The Aggro Player’s Bible

States is a popular tournament, and, seeing as it is so close to the release of a new set, likely to be filled with many people playing beatdown decks. There is the stereotype of the "mindless red mage" who simply turns men sideways. This is very far from the truth. Playing aggro decks is very difficult, and understanding the ins and outs is important to your success.

I will assume that you have read my previous article on aggro deck theory here and thus am assuming that you are playing Mountains and not Plains, although what follows applies to a lesser extent to decks running Plains as well, it is designed primarily for those who choose to live by the way of the Mountain.

#1 – Always apply pressure

Aggro decks are designed to punish their opponent for stumbling on draws by applying consistent pressure. Some aggro decks are even designed to assist this process along (generally through things like mana disruption, the best example of which is land destruction). This is the most important principle to remember. Aggro decks are opportunists, and take advantage of "bad beats." If you aren't applying pressure, you can't take advantage of those "bad beats."

#2 – All "elves" must die

Let me be clear on terminology. I use the term "elf" here to refer to not only the archetypal elves, but to all cheap creature enablers. Thus, "elves" are cheap, small creatures that enable and accelerate your opponent's fundamental strategy. The largest category of "elves" is, of course, mana dorks, but they aren't the only elves. Fauna Shaman would be an "elf" even if it wasn't actually an Elf. Enclave Cryptologist is an elf, Renegade Doppelganger is an elf. Of course, Birds of Paradise, Lotus Cobra, and Llanowar Elves are elves. You should kill them.

This is one of the biggest mistakes aggressive players make when playing red decks, and also one of the reasons why the red deck is stronger than most other aggressive decks. Elves are tremendously important to your opponent's development, and as the aggro mage you should go out of your way to kill them. Red decks are better at this than aggro decks of other colors.

Why do you have to kill your opponent's elf? Because letting it live will typically allow your opponent to either develop and stabilize or to race you, while killing it will very often give you the window necessary to win the game. Your opponent is running "elves" because they either greatly accelerate or are absolutely critical to the game plan. You should never ignore this fact.

Of course, sometimes killing an elf comes at great cost (Overgrown Battlement is an example) and is not worth it, but even in such situations it is worth it more often than not. The real caveat comes when you let the elf live. You can do this, but you need a really good reason to (T1 Goblin Guide is not a good reason; T1 1-drop + letting them walk their second elf into your Arc Trail is).

When in doubt, kill the elf, because actively making your opponent stumble is worse than praying it will happen.

#3 – Do not succumb to "The Fear"

Just read this article, which is nostalgia from the first time Mirrodin was Standard legal.

#4 – Do not waste turns

A turn where nothing, or very little, happens is profitable for your opponent. Your deck is designed for the short game and you should be playing for it. Drawing a card and passing is, in general, the worst thing you can do. If you are doing it, you should have a very good reason for it (e.g. you are in the match-up where you are the control, or you know your opponent is going to give you a big window later).

#5 – Make your opponent have it

Your opponent does not always have the counter/removal spell. This is especially true as you get to the later rounds of a tournament and the quality of your opposition increases. The better a player is, the more likely he is to run a bluff because he understands the value of the threat. Your job as an aggro player is to be discerning. Of course it is sometimes correct to take your opponent's potential removal spells/counterspells into account, but as an aggro player, err on the side of making them have it. Do not let them goad you into giving them extra time by threatening you with removal or counters.

#6 – The top of your deck is your friend

Red decks have to topdeck. If you can't live off the top, don't play the red deck. This is something you accept when you pick up the deck. You have no control over your draws so you are at the mercy of chance. However, red decks are also designed to topdeck. The high degree of redundancy present in most aggro decks allow them to topdeck very well, and allow the pilot some degree of leeway in estimating the quality of their draw.

