If Elder Dragon Highlander were an intricate game of back and forth, with a natural ebb and flow of dominance ultimately culminating in a decisive victory, peppered with moments of eye-opening interactions, ruthless politics, and genuine enjoyment out of each player, then it would be a different game entirely.
As it stands, Commander as a format has evolved from its tamer roots as “Reject Rare Highlander” into singleton Vintage, a change that many people embrace, but one that many other people detest, probably because their decks are terrible, or they play red. Therefore, like most all formats, certain archetypes rose to the surface like dead bodies in the swamps of Louisiana. Categorically, and alphabetically, when talking about Magic's archetypes, it is imperative to begin with Aggro.
Historically, a format's health and the decks that tend to spawn from said format fall into two-over generalized categories: Aggro Decks and Decks Designed to Not Die to Aggro Decks. Aggro decks are customarily the first decks to spawn in a new standard meta as their gameplay and end goal is relatively simple; across from you may be your friend, your significant other, your nemesis, or just a player at your LGS outside of the match, but now, that person is reduced to a pile of precariously perched life points, twenty tall, just waiting to be knocked out. You have 60 cards to do as much damage as possible before the other player starts playing magic.
While Aggro in 60 Card constructed tends to peter out in usage as more midrange and soft control decks are introduced, barring an infusion from a new set or the complete red-shift of a format to grindy control, the “meta” if it could be called that, of EDH is more rigid even in its greater flexibility. In Commander, the aggro pilot needs to not simply defeat one opponent with twenty pips of life, but upwards of three or four opponents, each with double the amount of life as normal. While the 99 card limit in theory gives the tools for aggro to compete, the fact of the matter is that cards aggressively costed for faster, 60 card formats do not scale well in commander.
Red players will try and convince you that's not a downside.
Conversely, terrible trash rares in standard, propelled by the average ramp of Commander, can stymie even fine-tuned aggro decks.
Gee, Orzo, why does your mom let you have two bombs?
To understand the aggro, we have to go way back to 1593, when Sir Richard of Garfield made a dark pact with Beelzebub before creating Magic: the Gathering. Creatures at the beginning of time, were usually terrible.
Pictured: what WOTC thinks an acceptable creature looks like.
At least, compared to creatures of today
Pictured: what WOTC thinks an acceptable creature looks like.
The logic being, well, I only get to use this Lightning Bolt once, and then it's gone! What if I spent four mana on a creature that could do three damage every turn? Turns out, mana efficiency was king, even before the founding of America. The freedom to use your lightning bolt when and where ever you wanted, for a fraction of the cost, was too enticing.
Back in Alpha, there were 93 creatures, and the economy of a single mana was much different. White got Savannah Lions, 2/1 vanilla creature, and Benalish Hero a 1/1 with banding. Blue had Merfolk of the Pearl Trident a vanilla 1/1 with tribal support in Lord of Atlantis. Black had Will-o'-the-Wisp, a 0/1 flying regenerator. Red had (Mons's Goblin Raiders) a 1/1 tribal Vanilla for Goblin King, and Green had several: Llanowar Elves was a mana dork, Scryb Sprites was a 1/1 with flying, Shanodin Dryads had forestwalk, Timber Wolves was a colorshifted Benalish Hero.
You could probably cop a mox for this from the kid who liked Lion King a bit too much growing up. The '90s were one wild ride.
Compare that to the quality of 1 drops from the past few Standard sets. White gets cards like Thraben Inspector and Toolcraft Exemplar, Blue gets Mausoleum Wanderer and Prophet of Distortion. Black has Cryptbreaker and Bloodsoaked Champion, Red has Monastery Swiftspear and Dragonmaster Outcast, Green has Gnarlwood Dryad and Permeating Mass. This is not to say that all the cards listed are good in Standard, EDH, or even playable in general, but it serves to highlight the increase in power from the past to the present.
