Peebles Primers – Varieties of Mono-Red In Standard

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Wednesday, August 27th – Mono-Red is currently the deck of choice for the aggressive player seeking to smash face in Standard competition. At Grand Prix: Copenhagen, two Mono-Red decks faced off in the final match… but this was no ordinary mirror match. BPM investigates the critical differences in approach of the two successful decks, and presents the strengths and weaknesses of both…

Since the conclusion of U.S. Nationals, Michael Jacob Red deck has been somewhere between serious contender and most popular deck on Magic Online. In real life tournaments, it’s continued this trend, putting up strong finishes around the world. The newest Red deck story, though, is the finals of Grand Prix: Copenhagen this past weekend. On the surface, it was just an average Red-dominated Grand Prix, but while Saito’s deck looked something like you’d expect, the winner’s deck was much less normal.

The idea of changing the Red deck is a little bit stunning. After all, it’s been about a month since Michael won his Nationals, but Saito played an exact copy of his maindeck. In fact, he also played many of the same sideboard cards (Spitebellows, Sulfurous Blast, and Murderous Redcap). However, David Larsson played neither the same maindeck nor the same sideboard.

The question, then, is whether the deck that triumphed in the finals is actually the correct evolution of the Red deck, or if it’s just another possible choice for your next Standard tournament.

Playing Against Control

When Michael played against Herberholz in the U.S. Nationals Top 8, he mentioned that Magus of the Moon was his bomb for the matchup, and that playing to protect it and lock them up was the best way to approach the game. Without the Magus, his deck wasn’t quite powerful enough to keep up with the opposing deck, and unless he managed to fire off a lethal salvo of burn, he would find himself losing.

If that’s the case, how is it that Larsson managed to win the whole tournament without those Moons? In fact, he didn’t even have them in his sideboard, while you’d expect to see four in the maindeck. After thinking about it for a little while, my conclusion is that Larsson decided to jump ahead one level of Wine In Front Of Me reasoning. Because Magus of the Moon was so important for beating the Five-Color decks, the smart pilots of those Five-Color decks would make sure that they didn’t just lose to Moons. If Five-Color decks don’t lose to Moons, then what is the way to beat them?

Way back when Shadowmoor was just being released, the CMU Constructed crew was high on Tattermunge Maniac, just like most of the rest of the world. When we played the Red deck against Reveillark, we quickly found that it wasn’t the 2/1 for one that caused problems, it was the 3/3 Haste for three that tended to win games. Any early pressure backed up by a Boggart Ram-Gang on the third turn usually became a dead Reveillark player, and any Wrath of God answered by a Ram-Gang wound up the same. Instead of hoping that the control player just sat there and took beatings from a Morph, this version of the Red deck just killed them before they could dig their feet in.

I’ve been the flagbearer for two-color Reveillark ever since the card was printed and I saw the decklist online. One of the main reason that I continued to like the two-color version over the three-or-more-color versions is resilience to Magus of the Moon. It’s certainly true that any Red removal you board in (Pyroclasm, Lash Out, whatever) will always be able to kill the Moon, but wouldn’t you rather just continue to play your game than hope you’re holding the removal spell? When Michael Jacob won his Nationals, people started to see things in the same light I had been, and so two-color Reveillark came back in force.

This, of course, brings us back to Larsson and his “unorthodox” maindeck choice of Boggart Ram-Gang instead of Magus of the Moon. If everyone who would have fallen prey to the Moon is now better-equipped to handle it, then the reason to play it in the first place is much less important. Instead, Larsson has chosen to try to make sure that these players just die; his hasty 3/3 can’t even be blocked out of the game by Wall of Roots.

The other maindeck difference is another nod to Blue/White Reveillark, I think. There are ways to block a 2/2 on turn 3, but if the deck is on the draw then there’s basically nothing that can stop the Lasher from connecting and making sure that Kitchen Finks and Aven Riftwatcher don’t save the control player from death. Even on the play, there aren’t so many outs to the Lasher that you don’t have to worry about it, and those outs that you do have might just be Incinerated out of the Lasher’s path. Again, this is a card choice made to kill the opponent, not to keep them off-balance.

This does not mean, however, that Magus of the Moon is bad, or that Ram-Gang is the unchallenged answer to the format. Even if someone has a Slaughter Pact or a manabase with thirteen Basic Lands, they might still just die before they draw out of the situation. I personally think that the aggressive plan is a better one, but if that’s not your style then traditional Red is a very respectable choice.

Playing Against Small Aggro

Small Aggro, as I see it, is something like Merfolk, White Weenie, and maybe even Faeries. It’s filled with small monsters and burn, pump, or various disruptive aspects. Big Aggro, on the other hand, is filled with Chameleon Colossi and Dorans.

The Red deck in general is quite strong against all forms of Small Aggro. Creatures like Ashenmoor Gouger and Demigod of Revenge, while very strong against the usual removal suite in a control deck, also present cheap threats to an opposing aggro deck that will generally take more than one card to answer. This is exactly why they’re so strong to begin with, but when your opponent is hoping to get you to ten and then burn you out, making them spend two Incinerates on your Gouger is going to put a big dent in their plan.

