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By: stsung, Ren Stefanek
Aug 17 2016 12:00pm
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From time to time me and my friends chat about how Magic used to be in earlier days. Usually such musings are triggered by cards like Siege Rhino, Delver of Secrets or Thing in the Ice. We wonder about the differences of nowadays Magic and what we used to know as Magic when mono blue control was the deck to beat. We usually end up with a conclusion that creature spells are more and more powerful and non-creature spells are falling behind especially when a Wrath of God effect cannot deal with creatures anymore. The main focus now is on creatures, no one can deny that. Those creatures also take on the role of sorceries which makes them even more powerful. Planeswalkers also totally changed how we play Magic.

When it comes to creatures what comes to my mind is aggression. For me an aggressive deck was a deck that tried to produce maximized damage output with the use of fast efficient creatures in the shortest time possible (turns). But definition of 'aggression' changed for me over time though. Even a deck that is very slow and plays few creatures can be an 'aggressive deck', that's when proactivity comes into place.

I don't personally like creatures much unless they do something really cool (Monastery Mentor, Deathrite Shaman, Snapcaster Mage) and if I wouldn't need to play them I wouldn't. Magic is more and more about powerful creatures. Magic being creature-centric is not the real reason why I don't like Magic nowadays though. It's also not the reason why it seems that I play worse. So what changed? Look at the photo above of one of our Vintage Cube sessions. I was so unfortunate that I ended up playing almost mono green deck. I needed creatures in order to win the game. My deck did not really run much removal except one lonely Wrath of God. If I needed to deal with something it had to be done in combat. In the situation above I had Whisperwood Elemental creating 2/2 Manifests. My opponent had Pack Rats and was creating rather big and even bigger Pack Rats. Even though I had more creatures in play I couldn't deal lethal damage in one swing and I would die to Pack Rat alpha strike so two attacks weren't a possibility either. Those are exactly the situations in which I usually mess up because my brain cannot process all the creatures (their power/toughness, number, what can possible go through what needs to stay untapped etc). In most cases there is a way how to go through and one or the other player needs to be the aggressor but when I have to stare at a board like this I cannot figure it out. I'd rather play Wrath of God and start over. And that was exactly my plan in this game because I still had Wrath of God somewhere in my deck. All I needed was to draw the card soon enough and kill my opponent with Treetop Village. For that I needed the Wrath of God to be at most the 5th card (not 4th or 3rd etc) from the bottom of the library because I had no remaining creatures in my deck and Treetop Village needed a few turns to win the game. Unfortunately Wrath of God was 3rd card from the bottom of the deck and I lost the game.

I spent a majority of my time playing control decks - draw-go variants or reactive controls. While playing with such a deck I just played a land, passed the turn and waited to see what my opponent would do. When he would run out of threats or cards I would just play my finisher and win the game. During that time playing a control deck against another control deck was about a mind game, attrition and patience. From such games the more skilled player came out victorious and this is what I liked about it. What made playing such decks difficult was that they gave the player many options and thus coming up with the right decision was not that easy.

These kind of decks though were relatively fast being replaced by different types of decks. Control was no longer the best deck. Wizards of the Coast moved away from 'pure skill wins' and embraced higher variance. This was evident just by looking at cards from new sets. But at that time I had no problems finding Type 1 or 1.5 players so this shift in how Magic was played did not affect me much.

When Lorwyn came out a new card type was introduced - Planeswalkers. Planeswalkers are permanents that if they stay in play they can provide a huge card advantage. I figured that the age of reactive control is forever gone. At certain points in Magic history and Type 2 format I was given the possibility to play a deck I actually liked (ISD Solar Flare, Cifka's UW Control) but even these decks were far from my notion of 'control'.

UW control with transformational sideboard in action. I understand why it is efficient but these measures weren't necessary years and years ago.

