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Old School Magic: Chapter 7 – New Strategies for the Old School: Blue-Red Aggro Control

Series Index

Chapter 1: Back to the Future – An Introduction to Old School Magic

Chapter 2: Old School Magic – The History of “The Deck”

Chapter 3: Old School Magic – A Visit to the Zoo

Chapter 4: Build Your Own Old School Format

Chapter 5: New Strategies for the Old School: The Transmute Control Deck

Chapter 6: Banning and Restriction in Old School

Chapter 7: New Strategies for the Old School: Blue-Red Aggro Control

Chapter 8: 2nd Place at Eternal Weekend, 2016 with Blue-Red Aggro-Control

Chapter 9: Reanimator Rises to the Top!

Chapter 10: Rules of the Road

Chapter 11: The Untold History of Combo in Old School

Chapter 12: Building a Stronger Prison

 

The historical record of 1993-94 Type I Magic is remarkably thin, despite the technology of the time.  In my history of Vintage series, I canvassed the notable, reported decklists from the era, and scoured vintage (lower case) Magic strategy guides and usenet archives for a better understanding of the popular strategies of the time.  In the second and third chapters of this series, I took stock of two of the more popular strategies: 4-5 color control and R/G/x Zoo.  These archetypes were, in a prototype form, the finalists of the 1994 Magic World Championship at Gencon, and continued to persist for years thereafter.

It wasn’t until several years later, well into the Dark Ages of Type I/Vintage (roughly 1997-2001), that Aggro-Control strategies really emerged as a popular and dominant force in Magic. Remarkably, the origins of Aggro-Control remains somewhat disputed. Some trace the advent of Aggro-Control to the creation of Counter-Sliver.  Others point toward strategies like Blue Skies in Mercadian Masques block or Gro strategies.  In Chapter 3 of this series, I suggested that the seeds of Aggro-Control were in Zoo decks of the era. Whatever it’s origin, Aggro-Control only became a clear pillar of Magic strategy after the glory years of early Type I were but a memory.  The virtual absence of Aggro-Control decks in actual Old School Type I is all the more mystifying given the dominance of this strategy in formats like Legacy, which Old School, in some ways, most resembles.

Nonetheless, Aggro-Control strategies have emerged in the Old School formats re-envisioning the mid-1990s.  In Chapter 3 of this series, I published “Stalin’s” UR noobcon deck, in full Electric Eel and DanDan glory.  That deck embodies the most obvious features of an Old School Magic reconstructed Aggro-Control strategy.  It has countermagic, efficient creatures, and burn spells and other disruption.

But is that the best we can do?  Many top Old School players have meddled with UR Aggro-Control, often with great success.  Could I find a way to tweak or improve upon existing approaches? That was the question I asked myself in 2015, as I began to prepare for the large Eternal Weekend Old School tournament. Aware that Old School competition does not always prioritize winning or maximizing every card slot, I felt that there was room for improvement, based upon the lists I had seen thus far. I certainly wanted to try.  More than that, I believed that blue and red provided one of the most fundamentally sound color combinations in the format, if not the strongest.

First and foremost, I believe that blue and red offer some of the most efficient spells in the game.  White provides Plow and Disenchant, which are unparalleled removal spells, but red gives you Bolts, Chain Lightnings, and Red Elemental Blasts.

Moreover, any deck that has access to large complements of both Blue Elemental Blast and Red Elemental Blast will prove difficult for other top decks to defeat.  Red also gives you access to major hate cards like Blood Moon.  At a basic, theoretical level, I perceived that UR was selling the most efficient spells in the format.

The problem, however, is that the lack of efficient library manipulation makes it is very difficult to capitalize on efficiency alone.  Old School is not a cantrip format.  Almost every deck in the format needs to run between 25-31 mana sources.  This is exacerbated in a version of this format with 4 Strip Mine permitted, as it was at the Eternal Central event.  The 4 Strip Mine environment pushes mana bases up for two reasons: the legality of Strip Mine is a huge incentive to run multiples, and resilience to Strip Mine requires more mana as well.  As a result, environments with unrestricted Strip Mine have larger mana bases and a narrower range of mana supplies.  (For the record, I do not support unrestricted Strip Mine.)

