Best-of-One (BO1) Aggro Deck Building with Hand Smoothing
Writing a good intro to an article is like selecting an opening hand in an aggro deck. If it isn’t obviously flowing smoothly for the first few turns (or sentences), scrap it and use a new one. On Arena, you’ll find that aggro decks are far more popular in Best of One than they are in Best of Three. One of the huge appeals of Best of One is the ability to play with a lower time commitment; aggro decks offer quicker games so playing them is the logical next step. Additionally, aggro is just a better archetype in Best of one than in Best of Three. We’ll get into the reasons behind that in a bit. Today, I’m going to look at considerations for building Aggro decks for Arena Bo1, along with a few sample decklists, one each for Gruul and Rakdos Knights. I suppose Mono Red should get a mention as well.
Most decklists found within the pipes of the interwebs are geared towards the more traditional Best of Three format, with less if any consideration of the differences between Bo1 and Bo3. We at MTGA Zone recognize that the hugely popular Bo1 format has some different needs and considerations. There are three key factors that I have identified in looking at a Bo1 deck vs a Bo3 deck:
The Three Factors
First factor: No sideboarding
The most obvious difference between best of one and best of three is that you are only playing one game, so a sideboard isn’t needed for most decks. This may superficially seem like an easy issue to address – if you can’t sideboard, then you don’t need a sideboard! For the most part this is true, unless you have a card with a Wish effect like Karn, the Great Creator, Fae of Wishes or Vivien, Arkbow Ranger. In those cases, you not only need a sideboard, but you also may need a very different one from what you might have in Bo3. That being said, not having a second and third try at an opponent may mean you’ll want to make different choices in your maindeck as well and keep answers for certain decktypes or colors in your 60. That ties heavily into…
Second factor: The Metagame
Reading the metagame can be hard: it varies from tier to tier and even day to day as hot new builds hit social media. Still, we’ll try to address the high level metagame with each build and some tips on how to adjust.
There are a couple different ways to read the Meta, first is to look at your own experience as far as what you have played against. This will be your most specific information, but can be biased by sample size. Use of a tracker app like Untapped.gg or MTGArena.Pro can provide valuable objective info on what you played against and how you performed. MTGArena.Pro in particular tracks the metagame across all users and reports out on it on their site. This gives you a ton of information, but may not be specific enough to your particular tier. Still, it is almost certainly the best resource available.
Third factor: Hand Smoothing
I’ve covered Smoothing in my first two articles establishing Smoothing’s effect and looking at the numbers for each land ratio. We’ll be leaning on those numbers to inform how these decks get built and I strongly recommend reading them before continuing. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you here!
- MTG Arena’s Opening Hand Algorithm and Smoothing: Some Real Outcomes
- MTG Arena’s Opening Hand Algorithm and Smoothing: Finding the Ideal Land Count for BO1
What is Aggro?
Aggro is one of the four major deck archetypes in Magic: Aggro, Control, Combo and Midrange. Aggro decks pick a method of beating you, typically running your opponent’s life to zero, and go after that target hard, fast and, hopefully, relentlessly. Aggro loves creature abilities like Haste, First Strike, Double-Strike, and Trample along with spells and abilities that deal direct damage to a target.
Aggro is the archetype likely to benefit the most from Best of One for two major reasons. Unsurprisingly, those reasons tie tightly to the Factors mentioned before. The first reason is the sideboard. The inability to sideboard hurts other archetypes more than it does Aggro. Control in particular, with Midrange and combo to a lesser extent, get much stronger after sideboarding; they can pull cards that aren’t as effective in a particular matchup and add cards that are more effective. On the flip side, Aggro also tends to be highly vulnerable post-sideboard; the more time that an opponent has against an Aggro deck, whether in a single game or over multiple games, the stronger their matchup becomes as they can adapt to what the Aggro deck is doing. Aggro decks focus hard on what it is they mean to do and then do it. In Bo1, slower deck types frequently hedge their bets a bit against the deck types they’ll see because they can’t sideboard and risk running cards that are suboptimal in Best of Three, or just have a lot of expensive and awkward cards.
The second factor is the Hand Smoothing algorithm in Best of One; aggro decks have such a heavy emphasis on the early turns that having a hand that curves out is more important than it is for other archetypes. This makes it easier for an Aggro deck to mulligan away a suboptimal hand, knowing that the land base will almost certainly still be solid.
With that all being said, let’s get to the digital pulp of the matter: the decks!
Rakdos Knights and its sibling Mardu Knights saw a lot of play at higher levels in Throne of Eldraine. When Theros Beyond Death dropped, knights got nothing obvious added to their arsenal aside from some scrylands and so it fell a bit out of favor, partly because the power level didn’t tick up and partly because it wasn’t new and hot. It’s still a very solid Tier 2 deck though, as it has a ton of synergy and abuses incredibly powerful cards like Rotting Regisaur and Embercleave. An ideal curveout features a one drop on T1, of which there are plenty of good options… Knight of the Ebon Legion, Fervent Champion, Foulmire Knight, or even Gutterbones. Turn 2 drops a Stormfist Crusader, followed by Rotting Regisaur on T3. Turn 4 brings Emercleave and death.
Stormfist Crusader will frequently be your MVP, even if it may not seem as such at first. The longer you can keep Crusader out, the higher your odds of winning; it’s fantastic at keeping the pressure on your opponent. One thing to note with Crusader and Rotting Regisaur is to be mindful of the order of the triggers. If you already have cards in hand, you will want Crusader to trigger first so you have a choice of what to discard to Regisaur. If you have no cards in hand, trigger Regisaur first and enjoy getting your card from Stormfist Crusader and your regular draw.
Rakdos Knights frequently features Spawn of Mayhem or Rankle, Master of Pranks, which are both great cards, but I opted to build this version with Anax, Hardened in the Forge in their stead. Anax does three things: first he lowers the mana curve a little bit without sacrificing much power. Secondly, Anax brings some protection against sweepers; there are tons of these in Standard right now and they serve as a major vulnerability of Rakdos Knights, even if Rotting Regisaur is out of easy range for Deafening Clarion or Storm’s Wrath. Finally, Anax and Embercleave is a fantastic combo. Believe in the ‘Cleave! Gutterbones is in for sweeper insurance and late game use as well, though it’s kind of a love/hate card and replacing it with additional Foulmire Knights is a reasonable approach to improve synergy.
Drill Bit and Epic Downfall are in to kill sweepers and for key spot removal respectively. Epic Downfall is especially relevant as the current Bo1 metagame features a lot of RDW with Anax and Torbran, and Downfall deals with both of those threats cleanly, though being a sorcery makes it slightly less effective against Torbran, given that he often leads to immediate death. Reacting to your opponent isn’t really what this deck wants to do though, so purely reactive cards are at a minimum, while Bonecrusher Giant//Stomp and Murderous Rider//Swift End provide additional removal without lowering your threat density.
Finally, while Shadowspear is no Embercleave, it gives some extra early value, especially in the Aggro matchups, and ups your odds of setting up Regisaur with trample. There are few things as frustrating as chump blocks against your Rotting Regisaur. I actually playtested this deck first without Shadowspear and was fairly happy with it, but once I used it with the Gruul Aggro deck, I had to go back and retest with a copy of the Spear in the deck.
In the metagame Rakdos Knights is slightly favored against mono-red; in aggro on aggro whoever gets the play is a major decider, but even on the draw, I like Rakdos Knights against mono-red, as an early Knight of the Ebon Legion will give them pause if they don’t have immediate removal. RDW has few answers to Rotting Regisaur. but be careful of your own use of removal; don’t waste it on the one drops unless things get dire. Also think long and hard about whether to just keep Stormfist Crusader in your hand against RDW. When playing RDW myself, seeing the Crusader cast on the other side of the field usually puts a smile on my face as I can typically take advantage of those extra cards faster and more effectively than a Rakdos player.
Temur Adventures is a much tougher matchup though, especially if Clover drops early. If your opponent doesn’t drop Clover on turns two or three, you might be able to race past it if you curve out well but once Clover drops, it gets ugly. If this deck starts taking a bigger chunk of the metagame it might be worth playing some artifact removal. Embereth Shieldbreaker is not a good creature, but it is a knight and gives artifact removal, albeit at sorcery speed.
Gruul Aggro is a tougher matchup than RDW is as it can deal with the big threats better and has more general utility. I’d give a slight edge to Rakdos Knights just because it’s a little bit faster than Gruul, though whoever gets the play is always going to be a big factor. Rationing the Crusader shouldn’t be the problem it is against RDW.
