With Born of the Gods having just been released and the Standard format still in an adjustment period, lots of players seem to be asking me the same question: "What is the best aggro deck?" While it's still too early to know the answer to that question (although I will offer my best guess at the end of the article), I figured now would be a great time to write a primer for how to answer the question yourself. So today I will offer a concise primer for how to identify the best aggro deck, distilled down to four principle elements.


The Four Principle Elements of the Best Aggro Deck

1. Choosing the Right Threats

Back when Mike Turian was building a Hall of Fame career on the Pro Tour circuit, before accepting a job at Wizards of the Coast where he designed Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Mike was one of the first players to be regarded as "an aggro player." Mike was a regular at the top tables, and I'd be hard-pressed to believe anyone else put more mileage on their Jackal Pups and Cursed Scrolls than he did. Mike was often asked the same question I get asked today, namely "Why do you always play aggro decks?" Mike's response has always resonated with me: "Control decks sometimes show up with the wrong answers, but with aggro there's no such thing as a wrong threat."

The gist of what Mike was saying is that when you have a proactive aggressive deck, you put the burden on the opponent to find the right answers to your threats. This is essentially the main reason to play an aggressive deck, but of course it gets a lot more complex when you dive more deeply into it.

Are there ever "wrong threats"? Of course there are. If you show up to a tournament running Goblin Raiders" href="https://magic.tcgplayer.com/db/magic_single_card.asp?cn=Mons's Goblin Raiders&ref=storehover">Mons's Goblin Raiders over Goblin Balloon Brigade in a format where both are legal, you have clearly made a poor decision since one is strictly better than the other. There are also less obvious instances where you show up with the wrong threats. For instance, it would be foolish to play a deck aiming to Dark Ritual out a Phyrexian Negator on the first turn when half the field is playing Lightning Bolt. Instead you would rather be the one casting Silver Knight or Kor Firewalker.

Just as it would be the "wrong answer" for a control deck to show up with Terror in a field of Black Knights and Juggernauts, it is similarly wrong for an aggressive deck to show up with Rogue Elephant in a field of Terrors and Slays.

Let's take a look at some examples from past formats.

At Worlds 2011 I played the following deck in Standard:

DECKID=942922

The biggest question I got asked was "Why no Champion of the Parish?" Champion was the flagship card of the archetype and most people automatically assumed I ran four of them. My choice to omit them essentially boiled down to, "they were the wrong threat for the tournament."

The common answers to an early threat were Vapor Snag from the Illusions decks and Doom Blade + Liliana of the Veil from control decks. Champion of the Parish matched up poorly against each of those answers. In contrast, Doomed Traveler was great against Doom Blade and Liliana of the Veil while Geist of Saint Traft was excellent against Vapor Snag and Doom Blade.

Another example was my Pro Tour San Diego 2010 deck:

DECKID=538227

Jund was the deck to beat in the tournament, as was evidenced by two copies squaring off in the finals. Terminate was there removal spell of choice, and they also relied heavily on blocking with Sprouting Thrinax.

In response to these answers I chose Kor Firewalker and White Knight as my primary threats. In doing so, I essentially turned Jund into a deck with the wrong answers to my threats (despite ultimately getting knocked out of the tournament by it).

Another unorthodox decision I made was to include four copies of Dread Statuary in my deck. This was in response to decks relying on Day of Judgment as their "answer." I could play Elspeth, Knight-Errant and force the opponent to Day of Judgment my team. Then I untap, activate the manland, jump it with the planeswalker, and attack for seven. It was also a four-power creature that could attack into Wall of Omens – another "answer" I expected to be prevalent due to the popularity of Bloodbraid Elf and Sprouting Thrinax.

Another example would be when to play hexproof creatures and when not to. If everyone is playing targeting removal spells, playing a hexproof creature and throwing an aura on it is a great plan whereas it is pretty terrible if the answers in the format are Supreme Verdict and Devour Flesh.

