Mono Red Aggro Deck Guide – Theros Beyond Death Standard – February 2020
Who am I?
My name is Mark Gabriele, and I am an SCG Tour Grinder and avid Arena player. My absolute favorite deck in Standard is all flavors of Mono Red aggro, and I recently took Aaron Barich’s list to #10 Mythic, and a top 16 finish at SCG Baltimore. If you have any questions about the deck, feel free to email me at email@example.com or message me on Twitter at @gabriele_mark!
What is Standard Mono Red Aggro?
Standard Mono Red is an aggressive deck that looks to maximize its mana each turn. By threatening to quickly reduce opposing life totals to zero, Mono Red allows you to fully leverage your resources before your opponent can take advantage of theirs.
There are currently two major builds; SandydogMTG’s low-to-the-ground version, which looks to play as many one drop creatures as possible and to supplement them with powerful cards like Runaway Steam-Kin and Light Up the Stage; and Aaron Barich’s bigger red version, which looks to play the best cards available up the curve and to end the game with a hammer at the top end such as Torbran, Thane of Red Fell or Embercleave.
Fervent Champion: While somewhat underwhelming on it’s own, this card is very important to a deck for which mana efficiency in early turns is a major selling point. It has a high ceiling in multiples, functioning as a Goblin Guide with upside, and pumps Rimrock Knight (especially nice with Embercleave). First strike allows you to assert control over the board in the early turns, and allows you to choose an aggressive or defensive stance.
Bonecrusher Giant: This card is excellent, and as such has become a fixture of red decks across Standard, Pioneer, and even Modern. It is a house against small creature decks, and acts as a self-contained curve where you can use it to kill a creature on turn two and deploy it as a threat turn three. Unlike most cards with such a high ceiling, its fail case is still powerful. It is rarely correct to sideboard it out, and it should be a four-of in all but the most aggressive red builds.
Scorch Spitter: Small synergies add up to make this card the best turn one play in most builds. It’s trigger becomes a Lava Spike with Torbran, it pushes damage through cards like The Birth of Meletis and Arboreal Grazer, and it is a champ at turning on Light Up the Stage. Scorch Spitter would also be a great rap name.
Torbran, Thane of Red Fell: As anyone who played with and against the Flame of Keld can attest, the static ability on Torbran is INSANELY powerful. Any Mono Red deck with ability to consistently hit its first four lands drops will want access to this card. It is powerful enough that you don’t really care if a second copy is stuck in your hand, as you want to cast it in just about every game.
Lightning Strike: 🙁 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SiylvmFI_8)
Shock: A mainstay in standard red lists for years, Shock is a never-exceptional yet often-necessary card. Bigger Mono Red lists have begun moving away from Shock in favor of more creatures to take full advantage of Torbran and to maximize Embercleave’s castability.
Runaway Steam-Kin: In a vacuum, Steam-Kin may be the most powerful Red card in the format. However, cards are only as good as their context allows them to be. The average converted mana cost of playable red cards in standard has increased enough that certain builds have begun to move away from our favorite steamy boi towards more self-contained two drops like Robber of the Rich and Rix Maadi Reveler. For Red decks looking to take advantage of the power of Experimental Frenzy, or with very low average CMCs, Steam-Kin is the two drop of choice.
Robber of the Rich: This card’s stock has steadily risen in accordance with Red’s desperation for a playable two drop. It is perfectly serviceable, if unexciting. Mono Red is really great at using it’s mana in the early game, when Robber is more likely able to attack, so it often acts as a 2/2 haste creature with no other abilities. Robber exacerbates an age-old issue for aggro decks; it is a far better card on the play than on the draw. In Best of Three you can sideboard with this in mind.
Light Up the Stage: Light Up is currently played in most red builds. Like Steam-Kin, the decision to play this card is influenced by your average casting cost. Casting LutS correctly is very skill-intensive, and is what separates good red players from great. When presented with the question, “What does the Mono Red deck do?”, most people would answer that it “maximizes damage output to get the opponent to 0 life ASAP.” This answer looks through the wrong end of the telescope; the reduction of the opponent’s life is a symptom of the Mono Red deck’s ultimate goal. Mono red wins by maximizing its mana each turn to fully leverage its resources before the opponent can fully leverage theirs; our card advantage inherently comes from stranding cards in our opponent’s hand by denying them the time to cast them. And every time you can’t cast your cards, you allow your opponent to effectively interact with you without spending resources. Hitting uncastables with Light Up the Stage is similar to having dead cards in your hand, and thus casting it on turn two should be done very, very rarely. There are too many cards you can hit that are either dead on turn three (Torbran and Embercleave) or just awkward (double Anax, etc.). You also should not cast Light Up when you have access to powerful sequences without it (if on turn three I have creatures on board, land four and a Torbran in hand, I am probably saving my Light Up the Stage).