My interest in a focused blue and red Aggro-Control strategy began as a meandering thought experiment in Old School, but I was soon immersed in Top 8 archives. I canvassed what others had attempted with this archetype, and decided to make some modifications.  I jettisoned cards, ideas, or tactics I felt were either underpowered or unsuited for more competitive matches. I sharpened elements that seemed most effective.

But I was not driven entirely by a compulsion for efficiency. This leads to my second parameter: I sought role flexibility.  As folks watching the early seasons of the Vintage Super League can attest, I play Vintage Delver more like a control deck than an Aggro deck at times, and I wanted this to work the same way.  While superficially an Aggro deck, I wanted to have a powerful control role.

The suite of counterspells, removal, and control tactics like Disrupting Scepter/Amnesia, all give this deck a powerful control role, which can be enhanced or diminished post-board, depending on role optimization.  Blood Moon is incredibly disruptive as well, against the suite of multi-color control decks. The mistake, in my view, of too many blue-red decks in Old School is insufficient control elements.  For example, in a format where The Deck is a huge part of the field, why is Weissman’s pair of maindeck Red Elemental Blast tech so uncommon?

Finally, I wanted to build in resilience to many of the key tactics in the format. For example, playing a deck that just scoops to Moat is not where you want to be in Old School.  For that reason, I ran a critical mass of flyers.  Since my creatures were all flyers, I decided to maindeck Earthquakes, which functioned both to clear the ground of attackers as well as to reduce life totals. This may be the single strongest strategy for combating decks like White Weenie.

Here is what I built and played:

 

Old School

UR Aggro-Control

By Stephen Menendian, August 2015


 

Creatures and Spells:

4 Serendib Efreet

1 Serendib Djinn

4 Lightning Bolt

4 Chain Lightning

2 Psionic Blast

2 Earthquake

1 Disrupting Scepter

1 Amnesia

2 Blood Moon

4 Counterspell

1 Mana Drain

2 Red Elemental Blast (Weissman style)

1 Recall

1 Time Walk

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Timetwister

1 Braingeyser

1 Chaos Orb

Mana Sources:

1 Maze of Ith

3 Mishra’s Factory

3 Strip Mine

1 Library of Alexandria

7 Island

2 Mountain

4 Volcanic island

1 City of Brass

1 Mox Ruby

1 Mox Sapphire

1 Black Lotus

1 Sol Ring

 

 

Although I’ve already provided a description of the genesis and strategic precepts of this deck, let me explain a few card choices that may not be obvious in light of those precepts.

The singleton Serendib Djinn has a simple, but important role.  If you have 6 or less life, you can’t actually win with a Serendib Efreet by itself.  Serendib Djinn is a big, nasty finisher in this deck that can win late games or a race.  It’s efficient mana cost makes it role flexible, serving both as a mid-game finisher or a late game finisher.  I won many games with the Djinn.  It was great.

The singleton City of Brass may be strikingly odd, but it’s actually quite important. City of Brass provides color consistency, generating blue or red, after Volcanic Island.  This allows you to reliable cast Lightning Bolt or Counterspell on turn 2.

In a deck that has Mishra’s Factories and Strip Mines, mana production, even in a two color deck, requires great care in design.  I ran the math, and decided that I probably needed City of Brass.  Without City of Brass, you want 8-9 Islands, and probably 3-4 Mountains. Reliably getting two blue mana early in the game requires a bare minimum of 12 lands that produce blue, and probably between 13 or 14 for good measure.

You can probably get away without City in an environment where Strip Mine is restricted, but with it unrestricted, and the necessity of including 3-4 myself, I decided I needed City.  I tested most of my prep games with 2, and in the final analysis, whittled it down to 1 City, which I believe was ultimately the correct decision after countless games.  The single City of Brass functioned in many ways like a 3rd Mountain and an 8th Island – giving me that extra little dose of mana consistency.  The cost of running it was not only the life, but the additional vulnerability to City in a Bottle, which is why I wouldn’t run more than 2.

