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Classic Cube Part 2: Aggro and Control

Written by Ezra Sassaman on . Posted in Casual Magic, Cube

Classic Cube Part 2:  Aggro and Control

Ezra Sassaman

Ezra Sassaman has been playing Magic since he got a sweet Ravnica theme deck for his 12th birthday. Since then, he has been an avid follower of all aspects of the game. In his free time, he enjoys Cube-drafting with his friends in Bar Harbor, Maine.

We begin the Standard 1997 environment with U.S. Nationals. This was a breakout tournament for the monored deck now known as “Sligh” or “Deadguy Red”. From the Pro Tour Top 8 decks we looked at last week, there were no dedicated burn decks and few decks at all that were purely dedicated to aggression. The GW “Aggro” decks were full of Land Tax, Sylvan Library, Wrath of God, Swords to Plowshares, etc. (hardly the stuff of decks seeking to get the opponent from 20 to 0 as quickly as possible). The closest thing to an aggro deck was probably George Baxter’s “Jund” deck, which made use of pro-white Knights, Hymn to Tourach, Lightning Bolt, and Fireball to aggress the opponent with a fast clock. However, this style of deck could still play a somewhat controlling game by using Lightning Bolt and Fireball as efficient removal spells to clear the way for creatures to attack unimpeded. In 1997, Lightning Bolt rotated out of Standard, and one player saw the need to adjust the aggressive strategy to fit the new cards from Mirage block, especially Fireblast. I found this insightful quote from an old Dojo article:

“The decision to play a beatdown red deck in US Nationals, instead of a control red deck… was largely a result of the loss of Lightning Bolt, which is an efficient removal spell, and the gain of Fireblast, which is not well suited for removal but is an excellent card to finish the game with.”
-Dave Price

Following the philosophy of efficient creatures and as much direct damage as possible led to one of the first dedicated burn decks in Magic’s history. This was the inception of the archetype we know today as “Red Deck Wins” or “Monored Burn”. But instead of making use of creatures like today’s Goblin Guide, Eidolon of the Great Revel, and Monastery Swiftspear, the original monored aggro deck played hasty threats like Ball Lightning, Lava Hounds, and Viashino Sandstalker. The burn suite included Incinerate, Hammer of Bogardan, and the aforementioned Fireblast. After the release of Tempest in October of 1997, the monored deck gained access to a greater number of efficient creatures, such as Jackal Pup, Mogg Fanatic, and Canyon Wildcat. The new set also brought recurring sources of damage, such as Fireslinger and Cursed Scroll. Other cube-worthy cards from these two iterations of the “Sligh” deck include Pyrokinesis, Thunderbolt, Kaervek’s Torch, Ironclaw Orcs, Mogg Conscripts, and Goblin Vandal.

Monored Aggro was not the only Standard deck to change and evolve as the Type II format rotated and players got access to new cards. WU Control, one of the most classic archetypes of Magic, gained cards like Force of Will, Arcane Denial, Kjeldoran Outpost, and Thawing Glaciers from Alliances. The repeatable shuffle effect of the Glaciers also brought Brainstorm into play. The Alliances land served as a pre-fetchland way of turning Brainstorm into quasi-Ancestral Recall. Mirage brought another counterspell in the form of Dissipate, as well as more card selection in the form of Mystical Tutor and more artifact mana from the Marble Diamond cycle. Visions and Weatherlight offered yet more control tools in the form of Impulse, Gerrard’s Wisdom, Abeyance, Pendrell Mists, Steel Golem, and Mind Stone. Tempest block brought the elegant Dismiss alongside Propaganda and Capsize, a recurring bounce spell that grinds out the game, one turn at a time, in quintessential control fashion.

Learning about the history of Standard has been interesting for me particularly to see how cards being used since the inception of Magic keep being “reprinted” – rarely an actual reprint, but often variations on old school themes. In October 2017 Standard, there is no Wrath of God, but Fumigate works well as a sweeper, allowing a WU control deck to get the same card advantage it had access to over twenty years ago. While players in the mid-90’s had Counterspell, Dissipate, and Dismiss to counter any type of spell, players in today’s Standard often elect for a combination of the more narrow Essence Scatter and Negate. Counterspells in today’s Standard must be able to answer problematic creatures like Hazoret the Fervent and Glorybringer as well as noncreature spells like Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Looking at the history of Magic also can give players a new appreciation when they see new cards that are printed as a “nod” to preexisting cards. After looking at the utility lands of ages past, I see similarities between Adanto, the First Fort and Kjeldoran Outpost. White spells are also still removing stuff from the game in 2017. Cast Out can answer any permanent that Swords to Plowshares or Disenchant would have removed from the battlefield, and Settle the Wreckage is a nice cross between Wrath of God and Exile. As a recurring draw engine that puts control players farther and farther ahead each turn, Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin could be compared to a historical card like Browse. Finally, Supreme Will is a perfect mash-up of Impulse and Mana Leak that encompasses everything a control deck could ask for: if your opponent casts a spell, you can counter, but if they don’t, you can get some card selection and use your mana efficiently during your opponent’s turn.

Just like the creatures in the original monored “Sligh” deck, many cards in today’s Standard are chosen for their speed and power/mana cost ratio. Others are chosen because they are a recurring source of damage. The 2017 “Ramunap Red” deck utilizes cheap threats like Soul-Scar Mage, Earthshaker Khenra and Ahn-Crop Crasher to get damage through as quickly as possible, efficient burn spells like Shock and Lightning Strike, and the namesake Ramunap Ruins as a recurring source of damage. The powerful God Hazoret the Fervent is a modern-day blessing for red aggro decks, as it combines the size and speed of Lava Hounds with the recursive damage element of Cursed Scroll. Take a moment to compare this decklist with its predecessors from 1997 Standard: Dave Price’s original deck and the updated version after the release of Tempest.

What kind of similarities do you see between the decklists? What are some major differences? Are there some new cards that would have been dominant in 1997? What about cards from past Standard that would fit well into Ramunap Red today?

Now let’s do the same for WU control. WU control is still alive and well in today’s Standard. Now take a look at this “Browse” decklist from 1997. How has the control archetype changed over the 20-year span between these decks? What kind of tools for control decks are missing in today’s Standard that are present in the 1997 version? What kind of newly developed control tech from the most recent sets would have pushed old school WU control decks over the top?

We’ve covered a lot of ground today, so I’ll end with a summary of the important cards from the 1997 era of Standard I will add to the Classic Cube.

White: Abeyance, Gerrard’s Wisdom

Blue: Arcane Denial, Brainstorm, Mystical Tutor, Pendrell Mists, Impulse, Dismiss, Dissipate, Capsize, Browse (Force of Will is unfortunately prohibitively expensive)

Artifacts: Cursed Scroll, Marble Diamond, Sky Diamond, Charcoal Diamond, Fire Diamond, Moss Diamond, Steel Golem, Mind Stone

Lands: Kjeldoran Outpost, Thawing Glaciers

Thanks for reading! You can follow the cube updates here!


Ezra Sassaman

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