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Life After Combo – A Commander’s View Of Competitive Aggro

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Casual Magic, Commander

One of the positive side effects of writing or podcasting is that I get emails from newer players asking for advice.  Every so often I get a question that can’t be adequately answered with a simple email; A follower named Joe asked a question that I will need several articles to answer properly:

Is it possible to make big plays and be more try-hard without infinite combos or staples?

This is a very good question for a newer player to pose.  Commander is a format that is defined by the diversity in decks. Almost every strategy you can think of can be made playable.  Ramping and playing combos seems to be in fashion at the moment, but those strategies are far from the only way to make big plays.

Being Aggressive

Commander is different from other formats.  The rules of the game, combined with the multiplayer environment, forces players to think outside the box to win.  In competitive formats, aggro is a simple concept – it’s just addition.  Aggro decks are about counting to twenty as fast as possible.  If you try the same strategy to get to one-hundred and twenty (three players with forty life), you are going to be at it a long time.  The plan for aggro is to deal creature-based damage while using just enough control to hold off being defeated by a large bomb; this means speed is critical to victory.

The most common way players try to get around this is by ramping up and dropping Commander-sized fatties to end the game.  The issue with this is that only creatures that can kill in one or two swings are big enough to make this plan work consistently.  Most people end up resorting to ramping into some form of combo, because it is easier to win with a combo than to win with even the largest single creature.

Addition in Commander simply doesn’t let you win games with the creatures in your 99.  If you want to win with an aggressive deck in Commander, you need to stop adding and start multiplying.

Let’s look at an example.  If we have a Godsire (8/8) that can swing and make another 8/8 each turn, it deals damage in this manner;

  • T1 – 8
  • T2 – 16
  • T3 – 24
  • T4 – 32
  • T5 – 40

That’s not too bad. Doing one-hundred and twenty damage in five turns is no joke.

For comparison reasons, let’s pretend that we have an 8/8 token and Rhys The Redeemed is doubling our tokens every turn.

  • T1-8
  • T2 – 16
  • T3 – 32
  • T4 – 64
  • T5 – 128

 

GodsireRhys

In the same number of turns, Rhys has produced a potential two-hundred and forty-eight points of damage.  The curve when you use multipliers is an exponential progression instead of a straight line.  Following this line of logic, you can use additional multipliers, or ‘stack multipliers’, to quickly build up enough damage to kill a whole table in one swift motion.

There are two basic forms of multipliers that you can use to power up an aggro deck to really strip life off of players – vertical and horizontal.

Vertical

Vertical multipliers are bonuses applied to a single creature, or ‘champion’. It is referred to as a ‘vertical multiplier’ because when buffs are stacked on a single creature it creates a single vertical line of cards pointing at the opponent.  This is a similar strategy to what gets used by decks that want to win with commander damage; the difference with commander damage is that when you only need to do half as much damage, and they can’t heal from that damage.  If you are planning on swinging with one creature at a time that isn’t your Commander, you need to have a higher top-end damage output, and you need to be able to rebuild your position after the creature is removed.

Equipment is the most common method of boosting a creature. Inquisitor’s Flail and Fireshrieker are probably the best examples of equipment that boost power based on multiplication.  If you were to attach both pieces equipment to a 5/5 creature with no other abilities, it could do twenty damage in a single turn.  Equipment also has a great cast of supporting characters like Puresteel Paladin, Stonehewer Giant, and Stoneforge Mystic that are efficiently costed and provide crucial utility.

Equipment is a safe choice in the kind of decks that like vertical multipliers because you can run equipment as utility cards.  Using equipment this way means you get incidental boosts to your creature’s power.  The same vanilla creature equipped with the Flail and Fireshrieker will do eight more damage if equipped with any Sword of X and Y.

There are a number of auras that can greatly increase the power of your creature; the issue is that once the creature is killed, the auras are usually gone as well.  The problem with losing all your auras every time your creature dies is that you have to restart your building process.  Even with an exponential curve, having to rebuild your entire field multiple times in a game is a death sentence. If you want to improve your creatures with enchantments, you want to go with non-aura enchantments like True Conviction, Finest Hour, Wound Reflection or Aggravated Assault.  These enchantments have a larger down-payment, but they lend crucial resiliency to your plan.

Token decks can be a major issue for trying to win with a single creature at a time. When a deck is trying to win in this matter,  it needs a way to make the creatures it swings with unblockable.  If the creatures being used don’t have evasion, the plan could be completely shut down by something as simple as an Ant Queen or Kher Keep.  There are a number of ways to achieve unblockablity; one of my personal favorites is equipping a creature with Nim Deathmantle. If that doesn’t work, I also equip the creature with either Sword of Light and Shadow or Sword of Feast and Famine.  The easiest form of evasion to provide is trample.  From Rancor to Akroma’s Memorial, there are choices throughout the mana curve.

With the focus of the deck being on only one creature at a time, protecting that creature becomes an important issue. You don’t want to be locked out of the game by a Mystifying Maze or Capsize. Giving a creature shroud or hexproof can go a long way when grinding out victories. Having the ability to make creatures indestructible with cards like Darksteel Plate or Helm of Kaldra will help prevent your champion from dying to most spot removal.

When you add removal to any deck, you want it one-sided, or at least shifted in your favor as much as possible.  Running mass removal will impact decks with multiple creatures on board more than decks with a single creature; with either Darksteel Plate or Helm of Kaldra, the mass removal is one-sided.  Since vertical decks depend a lot on either equipment or enchantments, running mass naturalize effects like Shatterstorm, Tranquility, or Akroma’s Vengeance is not a good idea.  Decks still need removal for pesky artifacts and enchantments, but on the vertical plan it is better to be playing spot removal like Krosan Grip or Return to Dust.

