The Perennial Underdog


The Perennial Underdog

Choosing to play Mono Red is almost always never the “correct” choice in the eyes of Magic’s most elite.  It’s a sea of underpowered cards that require leveraging difficult aspects of gameplay.  Whether you’re bluffing your opponent into believing you have that combat trick, that last Lightning Bolt, or simply trying to put together enough synergy to overcome their bombs, the battle is uphill.

Today that case is especially true.  Look at a tournament result from the last few weekends, and the closest thing you can see is a dual-color vehicles deck with a pile of rares that isn’t even doing that well either.

But Red is perennially in this position.  The cards always look underpowered.  The opponents will always scoff at them and those wielding them.  And then a PPTQ is won.  And then an RPTQ.  and then a Grand Prix.  And then a Pro Tour.  You can’t get anywhere if you don’t try, if you don’t continue to put your own time into playtesting, throwing away ideas, brewing, and pushing.

What Do We Know?

Lets look at Standard for a moment and see what we can glean.  I’m taking this journey with you throughout this article, exposing my raw thoughts to give you perspective on how I might approach building Mono Red.  There’s no right answer here, and there is some bias in that we are not only pigeonholing ourselves into an archetype, but we also have cards we might like a little more from a flavor standpoint or the direction they take the deck.  I hope that in doing this, the journey is not only entertaining, but also thought-provoking.

The big players in Standard are B/G Delirium, UW Spirits, and to a lesser extent R/x Vehicle decks, Aetherworks Marvel, RG Energy, and BR Zombies.  It’s unfortunate that these decks are all quite powerful, but it’s good that we know our targets.  The lists change minutely, but are otherwise established.  That’s the first building block I’m going to look at, because if you’re just throwing cards together and ignoring what’s across from you, you’re in store for a lot of terrible experiences.

BG Delirium by Brad Nelson; 1st Place SCG Open Knoxville

4 Blooming Marsh
1 Evolving Wilds
7 Forest
7 Swamp
4 Hissing Quagmire

1 Emrakul, the Promised End
4 Grim Flayer
3 Ishkanah, Grafwidow
3 Mindwrack Demon
1 Noxious Gearhulk
2 Pilgrim’s Eye
1 Tireless Tracker

4 Liliana, the Last Hope

1 Ruinous Path
2 Murder
3 Grapple with the Past
4 Grasp of Darkness
1 Transgress the Mind
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald
3 Vessel of Nascency

2 Dead Weight
1 Emrakul, the Promised End
1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
3 Natural State
1 Ob Nixilis Reignited
2 Pick the Brain
1 Tireless Tracker
2 To the Slaughter
2 Transgress the Mind

The King of Standard won last weekend’s SCG Open with the most popular Tier 1 deck, so this seems as good a starting point as any.  If we can’t compete with this deck, it’s not worth playing Red in Standard.  The first part I would look at is his removal package:  x4 Grasp, x2 Murder, x1 Ruinous Path, x4 Liliana, the Last Hope.  Grasp is incredibly efficient, and there’s not much we can do about building around it other than beating it on casting cost (aka paying 1 mana or parity on our creatures).  Similarly Murder and Ruinous Path join that group, with us being able to beat them on cost a little more often.  When your opponent spends three mana to kill your one mana spell, you are winning a small important victory.  Liliana makes it so that X/1s are a greater liability, and considering most BG lists run 4, we probably need to avoid playing any X/1s or make the curve so aggressive that it doesn’t matter.  In this case I think the latter doesn’t make sense since Liliana is backed up by these other removal outlets.

Besides beating the removal spells on cost, we can also beat them by gaining immediate value with our cards.  Whether that be an enters the battlefield trigger, or through haste (to dodge Ruinous Path and Liliana).  There are options for these in Red and Colorless in Standard.

Looking at the creatures, we have Grim Flayer being a centerpiece, which eventually catapults into Pilgrim, Tracker, Demon, Ishkanah, Gearhulk, and Emrakul.  It’s important to have a plan for all of them since Traverse makes fetching any one a regular affair.  Just about any burn spell that we’d have access to can beat a Grim Flayer early on, or combo with a creature to kill it later.  The bigger concern here is Ishkanah, as the bodies and toughness make it difficult to find a solution in a single card.  Psuedo-answers that come to mind are Magmatic Chasm, Menace Creatures, Devour in Flames, Threaten Effects, Direct Damage (Reach), Impetuous Devils, Lightning Axe, Nahiri’s Wrath, Pia Nalaar, Key to the City, Skyship Stalker, Thermo-Alchemist, and Thought-Knot Seer / Reality Smasher.  While none of them are clean answers, the aggregate of their forces will be part of a successful plan.

