Last weekend, I battled at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir with Mono-Red Aggro. In this article, I’ll go over my deck list, explain the card choices, and go over the matchups. If you’re looking for a red aggro deck, you’ve come to the right place!
Mono-Red’s game plan is to (1) get on board with a creature on turn one and two, (2) whittle down the opponent’s life total as quickly as possible, and (3) deal the last points of damage with burn spells.
If your opponent puts blockers in your way, then you can clear the path with burn spells or overwhelm their blockers with an army of Goblin tokens. And if your opponent has sorcery-speed sweepers, then you can get back to attacking right away thanks to your dash creatures.
This is the list I played at the Pro Tour:
Deck Difficulty: Easy to Learn, Hard to Master
The deck is easy to pick up and play at a reasonable level. Moreover, its game plan is similar in pretty much every matchup: kill them as quickly as possible. So, it is a fine choice if you’re new to Standard.
Yet, it is surprisingly hard to master and play optimally. The deck involves tons of non-trivial decisions involving mulligans, combat math, determining outs, sequencing, whether to burn their life total or their creatures, when and how to play around Bile Blight or Drown in Sorrow, and how to use your dash creatures.
For a mono-red deck, it has a surprising amount of play to it, and I enjoyed that. A single misplay can be super punishing too because every point of damage matters. My Standard record at the Pro Tour was 5-5, but I’m pretty sure I could’ve finished 7-3 if I had taken different lines of play in various games. So while Mono-Red Aggro is a suitable deck for beginners, I consider it to be one of the hardest decks in the format to play optimally. While I suck, Martin Dang showed the world that the deck can win a big event if you play well enough.
What Is A Favorable Metagame For This Deck?
Mono-Red Aggro is well-positioned if:
- Slow decks like UB Control are popular
- Decks with Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix see little play
- People don’t expect it and skimp on Drown in Sorrow
What cards are near-mandatory inclusions in any mono-red aggro deck, and why?
Foundry Street Denizen – Arguably the best 1-drop due to its synergy with Dragon Fodder, Hordeling Outburst, and dash creatures. Play 4.
Monastery Swiftspear – Excellent if you have 18+ spells to trigger prowess. With a well-timed instant, it can smoothly survive combats and Drown in Sorrow. The full playset is not absolutely mandatory, but I still recommend 4 copies.
Zurgo Bellstriker – A 2/2 for 1 mana is an insane rate, and the dash bonus outweighs the no-blocking drawback in an aggro deck like this. You shouldn’t play 4 because you don’t want to draw multiples of the legend, but 2 or 3 copies is fine.
Lightning Berserker – In the late game, especially if the opponent has just cast Crux of Fate, it can act as a Fireball with buyback. It’s not the most aggressive creature on turn one and drawing multiples of this mana sink can be a little awkward, but 2 or 3 copies is good. Altogether, you want to have at least 13 1-drops in the deck.
Dragon Fodder – A key addition from Dragons of Tarkir that synergizes with Foundry Street Denizen, Monastery Swiftspear, Stoke the Flames, and cards that give +1/+1 to all of your creatures. It also helps beat decks that rely on 1-for-1 spot removal spells.
Hordeling Outburst – Similar to Dragon Fodder, but slightly worse because the 3-drop slot is already pretty full in the deck and you need to ensure a good mana curve. I played 3 copies in the main deck, with another in the board.
Lightning Strike – With a few exceptions like Fleecemane Lion, Mantis Rider, and Icefall Regent, Lightning Strike generally kills the same creatures as a Wild Slash at a less efficient mana point. Still, it’s a strong burn spell that you want to have access to, and it’s great at closing out the game. I only played 3 because I made room for only 11 burn spells.
Stoke the Flames – With the plethora of token makers in the deck, this is often a 0-mana spell that kills Courser of Kruphix, burns your opponent’s face, or takes out Whisperwood Elemental. You have to play 4.
Mountain – The ideal number of lands in the main deck is either 20 or 21. With 21 lands, the probability of having a 7-card opening hand with 2 or 3 lands (which is ideal) is maximized, and that is why I chose that number. With 20 lands, on the other hand, the risk of flooding (which is one of the main ways to lose) is reduced, and if you have fewer than eight 3-drops in the deck and no 4-drops in the sideboard, then that would be an acceptable number as well. I wouldn’t go lower.