UW Control struggles in general against Aggro in Bo1 due to the extra consistency that Aggro gets for its starting hands, but you’ll likely see 6-8 sweepers in Time Wipe and Shatter the Sky due to the high aggro density. Ideally, your opponent is scooping before they can cast Time Wipe, but Shatter the Sky takes out everything. The matchup is generally going to be good for Rakdos Knights, but other aggro decks are better suited to dealing with it.
Jeskai Fires in theory could run a dozen sweepers, but more commonly runs half that, leaning heavily on Deafening Clarion. As mentioned before, Clarion misses the Regisaur and Shadowspear puts the Giant, Rider and Anax out of range when equipped. It’s probably worth saving Epic Downfall for Kenrith if things get that far. Mostly this is a matchup that favors the Knights.
With a mana curve that tops out at 3, two colors and the colored mana restrictions on Tournament Grounds, I like this deck at 23 lands, which gives you an 85% chance of hitting your third land drop on the play. If you’re a particularly aggressive player and mulliganner you could slide down to 22 lands. Going up to 24 doesn’t gain much statistically for hitting your third land drop.
Nothing says Aggro like Gruul; the planeswalker Domri Rade is essentially the personification of Gruul. “If the system is broken, break the system.” Gruul Aggro typically incorporates a little bit of ramp to get those ahead of the curve creatures out even faster; in current Standard that generally means Paradise Druid since Golden Goose is too intermittent. A very classic Gruul opening would be T1 Pelt Collector, T2 Paradise Druid, T3 Questing Beast, at which point you’ve dealt 9 damage and the opponent is wondering whether it’s worth trying to get out of this hole.
This build is a little different; you’ll notice there’s just the one Pelt Collector and instead there’s four Fervent Champions. The Fervent Champions have better synergy with Embercleave and Shadowspear, with the latter being a really valuable metagame tool. Fervent Champion also supports Lovestruck Beast in the event that the human from Heart’s Desire gets wiped out, which happens a lot. Shadowspear also provides a reusable leg up in Aggro on Aggro matchups, throwing it on a Lovestruck Beast, Questing Beast, or Shifting Ceratops is backbreaking for an opponent.
Klothys, God of Destiny is in for some graveyard hate, some nearly unpreventable damage and lifegain, and an occasional mana boost. The occasional swing from Klothys is nice as well but is usually quite winmore. Scorching Dragonfire is a key card for hating on Anax, Hardened in the Forge and I’ve also thrown it at Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath on first cast so that it exiled instead of being escapable. There’s not a ton of sweeper protection in Gruul Aggro outside of Phoenix of the Ash; you could look at running Anax in place of Klothys depending on your meta. In Best of 3, this deck would run three or four Questing Beast but in Bo1 I have opted for a pair of Shifting Ceratops, which is an ideal post-sweep drop and gets most Blue players sweating, plus dinosaurs are cool.
Against mono-red, this deck is likely to do well. Lovestruck Beast is a problem for RDW and between Domri’s Ambush and Scorching Dragonfire, Torbran and Anax are in for a tough time.
Temur Adventures on the other hand is a challenging matchup, though Gruul Aggro is probably the best aggro deck to match against it as any of the creatures are outside of the range of a single Stomp. Still, this has led to some ugly, frustrating matches during Ladder; the wins are memorable, but not nearly plentiful enough.
Rakdos Knights is slightly faster than Gruul but Gruul has better creature removal. If Rakdos does what it does best, which is curving into a turn four Embercleave on a Regisaur, then Gruul may very well be too slow, but once you get past turn four or five the balance shifts to Gruul, depending on the build.
Fires of Invention is a strong matchup for Gruul. Deafening Clarion misses on a lot of creatures in the deck and Shifting Ceratops is a card that Fires just doesn’t have great answers to. Make sure to dispose of Teferi as soon as he pops his head up, as he really messes with Embercleave and Colossus. Domri’s Ambush gets the job done, but Scorching Dragonfire will make sure he doesn’t come back with Elspeth Conquers Death and make a further pest of himself.
Azorius Control is another strong matchup, though reaching 4 mana on curve is essential; if you start to run a little slow, the sweepers will start to catch up and muddy the outcome. Azorius doesn’t rely on Clarion like Fires, so it more consistently plays Shatter the Sky and Time Wipe, which the beefier Gruul creatures can’t simply tough out.