Since Lorwyn I played decks that were entitled 'Control' - UB Fearies, UWR Superfriends, UW Control, Caw Blade, Esper Dragons. But something was seriously amiss for me. But what was that? When playing these decks I sometimes had the same feeling I have when playing an aggressive deck. While playing an aggro deck I sometimes feel that I really am doing something I do not want to do (attacking alone is something I do not really like and you can see me often forget to attack - sometimes I misclick). Overextending into a Wrath effect when it is the only possibility to win the game is one of such feelings as well. But why do I feel the same way when playing 'control'?

A control deck that I loved changed into something completely different. From a draw-go deck it became rather closer to a  'tapout' deck as I used to call the deck. It was still a control deck but it became way more proactive rather than being just reactive. I started to actually play cards during my turn (was tapped out) unlike when playing the deck's predecessor that usually just drew a card and passed the turn to play a counterspell or cantrip during my opponent's turn. The first card that changed the control deck type for me was Squadron Hawk. The Hawk giving name to the deck (Caw-Blade) generated a card advantage that was really good. Later on when Swords were printed in Scars of Mirrodin the deck became even more proactive. Squadron Hawk could be equipped with Sword of Feast and Famine and deal more easily with control or combo decks. It even helped against aggro decks. Stoneforge Mystic became a feared card by aggressive decks. In order to beat aggro decks the control player had to play Stoneforge Mystic on turn 2, and put Batterskull in play the following turn. This practically meant the game was over for the aggro deck. Stoneforge Mystic and  Batterskull also meant the end of pure aggro decks in Legacy. Zoo that used to be good and viable just couldn't deal with a Stoneforge Mystic package. When Batterskull started to see play in Type 2's CawBlade it became a negative player experience for most players. The only way to deal with this deck was to play it as well (which did not solve the 'negative experience' problem). The era of endless mirrors began and led to banning of the two biggest offenders - Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic - in a format that hardly saw any bans.

Both of these control type decks control the game but in a different way. The reactive version can play a long game. It wants to control the game from the beginning till the end and the longer it survives the more likely the deck is going to win (thus it does not need too many threats). The tapout version of the deck needs to win the game relatively early though for a control deck. If this deck does not find a way how to win in a timely fashion its chance of winning the game becomes low. When the draw-go variant of UW control was popular it was really difficult to finish athe match in time. Finishing 3 games was almost impossible. Squadron Hawk changed this though, it allowed to win faster and that's what the deck really needed. This required a bit more proactivity from the pilot of the deck and that was my problem. I'm not proactive enough and when I am it does not feel right (the reason why I feel bad when playing an aggro deck).

When this deck was the best - when New Phyrexia was the newest set - it was better to play threats and to tap out on your turn and let your opponent deal with the threats. Turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic was a serious problem. This is when I realized that I don't want to play this kind of a deck anymore because it does not give me too many choices to react. Grixis Control was the deck I played at that time. It wasn't that good as UW 'Control' but it allowed me to play the way I wanted and this was more important for me than playing the 'best deck' (on a side not, this deck was capable of getting in Top 8 of GPTs and PTQs, it wasn't some kind of budget/pet deck). This deck usually durdled around and then won when the time came. The sad truth is though that the deck became better when I put 2 more creatures in (before it was either Jace, the Mind Sculptor winning the game or Creeping Tar Pit). I did not like the idea but Vampire Nighthawk was doing wonders and helped me in many matchups. With the UW control I did not really feel much 'in control' of the game unlike with the Grixis build. The difference in these decks is that the UW control puts pressure on the opponent (is thus proactive) and the second one reacts to what opponent does (is reactive).

