Category: Grillo Parlante

Learning From Pauper—A Study in Aggression

By: Grillo_Parlante

As it’s been several months since I last wrote about my evidently favorite magic topic—pauper aggro decks—I figured it was about time I returned to the well. I would like to do a more theoretical breakdown of how these decks function, and how some of their dynamics can help guide aggro design in cube.

Formats are defined by their mana, and one aspect that both cube and pauper share is that the mana is not great. Most cube design follows a fairly basic structure, which allocates about 11-12% of its space to land based mana fixing. If you look at Frank Karsten’s work in this article, the conclusions are pretty ugly.

As far as cube is concerned, this is poor news for two color aggro in general, worse news for two color aggro running double color spells, and fairly dire news for three color aggro.

In pauper, aggro decks are naturally divided along two strategic lines: mono-colored decks capable of curve outs (albeit perhaps not as consistently as other formats), and multi-color decks that devote the early turns to setup, with a big aggressive payoff once they do. This is due to the format’s comes-into-play-tapped lands (CIPT lands). In addition, cube tends to struggle with presenting a sufficient density of playable one drops for aggro without watering down the colored sections, further suggesting the value of giving consideration to turn two design.

While this should not be seen as a strict strategic divide—even within the context of pauper—it is a useful model in terms of thinking about cube aggro design as it helps address a central issue within the archetype. There just is very limited design space (in both pauper and cube) when it comes to two power creatures that cost one mana. If your aggro strategy is based around consistent curve outs, those decks are in danger of missing spots on their curve, or stumbling on mana, and then being crushed when the opponent’s grossly superior card quality is brought to bear a few turns later.

The harsh reality is that certain aggro decks are going to constantly be in danger of being a turn behind whatever else is going on in the environment; all because of a certain type of negative variance that uniquely affects them. However, I find that pauper aggro decks tend to do several things much better than their brethren in other constructed formats: namely, that they are very good at making up for lost time.

These things are easier to show than talk about in the abstract, so we are going to be doing a few deck techs. Of course, it’s generally undesirable to attempt a direct port of any constructed deck to cube, but hopefully we can unpack some concepts.

Goblins—Aggressive Control

jsiri84 (1st Place, Magic Online Pauper Premier Event on 3/8/14)

Creatures (31)
Goblin Arsonist
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Cohort
Goblin Matron
Goblin Sledder
Mogg Conscripts
Mogg Raider
Mogg War Marshal

Spells (11)
Death Spark
Flame Slash
Lightning Bolt
Sylvok Lifestaff
Lands (18)
18 Mountain

Sideboard (15)
Flame Slash
Flaring Pain
Gorilla Shaman
Smash to Smithereens
Sylvok Lifestaff

This is a mono-colored list, which has a gameplan of steady pressure, building up to an explosive turn, supported by flexible aggro-control elements. Though a turn one aggro deck, it still is susceptible to stumbles due to its creature base (lots of 1/1s) or from mana screw. This is fairly analogous to the difficulty of many cube aggro decks, which may have the raw tools to curve out, but sometimes variance will get in their way.

Goblins is a highly synergistic deck, built around sacrifice interactions, and could variously be described as horizontal, recursive, sacrifice, or aristocrats aggro. Let’s pick out the key elements, so as to distill the core concepts into something useful to designers, rather than focusing on nomenclature.

Ability to beat removal: Being a deck built around sacrifice synergies, Goblins has a certain natural resilience to strategies that want to kill its creatures The key pieces are:

  • Sacrifice outlets. Mogg Raider and Goblin Sledder buff key board pieces beyond the range of damage based removal. The board may temporarily contract; but it can be surprisingly difficult to completely eradicate the deck’s board presence.

Ability to beat the board: Goblins has surprisingly excellent tools to help it play a more deliberate game, even shifting into a hard control position in certain matchups. It has repeat sources of removal in the form of Sparksmith and Death Spark, and its main aggressive pieces can play a surprisingly effective defensive game through stat boosting and chump blockers. It also has access to red’s flexible burn suite, which can be used either as reach, or as spot removal.

It can also close out games by fanning out its threats, attacking around an opposing line, before sacrificing its blocked board to buff one unblocked threat for lethal.

Ability to exert burst damage. It also has explosive haymakers, the specter of which hangs over every interaction. The tool of choice is Goblin Bushwhacker, which can close out a game in rapid, brutal fashion.