In short, the trick to finding the best or "right" threats is finding the ones that dodge the answers everyone else is playing. In other words, you make everyone else have the wrong answers to your threats.

2. Choosing the Right Overall Strategy

Oftentimes the best aggressive deck is little more than the sum of its parts. You start by picking out all the right threats and then jam them together in such a way that creates the most synergy. For instance, most zoo decks look like this. You play all the most under-costed creatures together and then add in the best ways to get your creatures through in combat, which often amounts to burn spells since those serve a dual purpose of removal blockers or accelerating your clock by targeting the opponent after your creatures did enough early damage.

Other times the best aggressive deck is much more than the sum of its parts. These decks are often referred to as "linear" or "mechanical" aggressive decks. An example would be Tempered Steel. The threats were nothing extraordinary by themselves, but when they were all played together, they made each other extra powerful. For instance, being artifacts turned on metalcraft, which gave you access to Swords to Plowshares ( Dispatch) and Mox Diamond ( Mox Opal) with no drawbacks, in addition to a double Glorious Anthem ( Tempered Steel). Hence a crappy 1/1 for zero mana ( Memnite), despite being far from threatening on its own, played an integral role in generating an overall strategy that was more potent than any of the controlling strategies could handle. It was the dominant deck in that block and continued to be a powerful contender in Standard thereafter.

Another common linear theme aggressive decks take on is the tribal theme. Back in Lorwyn you had Faeries, Kithkin, Elves, and Merfolk as the most popular aggressive decks. Scion of Oona is far from exciting on its own until you add in Bitterblossom, Mistbind Clique, and Spellstutter Sprite. Then suddenly each of these fairly underwhelming cards enhances each other and the overall strategy is very difficult to answer. Granted, faeries are among the less "aggressive" of tribes.

Nevertheless as illustrated by Tempered Steel and various other "linear" aggressive strategies, sometimes the "right threats" are such because of synergy that makes the overall strategy more than the sum of its parts.

3. Being Aggressively Disruptive

Sometimes the best aggressive deck is simply the one that puts the most pressure on the opponent as quickly as possible. Tempered Steel is an example of this. Other times it involves being resilient, as was the case with my two white weenie decks discussed above where the threats were able to dodge the prevalent removal spells of the format. Yet other times the best aggressive deck is the one that provides the most disruption in addition to its clock.

For instance, consider a card like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. If everyone is playing slow decks (control decks) or decks with lots of cheap spells (Delver of Secrets decks), Thalia is a perfect threat to have since it not only attacks for two but also slows down your opponent's strategy.

Another threat with a similar impact is Tidehollow Sculler. It takes away a card from your opponent's hand until they are able to removal the zombie from the battlefield. It does this while also providing a body to pressure the opponent, much like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.

When the prominent decks of the format are combo-oriented instead of controlling, disruptive creatures like Gaddock Teeg and Ethersworn Canonist tend to shine. And when the format is dominated by aggressive decks, cards like Banisher Priest tend to go up in value since they increase your pressure while removing an opposing threat (or blocker). Fiend Hunter served this role in my Haunted Humans deck described above.

In other formats, artifact mana played a central role. In such cases, cards like Uktabi Orangutan were great creatures to include in your aggressive deck since destroying their Grim Monolith or Sapphire Medallion would keep them from getting ahead of your pressure through mana development.

Sometimes it's not the threat itself that provides the disruption but rather provides the means to make the disruption work. For instance, if your plan is to use Sinkhole and Strip Mine to destroy all the opponent's lands, a creature like Dark Confidant can attack for two every turn while also making sure you draw enough land destruction spells to keep the opponent locked on just one or two lands.

Nowadays most of the best aggressive decks are interactive in some way, unless their primary mechanic involves the word "hexproof." It's not just about finding the best threats or most powerful decks, it's about finding the one that matches up best against the field. Often this will come down to individual decisions such as "Mirran Crusader because of Doom Blade," but these are finer points. The larger picture should be "this overall strategy matches up best against the most common overall strategies because of X, Y, Z." These "X, Y, Z" are often tied to disruption capabilities.

