In this article, we analyse a macro-archetype that is tricky to define but has been known to dominate: Aggro-Control. Reading this article should help you to build and pilot Aggro-Control decks in 7 Point Highlander, and identify and defeat opposing Aggro-Control decks. In 7 Point Highlander, Aggro-Control decks tend to appear under the Good-Stuff Control or Value Midrange archetypes, and are not to be confused with the Protect the Queen archetype, as we explain in this article.
We begin by unpacking the elements of Aggro-Control, mostly according to Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin. Then we examine two successful Aggro-Control decks in 7 Point Highlander: Anatoli Lightfoot’s 2018 National Championship-winning “Jeskai Tempo” and Daniel Abraham’s 2020 “Lutri Berserker”.
What is Aggro-Control?
Aggro-Control decks typically focus on gaining tempo advantages to survive the early game and then, in the mid-to-late game, turn the corner, switching quickly from defence to offence and often winning in just one or two attacks. Occasionally Aggro-Control decks instead deploy an early threat and protect it long enough to deal lethal damage. The defining strength of Aggro-Control lies in attacking or defending as the situation requires. Doing this generally involves preserving options instead of curving out. It requires and rewards play skill, earning Aggro-Control the reputation of being one of the most difficult macro-archetypes to pilot.
Aggro-Control decks are sometimes identified with Tempo decks. But we follow Chapin in thinking of Tempo decks as Fish decks, which in 7 Point Highlander appear under the Protect the Queen archetype. Chapin explains that the reference to Fish is attributable to an early merfolk deck (Next Level Deckbuilding, p. 235 – all page numbers refer to this book.) The advantage of clearly differentiating Fish from Aggro-Control, and not talking more amorphously of Tempo decks, is that it enables you to differentiate divergent game-plans, whereby your tempo advantages are best gained before or after you deploy a threat. Fish always wants to deploy a threat first, but Aggro-Control tends to buy time early and deploy a threat later. In this sense, Fish and Aggro-Control are the inverse of each other, even though both revolve around gaining tempo advantages (p. 285). Later, we closely examine what it means to gain a tempo advantage.
Aggro-Control’s only major vulnerability is to aggro, whose threats tend to be so mana efficient that they deny Aggro-Control decks the tempo advantages they normally depend on.
Aggro-Control on Chapin’s Array
Chapin locates Aggro-Control just before six o’clock on his macro-archetype array (see the figure below). This means three things.
1. Chapin sees Aggro-Control as a midrange deck
This is easy to lose sight of, given the name “Aggro-Control”. It means that Aggro-Control looks to deploy midsized threats. Just as we wrote of the Rock, “The creatures aren’t so small that you get outsized on board and can’t easily attack. And they aren’t so big that it takes forever to cast them and you risk getting massively out-tempo-ed by a cheap counter or removal spell”.
That said, Aggro-Control differs from most other midrange macro-archetypes in that its primary game-plan and strength lie, not in curving out, but in preserving options (if you want to hear more about this, listen to Channel Fireball’s guide to Aggro-Control). It’s often okay to pass the turn without using all of your mana when playing Aggro-Control, whereas this goes against a fundamental tenet of the Rock and Pure Midrange.
2. Aggro-Control is the most reactive of all the fair decks
Aggro-Control typically uses reactive cards to gain an advantage. In particular, counter magic, removal and bounce are commonly used to jockey for position in the early and mid-game. They all depend on the opponent playing something to counter, remove or bounce. This is why Aggro-Control prioritises preserving options. Aggro-Control is fair in the sense that “it doesn’t cheat big-time on mana or short-cut its way to victory” (you can read more about fair gameplay in our Rock article). Aggro-Control aims to win the fair way, mostly by attacking with creatures, using sources of direct damage for reach, and getting ahead incrementally (you can read more about reach in our Lava Spike article).
3. Aggro-Control borders on being unfair
History has shown that overpowered cards sometimes enable Aggro-Control to assume the in-game role of aggressor and defender simultaneously, “violating the opponent’s ability to take any role at all” (p. 290) and therein denying the opponent any clear path to victory (read the renowned article Who’s the Beatdown?). It feels unfair if your Aggro-Control opponent starts winning on all axes, boasting the better board, the higher life total, more cards in hand, everything! This occasional ability of Aggro-Control is perhaps the main reason why Chapin writes that “The distance between a good Aggro-Control deck and a broken one is shorter than [for] any other strategy” (p. 286).
