The Rules of Red Deck Wins
Many people find Mono Red appealing when they first start playing Magic. The cards are usually the least expensive to acquire for a deck that has a competitive edge to it, the strategy of attacking with a lot of creatures and casting direct damage is fun, and you can win quickly. Eventually though, as many of those players mature, they begin to gravitate towards other strategies and often regard Mono Red as a deck for “newbies” or something that is too simple to be truly competitive.
The truth is, even in extremely hostile formats for the archetype, Mono Red has almost always broken through and succeeded. Any longtime pilot of the archetype will tell you that if you truly play this deck as intended it requires a lot of skill, patience, and careful decision making. Anyone can play the deck, but it takes effort and experience to master. What I hope to bring to my readers today is a better understanding for some of the fundamentals of playing Mono Red Aggro (Sligh, Red Deck Wins). I will also briefly discuss a new deck I’ve been working with at the end that I hope to take to some bigger tournaments.
Rule #1: Know Who Is The Beatdown
An adage old concept in Magic is knowing who the beatdown is in a game or matchup. Say both you and your opponent are playing aggressive decks. One of the common mistakes of newer players is to always be attacking with their creatures and using their reach (burn) on their opponent rather than their opponent’s creatures. It’s important to recognize early on what role you should be taking based on the cards in your hand, the cards in your deck, and your opponent’s plays / cards. If your opponent leads off with a one-drop creature into a two drop and your first play isn’t until turn two, it should be evident that you need to play more defensively and try to remove his options before proceeding with your own. Be aware of what you’re going to do post sideboard. If you and your opponent are playing nearly identical decks, you have to be able to use your sideboarding to your advantage. Bring in extra burn to deal with their creatures and play the “control role”. Typically aggro decks do not have a lot of draw power or the ability to play a successful late game, so if you can exhaust your opponents creatures with removal and then play yours unmolested, it’s important to recognize that ability. Or if you anticipate your opponent will be doing the same, sideboard in bigger creatures to make your deck become “Big Red”. This doesn’t mean you can’t be “the beatdown” and be aggressive if your opponent has a slow start, so it’s also imperative to pay attention to who can effectively “race”. Know your deck, know your outs, know your role.
Rule #2: Don’t Overextend
One of the biggest mistakes for new players when playing against a Control or Midrange deck is that they overextend. As fun as it is to cast all of the cards in your hand by turn three or four and swing in for lots of damage, it’s crucial that you are able to recognize what an archetype can do to slow you down and their ability to do that in a specific game. Most control decks over time have had some kind of mass sweeper effect on turn four. From cards like Wrath of God to Supreme Verdict, these are the lynchpins to their ability to take over a game. In today’s age, we have to fight even tougher obstacles like Sphinx’s Revelation, Elspeth, and Aetherling. Recognize which decks have critical cards like this and when your opponent is going to likely play these cards and sandbag (hold back) cards in your hand accordingly. You still need to apply an appropriate amount of pressure to win the game, so make sure you do the math as often as possible, but know when to push and when to pump the brakes. Most newer players would be surprised at how easy it is to still force your opponent into bad decisions with only one creature on the table and a manland. Or having two creatures apply constant pressure forcing a Wrath while you hold two more in your hand to follow up. Your opponent only has so much spot removal and so many Wraths, and their late game is much better than yours, so every life point counts. There’s a famous saying I’ve often heard over time, “If you’re playing Red and your opponent wins the game at 1 life, you probably did something wrong”.
On this same note, it’s relevant to know what cards are in your opponent’s list if it looks similar to something from previous bigger tournaments. Are they color screwed in the first three turns meaning they won’t get to play their Wrath on time? If they are going to be able to play their Wrath on time but it will require them to take two damage from a land since it’s their only white source in the deck, does that matter to how you play out your hand? Why did your Mono Blue Devotion opponent leave one mana up, does this mean he has a Rapid Hybridization to change your combat math? Should you play your Fanatic of Mogis or Magma Jet during your mainphase because your opponent’s only out is an Azorious Charm or he’s tapped out meaning he can’t counter? He didn’t cast Sphinx’s Revelation for the full amount, does he have a counter for your Skullcrack? These are extremely critical mental processes that you should all be exercising if you’re playing Red Deck Wins. Something as little as the Magma Jet example is a play I get asked about a lot, yet is truly meaningful to the outcome of the game. Magma Jet’s scry is one of the few ways you have to gain some filtering card advantage in a match against a deck that often has much more advantage than you, so being able to have it resolve can often be the difference in a game.
Rule #3: Don’t Sideboard Too Many Cards, And Have A Sideboard With A Purpose
Most Red Aggro lists are very streamlined with a lot of four-ofs and a consistent approach plan. One of the biggest questions from less experienced players is how to sideboard and how many cards to bring in. I often see players bringing in a ton of cards and saying that 8-10 creatures in the deck are “terrible” in a given matchup. You must be able to understand what you’re doing to your maindeck when making a decision like that; once you dilute to a certain point, your deck no longer resembles the lean, mean machine that it once was. Your advantage of being able to get consistent quick kills and overrun an opponent who stumbles vanishes. That’s something that can’t be ignored, as it’s integral to how this archetype wins every game. Usually, if your Red Aggro deck is competitive, it shouldn’t need a lot to fix a few matchups or give it some extra percentage points in your favor. If there are extremely problematic cards, they probably have a weakness.