Deck Optional Cards
What cards are often included, but ultimately optional?
Frenzied Goblin –I don’t think Frenzied Goblin is better than Lightning Berserker, even if your deck has a basic Forest and lacks Goblin Heelcutter, but Martin Dang ran 1 in his winning deck list.
Eidolon of the Great Revel – If you want more 2-drops than Dragon Fodder, this is the next-best. I personally didn’t like this card all that much because it hurt me more than my opponent when I was on the draw and because it died too easily to Dromoka’s Command. Nevertheless, my teammates liked the card a lot, and they convinced me that it can steal games when you’re on the play. I played two copies in the main deck, with a third in the board.
Mardu Scout – I consider this to be worse than Eidolon of the Great Revel because it is so weak to Hordeling Outburst and doesn’t have the upside of hitting opponents for free additional points of damage.
Goblin Heelcutter – This card was surprisingly good in testing. Dashed in 90% of cases, it’s like a Searing Blood with buyback that effectively takes out any creature regardless of its toughness while triggering your Foundry Street Denizen. The card is not great against non-green decks and weak in multiples, so I only ran 3 maindeck with the 4th in the sideboard.
Goblin Rabblemaster – A very powerful card, but not great when Wild Slash and Ultimate Price are everywhere. It also doesn’t trigger Monastery Swiftspear, in contrast to Hordeling Outburst, so I preferred the sorcery in my build.
Hall of Triumph – Often seen as a sideboard card to help your creatures survive Drown in Sorrow and to win Hordeling Outburst mirrors, but we found it to be good enough for the main deck. It adds another line of play to the deck that works well in a creature-heavy build with all of the token-creating sorceries. Since it’s legendary, you can’t play more than 2 in the 75.
Searing Blood – It’s great against decks with a lot of small critters, but it can sit dead in your hand against UB Control and it’s unreliable against decks like RG Dragons. I had them in the board because I ran a more creature-heavy version with Hall of Triumph, but I would’ve played more burn spells if I didn’t have the artifact.
Is The Green Splash Worth It?
You could argue that Atarka Sligh (which is how I like to call the variant that splashes green) is a different archetype from Mono-Red Aggro, but there is a lot of overlap, so let’s not get into semantics. One way or another, Atarka’s Command deserves some in-depth discussion because it just won the Pro Tour.
The question is: how reliably can you cast the green cards? To make things specific, take Martin Dang’s list, which contains 10 lands that can produce or fetch green mana. I’ll be overly generous and count 4 Wooded Foothills as 4 full green sources. This is not completely fair because you’ll likely fetch a Mountain if you get an opening hand with Mountain, Wooded Foothills, and three red 1-drops, so the numbers that I’m about to provide are actually too optimistic.
That said, with 10 green sources, you are around 87% to have a green source by turn 4 in games where you drew Atarka’s Command. The simulation code for this calculation can be found here. I assumed that you mulligan every 7-card hand with less than 2 or more than 3 lands, mulligan every 6-card hand with 0 or more than 3 lands, and keep every 5-card hand. Under those assumptions, in roughly one in eight games, Atarka’s Command will sit dead in your hand by turn 4. So, while it may be the best spell in the deck if you can cast it, the risk of doing nothing (or at least nothing in a relevant time frame) in a non-negligible amount of games makes it not all that much better than something like Searing Blood in my view. Still better, but not by a huge amount.
Moreover, you’ll lose additional games due to Mana Confluence damage or because the Forest and Temple of Abandon slow you down. Quantifying that effect is tough, but I tested for a while with 2 Wooded Foothills in my mono-red deck for bluffing purposes and already lost some games to single points of life loss, so it’s certainly a factor, especially if aggro decks are popular.
In the end, it’s a trade-off between power and consistency. I traditionally tend to value consistency a little higher than most players, so it may not come as a surprise that I went with mono-red. The decision was close, though. To give an indication, if I could have played 1 or 2 Karplusan Forest in the deck, then that would have been enough to sway me to the green side. At the Pro Tour, the Atarka Sligh decks performed better overall than the mono-red decks, which may be due to variance or because I am weighing the ups or downs of the green splash incorrectly. All I can say is that I don’t regret my decision to play without Atarka’s Command and that I still have a small preference for the mono-red build.
