The Forgotten Aggro Decks Of Standard

Reid Duke takes a new look at Mono Red and Tempered Steel, two worthy decks that one would do well not to forget when preparing for Worlds this weekend.

With the World Championships in San Francisco only a day away, the time for experimenting with new ideas is over. The time for beating unprepared opponents on turn 5 may be at hand! With all of the uncertainties and wild possibilities of Worlds, three things are certain about Standard. The popular decks—Wolf Run, Blue Control, and Tokens—will come out in force. New decks will arrive on the scene and take the field by surprise. Perhaps most importantly, though, the decks that proved themselves early in the season will punish anyone who mistook a temporary fall from popularity as a permanent demise.

Today’s metagame has a noticeable lack of fast, efficient decks. The green Ramp decks essentially have a mana curve that starts and ends at six. Blue Control lists often have no turn 1 plays and spend the turns after that doing nothing but drawing cards. Even the aggressive decks seeing play these days are built around gimmicky cards like Overrun, Angelic Destiny, or Delver of Secrets. Attacking for seven on turn 3 makes all those things look pathetic.

Mono-Red Aggro won StarCityGames.com Open Indianapolis, which was the largest tournament of the weekend after Innistrad’s release. Its success back then was no coincidence. Mono-Red Aggro is a straightforward, obvious strategy, and it preys on unfocused decks like Solar Flare and Birthing Pod.

Mono Red is still a powerhouse in Standard. When you lead with a one-drop and your opponent’s first play is a Rampant Growth, it hardly feels like you’re playing the same game. Stormblood Berserker makes for the scariest nut-draws in the format. Shrine of Burning Rage and Koth of the Hammer provide extra angles of attack that Blue Control—really any slow deck—struggles very hard to deal with. Beyond the individual cards, red aggro is a tried and true strategy. Blazing speed backed up by reach gives you some fast, easy wins, but also the potential to finish in the late game what you started in the early turns.

The Decklist

The split between the one-drop creatures may seem odd at first. After all, in most aggro decks there’s one “best tool” for a job, and then you move to your second and third choices. Such is not the case in standard Mono Red. Each of the four one-drops is best in certain situations, and they’re all close enough in power that it’s better to draw one of each than multiples of one. In particular, drawing one copy of Grim Lavamancer or Spikeshot Elder is very nice, but it’s nearly impossible to make use of second copies of either.

I like Reckless Waif quite a bit more than most people, and for a while I maindecked four. However, eleven is the perfect number of one-drops, and having too many one-drops makes Reckless Waif worse itself. Casting two one-drops on turn 2 or a two-drop and a one-drop on turn 3 transforms a Merciless Predator back into a Reckless Waif and makes planning out your game very awkward. I was running into this problem too much with the full set of Waifs. However, it’s so strong on the play in certain matchups that it’s still nice to have access to four between maindeck and sideboard. If you had another sideboard card you really wanted to play, it could be a good idea to maindeck four Waifs and trim them during sideboarding. Sometimes having a slightly suboptimal maindeck is the best way to build the deck as a whole.

As mentioned above, Shrine of Burning Rage and Koth of the Hammer are two of the main appeals of Mono Red. They really make the deck multidimensional and steal wins even when the opponent is equipped to handle your primary game plan.

In choosing the four-drops, I was faced with the same dilemma as I was with the one-drops. Koth of the Hammer and Hero of Oxid Ridge are both excellent, but five is the best number of four-drops for maindeck (four or six is appropriate in some matchups). Unlike the one-drops, though, there is a “best tool” for this job, and it’s Koth. Simply put, I want the highest chance of drawing Koth possible, even at the risk of drawing multiples. Drawing multiple Koths isn’t so bad anyway, because if one sticks, you will typically win despite the dead card in your hand. More importantly, against blue decks it can be nice to jam Koth after Koth until they run out of permission.

Hero of Oxid Ridge is bad in multiples because its main purpose is as a timing finisher. An opponent who taps out or feels too secure behind a wall of Soldier tokens can be “got” by the miser’s Hero. You shouldn’t lean too heavily on the Hero as a main part of your game plan because it’s easier to answer than Koth for an opponent who’s expecting it.

The burn suite is really the variable part of the deck. In my opinion, four Incinerates should go without saying in Mono Red, as they basically have in every format they’ve been legal since Ice Age. However, I also respect Arc Trail, Volt Charge, and Brimstone Volley as very good cards. It’s quite easy to get bottlenecked on three-drop burn spells, especially since both Charge and Volley should be played at specific times and not just when it’s convenient to spend the mana. The particular split I’ve suggested between Geistflame, Arc Trail, and three-drop burn spells is a metagame call. Whatever you decide, however, I recommend one to three copies of three-drop burn. I have a very slight preference for Volt Charge over Brimstone Volley, but it’s close enough that I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted the chance for the extra two damage.