Goblins can leverage that perceived pressure to good effect. Perceived pressure means that while a deck may have an early game built around steady pressure, it doesn’t necessarily have to concern itself with curving out, and can force an opponent to play around spells in hand that are capable of producing lethal on the spot.

Curving out with a 2/2 into two more 2/2 creatures is very powerful; but if your aggro decks are going to have trouble making those types of plays consistently, you have to give them a game plan for the mid or late game. Goblins has the tools to pursue a more deliberate gameplan, compensating for early stumbles with flexible aggro-control tools, allowing it to play towards a haymaker finish powerful enough to make up for early stumbles.

Affinity—Turn Two Explosion

_Pain_ (August 2015)

Creatures (16)
Carapace Forger
Myr Enforcer

Spells (27)
Galvanic Blast
Perilous Research
Chromatic Star
Flayer Husk
Prophetic Prism
Springleaf Drum
Lands (17)
Ancient Den
Darksteel Citadel
Great Furnace
Seat of the Synod
Tree of Tales

Sideboard (15)
Relic of Progenitus
Ancient Grudge

One of the reasons why I think so many cube designers have a hard time incorporating turn two aggro principles into their environments is that most constructed turn two aggro decks are just poor specimens for direct ports.

For example, this pauper affinity deck follows a fairly standard turn two aggro blue print: it uses the first couple turns to setup (in this case playing out artifacts to power the affinity mechanic) before making a series of powerful turn three or turn four plays that compensate for having ceded over the early game. Affinity achieves this by playing out a small army of 4/4s for little or no mana.

Another example would be the hexproof deck, which wants to spend the early game setting up, before coming across with a giant boggle whose size and slew of keywords more than compensate for the lost time—raw power justifying the time spent maneuvering the deck into that position.

The problem with all of these strategies in cube, however, is that they tend to require narrow mechanics. If cube already has a difficult time making curve-out strategies consistent, than its going to have an even harder time providing infect redundancy, enough artifacts to make metal craft or affinity consistent, and the density of good auras to make an aura based aggro mechanic function. The above deck, requiring its multitude of artifact lands to even function, would be a nightmare to attempt to recreate.

While I don’t think it’s impossible to recreate true turn two aggro mechanics in cube (and I’ve had some success at lower power with heroic and double strike) it’s probably more important to recognize that cube is its own beast, and that aggro decks really just want tools to make up for the time lost due to cube’s negative variance. Flexible board interaction tools, the ability to beat removal, and access to explosive plays that compensate for lost time, are all good directions to go.

Fortunately, there is quite a bit of creative space as to how exactly one can go about achieving these elements.

Stompy—Disruptive Aggro

Jsiri84 (July 2013)

Creatures (25)
Quirion Ranger
Young Wolf
Nettle Sentinel
Skarrgan Pit-Skulk
Garruk’s Companion
Wild Mongrel
Shinen of Life’s Roar

Spells (18)
Vines of Vastwood
Gather Courage
Lands (17)
17 Forest

Sideboard (15)
Scattershot Archer
Leaf Arrow
Gleeful Sabotage
Hunger of the Howlpack
Viridian Longbow

Here we have a vertical growth strategy, where the growth pieces also function as disruption, and provide the ability to setup haymaker plays should the initial curve-out be stunted. In certain ways, Stompy is reminiscent of a fish deck; in other ways, it is reminiscent of an infect deck. However, it has traded Daze, islandwalk, and lords, in favor of disruptive pump and power based unblockablity. Rather than trying to create a direct port of a mono-blue deck, which never could have worked, stompy reinvents the disruption paradigm into something that thrives within its format’s constraints. Pauper has a focus on damage, targeted, and edict based removal, which is reflected in stompy via vertical growth, hexproof, and undying.

Pauper aggro decks also generally feature evasive tools to prevent their pressure from being shut off simply by an opponent’s wall of blockers. The goblins deck could go horizontal around a board and pump a single creature to lethal, and this deck runs a lot of conditional evasion pieces to allow it to continually apply pressure.

Access to an explosive, pump-based kill gives the deck a playstyle that feels strangely like an infect deck: it can deal incremental damage while protecting its threats, positioning itself for one big turn. An opponent has to be wary of how they time their removal, and stay attentive to the unseen pressure represented by the pump spells.

Stompy takes a lot of aggro concepts people have a tendency to think about narrowly, and rethinks the implementation of disruption and evasion in a creative manner. The deck focuses on core elements to creatively design something capable of thriving within the context of its environment, seeing the forest rather than just the trees.

Mono Blue Delver-Tempo Incarnate


Creatures (21)
Cloud of Faeries
Delver of Secrets
Frostburn Weird
Ninja of the Deep Hours
Spellstutter Sprite
Spire Golem

Spells (23)
Logic Knot
Mutagenic Growth
Lands (16)
16 Island

Sideboard (15)
Curse of Chains
Force Spike
Serrated Arrows

First, I want to caution people against supporting blue aggro in cube, at least not without substantial edits to your cube’s structure. Not only is there a lack of one drops, but there is a lack of quality two drops, which is generally crippling to any manifestation of the archetype. It becomes a bit more manageable with a lower powered base, or aggressive singleton breaking, but it is still a struggle.

However, our focus is going to be on the concept of tempo, which is critical to understand. We’ve already been hinting at this, with our acknowledgment of the need to provide aggro tools to recoup lost time.

In the above list, 26% of the spells cost effectively no mana, and 45% of the rest of the list costs 1-2 mana. Delver’s raw potential to get ahead on spell casting, while disrupting an opponent’s ability to cast their own spells, is extraordinary.

This is really the meaning of tempo within magic: comparative turn efficiency in a game whose basic metric is turns. The best representative of this concept is Man-o’-War, which allows you to add a 2/2 body to the board, while negating an opponent’s prior play.

While tempo is a term that has meant many different things to many different people, across many different formats, at its core, it simply is this concept of comparative turn efficiency. Tempo is a theory that applies to every game of magic on some level, but certain decks or cards may revolve around the idea more so than other. Delver, for example, is built around a concept of extreme tempo generation through free spells and counter disruption; one could fairly label it a tempo deck. Cloud of Faeries costs no mana and adds a body to the board, by its very nature it is a pure representation of tempo generation: and one could fairly label it a tempo card. However, this doesn’t mean that control decks or midrange decks don’t care about tempo generation or don’t support tempo cards; they just approach tempo in a different manner, usually by efficient removal or ETB effects.

You’ll notice that Delver, unlike every other aggro deck we’ve looked at, has no way to generate a sudden burst of damage, and the reason is that it doesn’t need to. Goblins, Stompy, and Affinity are all prone to stumbles in their opening turns, either due to mana issues, insufficiently aggressive draws, or by design. Consequently, they need some sort of overarching, powerful play to make up for that lost time. Delver doesn’t have this problem, because it generates tempo simply by its basic operations. Even its slowest draws are capable of greater raw spell efficiency than many other decks in the format. Its best draws put a clock upon the entire game, devolving its remaining course into a contest of turn efficiency that other decks are ill equipped to compete in.

Cube is too inconsistent of a format to support anything approaching this level of consistent tempo generation. As a result, every single aggro deck really should have some tools to compensate for lost time. In a more consistent, stable environment, where the aggro decks are producing six power worth of creatures on turn two, this isn’t so much a problem; however, this isn’t the reality in pauper or cube. This is especially key, because cube tends to feature a large number of ETB producing midrange creatures, or planeswalkers, who are very good at generating tempo through free spell effects. Without tempo recouping devices, both pilots can find themselves in unfun situations where the aggro deck stumbles, and the game has effectively been decided by turn two, but it doesn’t actually end until much later.

Rats—Visages of Suicide Black

SneakAttackKid June 2013

Creatures (19)
Augur of Skulls
Chittering Rats
Crypt Rats
Okiba-Gang Shinobi
Phyrexian Rager
Ravenous Rats

Spells (18)
Dead Weight
Echoing Decay
Geth’s Verdict
Sign in Blood
Lands (23)
Polluted Mire
17 Swamp
Barren Moor

Sideboard (15)
Okiba-Gang Shinobi
Rendclaw Trow
Snuff Out
Sorin’s Thirst
Tendrils of Corruption
Victim of Night
Choking Sands

Our last deck tech is perhaps a little strange, as it generally is classified as a control deck.

We’ve been touching upon different forms of disruption in aggro, ranging from Vines of Vastwood to Spellstutter Sprite. However, all of those forms of disruption are reactive, and work on a model of sequencing threats into disruption. Here we have an approach that revolves around sequencing disruption into threats.

The old suicide black lists would do this with cards like Unmask or Duress into Phyrexian Negator, and vintage workshop decks do something similar with Sphere effects into threats. Modern jund has turn one Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf. In rats, you can curve out disruption into a three drop threat, which gives the deck a feeling of being oddly aggressive at times, despite having so many attrition and control tools.

Rats provides some interesting commentary on one way discard can be incorporated into cube as cheap disruption for aggro decks. This sort of sequencing swap also provides a form of alternative “early drops” for aggro, relieving the pressure to water down a list with Savannah Lion clones, and provide an interesting way to blend turn one and turn two aggro concepts, within the limited space of a cube. I also feel it helps give context to the role of how cards like Thalia should function as disruptive pieces. It would seem there is a lot of creative space for cube designers to approach and solve these problems.

To reiterate, some of the knobs and levers that a cube designer has to work with are:

  1. Basic aggro structure: turn one vs. turn two.
  2. Reactive vs. proactive disruption strategies
  3. Different ways to recoup lost time.
  4. Tools that fill a dual role of control or disruption, while simultaneously feeding an aggressive plan.
  5. Different forms of evasion.

Learning From Pauper—The Aristocrats

By: Grillo_Parlante

In my last article I discussed blurring archetypes, using as a centerpiece example pauper goblins for an aggro-control deck, and providing a number of low-power examples of this principle being applied. Not unreasonably, a number of readers pointed out that it would have been nice to have some higher power examples, and I’m here today to do just that. We are going to go through a mock design process, taking insights from pauper goblins to hopefully design an aggro-control archetype for a higher powered format.

First, let’s look at a slightly more recent goblins list:

cspickle (4 - 0), Pauper Daily #8373448 on 2015-06-11

Creatures (36)
Foundry Street Denizen
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Cohort
Goblin Heelcutter
Goblin Matron
Goblin Sledder
Mardu Scout
Mogg Conscripts
Mogg Raider
Mogg War Marshal

Spells (6)
Flame Slash
Lightning Bolt
Lands (18)
18 Mountain

Sideboard (15)
Flaring Pain
Latulla’s Orders
Sylvok Lifestaff

A more aggressive variant than our original example, it still has all of the essential pieces: ample sources of pressure, resilient threats, and board control tools. The deck can quickly curve out and kill like a Sligh deck, or it can take a more controlling axis. For the curious, its control plan is described here. We concluded that the elements for an aggro-control archetype in cube involved providing the following for an aggro player:

1. Sources of incremental value
2. Removal or other disruption that supports an aggro strategy
3. Variety

But just as any of the other major archetype labels can encompass a broad variety of sub-strategies (e.g. draw-go control vs. tap-out control), there are a number of different ways to support aggro-control. Since we’re using goblins as our guide, we have to first ask ourselves what type of aggro-control deck we are dealing with.

And the answer is that it’s an aristocrats deck.

This particular deck type has some existing relevance to the cube community thanks to Gravecrawler, but recent printings from Khans block have essentially revamped the archetype, letting us innovate on what will hopefully be somewhat familiar ground.

But what is an aristocrats deck? Put simply, it’s an aggressive synergy based deck revolving around sacrifice effects and death triggers. Originally designed by Sam Black (you can read his account of the development here), its constructed laurels rest on it winning Pro Tour Gatecrash. The deck was more or less ported over to cube by Jason Waddell, as described here; and since the deck actively benefits from creature death and runs recursive threats, it naturally did very well in cube formats packed with efficient and powerful removal.

Oftentimes when people talk about this deck, they get caught up in the original vision of a B/W/R sacrifice deck. We are going to stay in that familiar spectrum for the time being (peeking a bit into green), but it’s important to step back and remember that we are applying conceptual pieces. You don’t have to stay in the constraints of those colors. The elements we will be dealing with are described by Sam Black as:

1. The Aristocrats: Carrion Feeder and Goblin Sledder
2. The Travelers: Doomed Traveler and Goblin Arsonist
3. The Fodder: Gravecrawler and Mogg War Marshal

In the above, I provide one example each of cards that could show up in the original Gatecrash deck or a pauper goblins list, respectively. The idea is to combine aggressive fodder with sacrifice outlets, which let you convert those previous investments into some sort of advantage. Travelers are creatures that provide some active benefit when they die.

The key principle is to craft an aggro deck capable of converting its prior investments into value. If a durdly good stuff midrange deck can make up for lost tempo via ETB spell effects attached to fatties, our fast aggro deck can make up for lost tempo by maximizing the number of “leaves the battlefield” spell effects we attach to our creatures. This is the core principle at work (and incidentally why I think Thragtusk represents more value than is healthy for a lot of cube environments).

The original Gravecrawler-based aristocrats deck combined Gravecrawler as a fodder card to be used in conjunction with aristocrats, such as Carrion Feeder, in a zombie tribal package. Recent printings from Khans block, however, have provided an interesting alternative in the form of Bloodsoaked Champion.

Let’s nail down the essential pieces and then flesh things out with what we’ve learned from Goblins.

The Fodder

Here we are making a shift towards Bloodsoaked Champion. Gravecrawler is certainly still playable, but the need to support zombie tribal, and the awkward mana cost of some of the supporting cards (Bloodghast and Geralf’s Messenger) is a constraint that is no longer necessary. While Bloodsoaked Champion doesn’t necessitate any tribal commitment, it’s worth noting the two creature types: human warrior.

This means we can combine the card with another well-established beater.

Most cubes already feature a huge density of humans across all colors, and the combination of Champion of the Parish, Bloodsoaked Champion and sac outlets is an outright engine for an aggro deck. The ability to vertically grow a threat adds longevity to the deck’s strategy, as a large Champion of the Parish can compete reasonably well on a board against other large midrange creatures. Meanwhile, the Bloodsoaked Champion provides an element of inevitability against aggro’s other main concern—removal heavy decks.

It gets better, though.

Necromancer in conjunction with a recurring Bloodsoaked Champion is a powerful engine in itself. Goblin Rabblemaster is an excellent aggro beater that can trigger raid, and provide an endless source of tokens to sacrifice.

Mardu Strike Leader’s dash ability (and to a lesser extent Lightning Berserker and Mardu Shadowspear) provides pressure from multiple angles: pumping Champion of the Parish, triggering raid, and providing a token to sacrifice. In addition, dash plays around sorcery speed removal, demanding that an opponent have a diversified removal suite.

It’s worth mentioning there are many other cards that can act as fodder. Any sort of cheap vanilla persist or undying creature would qualify, as would cards like Mogg War MarshalChandra’s Phoenix, or Loyal Cathar.

The Aristocrats 

Ideally, we want cheap 1-2 mana creatures with no mana or tapping cost. The best options are:

Slim pickings. Tymaret is so on par with the overall strategy that it would be a mistake not to consider him, especially since his creature types—warrior zombie—may be relevant to our setup. Cartel Aristocrat is quite good and provides a lot of interactivity on a cluttered board. Carrion Feeder and Viscera Seer are good, cheap sacrifice outlets.

There are a few 2cc non-creature cards to consider: Goblin Bombardment and Blasting StationGreater Gargadon is also an excellent sacrifice outlet in formats that are not too fast for him.

Once we move up the mana curve, however, things become more powerful.

Flesh Carver and Stronghold Assassin require either tapping or mana to sacrifice a creature, but make up for this in terms of power level. There are a number of non-creature sacrifice outlets that also could be run—such as Attrition or Mind Slash—that I don’t recommend as I find they lead to frustrating gameplay.

The Travelers

These are, of course, named after Doomed Traveler. In cube, the best examples would be Tuktuk the Explorer and Perilous Myr. While there are only a limited number of cubeable cards that squarely fit this category, there are lots of creatures that provide creative ways to garner value upon their death. Sacrificing a Mesmeric Fiend (or Tidehollow Sculler), with its trigger on the stack, is a good example. In general, creatures with keywords that doom them to death are our likely travelers. This includes creatures with vanishing, haunt, persist, undying, fading, unearth, evoke, or echo.

There is also a subset of cards that provide value from other creatures dying. Cards like Skirsdag High PriestBlood Artist, and Sylvok Lifestaff. This card pool also encompasses creatures that grow based on graveyard count (Bonehoard), cards that grow vertically upon creature death (Rockslide Elemental), or just useful triggers like Athreos, God of PassageHissing IguanarXathrid Necromancer, and Grim Haruspex. Delve or threshold cards also fit loosely into this category.

The Red Crush

So now that we’ve gone over the basic framework of the archetype, let’s flesh things out a bit, taking inspiration from our pauper goblins. At the moment, we are supporting a low to the ground, removal resistant aggro archetype with sources of card advantage that can grind out a win in the mid to late game if need be. We also have some elements of vertical growth via Champion of the Parish and horizontal growth, thanks to Xathrid Necromancer, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Mardu Strike Leader.

We want all of the same tools that pauper goblins has, just dialed up to our power level: 1) ways to leverage sacrifices into board control, 2) tutors, and 3) burst damage. We need to emulate the effects of cards like SparksmithSylvok LifestaffGoblin BushwhackerGoblin Matron, and Death Spark, which thankfully we can do.

Board Control

An unanswered Goblin Sharpshooter can dominate a board when combined with sacrifice support. Goblin Bombardment can have a similar effect, and the two of them combined can really pose a problem for an opponent on a creature based plan, taking over a board with the assistance of recursive threats and expendable creatures.

These sorts of strategies coincidentally get better with a large store of fodder, and Khans block has given us a card that can fill a variety of roles: threat, removal, or sacrifice fuel.

What a great card for an aggressive aristocrats deck. Outside of being a mana sink, it can act as a surprise threat or help control the board with its tokens. It eloquently supports both the control and aggro axes of the deck.

Raise the Alarm and Midnight Haunting also fill similar roles. Lingering Souls may be a sorcery speed card, but flashback provides another source of board control and pressure.

Burst Damage and Tutors

So now we have a token element that supports both the aggro and the control elements of our strategy. However, we need a Goblin Bushwhacker clone to provide an additional strategic axis based around perceived pressure, rather than actual pressure.

And this brings us to a discussion of anthem effects, most of which are either way too expensive or don’t come attached to a body (problematic for a deck built around sacrificing bodies). Worst of all, many of them are extremely narrow, having no other application than closing out the game. One of the most interesting things about Goblin Bushwhacker is its ability to provide haste, and it would be nice to have an anthem effect active at more stages of the game. Thankfully, the perfect card exists.

An anthem effect that adds a relevant body and which can lead to all sorts of interesting interactions at all phases of the game. This is exactly what we want.

Finally, it would be nice to have a tutor effect like Goblin Matron; and we can easily have this in the form of Imperial Recruiter. In addition, we have an interesting option in green in the form of Collected Company.

So far so good, but how close are we to fulfilling our aggro-control elements? Do we have an aggressive deck that supports:

1. Sources of incremental value
2. Removal or other disruption that supports an aggro strategy
3. Variety

Our entire deck is built around the concept of incremental value and we have access to removal pieces that fit our strategy. We have vertical growth, horizontal growth, sources of burst damage, hand disruption, and removal -resistant threats. We can come out racing, putting an opponent under intense pressure, or we can play a longer grindy game with our sacrifice value engines. Instead of a fragile Sligh deck attacking along a single axis, we now have a dynamic aggro deck; one which we can even expand on if we wish:


We can add aggro-combo elements via a few white double-strike creatures, and copies of Feat of ResistanceAjani, Caller of the PrideVines of Vastwood, or Become ImmenseSilverblade Paladin and Mirran Crusader make their way comfortably into higher power environments; while somewhat more niche are Fabled Hero and Arashin Foremost. The latter is probably currently too narrow, but has some interesting interactions with black’s dash warriors, Secure the Wastes, and Mardu Woe-Reaper.

Value Reanimation

Cards like UnearthVictimizeStitch Together and Alesha, Who Smiles at Death can add an interesting value reanimation axis that lets you reuse travelers to maximize incremental gain.

Persist Combo

Another Khans block gift is Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, which means we don’t have to choose between running cards like Melira, Sylvok Outcast, or upping the mana curve to support persist combo.


There are, of course, other ways to design aggro-control decks. You can focus more on the disruptive aspects if you wish, concentrate on tempo advantage, or experiment with applying this style of deck to other color combinations (or even ultimately bump it up to a midrange deck). This isn’t intended as a piece to be strictly followed, but rather to help people unhappy with their aggro sections think critically about what they can change. Hopefully, walking through a mock design process will have made that a little easier to do.

Happy drafting.

***Also, credit to Safra on the forums for posting similar decks, and getting me thinking about the archetype.

Learning From Pauper – Rethinking Archetype Design

By: Grillo_Parlante

When I woke up this morning I intended to do actually work, but instead found myself browsing pauper content, eventually stumbling across a series of articles by an Italian blogger who goes by the name Near. Pauper is an interesting format in the sense that even though it would be accurate to say that it’s a format defined by commons, it would be much more precise to say that it’s a format defined by pre-NWO commons, and by that I mean, Wizard’s mistakes. The end result is a format executing powerful interactions but fueled by the daintiest of engine pieces. If Vintage and Legacy are the wild guys at the party, Pauper is like their nephew whom you had such high hopes for, until the day you caught him generating infinite mana on turn four in the garage. There is a tremendous amount that Cube can learn from Pauper, as Pauper’s creature-based bizzaro take on a degenerate eternal format offers a unique perspective for cube—itself a creature based, bizzaro take on degenerate eternal formats. And this brings me back to this morning, and Near’s blog post.

In the post, he was discussing some of the common errors in pauper, and number three on his list was “Over valuing Midrange Decks.” The key excerpt, translated below, reads:

“[this is] A common error in almost every format, because Midrange cards appear very strong, given that they often represent the best cards in every color and seem able to handle any situation.”

I think every cube designer has, at one time or another, faced the “Junk Problem” aka the “Good Stuff Problem” aka the “my drafters only want to draft similar looking and playing midrange decks how do I stop this” problem, aka the “my format is ruined because aggro is hardly every drafted and what do I do now” problem. The traditional way of balancing out Magic archetypes is to broadly create “Roshambo” or “Rock, paper, scissors” categories for “aggro”, “midrange”, and “control.” Aggro beats control, control beats midrange, and midrange beats aggro. Unfortunately, even if you do a very nice job designing for control and aggro, if your players are biased towards drafting appealing looking midrange cards, your cube vision can never truly come to fruition, and the entire format is knocked off balance.

So what’s the solution? I’ve seen (and tried) the “nerf midrange to oblivion” plan—didn’t work, casual players just draft bad midrange decks. There is also the “give aggro a super buff” plan—doesn’t work, people just jam the best aggro cards into a midrange shell. Probably the most bizarre (and worst) approach is to just cut aggro completely from the format; the designer evidently resigning himself or herself to a world ruled by King Thragtusk and his Knights of Green Fat.

Pauper, however, poses to us an intriguing question—have we been, perhaps, narrow-minded in our attitudes towards aggro design? Pauper, as a very condensed format, where everything must operate at low CC amounts due to the power of its combo deck and aggro decks, has resulted in some truly bizarre deck adaptations. In this harsh, ultra-condensed world, at what point might a very low CC deck start to heavily bleed parts of the rock/paper/scissors formula to both survive and thrive? What would be the result?

Goblins/Mono Red Control (2014), by jsiri84

Creatures (31)
Goblin Arsonist
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Cohort
Goblin Matron
Goblin Sledder
Mogg Conscripts
Mogg Raider
Mogg War Marshal

Spells (11)
Death Spark
Flame Slash
Lightning Bolt
Sylvok Lifestaff
Lands (18)
18 Mountain

Sideboard (15)
Flame Slash
Flaring Pain
Gorilla Shaman
Smash to Smithereens
Sylvok Lifestaff

I choose this list both because it’s an extreme example of this concept (red and creature based), and because of how successful it’s pilots have been in competitive pauper events. You can read more about the deck here or here if you wish, but as it ties into our conversation today, it represents the idea that even fairly extreme looking aggro archetypes can be tweaked to blur traditional archetype lines. Ultimately, it’s probably more correct to describe the above list as an aggro-control deck, and as we go further, let us partly frame the issues in terms of how we can better apply aggro-control principles to our format.

Now, clearly a direct port of this list into any cube would be a disaster. Some designers require a much greater amount of raw power from their cards, a number of these cards are too narrow (sparksmith/goblin matron) to make the conversion, and it’s also possible that certain cards might be too complicated for some play groups (death spark). So let’s focus instead on a few broad principles.

1. Sligh Aggro is not fun for casual players. I want to bring this to the forefront, because we are not going to get very far without acknowledging this basic reality. Remember our quote from Near? Does playing a bunch of 2/1 creatures for 1 mana seem exciting, powerful, or able to handle any situation? The answer is a resounding no. Unfortunately, this one style of aggro defines what many cube designers will support (usually in only 1-3 color combinations), while at the same time providing a critical mass of attractive looking midrange cards in every other single color combination in their cube. Combining this with how sligh decks are very punishing of drafting and play mistakes, and their focus on technical play rather than flashy play, we shouldn’t be surprised when many such cubes finish midrange dominated.

2.Aggro can play the long game. It’s possible to bleed ideas of card advantage and removal into aggressive strategies. The above list has an engine of reusable removal and incremental advantage that can grind out an opponent if it must, or it can just curve out and kill like a normal aggro deck. This combination of removal, and incremental advantage, creates dynamic games that don’t feel like they are largely decided by turn four, while also providing a big flashy (and fun) way to end the game. This helps address the insecurity that drafters may feel about going into an aggro archetype in the first place, as well as the perception that it’s a fairly bland archetype.

