As I brew Competitive Commander Decks I often try to crack the formula for successful aggressive decks. The main problem that I encounter is that all too often an aggressive deck will eliminate one player and then immediately been seen as a threat that will draw the attention of at least one opponent. The best way that I have found to combat that is to be faster than people would expect an aggro kill could be with plenty of follow up capability. While the format is much more prepared for quick kills than it was years ago, the sheer amount of variance in the format allows for aggressive strategies to sneak through the cracks.
It is also useful that, amongst experienced players, both aggressive and control strategies are usually combo based and not damaged based. This means that as a metagame evolves, creatures will tend to become less common as strategies like Helm of Obedience and Rest in Peace mill, or Reset and Power Artifact for infinite mana, or Hermit Druid combo become more prolific. While some of these decks may have creatures in them, it means cards like Wrath of God, Terminus, or Swords to Plowshares are less used compared to other answers like Counterspell and Vandalblast. This evolution means decks that may not be able to stand up to multiple removal spells over consecutive turn cycles can actually thrive and thus reenter into the metagame that they were previously pushed out. The caveat here is that some metagames will evolve only to a certain extent and get stuck on stronger Commander focused options like Maelstrom Wanderer, Edric, Spymaster of Trest, and Kaalia of the Vast. In these general dominant metagames there is going to be more removal but also more attractive targets. Sometimes overwhelming the metagame is about playing to its weakness (lack of removal) and sometimes it is about playing to its strength (general dominated metagame) while trying to outclass the opposition.
My favorite quick aggressive deck is led by Varolz, the Scar-Striped. Varolz, by virtue of the scavenge ability, can grow quite large or share the wealth amongst other creatures. Thanks to old odd creatures with huge power and small mana costs, Varolz can grow quite quickly and set up rather nasty kills. Meanwhile, this deck has a bunch of ancillary strategies that also tie in together to give Varolz a strong early, mid, and late game.
Golgari Infect featuring Varolz, the Scar-Striped
One of the hard truths of Commander is that winning via Combat damage is inefficient. Between starting the game at 40 life and having abundant access to relevant life gain, it can be an uphill battle to actually kill someone by dealing 40 damage. At the very least it often takes much time. Commander damage is one way to shortcut that, but we are more interested in Infect. By turning our damage into poison counters, we drastically reduce the amount of damage and thus attacks it takes to defeat an opponent. Spread this effect over multiple opponents and you can end up saving yourself 3-5 combat steps by going for Infect kills.
There are two logical strategies for Infect kills. One is to load up Inkmoth Nexus with the +1/+1 counters. While it is vulnerable to artifact removal, it can dodge Wrath of God and Cyclonic Rift among other relevant board wipes. The other, more commonly, is to just load up Varolz with your pump effects. It’s normally best as you can regenerate your Commander and that makes it less risky than a random mana creature. Once you grow your creature, then adding on the necessary Infect effect is worth it as you now avoid removal like Lightning Bolt or Dismember from getting both your pump and Infect effect. At that point, just start swinging away and hope you knock some players out of the game.
There is a sizeable contingent of players that loathe infect as a mechanic and will not be pleased by people choosing this strategy. Keep in mind that some players get so infuriated by Infect that they try to superimpose their own logic on the game to increase the number of Poison counters to kill someone to 15 or 20, thus making Infect irrelevant. The only ways to deal with this is to argue reason, be antisocial and belligerent, or find a different playgroup. I recommend the last one as any group that wants to drastically weaken Infect may not be a great place for you to find competition when you are trying to be competitive. It would be a scenario where ones culture clashes with the whole or just someone outgrowing their group and it’s not that bad a thing as it sounds.
The core strategy for Varolz, the Scar-Striped’s strategy is giving your creatures in your graveyard Scavenge. This means that creatures with both high power and low converted mana costs. Death’s Shadow and Phyrexian Dreadnought provide the most bang for your buck, but there are plenty of other ones. Hunted Horror, Hunted Troll, and Sheltering Ancient not only offer solid bodies for Scavenge (definitely not the best values) but can let you play politics by offering some upside to your opposition. While it may not be the plan A for these cards, don’t be afraid to hustle with some politics when you must as it can come in handy, especially when time is of the essence against powerful combo decks. Lord of Extinction is just big and dumb, but occasionally that is exactly what a deck like this wants. Phyrexian Soulgorger is mostly a worse Phyrexian Dreadnought, but occasionally you can get a few swipes in thanks to Lightning Greaves and a mana dork.
Whenever one is trying to win with creatures there can be few things more important than having some options for granting evasion abilities. In this deck Trample, Swampwalk, and Fear are the best options for what we have available to us. The key here isn’t to have a creature that can’t blocked, but to just keep chump blocking tokens from shielding our opponents indefinitely. A lot of these effects were picked as they are reusable and resilient towards hate. They also offer a strong valuation in mana cost to effectiveness which is very important when trying to be aggressive.
One of the nifty aspects of this deck, and Golgari decks in general, is getting to gain value out of your graveyard. The Incarnations, Genesis and Brawn and Filth, are a great example of cards that give you more value in your graveyard than anywhere else. These Incarnations help get Varolz’s combat damage through or keep you will a steady supply of fodder. Life from the Loam not only helps fill your graveyard full of creatures to scavenge, but will ensure land drops or help you use Strip Mine or Wasteland to cripple your opponents. Hermit Druid is used to good effect here and not in the “If I use it once then you all die” fashion. Getting an extra land each turn is not worth as much as getting to mill 3-5 cards a turn. Entomb and Buried Alive help to fill your graveyard with the relevant cards to either scavenge or enable victory through other means. Volrath’s Stronghold, much like Genesis, can set up big plays later in the game. Often times aggressive decks can meet up against a brick wall of protection when trying to eliminate multiple opponents through combat and being able to reuse your best and biggest creatures is a great strategy to bust through that excessive removal.