Arc Trail is incredible against many of the decks in this format. If you ever kill two creatures, the game can be over in short order, whether they’re green mana accelerants, blue weenies, or Stromkirk Nobles in a red mirror. Even killing a creature and getting a free damage or two on the opponent is quite good. Even when Arc Trail isn’t the best option, it’s not terrible. However, between its sorcery speed, its inefficiency against blue, and the way it’s worse when the opponent expects it, I found that four was too many for maindeck.

Geistflame isn’t exciting by any means, but it’s nice to draw one of. It’s unreasonable to ever flashback more than one in a single game, but drawing one can be nice to kill a one-toughness creature (Arc Trail can’t kill a Snapcaster Mage who wants to stick his nose in your combat step) or to rebuy a Chandra’s Phoenix.

Sideboarding and Matchups

Sideboarding is very difficult in this format, particularly with Mono Red. Beyond the wide variety of decks, individual decklists within the same archetype can be quite different. The Mono Red player also has to consider the extra factor of being on the play versus the draw, which drastically changes the value of Reckless Waif and Stormblood Berserker.

Manic Vandal is by far the best sideboard card, and playing fewer than four would be a big mistake. Most decks’ plans for beating Mono Red depends on artifacts, whether they involve Batterskull, Sword of War and Peace, or Witchbane Orb. Vandalizing any of those is an unspeakable blowout. He gives you card advantage, tempo advantage, and removes the sideboard card that they were counting on, all with one swing of his club.

The other day, I joined a Gold Queue (2-man tournament) on Magic Online with Mono Red. In game one, my opponent mulliganed to three and died without playing a land. Faced with the challenge of sideboarding without knowing his deck, I brought in three Manic Vandals anyway. If nothing else, they provide insurance against sideboard hate like Batterskull. It turned out that my opponent was playing a U/W Blade deck, and I destroyed a Blade Splicer token before taking the match. Presumably he had Sword of War and Peace as well, if not more than that.

Traitorous Blood is an all-star finisher against Wolf Run Ramp. If taking away a blocker and dealing six extra damage isn’t enough to win by the time they land a Primeval Titan or Wurmcoil Engine, then there wasn’t any reasonable sideboard card that could have saved you. Wolf Run is an unfavorable matchup (depending on the build), but Traitorous Blood makes it quite winnable.

Beyond Wolf Run Ramp, there are no real matchups that I’m scared to face with Mono Red. Blue Control ranges from very close if they have Blade Splicers and Timely Reinforcements to nearly unlosable if they’re U/B without Wring Flesh. Mono Red is particularly well positioned, as it beats up on the Delver of Secrets blue decks. Those feel like mirror matches, except they have Vapor Snags and permission where you have efficient burn.

Tempered Steel is another deck that was dominant right out of the gates at StarCityGames.com Indianapolis. Between the two, I’d have to say that Red is the safer deck choice. Tempered Steel is easier to hate out and more prone to awkward draws. That said, it’s still a strong deck, and it’s not getting the respect that it deserves. My suggested decklist also has a lot going for it that I haven’t seen from other Tempered Steel lists. I’ve emphasized two aspects: flying attackers and transform sideboard.

The Decklist

Evasion creatures give Tempered Steel inherent strength that other aggro decks lack. The plans many decks use for beating aggro involve… blocking, which is quite difficult against Steel. Whether it’s gumming up the works with Viridian Emissary or Timely Reinforcements or turning the game around with a turn 6 Wurmcoil Engine, an army of flying creatures makes many sideboard packages look silly. Furthermore, Tempered Steel lists built with ground creatures face the additional problem of Viridian Emissary, Manic Vandal, and Acidic Slime. If these creatures are allowed to block and trade, they’re devastating two-for-ones. If they strain their necks to watch your creature fly over them, then they’re nothing but ordinary, beatable removal spells.

Building the list around flying isn’t difficult, but it means forgoing Porcelain Legionnaire, Phyrexian Revoker, and some of the other fringe creatures. Those creatures are good, but they’re well worth sacrificing in order to max the numbers of Glint Hawks and Spined Thopters. Glint Hawk in particular is quite strong as the slow ramp decks have a surprisingly hard time dealing with a quick, non-artifact flier.

