Vampiric Aggro in Aether Revolt Standard Part One -Rearranging Snek-chairs, aka ‘The Tale of the Legendary Monkey’

For my first Magic: the Gathering article here on Geeks Headquaters Gaming, I thought I’d show you all my secrets with a deck tech for my current Standard brew, Black Red aggro with a strong Vampire sub-theme. Whilst not as aggressive as a typical mono-Red or Rakdos guild-era themed aggro deck, It’s proving to be rather diverse and capable of going comfortably into the mid- to late- game. In this first part, I’ll explain how I found myseld building and playing the deck in it’s current incarnation. Come on in friend, and take a look at how my mind plays with Madness…

First off, this part of the article is less hard analysis, more thought process. I’ll talk mainly about how I landed on this deck and colour combination, but not so much – yet – about what the deck is good at and how it gets there.

During Kaladesh Standard, I couldn’t help but feel defeated as a brewer. I tried a tricksy Esper  build looking at infinite Panharmonicon/Eldrazi Displacer/Drowner of Hope/Gonti, Lord of Luxury combo options, played around with Mono-Green Pummeler and RG Pummeler Energy decks, and built a very grindy, very enjoyable (for me) Simic Metallurgic Summonings control deck which I even stuck with for a while. And every single thing I played was crushed by UW Spirits and RW Vehicles.

Standard Showdown came along and I was at the end of my tether. I just couldn’t find a comfortable brew in the format which seemed to put up a good fight against any of the top decks in the meta, and though I surely couldn’t beat ’em, I really didn’t want to join ’em either. In advance of the Showdowns commencing though, WotC put up an article, written by Luis Scott-Vargas, looking at a few of the best decks in the meta at the time and including a few 5-0 Magic Online deck lists. I scanned them for inspiration, and one leapt out at me, so beautifully formed that I didn’t want to tamper with it. It had Bloodhall Priest in it, and I was already sold, as I’d been looking to play the card since it was initially spoiled. It had the Lightning Axe/Fiery Temper two-card combo which I was looking to exploit to get some additional hits in against the accursed UW spirits. It was fast, it let me play with Scrapheap Scrounger and Bomat Courier, Unlicensed Disintegration and – yes – Smuggler’s Copter, absolutely maximising the potential for Madness cards.

It won games. It won tournaments. It was always a contender. It was practically a budget deck, Copters aside, whose sideboard was anything but and let me run Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Chandra, Torch of Defiance post-board. It was good.

Then they went and banned Smugglers’ Copter, and the deck went to pieces.

Savage Lands

So Aether Revolt Standard came about, and with it came Winding Constrictor, Walking Ballista and Kari Zev, Skyship Raider (and therefore Ragavan, legendary 2/1 Monkey prince). All I knew at this point was that I wanted to create Legendary Monkeys.

All I wanted to do at this point was create Legendary Monkeys.

I started to look at a mono-Red beatdown deck, naturally. Hanwier Garrison was another card I’d been trying to break since Eldritch Moon Standard but had never quite managed to get to fit. My next thoughts were Threaten effects and sacrifice outlets, maximising end-of-combat step sacrifices of Ragavan and bonus ‘gotcha’ value from stealing, hitting with, and then sacrificing my opponents’ dudes for my benefit. I quickly realised that for any chance of instant-speed sacrifice and also to maximise such effects, black was in the equation, and alongside that I started to notice a strong +1/+1 counters theme amongst potential cards – Yahenni, Undying Partisan especially, and that brought me back around to Bloodhall Priest. Olivia, Mobilised for War and Drana, Liberator of Malakir were not far behind.

If you haven’t yet realised where this was all leading me to, look back at the other two cards I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago alongside Kari Zev. I looked at my mana base, wiggled it a bit, and decided it could handle a couple of Game Trails and Cinder Glades. It was going to be Jund, it was going to make snakes, it was going to play Walking Ballista, it was going to have a Vampire Tribal sub-theme, it was going to put so many +1/+1 counters on things, and it was going to steal and sac everything. Great! I knew immediately that there was too much going on here, that it wasn’t going to work, and that it was just too ambitious. And so of course I built it.

