Lessons From the Past: Monkey May I?
History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
Even before "The Deck," the blue/white control deck pioneered by Brian Weissman, dominated the Vintage scene, there were other deck archetypes which made their mark on constructed. One such deck was "Monkey, May I?," a deck designed and played by Mario Robaina, a Pro Tour veteran and a member of the now defunct team, the Pacific Coast Legends. "Monkey, May I?" predates the history of Magic as collected by the internet, so it is very difficult to find a decklist. The idea behind the deck is simple to relay, however. "Monkey, May I?" was an aggressive deck, with creatures like Kird Apes (the Monkey) and Serendib Efreets for early beatdown, restricted cards like Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and Timetwister for card and time advantage, direct damage like Lightning Bolt to kill opposing creatures or finish off the opponent, and countermagic like Mana Drain (the May I?) to stop the opponent's key spells. It was not only a successful deck before "The Deck" arrived in Vintage, but it had the ability to stand toe-to-toe with that famous control deck and often end up on top.
It is tempting to go overboard when putting countermagic in a deck, making it so defensive and controlling that it has only a few ways to win. "Monkey, May I" shows us that there are other ways to use countermagic. In particular, building a deck with quick, aggressive creatures that uses countermagic to stop that key Wrath of God or to prevent that combo deck from "going off" can be an effective strategy.
This strategy has been effective on a number of occasions and in a variety of formats. Aside from old-school Vintage or Type 1, it has particularly excelled in Extended. Nicolas Labarre used a Merfolk deck that followed the same principles as "Monkey, May I?" to win 2nd place in Pro Tour Rome, a tournament dominated by combo decks like Academy and High Tide.
Nicolas Labarre's Merfolk Deck
2nd place, PT-Rome
4 Force of Will
2 Force Spike
4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Merfolk Raiders
4 Manta Riders
4 Sug'Ata Firewalker
3 Nevinyrral's Disk
3 Waterspout Djinn
2 Phyrexian Furnace
2 Bottle Gnomes
2 Force Spike
2 Serrated Arrows
1 Nevinyrral's Disk
In addition to this success story of an aggressive deck with countermagic, a new version of this archetype arose after the introduction of Tempest using Slivers instead of Merfolk. Chris Senhouse used a Counter-Sliver deck to achieve moderate success in a round of Extended Pro Tour Qualifiers (PTQs) and Trey Van Cleave recently made the Top 4 at the Masters tournament in New York with a Counter-Sliver deck.
Trey Van Cleave Counter-Sliver
4 Crystalline Sliver
4 Hibernation Sliver
4 Muscle Sliver
3 Winged Sliver
2 Acidic Sliver
4 Aura of Silence
4 Force of Will
2 Swords to Plowshares
3 Demonic Consultation
4 City of Brass
4 Underground Sea
2 Gemstone Mine
1 Undiscovered Paradise
4 Flood Plains
1 Tropical Island
1 Volcanic Island
2 Swords to Plowshares
So what can be learned, if anything, from aggro-control decks like "Monkey, May I?," Merfolk, and Counter-Sliver? When are they good and when are they not worth playing?
History has taught us that these types of decks are at their best in environments full of combo decks and control decks. Against combo decks, these decks apply early pressure and use their countermagic to stop the key Time Spiral or Survival of the Fittest that is essential to their success. Similarly, against control decks, they use early creature beats to try and force the control players hand, making it necessary for them to tap out to play a Wrath of God or Nevinrryal's Disk before they are ready, only to have it countered by countermagic. Against heavy creature decks, which utilize removal and burn spells instead of countermagic, aggro-control decks often find themselves at a loss, unable to mount a significant threat or develop a strong enough defense.
At the core of these types of deck are cheap, efficient creatures. Aggro-control must be cast early creatures to be successful. They must be powerful enough to pose a real threat to the opponent and cheap enough to get on the table before one needs to counter the opponent's key spells. "Monkey, May I" used Kird Ape and Serendib Efreet, two incredibly cheap creatures, to this end. While the Merfolk decks and Sliver decks don't have the most efficient creature base, the creatures are often made more efficient by each other. The Lord of Atlantis is used to make the merfolk bigger and give them evasion against blue players (Islandwalk), while Muscle Slivers pump up the sliver deck and Winged Slivers give those creatures evasion (Flying).
After the deck lays down a few threats, the idea is to sit back on countermagic, which can both prevent the opponent from mounting a significant threat and stop him or her from casting an answer to the creature beatdown. To this end, aggro-control decks require efficient countermagic, like Mana Drain in "Monkey, May I?," Counterspell in the Merfolk deck, and Force of Will in Counter-Sliver. If a counterspell is too situational or expensive, chances are that it won't work in an aggressive deck.
