Everyone was surprised when they found out I was playing Mono-Red at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, and I was constantly asked why. The reason is far from obscure: I played Mono-Red for the same reason I play basically any other deck—I thought it was quite good. I have no qualms about playing what I think is the best, and I actually have had a lot of good results with aggressive decks throughout my Magic career—I only happened to think Esper was the best for the last couple of years, which gave me this “Esper player” image.

Mono-Red

Game Plan

This deck is different than any other red deck I’ve played. Against most red decks, if you stifle their early plays, you know that, barring some absurd sequence of burn spells, you’re going to win. With this deck, not so much. Having the combo in your deck means you will games that other Mono-Red versions would never dream of winning.

In our practice games, I had a match against Sam Pardee in which my hand was quite slow. His first play of the game was a turn-3 Mantis Rider, and my first play was to match it with a turn-3 Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh. He then cast Jeskai Charm to put Chandra on top of my deck, and I replayed it, and passed without playing a land. He played Dragonlord Ojutai on turn 5. I untapped, played a fetchland, and attacked. Sam blocked with his Mantis Rider, and I killed him. I cast Titan’s Strength, Temur Battle Rage, and Become Immense, turning Chandra into an 11-power double-striker. That, plus 2 Chandra pings and her +1 ability combined for 26 damage. With Sam’s fetchland, he would be dead even if he had double-blocked. Could this happen with any other red deck—to kill your opponent who is at 19 life when your first play of the game was effectively a turn-4 creature? No way.

Half of the games with the Become Immense/Temur Battle Rage combo feel like normal Atarka Red (you play some creatures and cast Atarka’s Command and kill your opponent), but the other half feels like Splinter Twin in Modern, except instead of Deceiver Exarch/Pestermite you have Titan’s Strength and Become Immense, and instead of Splinter Twin you have Temur Battle Rage. The comparison comes from the fact that the combo is always threatening, and will make people play differently because it exists, which will make them lose more games even when you don’t have it.

Consider a scenario in which you could be dead to my combo, and I have the ability to cast it. I attack you with an Abbot, a Zurgo, and a Goblin token. You have Ultimate Price in your hand. In this spot, do you cast the Ultimate Price? If you do, and I have the combo, you die. If you don’t, and I don’t have to cast the combo to begin with, I’m just going to let you take 5 damage. This is a spot in which you have the answer, and I might not even have the combo, but just the fact that it’s in my deck means you have to play the game differently.

In practice, it’s very hard to beat the combo, even if you have the answers for it. Standard is clunky—most decks operate with 3- or 4-mana cards. The fact that your cards cost 1 and 2 means you can create a board presence that can’t be answered without their leaving an opening for the combo, because the answers cost more than your threats.

Imagine you were playing Abzan, and have a Siege Rhino and an Abzan Charm in your hand, and I have 3 Goblin tokens—are you supposed to not play your Siege Rhino to keep Abzan Charm up? If you do that, then you’re just going to take 3 damage every turn until I eventually have enough to beat you even without the combo. You have to tap out to play the Siege Rhino, and then you will die—even though you have the answer in your hand. Having your answer is simply not enough because this deck will often put you in a position where you have to tap out.

Deck Difficulty – High

As a result, I think this deck is actually very hard to play properly. The games in which you just steamroll opponents are easy, but this “combo dance” is very hard. The easiest way to lose the aforementioned game is to go for the combo—at which point you free up their 3 mana and they can deal with your combo and then cast Siege Rhino. But you can also lose if you wait too long, because sometimes it’s not getting any better for you.

For the same reason, this deck is very hard to play against—there are so many instants with radically different effects that you will often have to play around one only to lose to the other. I beat a lot of players at the PT because they were scared of the combo or because they didn’t respect it enough, and the worst part is that they might not have even played badly—they couldn’t know if by waiting they were going to beat my combo or give me more time to draw into it.

Card Choices

Forest

Not every deck has Forest , but I think you need it. Yes, it’s annoying to draw and it’s bad with Lightning Berserker—deal with it. Being able to cast Atarka’s Command on 2 mana and being able to fetch an untapped source with your Heath is, in my opinion, more valuable than having all red sources. In the end, I think Forest is only bad when you draw it, but it’s good to have in your deck in a lot of spots, and since you rarely draw a 1-of in a deck whose games don’t go on very long, it’s not that big a deal. If you have Dragon Whisperers in your deck, then you can consider cutting the Forest.

21 Lands

Now this is a more interesting discussion. Based on math, I felt like I wanted 21 lands, but, in practice I often flooded. I was also heavily flooded throughout the tournament (and often sided out lands on the draw, or even on the play in certain matchups), and think 20 might be the best number.