For ETB creatures in Red, this is our current spread: (plus Fleetwheel Cruiser)


Many of these have the potential to be useful.  I’m curious to see where we’re at if we narrow it down to ETB creatures that share one of the abilities we mentioned above


These obviously don’t encompass everything we’d like to do, nor do they completely fill out a curve or necessarily make sense.  But it gives me an idea of “a card” that I might want for a Red deck that wishes to fight BG.

The two ally cards are a tough sell since we have no real support in a single color for this synergistic strategy.  Other cards like Iron League Steed and Spontaneous Artist are overcosted.  This leaves us with a shorter list:


Bushwhacker and Pia work together from a tokens theme, but Bushwhacker is certainly more suited for a small Go-Wide deck versus all the other cards on this list which largely function in a Big Red shell.  Liliana also reduces the value of both cards since it can deal with at least part of the equation.  We saw both of these cards featured together at the first SCG Open of the season in the BR Aggro deck that took 4th place, as well as Sam Black’s RW Tokens.  So they certainly have a spot in a possible build, just not necessarily a big one.

I like the idea of a Bigger Red shell, it’s something both myself and my Podcast partner Davis Merced revisit often.  One of our followers Logan Creen recently made it to the finals of a PPTQ with his version, and it sparked a little fire in me for wanting to take a look again.  Additionally, Thought-Knot Seer appears in the list above which is a card I thoroughly enjoyed dismantling opponents with back when I was playing Red Eldrazi.  I’m going to start there since I have familiarity and always felt it was quite strong

Mono Red Eldrazi Rough Draft

4 Borderland Marauder
3 Scourge Wolf
4 Smuggler’s Copter
4 Hanweir Garrison
1 Sin Prodder
1 Pia Nalaar
4 Thought-Knot Seer
4 Reality Smasher
1 Goblin Dark-Dwellers
1 Combustible Gearhulk

4 Harnessed Lightning
4 Fiery Temper
1 Magmatic Chasm

4 Hanweir Battlements
4 AEther Hub
2 Crumbling Vestige
1 Mirrorpool
2 Ruins of Oran-Rief
1 Westvale Abbey
10 Mountain

4 Galvanic Bombardment
1 Savage Alliance
1 Hijack
2 Magmatic Chasm
2 Nahiri’s Wrath
1 Key to the City
2 Lightning Axe
1 Fleetwheel Cruiser
1 Goldnight Castigator

We could potentially add Chandra, Torch of Defiance or more Sin Prodders, which would allow our deck to pile through a late game better.  I think here I just like a smidge of that effect though as I’d rather still focus on beating down BG before they can Emrakul.  They have a pretty reliable turn 6 Emrakul, which means they need to be close to dead or you have to represent something on the board which makes it awkward to attack.  Maybe we want Incendiary Flow here to present ways to exile their 3 CMC or less creatures and slow down Emrakul, but I don’t like the effect very much outside of BG since it is sorcery speed.

Smuggler’s Copter isn’t a necessity IMO here, despite it being powerful in just about any shell, but it does help us achieve delirium at times with Scourge Wolf.  That said, Wolf easily looks like one of the worst cards in the deck, it’s mostly filling curve here and trying to dodge Liliana.  I’d be happy to try other things in its spot, whether it be something extremely rogue like Bold Impaler, or more burn, or raising land counts.  It’s really the base here that is key IMO to the build – x4 Garrison, x4 Battlements, x4 Seer, x4 Smasher.  A beatdown package with legs, surrounded by extra help in going wide and burn to clear the way.

What if we took the non-Eldrazi route.  The direct damage we have access to is pretty lackluster, but it’s possible the utility creatures and planeswalkers put us over the edge

Mono Red Burn Rough Draft

4 Thermo-Alchemist
4 Sin Prodder
4 Goblin Dark-Dwellers
1 Bedlam Reveler

4 Galvanic Bombardment
4 Incendiary Flow
4 Fiery Temper
4 Collective Defiance
2 Lightning Axe
4 Tormenting Voice

2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance

1 Geier Reach Sanitarium
2 Hanweir Battlements
20 Mountain

4 Bomat Courier
4 Hanweir Garrison
1 Demolish
1 Lightning Axe
1 Magmatic Chasm
1 Bedlam Reveler
1 Mountain
1 Harnessed Lightning
1 Savage Alliance

More of the Burn route here, with a sideboard that can either try to play the long game or transform the deck into something a bit more aggressive.

