Feature Article from Seth Manfield

Believe in the Cleave: A Guide to Mono-Red Aggro in Standard

Seth Manfield

2/20/2020 11:02:00 AM

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I'm here to talk about the Mono-Red Aggro deck that Andrea Mengucci and I played at the World Championship, where I finished in third place. Before I get started, I do want to say thank you to everyone who was watching and cheering me on this past weekend. Your support means a lot, and this World Championship really did feel like a very special event I was happy to be a part of.

The reason I chose Mono-Red Aggro for the World Championship is because I really like the playstyle of this particular red deck. This is not a burn deck, it is much more about your creatures. Also, the deck won the most games in testing, and seemed to be performing the best for me on the Arena ladder. I jokingly talked before the tournament as if Mengucci and I had broken the format, but really this is a very healthy Standard environment. It doesn't feel like there is one deck that is much better than the others. However, the tools for Mono-Red Aggro have been consistently improving, and it can give you some free wins versus unprepared opponents.

The Decklist

This is the list I took to Worlds. I'm not ready to make changes to it. I know there are other versions out there, but this is the one I have liked the best. The only card I would consider adding more of would be Tibalt, Rakish Instigator, if I wanted even more cards versus Azorius Control, but I'm still not convinced it is necessary.

No Shock - Do yourself a favor and don't put Shock in your Mono-Red deck. This is a deck built around creatures, not burn spells. What matters the most is what you have in play, and Shock was never a good card. An effect like Shock works in decks that care about prowess, or formats with lots of small creatures, which does not apply here. Shock is missed a little bit in the mirror, but Bonecrusher Giant is still significantly more important there.

Be ready to play a long game - Not every game is going to end in the first few turns. Even though we are playing Mono-Red Aggro, that does not mean the deck can't outlast even the most controlling decks. It's often about managing your resources and knowing which cards you can afford to try and play around. Part of the reason I like this version compared to one that has Infuriate or Tin Street Dodger is the late-game power, as adding more one-mana cards compared to say Torbran, Thane of Red Fell is going to drop the power level a little bit.

Play around sweepers - Luckily we have four Anax, Hardened in the Forge which does give you some built-in sweeper protection. Anax is by far the most important addition to Mono-Red recently, as having a creature you can commit to the board that you aren't afraid of getting Wrathed is a very big deal.

Often the most important gameplay element with the deck is committing exactly enough threats to force an opponent to play a sweeper, while still holding back some pressure if the board does get swept. However, there will be games where you simply can't afford to try and play around a sweeper, so don't be afraid to play out all the cards in your hand. Anax, Hardened in the Forge and the planeswalkers after sideboard are the best way to diversify threats, but there will be times when the best move is crossing your fingers and hoping the opponent doesn't have it.

Sideboard Guide

Vs. Azorius Control

Let's start with talking about the Azorius Control matchup. Before I started testing the matchup I assumed it would be bad for Mono-Red. Dream Trawler and other life gain effects, alongside removal that includes Shatter the Sky, sounded scary to me. Also, I believe the community at large thinks that Azorius Control beast Mono-Red Aggro. However, I'm going to disagree—I actually prefer to be on the Mono-Red side. This is the plan:

Sideboard Vs. Azorius Control

We don't want to get too fancy, the main thing is to upgrade our threats. Unchained Berserker lines up really nicely against white removal like Banishing Light, and of course Teferi, Time Raveler. This will always be the two-drop you want in play as early as possible in the matchup, as its main vulnerability is only Shatter the Sky. When playing the games we learned that the key is trying to play around Absorb. If the control player passes the turn with Absorb mana up and you already have a couple threats in play, always keep in mind that you don't have to play anything in those spots.

The best draw from the Azorius player (The Birth of Meletis into three-mana interaction, into a Shatter the Sky, into a late-game threat) is more or less unbeatable, and that's fine. After sideboard the three-mana planeswalkers are exactly what you want to be doing. Runaway Steam-Kin is not good against decks that can bounce it, the card is at its best in matchups where the opponent doesn't have much interaction for your creatures. Also, Torbran and Embercleave are the type of cards that are often “win more,” or become invalidated once the control deck starts to take over.