I always knew that I'm not much of an aggro player but I never realized that this would limit me in playing control decks (now more of midrange decks). The revelation came to me after my ex boyfriend took all the blue and white cards from me and played with them. I had to figure out what to do with the rest of the cards. I tried playing Wolf Run. I started with the most favorite version of Wolf Run - Wolf Run Red. At one PTQ I lost several games because I wasn't aggressive enough. I could simply activate Inkmoth Nexus and try to hit my opponent for ten and see what happens and if that wouldn't work I still had Primeval Titan that could still win the game by either attacking itself or fetching another Inkmoth Nexus. But I was afraid the plan wouldn't work so I did not attack. This meant I lost the turn, my opponent kept his removal or drew another one and in the long term I was screwed. It was time to ponder about what 'aggression' in Magic is and how to become more proactive because I was well aware that this was the reason why I started losing more.

When playing Magic I can play attrition war easily or lead my opponent where I want or to just deal with everything on the board and take advantage (this stopped being true when Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time were legal in Legacy and Modern). All this from a position of a control deck usually vs. control deck. I was usually the one winning all the mirror matches (unless I played against Ivan Floch). I could play against aggro as well. Playing against aggressive decks was easier because those decks are predictable and those decks also have to hope quite a lot that there won't be this or that to stop them which usually makes them 'more simple' to play as there is less decisions to make. One needs to decide when to overextent and when not to and play creatures or other spells in order to deal maximum damage. Aggressive decks also punish control decks a lot for their misplays. They are fast and put a lot of pressure on the control player. That player cannot mess up the first four turns. Even a small mistake can easily lead to a loss. Ever happened to you that you played a wrong land and couldn't play Wrath of God on turn 4?

Playing against aggro all the time with my control decks taught me how to play aggro against a control deck. For some reason when someone told me to play aggro and I played against control I usually won. I knew what to do. I knew what decision a control player had to make and what kind of cards there were to stop the aggro deck. I wasn't really focusing on max. damage and the most efficient way how to win. But I was well aware that I either try this and die or I win because there is no other way and that is something I don't like about aggro decks.

So what is this aggression? I don't know what the definition is and probably my sister would be able to explain that more since she was trying to learn how to play chess (and reads many books about the matter). I have a notion though. Some time ago Ondra (a fellow local Magic player) brought a chess board and pieces so we could play a game of chess. I really wanted to play because I haven't played chess in ages and wanted to analyze the game but was also afraid that I would make a complete idiot out of myself (I still feel like one after those games). Ondra played competitively and teaches kids to play so he knows what the game is about. I don't. I was naturally winning against many people both IRL and online but I never studied the game nor knew how the game actually works. I look at any game in a certain manner. It seems to me that there is usually some kind of early/mid/late game and that is why certain strategies can work or cannot work. Also each game usually has a certain pace and length. For example in Magic, Modern is turn 4 format and Type 2 is turn 6 format. This doesn't mean that the game ends by that turn but it can. What happens in those first turns is crucial for the game and it sets some kind of tempo one needs to follow. That is how the early game, mid-game and late game are defined. I expected that something like this exists in chess as well and that the notion of 'aggro' vs 'control' exists here as well. I don't know openings or examples of plays but I'm well aware that such things exist. When playing against my uncle (being a pro player) when I was really little I learned a very hard way that opening not responded well can lead to a pretty quick game (ending badly for me). So I started the game against Ondra somehow and tried not to lose immediately and then the game came to a point in which I did not know what to do. This used to be my problem in earlier games of chess as well. At that time I did not know why I'm at such a loss. I realized only later that what I needed was to react to my opponent's plays. I did not want to be proactive. That was the control part in me. Without seeing what my opponent does I couldn't react and thus I couldn't win. So I spent some time staring at the board figuring out what my opponent can actually do and what can help him win the game. I made a misplay then or rather a random play and I expected to by punished hard by it. But I wasn't to my surprise. I could still go back and let my opponent advance with his previous plans. I did few more moves like this and still 'I was alive' and not punished the way I expected. After my opponent started his aggression I finally could react and there were two possibilities I could do. Either defend or become the aggressor myself while stopping his advance. So I did that (rather tried) because the clock was ticking and it was a very fast one (Ondra is pretty aggressive/proactive unlike me, he did not give me much of a choice so I had to switch to 'aggro mode'). I envisioned a pattern that would let me take his pieces on the board and probably eventually win. I wasn't really sure how I would do that but I knew that I can win a game where there is not so many pieces on the board (even if that would mean that I would have only few pieces myself) and since I already envisioned the part how to take my opponent's pieces I knew it was possible. So I started taking the pieces and then realized that I can switch to a different kind of strategy since taking all the pieces was not necessary. I could just abandon my attack and back the King in a corner. This meant moving from mid-game to the last stage of the game. I took the action and it led to victory. The game did not last ages. I took a lot of time to think but in terms of turns the game was quick (you know three turns in Vintage can take 20 minutes to some player). The pace was pretty fast. I won with an aggressive strategy. An approach very difficult for me to grasp but I understand it in a way now since this game opened my eyes. In game of chess one cannot be overwhelmed by creatures so here it is easier for me to deal with it (because the number of pieces is limited and can only go down unlike in Magic, the only thing that can mess things up is a Pawn being promoted).

