Last updated on October 30, 2020
Love it or hate it, mono red is back! With the launch of Theros: Beyond Death and Oko, Thief of Crowns falling to the ban hammer, we’ve seen a dramatic resurgence of the most polarizing deck in Standard.
Magic World Championship XXVI wrapped up—congrats PVDDR! —and the meta’s more or less solved itself post-THB’s release. Standard is in a great place when compared to the ups and downs of Throne of Eldraine. MTGArena.pro shows mono red aggro (a.k.a. Red Deck Wins/RDW) taking away the top spot in both win rate at 54.61% and representation with over 40k matches recorded between March 2 and 8, 2020. Scanning the pro scene, four out of the top sixteen in World’s playing mono red, with Seth Manfield reaching third overall with his list.
Today we’re going to be taking a deeper look at mono red in Traditional Standard (best-of-three) format, so buckle up and let’s get this party started.
Let’s Talk Red Deck Wins
You may recognize this list, played by both Seth Manfield and Andrea Mengucci in their World’s run in February, 2020.
First, let’s take a look at a side-by-side comparison of similar lists played at that tournament:
Magic World Championship XVII: Mono Red Decks Comparison
The Goal of Mono Red Aggro
This may be super—I can’t read this word without hearing SaffronOlive in my head—obvious, but the goal of mono red aggro is to play lots of cheap creatures on curve to overwhelm your opponent and achieve lethal damage by turn four or five.
Since the Standard rotation with Throne of Eldraine’s release and the departure of three-damage burn like Wizard’s Lightning and Lightning Strike, RDW has moved away from a burn-focused core. New cards like Embercleave and Anax, Hardened in the Forge have given the deck staying power and surprise lethal. Or at least the threat of it.
Why is Mono Red so Popular?
There are lots of reasons mono red is still popular, and not all of them are its badass aggression. The deck has the perception of being simpler to pilot than other decks, it tends to be considerably cheaper than other deck archetypes because the land base is cheaper, it’s a top performing deck, and the average game length is significantly lower than other archetypes.
The last reason is arguably the most relevant to those of us who grind our way to Mythic each month. Why play one fifty-minute UW Control vs UW Control match when you can play mono red and qualify for the Mythic Qualifier before lunchtime on the second of the month?
The Deck’s Core
Interestingly, the core of the deck is extremely solidified, with all four of the World’s top 16 results sharing an extremely high total percentage of card choice and quantity. Let’s break it down.
Mana base: All decks use four Castle Embereths and either 17 or 18 Mountains.
Spells: Light up the Stage was MVP in the spells department, with all decks using four copies.
Creatures: Fervent Champion, Scorch Spitter, Robber of the Rich, Runaway Steam-Kin, and Anax, Hardened in the Forge each had four slots in each deck. Rimrock Knight was a four-of auto-include, but was absent from Eli Loveman’s deck in anticipation of a more aggro-focused tournament meta.
Bonecrusher Giant and Torbran, Thane of Red Fell were present in each deck but with variation on the total copies used.
Artifacts Embercleaves: Three or four were present in each deck; we’ll talk about this in a hot second.
Redcap Melee: MVP for the mirror, great to kill Mayhem Devils, can be used as general removal in some situations.
Unchained Berserker: Deafening Clarion who? Protection against white means no Teferi, Time Ravelers or white blockers can touch you. Sadly, Shatter the Sky is a thing, but you can improve the relevant matchups further by committing no more than one to the board at a time… or by having your opponent draw Shatter less.
Lava Coil: Great for the mirror, great for things with escape or recursion. The exile effect makes it top-tier removal in the current meta.
- Tin Street Dodger
- Phoenix of Ash
- Tibalt, Rakish Instigator
- Claim the Firstborn
- Experimental Frenzy
- Grim Initiate
Premium one-drops are always going to have believers, but Tin Street Dodger has the added benefit of triggering Robber of the Rich long after they’ve left the battlefield thanks to its rogue-ish behaviors.
Phoenix of Ash is probably the most interesting card that isn’t an auto-include. I think it’s mostly a case of too much competition around three and four drops with Anax, Torbran, and discounted-Embercleave clearly being better choices. The flying and escape are nice, though, and make the Phoenix a card to watch.