So then, if the creatures of today are much better than the creatures of yesterday, is Aggro viable in commander? Well, not really. Back in Alpha, we say the printing of one of the best removal spells in the game in Swords to Plowshares alongside powerhouses like Lightning Bolt and Terror. Unsummon and Counterspell also lurked in the hands of blue mages. Answers were prevalent. Serra Angel could be terrorized, Sengir Vampire could have his bloodseeking tendencies abated, and the mighty Shivan Dragon could forcibly have its soul removed before it was even born.
Just be thankful it wasn't Mana Drain.
What does that mean for commander? Well, alongside new and aggressive creatures in standard sets, removal (while arguably not as busted) is still being printed. Because Commander is an eternal format, nothing rotates. Your Hellkite Tyrant can be pathed just as easily as Mahamoti Djinn can have its bloodline severed. The truth about the old cards of Commander is that they will be there forever. They can never be unprinted. This is a positive thing on the whole, but a sad fact for aggro players. Goblin Rabblemaster never needed to stare down a Circle of Protection: Red. Grim Flayer can't live in the world with a Relic of Progenitus.
In a normal, 60 card game of magic with only a single opponent, aggro has a clear and much more laser-focused task. With four-ofs of the best and most aggressively costed creatures and spot removal, the prospect of taking a player from 20 to 0 is incredibly achievable. Translated into the highlander format, a format where mass removal runs rampant, prison / stax effects shape the board, and life totals often climb out of reach for even the most charred of red mages, aggro is often not as viable a gameplan. This is not to say it is impossible, however.
To many lovers of EDH, aggro represents a Magic boogeyman. Characterized as a casual format, with a certain air of nonaggression, commander players often find themselves loathe to attack without due cause. Why attack with your mana dork if one point of life is rarely going to make the difference in a game and risk agitating the defending player. Politics, much like the real world, has increasingly silenced the prospect of all-out war. The threat of mutually assured destruction permeates through the average game of Commander. You hit me with your Mirran Crusader? I guess I'll save my Krosan Grip for you.
Aggro players often find themselves in an unfairly skewed matchup as even the first hint of aggression can be met with swift retribution from all others involved who wish to play a slower game. No one likes to lose quickly in a game that could go upwards of over an hour. Because of this, aggro players may find themselves crippled early on as removal and resource denial affects them greater than the control or good stuff player. Undoubtedly, if a player can survive of the initial onslaught of the aggro player relatively intact, the aggressor may find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the others. At best, he or she may be swiftly dealt with via the combined might of his or her opponents; at worst, the aggro player may be so thoroughly crippled that the others' resources may better be delegated to dealing with players that still pose a threat, content to watch the aggro player struggle to catch up in the middle and late game.
As an aggro player, you must ask yourself "Can I handle that? Can I handle the pressure of smashing through three other players?" If you can't do this, perhaps another archetype is more suited to your playstyle. If you can, however, you might find that the tools for your victory exist, and are often lethally effective.
Similar to the Voltron Archetype, "going tall" in commander means putting out threat after threat, matching the rate of removal with creatures that demand further answers. In all likelihood, they'll run out of removal before you run out of big, dumb idiots. This discipline of aggro presents a race to your opponents; can they stabilize before your board presence becomes insurmountable. Tall decks are characterized by aggressive ramp and often undercosted creatures slamming against an opponent like a battering ram. The tall decks can often save cards by simply playing one or two creatures, beating something to a pulp, then replacing them with new ones. Overextending is the death of a tall deck; your five creatures represent five cards and an enormous amount of mana compared to the Sharuum the Hegemon's Wrath of God.
Wanted for crimes against aggro players.
Xenagos, God of Revels represents the most pure form of tall, aggressive decks. With the ability to buff your dudes to ludicrous power and toughness in addition to giving the sorely needed haste, Xenagos decks ramp fast with standard suites of land, artifact, and creature based ramp in an effort to get straight to the murder bits. Trample providers like Nylea, God of the Hunt or Brawn ensure that you're 20/19 Artisan of Kozilek doesn't get pitifully chumped by your opponents Wall of Omens. Cards like Impromptu Raid and See the Unwritten allow you to cheat your death machines into play, freeing up resources for anything else. Enchantments and spells that allow you to get value off of your creatures not long for this world are also essential. Greater Good allows for massive card draw after a Xenagos boost, for example.