The sideboard plan can change a little bit based on the version of Azorius Control the opponent is playing. For instance, Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa played a version that had up to three copies of Archon of Sun's Grace. This is a pretty scary card, and I will bring in Lava Coil on the draw if I suspect multiple copies of it. You can trade two Lava Coil for two Bonecrusher Giant. However, on the play you don't want Lava Coil, as it hurts your aggro plan too much.

Vs. Jeskai Fires

If you were watching the Top 4 of Worlds, you may already be aware of my sideboard plan for this matchup. It is similar to against Azorius Control, as both decks are controlling with Teferi, Time Raveler and some sweeper effects. Unchained Berserker not dying to Deafening Clarion is really nice here. Unlike against Azorius Control the Fires deck is able to present more of a clock, so you need to be even faster with trying to win the game, as a card like Kenrith, the Returned King can very easily take over the game if things drag out.

Sideboard Vs. Jeskai Fires

Jeskai Fires is not a matchup you really want to face with Mono-Red Aggro, but it is still very winnable. Even though it's probably Mono-Red's worst matchup, it is still pretty close to even in my opinion. Games can play out in a variety of different ways, as both players can run the other over with a great draw, but sometimes it comes down to topdecking which makes for some good sweats.

Vs. Temur Reclamation

Mono-Red performed very well against Temur Reclamation at Worlds, and I do believe it to be a favorable matchup. That being said, Storm's Wrath alongside Aether Gust and Scorching Dragonfire out of the sideboard are quite good against you. This is as close to a pure race matchup as you will find in Standard. If you have an Anax that means you get a chance to play around Storm's Wrath, but otherwise it's just about trying to win as soon as possible.

Sideboard Vs. Temur Reclamation

Chandra is good in the matchup because you can get it out of the range of a Storm's Wrath, but you must immediately add a loyalty counter to it in order to protect it. The bounce effects like Brazen Borrower and Aether Gust make it very awkward to try to set up an Emebercleave, as the Temur Reclamation player will normally have their mana untapped on your turn.

Vs. Mono-Red Aggro

I actually enjoy playing the mirror, as especially after sideboard games get very interesting. It used to be that Experimental Frenzy was the most important card in mirrors, but I don't think Experimental is a super important card anymore. It is good in the mirror, but not in many other matchups, and ultimately our list only has the single copy of the card in it. Part of the reason is that we also don't have that much removal, and without removal you have no way of stopping what the opponent is doing. It is fairly common to tap out for Frenzy only to die to an Embercleave immediately. Staying at parity or ahead on the board is very important.

Sideboard Vs. Mono-Red Aggro

Sideboarding here is also going to vary a little bit based on decklists, but this is what I'm doing not knowing what my opponent is playing. Runaway Steam-Kin gets worse the more removal the opponent has, so it is worse versus the versions with Shock in them. Rimrock Knight is unplayable on the draw because you need to be able to block and trade with the opponent's cards, and even on the play it trades down with the one-drops. Torbran and Embercleave get worse once each player has more 4 damage removal in their deck. It is tough to find a good spot to land Torbran, and hard to establish a board with multiple creatures, so that makes it tougher to find the right moment to play the Embercleave.

Vs. Jund Sacrifice

This is essentially a bonus matchup, as I'm including all the matchups I could have played against at Worlds. Of course, this doesn't include every deck in Standard, but hopefully it provides a good baseline for players looking to pick up this deck.

Sideboard Vs. Jund Sacrifice

I was kind of hoping either Mengucci or I would get paired against Kanister at Worlds just to see how this sideboard plan would play out. What we learned is that our 1 toughness creatures are very bad here. The sacrifice deck has Cauldron Familiar, Lovestruck Beast and Mayhem Devil to easily invalidate our cheap creatures. This means we try to transform into a midrange-style deck, and things get very interesting. Redcap Melee can actually deal with Korvold, Fae-Cursed King if set up correctly.


Seth Manfield

Seth Manfield is a professional Magic player and member of both the Magic Hall of Fame and the 2020 Magic Pro League.

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