After this experience I knew that I don't really have what an aggressive player needs in order to win. In games I play I can see that myself. There are times in which I simply forget to attack or do not count the damage relative to turns and such and lose the game (even though if I actually do this, I can do it better than many players). In order to play well proactively though I need to switch my mind into 'aggro mode' but that is very difficult and unnatural for me. For example if I play Twin (I know it is banned but maybe not for long?) and I don't have a way to win via comboing off and I need to outrace let's say Merfolk. Those Pestermites and Deceiver Exarchs backed up with Cryptic Commands can do this. But one needs to take this into account and start dealing damage pretty fast. One turn without action can cause the Twin player to lose the game (here the aggro deck clearly shows that it can punish a slower deck pretty hard). In scenarios like this I can usually switch pretty well but when playing against midrange I have problems with that because I'm not under such pressure and I don't know when the right moment to switch is (when one can attack and not be punished for that he or she should). I was used to trading a card for a card till I had the upper hand, played my bomb and won later. But now I need to play my own threats and usually attack with them in order to win. But when there are too many creatures on both sides my ability to attack efficiently drastically lowers. Situations like this are really painful unless I can deal with them with cards like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or End Hostilities (not that it would really help as there are still colorless creatures or creatures that would replace themselves)

In this kind of situation going through all those creatures is something I wouldn't probably be able to do. Certainly I would need to deal with First Strike creatures and then figure out how to attack to trade my Goyfs the best. But would that even work?
Hopefully for me I had access to Deathrite Shaman, Creeping Tar Pit, Liliana and Jace. Any one card out of these four would eventually win the game but without them I would be lost...

Now I often use the term (aggression) while playing a control deck (midrange rather). It is more about being proactive though and less reactive. Nowadays with tons of cards being really strong we want to clear them a path and win with them. Control decks are way more proactive than they used to be (since planeswalkers were printed). There is no time for digging for a card or simply drawing cards and taking care of one threat after another one. This used to be normal in the past but nowadays it is better to play a threat of your own even if you play a control deck. Control decks are still reactive but more in a sense of defending the threat they play. Also a board wipe is something that does not always work because of cards like Whisperwood Elemental or Strangleroot Geist etc.

I used examples from Type 2 but it is not the only format that is affected by 'proactivity being more crucial than being reactive'. The very same can be found in Modern and even Legacy. Lately after the restriction of Lodestone Golem even Vintage shows the tendency to go midrange.

So nowadays proactivity is favored and it seems it will stay like this. Sometimes it seems that the decks want to be pure midrange - full of good powerful cards and not so much synergy. In general it is more fun for players to be able to swing the game when they top deck something powerful. I don't find anything wrong with that in general. But many new players do not understand why some people miss the old times and complain about all those creatures that are being printed. The change to more proactive strategies is one of the primary reasons why players complain. I hope that this article will help you understand how some players may feel about it.

Thank you for reading. Reach me at Twitter @stsungjp or Magic Online (stsung).