Commander has many viable strategies. Today I'm going to review the aggro archetype, and suggest a few generals that you might enjoy using. As it turns out, the aggro decks you'd play in a 20 life format don't work very well in a 40 life format, but you can still play aggressive decks with the right general. In many cases it becomes somewhat similar to a midrange strategy from 20 life formats. Every card needs to count no matter what turn you play it, but the fundamental idea of winning in the red zone is still there.
Aggro includes two different strategies:
- Traditional aggro with a good curve and aggressive creatures, and
- Commander damage where your goal is to get 21 damage in with your commander on as many opponents as possible, as fast as possible.
Tribal strategies typically play into the traditional aggro role as does token generation, though both with their own distinct touches.
Colors to Choose
Normally, the premier aggro strategies are red or white, possibly with a splash into some other color. This holds true for the most part in Commander as well, but any color can get the job done if you build the deck to do it. The big difference is the typical "Sligh" strategy of beating your opponent down to low life totals, then finishing it off with red burn spells like Lightning Bolt, doesn't work the greater majority of the time because people simply have too much life. Since the "all in" plan usually doesn't cut it, a lot of typical aggro staples have to be swapped out for creatures that are a little less powerful on offense for things that serve as persistent threats.
For tribal aggro, color selection is all about what tribe you want to play. Almost every tribe that has enough representatives to make a deck if it has a commander of the same creature type. For Goblins, you have Wort, Boggart Auntie. Elementals have Horde of Notions. Vampires have a host of choices, as do Soldiers. If you know you want to play aggro, and you know you want to play tribal, you're only limited by your imagination.
Token generation is a powerful alternative method of playing aggro in Commander as well. By generating enough tokens along with a few global pump effects, your swarm can quickly become unstoppable. For tokens, I highly recommend green and/or white. Supplementing with a third color can't hurt if you can afford the mana base for it.
The flip side of aggro is to pick a good aggressively costed general and go for the general damage win. Sometimes just turning your general sideways can be enough if you pick the right general. Another common method is to play a cheap CMC general and ways to pump him or her up (known commonly as a "Voltron" strategy for the kid's cartoon from the late 80s where combining several "weak" robots together made a big near-unstoppable monster robot). The general gives you a persist threat you know you can count on, and you fill your deck with ways to make sure you can get in for 21 on each opponent. Almost every color combination provides a possible general for this type of play, if you want to try it.
How to Build Your Curve
Normally the most important thing to do with an aggro deck is to get the pressure on early to kill your opponents before they have a chance to react. In Commander, it becomes much more important to apply consistent pressure because you can't rely on being able to beat your opponents down before they can mount a defense. If you want to play the aggro game, you need to play threats from one or two mana and up. You will also need to make sure you have a late game planned to go with your early aggro strategy.
The key is making sure the creatures you play at one, two, and three mana are as relevant on turn 7 or later as they are on turn 1 and 2. Up until recently there weren't a lot of creatures that fit the bill. Rise of the Eldrazi and level up creatures did a nice job of fixing that. Level up gives us a nice curve of creatures that can start putting on the pressure early and serve as useful mana sinks for late game, turning small creatures into a huge threats. Level up creatures are a good place to start looking for relevant aggro creatures to play in Commander. Kicker and multikicker creatures are good as well since you have at least two different places to play the creature.
Tribal strategies face an interesting dilemma. With a few notable exceptions (Dragons and Angels jump to mind immediately), most tribal-oriented creatures are small. This potentially complicates things because Commander is often a game of fatties and board sweepers. The best solution for this is to build some solid recursion into your deck. Plan out your curve with your guys, but leave a few slots for ways to recur your creatures or otherwise deal with the board sweepers you'll be seeing out of the control players. Depending on your tribe of choice, you may be able to pick a commander with built-in recursion. These often make the strongest choices because they shore up the natural weak point of a tribal Commander deck: wanting to have multiple guys out when many groups are very board sweeper heavy.
Depending on the colors chosen, token deck curves can end up looking very odd. Most of the good token generation spells are between four and six mana, and your token pump can range anywhere from a converted mana cost of two up to seven, or more. Sometimes you'll find yourself playing out [card Glorious Anthem]anthems[/card] before you even get a significant number of tokens! This isn't necessarily a bad thing. If your tokens enter the battlefield bigger than the base stats it certainly doesn't hurt, and it makes them more resistant to removal. Combine global pump with haste effects for ultimate synergy.
For the Voltron strategy, the key is picking the right supplemental abilities to enhance your commander. The three main areas to address are damage capability, evasion, and the ability of your opponents to answer it. You do want your commander to have a decent power, some sort of evasion, and to be difficult to kill. Generally speaking, you get one or two of those abilities on the general itself, and then supplement the others through your deck construction.
For example, say you want to build a Rafiq of the Many Voltron style aggro deck. Rafiq provides a lot of damage in an efficient package, with his double strike, four power, and exalted bonus. The double strike actually provides a little defense by making him much harder to kill when attacking, and increasing his power effectively makes him more survivable (but he's fairly fragile otherwise). However, he lacks evasion. Give him a Loxodon Warhammer, and he's a two-hit kill that's almost impossible to beat in combat. Add in Lightning Greaves or Shield of the Oversoul and he's nigh unstoppable.
Here's a quick list of possible generals for both traditional aggro and general damage strategies.
- Commander Eesha – Give her vigilance and go to town.
