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
1 Goblin Arsonist
4 Goblin Bushwhacker
4 Goblin Cohort
3 Goblin Matron
4 Goblin Sledder
4 Mogg Conscripts
4 Mogg Raider
4 Mogg War Marshal
3 Death Spark
3 Flame Slash
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Sylvok Lifestaff
1 Flame Slash
1 Flaring Pain
3 Gorilla Shaman
2 Smash to Smithereens
2 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:
- Sources of incremental gain that facilitate a presence in the long game
- Removal or other disruption, that supports an aggro strategy
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.