You can afford to have some mana problems in the beginning—if you’re stuck on 2 and eventually draw your third, opponents will die because your hand is all spells and your deck is so explosive. Going forward, I’d consider cutting a Windswept Heath.

Dragon Fodder

Karsten’s list cut those in favor of other 2-drops (Dragon Whisperer and Makindi Sliderunner), but I feel like this is a mistake. We didn’t dislike the landfall creature in testing—he actually performed quite well—but Dragon Fodder is too good. In this deck, you need creatures to be able to combo, and Dragon Fodder gives you 2 for only 2 mana—the number of times players have to spend expensive spot removal on a Goblin token will surprise you. On top of that, Dragon Fodder triggers prowess and it puts a card in your graveyard, which fuels Become Immense. I would not cut it.

Hordeling Outburst

Same creatures-to-mana ratio as Dragon Fodder, but a bit worse. We debated between Outburst and Chandra, and knew that we would play one in the main and the other in the sideboard. Chandra is better against green decks, but Outburst is better against most red decks, especially the mirror, which we thought would be prevalent, so we opted for that. This is mostly a metagame call and could change at any point. I do think that these are the best two 3-drops you can play, however.

Become Immense/Temur Battle Rage

Since the combo is so good, you might wonder why we didn’t play 4 of each piece. The answer is that although you often want to draw the combo, it’s clunky and not good to draw in multiples. You also don’t need it, and you can win the game like a normal red deck. I think it’s unlikely that 4 Become Immense is correct, since you already have 4 Titan’s Strengths, but 4 Battle Rage could be right, depending on how badly you need to break through (if they have tokens, for example, then you want more).

Sideboard Cards

Our sideboard is mostly standard, though we do not have any 4-drops. We started by assuming Thunderbreak Regent would be good against a lot of things (Jeskai, GW, Mirror), and Brian DeMars (the person who originally played this version of red) said in an interview that it was excellent for him, but in practice the card under-performed against everyone. GW had Archangels and Surges to kill it, Jeskai had Crackling Dooms, and if you tapped for 4 mana in the mirror you just died. We tried multiple control plans in the mirror (Outpost Siege was included too), but it was impossible to kill all of their creatures before they tried to combo, so you would usually need to leave mana up, at which point 4-drops were bad. Don’t put any 4-mana cards in your sideboard.

I absolutely hate card-by-card sideboard guides, but I think they work here for the most part. Remember that on the draw you might want to keep something and side out a land against some grindy matchups. Here’s a general idea of what each card is good against in case you end up playing against something unexpected:

Rending Volley

Bring it in against Esper Dragons (it’s quite good at dealing with Cleric, Jace, manland and Ojutai) and Jeskai.

Lightning Berserker

Bring it in against Esper and any other control decks that want to wrath you.

Fiery Impulse

Bring it in against the mirror, Jeskai, and GW. You don’t want too many of this effect against GW, but it’s better than Wild Slash.

Roast

Bring it in against Anafenza/Siege Rhino decks.

Boiling Earth

This is for the mirror only. I like it more than Arc Lightning because it beats Outburst and other things, and if they don’t have Outburst, then I think you’re favored anyway. Half of our team played Arc Lightning, though. Besides, if you’re as unlucky as I am, you’ll be able to awaken it in 1/3 of your matches.

Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh

For GW and Abzan. If their removal is expensive or attack-based (Surge of Righteousness), then Chandra is good.

Hordeling Outburst

For control decks and other red decks.

You’ll often board out Wild Slashes, Lightning Berserkers, or Titan’s Strengths. Wild Slash is bad if they don’t have small creatures, Berserker is bad if they have cheap blockers (mainly Hangarback) and Titan’s Strength is bad if they have a lot of cheap removal. Whenever you bring in Chandra, board out Outbursts, as you can’t have too many 3-mana spells. Most people who play this deck like to side out a big portion of the combo in some matchups, but I think the combo is good even when they are prepared to beat it, so I’ll rarely board out any part of it other than Titan’s Strength. This is part of the reason we didn’t have Hooting Mandrills—we liked to keep Become Immense in against everybody, including the mirror.

Sideboard Guide

Mirror

In

Out

Abzan

In

Out

GW

In

Out

Jeskai

In

Out

Jeskai is tough to board against because there are many flavors of it. Lightning Berserker, for example, is quite bad if they have Hangarback but passable if they don’t. Wild Slash is better if they have a ton of 2-drops (Seekers, Soulfire) but worse if they are playing something close to the Pantheon version.

Esper Dragons

In

Side in a mix of Outbursts and Chandra, based on your discretion.

Out

Here it also depends on what removal they have. I think Outburst is generally better, but when I played against Esper in the tournament I knew they had a lot of Surges and Negate but not a lot of Ultimate Prices, so I kept in Chandras.

Esper Non-Dragons

You don’t have a lot to side in against them, so you end up going to more 3-drops or keeping some bad burn spells.

Tips

  • Be patient. You can kill people on turn 4 (sometimes turn 3), but you don’t have to. It’s better to tie up their mana forever and never cast your Become Immense than to run it into a removal spell and free up their mana for the rest of the game. My most uttered phrase at the PT was “no effects”—let them react first and then cast your pump spells if they tap out.
  • If you can, sequence your lands so that you have two basics before you have a Cinder Glade, because you might Abbot into Heath/Glade and then if you want to play those you can’t cast a red spell that same turn. Most of the time you only care about this if you know you’ll have access to a green land in the future.
  • Having cards in your hand with this deck is very valuable, because opponents will play around them. I usually save extra lands in hand, but there are downsides (such as not being able to chain two Abbots together or having trouble with Become Immense), so make sure you analyze the situation properly.
  • With this deck, you should wait to cast Abbot more than with other red decks. Since you have the potential to deal 20 damage in one hit, you often don’t mind missing an attack. Especially in post-sideboard games, I feel that people will always have at least one removal spell and your Abbot will immediately die, so I would tend toward not playing it on turn 2 even if I have to pass the turn making no plays.
  • Don’t forget that Atarka’s Command stops life gain. Useful against Arashin Cleric, Soulfire Grandmaster, Seeker of the Way, Siege Rhino and Ojutai’s Command.
  • If you have Wild Slash in your hand, you should immediately kill Warden of the First Tree instead of trying to bait opponents into leveling it. In my experience, people will only level it if they have nothing else to do anyway, and sometimes they will pass without leveling which makes things very awkward for you (if they plan on blocking and leveling, for example, there’s no downside to doing it in your upkeep).
  • Don’t underestimate the amount of damage you can deal. I almost lost a game at the PT because I didn’t realize I could hit my opponent for so much, and used a Titan’s Strength defensively. Prowess creatures and especially Atarka’s Command can deal an incredible amount of damage.
  • You need to have a 4-power creature in play for Temur Battle Rage to give trample. In a spot where you need to cast Battle Rage first so that you can exile it to pay for Become Immense, make sure your attacker is unblocked (or is an Abbot).

Going Forward

The future is very uncertain for Mono-Red. I thought it was a great deck before the PT—in fact I pushed for everyone on our team to play it, and you can see that I am very enthusiastic about it—but, despite my Top 8, our overall record with it wasn’t great, which puzzles me. I think the deck only has two bad matchups, Abzan Aggro and Jeskai, and even those hinge on how much they sideboard against you and how their deck is constructed. Granted, those are two of the most popular decks in the format, but I think you’re a slight underdog to them—whereas you absolutely crush any other decks you might face.

Most players operate under the assumption that Mono-Red is only good when opponents aren’t prepared—this has been the case in the past. I don’t think it’s the case now, though. This version of Mono-Red is better than previous Mono-Red decks, but the field is much more prepared for it. Everyone has multiple Surges, Arashin Clerics, and Radiant Flames in their board—sometimes 6-8 cards—and a lot of those people are still losing to Red. This is honestly a level of hate that I have never seen before, because a lot of these cards are specifically only for Mono-Red. The fact that people feel like they have to dedicate half of their sideboard to a deck that is 14% of the field is telling of how powerful the deck is, and I think they have good reason to fear. I expected that level of hate, and I chose to play Red anyway—it was not like I was caught off guard.

It’s unlikely that Red is the best deck, but I think it’s still a good deck. If the field ever reverts back to normal levels of hate, though, then this deck will crush the meta, because it operates on a level of speed and power that no other deck in the format comes close to matching. While the field remains hostile, it’s merely a good deck that you can play, but do not make the mistake of forgetting about it.

As far as flavors of the deck, I liked ours and probably wouldn’t change any cards right now. It’s possible that RG Landfall is just a better version of our deck—the trade-offs are that your creatures would be a bit bigger and a bit greener (so less vulnerable to Surge of Righteousness), but in turn you have to play 24 lands in an aggressive deck that wants only 20, so it’s definitely not all beneficial. If I had more time, I’d test both approaches to see which one I liked more, but I like keeping my deck super cheap and not land-reliant.