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.

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