4. The Big Finish

An aggressive deck often leads off by casting creatures in the first few turns, sometimes intermixed with various protective or disruptive elements. Then after attacking for a few turns, it often tries to set up a big finish to end the game. Some examples of aggressive decks that build toward a big finish include Suicide Black, Blasphemous Act, and Gindy Elves.

Suicide Black was the first "aggressive deck" that featured a notable "big finish" kill. The deck was full of the most aggressively costed black creatures in the format (Carnophage, Sarcomancy), many of which were hard to block (Dauthi Horror, Dauthi Slayer) and all of which were cheap and easy to cast. It also ran Dark Ritual as a way of pumping out multiple threats on the first turn. Its "big finish" however, involved casting Dark Ritual into Hatred, typically on the third turn, to win the game.

In aggressive red decks the "big finish" often simply involves throwing all the remaining burn spells at the opponent's face (Fireblast comes most readily to mind), though other times it is casting Blasphemous Act with a Boros Reckoner in play, as we saw in various incarnations of The Aristocrats in Standard.

In Charles Gindy's Pro Tour Hollywood winning GB Elves deck, overrunning with the Garruk Wildspeaker ultimate ability was the big finish. Alternatively, casting a big Profane Command was the big finish. Due to the deck's ability to produce mana with its early plays, it could afford multiple big finishes.

Other decks have less impressive big finishes that are nevertheless equally effective. Sometimes the big finish is casting Sublime Archangel. Or it could be locking the opponent out with Armageddon or Cataclysm while keeping a threat on the board. The big finish for aggressive blue decks has often been casting Cryptic Command in some mode, either tapping the opponent's team, countering a key spell ( Wrath of God), or bouncing a permanent that was keeping the opponent alive ( Ensnaring Bridge). Either way, the "big finish "is usually the highest casting cost card(s) in the deck that function to finish the game on the final turn. They don't always have to cost the most, as with Brave the Elements, but they usually do. And this makes sense because by the time you're ready to finish the game you have access to more mana than you did at any previous point, assuming you've been building up your mana each turn.


Applying these Principles to Current Standard

It's too early to know for sure what the best aggressive deck is for Standard, but the best place to start looking is usually at the deck to beat. In this case it is Monoblack Control. Consider the following list that recently made Top 8:

DECKID=1185199

In order to pose the right threat, you want to dodge the prevalent removal spells of the format as much as possible. In this case we are dealing with:

Bile Blight
Devour Flesh
Hero's Downfall
Pharika's Cure
SB: Dark Betrayal
SB: Doom Blade
SB: Drown in Sorrow
SB: More Pharika's Cure

I'm surprised Bile Blight has not taken off yet, considering its efficiency at taking out Pack Rat in the mirror, but this list ran at least ran one copy.

Given the variety of removal spells, it will be impossible to blank all of them, but it will be possible to minimize the effectiveness of many of them and thus often leave the black deck with the wrong answers in hand to our right threats, assuming we are able to correctly ascertain the best aggressive strategy.

The one measure that stands out to me when looking at Pharika's Cure and Drown in Sorrow is the two-toughness requirement of each. This means that picking threats with three or more toughness dodges nearly half their removal spells.

It's hard to dodge Hero's Downfall and Devour Flesh without swarming the board with smaller creatures, which unfortunately plays into the aforementioned removal spells. So that strategy won't work.

An alternate strategy available would be to gain some sort of value when an opponent one-for-one's your creature with a removal spell. Creatures with enters the battlefield effects would be good choices. Unfortunately there aren't a whole lot of those in Standard right now.

So what does Standard offer the aggressive player in terms of dodging black removal?

As we mentioned already, swarming won't work because we want our threats to have three or more toughness, and preferably four or more to dodge Bile Blight. So what does this? Well, there is Brimaz, King of Oreskos, but he dies to Hero's Downfall and Doom Blade. This is at least a start, but where do we go from here?