In addition to early creature threats and countermagic, the decks use a smattering of removal spells (like Swords to Plowshares in Counter-Sliver and Lightning Bolt in "Monkey, May I?"), utility spells (like Disenchant in Counter-Sliver), and card drawing (like Curiosity in the Merfolk deck and Ancestral Recall in "Monkey, May I?").
So What Now?
First things first, if your local metagame isn't dominated by control decks and combo decks, this might not be the deck to play. With that said, lets see if we can build a good aggro-control deck for the current Standard environment that adheres to the winning principles of these other three decks. The easiest one of these decks to build is the merfolk deck - so let's look at how we can adapt it for Standard.
From Classic (Sixth Edition):
Lord of Atlantis
This creature, which was good enough for Labarre's Extended deck, is still in the Standard environment, just waiting to pump up your merfolk and give them Islandwalk. The best thing about him, of course, is that he's a 2/2 for two blue mana, which is efficient on its own. If we can find enough merfolk to keep him company, the Lord of Atlantis will make a great addition to our deck.
This classic bit of countermagic is just what we are looking for to stop those Story Circles and Wraths of God from hitting the table. Having the ability to counter any spell for only two blue mana is as efficient as its going to get.
Merfolk of the Pearl Trident
Not the biggest beatdown ever, this 1/1 merfolk for one blue mana looks a lot better when Lord of Atlantis comes into play on the second turn.
This guy is no merfolk, but he brings the beats as much as Labarre's Waterspout Djinn's ever did. Nothing like a little 4/4 flier to finish things off when the merfolk fail.
If we have to splash another color, black looks like the obvious choice and this painland reprinted from Ice Age will help us get both blue and black.
The last piece of the merfolk puzzle, this creature can be used to strip the opponent's deck of powerful cards, which can be especially potent against control decks with few victory conditions and against combo decks. And as usual, the Lord of Atlantis makes him an even bigger beatdown.
A 2/2 Protection from Green merfolk for only a blue and a black mana is incredibly efficient. While this means we might have to play with black in addition to blue, Invasion not only gives us a number of other effective black/blue cards but it gives us an extra black/blue dual land as well.
This 1/2 merfolk for one blue and one generic mana is in the same boat as Merfolk of the Pearl Trident; he really needs the Lord of Atlantis to come along to help him out. Still, while not the most efficient offensive threat, he is a merfolk and he can help speed you to that land or spell that you need.
One of the standouts of Invasion for Constructed, this spell can bounce any permanent for one blue, one black, and one generic mana. And unlike Boomerang, the old blue bounce card, Recoil isn't card disadvantage, causing the opponent to discard a card after the bounce effect resolves. It can be used to clear the way of blockers and also deal with troublesome enchantments like Story Circle.
This spell functions much like Curiosity did in Labarre's successful merfolk deck. Its price is a bit steeper, costing one black and one blue mana, but it also gives the creature fear, helping him reach his target: your opponent.
Yet another exciting blue/black card from Invasion, this spell counters a spell for two blue and one black mana and causes the opponent to lose 3 life in the process. Much like how Absorb fits right into a blue/white control deck bent on survival, Undermine is an excellent addition to an aggressive blue/black deck, stopping a key spell and doing direct damage to the opponent in the process.
Merfolk for Standard
4 Merfolk of the
4 Lords of Atlantis
4 Vodalian Zombie
4 Rootwater Thief
3 Vodalian Merchant
3 Air Elemental
4 Sleeper's Robe
4 Underground River
4 Salt Marsh
This deck appears to fit the mold of the previous aggro-control decks, with 23 land, 22 creatures, and an assortment of countermagic (Counterspell and Undermine), removal (Recoil), and card drawing (Sleeper's Robe).
The Merfolk of the Pearl Trident, while often overlooked, is an important component of the deck as it's the only one casting cost merfolk left in Standard. He can be a crucial part of an aggressive start with either a second turn Lord of Atlantis or a second turn Sleeper's Robe. Vodalian Zombie is a beatstick on its own, being an efficient attacker and stopping Blastoderm in its tracks, as well. While there are a lot of two casting cost creatures in this deck, that has rarely been a problem its predecessors like Counter-Sliver. With Counterspell and Undermine to deal with troublesome spells, Recoil to deal with difficult permanents, and Air Elemental as a finisher in case the merfolk aren't up to the task, this shapes up to be a well rounded deck that has a chance to deliver a beating to almost any opponent.
The deck doesn't have a flashy name or a gimmick, but it is based on the winning concepts of successful decks from the past. Whether or not it's the right call for the Standard environment remains to be seen, but it's a good a place to start.
Give it a try if you feel up to it and I encourage you to examine the history of tournament Magic, either through the Sideboard's Pro Tour and Grand Prix archives or one of the other numerous Magic strategy websites, to give you ideas and insights on building a deck for a new environment.