There are a few exceptions to the all-flying rule, but those cards have earned their places well. Memnite is one of the best cards to see in your opening hand, as it facilitates Glint Hawk and metalcraft and simply makes for explosive draws. Shrine of Loyal Legions is a nightmare card for many decks, particularly in game one. Similar to its cousin in Mono Red, Shrine of Loyal Legions can win games on its own when the opponent is able to stop your primary game plan. It’s very nice to draw one copy, and against blue decks, I’m happy to bring in the full playset after sideboard.

Finally, there’s Hero of Bladehold. If somebody wants to try and stop her with blockers, please be my guest! Hero is Tempered Steel’s Koth of the Hammer. If they work too hard stopping your initial rush, they won’t have enough left in their gas tank to stop the Hero from closing out the game. Two or three copies might be okay, but I opt for the full four because they’re excellent against Wolf Run Ramp and play perfectly into my sideboard plan.

Sideboarding and Matchups

Tempered Steel was a dominant deck at the Scars of Mirrodin Block Pro Tour Nagoya. There, the deck faced a special challenge, as it was a very attackable strategy with a giant bull’s-eye painted on its head. Red and green opponents would overload on Creeping Corrosions, Slagstorms, Into the Cores, and other artifact hate in an attempt to punish Tempered Steel players post-sideboard. The successful Tempered Steel decks were able to sidestep this hate by making their post-sideboard decks less reliant on artifact synergies and more focused on game-breaking non-artifacts like Hero of Bladehold, Mirran Crusader, and Indomitable Archangel.

The same approach can be applied to today’s Standard, with the particular goal of beating Wolf Run Ramp. Tempered Steel has strong matchups across the format, with the exception of the post-sideboard games against Wolf Run packing Ancient Grudge. While a hateful Wolf Run deck will never be an easy matchup, a transform sideboard can provide a fighting chance, especially with Tempered Steel having the edge in game one.

We’re fortunate in Standard to have access to a deeper pool of non-artifact cards than there was in Scars Block Constructed. Mikaeus, the Lunarch is so strong that he’s even a consideration for maindeck. He’s perfect as a non-artifact threat that can dominate a creature mirror or quickly build an army against a control deck. Oblivion Ring was a missing piece in Block Constructed, as there was no replacement for Dispatch after metalcraft became difficult to achieve post-sideboard. As always, Mirran Crusader is a timeless favorite for punishing unprepared green players.

Against Wolf Run Ramp:

+1 Plains +4 Mirran Crusader +3 Mikaeus, the Lunarch +3 Oblivion Ring
-4 Dispatch -3 Mox Opal -2 Shrine of Loyal Legions -2 Memnite

Metalcraft is difficult to achieve after sideboard between you sideboarding out artifacts and the opponent increasing their removal count. Shrine of Loyal Legions is a liability once the opponent can answer it, as it’s a large investment of both time and mana.

One might argue that Tempered Steel itself should come out, as it’s difficult to maintain a reasonable army of artifacts. However, Tempered Steel is simply too good to ever sideboard out in this deck. It makes every topdecked artifact creature a must-answer threat. A particular interaction that’s difficult for any deck to handle, even after sideboard, is the combination of Tempered Steel and Inkmoth Nexus, which has been stealing games and frustrating opponents ever since Scars of Mirrodin came out.

Although this suggested sideboard is built with Wolf Run Ramp in mind, the same logic can be applied to other matchups. Every opponent is going to bring in all of their removal spells for the post-sideboard games, so even if they don’t have access to Ancient Grudge, metalcraft will become difficult to achieve. Dispatch should come out post-sideboard in every matchup, with the possible exception of the mirror. After Dispatch, the next cards you should look to are Mox Opal and the weaker artifacts like Spined Thopter and Shrine of Loyal Legions against non-blue opponents.

If I’ve revived interest in either of these two fine strategies, then I’ve done my job. Both are good choices for upcoming Standard tournaments, and both are on my list of considerations for Worlds, particularly because I have the option to choose two different decks for the main event and the Magic Online Championships.

These streamlined aggro decks are perfect for punishing opponents who are too slow, with decks full of Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy. They’ll also serve as reality checks for anyone filling their deck with underpowered cards like Vapor Snag and Lord of the Unreal in an attempt to play the metagame.

The main appeal of these brutal aggro decks, though, is that even the matchups that may be statistically unfavorable can be won. If the opponent misses a beat, they’re done. If you have a nut draw, they’re done. If you catch them off guard with an unexpected card, they’re done. If you’re in the mood to win quick matches and punish unprepared opponents, then I hope I’ve been helpful and I wish you the best of luck!