Mono-Red Aggro is one of my favorite archetypes. I enjoy building it, playing it, and I’ve registered it at numerous Pro Tours. Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica was no different. I was excited by the potential of Runaway Steam-Kin, and I determined that Experimental Frenzy basically reads “draw 2-3 extra cards every turn.” After seeing those fiery new additions, I locked it in.

I played the following deck at the Pro Tour (to a 3-3 record in Standard, before dropping due to a poor Limited record):

Mono-Red

Frank Karsten, Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica

The list is similar to the one Etienne Busson used to take down Grand Prix Lille a few weeks ago. I only made a few minor adjustments that were based on my own personal preferences. Although they were based more on theorizing than playtesting, they did fit my own playing and sideboarding style, and I hope that learning the reasons behind some of my card choices will be insightful.

Notable Main Deck Cards

Lava Coil: Etienne Busson’s list ran six 4-drops and only 12 instants or sorcery spells. I felt the curve was too high, as with six 4-drops there’s a 25.9% probability of drawing multiples by turn 4. With only 22 lands, I felt this yielded an unacceptable risk of sitting with multiple 4-drops in hand while having only three Mountains in play.

Moreover, I felt that 12 spells was too low for Ghitu Lavarunner, as this corresponds to only a 59.2% chance of having drawn two spells by turn 4, and I wanted to increase that a little bit. To solve both issues, I cut a Rekindling Phoenix for a Lava Coil. It can’t go face, but it’s an efficient and cheap answer, especially to Rekindling Phoenix or Arclight Phoenix. Furthermore, with Jeskai Control adding Crackling Drake, Lava Coil is rarely dead. I was happy with Lava Coil at the Pro Tour, and I might even consider going to three Wizard’s Lightning and two Lava Coil going forward. In any case, in the current metagame, you want four Lava Coils in your 75.

Experimental Frenzy: Frenzy gives late-game inevitability, attacks from a different angle, and is arguably the most powerful card in the deck. It can be a little awkward to draw multiple copies or to find another Frenzy on top when you already control one, but it’s still worth running four copies, at least in the main deck, because drawing the first one is so important. Frenzy reminds me of Hazoret the Fervent—that card was also bad in multiples, but you needed to play four to maximize your chances of drawing at least one. That said, I was planning to board down to three Frenzy for games where I was on the draw, increased my curve, and/or faced Ixalan’s Binding.

There were a few other spells that I considered but ultimately chose not to run. For instance, I considered a version with The Flame of Keld in the main deck and Experimental Frenzy in the sideboard. This made the deck faster and more explosive in game 1, but it ultimately ate too many sideboard slots. I also considered Risk Factor in the main deck, but it’s poor against opposing aggro decks and, more importantly, very clunky alongside Frenzy. I didn’t want to run more than four card draw spells in the main deck, and Frenzy is the better card, so Risk Factor was out.

I also considered several creatures for a while. I wanted to add a ninth 1-drop to improve the mana curve, but Goblin Banneret seemed to be the next best option, and it simply was too low-impact. I also briefly considered Dismissive Pyromancer, which adds the ninth Wizard to support Wizard’s Lightning, and Dire Fleet Daredevil, which is pretty sweet when it flashes back Lava Coil from your opponent’s graveyard to exile their Crackling Drake, but a mono-red mana curve with more 2-drops than 1-drops looked off to me. In the end, I stuck to a relatively stock main deck.

Notable Sideboard Cards

Treasure Map. Many mono-red lists followed Etienne Busson’s transformational strategy of having four Treasure Maps in the sideboard. This gave them the ability to transform into a control deck, which is a capability I appreciated. Nevertheless, I felt like 22 lands was still relatively low when I was upping the curve after sideboard, so I preferred three Treasure Map and one Mountain in those slots instead. Moreover, I expected that opponents would be ready for the control plan by now and that they wouldn’t make the mistake of boarding in cards like Diamond Mare (which are great against your game 1 configuration but poor against your post-board control plan). I also wasn’t confident in my ability to win a late game against Golgari’s Carnage Tyrant. With these considerations in mind, I decided that I was only going to morph into the control plan on the draw and that I would stay relatively aggressive on the play. To make the corresponding numbers work out, I cut one more Treasure Map from the sideboard, ending up with two copies only.

Legion Warboss. I wanted one or two extra cards against Jeskai Control that could double as powerful threats when I wanted to stay aggressive on the play. Risk Factor was one option, but as I mentioned, it’s clunky alongside Frenzy, and I didn’t want to overload on card draw spells. Also, Risk Factor is not as impressive against Jeskai decks with Revitalize. Instead, I settled on a threat that I could slam down after Deafening Clarion and that wouldn’t be easily answered by Seal Away: Legion Warboss. It was pretty good the few times I drew it at the Pro Tour.

Play a Land Before Frenzy?

While playing the deck, you often come across interesting decisions. A common one occurs when you control 4, 5, 6, or 7 lands at the start of your first main phase and hold Experimental Frenzy and a Mountain in hand. Do you then play the land before Frenzy (so you have more mana to cast spells off the top of your deck) or do you hold the land (to be able to play another Mountain from the top of your deck)?