Chapin’s opinion may also owe to the defining ability of Aggro-Control to instantly switch roles from defender to aggressor and then quickly win with lots of damage, seemingly out of nowhere and even from behind. When playing against Aggro-Control, suddenly “you can be looking down the barrel of a very short clock”, with the apparently “defensive deck taking the game in a few turns” (read Adrian Sullivan’s insights on Aggro-Control). Again, this may only be possible thanks to overpowered cards, which Aggro-Control decks “often make the best use of” (p. 288).
According to Chapin, “Aggro-Control decks generally:
- Play the control game against aggro
- Play the aggro game against control
- Revolve heavily around gaining tempo advantages” (p. 285).
Let’s unpack these points from the bottom up.
Gaining a Tempo Advantage
Gaining a tempo advantage isn’t about seeing more cards than your opponent, and it isn’t about directly impacting life totals in your favour, say with a Lava Spike. Gaining a tempo advantage is mostly about gaining a mana advantage over your opponent. A clear example of this is spending one mana to somehow undo what your opponent spent two mana on. You Unsummon their Grizzly Bears. You Spell Snare their Wrenn and Six. In doing this, you gain a mana advantage. An Aggro-Control deck is built to make mana-advantageous plays like this (p. 297).
But you also need to do something meaningful with the mana advantage that you gain over your opponent. Otherwise it’s pointless. By gaining and then pressing enough tempo advantages, you tend to do more than your opponent and get ahead incrementally. It’s important to know how you’re pressing your tempo advantages, namely what you’re converting them into (cards, damage, or a superior board position, say). Chapin writes that “When you are building a tempo-based deck, the key is to figure out what advantage you are gaining as a result of the tempo you are producing” (to read more about different types of advantage and how they can be converted into one another, check out Chapin’s Theory of Everything).
While tempo is mostly about mana, it’s not just about mana. Chapin actually defines tempo in terms of the “resources you gain naturally over time, but do not begin the game with”. These resources include land drops, which are generally so important that they make tempo mostly about mana, but they also include attack steps, planeswalker activations and other turn-limited abilities, like activating an Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin or triggering an Ancestral Vision. You gain a tempo advantage when you gain some advantage of this type over your opponent.
To gain a tempo advantage is to play a proverbial Time Walk (p. 285). (You can read the original theory that Everything is a Time Walk.) Talking about Time Walks is just another way of talking about tempo advantages. The Aggro-Control player can use their cards to gain tempo advantages (in other words, they can play their proverbial Time Walks) before or after deploying a threat (say a Tarmogoyf). The game looks very different depending on when the Time Walks end up being played. Whether the Aggro-Control player plays their Time Walks before or after deploying a threat depends on what cards the Aggro-Control player happens to draw and on what would be best to do given the opponent’s deck and plays. Aggro-Control’s default game-plan is to play the Time Walks first, defensively, deploying a threat later.
Playing in Fish Mode
“When on the offensive, Aggro-Control looks and plays more like Fish” than midrange (p. 285). Let’s unpack that very important statement.
Robert Hahn, the designer of the first Aggro-Control deck, aimed to give blue “something to do” while still “being mighty”, which probably just means “still providing control”, especially with counter magic (p. 287). In other words, Aggro-Control can readily be proactive. It is not confined to reactivity. It has something to do no matter what the opponent may be doing. It can “get hustling quickly” (p. 287). The Aggro-Control deck must readily be able to deploy an early threat if it is to effectively “Play the aggro game against control” (p. 285). This point is very important and easily overlooked. Some early-threat potential is key.
When playing “the aggro game against control” (p. 285), the Aggro-Control deck deploys an early threat. A low-mana-cost threat stands the best chance of ducking under counter magic and thereafter reducing the value of the opponent’s future counter magic. It can also leave the Aggro-Control player with mana open to protect its threat. Once resolved, the early threat can repeatedly attack thanks to subsequent Time Walks. These are plays that buy the Aggro-Control player time by preventing the opponent from mounting an effective defence. These Time Walks typically take the form of counter magic, removal, bounce, and even hand disruption and mana disruption. When you buy time while you dominate the board in terms of which player can advantageously attack, you buy damage against the opponent (or card advantage as the opponent chump blocks or loses planeswalkers). Playing like this, namely in Fish mode, is like playing the original control deck, Brian Weissman’s The Deck, but starting the game with your Serra Angel already in play (p. 291, 298, 301).
