Forging Ahead: A New Standard
We’re in the last days of a great Standard format, but the future for Mono Red looks promising. So far, of the spoiled cards there are multiple red cards getting attention from writers and players across the board, and the format looks to be slowing down due to the rare scry lands and heavier casting costs. I’m going to talk about the list that I’ve been playing recently pre-rotation and what I think about some of the future that lies ahead.
Capitalizing on a Dying Season
While initially I had plans with my Magic team to attend the Minneapolis 5K, money and scheduling conflicts came up for many of us and ultimately only one of our team members was able to attend today. Sadly Magic is far from free, and being a red player partly because of budget meant that I too had to take other things into account. I’d also been playtesting a lot online and attending my shop to help out with various events over the past few weeks so I was getting a little of the burnout factor that all of us suffer from at times.
I did get to play in our weekly FNM tournament last night though, which had a great turnout, and finished undefeated with Mono Red Aggro. I had been playing Big Red for weeks, but over the last few days I had been itching to play aggro again because the field locally and nationally seemed to be shying away from Jund and leaning instead towards Aristocrats, Bant Hexproof, Rock, and Selesnya. While the last of those isn’t a great matchup for aggro, the others are all winnable and people really seemed to be ignoring the need to beat weenie decks, which is when they are at their best. I had been incredibly frustrated with the majority of the Mono Red decks that I had tested on Cockatrice, mostly because they were so fragile and so reliant on perfect hands. Granted, that’s a common theme for aggro, but if you’ve read my articles you know that I like to have a little more “game” and “resilience” in my builds while at the same time maintaining the pressured tempo that can take advantage of an opponent who stumbles or isn’t prepared for it.
When assembling my latest list, I took some cues from Big Red. Boros Reckoner and Chandra’s Phoenix have really performed well for me against the field; they are sources of damage which most opponents just simply don’t seem to have answers for the majority of the time. Most Mono Red decks decide to settle for one of these three drops in favor of going the Burning-Tree route and keeping the curve streamlined for a low land count, but I knew that this is not the direction I wanted to go in. Burning-Tree, as I’ve said many times before, can be absolutely insane, but at the end of the day he’s just a grizzly bear. I didn’t want my deck to be focused around good hands with him in it, and I hadn’t been having as much success as I’d like with Young Pyromancer, although I will say that the build that top 16’d the SCG last weekend is excellent. You can find that here – Mono Red Aggro. Furthermore, I have been playing a little bit of zombies recently and missed having a deck that included so many aggressive one drops, so that led me to playing the old “ten” in my maindeck for the new Aggro build. That combined with Mutavault and Ash Zealot would make up for not having a plethora of guys at 2cc. Lastly, as much as I love Thundermaw Hellkite, I wanted this deck to stay focused on the aggro angle, so I kept in more aggressive creatures and burn so that I had enough reach for stalled board states to make up for not having the big hasty 5/5 flier.
A lot of Mono Red Aggro sideboards in the past few weeks have had x3 or x4 Burning Earth, Chandra, and other expensive cards but have not done much in the way of accommodating for them. For instance, I’ve seen builds that are either the Suicidal Blitz Red packages with these cards, which doesn’t really want these cards out of the sideboard because they just dilute the overall strategy, or regular Mono Red Aggro builds that don’t have the land count to support x6-7 four drops post-board. It’s possible the pilots of these decks were a lot smarter than me and had a rational line of thinking for how they were going to support the extra weight, but from my years of experience playing aggro I just was thinking of too many awkward situations in my head (and running into them in playtesting) where I would need to adjust the deck list to have it make more sense. Thus, I settled on 23 lands including 4 Mutavaults, because 22 is usually the right number for the typical build these days but 23 isn’t risking a flood when you have 4 Mutavaults. And 23 allows you to cast your three and four drops very consistently, which makes bringing in any number out of the board completely understandable.
This is the list I played last night:
Mono Red Aggro by John Galli *4-0* 9/6/2013 FNM
Maindeck (60 Cards)
4 Stromkirk Noble
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Ash Zealot
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Pillar of Flame
4 Searing Spear
3 Brimstone Volley
3 Traitorous Blood
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
2 Burning Earth
2 Mizzium Mortars
The maindeck worked out fantastically well, I was happy with how tough it slogged along and almost all of my opening hands put immediate pressure on my opponents. Even games where my opponent has had a Supreme Verdict or Mutilate to reset the board, Chandra’s Phoenix, Mutavault, and the reach of having so much maindeck Burn has usually brought the deck right back to where it left off. That’s the huge difference to the Mono Red deck I was playing back a few months ago around the time of Gatecrash Gameday. With that build, I had to play Pyreheart Wolf to offset the catastrophe of a wrath effect, but now that Phoenix and Mutavault are legal, I no longer have to run a card that’s mostly sub-par against aggro. I love Pyreheart Wolf, especially in Midrange matchups, but he is not Boros Reckoner.
The sideboard needs to be changed, but I’ll touch on some of it. Skullcrack is there for a number of reasons. First, it’s one of the better ways to race Hexproof, because they can’t afford to sit back on defense with the amount of burn and flying power that you have (Phoenix + Stonewright), and if they try to race you with Unflinching Courage often one “fog” for a turn will be enough to give you the match. Secondly, Thragtusk decks never like to see it if you’re prepared with one in your hand, and these days B/G Rock has been that deck for the most part. It’s very easy to spot when they’re going to play a Disciple of Bolas or a Thragtusk, and I wanted to take advantage of these situations. It’s not like the Blitz Red decks where you hate to sit back with open mana and would rather play a guy, because in my build you have a lot of creatures that are fine just plowing along by themselves while you hold back mana for Burn in general or for pumping up a guy with a Stonewright. Thirdly, Skullcrack is always an excellent swap for weaker burn spells or creatures in the Control matchups, so I don’t mind maxing out on them when there are so many decks right now where it proves effective.
Traitorous Blood was a concession for the popularity of decks at my FNM with huge creatures, but all of those decks present multiple lines of attack so I don’t think I’d want three in the future. One would have been satisfactory as there are just too many cluttered board states where it’s sometimes not what you want. I think it’d be better served as Ratchet Bomb which is good against Aristocrats, Hexproof, and Selesnya Tokens despite it killing off some of your own stuff. The rest of the sideboard is all 2-ofs against various matchups that just need a sliver of extra boosting, mostly some more burn against aggro and some extra problem cards for control and midrange in the form of Burning Earth and Chandra. Burning Earth has been impressing me less as time goes on, not because it’s not good, but because people REALLY GET IT now. So many decks have moved to two colors or less or are too aggro oriented for you to get far enough ahead to be able to afford a timewalk. In the future this could just be x2 or x3 Chandra, and not the 2-2 split.
Cards I found myself usually siding out were a couple of Phoenixes, a few one drops, or whatever burn was not as efficient as the next one for the particular matchup. I also sided out a land when on the draw many times, as 22 is still reliable enough to hit just about everything in the deck. Overall, I ended up playing and beating Mono Red Aggro, Selesnya Tokens, Mono Black Control, and Naya Blitz. Going forward, this deck could pretty easily be modified for rotation as Pillar can become Shock, Searing Spear becomes Lightning Strike, and the other various cards coming out should find acceptable substitutes at their various costs. The real killers of course will be Hellrider and Stromkirk leaving, but Theros doesn’t even have everything spoiled yet.
Speaking of which. . .
A New Standard: Enter Theros
If you haven’t seen the spoiler yet, it’s about time to take a look. While there are cards yet to be seen, they should be arriving almost by the time you read this, and a lot of the big guns are on the table. There’s two cards in particular that have wet my appetite:
Just re-read them again, sit back and think about it for a minute. Both of these cards are very strong.