Possible Sideboard Cards
Bathe in Dragonfire – It kills both Courser of Kruphix and Thunderbreak Regent, but 3 mana is arguably too much for this type of effect.
Scouring Sands – In the mirror match, it can sweep Goblin tokens along with Foundry Street Denizen if the opponent decides to keep them in.
Magmatic Chasm – A good way to break through against Green Devotion decks that fill the board with Whisperwood Elemental and whatnot.
Harness by Force – It could be sweet to take over a Chromanticore and swing in, and it acts as a hard removal spell for Whisperwood Elemental, but you’re almost never going to have the mana to strive this. I prefer Goblin Heelcutter, Magmatic Chasm, and the next card instead.
Crowd’s Favor – I had this as a spicy 1-of in the sideboard against decks with Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix. Its role is akin to Titan’s Strength, but costing zero rather than one mana is a huge upgrade. Moreover, with the introduction of Dragon Fodder, Monastery Swiftspear or Foundry Street Denizen can more easily take down Courser of Kruphix with Crowd’s Favor.
Thunderbreak Regent – I tried various sideboard plans with lots of 4-drops and additional lands because opponents will be more prepared for the rush plan post-board. However, I found myself fighting on my opponent’s terms too often and was unable to find a configuration that enabled me to smoothly board into a midrange deck. Even with many heavy-fitting 4s, you are still a dog if the game goes long, and the 4-drops and additional lands slow you down considerably. In the end, I got my best post-board results when I retained my fast curve with the attempt of going under them, and thus I only made room for two 4-drops in my sideboard for, e.g., the mirror match. I had Thunderbeak Regent in this slot for a long time, but Matej Zatlkaj had been playing a lot with Chandra and convinced me that it was better.
Chandra, Pyromaster – It shoots down tokens and provides card advantage in the mirror match, and it can annoy a Siege Rhino against Abzan control. I played 2 in the board.
Outpost Siege – Worse than the other 4-drops in my view.
The Best Cards Against You
Mulligans and Sequencing
For each of the three opening hands in this section, try to answer the following three questions:
- Do you keep this hand on the play?
- Do you keep this hand on the draw?
- If you keep, what do you cast on turn one?
I would keep this hand on the draw but mulligan on the play.
On the draw, I’m happy to keep a one-lander if I have at least three 1-drops.
On the play, it’s riskier because you have one fewer draw step to hit additional land drops. I would keep if the curve were better, i.e., if one of the 3-drops in the hand would’ve been a Wild Slash instead, but I would mull this one. It’s close, though.
If I keep, I would lead with Foundry Street Denizen because if I draw a Mountain, I can attack with a 3/1 and maximize my early damage output.
I would keep this hand on the play, but mulligan on the draw.
On the play, this hand offers a turn-five kill past a single blocker, and possibly even faster if you draw a 1-drop or 2-drop right away. That’s good enough for me.
On the draw, however, you have a higher risk of flooding, and the poor curve and lack of burn spells can make it too difficult to push through, so I would mulligan.
This is a relatively easy keep on both play and draw. The hand has a good amount of lands, at least one early drop, and at least one interactive card, which is everything I’m looking for.
The interesting decision is which creature to play on turn one. I would lead with Lightning Berserker. I’ll regret it if I draw Dragon Fodder, but starting with Lightning Berserker can deal 1 additional point of damage by turn two if you draw a blank. And every point of damage matters with this deck.
Matchup and Sideboard Guide
I have added favorability ratings for all the matchups, but these are based on the versions that I tested against. Things can change a lot depending on their specific versions and sideboard slots, so your results may vary.
When it comes to sideboarding, I often change a few cards on the play and draw: I regularly board out the 21st land and Eidolon of the Great Revel on the draw, whereas I always want to keep enough early drops on the play and sometimes even add Eidolon of the Great Revel. When plans on the play and draw differ by more than one or two of those cards, then I will provide them separately below.