- Crovax, Ascendant Hero – Your tokens get bigger, their blockers get smaller. The self bounce means you should never be paying more than 6 to cast him.
- Eight-and-a-Half-Tails – The go-to-guy for a mono-white Voltron general. Protection gives you evasion and defense at the same time. Just don't enchant him.
- Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite - Great choice for a mono-white tokens deck.
- Kemba, Kha Regent – She screams Voltron.
- Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero – Step 1, pick Lin Sivvi. Step 2, fill deck with rebels. Step 3, … Step 4, Profit!
- Pianna, Nomad Captain – You could do much worse if you wanted an aggressive general to support your tokens.
- Raksha Golden Cub – This guy is expensive, but he will end the game if you have a Cat or two on the field when he comes down and you equip him.
- Zhang Fei, Fierce Warrior – A little on the expensive side, he can end a game pretty quickly with minimal pump, and is basically unblockable.
- Kira, Great Glass-Spinner – She's good for protecting your other beaters, but not so great at Voltron.
- Sun Quan, Lord of Wu – Your whole team is basically unblockable. What's not to like?
- Thada Adel, Acquistor – See how many Sol Rings you can get in one game.
- Vendilion Clique – Quick beats that provide some protection by picking on the sweeper guy and getting rid of one.
- Ascendant Evincar – See what I said about his happy version.
- Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief – Flies, eats blockers, and pumps her power. She's fantastic for general damage or as repeatable removal.
- Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon – You don't need pump when you only have to get in for 10.
- Zhang He, Wei General – Battle cry in black is not to be overlooked if you're going for a swarm strategy.
- Ashling the Pilgrim – "99 mountains.deck" exists for a reason.
- Godo, Bandit Warlord – He loves being equipped. Go find him one and beat some face.
- Lu Bu, Master-at-Arms – The only thing better than horsemanship for getting in general damage is horsemanship and haste.
- Urabrask the Hidden - Giving all your guys haste is amazing. Even better, he makes it really hard to just chump block. Not bad for Voltron or traditional aggro.
- Zo-Zu, the Punisher – Make those mana ramp players hate you really fast.
- Eladamri, Lord of Leaves – Makes your other guys immune to spot removal, which Elf tribal sometimes needs.
- Ezuri, Renegade Leader – Repeated use [card Overrun]Overruns[/card] in the tribe of making-way-too-much-mana seems good.
- Hua Tuo, Honored Physician – Recursion on your commander is great for aggro so you can reuse the guys that end up in the graveyard at inopportune times.
- Kamahl, Fist of Krosa – Look, more Overrun goodness!
- Nemata, Grove Guardian – Pumps Saprolings and makes them. Token strategies love this guy.
- Omnath, Locus of Mana – Give him trample and tap out every turn.
- Sygg, River Guide – Excellent Voltron general, similar to Eight-and-a-Half-Tails but giving you access to blue as well.
- Wydwen, the Biting Gale – Self bounce and flash gives you pseudo-haste.
- Wort, Boggart Auntie – Fixes the one weakness of Goblin tribal by giving them a way to recur all the suicidal goblins. Fear makes her potentially dangerous as a method of general damage, especially when combined with the multitude of Goblin lords.
- Radha, Heir to Keld – The best second color to pair with green Elf tribal is debatable, but Radha can be very explosive and gives the archetype some potential reach.
- Stonebrow, Krosan Hero – Trample counts as evasion if your guys are big enough. Playing a few smaller tramplers then curving into Stonebrow can be pretty sweet.
- Ulasht, the Hate Seed – If you want to play red and green tokens, it's hard to beat Ulasht for sheer explosive potential.
- Gaddock Teeg – Shut off all those pesky sweepers before they matter! He's potentially a real downer of a commander for the rest of the table though; be prepared to get attacked by every single creature they can muster until they get rid of him.
- Rhys, the Redeemed – It's hard to say no to double tokens.
- Tolsimir Wolfblood – Anthem for your guys and making a big token. Not bad for green-white tokens.
- Nath of the Gilt-Leaf – He's another option for Elf tribal. Free elves for getting rid of your opponent's cards.
- Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran – If anyone says attack, it's Kos.
- Brion Stoutarm – Potentially awesome Voltron general, or you can Voltron his minions and throw them at people.
- Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer - An interesting general for both Equipment-based Voltron strategies and for more traditional aggro. Either way, play lots of artifacts.
- Thelon of Havenwood – Make that Thallid deck you always wanted to!
- Kresh the Bloodbraided – Almost more of a combo general than an aggro one, Kresh tends to become huge very, very quickly.
- Rith, the Awakener – Very few creatures make tokens as fast as Rith does. I've played her many times and if she gets to trigger more than once, it's usually game over.
- Uril, the Miststalker – Another poster boy for the Voltron strategy. Give him Shield of the Oversoul and watch your opponents panic.
- Jenara, Asura of War – Built in pump and evasion says let me get in there already.
- Rafiq of the Many – He is a big fan of Loxodon Warhammer, any of the "Swords of A and B," or really any equipment. He does scary amounts of damage and is very hard to deal with in combat.
- Doran, the Siege Tower – He's possibly the most amusing Voltron commander because he'd rather have Slagwurm Armor than almost anything else. He's also a solid Treefolk tribal commander as well since they almost universally have higher toughness than power.
The End of Aggression
That's it for aggro. Next time I'll take a look at the myriad strategies encompassed in midrange Commander. Until then, remember it's never a sin to turn your team sideways!