Before we get too far with these lists though, lets visit UW Spirits for a minute to see what their deck might change in our configurations:

UW Flash by Emma Handy; 7th Place SCG Open Knoxville

6 Island
10 Plains
4 Port Town
4 Prairie Stream
1 Westvale Abbey

4 Thraben Inspector
4 Archangel Avacyn
4 Selfless Spirit
4 Smuggler’s Copter
4 Spell Queller
3 Reflector Mage

4 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

1 Always Watching
1 Declaration in Stone
2 Revolutionary Rebuff
4 Stasis Snare

1 Always Watching
1 Ceremonious Rejection
2 Declaration in Stone
2 Fragmentize
2 Gisela, the Broken Blade
2 Jace, Unraveler of Secrets
1 Linvala, the Preserver
1 Negate
1 Scatter to the Winds
2 Spell Shrivel

This deck looks great on paper and plays out that way too, as being able to execute mostly on your opponent’s turn while also having evasion and removal is tough for anyone to beat.  That said, we again see three mana removal (Reflector Mage, Stasis Snare, Spell Queller) and an overall high curve that doesn’t feature the ability to tutor.  Last season when I was brewing Mono Red and testing with some of our followers on MTGO, we had some good success against Bant (which functioned along similar lines).  Granted, we had some extra tools in Red there, with better one and two drops along with Exquisite Firecraft.

Harnessed Lightning is the first card that comes to mind as being hyper important.  It’s a cheap way to kill any creature in their deck aside from Avacyn and Gideon.  Lightning Axe could serve a role too from an efficiency standpoint, as well as a way to kill Avacyn with her trigger on the stack.  These might be value cards to either add or raise the number on to the previous lists.

Key to the City and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship could be big additions too.  Having a way to bypass an Avacyn turn or chip in the last few points of damage, and having a way to close out a game while also stopping crack-back damage.

From a strategy perspective, going underneath them or burning them out is likely ideal, which puts Eldrazi in a tough spot.  It’s possible you can just power through them and try not to walk into their spells, but the alignment versus what they’re doing isn’t stellar.

So revisiting our Burn list, lets see what some possible changes might look like to better combat UW while keeping honest with BG:

Mono Red Burn 2.0

4 Thermo-Alchemist
4 Sin Prodder
4 Goblin Dark-Dwellers
2 Bedlam Reveler

4 Galvanic Blast
4 Incendiary Flow
4 Fiery Temper
4 Collective Defiance
2 Lightning Axe
4 Tormenting Voice

2 Geier Reach Sanitarium
2 Hanweir Battlements
20 Mountain

3 Harnessed Lightning
2 Lightning Axe
4 Bomat Courier
4 Village Messenger
1 Savage Alliance
1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance

Certainly a lot of playtesting ahead to figure things out, but we have a starting point.

As Always,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

2 thoughts on “The Perennial Underdog

  1. Hey I really like your posts and ideas. I am an avid mono-red player (sometimes using colorless for support). Most people don’t realize how versitile red is. I’ve been working on a couple red decks that, if you want, you could go over and offer me some advice on how to beat the metagame right now. I always seem to have a problem with aggro with one deck, and the other just seems to not be synergistic enough.

  2. Greetings!!! This is the 3rd version of a list that I’ve been playing since day1 of Kaladesh Standard.

    20 Lands
    16 Mountain
    4 Foreboding Ruins

    28 Creatures
    4 Bomat Courier
    4 Falkenrath Gorger
    4 Furyblade Vampire
    4 Insolent Neonate
    4 Inventor’s Apprentice
    4 Lupine Prototype
    4 Scrapheap Scrounger

    12 Spells
    4 Fiery Temper
    4 Lightning Axe
    4 Smuggler’s Copter

    4 Galvanic Bombardment
    4 Tears of Valakut
    3 Built to Smash
    2 Incendiary Flow
    2 Magmatic Chasm

    This is about the 3rd iteration of the deck, originally it had Reckless Bushwacker in place of Lupin, and I had some number of Fleetwheel Crusiers as well. But I felt as the meta progressed I needed a big beater. With the low CMC of most things and discard outlet of Copter/Furyblade I never have a problem slamming Lupine into anything and forcing removal/block. I’ve toyed with the idea of taking Scrapheap out and replacing it back with Reckless Bushwacker and taking out the Ruins and dropping down to 18 mountains, but further testing is needed. Hope this helps! #RDW

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