History has shown that playing an early threat then Time Walks is highly effective against control and combo decks. It denies the control deck the time it needs to play its bigger spells, which are meant to reward the control deck for surviving into the late game with enough tempo to recover from early setbacks and enough card advantage to inevitably win. (The concept of inevitability originated here.) Similarly, if you give your Storm Combo opponent too much time, they will sculpt their hand and then crush you when they can overwhelm your defences. Denying your combo opponent time is critical.
Turning the Corner
But what if the opponent is playing an aggro deck? In this case, as the Aggro-Control player, you should use your Time Walks to survive the early game and then turn the corner. That is, you will need to pick your moment to switch roles from defender to aggressor (if you cannot assume both roles simultaneously thanks to overpowered cards). Your reactive cards typically grant you “reasonable control of the board”, not total control, and this reasonable control allows you to “win with a superior board position”, which you can maintain for long enough, not indefinitely (p. 289). This all means deploying your threat late, after the Time Walks that helped you to survive, and then winning quickly, even in one or two attacks, since you may lack the tools to ensure inevitable victory, not necessarily being favoured to win in the very late game.
In this way, Aggro-Control contrasts with Draw-Go Control in how quickly it wins. Aggro-Control can “switch violently into an endgame race” (p. 294), including by aiming at the opponent direct-damage spells that, at other times, might instead be used as Time Walks, namely to trade up with opposing creatures and planeswalkers. Aggro-Control typically turns the corner sooner or later, dropping the defensive posture and “attacking viciously”. But Draw-Go Control might never let down its guard to go on the offence, instead just slowly chipping in with incidental damage (from a Creeping Tarpit, say) as it maintains defensive control.
Playing your Time Walks then your threat actually marks the default game-plan for Aggro-Control. Aggro-Control decks only enter Fish mode when it is advantageous and possible to do so, especially based on the match-up and the cards you happen to draw. So keep in mind that entering Fish mode is the exception rather than the rule for Aggro-Control.
While Aggro-Control ideally enters Fish mode against control, sometimes you happen to draw your threats late or your early threats get neutralised. Aggro-Control can still beat control if this happens, because Aggro-Control can go toe-to-toe with control for most of the game, just not in the very late game, when control’s bigger spells win out. Aggro-Control boasts some of the initiative and speed of aggro but also much of the power and flexibility of control (p. 285). This includes the power of control to gain card advantage, which allows Aggro-Control to play, not just in Fish mode, but in something of a control mirror, though with a faster endgame, killing in an attack or two. As the Aggro-Control player, you must be willing and able to abandon Fish mode against a control opponent who has managed to neutralise your early threat.
Continuously Assessing Your Role
For legendary player Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, “The reason aggro-control decks are so good is that all the cards in it are flexible, and they work well in whatever strategy you choose” (read Damo da Rosa’s insights on Aggro-Control). Most of the cards operate effectively in a defensive or aggressive posture. They protect but they also attack. This goes for the Time Walks as well as the threats.
Flexibility grants Aggro-Control its “greatest strength”, namely “its ability to change roles continuously”. Damo da Rosa observes that the Aggro-Control player must be very alive to role assignment and ideally develop an instinct for switching roles at the right time depending on the game state.
Magnus Carlsen, the long-reigning chess champion of the world, observes that he really has no long-term plans when he plays, because good opponents skittle your plans (hear Carlsen talk about this). So it’s mostly a tactical battle, looking only a few moves ahead. Playing Aggro-Control can be like this, where you don’t just turn the corner once, moving from defender to aggressor and staying in that role. Depending on what your opponent is doing, you may have to turn back, switching to the role of defender again. And then at some point, you need to turn the corner again. You sometimes alternate between aggressive and defensive postures, even frequently, to the point where the question of Who’s the Beatdown? becomes unhelpful unless you’re asking it continuously.
Aggro-Control can only manage all of this adaptation, switching to the right role, because of the flexibility of its cards. Skilful play by the Aggro-Control player is required and rewarded because it relies on flexible card and because of the ability and need to assume the right role in the moment. When you play Aggro-Control, expect to have to make a lot of hard decisions about what to do throughout the game.
