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In our previous discussions of play speed, we focused on the strategic (and round time) appeal of playing slower decks faster. But playing succinctly, and precisely, is equally important for aggressive decks. This week, we'll rank the proactive decks by speed and assess how easily they can switch roles.
Paradox of Proactivity
Why is playing quickly important for a deck that's already fast? Who's the Beatdown is the foundation of Magic strategy. Making things happen is the definition of proactive, and the opposite of reactive. Just as reactive decks want to take over the game and win later on, proactive decks want to advance their gameplans and win as quickly as possible. This is how the archetype wheel has always worked.
But it pays to go deeper. Every deck has a Fundamental Turn (FT) on which it intends to win the game, either actually or functionally. Proactive decks of all stripes of course tend to set their FT on the earlier side. However, all FT considerations are done in a vacuum, and are more accurately the Goldfish Turn. Never forget that the opponent gets a say in how the game plays out. Players instinctively know there's a difference between when can a deck win and when will it win.
The latter is more important in actual games. How reliable is that theoretical goldfish turn in reality? The dividing line between all the proactive decks is not actually their goldfish speed, but their decision to ignore or remember the opponent's existence. Proactive decks that choose ignore will be faster than proactive decks that remember, but won't hit that goldfish turn as reliably. For all things, there is a trade-off.
When I think about a deck's kill speed, I don't think in terms of a specific turn. Rather, for each deck, there is a window of turns in which they're capable of winning, and there's a spectrum. From left to right, there is an early window where the fastest decks want to win, a middle window where it's anyone's game, and a late window where the control decks dominate. I think of proactive decks as decks that intend to win in the early-to-mid windows and can win late, while reactive decks are only focused on getting to and then winning in the late window.
Everything in Format Context
This window is contextual for each matchup and format, because some formats kill faster than others. For example, Modern is a more powerful and faster format than Pioneer. Therefore, the relative turns will be different. Take a Modern aggro deck like Burn. Its win probability distributions are roughly demonstrated by this chart, whose numbers I've approximated:
Compare with a similar chart for Pioneer Mono-Red Aggro:
Both decks are aggressive, and intend to win in their respective format's early window, which varies by format. Burn's peak win chance is on turn four. Mono-Red's turn six makes it middle-window relative to Modern, but decidedly early for Pioneer.
The same holds true if we look at control decks in Modern:
Versus Pioneer UW Control:
Pioneer's late window is positively glacial compared to Modern's, while Modern's late window is Pioneer's middle. The point is that there is no absolute answer for what constitutes a window. The important thing to keep in mind is which window a deck is aiming for in the intended format, and make sure that it is actually able to hit that window. If the deck can't do that, it needs to change.
The key to understanding a proactive deck is to grasp not how fast it plays, but when it wants to win. Does a deck sit on the left (aggressive) side or the right (control) side? If you intend to play a proactive deck, a way to win the game must be presented early, with the intention of ending the game rather than prolonging it. A dedicatedly reactive deck that prolongs the game is control, and a deck that can shift between proactive and reactive is in the midrange camp.
Picking a Lane
Therefore, every proactive player needs to decide how much they're going to consider the opponent's actions. Assuming everyone is playing to win (or at least not lose), opponents are either trying to win first or prevent you from winning. As a proactive deck, how much does that matter, and what's to be done? All answers are valid, but an answer must be chosen. Once that answer is chosen, stick with it! The fundamental mistake I see players making is trying to inappropriately switch lanes, which leads to disaster.
A deck that has no intention of interacting with the opponent and is just trying to goldfish will be extremely fast. Every spell slot is dedicated to pressuring the opponent's life total or assembling a game-winning combination, and the goal is to interact with opposing cards as little as possible. This Pioneer Goblins deck has only six interactive spells maindeck. It knows what it wants to do, and in the control matchup, will at most bring in stickier threats.
The mistake I see many decks like this make is to try and move out of lane and become something they're not. If this same Goblins deck instead played a lot of planeswalkers in its sideboard, intending to slow down and play the card advantage game against control, it would lose more. The deck is simply not equipped to support that kind of gameplan. It's shifting its win window too far right and giving up the advantage to the control deck, which already dominates that window. Some decks can change lanes because they were already between them, but for decks on the extremes, that's a pipe dream.
Proactive Deck Spectrum
When players are talking about proactive decks, they're talking about aggro and combo. However, neither deck type is a monolith, and there are many varieties of aggro and combo decks with different intended speeds and levels of interactivity. As the decks get more intentionally interactive, they move further along the spectrum toward being reactive, and eventually the line gets blurry.
Everyone can agree on the end points, but the middle is fuzzy between flavors of proactive decks, midrange decks, and control. Things get even hairier as we zone in on specific angles. In "Death’s Shadow of Doubt: Exploring Aggro-Control," Jordan Boisvert examined the broader categories of aggro-control decks, that is to say aggro decks that incorporate interactive elements; that article left out blitz aggro, which is non-interactive, and combo, which is not an attacking, or aggro, strategy (although it does proact).
We will not leave out these decks, as the following section approaches the topic from a different angle, instead sorting the more easily identifiable left-side decks from most proactive (fast) to most reactive (slow). Ranking them in this way will allow us to more cleanly discern which strategies are capable of diluting their main plan with a reactive 180, and by how much.