You need to know what you are looking for in each instance and what to do whether you draw or don't draw what you need. Sometimes the specific card will matter, other times you just need to draw "a burn spell" or "a land." While control players can play and give themselves extra draw steps the aggro player frequently does not have this option. You simply have to put yourself in the best position to topdeck.

#7 – Do not overboard; remember, you still have to apply pressure

This is applicable to combo players as well as aggro players. Whatever you do, do not overboard. Your deck has a fundamental strategy that requires lots of moving parts to work together. Boarding in cards like Brittle Effigy and Leyline of the Punishment dilute that strategy. Cards like that might have a place in your sideboard, but too many of them will dilute your deck to the point where it doesn't function.

When you sideboard, especially in match-ups where you need a lot of help, you need to search for cards that affect your fundamental operations the least. One of your deck's strengths is redundancy, and if you sacrifice this you will lose games to drawing too many cards that don't advance your game plan, but only hinder your opponent's. Hindering your opponent is only relevant while you are exerting pressure. If you are not exerting pressure, no amount of hindering will win you the game.

#8 – Know when you are the control

Just because your deck has Goblin Guide in it doesn't mean it can't be a control deck. This is, in fact, one of the greatest strengths of the red deck. It stems from the greatest strength of the burn spell – the ability to kill a creature or go to the face. The fact that burn can be used as a control component and a win condition allows aggressive decks to play a controlling role much better.

Despite appearances, there are match-ups where you will be the control. It is very important to identify these match-ups and board accordingly. Just as a modern example, in mono-red vs. Neo-affinity, I think the mono-red deck should be the control, and thus should board accordingly. It is the only match-up where I think it is correct to board out Goblin Guide.

#9 – You will lose games to chance. Don't let it bother you

This is self explanatory. By choosing to play the aggro deck you are opening yourself up to this. Your deck is inherently less powerful than the mid-range or control decks that you will be playing. Sometimes you will just be overpowered by your opponent's draw. Your deck is designed to punish your opponent for stumbling and perhaps to force your opponent to stumble. If that fails, you will probably lose. Accept it and move on.

#10 – Math is your friend

As an aggro player you should be constantly doing math – what are the chances I am going to draw my outs? What are the chances my opponent has drawn the card I'm afraid of and is holding it? How much more damage do I need to do? What maximizes my damage this turn? What maximizes my damage next turn? How can my opponent affect my maximal damage plays? When should I be throwing away cards/creatures for damage?

These are all kinds of questions you have to ask yourself as the aggro player, and you should be doing the math associated with them constantly during the match. Sometimes the calculations will be simple. Other times they will not be. You have to do them regardless. Still, in addition to more "normal" math, there is a special type of math called "red deck math." It involves you racing against the clock, and you would do well to learn it. It is useful in both limited and constructed, and will allow you to win many games you otherwise had no business winning.


Aggro decks are a powerful force to be respected and attacking for two is a perfectly legitimate strategy. They are not at all easy to play well, contrary to popular belief. There are many many decisions involved in executing what seems, on the surface, like a very simple game plan. Aggro decks are an elegant fusion of design and play, and the thinking red mage understands this. They won't always be the best deck, but they remain legitimate options in so many formats, even if they are often dismissed as "unskilled." Learn the ways of the Mountain and you will be rewarded, even if you never sleeve up a Mountain in your life.

Chingsung Chang
Conelead almost everywhere and on MTGO

Bonus – Reading for the Red Mage

Who's the Beatdown? by Mike Flores

Taking "Who's the Beatdown?" Two Steps Further by Richard Feldman

The School of Sligh-Kimes by Frank S. Kusumoto

The Breakdown of Theory by Mike Flores

The Philosophy of Fire by Mike Flores

Naming the Red Metagame by Mike Flores

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Circle by Dan Paskins

Rules of the Red by Dan Paskins

Lands and Beatdown by Dan Paskins

The Strategic Moment by Adrian Sullivan

Ponza in Post-Shadowmoor Standard (The Nature of Ponza) by Adrian Sullivan