 

stevemenendianur

Steve Menendian’s Deck choice for the event.  What do you think?

 

The final item over which I struggled mightily, and couldn’t really settle in my mind, was what to cut for a 4th Strip Mine.  In any format that permits 4 Strip Mine, it certainly seems like an auto-inclusion. Strip Mine offers a bold tempo pathway to victory as well as various unfair mana denial options. A non-trivial number games in testing were blow-outs settled by a multi-Strip Mine or Strip Mine plus Chaos Orb game (a trend I always observe, and note, in environments with 4 Strip Mine).

I desperately wanted 4 Strip Mine (as well as 4 Factory), but couldn’t settle on how to configure them.  Late the night before the tournament, I debated whether to run the 4th Chain Lightning or the 4th Strip Mine, and ultimately settled, incorrectly in retrospect, on the Chain Lightning over the 4th Strip.  The reason for this decision was a belief in the power of pressing down my land count for greater spell density.  If I could replay this event, that would likely be my only change.

The Control Magics in the sideboard were included almost entirely for Juzam Djinn decks – I needed a great answer to Juzam, and Control Magic is probably the best.

I was shocked to learn that 55 players showed up to battle Old School on August 21, 2015.  This would make it the largest such event in the US, and the 2nd largest ever!  I was thrilled to be able to play at least 6 rounds of swiss today.  Because of the lack of a clock, the organizer required every player to play each match out. There would be no intentional or unintentional draws!

 

Round 1: Hrishikesh Siddartha

Hrishikesh is an exceptionally nice guy playing a very cool strategy: a variant of the ancient “Hurkyl’s Fireball” strategy – a strategy that uses Mana Vault and Hurkyl’s Recall to generate mana, and a bunch of restricted cards to pull off the Channel-Fireball combo.

Game 1:

My opening hand had Mox Sapphire, Island, and Counterspell.  I led with this, and Strip Mined his first mana source, a Tropical Island on turn 2.  We played draw, go for a few turns.  He was stuck on a single land, but had Black Lotus and a Mana Vault in play.

I reached a point where I could either play Amnesia without counterspell protection or a Disrupting Sceptre with Counterspell backup.  I also had Braingeyser in hand.  I ultimately decided to play Amnesia.  I reasoned that the Amnesia was the better play, as he would have to use his Lotus and/or his Mana Vault to defend with a counterspell. Therefore, he would lose all of his resources trying to stop one of mine.  And, even if the Amnesia was countered, next turn I could reload with Geyser.

I fired off the Amnesia, and it was, predictably, hit with a counterspell. Worse, he untapped and played Mind Twist on my entire hand!   I thought I was dead, but the pair of Factories I had in play combined with the damage he had already done to himself and the life loss from Sylvan Library, allowed me to eek out a victory.

I sideboarded in a bunch of cards: Energy Fluxes, Red Elemental Blasts, Blue Elemental Blasts, and lord knows what else.

Game 2:

In this game, I had turn one Library of Alexandria, and a second turn Energy Flux.  A few turns later, he resolved a Wheel of Fortune, and I dropped a Serendib Efreet and a Djinn. He Fireballed the Efreet, but the Djinn and two Factories finished him off.

 

Round 2: Bryan Freres with UR Aggro-Control

I had great confidence in my deck, and in my preparation, but I knew I would have to face the mirror match sooner or later.  This was concerning because mirror matches, often, can be decided by luck rather than design.  That said, I felt my deck had a few key advantages.  Bryan’s deck, in retrospect, was designed for an Old School environment with Strip Mine restricted.  Not only did he only have 1 Strip Mine, but he only had 24 mana sources.  What happened, as a result, was predictable.

Game 1:

The first game was hilarious because we had almost identical starts.  We both opened with a Mountain, Mishra’s Factory, and a Strip Mine, but no blue mana. We threw burn at each other. Eventually, I drew the first blue mana source, cast an Efreet, then cast Recall for Strip Mine, when he scooped.