Chapin writes that Aggro-Control’s inevitability, or increasing grip on the game as it stretches on, is “counterspell-driven” (p. 290). This is an important statement that is easy to overlook. Counterspells often take centre-stage as the Time Walks of choice for Aggro-Control deck designers because they are so flexible, being able to both protect a lead and defend against an opponent seeking to establish a lead. For example, very flexible bounce (like Petty Theft) and removal (like Assassin’s Trophy) can keep your Tarmogoyf attacking past a would-be blocker, but they cannot save your Tarmogoyf from opposing bounce or removal.
Like counter magic, all-target direct damage (“burn”) is especially flexible. For instance, Lightning Bolt can defensively remove an early attacker, aggressively remove a blocker to clear the way for your own attacker, defensively finish off an opposing planeswalker, or aggressively finish off your opponent (functioning as a Lava Spike instead of as a Time Walk). (You can read all about the Lava Spike deck and see how it differs from a deck that revolves around tempo here.)
Aggro-Control players need flexible cards, so they tend to play Time Walks that don’t put them down on cards or life. For instance, playing Unsummon against an opposing creature typically puts you up on tempo but down a card (in a word, it incurs card disadvantage). So Unsummon (or Vapor Snag nowadays) is not an ideal weapon for Aggro-Control, since going down a card weakens you in anything like a control mirror. Much the same goes for Time Walks that put you down on life (like Dismember): they weaken you against aggro. Control and aggro decks are trying to make the game about cards and life, respectively, so you don’t want to play into the opponent’s game-plan. This is partly why, in 7 Point Highlander, the Aggro-Control deck designer will prefer, say, Lightning Bolt to Vapor Snag or Dismember. It’s not just because Lightning Bolt has more targets.
A threat is really just any card that inches you closer to victory every turn it sits in play (see Chapin’s Theory of Everything). A creature that can advantageously attack is the simplest example of this: every turn, it gains you an advantage, typically in the form of damage against the opponent via an unblocked attack. A non-creature spell like Search for Azcanta can also function as a threat if it’s cards that matter, since every turn it gains you card advantage or at least card quality.
Tarmogoyf and Stoneforge Mystic into Batterskull are great Aggro-Control threats in several respects: they come online early but are still good in the late game, and they help you to win quickly but are still strong defensively as blockers. In short, they protect but they also attack.
Aggro-Control’s early threats can’t really afford to be bad in the late game, because you might just happen to draw them then. After all, Aggro-Control mostly plans on going to the late game, just not the very late game. So for Aggro-Control in 7 Point Highlander, Savannah Lions doesn’t make the cut, but Hexdrinker does because it is efficient enough early and big enough late. Your threats should be capable of winning the game quickly when you turn the corner. Perhaps most importantly, they should be capable of operating both offensively and defensively.
Flash threats like Vendilion Clique tend to be very valuable in Aggro-Control – for three reasons. First, they reduce the impact of opposing sweepers, since you can flash in your threat at the end of the turn after your opponent’s sweeper. Second, flash threats buy you tempo, in that you gain a temporary mana advantage over your opponent by fighting on their end step to then untap and do something further (p. 294). Finally, flash threats increase the Aggro-Control player’s in-game options, just as they do for control players: you can hold up interaction throughout the opponent’s turn and then apply pressure to the board when it is best to do so.
Aggro-Control’s threat ideally provides card advantage (p. 293). For example, Bitterblossom, Stoneforge Mystic and Wrenn and Six each function as a threat that provides card advantage. This card advantage reduces the impact of opposing sweepers like Toxic Deluge and makes your own sweepers against aggro more tolerable in that they hurt you less.
All of this is asking a lot of Aggro-Control’s threats, so the card quality needs to be high. In 7 Point Highlander, maintaining card quality sometimes means adding a colour to your deck, so don’t be surprised to see Aggro-Control decks that feature three or four colours. At five colours, early-threat potential may be too greatly undermined by colour screw, but who knows!
In 7 Point Highlander, a threat generally counts as coming down early if it comes down in the first two turns, or perhaps on turn three at instant speed. The problem with three-mana sorcery-speed threats (and any slower ones) is that you can lose tempo if you run into opposing interaction. And losing tempo is a big problem when your deck revolves “heavily around gaining tempo advantages” (p. 285).
