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Struggling to learn Magic: The Gathering? Try playing aggressively

What is aggro, and why does it suit new players who like to go on the offensive?
Raging Redcap, Magic: The Gathering, trading card game
Image: Dan Scott/Wizards of the Coast

Magic: The Gathering can be slow. It’s just the way it is: players mulling over their options, proceeding through the multiple phases of their turn. There’s certainly an exciting game there, but for a new player it can feel like a slog. You’re not alone in finding a hand full of enchantments and spells daunting at first. One solution? Instead of learning how to play Magic: The Gathering with some iceberg-like control deck aimed at hindering your opponent or slow-burning ramp built to win the long game, you should try playing aggro.

To play aggro is to play aggressively, to be on the offensive and deal as much damage to your opponent’s health and cards as possible. An aggressive deck can be any colour combination, but the key is it’s filled with cards that help you end the game as quickly as possible, such as low-cost creatures, damaging instant spells and creatures with effects like first strike, flying and haste. The mission statement of an aggro deck is this: dominate the board early and deal major damage to your opponent before they have a chance to get their own plans started - then finish them off with a powerful damage spell or large creature.

Learning how to play MTG with an aggro deck can be a more exciting way to get started if you feel bogged down by slower Magic: The Gathering deck types. When you start playing aggro, just focus on getting units down on the board and attacking as much as possible. From here, you’ll run into a range of problems that will teach you important aspects of the game.

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Red decks are typically good for playing aggressively in Magic: The Gathering. Image: Sarah Jarvis

Playing Magic: The Gathering, you’ll quickly discover the importance of having an opening curve with a mix of lands and units. A hand filled with land cards leaves you with few options in the early game while a lack of mana will leave you in the nightmarish situation of having a hand of cards you can’t play. With aggro decks typically having a larger number of cards with a low mana cost, the likelihood that a bad hand will ruin your early games is dramatically reduced.

Aggro’s inherent fast pace means learning experiences come quickly. With a good hand at the start of the game you’ll see just how valuable having lots of units on the board early is, especially against decks that need lots of mana to excel. With an aggro deck’s inclusion of strong, low-cost units, getting lots of cards on the board early in the game shouldn’t be a problem. With a strong board, your opponent will be forced to use valuable cards to stop your lower-cost creatures - rather than saving them for expensive game-enders like larger creatures and damaging spells.

Next comes learning by failure. Nothing makes a lesson stick quite like losing a game due to one big mistake. These head-in-your-hand moments are fantastic catalysts for self-improvement. For example, the importance of large creatures. With a board filled with smaller minions all on the offensive, nothing forces you to slam the breaks like a 7/7 with first strike. It’s here that you realise why you include spells in your deck; cards like Murder, and learning when to use them, is key to aggro. It’s getting your plans foiled by large creatures that make you realise the extent of spells’ usefulness.

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MTG's latest set, Theros: Beyond Death, has plenty of cards suitable for an aggro deck. Image: Wizards of the Coast

There are all sorts of important aspects of the trading card game like this that you’re forced to learn through playing aggro. The importance of looking at your opponent’s available mana during your turn, why card effects like Vigilance and Reach are good, when to attack and when to defend, and many more lessons are taught through running head-first into problems and not having the knowledge to overcome them. If aggro does anything well, it emphasises your mistakes better than any other deck.

Bear in mind this method of learning how to play Magic: The Gathering has its problems. The juxtaposition between playing fast and learning slow can manifest a strong sense of frustration, often in thoughts of “I just can’t win fast enough” or “I can’t break through their defences.” Fight through it! Regardless of how you learn to play MTG, the process of understanding the ins and outs takes time. Starting with an aggressive deck is a process of learning through failure - it will inevitably take time to consistently find success.

With all this said, aggro is overall a great way to pick up the trading card game. If you’re the sort of player who likes going on the offensive and doesn’t mind the slight annoyance that comes with learning the game, then I fully recommend getting your hands on an aggro deck and giving it a go.

“But how do I make a good aggro deck” you ask? With the Theros: Beyond Death set recently released, we’ve put together a Red deck to get you started with the latest cards if you're looking for how to build a Magic: The Gathering deck to get you started with aggro.

  • 18x Mountain land
  • 1x Purphoros's Intervention
  • 2x Careless Cerebrant
  • 2x Incendiary Oracle
  • 3x Underworld Rage Hound
  • 1x Anax, Hardened in the Forge
  • 3x Fateful End
  • 1x Final Flare
  • 3x Phoenix of Ash
  • 1x The Akroan War
  • 1x Flummoxed Cyclops
  • 1x Iroas Blessing
  • 2x Tectonic Giant
  • 1x Ox of Agonas