Whoops, I guess I'll draw a third of my deck.
Tall decks also implement one of aggros limited political maneuvers: don't interfere and I won't smear you against the wall. Tall decks can often convince slower decks to divert removal towards the more global threat in exchange for time, but the wise aggro player will recognize that no favor is so great as to spare an opponent for long.
Whether by utilizing tokens and anthems to gum up a sparse battlefield, or by dishing out undercosted creatures like hollow point rounds aimed at the soft underbellies of your opponents, wide aggro decks define, "in for a penny, in for a pound" in Commander. If a tall aggro deck functions like a ballistic missile, intent on doing massive damage with a surgical strike, then wide aggro decks are the vehicle mounted chain guns of Magic. Wide decks state their purpose and plan for the table early and often; "pay attention to me," they yell, as the cast more and more threats, one after the other. Failing to heed the warning of a wide aggro pilot can cause severe evisceration. Avenger of Zendikar is often a game-warping card, but it's truly horrifying the turn following a Cathars' Crusade. Has the table forgotten about the Assemble the Legion you played three turns ago? Well, your Eldrazi Monument might bring their focus back to where it belongs. The red zone is the aggro pilot's playground, and wide decks bus in rabid elementary school students from three counties.
WOW! This Planeswalker had 1 WEIRD TRICK to CRASH MODO! Click here to find out how...
Aurelia, the Warleader brings the pain, but, like any good sadist, she knows it's better to give than to receive. Not all aggro decks need hordes of creature cards when tokens, and repeatable token generators often offer a more stable and secure path to bloody victory. Being able to recover after a wrath is key in wide aggro decks, specifically Boros, as they usually lack good, innate ways of climbing out of the graves they've dug their opponents.
Boros "Card Draw"
Cards like Boros Charm offer smug "Gotcha!" moments in response to wraths, and having sac outlets like Goblin Bombardment and hate cards like Vicious Shadows allow you to spit in the control player's eye one last time before your team goes down in a fiery fit of glory.
Red and White, with Green and Black second, have access to one of Magic and Commander's most effective silver bullets. One of the most common archetypes for the new and mid-level commander player to flock to is rampy battlecruiser / goodstuff decks, often anchored in green and supplemented with other colors. These decks play the long game, content to wait out an opportunity to combo off or grind out their opponents at a moment's notice. Land destruction exists as a highly effective tool against these common decks. While you the aggro player have been building up board presence, your opponents simply laugh and continue to throw around Explosive Vegetations like candy. However, once your position as ahead on board presence is assured, cards like Armageddon, or even color hosing land destruction like Boil dramatically warp the board, putting your boardless opponents several turns behind, while also invalidating their ramp spells in a manner similar to how a Day of Judgment sets you back to the stone ages. Lands are the sacred cow of MTG, and their mass destruction should only be undertaken with caution and tact. Feel out your playgroup; winning is an important aspect of the game, but if your win inspires your playgroup to stop inviting you, then what have you really won? This is not to say land destruction has no place in EDH. On the contrary, MLD (Mass Land Destruction) is often the only check any player has against UG ramp and other top-middle casual decks.
As with any community based game, feel out how your actions might affect your opponents, but don't be beholden to it; the hypocrisy in disallowing land destruction as a hate on certain archetypes is apparent when the entire aggro archetype is at an inherent disadvantage from the start. Don't jam MLD at every turn. Instead, keep it as a known threat. By doing this, you can condition your other players to play more cautiously, perhaps baiting out that pretty Ravages of War with a few ramp spells while keeping lands in hand to come back after the wipe. You've learned to play their game, its high time they learned to play yours.