Game 2:

My opening hand was:

Sol Ring, Volcanic Island, Black Lotus, Red Elemental Blast, Serendib Efreet, Time Walk, Counterspell

This hand is a great representation of the kinds of challenges that confront Old School Magic players.  There are distinct lines of play, but the branches from each choice are murky. Unlike Vintage, these Old School formats have lines that carry such large degrees of uncertainty with them.  And, each line is a huge investment of my precious time and resources.  I could play Efreet and Time Walk, or just hold back my threat and stay in the control role.

I drew Chaos Orb. Since he opened with a Mountain, I decided to just play Volcanic Island, Sol Ring, Chaos Orb, and then cast Black Lotus, and played Serendib Efreet.  He Red Blasted my Efreet.  I immediately regretted my line of play.  I should have just played the Chaos Orb, blew up his Mountain, and then cast Efreet next turn.  As a result, I ended up losing this game!  All because of that mistaken line of play.  I ended up resolving a Disrupting Scepter, and emptying his entire hand, but losing to burn.

Game 3:

Game three I won with Strip Mine and Chaos Orb on his mana.  I quickly capitalized, and he never got back in the game. A pair of Efreets carved him up.

 

Round 3: Jeff Gottstein w/5c Control

Jeff Gottstein arrived with Jeff Anand, a friend and Magic player I’ve known since the early aughts.  The Jeffs brewed together, as they both showed up with the same 75 cards.  Their deck was pretty good as they both ended up in the top 4!

This match was long and involved, and ultimately turned on my hate.  I sideboarded as follows:

+ 1 Blood Moon,

+ 3 Energy Flux

+ 3 Shatter

+ 2 Red Elemental Blast

+ 2 Blue Elemental Blas

  • 2 Psionic Blast
  • 4 Chain Lightning
  • 4 Lightning Bolt
  • 1 Serendib Efreet

 

Blood Moon was the blow out card, and Energy Flux and Shatter helped clean things up.  Jeff’s deck had tons of artifacts, and all I had to do was counter his efforts to stop my disruption.

 

Round 4: Brian Plattenburg with 4c Control

Brian was playing another Deck variant, and not very different from Jeff’s deck.  The result was largely the same.  My one-two punch of Blood Moon and Energy Flux sealed the match, with Shatter playing clean-up.  I used Disrupting Sceptre to empty his hand in at least one of the games before playing my creatures.  I sideboarded the same as the previous match.  Here is a photo Jaco took of our match:

 

 

menendianvsplattenburg

Steve Menendian vs. Brian Plattenburg

 

 

Round 5: Richard Lessman with UR Aggro-Control

Richard is one of the German Eternal Weekend regulars, and he is a great player as well.  I knew this would be a tough, but fun match.  The big difference, much like Round 2, was that I ran multiple Strip Mines, but Richard only had 1, much like Brian Freres.  Richard’s deck was slightly less controlling as well, with a trio of Juggernaut’s and a few Fireballs for a big mana finisher.

I played as tightly as possible, and eeked out a win.  In the first game, two Strip Mine’s basically kept Richard out of the game long enough for me to get a substantial lead. Another reminder of the brutality of unrestricted Strip Mine, and my error in not running more.

In the second game, I resolved a mid-game Serindib Djinn, but had taken a substantial amount of damage by that point.  I was able to sacrifice a Mountain, a City of Brass, and in the final turn, a Maze of Ith, to win the game at 3 life.  If he had drawn Strip Mine, I would have lost this game.

I was the only player at 5-0, but nonetheless had to play the final round.

 

Round 6: Jeff Anand with 5c Control

As I noted, Jeff was playing the 75 card copy of Jeff Gottstein’s deck.  They had worked on this event together.  One of the amazing things about Old School Magic is that it has a surprising consistency.  I won this match in substantially identical terms to the way in which I won Round 4.  The most exciting play of this match was my resolving a huge Amnesia of his 7 card hand.

I ended up 1st place in the swiss, at 6-0.

