The best defense is a good offense.
At this point in Level One, it's time to begin putting together the fundamental concepts of Magic which have been covered so far and learning concrete ways to apply them. This means looking at the complete picture—not just the gameplay of Magic, but at deck building as well.
Deck building is also important in Limited formats (like Sealed Deck), but the greater challenges—and rewards—come from deck building in Constructed. In Constructed formats (the most commonly played of which is Standard), the possibilities are virtually endless, as you may build your deck from any cards (that are legal in the format) that you can get your hands on. The challenge becomes to hone in on a particular strategy, and to make sure every card you choose contributes to that strategy.
Perhaps the simplest and most common strategy is to exploit tempo, covered last week. By building a fast deck geared toward playing and attacking with creatures quickly, you can put your opponents on the back foot right away and win lots of games with minimal resistance. We call these aggro (short for aggressive) decks.
The Importance of Tempo in Aggro Decks
With an aggro deck, your goal is to get ahead early and stay ahead until you either win the game or create an advantage large enough to leverage into a win. Tempo is your most important resource and ought to overshadow other concerns. Let's put this in the perspective of some of the other concepts we've touched on in Level One up to this point.
Card advantage is a bigger concern for players aiming to play a long game. With an aggro deck, you want to be able to decide the game with your opening seven cards plus your first small handful of draw steps. You wouldn't turn down drawing extra cards if you could do so for free, but you cannot afford to sacrifice tempo in order to do it.
Your mana curve should be carefully built and as low to the ground as possible. If you cannot begin putting creatures into play in the first couple turns of the game, you risk losing the window where you could have developed your biggest advantage.
Focus on mana efficiency. For every job that needs to be done, choose the cheapest (in terms of mana) option available to you. Ideally, you should spend less mana to deploy threats than your opponent spends to answer them. You should spend less mana answering threats than your opponent spends to deploy them. Do not invest tempo into cards like Sandsteppe Citadel and Abzan Banner, since (hopefully) the games won't go long enough for such cards to be worth their initial investment.
Focus most on your own threats instead of seeking to answer whatever your opponent might be doing. The small number of answer cards that you can play should be geared to counter the cards that might shut down your own game plan (like blocking creatures).
Be concerned with attacking your opponent's life total, not with protecting your own.
In short, you should thrive in the early turns instead of planning for a long game.
Example #1: WB Aggro
First, take a look at the mana curve of this deck. A full 22 spells cost one mana! There are five white and black creatures currently legal in Standard that cost one mana and have 2 power; this deck plays four of them in four copies each! This means having the highest possible chance of making a good, aggressive play on turn one, and also a high chance of playing two additional one-mana spells on turn two! Deploying your threats as quickly as possible is an important aspect of a tempo-based strategy.
Notice also that no spell costs more than three mana. This means that all of your weapons will be at your disposal in the early turns of the game. It also allows for a relatively low land count (only 21), making more room for threats.
Regarding individual card choices, Herald of Torment is a perfect card for an aggro deck. It only costs three mana, so it has a great chance of coming down early and putting pressure on the opponent. However, in the case where you draw too many lands, or if the games goes a little longer than you might like, Herald of Torment's bestow ability provides a back-up plan. The bestow ability can provide a big tempo swing by allowing an existing creature to fly over a blocker right away. While many creatures require an initial tempo investment due to their inability to tap or attack on the first turn they're in play (we used to call this "summoning sickness"), bestowing Herald has an immediate impact on the board, and a big one at that! The flexibility of being able to use either option is what's so appealing about Herald of Torment.
A number of cards in this deck cause you to lose life: Herald of Torment, Pain Seer, Thoughtseize, and Ulcerate, to name a few. From my experience, new players tend to instinctively avoid cards like these like the plague. However, it's important for all players to get over this phobia. After all, aggro players do not need to worry much about their own life totals. Remember, the best defense is a good offense!
In the early game, you're going to be so far ahead in tempo that your opponent won't be able to attack you back. If things go awry and your opponent is able to swing things back in his or her favor, a couple of life points are unlikely to make the difference. Your goal is to win the game before your opponents can get their more expensive and powerful cards online; your goal should never be to beat those cards in a fair fight.
Along the same lines, slower WB (white-black) decks might prefer Scoured Barrens to Caves of Koilos and Mana Confluence. However, when you play an aggro deck you should be happy to make sacrifices in terms of life total in order to preserve tempo. Lands that enter the battlefield tapped slow you down and throw off your mana curve. That can be very costly for an aggro strategy.
Finally, let's take a look at the answer cards of this WB Aggro deck. Hero's Downfall is a reliable way to take out virtually any blocker and keep attacking. Ulcerate and Murderous Cut are slightly more situational—they require certain circumstances to be at their best—but make up for it in their mana efficiency. If you can ever kill a creature with an Ulcerate or a delved Murderous Cut and play your own creature in the same turn, then you've created a huge tempo swing that you can use to your advantage.