Tibalt works great as another card that can’t be bounced by Teferi, making the UW (and mono white) matchups slightly better. It feels good to have enough sideboard space for this to be included.
Robber of the Rich
Pseudo-card-draw on a haste-bear. Sometimes it can be tempting to play on curve, on the draw. I would recommend Rimrock Knight over this in many situations if you have options. The Robber’s haste means Embercleave comes down with a bigger discount in subsequent turns, and not taking advantage of the on-attack trigger for Robber of the Rich means you’re losing value (if it gets removed or wiped) over the course of the match.
It can be devastating for the opponent when you manage to exile their Shatter the Sky, Dream Trawler, or Embercleave top deck. Think about your land drops and hand size in subsequent turns.
The Legendary Rule
With no expectations of Mirror Gallery getting a reprint for Standard, there are some cards in our deck that can appear to be risky four-of inclusions at first glance: Anax, Torbran, and Embercleave—or “Idiot-cleave” as it’s affectionately known at my LGS. A dead draw can be extremely troublesome for a deck designed to win fast, as an extra turn means another opportunity for a board wipe or big blocker to be drawn by your opponent.
Thankfully, at least two of these cards present us with some handy tricks to ensure we capture every drop of value and aggression, if we happen to draw duplicates.
The Anax Satyr Party
After set release, it took me an embarrassingly large number of games to realize the potential for Anax-into-Anax on board. Thanks to the legendary rule, we can’t have two of our favorite demigods on board at the same time, but if we cast our second one, we get to enjoy twice the benefit from our second Anax leaving the field. Both Anax’s are on the board to see the unlucky Anax sacrifice himself (at four power, by the way), meaning our second Anax is anything but a dead draw.
It’s actually a three-mana, make-four-dudes spell. Remember that this deck runs Embercleave and Castle Embereth? You’ve now got a whole bunch of dudes to make your Embercleave cost two or a whole bunch of 2/1s after an Embereth pump.
Embercleave and Faking Out Blocks
A typical scenario goes like this: it’s turn four, you have two to four creatures on board, and you move to combat with two Embercleaves in hand.
You can only have one of these mighty weapons on the board at a time and, typically, the reasons for equipping this to a particular creature is to either a: protect a minion by giving it first strike and +1/+1 or b: do maximum damage to the opponent’s face. There is a third reason which should be considered, though.
Bounce removal like Idris-Elba wizardman (aka Little Teferi) and Brazen Borrower are cards you need to be mindful of in the current meta. By equipping Embercleave to the second (or third) most powerful creature on board, we can play around bounce removal to a better extent. Nothing feels worse than having your turn three Anax, which was turn four Embercleaved, get bounced by a Brazen Borrower after equips are declared. That’s seven mana and two turns spent for nothing.
By equipping to a strictly worse target, you may bait the removal of the lesser minion (meaning your first Embercleave sits in the corner innocently) or force the opponent into less effective blocks and/or mana usage for their next turn. While this is something that should be done sparingly and only when your spidey-senses are tingling, this is exactly the kind of scenario where Embercleave number two can give you a surprise victory.
Your Anax on board doesn’t have trample, but the Robber of the Rich you equipped Embercleave no. 1 to last turn does/did, so he becomes the blocking priority. Embercleave’s flash ability means you can cast no. 2 after blocks have been declared. Goading your opponent into chump blocking the Robber and then surprising them with that “dead card” you drew leaves you sending 14 to 16 damage to SMORCtown with only a 0/4 Wall in the way.
Mono red aggro is in a great place right now. If you haven’t picked up the deck to give it a go, it offers surprisingly deep gameplay consideration, much more than the mono red burn decks of previous sets. The added resilience offered by cards like Anax and Embercleave also give it staying power.
Call me a masochist, but I enjoy the matchup vs UW Control from both perspectives because it can lead to a wide variety of game states. Sideboarding adds another layer of depth to this. Gone are the days of the groan-inducing feeling when a turn one Mountain is played on your opponent’s side. Mono red aggro in Standard is fair, competitive, and fun.