We’ve all been there of course. That point in an initial build where if you can just find twenty of so cuts, you’ve got a deck. Twenty becomes ten, ten becomes five, and before you realise it, you’re actually looking at filling a slot or two. Shortly after this moment comes the bit where you realise you’ve forgotten removal and other meta-dependant answers to what your opponents will almost certainly wreck you with. So you take another look, cut a few more cards, wonder whether you really need all those lands, jig it around a bit more, and et viola with a bit of mando-cello, you’re done. Admittedly you’ve just stuffed a bunch of key main-deck cards into your sideboard and still neglected a bunch of important answers, but never mind – you’re sure the deck can and will get there.

The first build of my Jund Vampire Counters Threaten Sac Monkeys deck went 1-2 at FNM the night before Game Day weekend, after going 1-1 in a four-player tournament a week earlier. The shell of the idea actually worked surprisingly well, but to cram in so many different ideas meant compromises. There were many 2-and-3 of cards in the deck which really demanded a full playset, that there was no realistic way it was going to run smoothly. The biggest issue was the Winding Constrictor, which would either appear in my hand as a playset without any green mana showing up, or else being the only thing I could cast as either red or black mana decided it was taking a game off. There’s variance, and then there’s being honest with yourself. The key synergies – which I’ll explain fully in the actual deck tech next time – were all doing a good job of showing up aside from Winding Constrictor, but the reduced number of copies of nearly everything meant that they became fragile and would either whiff or topple at key points in a match. It just wasn’t built right. That was okay. I knew that going in. Game Day was the following morning and I intended to rebuild for it.

‘I’d stand back if I were you’

There was one serious key flaw with the deck which shone out above all others, at any rate: the deck was fully licensed. There were no copies of Unlicensed Disintegration, having been chucked out with the Madness synergies, the Inventor’s Apprentices and the Bomat Couriers and the Scrapheap Scroungers when Smuggler’s Coptor got hit by the banhammer. I felt concerned by this from the start as it’s the ideal answer to the Copy Cat Combo (Saheeli Rai plus Felidar Guardian) which cannot be ignored in any meta just now. I’d still attempted to put Unlicensed Disintegration into the deck, but 4xWalking Ballista just wasn’t getting the value from it.

The sacrifice outlets too were underperforming. I was running two Vampiric Rites, two Indulgent Aristocrats, three copies of Kari Zev’s Expertise, and even a couple of Malevolent Whispers to try and get some instant-speed Madness value out of it. So the threaten effect needed to go, as did Yahenni along with her Expertise, Drana and…

My Legendary Monkey. That’s right, the two drop pirate that launched the deck was to walk the plank, and with Kari Zev herself went Ragavan. Legendary. Monkey.

A sad moment of realisation, that was – but do you know who says, during a game of competetive Magic, ‘Hey, awesome idea for a deck dude! You threw a monkey at me! I can really see what you’re trying to do there. You deserve to win. I concede’? No-one. Ever. That’s who.

In went two more Indulgent Aristocrats to bring me up to a playset. Joining it was a set of Bomat Couriers. At the two-drop slot, Ballistas were joined by Scrapheap Scrounger, back from the graveyard, feeding off the corpses of Winding Constrictors and… no. I just can’t say who else. So twelve artifact creatures on an aggro curve? Bingo. Unlicensed Disintegration came back in, alongside an additional Hanwier Garrison and another Bloodhall Priest. We were starting to approach the current build. Then, spiciness occured. You can probably see from the deck image that there’s a few other things going on here, and I’ll talk about them in the actual deck tech next time. For now though, this seems like a good cut-off point for this part of the tale. Next time, I’ll discuss the deck composure, play patterns, sideboard options, issues still present in the current build, and the all important SWOT categories – which, if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology, stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Oportunities and Threats.

Thanks for reading thus far, I do hope you’ve enjoyed the narrative. If the links and additional pictures aren’t in already, be assured I’m planning to update the article with fancy hyperlinked card names and other relevent gubbinz, something I’ll do just as soon as I’ve finished building my time machine and headed back to 1998 to learn basic HTML.

Oh, and one final thing, bit of a spoiler if you were expecting tales of glory and heroism – the rebuilt deck managed 3rd place twice on Game Day weekend. It’s not legend; just a tale of whimsy.

Doug ‘Words’ Greenwood is a resident of Chesterfield, Derbyshire where he frequents Geeks Headquarters at every available opportuninty. This is his first ever Magic article. And Blog post. He used to want to be a novelist; these days he’d settle for a vignette. Maybe a Cab Sauv.

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