It seems to me that the biggest story of the weekend was not the unsurprising win of Faeries at Grand Prix: Kobe, but the massive surge in popularity and success of the Mono-Red Aggro deck in Standard Constructed. At France’s National Championships, Mono-Red was the most popular deck, with over a quarter of the room playing it. At the United States National Championships, the deck put up a more modest showing of 12%, less popular than Faeries, Elves, and Merfolk. However, three copies of the deck managed to go 6-1 or better in the Constructed portion, while only one Faerie and Elf deck managed to do the same. Not only that, but two copies made the Top 8, and one won the whole thing.
Back during the Pro Tour: Hollywood coverage, I argued that the strength of a deck could be better gauged not by its percentage of the metagame, but by whether or not it outperformed the room as a whole when it came time for decks to be eliminated. While Nationals isn’t structured exactly the same as a Pro Tour, and therefore doesn’t lend itself as well to the number-crunching, we can still get the same feeling from the reports on the top-performing Standard decks and their progression in the Top 8.
It’s safe to say that the roots of this weekend’s Mono-Red Aggro deck come from the Japanese list featured in the GP: Buenos Aires coverage. At least, that was the first time that I had heard of the Ashenmoor Gouger deck, and the coverage reporter seemed similarly amused by the fact that the card had made the cut. However, the pilots of the deck complained that they didn’t have enough to do in the early game, and that they wished that they had had another one-drop with two power.
As it happens, Eventide managed to give the deck just that, and even a little bit more. Figure of Destiny provides the one-drop part of the equation, and with so little to do on the second turn, his ability provides the two power. Of course, the part that everyone loves is the fact that he can grow up to be another Ashenmoor Gouger, keeping him safe from Nameless Inversion, Incinerate, and Firespout. With the Figure in the mix, Mono-Red has gone from being a Grand Prix oddity to winning U.S. Nationals.
The creature base is almost universally agreed-upon by the top finishers in the U.S. Mono-Red field. Out of the three 18+ point decks, and the one played by Michael Jacob in the Top 8, all four agree on the full set of Magus of the Scroll, Figure of Destiny, Blood Knight, Magus of the Moon, and Demigod of Revenge. Three of the decks round out the creatures with four Ashenmoor Gougers, though the one copy of the deck that managed to post a 7-0 record had only two Gougers, and an extra three Mogg Fanatics not seen elsewhere.
Similarly, all four decks ran the full boat of Flame Javelins and Incinerates. The last non-land slot was always a one-mana burn spell, with eight Skreds, four Shocks, and three Dead/Gones making appearances. Personally, I think that Team RIW got it right with Skred; the card always does at least as good as Shock when dealing with creatures, often manages to handle problems like Chameleon Colossus and Tarmogoyf, and might even manage to take down something like Cloudthresher. Meanwhile, the little burn spell is likely going to play creature control more often than player control, and so the loss of the ability to deal two to the face seems well worth the upshot.
The consistency continues when we examine the manabases of these four decks. Not a single Mutavault made an appearance, which makes sense with the hefty mana requirements on Figure of Destiny, Ashenmoor Gouger, Demigod of Revenge, and Flame Javelin. All of the decks ran Keldon Megaliths, though Jacobs ran two copies while the rest played three. In fact, Jacobs seemed very interested in making sure his Skreds ran at full-power, and played zero copies of Ghitu Encampment while everyone else played two or three. Given how I feel about Skred, I’m not surprised he made this decision.
The group hug seems to fall apart, though, when you look at the four sideboards. Every single pilot had at least one card in their sideboard that no one else did (Murderous Redcap, Hostility, Lash Out, and Inside Out), and only Sulfurous Blast managed a double-digit total (with Martyr of Ashes in the one dissenting deck). In general, the sideboard choices seemed to be aimed primarily at creatures, with a smattering of anti-combo cards like Pithing Needle and Faerie Macabre.
Faeries – Mono-Red has traditionally been the deck that people went to when they were looking for a way to dethrone the ever-present Faeries. The Red deck’s advantage in this matchup comes from its ability to get onto the board faster than the opposition, and then to keep its lead with burn spells that don’t fall victim to Mistbind Clique.
Many of the card choices in the Red deck seem as though they were made specifically to beat Faeries, which, of course, would not be much of a surprise. Ashenmoor Gouger is perfectly sized and colored to withstand Faeries’ removal options, and if a Sower of Temptation somehow manages to steal it (and survive), it can’t even play defense. Magus of the Moon can often cripple the man-lands and Bitterblossom enablers, and Demigod of Revenge can trump the counterspell wall.
Because the maindeck is so good against Faeries, the sideboard options tend to be few and far between. However, there is the option of bringing in Sulfurous Blast to contain Bitterblossom tokens and assorted x/1s that find their way into play. To make room in the deck for these Blasts, the card to remove seems to be Blood Knight. It’s not entirely clear to me, though, that swapping the Knights for Blasts is a strict upgrade; personal preference may be the deciding factor here.
