Today I want to go over the evolving Mono-Red Aggro deck, as it feels like a tier one option and not a flash in the pan. There are three primary red builds floating around on the ladder at the moment, and all of them have various pros/cons. The first is SandyDogMTG’s list which got me on board with the red archetype. Currently he’s bouncing between #1 and #2 Mythic with JdoubleR2, and those two are miles ahead of everyone else on Mythic ladder. That someone can do that with purely Mono-Red tells you that the archetype is consistently strong in this format.
17 Mountain 3 Castle Embereth 4 Phoenix of Ash 4 Scorch Spitter 4 Runaway Steam-Kin 4 Fervent Champion 4 Robber of the Rich 4 Tin Street Dodger 4 Infuriate 4 Light Up the Stage 4 Shock 4 Embercleave Sideboard 1 Embereth Shieldbreaker/Battle Display 1 Experimental Frenzy 4 Unchained Berserker 3 Redcap Melee 4 Claim the Firstborn 2 Chandra, Acolyte of Flame
The defining characteristics of this iteration of the red deck is 20 one-drops (not even counting Light Up the Stage!), the full playset of Robber of the Rich, Phoenix of Ash, and a curve that stops at 3. This deck mulligans extremely well as a result of these choices and has the maximum amount of haste damage of any red deck. If you stumble against this iteration of this deck, it’s very hard to recover unless they flood out. Between Castle, Phoenix, Embercleave, and Light Up the Stage the deck has reasonable things to do with its mana even if it draws a few excess land.
The biggest drawback I’ve found here is that this is a snowball deck through and through. Your sequencing needs to be on-point when you run into competent, prepared opposition, once you lose a certain amount of resources you’re really at the mercy of your deck to bail you out. I know that just sounds like average aggro deck problems, but depending on your configuration, other builds of the deck help mitigate this. This is doubly true on the draw in post-board games where everything can feel like an uphill struggle after turn 1. Cards like Infuriate fluctuate wildly in power level depending on board state, so if you prefer more stable options, then you should look at the other builds here.
With that being said, there’s something inherently appealing about this deck forcing your opponent to be on the backfoot all the time. The low curve also maximizes Steam-Kin and Light Up the Stage which many other red versions don’t do. Robber of the Rich has also far exceeded my base expectations of just being a 2/2 haste creature and has won me a number of games with its ability. If you want a red deck that’s all about goldfishing your opposition and maximizing every point of damage, then this is the one for you.
Then we come to the middle-of-the-road build that Mengu talked about. It runs a much higher curve while still running 12 one-mana spells (and LUTS) and the low land count. This iteration of the deck gives up a bit of stability as your mulligans get worse and your chance to draw short on land becomes a bit higher. In exchange though, you get Anax and Torbran, both massive impact cards and can just end games in the same vein as Embercleave. For a red deck, you get a surprising amount of haymakers your opponent often can’t ignore.
16 Mountain 4 Castle Embereth 4 Anax, Hardened in the Forge 4 Scorch Spitter 4 Runaway Steam-Kin 4 Torbran, Thane of Red Fell 4 Fervent Champion 4 Rimrock Knight/Boulder Rush 4 Bonecrusher Giant/Stomp 4 Light Up the Stage 4 Shock 4 Embercleave Sideboard 4 Experimental Frenzy 4 Unchained Berserker 4 Lava Coil 3 Chandra, Acolyte of Flame
This tries to maximize your late-game power (that being turn 4) while not sacrificing your snowball curve draws. Some of the hands you draw with this deck feel scattershot, as three land, Shock, Runaway Steam-Kin, double 3-drop isn’t quite the hand you want to see on the play. Of course, the flipside is that it can also easily be three lands, Scorch Spitter, Steam-Kin, Anax, and Torbran, and the games you lose with that curve are few and far between. That’s not even an amazing hand either because it somewhat squanders what Steam-Kin can do, but curving into an Anax with the potential Embercleave or Torbran follow-up is so strong.
I’ve basically conceded playing Gruul at this point, because doing either of those things is by far the best thing you can do as an aggro player on turn 4. Both potentially just end the game and don’t require a lot of help to deal a ton of damage. The rest of the deck doesn’t need to make sacrifices to play this style, you still have good curve-out draws and eight main-deck Shocks against other small-ball creature decks.
Having played the deck in a couple of the recent Arena metagame challenges, I will say that 20 land and Torbran is still awkward at times and Steam-Kin + LUTS in this deck can be more of a liability than a strength (at least on the draw). I wouldn’t mind moving away from one of those cards for a more consistent option and sliding in the 21st land if you cut LUTS. Otherwise it’s a red deck that plays out better in red mirrors and sacrifices a bit of burst and opening hand quality.
Finally, we have the Aaron Barich build, which is currently the least popular of the three and takes what Mengu started and runs with it, going full-on big red. Not only does it run 24 lands and shave 1-cost spells, but it even has a light black splash to enable Rix Maadi Reveler. I will say that even without the black splash, Rix Maadi is an interesting choice for this type of build and one I could see playing anyway, simply because it’s a 2-drop that helps ensure you hit your curve. Filtering is actually very powerful in this style of deck and often in the smaller builds you’ll see players cycle LUTS for more options on their next turn.
15 Mountain 3 Castle Embereth 4 Blood Crypt 2 Temple of Malice 4 Scorch Spitter 4 Fervent Champion 4 Rimrock Knight/Boulder Rush 4 Rix Maadi Reveler 4 Bonecrusher Giant/Stomp 4 Anax, Hardened in the Forge 4 Phoenix of Ash 4 Torbran, Thane of Red Fell 4 Embercleave Sideboard 2 The Akroan War 4 Unchained Berserker 3 Lava Coil 3 Scorching Dragonfire 2 Chandra, Acolyte of Flame 1 Sorcerous Spyglass
Looking at this build, you should get a sense of just how threat dense it is. Every nonland card, with the exception of Embercleave, is a creature, while most of the creatures do something else or represent large amounts of damage. You rarely run out of things to do, so the only major danger is getting outclassed on board (as you have few interactive elements until sideboard) or falling behind early. I will say in red mirrors the lack of Shock is really impactful on the draw and the lack of Redcap Melee in the sideboard really hurts it in that regard.
Oh and throw Temple of Malice directly into the bin. I know some people like scry lands in aggro, but I’m not one of them. I only had one Temple in my deck and still managed to draw it where it’d upset my curve multiple games. Still, this was the build I had the most success with in the Metagame Challenge, so perhaps this is just the next step if the metagame starts really imposing on the smaller builds.
A lot of people’s post-board plans involve running you out of resources, and that’s very difficult to do to this type of build. Anax and Phoenix alone give you a lot of play into sweepers and you don’t have to commit into a potential Aether Gust like the old builds had to with Embercleave. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a downturn in sweepers, or more exile removal in addition to them, just so Anax isn’t as big of a problem. The Akroan War usually demolishes this style of slightly bigger aggro, so having your own copies is pretty key.
I’ve been keeping a Google Doc with my overall results from the various red decks here along with my general sideboard plans. So if you want a bit more insight into that aspect of the red deck, check it out. Since we’re still in the early stages for paper events I’d have to recommend Sandy’s list, but if you think people are going to be prepared for you, then I’d say give Barich’s list a shot. While it slows down and is worse against Simic Ramp post-board than the other builds, it’s far better against most other strategies. Good luck winning your die rolls!