I ran the numbers, counting Wizard’s Lightning as a 1-mana spell and using the original ratios of converted mana costs in the deck for simplicity. My conclusion can be summarized in the following rule: “Play the 5th or 6th land beforehand, play or hold the 7th land depending on the game state, and always hold the 8th land.”

If you’re curious about the actual numbers: If you start the turn with four Mountains and play the 5th land before Frenzy, you can expect to cast 0.27 spells that turn (while guaranteeing your 5th land drop). If you had held the 5th land in hand, then you could only expect to cast 0.10 spells that turn (while hitting your 5th land only 37% of the time). So you definitely need to play the 5th land beforehand.

The logic for your 6th land is similar: If you start the turn with 5 Mountains and play the 6th land before Frenzy, then you can expect to cast 0.55 spells that turn (while guaranteeing your 6th land drop). If you had held the 6th land in hand, then you could only expect to cast 0.50 spells that turn (while hitting your 6th land only 46% of the time). So you definitely need to play the 6th land beforehand.

The 7th land is not as clear-cut. My calculations (which involved listing 19 different outcomes for the top of your deck, determining the probability for each, and then summing to obtain expected values) indicate that if you play the 7th land beforehand, you can cast 0.84 spells in expectation with a total expected converted mana cost of 1.41. If you hold the 7th land, then you can cast 0.94 spells in expectation, with a total expected converted mana cost of 1.39. Given the potential for extra card advantage, I would say that this is slightly in favor of holding the land, but it’s pretty close.

Ultimately, I think it depends on the contents of your deck and the game state. If, for instance, you’re behind and need to hit Goblin Chainwhirler to claw back into the game, then you should play the 7th land before Frenzy. But if your opponent controls Arclight Phoenix and you need to hit Lava Coil off the top of your deck, then you can maximize your chances of hitting the burn spell by not playing the land before. A final factor to keep in mind is that if you hold the 7th land before, then you’ll only hit your 7th land drop 57% of the time. This could matter if your deck is filled with mana-hungry spells like Fight with Fire, so if we’re post-board and I know my opponent won’t have an answer to Experimental Frenzy, then I’m more inclined to play the 7th land beforehand.

The 8th land, however, is certainly too much. I didn’t run the actual calculations, but based on the numbers I saw for the 7th land, it’s clear to me that when you play Frenzy with three Mountains untapped, you’re already pretty likely to chain multiple spells off the top of your deck and hit a land at some point. So it’s better to skip your 8th land drop before casting Frenzy so you can clear another Mountain from the top of your deck.

Other Tips and Tricks

  • When you control Rekindling Phoenix, do not be afraid to burn it down to save it from an exile effect. Against Vraska’s Contempt, Seal Away, and Settle the Wreckage, it’s often the right play to use Lightning Strike or Wizard’s Lightning to kill your own creature.
  • When you control Experimental Frenzy, don’t forget to look at your top card before your draw step. If it’s an instant, you can burn your opponent or one of their creatures in your upkeep.
  • It’s rare, but sometimes you want to pass on turn 1 to hold a red spell for Runaway Steam-Kin. For example, if my opening hand is 3 Mountain, 2 Runaway Steam-Kin, Ghitu Lavarunner, and Rekindling Phoenix, then I will generally say “Mountain, go” on turn 1. With such a hand, the main value of Ghitu Lavarunner is to add counters to the Steam-Kins.
  • Remember that if your 4/4 Steam-Kin was chumpblocked by a 1/1 and then you use its ability to make mana in your second main phase, it will die. Don’t put yourself in that spot.
  • Fiery Cannonade only damages non-Pirates. Since Fanatical Firebrand is a Pirate, it survives the sweeper.
  • You generally want to play a land from your hand every turn, even if it’s the last card in your hand. You lose some bluffing value this way, but it’s much better if you topdeck Experimental Frenzy on the next turn.
  • When your opponent is at 4 life and controls Lyra Dawnbringer, you can still win if you control three 2/2s and hold Shock in hand: Attack with everything, then Shock the creature that was blocked by Lyra. This way, lifelink won’t happen, and your unblocked creatures will deal lethal combat damage.
  • Sometimes the best play is to not cast anything. For example, if you expect your opponent to hold countermagic but no other way to spend their mana, then depending on your hand it can be right not to play anything at all to waste their turn. Likewise, if you expect your opponent holds spot removal, then you should cast Viashino Pyromancer over Runaway Steam-Kin on turn 2.
  • If your opponent controls Shalai, Voice of Plenty, then Viashino Pyromancer is forced to deal damage to yourself. It’s awkward, but you have to choose a legal target.
  • If your opponent casts Assassin’s Trophy on your Experimental Frenzy while you know there’s a valuable card on top of your deck, then you should usually opt not to search. Searching and shuffling is a “may” effect, so if you don’t search, then you can keep the sweet spell on top.
  • If you control multiple Goblin tokens created by Legion Warboss, then they don’t all have to attack. Only the Goblin that was created this turn has to attack.