Earliest Window: Target Turns 1-3
The most proactive and fastest decks are the blitz decks. These decks intend to take their opening hand and fling it at the opponent's face as hard as possible, with no consideration for holding back or later turns. If that initial onslaught can't outright win or at least get the opponent low enough to burn them out, the deck accepts defeat.
Blitz Combo: Belcher-style decks
The fastest decks in competitive Magic are blitz combo decks, epitomized by Goblin Charbelcher decks. The Legacy version is designed to win on turn one or two and won't reliably win after turn three. Modern's version is slower, but built to the same principles. It only runs interaction to protect its combo.
Blitz Aggro: 8-Whack-style decks
The purest blitz aggro decks are built like Modern 8-Whack. The mana curve is as low as possible, with the intention to dump the hand right away and not worry about refilling. The threats are individually weak, but intended to overwhelm the opponent, with some reach to close out the game. If the initial surge doesn't work, the deck can't keep pace with much else.
Early Window: Target Turns 3-6
The more standard aggressive and combo decks will be found in this window. The decks are capable of early wins, but have plans in place for when that doesn't come together, and are capable of planning for longer games.
Velocity Aggro: Prowess-style decks
These decks have threats that individually put them on par with the blitz aggro decks, but have the cantrips, interaction, and card advantage to win with more than just their opening hand. Modern Prowess can get blitz-style wins, but will more often play a slightly longer game with Expressive Iteration and Underworld Breach. Hammer Time falls into this category despite not having cantrips.
Disruptive Aggro: Humans-style decks
When I think disruptive aggro, I'm thinking of aggro decks that interact with their opponents as part of their aggro gameplan. The best example of this is circa 2018-2019 Modern Humans. Every card is a creature; it doesn't play any reactive spells. However, many creatures are themselves disruptive, ensuring the opponent can't interact effectively. The deck is slower than pure blitz but faster than decks with dedicated reactive spells, who must take time off from developing their board to cast them.
Velocity Combo: Storm-style decks
Similarly, the velocity combo deck can just win, but will usually need to set up first. Modern Storm is the are classic example. It's happy to blitz out a win, but generally spends time setting up and protecting themselves before going off.
True Combo: Typical combo decks
The next speed of deck is the typical combo deck. This category has no unifying theme other than they're decks that have to win via combo, and don't intend to deliberately slow the game down. Pioneer Lotus Field Combo and Modern Ad Nauseam fall in here. They might have defensive or offensive interaction, but their plan is to combo as quickly as they can.
Versatile Aggro: Burn-style decks
By the same token, there are a wide variety of generalist aggro decks that are slower than disruptive aggro, but faster than actual reactive decks. Modern Burn is the headliner for this category. It intends to play straightforward aggro, but its versatile spells let it play a slower game if it has to. Lightning Bolt is just as good at hitting a crucial enemy creature as it is helping count to 20.
Tempo: Fish-style decks
Ever since Nicolas Labarre ran Mono-Blue Fish against a field of High Tide (coverage for which has been lost to time), Fish-style decks have been playing out multiple, lightly synergistic threats and then actively disrupting the opponent until the victory is achieved. Pioneer Spirits is today's representative of this strategy.
It's worth noting that Jordan previously categorized "fish" as a tempo deck that "plays many interchangeable/synergistic threats that work together to accelerate the clock or disrupt opponents, and a small number of noncreature spells." He included both Merfolk and Humans under that umbrella, and indeed they both fit. But as we're discussing speed, it's useful to split them up; Merfolk, for instance, tends to run more interactive spells than Humans, slowing down its clock, even if the deck's governing principles are similar. Fish as I'm defining it now, cf. the "disruptive aggro" outlined above, takes a less proactive approach to the same task.
The last grouping in the early window are the beatdown decks. These decks tend to be slower than usual aggro decks but make up for that by either playing bigger creatures or including a combo. Modern Domain Zoo epitomizes the former, and Yawgmoth the latter.
Middle Window: Turn 5-8
Here, the line gets even blurrier. All the decks in this window play extensive interaction, which makes them not only slower, but more able to switch towards a pure control role (even if they'd rather not make the switch, keeping them from being actual midrange decks).
Tempo: Delver-style decks
While built on the same principle of play threats then disrupt the opponent, Delver-style decks take it to an extreme by playing out a standalone threat or two and then protecting that threat. Classic Legacy Delver certainly follows this idea, as do some but not all current lists. Modern's Counter Cat is the best example available today.
Defensive Combo: Doomsday-style decks
The defensive combo deck understands that it is going to be under attack, and while it likes to win quickly, it probably won't. Therefore, it invests in Plan Bs, as well as extensive protection. Legacy Doomsday is the ur-example with all its disruption and Murktide Regent.
Threshold: Murktide-style decks
This is the point where it starts getting hard to separate the aggro from the midrange deck. While Modern UR Murktide and the very similar Legacy UR Delver play cheap threats, they're typically throw-away threats. The intention is to disrupt the opponent until it's time to drop a big threat and ride it to victory. That might happen early, and it might happen late. Which is perilously close to midrange's strategy.
Stay in Your Lane
Proactive decks need to be proactive. It is possible to switch lanes, but that's no guarantee for success. Players need to be more conscious of where their deck falls along the proactivity spectrum and adjust their plans accordingly.