Thoughtseize is also an answer card, although in this particular deck you'll most often use it to answer your opponent's answer. After all, the two biggest threats to an aggro strategy will typically be blocking creatures and removal spells. You cannot Hero's Downfall a removal spell, but you can Thoughtseize it away before your opponent casts it! This will be particularly valuable when your opponent has planned the entire game around a high-impact spell like End Hostilities and you can strip it away at the last moment.
Attacking Your Opponent's Life Total
The key to Constructed formats is building your deck with a concerted strategy. The beauty of an aggro deck, like the white-black deck featured above, is that every card contributes to attacking your opponent's life total. No single card need win you the game on its own; if your Tormented Hero deals 4 or 6 damage to the opponent before dying, then it's done its job! The rest of your deck can continue working toward that concerted goal of getting your opponent from 20 down to 0.
Aggressively attacking your opponent's life total can limit your opponent's options. Just as you, as the aggro player, might utilize some cards that cause you to lose life, your opponents will naturally want to do the same thing. However, when facing down a horde of cheap creatures, your opponent is going to be filled with regret every time he or she casts a Thoughtseize or taps a Mana Confluence for mana.
What's more, you can leverage a card like Athreos, God of Passage in a way that other decks cannot. In a slow deck, your opponent might gladly choose to pay 3 life in order for your creature to be dead forever. However, when you're aggressively attacking the life total, you take away that option. You can face your opponent with the choice of giving you back your creature, or of dying immediately! With Athreos, you can leverage an advantage of tempo or life total into card advantage by returning your dying creatures to your hand.
There's a saying in Magic that no point of damage matters except for the last point of damage. When players say this, they mean that there's no difference between winning the game at 20 life and winning the game at 1 life.
There's some wisdom behind this saying. However, the fact is that it can sometimes be quite valuable to get your opponent low on life, even if you don't finish him or her off right away. As demonstrated by the example of Athreos, God of Passage—decimating an opponent's life total can also limit the opponent's in-game options.
What's more, when players get low on life, panic inevitably creeps into their gameplay—as it rightly should. The lower their life totals get, the more likely they'll be to make unfavorable blocks and the less likely they'll be to make bold, risky plays. Your opponents are forced to play in this way because of reach.
Aggro decks are based primarily on tempo. They get ahead early, stay ahead as long as possible, and try to leverage their tempo advantage into a win or an advantage of another form. Often, they will leverage their tempo advantage into a life-total advantage. Reach refers to the ability to finish off a wounded opponent, even once you've lost your initial tempo advantage.
In the WB Aggro deck, your reach comes primarily in the form of Herald of Torment and Mogis's Marauder. Even if your opponent can successfully take over the ground using bigger creatures, if his or her life total is low enough, it's frighteningly easy for you to simply draw a Herald of Torment (to create a flying creature) or Mogis's Marauder (to get through damage via intimidate) and close out the game.
Example #2: Rabble Red
Traditionally, red is the color that lends itself best to building aggro decks. In addition to having lots of cheap, aggressively-slanted creatures, red's removal spells come in the form of burn.
Burn, also known as direct damage, in addition to being able to kill a creature (like a blocker), can deal damage straight to the opponent. Burn is one of the simplest and most effective forms of reach. When facing Rabble Red, a player must do everything in his or her power to stay at a high life total. If a player goes down to 7 life, the game (in a way) is no longer in his or her hands. No matter how well things can be going, no matter how far ahead that player can get on the board, a Stoke the Flames and a Lightning Strike can appear at any time to take the game away.
Red aggressive decks, like Rabble Red, are best equipped to pressure their opponent's life total. Their reach in the form of burn makes them deadly indeed.
I'd like to close with a few words on the value of being proactive—a concept I've touched on a number of times thus far in Level One.
Tournament Magic presents a special challenge. You're paired up against a series of unfamiliar players using unfamiliar strategies with unfamiliar combinations of cards. It's difficult or impossible to be fully prepared for all of them.
In a tournament, the slower your deck, the more risks you open yourself up to. When your games are going long, your opponents can surprise you with any sort of powerful creatures, Planeswalkers, sorceries, instants, or combinations of cards that one could imagine. You'll need an answer—or at least a game plan—for beating them all.
Being proactive—in other words, having a strategy that's fast, aggressive, powerful, or all of the above—means that you can focus on executing your own game plan rather than trying to counteract your opponents'. You're likely to be an expert at executing your own game plan, but it's much more difficult to prepare for every possible eventuality of a drawn-out game.
It's simple: win every game by turn five and you won't have to worry about any card that costs more than five mana! Burn your opponents to death and you won't have to worry about any card that doesn't gain them life! Be aggressive, and make your opponents defend themselves against you! That is, if they can...