Building an effective aggro deck is complicated, even if the game plan in simple.  Where possible, card choices should have cross utility. When building a creature that is supposed to have evasion, protection, and power, it should start off with at least one of those abilities.  A creature like Mirran Crusader is a perfect example of what to look for in champions for the deck.

When choosing a commander for a deck that uses the vertical strategy as a primary plan, think of the commander like one of the buffing effects.  Any commander that grants double-strike, a second attack phase or doubles damage is a good fit. On that note, Godo, Bandit Warlord,  Rafiq of the Many, Gisela, Blade of Goldnight and Aurelia, the Warleader are all perfect examples of Commanders that fit into this aggro plan.

Horizontal

Horizontal aggro is about creating a line of creatures across the battlefield and attacking with all of them.  More often than not, this means either playing a tribal deck and/or a token deck.  This style of aggro is easily the most popular way to try to win through regular damage.  The plan is simple; play lots of critters and use pumps to make those critters big enough to kill opponents. These decks would rather have ten 4/4s than one 40/40.

The horizontal aggro plan is all about covering the table with as many creatures as possible.  This means using creatures for as many things as possible. When playing elves, that means lots of mana guys.  When playing tokens, this might mean using Earthcraft or Ashnod’s Altar to generate additional mana.  Swap out spells for creatures with attached effects when possible. When the time to play a finisher comes, every boot on the ground counts.

The easiest way to win with horizontal decks is by casting an Overrun effect.  Anything that can boost creatures by 3+ power can be used to finish off opponents.  I prefer to have these pumps be on creatures like Karona, False GodJor Kadeen, the PrevailerKamahl, Fist of Krosa or Craterhoof Behemoth.  Buffs from spells or non-creature permanents can also work.  A buff of three or more is preferable because creatures usually have a minimum power of one; with a buff of three or more, ten or fewer creatures are required to kill someone off.  Ten is already a rather large number of creatures, so I don’t recommend relying on a tactic that could require more than that.

Aside from Overruns, using mass multipliers are a great way to punish people with extra damage.  That means running creatures like Avatar of Slaughter, Hellkite Charger or Kinsbaile Cavalier.  Since that pool of cards is shallow, you may end up having to dip into the non-aura enchantments like Vertical aggro decks use; Concerted Effort, Rage Reflection and True Conviction.  The important aspect of any of these boosts is that half as many creatures are needed to accomplish the same job.  When playing tribal instead of tokens, it may be easier to use buffs that multiply attacking strength rather than adding to it.

The horizontal plan usually ends up relying on one big attack to finish off opponents.  The risk here is that a Fog will shut down the attack or a Counterspell will stop the Overrun from ever resolving. The horizontal aggro gameplan wants to be able to either stop other players from casting spells out of turn, or requires playing handful of counterspells to force their own plan through. Once an opponent sets up Constant Mists to lock out the damage, there needs to be a way the decks can break the lock.

Unlike the vertical plan, the horizontal plan doesn’t mind some other creatures out on the board.  The decks that rely on this strategy should have answers for some troublesome creatures like Platinum Emperion or Windborn Muse.  To reduce collateral damage they should run spot removal for creatures over mass creature removal.

Since Horizontal decks should be relying primarily on creatures to do the dirty work, the decks can run an abundance of non-creature permanent hate to punish others for their reliance on artificial constructs.  Creeping Corrosion and Austere Command are excellent ways to sweep opponents’ legs from underneath them while the horizontal decks stay standing.

Recursion for horizontal decks should also be horizontal.  It is very likely that opponents will be using mass removal to slow the decks down.  The recovery plan for horizontal decks should be able to get back everything/most of what was lost and rebuild in an instant.  This may mean playing Second Sunrise or Patriarch’s Bidding. If that proves to be hard to achieve in your color identity, there needs to be enough card advantage in the deck to draw fresh threats when the board gets wiped.

When choosing a commander for a deck that wants to kill with this plan, there are three different types that are good choices; utility commanders, overrun commanders and theme commanders.  Examples of utility commanders would be Edric, Spymaster of TrestAnimar, Soul of Elements or Balthor the Defiled. These commanders let you draw, ramp and recover accordingly. When you have a commander that helps with the crucial functions of the deck, it can help smooth out the consistency of wins.

Overrun Commanders would be Kamahl, Ezuri, Renegade Leader, or Jor Kadeen.  These commanders may sit in the command zone for most of the game, until you are ready to play them and win immediately.

Theme commanders either generate tokens or just generally work well with your tribe or other theme. Great examples of this are Rhys the Redeemed, Hazezon Tamar, or both Worts. These cards will usually provide utility or overrun in addition to the theme.

Conclusion

Aggro may not be particularly easy or forgiving to build, but it is one of the many ways in Commander that a good ‘tryhard’ deck can be built. When players are talking about fair decks, aggro decks are usually what they are speaking of. When building an aggro deck, the goal should be to make them feel as unfair as possible to break the stereotype. It’s hard enough to win a game beating every opponent to death, don’t put a handicap on yourself.

As a reminder, strategies are not exclusive by definition. A deck should have multiple plans for how it can win. As this mini-series progresses, think about the synergies and connecting points between different strategies and your current decks to find a blend that works for you and your group.

Secret Tech

In each article I write, I will be including a certain amount of ‘secret tech’ to pass on to the readers. To make sure these cards are available to loyal fans of LegitMTG and to encourage feedback, we are giving out one secret tech card to each of five commenters for every article I write.

Today’s secret tech cards are:

Inquisitor’s Flail

Fireshrieker

Nim Deathmantle

Wound Reflection

Hellkite Charger

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