, 4 restos, 4 Smitters, 3 azorious charms, 3 verdicts, 3 revelations. After some absurd loses i had to find space in sideboard to hate it out specificly and only now im able to crush it as i would like to with a deck dedicated to that purpose (about 80% match won against it now).

    It all being said, deck is VERY good, but also players hate losing to it so they might overhate it and it will have hard time wining even more (this tendency killed blitz).

  4. I think your assessment of Firefist Striker being bad is a bit unreasonable (at least, with the way you present it). In your example of attacking into an Augur of Bolas with Ash Zealot, Firefist Striker, and Stromkirk Noble, you say you have a chance of getting blown out by Restoration Angel, to which I respond, wouldn’t you get blown out by Angel anyway? If you make the Striker into an Ash Zealot/any other 2 drop, then Restoration Angel still gets you, right?

  5. That’s fair Marcos. I haven’t tested with Striker and he could be better than I realize. However, in the situation you mention, the Augur is then also able to block, so you lose 2 guys. The Striker will run into Augur, and the Angel will eat another creature. 2/2′s don’t have that problem because they just bounce off Augur. In this situation, if Striker were a different creature, Angel would still hurt you, but might not blow you out.