If we look at the "linear" or mechanical themes of the newest block we see heroic and bestow aimed at bolstering the aggressive deck, and they conveniently work well together. So the next question would be does this combination of linear mechanics help solve our problems?

It appears the answer is in fact yes. By bestowing a creature, you make its toughness large enough to dodge Drown in Sorrow and Pharika's Cure. Once bestowed, if the creature dies to Devour Flesh or Hero's Downfall, the aura turns into a creature to keep the pressure on and to retain a target for your next bestowed aura. Hence the bestow mechanic looks promising, but where do we get our edge? How do we get ahead with this exchange?

That's where the heroic mechanic comes in. Whenever you bestow on a heroic creature, you get a bonus of some kind. Then even if your creature dies and the aura becomes a creature, this ongoing exchange leaves us with heroic triggers as our value point. So that leaves us with the final question of how to get the most value out of these triggers, enough to leverage a win from this ongoing exchange?

Black and white seem to offer the most in terms of three-toughness creatures, quality auras, and quality bestow creatures. So I would like to offer the following:

Orzhov Heroic

Heroic Creatures

4 Favored Hoplite (cheap early threat)
4 Tormented Hero (cheap early threat)
4 Soldier of the Pantheon (not heroic, but cheap efficient threat, sometimes evasive or removal resilient)
4 Akroan Skyguard (cheap, evasive, and good on the mana)
4 Hero of Iroas (makes all the auras much better)
4 Phalanx Leader (too rough on mana)
4 Vanguard of Brimaz (too rough on mana)
SB: 4 Agent of the Fates (against aggro decks)
SB: 4 Ashiok's Adept (against control decks)
4 Fabled Hero (good against low removal decks, which is not what Monoblack is)

Bestow Creatures

SB: 4 Hopeful Eidolon (good at winning races against aggressive decks)
4 Nyxborn Shieldmate (not powerful enough)
4 Spiteful Returned (good on the second turn or on turn three or four via bestow)
4 Herald of Torment (great both times and evades, life gain can be offset by Hopeful Eidolon)
4 Eidolon of Countless Battles (gets better as the game goes on)
4 Nighthowler (gets better as the game goes on)

Other Spells

SB: 3 Thoughtseize (because we have swamps in our deck. May prove better than Soldier of the Pantheon in the main deck)

Lands

4 Temple of Silence
4 Godless Shrine
8 Swamp
8 Plains

The issue with Gods Willing in this deck is that giving a creature protection from black in response to a black removal spell will too frequently cause our bestowed black aura to fall off our guy. It is good in heroic bestow decks that do not contain black auras, but that's why I omitted it from this list. Besides, I'd rather have every card in the deck be a creature for Nighthowler and Eidolon of Countless Battles. This is our way of overloading the black deck's removal spells. I opted against Ethereal Armor for approximately the same reasons.

I also considered Mutavault as a way to pressure opponents aiming to sweep our board with Anger of the Gods or Supreme Verdict but ultimately our bestow mechanic is good enough on its own for that and our mana is bad enough as is, so the cost is just too high.

Orzhov Guildgate was another card I considered, but we are a tempo deck and I think the four temples is the maximum number of tapped lands we want to play in this deck. Beyond those, we would rather just hope our mana works out and mulligan some times to make it work if needed.

So here's what the deck looks like:

DECKID=1185363

Have fun with this deck and let me know how it goes and what changes you'd like to make. Will this prove to be the best aggressive deck in Standard? I don't know for certain, but it's the one I'm most excited about. It has powerful threats that are resilient to the removal spells in the format, its synergies make the whole more than the sum of its parts (primarily revolving around Hero of Iroas), and it has multiple big finishes highlighted by Eidolon of Countless Battles, Nighthowler, and Herald of Torment.

It has all the ingredients.

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life on twitter