The one thing missing from Ikoria Standard has been a good aggressive deck. Sure, there have been periods where Mono-Red Aggro could beat people with Embercleave or Obosh, the Preypiercer or Cavalcade of Calamity, but for the most part, those decks have failed. Aether Gust is the main offender but you could also make the argument that aggro decks are lacking impactful one-drops.
As I was combing the previews for Core Set 2021 for cards that could dramatically alter Standard, an aggressive one-drop was certainly one of the things I was looking for. As it turns out, it would be a two-drop that would change everything.
Red has most of the tools necessary for a good aggro deck except for one-drops that are little more than Raging Goblins. On the other hand, black has some of the tools that red is missing. Knight of the Ebon Legion and Gutterbones are a strong core of early aggression. Black had a different problem, where it was actually lacking in two-drops.
Order of Midnight, Blacklance Paragon, and Stonecoil Serpent are passable but those are supposed to be the secondary or tertiary two-drops. Mono-Red has Runaway Steam-Kin, which it wants to start with each game and only has something to fill the curve if you don’t have your best card. Black didn’t have one of those.
Something has to be the best at each spot on the curve. Games where you have your best play tend to be much different from when you have your second-best play or third-best play. And if you don’t have anything like that at all? Well, your deck is probably mediocre.
I want to be clear that Kitesail Freebooter isn’t Runaway Steam-Kin. There are games where Kitesail Freebooter can win a game outright because of taking a key Wilderness Reclamation or Shatter the Sky, but drawing multiples can be detrimental in some matchups and it’s also not a great topdeck. However, it does add an element of depth that didn’t exist before.
Core Set 2021 adds more than just a much-needed two-drop though. Eliminate is a solid upgrade for right now, although the need for something like Heartless Act instead could change. The other card worth writing about is Demonic Embrace.
Other decks have splashed for Embercleave in order to get some closing power but you don’t have to do that anymore. Playing a two-color aggro deck was already awkward enough thanks to the lack of untapped multicolor lands. Obviously opening up the deck to two colors means you get to play powerful gold cards, but stumbling with mana typically means you can’t get out of the gates early.
Embercleave is inherently more powerful than Demonic Embrace but they have different advantages. Even though Embercleave will probably deal more damage, it’s not easy to set up in the face of interaction. Everything seems to be coming together for mono-colored decks. There’s always the Aether Gust problem too. Given how often Aether Gust becomes the de facto interaction of choice, there’s a lot to like about being Mono-Black.
The added disruption from Kitesail Freebooter and reach from Demonic Embrace give Mono-Black angles it didn’t have before. If Standard is all about Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Mono-Black Aggro can be part of that format.
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 2 Spawn of Mayhem
- 4 Gutterbones
- 4 Rotting Regisaur
- 4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
- 3 Rankle, Master of Pranks
- 3 Murderous Rider
- 4 Stonecoil Serpent
- 3 Blacklance Paragon
The aggression starts with Knight of the Ebon Legion and Gutterbones. Stonecoil Serpent fills the mana curve and can even be your one-drop if you’d otherwise be curving out or are trying to set up Demonic Embrace.
Kitesail Freebooter rounds out the two-drops and actually makes me happy about that slot. Being able to proactively protect a Rotting Regisaur, Spawn of Mayhem, or Rankle is powerful. Having a two-drop creature with evasion makes Spawn of Mayhem more palatable in general.
All of your mediocre bodies are prime targets for Demonic Embrace. Being able to turn any creature into a potentially lethal, must-answer threat is incredible. It used to be really easy for a control deck to deal with your big, expensive threats and call it a day. Thanks to Demonic Embrace, you’re able to continually pressure your opponents until they eventually do something incredible or eventually succumb.
With Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and a pile of acceleration in the format, that will obviously be the top-end for many decks. Mono-Black has incidental counterplay against Ugin. Stonecoil Serpent doesn’t care about it and Blacklance Paragon; Rankle, Master of Pranks; and Mobilized District can immediately threaten to kill it or get in the last few points of damage.
Having a simple manabase is definitely a boon. You get to curve out effectively and are able to play utility lands like Mobilized District and Castle Locthwain in large numbers without it affecting you negatively.