One of the most consistent openings this deck has is playing a mana creature on turn 1 to curve out a turn 2 Varolz, the Scar-Striped. While it enables turn 3 Infect kills, those kills can take multiple cards to assemble and thus aren’t 100% reliable. To bolster and diversify the strategy of the deck, we have a package to cheat out giant creatures via Natural Order and Pattern of Rebirth. While Natural Order is a known and appreciated card for Commander, Pattern of Rebirth sees less play because it doesn’t necessarily work immediately. With Varolz, our Commander, being an on curve sacrifice engine we can enable a turn 3 Pattern of Rebirth with great consistency and thus have essentially two copies of Natural Order. It is important to note that Pattern of Rebirth can grab non green creatures, an occasionally useful distinction. The main things to grab with Natural Order and Pattern are Terastodon and Woodfall Primus. They were chosen for their ability to disrupt opponents’ mana and Planeswalkers while also having sizeable bodies. The other important factor in embracing this strategy is that the mana elves and artifacts do allow for casting our big creatures earlier than people might expect from an otherwise aggressive deck.
In many decks Tooth and Nail is nearly an instant win when unopposed and this build is no exception. By grabbing Mikeaus, the Unhallowed and Triskelion and putting them both onto the battlefield we can set up a loop that will deal infinite damage to the opponents. To pull of this loop one removes a counter from Triskelion to damage itself and resolve it. Repeat. At this point, Triskelion is a 3/3 (or 4/4 depending on the number of +1/+1 counters on it) and has 2 damage on it. When you remove the last of the +1/+1 counters, it will die and trigger the undying Mikeaus, the Unhallowed is granting to it. So remove those counters targeting an opponent. Resolve the undying trigger and then the activated abilities for damage. Then start the cycle all over again. This method plays around most removal that could hit Triskelion but not Mikeaus. If you suspect Krosan Grip then perhaps just removing all the counters at the same time is best.
Having this extra package is very valuable as it gives you an additional avenue of victory. Sadly, the only infinite combo with Tooth and Nail in these colors is just as graveyard reliant as the rest of our strategies but grabbing big creatures like Terastodon is always an option. Meanwhile, you have many tutors that can grab a potential single card victory condition and that is hard to argue against. It can be important to have alternate win conditions when going to battle with an aggressive deck as you are more susceptible to removal and can be more affected by your opposition ganging up that other strategies.
Card Advantage in Black and Green
One of the biggest reasons that Blue decks are so successful in Commander is that they have access to powerful card drawing and card filtering. Thankfully, Varolz can draw on some powerful old cards to also keep itself in cards. In addition to being able to use the graveyard as a resource there are powerful draw engines. Greater Good is an all-star here as you can sacrifice all those giant creatures for excessive amounts of card; Phyrexian Dreadnought can be sacrificed to Greater Good or Varolz with its own sacrifice trigger on the stack to no detriment. Sylvan Library and Sensei’s Divining Top provide ample filtering given the excessive amount of shuffling this deck can draw upon. Phyrexian Arena is just some good slow card advantage, useful for the wars of attrition aggressive decks find themselves drawn into frequently. Skullclamp is extra nifty in this deck, not only for using mana elves as fuel for cards but any creature as Varolz can sacrifice them at will. Outside of that, the deck boasts excessive tutor power from format staples like Survival of the Fittest, Birthing Pod, and Demonic Tutor. Given enough time, this deck can churn its way through itself, finding the best it has to offer.
Fighting the Opposition
I’ve seeded the core strategy of the deck all throughout the article. Plan A is making a giant Varolz (or Inkmoth Nexus) and set up a kill via Infect or Commander damage. Plan B is to set up Natural Order/Pattern of Rebirth. Plan C is Tooth and Nail for Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Triskelion. Aside from those specific plans towards victory, the deck has plenty of back up options to try and fight against the various types of situations you could run into. The deck has access to repeated land destruction to fight against control strategies. There are ways to fight against counters, hate on graveyards, and even wipe the board if needed. There are plenty of things that this deck can do win games that seem lost.
The most important strategy of this deck is to never give up. Sometimes you take a gamble on an early kill but get crushed by stuff like Condemn or Oblation. Sometimes you can smash through 2 players only to run up against board wipe after board wipe. So just never give up. The deck can start trying to force through giant creatures like Terastodon. Maybe steal a game via Tooth and Nail. Or just use Eternal Witness + Genesis/Volrath’s Stronghold to grind away a victory. There are so many ways to come from behind that the biggest mistake is to just despair. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do a kamikaze kill out of spite (occasionally useful if you want someone to fear crossing you in the future), it’s just that rarely should you concede unless there is truly no hope (like when your opponent has demonstrated an infinite loop and the necessary level of competence to execute said loop).
There are plenty of other permutations of the deck that can succeed. Mind Twist and Persecute can also handle problems like control. Nightmare Void and Raven’s Crime are also solid discard spells depending on your play style. In some metagames there exists a greater need for more artifact hate and that is where cards like Maelstrom Pulse and Krosan Grip can shine. There are plenty of ways to modify your deck and if you have any questions you can feel free to ask me. I wish you the best of luck with all your beatings.
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alextobriner at gmail dot com
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