Abzan Control (Slightly Favorable)
Watch out for Bile Blight in game one—you don’t want to lose all tokens from both a Dragon Fodder and a Hordeling Outburst to it. Remember that you can counter Bile Blight by playing Wild Slash on the targeted creature in response.
After board, they typically gain Drown in Sorrow. If you can play around it and still beat Courser and Rhino, perhaps by dashing Goblin Heelcutter or Lightning Berserker, then don’t overcommit. However, if by playing around Drown your board presence would be too weak to beat Courser or Rhino, then consider going all-in—dump all of your creatures on the board and hope they don’t have it.
Abzan Aggro (Slightly Favorable)
Their curve is a bit lower than Abzan Control, but this also means that your Lightning Strikes are more effective, and they tend to take more damage from their lands.
When in doubt between burning their blocker and doing something else, you should typically kill their creature because that plays around Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Wingmate Roc. Also, make sure they can’t get full value out of Dromoka’s Command and be careful with Eidolon of the Great Revel and try not to cast burn spells when they have WG untapped.
After sideboard, you’re still typically the aggressor, but this sometimes changes if you are on the draw and have at least one Roast and another burn spell in your opening hand. Then, you could try to play a control game where you only commit one or two creatures to the board at one time and focus on burning down their guys.
Mono-Red Aggro (Even)
The mirror match is a grindy affair with a lot of trades. Most burn spells are aimed at creatures, and it can come down to who draws more Dragon Fodders and Hordeling Outbursts. Against the version with green, if they don’t seem interested in trading early on, then watch out for the +1/+1 effect of Atarka’s Command when lining up your blocks. Hall of Triumph is a similar trump in the Goblin token mirror.
We sideboard a lot of cards—I was ready for the mirror. 1-toughness creatures are bad, whereas 2-for-1s are good.
Green Devotion (Slightly Unfavorable)
On the play:
On the draw:
On the play, your plan is to rush them. On the draw, this is less likely to work, so you keep more burn spells in the hope of mana-screwing them when they keep a two-land, Elvish Mystic hand.
UB Control (Favorable)
You’re much faster than they are and can get around Crux of Fate with dash creatures. Be quick, be hasty, and be merciless.
RG Dragons (Slightly Unfavorable)
Jeskai Aggro (Slightly Favorable)
This deck comes in all kinds of varieties these days, ranging from Tokens to Fireworks to Dragons, so be sure to adapt your sideboarding to what your opponent is doing exactly. If you didn’t see Seeker of the Way, Goblin Rabblemaster, or Soulfire Grand Master, then leave the Searing Bloods in the board, for example.
They usually have sweepers like Anger of the Gods after board, so don’t walk into it unnecessarily. Get ‘em with a good curve and dash your way to victory.
Sidisi Whip (Unfavorable)
They have good blockers in Courser, Caryatid, and Wayfinder, along with an unbeatable late-game in Whip of Erebos. The green version has an edge here because they can prevent life-gain with Atarka’s Command. One of the few ways to get ahead is to Lightning Strike or Stoke the Flames their Sidisi, Brood Tyrant in response to the enters-the-battlefield trigger so they never get a token.
On the play:
On the draw:
Your best plan post-board is to swarm the board with tokens, forcing them to trade inefficiently if they have lots of 1-for-1 removal spells. Keep the board clear by burning their creatures so that they can’t gain life with Whip of Erebos.
Mono-Red Aggro is a top-tier Standard deck with a surprising amount of play to it. I believe it will be a well-positioned choice for tournaments next weekend. There were four UB Control decks in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, people often pick up decks from the Top 8. Unless they add a lot of life gain cards, protection-from-red creatures, or sweepers, then it will remain a good matchup for us. Moreover, the list with maindeck Hall of Triumph and no Mana Confluence is slightly favored against the version that splashes green for Atarka’s Command.
I’m doing commentary at Grand Prix Krakow this weekend, but if I were playing, I would run the same list again, perhaps with the addition of 1-2 Magmatic Chasm to the sideboard to beat the players who show up with Ondrej Strasky’s or Thomas Hendrik’s Green Devotion deck. If you’re in attendance: best of luck, and see you there!