Hello, and welcome to Magic Academy! This week we'll be looking at the most common and effective strategies used against the aggro decktype.
An aggro deck is one that attempts to race its opponent from 20 to 0, mostly shirking inevitability and attrition. Creature-based decks are usually aggro decks.
Aggro, as the most strategically primitive of the decktypes, is often underestimated. However, it has some hidden value. An aggro deck will quickly roll over an opponent with a subpar draw, while control and combo decks may not be able to capitalize. Many aggro decks are also surprisingly resilient; they might not have as much raw inevitability as a Control deck, but given a severely damaged opponent, may be difficult to corral. Aggro decks also generally have access to measures of disruption, which can throw serious wrenches into one-step plans. Beating a good aggro deck requires having a thoroughly robust defense.
For reference, Billy Moreno provided this aggro listing:
There are good strategies for playing against aggro, and good strategies for building against aggro.
General Anti-Aggro Strategies
Avoid Taking Damage: While playing against control and combo it is often correct to take damage (e.g., from painlands) to further your position, but against aggro it is important to weigh the risks and rewards of such moves.
Avoid Racing: Aggro decks are built to end the game before it gets out of their control—and they often have plenty of fireworks to help make this happen. Even if the board position would suggest a semi-favorable race, don't forget that their hands are often chock filled with reinforcements and burn. It's usually best to play defensively until their initial rush peters out. Once it does, then you can, and should, take a proactive approach.
Include Early Plays: Aggro decks sacrifice many long-term advantages for a strong early game. Having cheap interactive spells to complement your more powerful ones will help you keep up in those crucial early turns.
Example: Even though it's not very good in the late game, Force Spike is very powerful for being able to cheaply disrupt the early game an opponent is relying on.
Avoid or Compensate for Situational, Long-Term, and Expensive Cards: That random Disenchant or Journeyer's Kite you've put in your deck for control matchups may really sting you against aggro. Here, staying alive means actively defending yourself, and cards that don't afford you options or allow you to destroy threats lose value. If you do include them, understand that doing so requires your other cards to be that much better against aggro.
Example: Your opponent has played turn-one Kird Ape, turn-two Grizzly Bears, turn-three Trained Armodon. You have a Treasure Trove, and a Stone Rain in hand—both useless in this situation— hopefully your other cards afford you some help.
Include a Clock: This said, it's also important to include cards that may not be fantastic until you quell that first offense, but allow you to seal off the game once you do.
Example: Akroma's not great in the first several turns in the game, but if you can survive for a little while, and play it off Signets, or discard it to Compulsive Research and then Zombify it, it will quickly end the game.
Include Life-Gain and Recurring Creature Removal: Because the aggro strategy is often somewhat one-dimensional (attack with creatures, finish with burn), and doesn't plan for many contingencies, there are some straightforward ways to throw a wrench in their gears. A well-timed life gain spell (i.e., after you've stabilized the board), or recurring life gain, can put you well out of range of any of their late game offenses. Recurring creature removal (Cursed Scroll) can also close the door on late-game creature offenses.
Example: Against your Goblins opponent, once you have eight mana, Shard Pheonix keeps them from ever keeping their tiny creatures on the table.
Use Cards that Discourage Racing and Creatures: Certain cards discourage the swift and all-out creature approach many aggro decks adopt. Wrath of God punishes an opponent for extending early by destroying multiple cards for the price of one. Carven Caryatid might hold back several creatures at once, and even replaces itself! These cards force aggro decks away from their preferred game plan.
Other cards or combinations make aggro's narrow attack outright useless. Worship and an untargetable creature, for example, often end the game immediately.
Example: Against a non-red aggro deck, Form of the Dragon makes a just-attack strategy seem pretty silly!
Avoid Self-Inflicting Damage: In an environment with only combo or control decks, there would be increased incentive to play more painlands, and other cards that cause you damage for a bonus. With aggro in the fold, though, it is important to balance necessity against extraneous damage.
Example: Against combo and control opponents, red-green-white aggro decks and their heavy-painland manabases were just as well off as their red-green aggro counterparts. When red-green-white faced off against red-green, though, those extra painlands became a serious liability.
Control against Aggro: Control decks are typically geared to dominate the late game. Because aggro decks aren't designed to put up too much of a fight in that realm, control can sacrifice a bit of long-term inevitability for some short-term safety measures, such as cheap creature removal, or cheap situational counterspells.
Having a good mana base—reliable and as painless as possible—is important against aggro, as stumbling for even one early turn will tend to result in a lot of damage.
Many control decks include some way to gain life in the mid and late game to move themselves out of the danger zone against aggro.
Combo against Aggro: Combo and aggro decks are both racing, but in different ways. Combo aims to enact their combination as quickly as possible. Aggro aims to reduce them from 20 to 0, mostly by attacking, before they do. Some cards allow the combo deck to further itself while stunting the opponent. Carven Caryatid holds off attackers and replaces itself with another card. Vine Trellis provides mana and can also block.
Combo decks should be resilient enough to survive the light amount of removal seen in many aggro decks.
After sideboard, combo can bring in some nasty surprises for the aggro deck—sometimes creatures of their own, sometimes unexpected mass removal.
Aggro against Aggro: The aggro mirror can manifest in strange ways. Sometimes it will be a quick and bloody race; other times it will be a battle of attrition, with the game decided by this or that trump card. Though neither deck is designed for the long game, the fact that both are on equal footing means that they can compete with each other in a long game. Your sense of which aggressive deck has the strongest potential in the late game (inevitability) will dictate to some extent how you play in the early game.
Avoid cards which deal damage to you (Jackal Pup, for example). The drawback is magnified in this matchup.
In general, powerful cards in the mirror are ones that are good in both aggressive and defensive positions. Bottle Gnomes is a profitable card in general in the aggro mirror, but won't help when you're on the offense. Rathi Dragon is good in either case.
That's it for this week. Next time we'll look at how to dismantle combo!