Rimrock Knight: This card is the glue holding many red lists together. Rimrock doubles as a combat trick and a two drop, filling cracks in your curve exceptionally well. It gets pumped by Fervent Champion, both halves work well with Embercleave, it’s two spells for Runaway Steam-Kin, and it attacks through Arboreal Grazer and Leafkin Druid. Rimrock Knight is one helluva drug.
Phoenix of Ash: This card answers many problems Mono Red decks commonly face. It is evasive, so it can force damage through clogged board states. It recurs from the graveyard, making it resilient to one-for-one spot removal and gives you sweeper protection. And finally, it allows you to leverage excess mana in the late game. Checking these boxes means both low-to-the-ground and bigger versions will look to play at least three copies.
Castle Embereth: Castle Embereth is a red mana producing land that serves as a low opportunity cost way to convert mana into power, which comes up every so often. The biggest cost to playing it is having to mulligan one land hands with a one-drop and Light Up the Stage that otherwise function with a mountain. Those hands are often a trap anyway, so it’s really not a big deal. This card isn’t busted by any means, but it has the potential to swing your games. Castle’s stock rose appreciably when red got a token producer in Anax, Hardened in the Forge.
Tin Street Dodger: Fedora Goblin has established itself as a fixture of the fastest builds; allowing for fast starts and pushing through damage late, but does so at the cost of raw damage output. Raging Goblin doesn’t meet the bar of playability, but the activated ability pushes it juuuust over the edge. This card is more of a necessary evil for certain builds than an incentive to play red.
Anax, Hardened in the Forge: Anax has been at the forefront of Red’s return to tier one status. It hits very hard and provides sweeper protection (note that its tokens are red, so your post-sweeper Torbran will hit VERY hard). Any Mono red deck that plays Anax should be playing Embercleave, as the interaction between the two is essentially Splinter Twin, ending the game on the spot. Having both in your deck makes trading creatures favorable for you, and thus lessens the need for burn to clear the way or snipe your opponents last few life points. If you want this card you should probably play four, especially because a second copy can be played to make four tokens.
Rix Maadi Reveler: Playing this card as your two drop means splashing black with Blood Crypt and Temple of Malice. In a meta full of red decks, playing Temples and Shocklands is a heavy cost, but if you are willing to pay it, you are rewarded with a more ponderous red deck. This card is at its best in versions playing four copies of Torbran and Embercleave, as it converts redundant copies into new cards. Note that for both its normal and Spectacle trigger, if you have no cards in hand, you still get to draw.
Embercleave: The most powerful non-creature spell aggro decks have access to in standard. This card makes blocking a nightmare, and makes any creature in your deck a threat. As with Torbran, playing four of this legendary equipment is totally reasonable. You’ll often win with the second copy in your hand, and should your opponent have a way to remove it, you’ll be happy to have a backup. This card’s inclusion in red decks has been steadily increasing since Anax’s release, creating a game ending one-two punch. It’s probably correct to play it in any aggro deck with mana that can support it, as it is still powerful even in conjunction with smaller creatures.
Infuriate: A surefire sign of a hyper aggressive list. This card helps in creature and midrange matchups, where it can complicate combat or make an Embercleave extra potent. The difference between this card and Rimrock Knight is most stark in the mono red mirror because Infuriate can let your creature survive a burn spell, punishing them hard if they use one before your combat step, and Rimrock Knight’s “can’t block” clause is especially weak.
Redcap Melee: Extremely powerful in exactly mono red mirrors. It answers any creature at instant speed for one mana, but the downside is too costly to be worth bringing in in other matchups.
Claim the Firstborn: While good to have access to in Hydroid Krasis matchups, this card is much more exciting in decks with Witch’s Oven to take full advantage of it. Although it has the potential to swing a race in aggro mirrors, it will often be stuck in your hand. One trap to avoid is bringing in this card to function as a Lava Spike in a matchup centered around board presence.