By requiring you to tap out, a three-mana sorcery-speed threat also limits your ability to interact on a key turn, namely your opponent’s turn three or four. This is when most decks in 7 Point Highlander are in full swing, enacting their game-plan in earnest. Tapping out on turn three puts you shields down precisely when you usually need to maintain control.
This all means that, to make the cut, your three-mana sorcery-speed threats (and any slower ones) need to be extremely powerful, and ideally fully game-warping (like Monastery Mentor). Or you need to somehow mitigate the risk of tempo loss, say by choosing threats that are difficult to interact with (like True-Name Nemesis, Oko, Thief of Crowns, and Klothys, God of Destiny).
Aggro-Control in the Metagame
Aggro-Control can have good match-ups across the entire metagame, though it may not have any match-ups in which it is heavily favoured. Aggro-Control can enter Fish mode against combo and control. It can simply slug out the midrange mirror.
But Aggro-Control needs to lean on its sideboard to shore up its vulnerability to aggro (p. 288). This vulnerability owes to aggro’s threats often being “much faster or more efficient” than the Time Walks on which Aggro-Control depends for its defence (p. 289).
For instance, Savannah Lions costs less mana than Counterspell and Petty Theft, so Savannah Lions can duck under these defences, resolving before the Aggro-Control player has had the time to play two lands and get their defences online. This is a case of aggro’s threat being “faster”. And even if Savannah Lions is stopped by Counterspell or Petty Theft, it gives the mana advantage to the aggro player, not the Aggro-Control player who depends on them. This is a case of aggro’s threat being “more efficient” in terms of mana costs.
Furthermore, the Aggro-Control player’s frequent preference for counterspells as the Time Walks of choice becomes a liability when Aggro-Control falls behind on board. So what is the Aggro-Control player to do against aggro? They need to lean on the sideboard for more-efficient removal (like Hydroblast), bigger creatures to dominate the board and ideally provide life gain (like Kitchen Finks), more tailored and powerful reactive tools like dedicated life gain (like Timely Reinforcements) to more effectively buy time, or sweepers to recuperate lost tempo and gain card advantage (like Deafening Clarion). This is how control typically beats aggro, and Aggro-Control plays “the control game against aggro” (p. 285).
Aggro-Control’s creatures are usually smaller than those of other midrange decks and those of Tap-Out Control decks. (Tap-Out Control decks play draw-go for a while then tap out for a big threat.) But Aggro-Control’s creatures “can be big enough, given perfect timing and successful attacks” (p. 290). That is, they can be big enough to narrowly win the race and to dominate the board at important moments. In the same way, Aggro-Control often has “to do more with less” when it comes to card advantage compared to fully fledged control decks (p. 290). “As such, defeating Aggro-Control can just be a matter of being faster than they are, or just a little bigger, or drawing more cards” (p. 290). Aggro-Control can also struggle against midrange when the Aggro-Control player’s counter magic and other Time Walks are bad against the opponent’s threats. For example, the midrange deck’s Hexdrinker bests Counterspell and Petty Theft the same way Savanna Lions does. And Thrun, the Last Troll just ignores Counterspell and Petty Theft altogether.
But don’t lose sight of just how good Aggro-Control can be no matter what the opponent is playing. Sometimes sheer card quality grants Aggro-Control such a combination of aggression, flexibility and power that it barely matters what the opponent is doing.
Aggro-Control Decks in 7 Point Highlander
In 2018, Grand Prix winner and former 7 Point Highlander Committee member Anatoli Lightfoot secured the 7 Point Highlander National Championship by winning at Cancon in Canberra with his “Jeskai Tempo”.
As a guest on Episode 12 of the 7 Point Highlander podcast, Toli explained that:
The basic idea came from the Jeskai Mentor decks in Vintage. The concept of the deck matches but the execution needs to be quite different in Highlander. The core of it is the same. A small number of highly threatening creatures that can take over the game on their own. Some efficient removal. Cheap or free counterspells. Card filtering and cantripping. And the remainder of the deck is a mixture of a couple of haymakers … [which includes] a small planeswalker package.
This describes the components of the deck, but not its game-plan. The same components could feature in a control deck. Indeed, at the time, we didn’t fully appreciate Toli’s deck, because we didn’t fully understand it. It looked to us like an iffy confusion between Fish and Draw-Go Control. (Who plays Stifle and Mystic Confluence in the same deck?!) But that’s because it was a good Aggro-Control deck, as we’ve come to appreciate. It was a Tempo deck in the sense that it was chock-full of tempo plays, like any good Aggro-Control deck, and that is why Stifle made sense alongside Mystic Confluence.
Toli explained the game-plan as follows:
The basic way it wants to play is, fiddle around in the first couple of turns, jockeying for position, and try to engineer a situation where you can drop one of the threats with counter back-up, while not dying in the meantime.
This play-pattern accords with Aggro-Control’s default game-plan of playing defensive Time Walks then a threat supported with counter spells. By contrast, a Draw-Go deck has no great interest in dropping a threat like this.
We wrote above about Aggro-Control playing proverbial Time Walks. Toli played actual Time Walk. Toli was a pioneer in using Time Walk in 7 Point Highlander. He regarded the then three-point card as “one of the best places to put points in Highlander” at that point, as well as “one of the most fun cards in all of Magic”.
Toli could recur Time Walk with Snapcaster Mage or Jace, Telepath Unbound, or he could take all the turns by combining Time Walk with Soulfire Grand Master if he had six mana available, winning on the spot. But the real role of Time Walk in Toli’s deck was to help him turn the corner instantly. We wrote above about Aggro-Control playing its proverbial Time Walks before or after its threat, but Toli planned to play Time Walk and his threat ON THE SAME TURN to immediately turn the corner out of nowhere.
Toli explained it best:
When you’ve got Time Walk in your hand, in a deck like this, the Time Walk becomes the strategic goal, because there’s a lot of ways to manoeuvre a situation where Time Walk becomes completely back-breaking … Time Walk should pretty much never be used as a turn-two play in this deck … even against aggro.
Toli gave the example of his opponent tapping out on turn three, then Toli untapping to play Young Pyromancer and Time Walk on his turn four. Time Walk helped Toli to untap with both a threat and counter magic active. This use of Time Walk is especially potent in a format that is light on free counter magic, so that if your opponent taps out, you can be fairly confident of resolving Time Walk and your threat in the same turn.
Toli turned the corner with Time Walk plus Monastery Mentor, or Monastery Mentor plus Force of Will and Spell Pierce back-up, or end-of-turn Lightning Bolt-Snapcaster Mage-Lightning Bolt to then untap and do even more. Toli explained that he had to turn the corner in the “critical turn”, moving from defender to aggressor at the right moment.
It doesn’t play like an aggro deck. You can’t just go, right, it’s turn three, I’ve got three mana, I’ve got a Geist of Saint Traft in my hand, Geist enter play. That’s not how the deck plays … This has been a feature of Tempo or Aggro-Control decks in a variety of formats over the years. If anyone remembers playing Faeries in Standard, it was like, you didn’t just lay your cards out on the table. You needed to manoeuvre [into] a situation where you could blunt your opponent’s attack and then flip the game around and go on the offensive, and timing that turn was sort of the key to playing that deck well. And it’s similar here. You need to figure when you can take control of the game and time everything so that you can do that before you lose, basically
Toli summarised all of this beautifully, highlighting how, unlike other midrange decks, Aggro-Control prioritises preserving options above curving out.
You can’t just look at what you can cast, look at your lands, and cast the things that you can cast. You always have more options. And often against opposing decks with counterspells and reactive cards … often the right thing to do is just pass without doing anything, which might seem counter-intuitive for a Tempo deck but it’s not… I mean Tempo’s a little bit of a misnomer, I think. It’s an Aggro-Control deck. It’s seeking to react to your opponent’s plays early and then at a particular critical point go on the offensive. But you gotta pick that point carefully.
You can watch Toli turn the corner by playing Time Walk and a threat in the same turn in the very finals match that Toli won to secure the 2018 National Championship (check out the first video below). Toli plays Time Walk and Geist of Saint Traft while his opponent is tapped out, effectively gifting himself a free sticky threat backed up by counter magic in the form of the Mystic Confluence in his hand. Remember, Aggro-Control’s “inevitability” is “counterspell-driven” (p. 290). Turning the corner, rather than playing in Fish mode from early on, ultimately reflects the default Aggro-Control game-plan of playing your defensive Time Walks then your threat.