You could play a fourth Castle but I’d rather lean on the power of basic Swamp. Having to mulligan because you don’t have a Turn 1 untapped black source isn’t acceptable. The main advantage to being monocolored should be a smooth manabase, so it’s important to not tempt that. If you insist on playing four Castles, I’d look at shaving Mobilized District or adding a land before going below eighteen Swamps.
The sideboard is relatively simple. Disfigure, Legion’s End, and Shadowspear are the anti-aggro package. Cheap removal keeps you alive in the early-game and gives you time to deploy your bigger threats. Either you outclass them on card quality or get to connect with Shadowspear and put your life total out of reach. You don’t need much more than that.
Against any midrange deck, you get additional disruption with Drill Bit and a reasonable solution to sweepers in Liliana’s Standard Bearer. People still don’t play enough Drill Bits and it’s a card that could very easily end up in the maindeck. Sometimes Duress or Agonizing Remorse show up in decklists instead of Drill Bit but both are much worse.
VS Temur Reclamation
Removal bad, disruption good. It’s really that simple.
You want some answer to a resolved Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath but there are more ways around that than killing it directly. Winning the game before they’re able to cast it works; so does overwhelming it. Flying is another way around it, especially Demonic Embrace or Rankle, Master of Pranks.
Uro isn’t the biggest problem though. I’d be more concerned with them using Wilderness Reclamation to double their mana each turn and pull ahead. If you’re able to cast Rotting Regisaur on Turn 3, they might die before they do anything relevant unless they have Brazen Borrower.
They might try to bring in Nightpack Ambusher against you. It’s not the greatest card since you can ignore it or attack through it, but it’s cleaner to have a direct answer.
VS Azorius / Bant Control
If your opponent is Bant (and therefore has Uro in their deck), Soul-Guide Lantern is worth bringing in. Otherwise, the plan is the same. Apply pressure, disrupt them, and use cards like Blacklance Paragon, Demonic Embrace, and Rankle as counterplay to sorcery-speed sweepers.
Liliana’s Standard Bearer is another flash threat that can punish sweepers and keep you gassed up, but it’s not a game-breaker. For the most part, the matchup is whether you can keep up pressure and not about raw card advantage because eventually they’ll go over the top of you. However, the combination of coming down after a sweeper and keeping you gassed up makes it much stronger in this specific matchup than something like Midnight Reaper.
VS Rakdos Sacrifice
The most important thing to do in this matchup is get on the battlefield as quickly as possible. If you can’t do that, at least be able to remove their threats so you can stay on pace. Claim the Firstborn, Priest of Forgotten Gods, and Mayhem Devil are incredible cards that can create massive tempo for a low cost. Falling behind is the quickest way to lose this matchup because of how easily they can capitalize on it. That means lowering the mana curve during sideboarding while still trying to maintain a higher power level.
Rankle, Master of Pranks tends to underperform against decks that have as much sacrificial fodder as the Sacrifice decks do, plus it’s very expensive and doesn’t accomplish much. Legion’s End can be incredible at times but it’s unlikely given their sacrifice outlets.
Make sure you have counterplay to Claim the Firstborn on Rotting Regisaur. It could be as simple as having something lined up to chump block. If it ends up being a recurring issue, I could see taking out Regisaurs altogether.
VS Mono-Red Aggro
This matchup is similar to Rakdos Sacrifice except that it’s much easier. There aren’t any Claim the Firstborns or Priest of Forgotten Gods to worry about but there is Embercleave. Thankfully any instant-speed removal spell can typically break that up. There’s always the risk of being behind and having to commit more to the battlefield to keep up, which would take the shields down, but sometimes they don’t have it. Overall, this matchup is less threatening and not very popular at the moment, so it shouldn’t be an issue.
It’s been a while since Standard has been changed meaningfully. There have been companions and Polymorphs but those were mostly more of the same. This time, we have a real aggro deck and that’s going to fundamentally alter how people build and choose their decks going format. Cards like Aether Gust and Mystical Dispute won’t be the answer to everything anymore and that’s a world I’m fine living in.