Elves – Despite the fact that Elves has been around since the introduction of Lorwyn, there is still quite a bit of variation between the different versions of the deck. Two card choices that can make a big difference in how the games play out are Troll Ascetic and Primal Command. While many of the Elf decks seem to be sticking with Imperious Perfect, who can be quite annoying unanswered, you’ll find it easier to handle the 2/2 than Troll Ascetic, who can block anything and live to tell the tale. However, the Red deck comes prepared with approximately sixteen creatures that won’t die when they tangle with a Troll, so while you’d rather see a Perfect, it’s not like you’re dreading the Ascetic. Of course, this changes if the Troll finds a Warhammer to carry around. Primal Command is similarly annoying, in that it will often undo a large portion of the work done and find exactly the guy to stem the bleeding. This Red deck, though, tends to hit hard, so while a seven-point gain can be a big speedbump, it might not be anything more than that.
The Red deck will tend to have more removal in it than the Elf deck, with twelve burn spells and four Magus of the Scroll, so the Red deck’s plan is usually to try and control the field while getting big hits in with a 4/4 or a Demigod. Of course, the removal being used here is burn, so at a certain point, creatures stop being the target of choice. It’s right at the tipping point where Primal Command is at its scariest; if you decide to switch to burn mode and they gain seven and dig up a fatty, you might find yourself without the gas you need to close the deal.
Cards like Murderous Redcap, Sulfurous Blast, Martyr of Ashes, and Unwilling Recruit are all possibilities, depending on what flavor of Elf deck you’re up against. Usually, though, you’ll be the one with the 4/4s, while they’re sitting on 2/2s and 3/3s, so your board sweepers will often be extremely potent. The Green deck does have big guys like Chameleon Colossus and Tarmogoyf to make sure that they’ve got action even after a sweeper, but that’s why I like the choice of Skred over something like Shock. Even on its own, but especially in conjunction with something like the Blast, Skred should have no trouble taking down these bigger guys.
Merfolk – In much the same way that Mono-Red was the deck to play to beat Faeries, Red has always been a huge thorn in the side of Merfolk decks. A few months ago, there was a debate raging about whether to include White in the average Merfolk deck, and that was eventually settled (for the most part) by the fact that playing White gave the Merfolk deck access to Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender and Reveillark, two cards that are very strong against the Red deck’s gameplan.
One of the biggest weaknesses of the new Mono-Red deck is its inability to handle a Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender. Each person had the ability to go hellbent and take it out with Keldon Megaliths, but that’s not a timely solution, or even a very reliable one given how few Megaliths there are in these decks. However, the answer comes in the form of Demigod of Revenge, which can simply fly over the Forge-Tender and eventually force the sacrifice. Because of this, if you’re up against a Forge-Tender, you need to treat your Demigods very carefully. While you might usually be willing to let one bite a Rune Snag because you’ve got a second ready to reanimate the first, you should strongly consider trying to get the extra mile out of your card, as you’ll need them more than you might otherwise.
The same creature control options that were good against Elves are good against Merfolk, with Sulfurous Blast continuing to be a top performer thanks to its Instant-speed ability to dodge counterspells. Decks with access to Sulfur Elemental are certainly going to want them to combat the threat of Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender, though I don’t believe that Everlasting Torment is worth the space, even if it does stop Protection from saving the tiny Kithkin.
Reveillark / Quick N’ Toast – I am grouping these two decks together, as people seem to be apt to do, because they are both “big” decks that tend to go over the top for the win if given enough time. They also continue to look more and more like one another as Reveillark players add color after color to their decks.
Luckily for everyone, Michael Jacob gave a tutorial on how to beat these decks in the Top 8 coverage. Because Magus of the Moon is your best weapon against them, make sure that you don’t deploy it until they’ve begun to try to recover. When they throw the Wrath, Damnation, or Firespout out there to clean up the pressure that you’ve put on them, that’s the right time to drop the hammer with the Magus.
In the absence of a Magus of the Moon, these matchups can actually be quite difficult. Cards like Wall of Roots can be a huge problem, buying time, accelerating mana, and absorbing burn spells that you’d rather send at the opponent’s face. I can only assume that Inside Out, residing in Taylor Webb’s sideboard, was specifically intended to take out Wall of Roots at a profit. In addition, they’ve often got the Kitchen Finks, Reveillarks, Oonas, and Platinum Angels to make your life difficult.
When they do manage to go big, your best hope is to burn them out. If “going big” doesn’t involve a Kitchen Finks, you’ve got a good chance of making it there, since a five-color manabase often implies a little bit of pain. After all, if you come out of the gates fast and hard enough, it might not matter that they’ve got the perfect hand.
This is where your Pithing Needles and Faerie Macabres come in handy. Cards like Manabarbs can be very good, depending on exactly what’s happening on the other side of the table; some decks might have no answers to it and die, while others might tap a single white and Evoke a Wispmare. Sulfur Elemental is often strong as a three-power threat that doesn’t need to worry about countermagic, and has the added benefit of stopping things like one-time powerhouse Mirror Entity. You need to make sure, though, that you’ve still got the ability to apply a fast clock with backup pressure; boarding out all of your threats for Faerie Macabres isn’t going to get you anywhere.
I hate it when I look at a deck and think to myself that it has favorable matchups across the field, because that’s never really the case. However, the Red deck has a couple of really strong points, and the decks that would once have been perfect to prey on it simply aren’t big contenders in the metagame anymore. With a good matchup against the tribal decks of the moment, and Magus of the Moon to clean up the Five-Color controlling decks, Mono-Red Aggro seems poised to take down more than just the U.S. National Championships.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM