Why Support Aggro

A common mistake by people building a Cube for the first time is to load it up with too many cards that are expensive, hard to cast (gold cards are the major culprit here), or narrow.

The arms race

Among experienced Cubers, the phrase ‘Dragon Cube’ (referring to a Cube full of expensive finishers with scant support for aggro) as a term of derision has become almost cliched. There’s nothing wrong with slanting your Cube in that direction if that’s what you and your playgroup enjoy, but it’s important to be aware of the consequences.

The three theater idea of Cube is based around an age-old assumption: aggro is favoured against control, which beats midrange, which in turn kicks around the aggro decks. Obviously this is a vastly oversimplified model of how matches between these decks actually play out, and part of creating a fun play experience is ensuring that each type of deck has ways of defeating its natural predator. Still, it’s useful for helping to illustrate the problem here. Suppose we dial down the aggro support, trading in our Diregraf Ghouls and Goblin Patrols for cards more likely to warm Timmy’s heart. What happens?

Well, the midrange deck steps into the role formerly played by aggro: the ‘fast’ deck that attempts to go underneath the top end of other strategies. However, most people who skimp on aggro support don’t have the same reservations about cheap removal and disruption, so the control decks are able to easily answer the clunky threats presented by the midrange deck. Guaranteed the ability to reach the late game, the control decks have the freedom to start throwing expensive haymakers around. With their prey gone and only difficult matchups around, midrange becomes less viable. Now that there’s nothing around to keep them honest, the control decks fix their sights on each other.

It’s as if you removed the scissors option from Rock-Paper-Scissors. The best move is to go over the top with paper. How do you beat someone playing Baneslayer Angel and Olivia Voldaren? You play Angel of Serenity and Frost Titan. How do you beat Angel of Serenity and Frost Titan? You play Avenger of Zendikar and Karn Liberated. How do you beat…
Baneslayer AngelFrost TitanKarn LiberatedTerastodonUlamog, the Infinite Gyre

Without sources of early pressure, an arms race ensues: each deck tries to trump the other’s high-cost behemoths with their own. This kind of ‘battlecruiser Magic’ is fun in short doses, but it’s not going to keep a group of people with diverse tastes and playstyles coming back for more every week.

So, if we’re convinced that aggro has a place in our Cube, we need to know how to make it feel comfortable. For many people, the state of affairs described above comes about unintentionally: they intend to support aggro, or at least give lip service to the idea, but end up with a Cube where a good aggro deck is a rarity. Why?

Aggro requires support

If there are three main deck types – aggro, midrange, and control – and I want them to be roughly balanced, I should give them the same amount of support, right? This is an easy trap to fall into. In reality aggro requires both a higher quantity of cards as well as more specific cards, for a few reasons:

– Midrange and control cards are easily replaceable. Once you’ve established a good position, it usually doesn’t matter what you beat them with. It’s rare that you’d lose the game if Baneslayer Angel was Archon of Justice or Frost Titan was Geralf’s Mindcrusher.

– There is significant crossover between midrange and control cards, whereas control doesn’t have any use for Savannah Lions (except as a defensive tool against aggro decks!)

– You can afford to run fewer of any given effect in a midrange or control deck because you have longer to find it (and often some kind of card draw or tutoring). Meanwhile, aggro doesn’t have time to waste looking for cards. If an aggro deck is to curve out with any consistency, it needs a certain density of 1-drops, 2-drops, and so on. Aggro requires a whole-hearted commitment to be a viable strategy. If people are trying to draft red aggro and end up sideboarding Jackal Pup, it’s worse than a dead card: it’s actively taking up a spot that could go to something else.

Ask yourself how many one-drops you would want your aggro deck to have; then ask how many you would need in the Cube for you to end up with that many reliably, even if someone in an adjacent seat is in your colours. The number is probably higher than you think.

Most aggro cards don’t look flashy or exciting. If you’re trying to have fun – and why else would we Cube, or play Magic at all? – it might seem counter-intuitive to fill your sleeves with Goblin Patrols instead of more interesting cards, especially if aggro isn’t your thing. However, it’s a necessary sacrifice in the wider interests of your Cube.

At this point, you may wonder if we’ll encounter the same problem we were trying to avoid: if we have too many cards that are only good in aggro decks, won’t there be less variety and choice during the draft? It’s a legitimate concern, and one that can only really be addressed by focusing on cards that are strong in more than one type of deck. It’s a hard balance to strike, and a topic for another time; for now, hopefully you have a better idea of why aggro is important.

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