Take for example Blood Baron of Vizkopa. This is a great card and something no red player likes facing against. But the card isn’t invincible. For starters, it costs five mana which is a lot and means it may not even see play in many games against you unless your opponent has a lot of early removal. Secondly, its four-toughness can be exposed. Cards like Mizzium Mortars which will often come out of your sideboard can kill it outright, but even something like the first-strike damage from a blocked Ash Zealot followed by a two-damage burn spell will take care of the problem without costing you any board presence. And getting your opponent to block with it is not that unrealistic when they’re probably on the backfoot and struggling to stay alive by turn five. Even if they are able to get in a combat step and swing with the Baron, you have a lot of direct damage in your deck and typically a big army to swing back. Be aware of what you can do in the next few turns to get out of it and what possible sequence might enable you to execute that plan.
Sometimes an environment can seem overly oppressive and it just appears that certain cards are unbeatable. This is rarely the case. I want to take you back to the time of Scars-Standard, because two cards in particular made a Red player’s life hell; Kor Firewalker and Timely Reinforcements. For a while red players weren’t able to figure out how to get around this mess, and even when they were it wasn’t perfect, but there was a plan available. Famous Red mage Patrick Sullivan used cards like Shrine of Burning Rage and Dismember to get around these problems or ignore them, and other players gravitated towards Hero of Oxid Ridge to nullify the advantage and lifegain from Timely Reinforcements. For a while I used Unstable Footing to stop Kor Firewalker’s protection ability from “preventing damage” so that he could be killed in combat or by another burn spell. Skullcrack can do the same thing against cards like Master of Waves (although I don’t agree that’s a good strategy against him in that particular case). If you’re unsure of how to beat an archetype or set of cards, look through the available pool and try things out. Almost everytime, there’s an answer, it just needs to be discovered.
Your sideboard should have a purpose. Even if it looks crazy with a bunch of cards that others wouldn’t play, as long as you know what they are for and how you’re going to board them in and execute your plan, that’s all that matters (and testing that plan ahead of time of course). It’s also the same reason you shouldn’t just copy a sideboard of someone’s that you saw online because they won a tournament. You need to know how it works, even if they provided a guide of what cards to sub in and out. There’s no definite rule of how to board for a given matchup, paying attention to what your opponent is doing should always determine which cards to sub in and out.
You should make sure that your sideboard appreciates and respects the current metagame. For any given week, there are a series of decks that are considered top tier and are expected to be played in heavy numbers at an event. Paying attention to tournament results can help predict and prepare, along with testing, but you also need to make sure that your sideboard addresses both these and the unknown. It’s key to balance the numbers with respect to that too. Don’t include three sideboard slots against a deck you might only face once at a tournament. Conversely, don’t have eight cards for an overly difficult matchup. Cover your bases. I remember one State Championship in particular where I was playing Jund and had thoroughly practiced against all the available archetypes except for Boros Aggro because I didn’t have time and ultimately just decided I was probably fine against it. I was going to put Jund Charm in my board which I knew would hands down swing the match from some early going testing, but ultimately decided not to. Turns out I went 5-0 to start that tournament and then lost two straight, first to the previous State Champion playing Boros Aggro, and then to another player on the same. I won the last round to finish 6-2 and 15th place, but it most likely cost me a shot at top 8 for that event. It was an oversight on my part, and it was an easy enough change to my board that I could have made.
Lastly, make sure that your sideboard cards are useable in multiple matchups or that you have a variety of cards that can function similarly. Traitorous Blood was a great magic card because it provided Red with a way to answer any midrange deck trying to stick one big creature and win the game. Even if they had an army it could allow you to trample over. As such, it could be used against any deck that was of a similar standing, whether it be a Jund, Bant, or Naya opponent. On the flip side, a similar card in the current format Act of Treason is a bit more narrow because of the loss of trample and as such isn’t as good against decks that can supplement their big creatures with a lot of little guys for chump blocking. Decks like GR Monsters provide a perfect example of that, as they have Scavenging Ooze, Elvish Mystic, and Sylvan Caryatid to get in the way. A card can also just be used in your sideboard as a “5th” or “6th” of a card in your maindeck if it functions similarly. You might not put a Thunderbolt in your maindeck, but there are some matchups where the narrow ability of the card doesn’t matter and it acts as an extra Lightning Strike.
Rule #4: Be Aware Of Your Deck’s Curve, and Use Your Lands To Your Advantage
The most common concept for Mono Red Aggro is to have a deck that executes a good curve. I could talk about this subject until the cows come home, but better writers than me have already done most of the work. For a detailed explanation, take a look at some of the articles in my Articles section on my site’s homepage. The layman’s version is that your deck should have a certain amount of cards at each casting cost in order to carry out its gameplan on a consistent basis and to make sure you are able to play your cards fluidly. You don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of expensive cards in hand or out of cards within a few turns. You also don’t want to see your deck have vastly different draws everytime, you should know what to expect based on the frequency of a certain card type or casting cost. Don’t start adding so many four drops to your Mono Red deck for example if the amount of lands your running can’t get you to four reliably or if it comes at the cost of early aggression. Know how your deck is going to flow, and if that’s to your liking.