Earlier, in game one of the finals (earlier in the first video below), you can see the occasional ability of Aggro-Control to assume the in-game role of aggressor and defender simultaneously thanks to overpowered cards (in this case, Young Pyromancer and Jace, the Mindsculptor). Earlier again, in the semi-final of his 2018 Championship run, Toli put on a clinic (check out the second video below). You can see Aggro-Control in Fish mode and how Aggro-Control has some of the “initiative” and speed of aggro (p. 285), as Toli puts his Draw-Go opponent down to six life in only five minutes. Then you can see how the Aggro-Control player can successfully abandon Fish mode after the opponent finally manages to neutralise the early threat.
We wrote above that, in 7 Point Highlander, threats on the slower side, costing at least three mana at sorcery speed, need to be game-warping or you need to have a plan to mitigate the risk of tempo loss. Toli had a few game-warping slow threats (Monastery Mentor, Dack Fayden and Jace, the Mindsculptor) but he also had plans to mitigate the risk of tempo loss.
In addition to playing Time Walk and a threat on the same turn leaving no real window open to his opponent to blow him out on tempo, Toli could use mana disruption to lever open a window in which to resolve his slower threats. Toli’s “small mana denial package” comprised Wasteland, Tectonic Edge, Stifle, and even the Ice half of Fire // Ice. This also helped Toli to play in Fish mode against control and combo. And it served “to extend the usefulness of cards like Spell Pierce and Daze and Mana Leak. And also, you know, “free wins”.
Toli’s final plan to mitigate the risk of tempo loss was to choose slower threats that were either difficult to remove (Geist of Saint Traft) or likely to provide some compensation if removed (Toli probably got a token or two out of Goblin Rabblemaster and an extra card or two out of Jori En, Ruin Diver). Now, these cards weren’t high on power level even in ye olde 2018, but such was the price of Toli’s choice to stay on only three colours, being more reliable and resilient than four colours, and to stay on pure Aggro-Control, being more focussed and consistent than any hybrid of two macro-archetypes.
Daniel Abraham’s “Lutri Berserker”
The next deck we’ll focus on is Daniel Abraham’s short-lived “Lutri Berserker”. Dan quietly built and refined his deck before debuting it during companion winter of 2020, just after companions had been released but before they’d been nerfed. Dan went 4-1 in an online tournament being run out of Toowoomba, only losing narrowly to 7 Point Highlander Committee member Sarven McLinton. In the period leading up to this, 7 Point Highlander had come to be dominated by Sarv’s RUG Life, a blue-red-green Fish deck. RUG Life was built to prey on Kess Pile, a blue-black-red Draw-Go Control deck, but as time went on midrange decks began to appear in greater numbers to prey on RUG Life’s smaller creatures. Dan thought it would be worth trying to convert RUG Life into an Aggro-Control deck that could shore up RUG Life’s vulnerabilities to midrange.
Numerous elements from RUG Life remained. In the deck list, we see the tempo-oriented counter magic (Spell Pierce, Daze, Remand, and Force of Will) and the flexible burn (Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, and Bonecrusher Giant). Brazen Borrower and Vendilion Clique remained as probably the format’s most impressive flash threats at the time. However, Lutri Berserker largely eschewed the creatures that lack strong defensive capabilities. Goblin Guide and Delver of Secrets were gone. But the likes of Tarmogoyf, Hexdrinker and Hooting Mandrils made the cut because, as creatures that can come down early and reach four toughness, they have sound defensive as well as offensive capabilities. They can both protect and attack.
Dan emphasised defensive capabilities to gain Aggro-Control’s greater flexibility as to role assignment. But he was determined to retain RUG Life’s overpowered two-mana finisher, Price of Progress. The question for Dan, then, was how to support that card in a deck that aimed to go into the late game (though not the very late game). The answer wasn’t running a lot of basic lands. It was something much more novel. It was life gain.
Lutri Berserker is littered with life gain options that can also lower the opponent’s life total (again protecting and attacking): Deathrite Shaman, Klothys, God of Destiny, Oko Thief of Crowns, and the sideboard Scavenging Ooze. Dan’s plan was to grow his life total while pressuring his opponent’s incrementally, often ending the game with a lethal Price of Progress (or two, since Jace, Telepath Unbound could recur Price of Progress and Lutri, the Spellchaser could copy it, but we’ll get to the namesake cards in a minute). This life gain also helped Dan to shore up Aggro-Control’s vulnerability to aggro.