I was reading the text box of Stormbreath Dragon to a fellow red playing friend of mine the other day since he hadn’t seen the card yet, and as I’m reading it, I just paused and said, “Holy Crap, this thing really IS busted”. There’s three words in particular between the two cards that have my Red Radar going off;
Red doesn’t get many cards that feature those three words, or at least ones that are effective enough to pull their own weight and then some. Sure, we get enchantments, but not indestructible ones, and not ones that have such a game warping effect as Purphoros, God of the Forge does. Part of me wants to yell at him, because he’s not Hellrider and doesn’t always help me tempo win on turn four against a backpeddling opponent. But then the more sensible part of me realizes that he’s just incredible. If he’s a creature, that means you have a lot of other friends on the board with him and that opponent is going to take a serious beating. If he’s not a creature, that means every creature you DO draw is going to be a shock to the face and potentially give you a 6/5. Those two points alone are enough to convince me that he’s worth the sticker price he’s seeing right now, and that’s not even mentioning the sick combos people have been talking about with him and Elspeth or him and Assemble the Legion, or the fact that he has a third ability which is absolutely relevant. All the gods in the set obviously look excellent, but Purphoros has the potential to be the defining break out rare if he catches on. There’s so many combinations with him in Red or outside of Red that just beg to be used, and at the bare minimum he will find at least one competitive shell.
Stormbreath Dragon is just a better Thundermaw in many ways. Now that we don’t have to worry about Lingering Souls, losing the 1-damage tap down to fliers isn’t really a big deal at all, and while the 5-power damage output is slightly more important, he makes up for it by actually having protection from white which lets him evade most of the removal that would kill him outside of the stuff from Black which would have killed Thundermaw too. Oh, and what’s that you say? Angel of Serenity can’t target him or block him? Exxxxxxxcellent. The rising Archangel of Thune and the shiny new Celestial Archon don’t have anything to say when he’s on the table? Time to paint the town red.
His Monstrosity ability though is easily the most important aspect. Most shells that are going to run him are going to be of the heavier mana variety, and that means hitting seven mana at some point relatively soon after he lands on the battlefield is going to happen with consistency. If your opponent couldn’t deal with him before, at 7/7, they really are going to be in game over mode. The damage he deals to the face is going to be nuts, as almost every deck in Standard (even Aggro) almost always sandbags cards these days. And if you already have a 4/4 flier out alongside a red army, it’s a fairly sure bet that those last few points of damage could very easily come from his ability. Lastly, it gives you a way to deal non-combat damage from a creature, so he’s essentially burn spells number 13/14/15/16 in your deck. I love how it says “each opponent” too. Can’t wait to play this guy in every format outside of legacy.
There’s a few other cards that piqued my interest. Magma Jet, Akroan Cursader, Ordeal of Purphoros, Ember Swallower, and to a lesser extent Peak Eruption. Magma Jet was a staple once before and will be again, so I’m very happy to see it back. Scry is an incredible ability for red, especially with Chandra, Pyromaster’s “0” ability, and it should be an auto-four-of in most decks. This is some of the most filtering power I’ve seen red have access to in a while, and it should help against what appears to be a very strong midrangey format going forward.
Akroan Crusader and Ordeal of Purphoros are interesting inside of a Blitz shell, and I’ve been working on some prototypes with them alongside of Madcap Skills. A lot of decks are hampered by this combination, and it will really boil down to how much enchantment hate or two-for-ones are played in this format. Given that enchantments seem to be “stressed” in Theros, I’m hesitant to play this type of build myself but will still be keeping a watchful eye on it. Ordeal of Purhporos could somewhat make up for the disappearance of Stromkirk Noble, but it’s certainly not in the same league.
Ember Swallower is mostly outclassed by what looks to be more powerful four drops, but he’s certainly in the discussion as he has the potential to just completely lock out the game if he goes Monstrous. What I don’t like is that he’s nothing more than a big body, and typically with Red anything four mana or above that doesn’t have some kind of really good added bonus is not going to see play.
Peak Eruption is a great sideboard card against mirror matches, but all of the on-color hate cards are incredibly narrow so playing them will be heavily meta dependent. Don’t get me wrong, this is just a straight upgrade to Molten Rain against a lot of opponents, but I’d be incredibly uncomfortable running a playset in my sideboard or even x3. There’s just too much variety in standard for you to have something that only works against one color.
I’d really like to see a more playable one drop exposed in the remaining cards and of course more burn is always a nice thing. I’ll miss Brimstone Volley and Stromkirk, those cards have put in so much work for me over the years. The next shot’s to you boys. . .
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have more Hellriding to do before the 27th.
– Red Deck Winning