In this build I went to 22 lands, in no small part because of the Paradise Druids. In Bo3, this is probably a 23 land deck on the light side and is more likely going to run 24. Temple of Abandon is something that might want to get trimmed down to 2 if you’re concerned about the land coming in tapped and not feeling too concerned about the scry ability. If you have a 3 land opening hand, you’re probably golden; if it’s 2 lands and a paradise Druid, you’re probably still doing good. No Druid and 2 lands is likely a mulligan though. If you want to bump the odds up on the 3 land draw, pull a Klothys.
I have three great loves in my MTG life, ever since I started playing 25 years ago. Izzet Control, Jund, and RDW. In a conversation recently I compared RDW to abstract art. A lot of people don’t get it, they think it’s simplistic and say things like “My kid could do that”. But when you make something so minimalist, every choice is critical, every step is essential and full of intentional meaning, and the margin of error for playing it successfully at the highest level is incredibly fine. It’s stark, but still beautiful.
There are lots of RDW builds out there. This build is not for the faint of heart or the conservative; it’s for the bold and the furious. It’s small RDW, so no Torbran and nothing over 3 mana, except for Embercleave, which you are still hoping to cast at two or three mana. Runaway Steam-Kin may be your game maker or breaker as it opens up lots of flexibility in what to cast and when. Mastering Steam-kin is a key to mastering the deck. Grim Initiate is a great card both for sweeper protection and for bringing the total first strike count in the deck to eight, which makes Boulder Rush, Infuriate, and Scorching Dragonfire more potent. Remember that if you take out Teferi with first strike, there is a window to cast instants before regular damage is dealt.
There’s no Scorch Spitter here; the Spitter has much better synergy in Torbran or Cavalcade builds. In its place, Tin Street Dodger provides good value with Robber of the Rich, which is particularly nasty against the plethora of other RDWs you’ll find in Bo1.
Anax is an essential RDW play, both for the post-sweeper value and the killing stroke it combines with Embercleave for. Anax and Scorching Dragonfire (particularly for opposing Anaxes) are just about the only concessions to the metagame in this build; otherwise this deck goes at your opponents face until there isn’t one to go at anymore, or it collapses from overexertion.
Games against other mono-red builds are going to come down to getting the play and playing tight. Save the dragonfire for Anax or Torbran, Stomp is better suited to taking out Robber of the Rich or Steam-Kin. If you’re seeing a really high level of matchups against mono-red, over 40%, which I’ve seen in some tiers, then consider pulling Dragonfire for Redcap Melee.
With Temur adventures, there’s no sugar-coating this. It’s ugly. If you get a matchup where they don’t get out Clover early, this is doable, but once the Clover hits the field… oof. Go for the throat and don’t hold back. If Temur Adventures starts becoming a larger part of the metagame, then adding Embereth Shieldbreaker in place of Robber may be necessary.
Gruul Aggro is a hard matchup. On the play it’s very winnable, but swings heavily on the draw. Hopefully you have the creatures and the mana to drop Embercleave on turn 4, if Gruul starts to get their footing, it’s a tough matchup.
Rakdos Knights is also fairly rough if they get Regisaur on turn three, as it starts faster than Gruul does. If your opponent plays Stormfist Crusader consider leaning into it rather than killing it, your spells are far cheaper and you should be able to leverage it better.
Azorius Control has a decided edge in Bo3, but in Bo1, the swing is pretty stark in the other direction. Aggro typically has the edge in game 1 of Bo3 against Control, adding Smoothing to that makes the advantage stronger. There’s no special strategy against Azorius; just do what mono-red does and watch out for sweepers starting on their turn four.
Jeskai Fires is stronger against RDW than Azorius is in no small part due to the earlier play on Deafening Clarion. Clarion hits everything in mono-red, which is why Anax and Grim Initiate are key plays. Given the option, I’ll usually drop the Initiate first, as it leaves you with at least one body following a turn three Clarion.
This build uses 18 lands and is completely unplayable in Bo3. In Bo1, it takes smart gambles on mulligans. If you’re not up for living on the edge with 18 land, dialing up to 19 or 20 in exchange for Infuriate or Rimrock Knight will have you feeling a bit more comfortable. You might even consider pulling one Embercleave, as drawing two in this deck is likely to leave you bogged down. RDW, especially small RDW, needs to use all its resources and can’t waste time with uncastable spells.
These are just my takes on these three decks, there are a lot of other variants out there, and other Aggro flavors, from the similarly synergistic Mardu Knights to Jund Aggro/Combo decks working off of Dreadhorde Arcanist. Try them all and see what works for you! Qapla!