3.Aggro-control decks do not need to be spell based or blue. Aggro decks featuring removal and sources of incremental gain can appear in even the most stereotypical of aggressive guises—in this case, little red men. This is good news, since most cube decks are defined more by their creatures than their spells, and also because any form of blue based aggro is notoriously difficult to support in cube.

So, than, the big question becomes how do we provide our aggro decks with:

  1. Sources of incremental gain that facilitate a presence in the long game
  2. Removal or other disruption, that supports an aggro strategy
  3. Variety

But let’s come back down to earth for a moment, and look at some examples of how this might look in practice, based on a few lists from my own budget cube.

R/W Heroic Goblins


Starting out safe. We have a pretty typical looking R/W goblins list. The format is a bit slower so having your pressure arrive on turn two is fine here. More relevant to our discussion, is the touch of control elements that work nicely with the aggro pieces: Blood Artist, Goblin Bombardment, Goblin Sharpshooter, Spikeshot Elder, Gods Willing, and Shelter. The latter two specifically can act as conditional counterspells (or conditional removal) protecting key threats, while the remaining four pieces variously serve as reusuable removal, or facilitate incremental gain by allowing the pilot to trade up with tokens. Recursive threats, such as a mogg war marshal, provide another source of incremental gain. Alternatingly, the deck can kill suddenly with fabled hero or the goblin bushwhackers, or go over the top with a heroic threat.

The variety of strategic axes, combined with the ability to confidently enter the mid and late game, helps make for a more appealing aggro package than a typical savannah lions based aggro deck.

Now, let’s take those ideas, and flow with them from the other direction—after all, our focus is on bleeding broad archetypal concepts, not just buffing our aggro decks:

G/W/r Hexproof Auras


Here we have a midrange list, but its 2-3 CC focus brings it closer to the ground than a more traditional 4-6 CC midrange deck. While there are some faster draw sequences (generally revolving around Favored Hoplite, Ainok Bond-kin, Kor Skyfisher, and Fabled Hero) the list as a whole is much more focused around building an overwhelming board presence to go over-the-top with (though it does support an aggro-combo and horizontal aggro axes to much smaller degrees). The big payoff a drafter gets by going with this slimmer midrange approach, is that the 2-3 cc outlast cards mutually support one another, allowing the pilot to establish a somewhat earlier board presence, while still reserving the ability to horizontally grow dominate threats.

Ultimately, these two decks represent very different strategies, but due to our aggro deck’s potential to play a longer value game, and our midrange deck’s potential to assert early pressure, we’ve blurred those broad archetypal lines making it more difficult for a drafter to draw harsh strategic distinctions, and write off one part of the cube. Most importantly, by bleeding these broad archetypes into one another, we’ve made moving around the cube space a bit more appealing to that stubborn drafter stuck in the midrange comfort zone.

Now, let’s bring everything we’ve talked about thus far together.

Heroic Metalcraft Aggro


There is a lot going on here, and I don’t want to divert too much into the very spikey mana base design, but this is a very powerful deck: strategically operating as an aggro deck, but with elements of midrange and control, and representing a lot of different aggro axes.

The heroic mechanic combined with combat tricks and protection effects, provides a source of disruption, as well as acting as conditional counterspells and removal—a form of incremental gain often generated through the combat step. Quite simply, you can trade a protection spell or a pump spell to control what is allowed to exist on the board, while also growing a threat that can later dominate the board through its size. This is a deck that is exerting pressure on turn one or turn two, but has enough control tools to play the long game (while also top decking better due to the wellsprings and low mana count), and can also eventually present a single high quality threat able to dominate the board in a manner not dissimilar to what a midrange deck might do.

Strategically, its capable of going with a fair beat down approach, taking a horizontal growth strategy supported by overrun effects, an over-the-top approach via a vertical growth strategy, or a more exotic aggro-combo approach supported by Fabled Hero, Assault Strobe, protection effects, or any other large vertical growth threat. By designing the cube in a way that blurs these broad archetypes, and by supporting a wide swath of viable aggro strategies beyond just sligh, we’ve created some very dynamic and complex aggro decks. Hopefully, our drafters will begin to understand that in our format, what a mistake it would be to overvalue midrange cards, and what a mistake it would be to dismiss those little red men as being simple idiots that must always effectively win by the midgame.

These ideas are also not so distant from what higher powered formats are capable of doing. The idea, for example, of using recursive threats to gain incremental value is already well represented in Gravecrawler-based black aggro. It may take some creativity to broaden those principles into other color combinations at various power levels, but the precedent for doing so exists.

Happy drafting!