I have a bad habit to put off writing blog entries if I do not have the time for writing long ones. I also have the bad habit of tending to post very long blog entries which accumulate their length during my blogging pauses because things I want to write about are piling up. It’s a vicious circle, and I’m tentatively working on breaking those habits and that circle by posting shorter entries more often.
This is supposed to be one of those shorter entries. You often read or hear the sentiment that red aggro is easier to play than blue control, and you also often find that claim refuted. So, what’s the deal?
It depends on how you define „easy to play“. The typical red aggro deck is usually every bit as hard to play perfectly as the typical blue control deck. (Both deck types are actually not among the hardest to play – that honor goes to toolbox style decks which can tutor for a lot of different cards and have to plan ahead many turns while adapting to their opponent’s deck.) However, with a practical definition red aggro IS certainly easier to play. For the sake of explanation, let’s make a few simplifying assumptions:
1. There are only red aggro decks and blue control decks in the metagame. To take simplification even further, let’s assume that there is only one definite version of each of those deck types. These versions are meant to be „typical“ specimens of those archetypes in the context of this discussion.
2. The skill level of a deck’s pilot is assumed to be the same no matter which of those two decks he plays, and it can be expressed on a scale from 0 to 100, with 0 meaning „having no clue at all“ and 100 playing perfectly (with available information). But wait – „no clue at all“ is actually not easily defined: You could interpret it as making legal game decisions at random, but that wouldn’t be helpful because some cards offer you a lot more options to make really stupid decisions – for example, you have to decide if you attack with a creature or not each time. For that reason, let us move this „no clue at all“ level somewhere into the negatives and define 0 instead as the minimum skill level of 99% of all players who have ever entered a tournament (at the time they entered it), whatever that may be. Okay, and now that we’ve let reality in a bit, let’s also redefine 100 as the maximum skill level of any player who ever played in a tournament, which moves playing perfectly to an unknown score probably quite far above 100.
3. The red deck and the blue deck in this hypothetical metagame are exactly on the same power level, meaning that they will on average split their matches 50/50 if both are piloted by players with a skill level of 100. (This is why it would have been an issue to define 100 by perfect play – we need a realistic definition of „the same power level“.)
Now I can express what I mean by saying that red aggro is easier to play than blue control: The closer a player’s skill level is to 0, the more successful he will be with red aggro compared to piloting blue control. Red aggro is the more forgiving deck to play – if both players make similarly „stupid“ mistakes, the blue deck will punish its pilot harsher for those on average. (Note that this only applies for mistakes which will reasonably be made – see the definition of skill level 0.) This is not dependant on the matchup: Playing the aggro mirror, the control mirror, and the aggro vs. control matchup might require slightly different skill subsets, but I don’t believe that any of those matchups makes a deck noticeably less or more forgiving.
Let me put this hypothesis in a slightly different, possibly a bit more intuitive context: We will modify assumption 3 from above by saying that decks are of similar power level if they split their matches 50/50 on average if piloted by players on average skill level. It is obviously not trivial to define what „average skill level“ actually means, and it is certainly not mathematically correct to assume that this level ca be expressed with 50 on our scale (at least not without being ready to warp that scale to work in a non-linear way), but once again, let’s just do this for the sake of simplification. The thing is: Most players DO have a subjective idea what average skill level means, and they usually tie their view of the power level of decks to that skill level instead of some however defined maximum skill level.
With this defintion, my hypothesis now means that players with a skill level between 0 and 50 (just meaning „below average“) will be more successful with red aggro than with blue control, while players with skill levels between 50 and 100 („above average“) will be more successful with blue control. This corresponds with the general (if unreflected) perception that red aggro is a deck for scrubs, while masters prefer blue control. Note that this perception actually influences players‘ deck choices: Players who consider themselves good will often choose Blue for that reason, while players not confident in their play skills will often fall back on the „easy deck“. Thus, this stereotype reinforces itself.
However, this means that in low level play like FNMs it is actually describing reality more or less correctly. This is because perception of decks‘ power levels is tied to average player skill. This doesn’t translate to high level play, though, since the win percentage of those two deck types changes with overall higher skill level. Depending on a player’s delta to the average skill level in the low level play environment, this might either mean that continuing to play red aggro is a mistake for a less competent player, because blue control just possesses a higher power level than it if played competently; or it might mean that continuing to run blue control is a mistake for a very competent player, since his wins in the low level play environment weren’t due to a superior deck choice, but due to leveraging the extra advantage which blue decks give to a vastly superior pilot – and in the high level play envvíronment, where other players are comparably competent, it might turn out that red aggro is actually on a higher power level in this specific metagame.
Essentially, it comes down to this: You need to judge the power level of decks in relation to both your play skills and those of the players you expect to face. It doesn’t matter how good, for example, Doomsday combo theoretically is in Vintage, if noone at the store where you play the format – including you – has a clue how to pilot it correctly. In the same vein, if your goal is to do as well as possible at a single event, it makes no sense to choose a blue control deck you suspect to be stronger than red aggro if piloted by a more competent pilot than you, but giving you specifically a lower win rate than if you were running red aggro. (If your goal is to IMPROVE at Magic, though, that may be a good reason to leave your comfort zone, accept a lower win expectancy for that event, and use the opportunity to learn!)
To finish this entry, let me summarize: Blue control is certainly not generally better than red aggro in high level play – that depends on the specific metagame. It also isn’t easier to play if your goal is to play really well. But it is natural for inexperienced players that their learning curve takes them from aggro to control for the reasons I stated. (This makes a lot of sense considering that it’s of course easier to learn how to play proactively than reactively, which is the underlying reason for aggro decks being more forgiving). However, it’s a big fallacy to assume that simply choosing to play Blue over Red makes you a better player; or that control is always a better choice for good players than aggro.
(Okay, that entry didn’t turn out too short, I know. Working on it!)