 

Top 8: Quarter-Finals: Justin Beckert with Underworld Dreams Combo

We had all had a few drinks by this point, but that didn’t really diminish the tension.  Justin was playing a very cool combo deck, and I greatly enjoyed playing him.  In the first game, he tried to resolve an early Underworld Dreams, but I threw a counterspell at it, and the rest of his deck fell apart.  His Howling Mine fueled my spells, and I eventually took control and won the game. You can see a photo of this match here.

In the second game, I managed a repeat of the first, countering the Underworld Dreams, except that he had mulliganed to 5.  This was a briefer, less interesting game.

Top 4: Semi-Finals Randy Buehler with 4c Control

Randy’s deck is, in more than a few respects, my deck’s weakest control matchup.  My deck is designed to defeat Moat, but Randy runs The Abyss.  And Randy has, between 4 Blue Elemental Blasts and 4 Disenchants, tons of answers to Blood Moon, my trump card.

In the first game, my hand only had two mana sources, and he Strip Mined one of them and Chaos Orbed the other.  I never found another mana source until it was too late, more than 10 draws later.  This time, I was undone by opposing Strip Mine.

The second game was a real game.  I drew Mountain, Mox Ruby, Black Lotus, Strip Mine, Amnesia, Serendib Efreet, and Blood Moon.  I am still not sure the best way to sequence that hand.  It is so close to being able to fire off Amnesia.  An early Efreet makes good sense, but is worthless if he has a ready Plow. I also don’t want to use my Lotus, and only source of blue, on the Efreet.

This became a long and drawn out game.  The Blood Moon resolved, as did Energy Flux, but Randy was eventually able to outlast it, resolve Amnesia against me, and destroyed my Blood Moon with a Blue Elemental Blast.  I think there were lines I could have used to stay in this game, but Randy’s deck was very well constructed to survive my hate.  Here’s a photo of our mid-game:

 

 

buehlervsmenendian1

Randy Buehler vs. Steve Menendian

 

 

Out of 55 players, the other two players in the Top 4 were Jeff Anand and Jeff Gottstein, playing a mirror match in the other half of the top 4.  I was really hoping to beat Randy, as I had already beaten both Jeffs, and felt I would have had an easy matchup on the other side of the top 4!  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

I ended up in 3rd place, with the final record of 7-1 on the day, which actually tied Randy’s.  In addition, I had already defeated the 2nd and 4th place finishers.  The final standings, and images of all of the decklists, are available on the Eternal Central coverage page. This includes some cool “deck tech videos,” including one Randy and I filmed during the swiss rounds on my deck. But you can watch mine here.

 

Conclusion

Blue-Red Aggro-Control is one of the top tier archetypes in Old School Magic, of that there is little doubt.  As a premier strategy, it can be tailored for virtually every set of rules in Old School environments.  It is probably strongest, however, in an environment with unrestricted Strip Mine, which adds a brutal tempo element.  UR Aggro-Control is also tremendous fun.

Zapping out weenie strategies, racing zoo decks, and generating headaches for blue players is the essence of what the trickster UR strategy can do.  The main question is tailoring the strategy to the parameters of each group’s Banned and Restricted List.  I will discuss this more next month, where I provide my 2016 Eternal Weekend report and updates to the deck.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian

12 comments
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Gael says:

Nov 27,2016

Hi,
"you want 8-9 Islands, and probably 3-4 Mountains. Reliably getting two blue mana early in the game requires at least 12 lands that produce blue, and probably 13 or even 14 for good measure" Well that's really old school 😉 So you don't abide by modern standards of mana reliability as Frank Carsten recommands ? (http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/frank-analysis-how-many-colored-mana-sources-do-you-need-to-consistently-cast-your-spells/)

MikeV says:

Nov 30,2016

Gael, I think he meant aside from the Volcanics and Moxes (so really 13-14 blue and 8-9 red sources).

Regardless, the statistics done by Frank assume you're playing a large number of spells at whatever mana cost you're concerned with.

For example, you don't need 20 blue sources (as per Frank's analysis) if you're only playing 7 spells that require more than a single blue source.

I'd agree that you need a little more than 13-14 blue sources though, since that's what you should play if you have many spells that cost only a single blue.

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