Mono-Red was popular at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, and its builds were varied. Some, like Yam Wing Chun, decided to go the burn route with Incendiary Flow and Collective Defiance. Some, like Sam Black, chose to go small, with 21 lands and Cartouches. We chose to go with more of a focus on board presence, with 24 lands, Chandras, and Abrades. Our list still had the potential to burn an opponent out due to Deserts and Hazorets, but that wasn’t our main goal.
There are pros and cons to each version, but this is what I would consider the “core” of a Mono-Red list:
In our case, we went with this:
4 Bomat Courier, 4 Falkenrath Gorger, 4 Village Messenger, 0 Soul-Scar Mage
Bomat Courier is the best 1-drop. Not only is it potentially the most powerful (At one point in the tournament, I drew 6 cards with 1 Courier), it’s also the easiest to cast—the deck has 6 colorless lands, and it’s not uncommon for you to have only 1 red mana. Having Courier as a 1-drop lets you play three 1-drops by turn 2 even if you have a colorless land.
The other 1-drops are not so simple to evaluate because they each have advantages in different moments. Village Messenger has haste, so it often guarantees 1 damage in spots where the other two would deal 0, and its flipped version is very powerful. The deck is full of “can’t block” effects, so if you add menace to a creature, it becomes basically unblockable. Village Messenger is the best 1-drop against decks like U/W Monument and U/W Gift, which have a ton of 1/2s and not many 2-drops, and it’s also very good against U/R decks since it always flips. It’s the worst against Mono-Red, however, as it’s very rare for anyone to skip a turn in the early game, and even if it happens they can just cast two spells to flip it back at almost any time.
As a general rule, Messenger is much better on the play than on the draw. When you’re sideboarding, you should consider taking it out on the draw but keeping it in your deck on the play.
Falkenrath Gorger is the more average 1-drop in the sense that it does the same thing against everybody. It’s never going to be exceptional, but it’s also never going to be exceptionally bad. It’s OK against 2-toughness defenders like Grim Flayer and Thraben Inspector, and it hits for a lot if you manage to get rid of your opponent’s blockers (which this deck can do easily).
Soul-Scar Mage is the best against the mirror. It blocks Bomat and Messenger, it can team up to double-block Kari-Zev, it becomes randomly bigger and, most importantly, it’s the only way that red can kill Hazoret. Hazoret is the most important card in the mirror, and being the person with a way to kill it by turning your burn spells into -1/-1 is a big advantage. Pre-board, the only way of doing that is Collective Defiance if you play it (or teaming up two burn spells), but even shrinking it might be good already, and post-board you have Chandra’s Defeat to combo-kill Hazoret for only 2 mana.
At the tournament, we expected Mono-Red to be the most popular deck, but we didn’t think it would be by so much. We expected a larger number of U/R Control and both U/W decks (Monument and Gifts), so we played 4 Messenger and 4 Soul-Scar Mage.
3 Kari Zev
Kari Zev is excellent, and if it wasn’t legendary, we’d surely play 4. It hits for 3, it survives Shock and Kozilek’s Return, and it’s overall very hard to block as they need three blockers to stop all the damage. The main problem is that since it’s so hard to block and immune to some of the removal, it doesn’t die all the time—there are many games in which you play a Kari-Zev on turn 2 and it lives until the end of the game. This makes it awkward to draw multiples of, so I think 3 is the maximum you can play, but I think playing only 2 is a mistake.
4 Shock, 4 Abrade, 0 Incendiary Flow, 0 Collective Defiance
Early on, we identified that this version of Mono-Red wasn’t necessarily a burn deck—your creatures were powerful and hit hard, and most of the time you’d just use your removal to clear the way for them. As a result, we wanted the removal that was the most efficient at dealing with opposing creatures, even at the expense of burn to the face, and that was main deck Abrade and Shock. We thought the Gifts decks were going to be a bit more popular than they ended up being, so it made sense to have artifact removal as well.
Most Mono-Red players played Flow main and Abrade sideboard, but I think playing Abrade main is just better. You lose some percentage points in the games where the 3 damage to the face would make a difference, but you gain a lot by simply having 4 extra sideboard slots, which we could then dedicate to the mirror match. Normally, red decks don’t care much about having semi-wasted sideboard spaces since the red sideboard options are so bad, but in this format they happen to be very good, so you don’t want a card that’s only a slight upgrade in some matchups.
3 Hazoret, 2 Chandra
One of the very first things we did to Mono-Red after playing it a little was to add a 3rd and 4th Hazoret. Most lists had 1 or 2, which we didn’t really understand because Hazoret was so great. No one could kill it, and there was a high correlation between drawing a Hazoret and winning the game. As a random bonus, it also made mulliganing not as punishing as it normally is, as having 1 less card can actually be a good thing if it lets you attack with a Hazoret one turn earlier.