For a moment, let’s talk about Niv-Mizzet, Parun, because it sticks out in a deck with mostly low-mana-cost spells and only 22 lands, including a Snow-Covered Forest. Niv’s inclusion was inspired by Adrian Sullivan’s observation that “Niv-Mizzet, Parun ends games”. Sullivan put the emphasis on “ends” because his point was that Niv isn’t entirely a control card, purely focussed on ensuring inevitability through card advantage. Niv is a card that ends the game very quickly with a lot of damage, which is exactly what Aggro-Control wants when it turns the corner in the mid-to-late game.
As an uncounterable late-game threat, Niv breaks the control mirror. Niv converts every cantrip into damage. (In a word, Niv turns dirdle into damage, much like Toli’s Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor.) Niv is especially powerful when paired with card-drawing loops involving Mystic Sanctuary and Gush or Ancestral Recall. Admittedly, Niv can rot in your hand if drawn early, but at least it’s blue, pitching to Force of Will and Force of Negation. Dan’s inclusion of Niv helps to explain his use of Birds of Paradise, Noble Hierarch, Lotus Cobra, Wrenn and Six, Klothys, God of Destiny, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance, which all helped him cast Niv (sometimes before turn six).
Dan kept the mana curve low, only playing slower threats that were game warping, hard to interact with, or both. When Klothys, God of Destiny was first spoiled, Chapin was quick to observe its power in being near-impossible to remove and near-impossible to beat on the normal axes of fair play (hear Chapin heap early praise on Klothys). Oko, Thief of Crowns is banned in multiple formats because of its power in making the game all about Oko. Dack Fayden is only borderline game warping, but it played an important role in functionally cycling away the counter spells that got worse as the game progressed (Daze and Spell Pierce). Dack’s selection also increased flexibility, allowing Dan to find the defensive or offensive resources he needed depending on the game state.
And finally we see the main-deck Blood Moon, which four-colour midrange decks tend to fold to, at least in game one, thus shoring up a vulnerability that the deck would have otherwise shared with RUG Life. Blood Moon pairs nicely with all of the colour fixing that helped Dan to cast Niv, but also with Price of Progress, because any non-basic lands remain non-basic under Blood Moon. In practice, Blood Moon tends to increase the number of non-basic lands in play by stopping fetch lands from activating to find basic lands, only increasing the power of Price of Progress. Dan could lock out opposing midrange decks and then kill them with Price of Progress in due course.
Now let’s get to the namesake cards. We mentioned earlier that Aggro-Control often makes the best use of overpowered cards. Well, Dan’s deck was pretty good before Lutri, the Spellchaser was printed, but afterwards it was gross. It’s important to remember that Dan debuted his deck in the period prior to Wizards adjusting the companion rule to require the owner to spend three mana at sorcery speed to put the companion into hand. At the time, Lutri could be flashed in from the sideboard at instant speed just by paying Lutri’s mana cost.
Many people quickly realised that Lutri could be paired with Ancestral Recall or Gush to generate ridiculous card advantage, and Dan’s deck took advantage of this. Dan was also able to use Lutri’s copying ability to turn interaction, like Lightning Bolt, into more sizable later-game advantage. But Dan’s principal innovation was to pair Lutri with Berserk in a deck that tended to begin with a defensive orientation. Dan copied Berserk with Lutri to end the game very quickly with a lot of damage in the mid-late game, just like Sullivan did with Niv-Mizzet, Parun.
Berserk doubles a creature’s power until the end of turn for one green mana before killing it. (This means that Berserk can be used defensively to kill an opposing attacker at the cost of some life, so it can protect as well as attack.) Lutri allowed Dan to double his attacking creature’s power twice in the same turn, thus quadrupling damage output. Perfectly serviceable early-to-mid-game threats like Tarmogoyf suddenly became game-ending monstrosities at instant speed thanks to Lutri copying Berserk. A common play-pattern was something like the following.
- End of your turn, cast Vendilion Clique.
- Put Counterspell on the bottom of your library.
- Untap then attack with Vendilion Clique.
- Berserk Vendilion Clique, hold priority, flash in Lutri, copy Berserk, hitting you for 12 damage.
Lutri Berserker could turn the corner instantly and lethal you in a single turn, making it a very strong Aggro-Control deck. And it still had some early-threat potential in the form of Hexdrinker and Tarmogoyf, for instance, meaning it was still capable of playing in Fish mode.
You can watch Dan discuss his deck with Drew Carter in the video below.