Sorcerous Spyglass: This card’s inclusion mostly stems from its ability to answer the Cauldron Familiar and Witch’s Oven combo. While Spyglass can partially answer Planeswalkers like Nissa Who Shakes the World, they have powerful Static Abilities that allow them to still accrue value.
Experimental Frenzy: One of the main draws to Mono Red decks from standard throughout 2019. Frenzy has now been relegated to the sideboard of most lists and, in the case of the biggest red lists, cut from the deck entirely. This is due in large part to context; Temur Reclamation ignores it and casts Explosions for 20 at your head, UW control can remove it or race it with Dream Trawler, Ramp decks can cast Nissa-fueled Krasises that beat you before you can take advantage of it, and other mono red decks can kill you with an Embercleave or Torbran the turn you tap out to cast it. Frenzy might see a resurgence if the meta shifts, but for now it’s losing the top end battle in red decks. Red decks would have to change the way they are built to fully support Frenzy, reintegrating cards that are not sequence dependent such as burn spells over cards like Embercleave.
Lava Coil and Scorching Dragonfire: Having access to three and four damage burn spells is sneakily powerful for these red decks because three or more toughness creatures are a flash point. The reasons for this are twofold:
- We play a lot of two damage spells (Shock and Bonecrusher), so creatures with three or more toughness are challenging to deal with with a single card.
- Cheap and large creatures are effective at halting our offenses and buy our opponent time to cast all of their spells.
Two, three and four mana creatures with four toughness will be commonly played against you, notably Mayhem Devil, Bonecrusher Giant, Sphinx of Foresight, Questing Beast, Thrashing Brontodon, Fae of Wishes, Spawn of Mayhem, etc. Coil and Dragonfire answer these elegantly and cheaply, while also exiling creatures like Cauldron Familiar and Gutterbones.
Unchained Berserker: An excellent card to have access to in the sideboard, as it fills a key slot on the curve. Berserker notably has protection from Teferi, Deafening Clarion, Oath of Kaya, and the entire Mono White deck. As the current sideboard options for red are quite weak, expect Berserker to be a four of fixture in lists for the foreseeable future. Note that Stomp’s “Damage can’t be prevented” clause means that damage from white sources can be dealt to Berserker for the rest of the turn, something to consider when blocking.
The Akroan War: A solid card against decks that use large creatures to stabilize the board. The Akroan War shines against most green decks, especially Gruul. Only bring this card in in matchups where you expect to be the beatdown, in order to maximize the second chapter.
Tibalt, Rakish Instigator: Tibalt heard us all talking smack about his 2 cmc incarnation, and is back to dunk on all of us by being mildly impressive, but not so much that anyone really cares or thinks about him at all. This card is super medium, but fine against decks with lots of X/1s in a pinch, and is good against decks you expect to have a lot of lifegain post board and struggle to attack him down.
Chandra, Acolyte of Flame: I’m lower on this card than most people; it just always seems to line up awkwardly against my opponent’s draws. While it provides sweeper insulation, it just doesn’t hit hard enough without Torbran to get the job done. That being said, it’s powerful on an even board, busted with Torbran out, and useful to flash back Light Up the Stages. Be sure to only bring this card in against decks that can’t attack it down immediately.
Chandra, Fire Artisan: This card is a fine sideboard option against control decks, but it’s usually better to just be killing your opponent. This card was more popular last season as fantastic burn heavy mirror breaker, but with the adoption of Embercleave by red decks, tapping out on your main phase has become a death sentence.
Embereth Shieldbreaker: Often seen as a 1-of in sideboards, this card is low-powered but (due to being an adventure creature) unlikely to rot in your hand. It is excellent at removing Witch’s Oven, thus its stock has declined in accordance with Jund Food’s playability. It can be brought in against Embercleave in a pinch, but you shouldn’t be excited about that. The sorcery speed on Battle Display means you most likely will not be able destroy an Embercleave before taking a brutal hit.
Decklists and Sideboard Guide
As mentioned before, the main point of bifurcation among standard mono red decks is curve. The smaller red deck plays less powerful individual cards in the hopes of casting them all as quickly as possible to take advantage of Runaway Steam-Kin and Light up the Stage, whereas bigger red decks eschew mana efficiency in early turns in exchange for the raw power of cards like Bonecrusher Giant and Torbran, Thane of Red Fell.
Huge shoutout to Sir Ben Katz of Rimrock for all his help with this Primer!