Sideboard Guide

My general strategy, based on what worked for me in previous formats with similar decks, is to stay relatively aggressive on the play but to morph into a control strategy on the draw. I don’t guarantee that this is the best way to go—you may be better off following Grand Prix Lille Champion Etienne Busson on Twitter, as he was planning to share his sideboard guide after the Pro Tour—but my approach did fit my own play style.

On the play, I want to stay as aggressive as I can to establish a board advantage from the start and exploit my advantageous position in the damage race. To leverage my ability to play first, I need to guarantee that I can curve out with multiple threats in the early turns. This means that my deck should contain more creatures and fewer burn spells. Since my opponent will always be up one card, I feel that a controlling plan is less suitable.

On the draw, I want be more controlling, so I want more reactive spells that can help me catch up and fight a more grindy game. With an extra draw step to smooth out my draws, I can also afford some extra late-game spells or mana-intensive spells. This means more removal spells and more card draw spells. Aggression is less likely to work as my opponent is ahead from the start and has more time to deploy blockers.

Either way, the Wizard cards (Ghitu Lavarunner, Viashino Pyromancer, Wizard’s Lightning) are usually the first ones to be cut. They’re basically like a synergistic 12-card package that can be cut as a group. Or even if you don’t cut all of them, you usually cut some of them in concert, as every Wizard you cut makes Wizard’s Lightning worse, and every Wizard’s Lightning you cut reduces the need to have Wizards in your deck.

G/B Midrange

Out on the Play

In on the Play

Out on the Draw

In on the Draw

Here you already see my different strategies on the play and on the draw. I want to emphasize that it was based more on theorizing than on playtesting, but I like that it keeps opponents guessing.

Their biggest threat is Wildgrowth Walker. Although many players have moved it to their sideboard, you must save a removal spell for it if possible in games 2 and 3. After sideboard, they sometimes have either Golden Demise or Ritual of Soot as well, which is something to keep in the back of your mind. But not every list runs these sweepers, let alone in large numbers, so I wouldn’t go out of my way to play around either of them.

Izzet Phoenix

Out on the Play

In on the Play

Out on the Draw

In on the Draw

Many versions don’t have Enigma Drake, but if you do see them, you should consider adding Fight with Fire even on the play.

After sideboard, they’ll often have two Fiery Cannonade, which is one of the reasons why I’m not boarding Legion Warboss in this matchup.

Jeskai Control

Out

In

I’m boarding the same way on both play and draw, since you have to retain an aggro role against a pure control deck. If I see Ixalan’s Binding, then I might board out the fourth Frenzy.

Make sure to play around Deafening Clarion against them, but don’t bother playing around Settle the Wreckage since most lists don’t have it. Sometimes, you should avoid playing a second Frenzy from the top of your deck because that may give your opponent an opportunity to clear both with Cleansing Nova.

Boros Weenie

Out on the Play

In on the Play

Out on the Draw

In on the Draw

Well, this deck took off. Although there were only four copies among the 23 decks that went 8-2 or better in Standard, the Top 8 was filled with White Weenie variants. Fortunately, Goblin Chainwhirler is ridiculous against them, and I was happy that I retained the two Fiery Cannonades in my sideboard. It’s narrow, but it shines against History of Benalia and other small creatures.

I drew up the above sideboard plans in the expectation of mostly facing the Heroic Reinforcements variation with Tocatli Honor Guard in their sideboard, but with relatively few Venerated Loxodon or Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice. I planned to board out Viashino Pyromancer against them because it’s so embarrassing against Tocatli Honor Guard. I’m not sure which Boros Weenie variant players will gravitate to in the future—there was a lot of variety in the Top 8 lists—but you’ll have to re-evaluate based on that. For instance, if versions with Venerated Loxodon or Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice become popular, then you may have to add more Lava Coils or Fight with Fires in the matchup.

Mirror Match

Out on the Play

In on the Play

Out on the Draw

In on the Draw

You’re cutting 1-toughness creatures to minimize the number of creatures that die to Goblin Chainwhirler. Fiery Cannonade is not worth it, even on the draw, as they’ll often board out small creatures. Lava Coil, on the other hand, is important, and you may want to save one for Rekindling Phoenix.

On turn 2 on the draw, you should consider not playing Runaway Steam-Kin into Goblin Chainwhirler, especially if you can turn it into a 2/2 on turn 3 right away. Likewise, when the opponent controls Fanatical Firebrand, you should try not to expose your Runaway Steam-Kin unnecessarily.

Boros Angels

Out on the Play

In on the Play

Out on the Draw

In on the Draw

Since Tocatli Honor Guard weakens Viashino Pyromancer and Goblin Chainwhirler, I’m boarding some of them out. Expect Deafening Clarions from their sideboard, so don’t overcommit unnecessarily.

Mono-Blue

Out on the Play

In on the Play

Out on the Draw

In on the Draw

Make sure to play around Dive Down, and remember that Merfolk Trickster can shrink Ghitu Lavarunner back to 1/2.

Conclusion

With White Weenie variants dominating the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, Goblin Chainwhirler is one of the best cards you can have. For that reason, mono-red looks decently positioned in the weeks to come.

Thanks for reading, and best of luck in getting your opponents from 20 to 0 life as quickly as possible.