I’ve actually been meaning to get this article written for a while now, but felt there was no real rush. Discussion on places like Twitch and Reddit has been focused more and more on Aggro in the recent weeks, though, and very little of it has been positive. In this article, I won’t be systematically trying to answer every complaint about Aggro decks, but the large, glaring elephant in the room is the age-old belief that Aggro decks take very little (or even no) skill.
There have also been recent discussions about the overall dominance of Aggro. I personally disagree that we are in an Aggro-only meta (albeit slightly Aggro-leaning), and while I have a lot of data to back this up, I will leave that discussion to other places. It does hold some relevance here still since the primary reason players fear an all-Aggro meta in the first place is the perceived lack of skill one would bring to the ladder and tournaments. I agree that having a completely aggressive meta would be bad for a number of reasons, as a 100% Control or Midrange meta would be, but I don’t think Aggro decks inherently take far less skill than those two other main deck types. This is the main point I’ll be addressing.
An important disclaimer: when I say in this article that decks “require skill,” I mean they require skill in the context of this still being an accessible card game. Not every deck is going to be an intricate combo deck that requires knowledge of every single matchup and situation to play optimally, and not every deck is going to punish every misplay by immediately putting you in a much worse position. In order for people to want to play this game, this has to be the case and it will always be the case – it can’t be rocket science. Some decks will remain harder than others, but my main argument will simply be that classifying a deck as Aggro shouldn’t immediately cause players to infer that it is easier.
The “Length of Game” Argument
For starters, I’d like to use an example I frequently bring up when discussing this topic, that of myself as a young card player. When I first got into competitive TCGs with Duel Masters at the age of eleven, I loved Control decks. I was very proud of my ability to think turns ahead and, in the later turns, come up with long sequences of plays that would eventually run my opponents right out of options while building my own army of resources and creatures to kill them with. In my mind, this took way more skill than the aggressive decks my opponents might be playing. After all, they were trying to end the game in a mere four to six turns, and their game plan against mine was so linear! Since my deck was going to turn fifteen and beyond sometimes, it had to take more skill because I had so much more time to make misplays!
I’m a little embarrassed to have thought this way when I look back on it now, but alas, it happened. We were all young and naive once.
As good as those wins with Control felt over half my life ago, there were obvious flaws in my mindset that have come to light over the past decade. The first of which is that I was too focused on the length of the game, and not on the misplays themselves. While I had more turns to play if my deck accomplished its game plan, the Aggro deck was trying to end the game very quickly and had a very limited window to do so. Therefore, the importance of each singular turn, and each decision within that turn, was much more critical. If I was able to stabilize as the Control deck and happened to play a little sloppier later once I had full control, it was unlikely to matter by that point.
In addition, the quest to stabilization as a Control deck playing against a more aggressive deck is often quite linear in itself. You have one job: survive. This often leads, even in a very deep game like Legends, to there being only one remotely reasonable play per turn and/or one reasonable attack per turn. Control players look down on Aggro players as only playing on curve and making the “obvious” face attack each turn, but are Control decks really doing much more decision-making in the very early turns? Occasionally, but not as often as many seem to think, and it just happens that face attacks are usually correct for the Aggro player when playing against a Control deck.
There are definitely times when the slower deck has to decide it can’t win the game if it goes on too long and makes a counter push, and those can be among the most difficult decisions in the game since you have to balance your own aggression with the “not dying” plan and find the exact right turn – a slight miscalculation can spell your doom. While this is added depth as the Aggro player will likely not change his or her plan against a much slower deck, we also have to think about aggressive mirror matches.
Completely Aggressive Matchups
Aggro vs. Aggro (or Midrange vs. Midrange and really any combination of them) games tend to go by quickly. Not only does that mean each decision has a huge impact on the outcome of the game, but as both players are trying to be aggressive, I would hesitate to say that both players have to think through more each turn than either the Aggro or Control player in an Aggro vs. Control matchup.
In a completely aggressive match, we tend to remember the times where each player dominates one of the two lanes and keeps rushing the other opponent down, but that simply isn’t the case in the majority of turns. Depending on how the first couple turns go, games can evolve into that, but each player has to continuously assess the value of face damage against trying to take control of the board and reduce the opponent’s potential damage output. The use of Prophecies only serves to confuse the matter more, and while some can immediately swing a game with limited counterplay, the majority can be played around to some extent through smart attacks and recognizing the risk versus the reward. Questions of what lanes to play in, whether to contest opposing threats, whether to allocate burn like Lightning Bolt to the opponent or his/her creatures, and more constantly need to be asked.
I fully understand how in some games, Aggro and more aggressive Midrange decks can seem extremely linear. They are, essentially, just trying to kill you if you’re playing Control. Given that, the decks are optimized to draw their curves and occasionally this can lead to a steamroll where you feel cheesed out of a win since you didn’t have any impactful plays. Not getting any Prophecies to help out can also lead to this negative feeling, but obviously that’s just variance and doesn’t do anything for or against the argument of Aggro taking skill. On the flip side, the games where Archer draws a perfect curve from turns two to six feel as bad and one-sided as the games where Control draws every perfect answer with the Elixir of Magicka for the first four turns against a dedicated Aggro deck; sometimes, things are unbeatable, and that’s okay. It’s a card game and every game is different. The vast majority of these games are going to involve more decisions, and taking a bad night where Aggro drew incredibly well against you three times in a row and stating that Aggro is mindless is a bit irresponsible.
Coping with Aggro
Something I believe to be effective in countering this mindset is playing the decks themselves. Eleven-year-old me wouldn’t touch Aggro decks, but as I played faster strategies in more and more games (including Legends), I understood them better. There were games I could cheese out by drawing perfectly, but I had to learn how to be aggressive the right way, when to hold back, and when to go all-in and make a seemingly risky push. If you try many of these decks out for yourselves for a long period of time, they may surprise you, and still hold the belief that anyone who has done so but still asserts that Aggro takes “no skill” is probably playing Aggro very sub-optimally. Learning the intricacies of each strategy is integral to growth as a player, something that is especially important since the majority of these complaints about Aggro come from newer players.
Aggro and Midrange need to exist due to their ability to be understood quickly by newer players. A meta where every matchup was Control/Combo vs. Control/Combo would be very hostile to anyone without a deep knowledge of those slower matchups. This will sometimes lead to a less-skilled opponent winning against a better player simply due to the order of the cards in the early turns, but these decks are still punishing in many games and are good teaching tools. Their relative ease to construct without a vast card pool is crucial to newer players as well. Even among competitive players at the top of the Legend ladder, Aggro will likely always be present in some form as Aggro decks represent fast games and, like any strategy, can be well-positioned depending on how the meta looks. These are things that we need to come to terms with.
Hopefully this article was helpful in opening up some other thoughts about the often-misunderstood Aggro decks of our time. The added complexity of Legends in the lane and rune systems further add to the depth of every strategy and increase the skill gap accordingly. With enough honest study of games, hopefully we as a player base can better recognize this gap not only in the Control decks, but in the aggressive decks as well.