As the tournament approached, we played a bit more against B/G and Zombies, and decided that we wanted Chandra for those matchups. We wanted a way to kill Kalitas, and Chandra was powerful enough that we could afford to play it instead of the 4th Hazoret, even though Hazoret is usually better.
I think that the only matchup where Hazoret is significantly better than Chandra is Mono-Red. We thought we’d have the edge in that matchup anyway, as our list was pretty tuned for the mirror even without the 4th Hazoret, and we didn’t expect it to be that popular, so we ran the 3-2 split instead of 4-1.
This was one of the biggest differences between our list and others. Most people played 23 lands, but some like Sam Black played as few as 21. I think that overall, this mono-red deck uses lands better than most aggro decks have before—you have Hazoret as a mana sink, you have all the utility Deserts, and you have Earthshaker Khenra as a 6-drop. We felt that we could afford to flood a little, but we could not afford to miss land drops early on. When you have a card like Hazoret, skipping a land drop can be extremely punishing, as it leads to not only delaying casting your cards but also having them do less when you do cast them, as your hand is more likely to be full at that point, so we wanted to make sure that happened less often.
The most important thing about Mono-Red sideboarding is that it’s fluid. You can in theory follow a sideboard guide, but there are so many versions of each deck, especially red, that you should know how to adapt based on what your opponent is doing. Against Seth Manfield, I sideboarded in a certain way. Then against Yam Wing Chun, I sideboarded 10 cards differently! That sideboard plan in itself was also different than the one I had in the Swiss when I didn’t have deck lists.
We weren’t the only ones adapting on the fly either. When Sam Black played against me in the Swiss, he sideboarded one way for game 2, and then once he saw what my plan was, he went and reversed all his sideboarding for game 3. You have to be able to do this if you play Mono-Red, because a card that is good against one version of a deck will be almost useless against another. In general, here are their uses:
2 Sand Strangler
Sand Strangler demands about 10 Deserts, but once you have that, it’s pretty great. 3/3 is a sizable body, especially if people are playing Shocks, Magma Sprays, Lilianas, and Fatal Pushes, and it kills almost anything you want to kill, including the often problematic Kari-Zev and Hanweir Garrison. We thought that Sand Strangler was much better than Chandra in the mirror, and an integral part to our “go big” plan after board (which we later dubbed the “go medium” plan since Genesis’s sideboard plan went even bigger than ours).
2 Chandra’s Defeat
1 mana to kill anything they have at instant speed is ridiculously cheap. We didn’t like Chandra ourselves in the mirror, but other people did, so it was nice to have a way to get rid of it if it got to 5, and it also kills Kari-Zev, Sand Strangler, Garrison, and Glorybringer. Just be careful about Bomat Courier and eternalized Khenras, as it does not kill those.
2 Savage Alliance
This was a card we didn’t test at all, but decided to add the day before the tournament. It was there mainly as an answer to decks with Catacomb Sifter and Blisterpod, which were very hard to beat, but it was also great against U/W Monument and some versions of the mirror. If they have Hanweir Garrison and a ton of 1-toughness creatures, then it’s very good—if they have a bunch of Soul-Scar Mages and no Garrison, it’s not that great.
2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
This is your best card against Zombies and B/G, and also very good against U/R. Most of the time, you should be able to leave the board at least empty when you play it, if not advantaged for you, and it’ll be very hard for them to recover.
1 Oath of Chandra
We wanted a way to kill Winding Constrictor and Zombie Lords, and we figured this was the best one since it’d also let you finish off opposing Lilianas by following it with Chandra. It’s possible that playing Cut // Ribbons is just better, though, as that can kill Kalitas and a delirium Grim Flayer. You don’t care much about Grim Flayer, but Kalitas is a very hard card to beat, so having another way to kill it is great.
Part of your “go medium” plan, it’s very good versus the black decks as long as you can be careful not to run it into a Grasp of Darkness. We normally don’t side Glorybringer in against other red opponents, but I had it in in the Top 8 because we thought the 4 haste damage was more valuable than the random removal spells against Seth’s particular version. I also had it in the semifinals because Yan Wing Chun had no Chandra’s Defeats, though I took them out when I was on the play once I realized his sideboard plan.
2 Aethersphere Harvester
Harvester is the best card for the mirror if it lives. Everyone is (or should be) playing Abrades, so sometimes you just trade down on mana and even on cards, which sucks, but when that doesn’t happen it’s incredible. A 3/5 flyer can block anything and attack through anything, lifelink is huge, and they can’t even make it not block with their creatures because it’s not a creature before they attack. We also liked it quite a bit versus Zombies since it was somewhat immune to all their removal spells and hard to block.