Your lands should do something other than add mana! This concept is often missed, and a lot of people don’t even think about what lands they’re going to run when piloting a mono-colored deck. If there are lands in your format that can activate and become creatures, cycle for extra card draw, or enable a bonus of some kind to your creatures, it’s usually the right call to have a few in your deck. Being mono-colored means you’re already limiting your pool of available cards in comparison to other decks, so the advantages you get from having a card like Mutavault cannot be overlooked. This leads me into my final rule. . .
Rule #5: You Must Have Reach and You Can Afford To Take Pain
Reach is the ability of your deck to get past a ground stall or stuck situation. When building a Red Aggro deck, you can’t just take every good creature in the format, pile them into a sixty card build, and call it a day. Your deck needs cards that can break a ground stall or enable you to get past the barriers that are available in your metagame. It’s one of the huge advantages to playing a Red Aggro deck versus other colors. If your opponent plays a huge blocker or a card that prevents you from attacking well like Propaganda, you can still get through with Burn for the last few points of damage you need. Knowing when to take your burn upstairs (to the face) or downstairs (to their creatures) is an important piece of knowledge that you need to obtain when playing this archetype. Clearing the road with your burn or preventing your opponent from doing bigger and better things (killing a mana elf for instance) is a skill that takes time but is necessary to become successful with this style of deck. Even a card like Nightbird’s Clutches can act as reach, so don’t rule out a card just because it can’t do damage to your opponent (even though most cards in your deck should).
You can take pain in your endevour to win the game. Life isn’t as precious a resource to Mono Red Aggro, as you should be winning the race most of the time. It’s one of the reasons why cards like Manabarbs were so strong back in the day in Sligh, because even though you’d take some damage from it, your opponent would usually be worse off than you since your deck was dishing out the damage at a much faster rate. It could also prevent them from playing their critical cards that they need to get back in a game. It’s not always correct to play a card like that, you need to “be well ahead” but it can be a useful tool to suicide yourself a bit in an effort to prevent your opponent from doing anything meaningful.
Standard: RW Burn
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking on Facebook with famous MTGO Red Mage Zemanjaski (James Fazzolari). He was preparing for GP Melbourne and we were going back and forth on some cards and what had been working for each of us individually along with team members he was working with. Ultimately he took his list to the GP and started off 9-0 on the first day, ultimately finishing 23rd. It was a truly great performance and practically matched by three of his teammates also playing the same list. His article is well worth a read, so if you have time it is HERE. In addition to the GP Runs, a few of his friends took a mostly similar list to a PTQ in Florida, and the three of them all finished top 16. At this point it was safe to say that the archetype had come into its own, and its what I’ve been mostly playing since. I’m planning to play it again tonight at one of my local tournaments, and possibly take it to the Chicago TCG 5k this weekend along with the SCG Milwaukee Open. Here is where I’m currently at with it-
Boros Burn 3/11/2014
4x Ash Zealot
4x Chandra’s Phoenix
2x Chained to the Rocks
4x Boros Charm
4x Lightning Strike
4x Magma Jet
4x Searing Blood
4x Warleader’s Helix
2x Boros Guildgate
4x Sacred Foundry
4x Temple of Triumph
2x Chained to the Rocks
4x Firedrinker Satyr
2x Blind Obedience
3x Spark Trooper
3x Viashino Firstblade
1x Chandra, Pyromaster
Another card that I’ve had a lot of success with (against Control) out of the sideboard (James if you’re reading this it’s the one I was talking about) is Satyr Nyx-Smith. I decided to try him out in place of Viashino Firstblade, and he’s been really impressive so far. I think the deck might want some number of either Mizzium Mortars or Fated Conflagration, but otherwise it’s a strong deck and it rewards playskill more than most. Blind Obedience has helped to slightly improve the GR and BW matchups, but overall those ones are tough in general. Still, this deck has some great sequences and if you play carefully any matchup is easily winnable as the tournament results proved.
If this deck gets popular, I’d recommend putting 1-2 Chandra, Pyromaster in the board as she’s a great card in the mirror. Card advantage is the name of the game there, and making sure to have Skullcrack available for their Warleader’s Helixes.
Another change I’ve been testing for quite some time is having Spark Trooper maindeck to improve some of the bad matchups and to play carefully around removal, but I haven’t decided yet if that’s the direction this deck should head. There’s a lot of testing that needs to be done to iron out the last few cards, but this list is much better and much more potent than early builds that I played when the archetype first started surfacing. Mutavault and Ash Zealot are key reasons for this, and I strongly suggest you don’t cut them if you’re experimenting with different cards.
As always, keep tapping those Mountains. . .
– Red Deck Winning