In addition, the usual pile of burn spells in the deck generally tend to trade one-for-one against almost any threat the opponent can present. If you’re presenting huge threats and backing them up with burn to kill the opponent or kill their blockers, then you’re going to be in good shape. However, the traditional Red deck is going to be slightly stronger here, because a matchup like Merfolk is exactly where Magus of the Scroll is going to shine. Having a Stigma Lasher can be great when your opponent is packing Kitchen Finks, but you’re not going to love drawing a 2/2 for two against a deck that will just trade their Silvergill Adept for it.

On the other hand, Magus of the Moon can be anywhere from powerful to atrocious against these decks. Following the Merfolk example further, you’ll find some decks that have no way to cast a White spell while the Moon is on the table, but you’ll find others that simply do not care about your 2/2, and then you’d rather have a bad 2/2 for two than a bad 2/2 for three.

After sideboarding, Saito’s deck increases its lead against Larsson’s. Bringing in Gargadons and Unwilling Recruits is probably fine, but it’s not going to match the backbreaking power of all of the two-for-ones in Saito’s board. Sulfurous Blast and Murderous Redcap can easily kill three creatures each, and Spitebellows will at least make sure things die when they need to, no matter how big they happen to be.

In my mind, this is a strike against Larsson’s deck, but there are certainly people out there who have chosen to ignore various matchups quite profitably. If you’re not worried about this category of deck, then many of the strengths of the traditional Red list go out the window.

Playing Against Big Aggro

Right now, the Big Aggro decks are Elves, Doran, and Red, depending on how you look at it. While these decks are certainly capable of filling up the board in a short time, they’re mostly strong because of the fact that each threat they present is quite relevant on its own. Wren’s Run Vanquisher and Stonybrook Banneret both cost two, but one of them is going to get the job done faster and better than the other.

Against these decks, the pros and cons of the two Red lists essentially swap. Yes, Magus of the Scroll will let you trade your 3/3 for their 4/4, but it’s not going to simply machine-gun their entire side like it might if they were playing Merfolk. Here, the ability to get ahead of the game, and then to stay ahead of the game, is the important factor. Again, Stigma Lasher isn’t exactly the single greatest card of all time, but it’s hard to ask for better than a Boggart Ram-Gang when you’re trying to press any advantage you can.

It is also the case that Larsson’s sideboard is dramatically more effective than Saito’s in these matchups. Spitebellows will kill a Colossus, but Unwilling Recruit will remove the blocker and smack them for six. Throughout the tournament, a suspended Gargadon allowed Larsson to use this trick to hit the other guy for a massive amount of damage, make sure that the Recruit stayed permanently off the opposing board, and bring a 9/7 Haste closer to hitting play. When Sulfurous Blast isn’t going to clear the ground of all the tiny dorks standing in your way, it seems much better to me to just hit the bad guy for the maximum possible.

The good news is that Big Aggro seems to be quite a bit more popular than Small Aggro. I might be looking at the wrong piece of the country or different MTGO 8-mans than everyone else, but I keep seeing Elves and Red everywhere I look. In a world filled with those guys, I think I’d have to lean towards Larsson’s deck.

Playing Against Combo

This the matchup I have the least idea how to evaluate. Larsson has, I think, the advantage because he can simply goldfish faster with a 2/2 and 3/3 Haste replacing a 1/1 and 2/2. However, Swans has among the greediest manabases in the format, and dropping a Moon on them might just end the game. Of course, they can just pitch a land to their now-castable Seismic Assault, or just use Lotus Bloom to go off, so chances are good that the Moon is not going to win you more than a handful of games.

In fact, I think that this might really come down to whatever sideboard choices you feel like making before your tournament started. Michael Jacob ran Pithing Needles in his deck at U.S. Nationals so that he could name Seismic Assault, which stops the combo and protects the Moon from harm. Larsson also has Needles, but he’s only got two of them to try to mise. Both Saito and Larsson have Faerie Macabres, which I assume are there to remove Body Doubles, but a well-timed one might snag a Dakmor Salvage or two, and save you from the jaws of defeat. Unfortunately, drawing them before the opponent tries to go off will do you no good, and drawing them at the right moment only works if they don’t have another land to protect their Salvages with.

It seems to me that if you’re going to be seeing a lot of Swans in your area, you are going to need to come up with a better sideboard plan than anyone has so far. A tall order, I know, but there’s always going to be some deck that beats you. [There’s always Saito’s Everlasting Torments… – Craig.]

The Answer?

Looking at it from these angles, I am relatively sure that it is not fair to think of these two decks as the same monster. They do share something on the order of 52 maindeck choices, but the places in which they differ, as well as the divergent sideboards, make all the difference in the world. Saito’s and Jacob’s Red decks have good threats, disruptive creatures, burn, and a rock-solid end-game. Larsson’s is simply all about killing the opponent, instead of making sure that they flounder and die.

This means that I don’t think that one deck is strictly better or worse than the other. Playstyle and personal preference make a huge difference when you’re choosing between the two. Hopefully, though, this exploration has helped you make that decision, so that when you sit down, you’ll be ready to go no matter which deck you picked.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM