From the Brewing Board – Angry Black Men

Paul Dunn is a friend of mine, and I’d be lying if I said I saw it coming.

Paul showed up at GP Vancouver with an innovative deck in the last week of what many considered a solved format and, if it’s inaccurate to say he took the event by storm, he certainly turned many heads with his Agent Aggro build. He’d been talking about the deck in the Newfoundland Magic Community group on Facebook for a while, going through various iterations, and the final build was something of a group effort. His original list had [card]Child of Night[/card] over [card]Pack Rat[/card], for example. A deck tech and a camera feature match later and his name was buzzing around the online community along with the guy running the [card]Maze’s End[/card] deck (which we’ll get to next time). Here’s Paul’s list:

[deck title=Agent Aggro by Paul Dunn]
[Lands]
4 Mutavault
20 Swamp
[/Lands]
[Creatures]
4 Agent of the Fates
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Nighthowler
4 Pack Rat
4 Tormented Hero
[/Creatures]
[Other Spells]
3 Gift of Orzhova
2 Hero’s Downfall
4 Thoughtseize
3 Underworld Connections
4 Wring Flesh
[/Other Spells]
[Sideboard]
4 Dark Betrayal
4 Doom Blade
3 Duress
4 Pharika’s Cure
[/Sideboard]
[/deck]

Fast forward a couple of weeks to the Sunday Super Series (seriously Wizards, this needs a better name) finals in Renton. This time we’re playing on newly-resurfaced ice, the Born of the Gods Zamboni having just shuffled off through the advertising hoarding the day before. Klaas Gruber, a German student playing in his biggest Magic event to date, runs up a 4-1-1 record with a Mono-Black Aggro build reminiscent of Dunn’s, but lacking the eponymous [card]Agent of the Fates[/card]. In its place he chose to run Born of the Gods rare [card]Herald of Torment[/card]. For comparison, his list:

[deck title=Mono Black Aggro by Klaas Gruber]
[Lands]
20 Swamp
4 Mutavault
[/Lands]
[Creatures]
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Tormented Hero
4 Pack Rat
3 Pain Seer
3 Lifebane Zombie
2 Mogis’s Marauder
4 Herald of Torment
[/Creatures]
[Other Spells]
4 Thoughtseize
4 Hero’s Downfall
3 Bile Blight
1 Ultimate Price
[/Other Spells]
[Sideboard]
1 Bile Blight
2 Devour Flesh
1 Lifebane Zombie
4 Duress
3 Erebos, God of the Dead
4 Dark Betrayal
[/Sideboard]
[/deck]

While I am on board with some of these changes and prefer Dunn’s choices in other places, I think there’s a strong mono-black aggro deck in the format that can still make use of the objectively powerful Agent and [card]Nighthowler[/card].

The Idea

I want to take these two decks and jam them together, making a hybrid of powerful yet unexpected cards that attacks the meta from a different angle. The two best decks, being Black Devotion and UW Control, struggle with fast creature-based strategies that have resilience to removal, which makes me want to play things like [card]Nighthowler[/card] and [card]Herald of Torment[/card].

One of my first decks was mono-black stuff, which morphed into Suicide Black as I learned more about deckbuilding. While the plan I have is nowhere near that fast, we do have some interesting tools in black that let us pressure the opponent while also stripping answers from their hand.

The Deck

We can start with cards that both gentlemen were running and that we plan to keep. [card]Tormented Hero[/card], [card]Thoughtseize[/card] and [card]Pack Rat[/card] are givens as 4-ofs in this sort of deck, providing early threats or taking away answers.

Klaas opts for four more one-drops in the form of [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card], which I don’t hate but I’m not sure about the synergies with the rest of the deck. The fact that it’s a 2-power guy on turn 1 means we pretty much have to include it though.

Here’s where things get very different. While Paul went a slightly slower route with his card draw, opting for the sure thing of a 4-pack of [card]Underworld Connections[/card], Klaas is running the latest attempt to mollify fans of [card]Dark Confidant[/card] in the form of 3 [card]Pain Seer[/card]. With the removal and possible evasion his deck can provide, it seems likely that [card]Pain Seer[/card] will get to untap relatively often, providing you cards in the process. It doesn’t give as much to devotion as Connections and can kill you faster, but it also deals damage and can carry any of the auras we plan to play. However I’m not convinced he is actually better than [card]Blood Scrivener[/card]. I see the upsides to both, but I think I want to try a mix at first and see which one plays better. I also want a four-pack here, so two of each.