2 Pia Nalaar
Pia is a priori only for the mirror, but she’s very good at that. There are tons of 1-toughness creatures, so the token is basically a real card, and it helps with your plan of boarding in Harvester, both by crewing it easily and by letting you pump a flyer lifelinker. In the semifinals, Seth had to Magma Spray my token multiple times, which shows how powerful Pia is in this matchup.
General Sideboard Plans
(Again, tentative. It depends on their version, but this is what we did in the dark):
You can also side out a couple of Abrades if you want to side in anything else. I would not do this now, however, as I expect more people to have Harvester.
Hazoret is not great against them since they have Grasp and Dark Salvation to stop it. The other 4- and 5-drops are better, and you can’t have too many of them or your deck becomes clunky. You morph into a bigger deck, but you still want to be able to cast some spells before turn 4.
On the Play
On the Draw
Harvester isn’t that good against them, as the matchup is often less of a race. They hit you in chunks too big for the 3-6 life to matter. If they don’t have Grim Flayer, then you can take out some or all Shocks on the play and draw.
Tips and Tricks
- When you have multiple 1-drops, you have to plan your turns ahead to figure out which one to lead with. The damage order goes Messenger that flips and stays flipped > Falkenrath Gorger > Messenger that flips and then flips back > Bomat Courier and Messenger that doesn’t flip. If you are going to cast 2 spells yourself next turn, then there’s no reason to play Messenger, for example.
- If you suspect that they will have a hard time killing a Bomat Courier, then you can lead with that and start stacking it—the extra card in there is usually worth the extra damage. This is especially true if you have a hand that will likely be empty of relevant spells early on (i.e., no 4-drops). If they are playing a deck that has an easy time killing Bomat Courier and/or you suspect you’re going to want to keep your hand until later (because you have, say, a Hazoret), then you can lead with Falkenrath Gorger. You can also lead with Gorger if your hand is very aggressive and you expect the 1 point of damage to matter.
- Sunscorched Desert is excellent at killing planeswalkers—it finishes off Nissa and Chandra, and can team with a Crasher to kill Liliana. As such, you usually want to hold it in your hand for as long as you can, which also has the added bonus of them not knowing they’re about to take 1 point of damage. The exception is if you have a Hazoret or a Bomat Courier and you might have to discard it. In this case, play the Desert and discard the Mountain.
- If you have the potential to attack with Hazoret early, it’s often worth going to great lengths to do it. This includes Abrading a creature you normally wouldn’t care about, or even Shocking your opponent on turn 1 or 2.
- This deck is very mulligan-friendly. Hazoret is worth many cards, and often bails you out from a mulligan to 6 or even 5.
- Don’t forget that Falkenrath Gorger has an ability. It doesn’t come up often (you need one in play and one in hand), but it can come up with Hazoret, Courier, and the loot ability on Chandra’s Defeat.
- If you have 2 Bomat Couriers, you can stack them so that you discard an empty hand twice and then draw for both.
- When you play a turn-1 Messenger and they play a turn-2 creature that you want to kill (such as Winding Constrictor), it’s often worth to pass the turn, flip the Messenger, and then Abrade it on their turn. Those decks don’t have a ton of ways of flipping it back, and the Messenger flip is worth more than the 1 damage from not attacking that turn.
- Scavenger Grounds was there mainly for the God-Pharaoh’s Gift deck, but it has some interesting random applications. Throughout the tournament, for example, I used it to exile my opponent’s Earthshaker Khenra, to counter a Liliana activation, and to stop an Ishkanah from making tokens. You can also use it to shrink a Diregraf Colossus they are playing, stop Traverse the Ulvenwald, and so on.
- It’s OK to play a creature with haste even if you aren’t planning to attack with it this turn. Some of your best turns involve double Crasher, so it’s reasonable to wait for one to untap. Hazoret is another card that often sits back when it could have attacked.
Moving forward, I expect Mono-Red to be very popular, and I expect everyone who is not playing Mono-Red to try to beat it. Some will succeed, most will fail—I think this deck is very good and not just a flash in the pan. That said, decks like Zombies, Pummeler, and B/G have reasonable game against it, so it’s not like it’s going to be extremely dominant in the near future.
If you do choose to play Red, the cards you should consider that I did not play are probably the 4th Hazoret and some Soul-Scar Mages. I don’t think you need 4 of those, but you could, for example, have a 2-2 split with Village Messenger. This should make you better in the mirror without hurting you too much in other matchups.
As for the sideboarding, I liked everything except for Savage Alliance. I expect most people to not have Garrison from now, and to have fewer 1-toughness creatures overall, so it becomes a bit worse. Given that the decks that it’s good against basically don’t exist right now, I don’t think you need to play it. Instead, you can perhaps play another card for the mirror, something like extra Pia/Harvester, or even the Reality Smasher that Seth played.