[card]Agent of the Fates[/card], [card]Nighthowler[/card] and [card]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/card] in Paul’s list measure up pretty well against [card]Herald of Torment[/card], [card]Mogis’s Marauder[/card] and [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card] in Klaas’s list. Marauder can sometimes be very bad, doing nothing relevant except giving itself haste. [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card] is at least an evasive threat that gives you information, but at the cost I would rather be playing one of Paul’s threats. At least in the main deck. I do like Herald though, not only giving evasion to something but also being a creature itself when needed and not smashing us for 5 from our own [card]Pain Seer[/card]. It also targets our heroic guys, which is great with Agent and still pretty strong with [card]Tormented Hero[/card]. I only want three [card]Nighthowler[/card] I think, it is more conditional and does not give us any evasion.

That leaves us 5 or 6 slots for removal, which isn’t a lot. [card]Thoughtseize[/card] and Agent kind of play that role, but we need something that can do work early without being dead late. I want at least 2 [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card] in the main deck, with the other slots going to 2 [card]Bile Blight[/card] and an [card]Ultimate Price[/card]. Testing may show that we need to narrow the variety but right now I want to see what does and doesn’t work.

From Paul’s deck we lose [card]Gift of Orzhova[/card] but gain [card]Herald of Torment[/card], and we also lose [card]Wring Flesh[/card]. I like replacing it with [card]Eye Gouge[/card] anyway, as it does much of the same work with the random upside of killing a [card]Mutavault[/card] here and there, plus we can target Agent with it and still deal some combat damage. I wish we could fit it in the main deck but I think [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card] is just better.

We’re clearly running the full 4 [card]Mutavault[/card] here, both because of [card]Pack Rat[/card] and also because I really like the idea of animating a [card]Mutavault[/card] post-Verdict, bestowing a [card]Nighthowler[/card] and swinging. The [card]Nighthowler[/card] then falls off at the end of turn to do some damage if it survives.

Here’s the list we have so far:

[deck title=Agent Aggro by Chris Lansdell]
[Lands]
4 Mutavault
19 Swamp
[/Lands]
[Creatures]
4 Tormented Hero
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Pack Rat
2 Pain Seer
2 Blood Scrivener
3 Hero’s Downfall
4 Agent of the Fates
3 Nighthowler
4 Herald of Torment
[/Creatures]
[Other Spells]
4 Thoughtseize
1 Ultimate Price
2 Bile Blight
[/Other Spells]
[/deck]

The Sideboard

One of the things that people pointed out about Paul’s list was the weakness to control. I want our board to address that weakness while also giving us some play against things like [card]Assemble the Legion[/card]. [card]Illness in the Ranks[/card], which is a card I am loving in Modern sideboards right now, might be good here too with [card]Brimaz, King of Oreskos[/card] promising to be a major player in months to come. It also shuts down [card]Assemble the Legion[/card] with extreme prejudice and makes [card]Elspeth, Sun’s Champion[/card] a lot worse.

[card]Duress[/card] is likely a 4-of here, along with the 3 [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card]s we cut from the main deck. [card]Fate Unraveler[/card] and [card]Liliana’s Reaver[/card] are also considerations, having strong abilities against control while providing a hefty punch for their cost. Finally I want more removal, probably in the form of [card]Bile Blight[/card]s, [card]Dark Betrayal[/card]s and/or [card]Eye Gouge[/card]s. Maybe a [card]Gift of Orzhova[/card] or two to enable us to race better, or a [card]Whip of Erebos[/card] for even better racing.

The Unresolved Questions

Do we want to play some Temples (probably [card]Silence[/card]), some shocklands and go with some sideboard flexibility? Having [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card], [card]Revoke Existence[/card] and possibly [card]Sin Collector[/card] in the board might be a good way to beat UW Control.

What’s better: [card]Blood Scrivener[/card] or Pain Seer? It will all come down to how fast we can empty our hand I think, and right now it seems like [card]Pain Seer[/card] might have a small edge.

Does Cackler have enough impact to warrant its inclusion over removal or something to gain us back some life? The extra turn 1 threat seems like it’s important, but removing early drops from the other side might be more important.

Can we kill fast enough to make sure our life loss isn’t a problem? I fear this might be where we feel the lack of [card]Mogis’s Marauder[/card] the most, giving us no real way to break through a strong ground force. We might need to squeeze one or two back in.

The Conclusion

It’s been a while since I played a hard aggro deck, so this might take some serious practice for me to get good with it. I’m planning to jam it as soon as I get Heralds, and I’ll report back. If any of you have similar brews or suggestions, please share. In the meantime, brew on!