Red Aggro Is Ready To Crush Pioneer

Control players gained from Monday’s Pioneer bans, but so did Mono-Red! Ben Friedman is here to help you light up the format!

Oh, you thought it was time to play midrange in Pioneer? Time to break out your wild, greedy control deck?

Get real.

Pioneer just took a massive beating again, with three critical bans that completely wipe out some of the best decks of the format and merely hamstring others.

Mono-Black Aggro is severely weakened. Golgari Field is gone. Mono-Green Devotion is hit yet again, though it can still continue in a less-consistent form.

What steps up to fill the void? 

Red-based aggro is ready to pick up the mantle now that Mono-Black is diminished, as Smuggler’s Copter was the key to enabling the highly synergistic Bloodsoaked Champion and Scrapheap Scrounger draws. Of course, getting to play the incredible Fatal Push and Thoughtseize was no small matter either, but with Smuggler’s Copter it was easy to loot away dead cards for any given matchup and dig towards relevant spells.

What’s the difference? Red Aggro has lower power-level cards in exchange for the fact that they all work at getting the opponent good and dead. You hate to topdeck a Thoughtseize against an aggro deck, and you hate to open with Fatal Push only to see an opponent start with Temple of Enlightenment. But cheap creatures and burn spells work no matter what!

When Smuggler’s Copter isn’t around to smooth out the other aggro decks’ draws, and Once Upon a Time can’t magically fix every hand for green decks, Red’s innate consistency will come back to the forefront.

Remember, Ramunap Ruins was banned as well…

This is a tentative Mono-Red list, going more all-in on a Prowess and Burn theme while offering the sideboard potential of a shift into a control deck with Experimental Frenzy.

Basically, you want the highest density of high-quality one-drops, forcing your opponent to deal with an immediate rush followed by a bunch of burn. Follow it up with a sideboard change against hard-to-kill threats like Oko, Thief of Crowns and watch opponents crumble.

It’s entirely possible that we need to increase our land count post-sideboard, with as many as two more lands to enable the full switcheroo.

It’s also entirely possible that Oko is so strong that we need to devote more sideboard slots to cards like Fry to fight back. Similarly, if the metagame shifts towards Thought-Knot Seer and Questing Beast, it may be time for Lava Coil.

And of course, Red is so flush with incredible four-drops that we’re going to have a decision point between Hazoret the Fervent, Experimental Frenzy, Rekindling Phoenix, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance.

There’s just such a glut of incredible cards at the top of the curve, but it might be viable to push it up a little higher, for one main reason:

Hell, remember Glorybringer? It’s one of the hardest cards to kill in all of Pioneer. Fatal Push can’t touch it. Abrupt Decay does nothing. Burn spells are not going to get the job done (well, until someone picks up Stoke the Flames and Jeskai Ascendancy again…).

What does Big Red look like in Pioneer?

Again, it’s unclear if we should be employing Embercleave and/or Thought-Knot Seer, and where we should stand on Draconic Roar as a synergy piece with Glorybringer.

There’s even Avaricious Dragon, if you want to get really spicy. It has the creature type, a super-nice ability once we’ve dumped our hand, and a hard-to-kill body. Unfortunately it doesn’t work so well against Oko, but then again, what does?

Ideally we get to the point where we have a deck full of Searing Blazes, able to keep pace with an opponent’s plays by removing their creatures while simultaneously chipping them down some number of life points at a time. Three free damage from those effects adds up, and when you start chucking Glorybringers it ends the game very quickly.

But this isn’t even the only way to build your red deck. There’s also Torbran, Thane of Red Fell!

And of course, Torbran enables a lot of awesome stuff here. The possibilities are endless, but a token deck doesn’t seem too shabby, especially with Castle Embereth in the mix:

The choice of Robber of the Rich against a lower-powered card like Dragon Fodder is surprisingly quite tough, since Fodder is actually incredible with Torbran and Castle Embereth. Balancing synergy with power is always a bit difficult in decks like this, and it would not surprise me to see a completely token-ed out version of the deck with Dragon Fodder and even Hordeling Outburst make a splash. Embercleave is the next sweet piece of technology there as well, offering one-hit kills out of nowhere.

And we still have Kari Zev, Skyship Raider as an alternative. She spreads across two bodies, which is awesome for Torbran, while presenting some evasion and a critical third toughness in a world of Stomp and Searing Blood. It pays to have a massive backlog of red threats to sift through while searching for the perfect card!

Oh, and if we’re not interested in straight-up Mono-Red, there’s also a world of incredible splashes. Remember Atarka Red? Pro Tour Dominaria-era Rakdos Aggro? Boros Burn from 2013 with Boros Charm and Warleader’s Helix? Through the various Standard formats that now comprise Pioneer, we’ve seen just about everything go with tried-and-true red-based aggro.

The case for staying monocolored is simple: You get your choice of incredible value lands. Whether it’s Mutavault, Ramunap Ruins, Castle Embereth, or even Hanweir Battlements, there’s no shortage of amazing utility lands that take your 24-land manabase and make it feel like a sixteen-lander. If you really want to stretch, you can even start talking about Sunscorched Desert or Haven of the Spirit Dragon.

This is part of what made Mono-Black Aggro so great; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the most under-appreciated part of Mono-Black Aggro was how sick its manabase was. With Castle Locthwain and Mutavault, the deck simply didn’t run out of gas, and flooding was also rare.

With Castle Embereth you aren’t quite as free to grind out opposing control decks with a bunch of extra cards, but your cheap threats do scale up nicely and remain relevant deep into the game. A random Hanweir Garrison suddenly presents seven power on an attack. A Kari Zev shows five. These are not your typical small-ball threats. Even a 3/2 Mutavault can chip in for real damage in the late-game.

However, it’s entirely possible to get too greedy with your colorless lands and end up unable to cast your Goblin Chainwhirlers or Searing Bloods.

This is where it behooves us to look at our multicolored options. Obviously with allied-color pairs like Rakdos you’re quickly scraping the bottom of the barrel with cards like Dragonskull Summit and Foreboding Ruins, or else playing shoddy taplands like Canyon Slough or Smoldering Marsh. But you do gain access to powerful effects like Unlicensed Disintegration and Scrapheap Scrounger, or Atarka’s Command and Become Immense (with Temur Battle Rage!).

The secret benefit to being multicolored, though? Since your manabase is much more fragile, you cannot justify playing cards like Mutavault, which in turn benefits your ability to consistently cast your Chainwhirlers.

Is it worth it to gain access to Dreadbore at the expense of a value-laden manabase? It’s hard to say. But right now, with Oko, Thief of Crowns poised to take over at the top of the format, it’s tough not to at least keep Rakdos in the loop when it comes to choosing your flavor of red. Despite losing Smuggler’s Copter (and yes, here it’s an incredible loss compared to straight-up Mono-Red), Rakdos Vehicles might be one of the better-positioned decks in the coming metagame. After all, it was the best deck in Standard back during the Pro Tour Ixalan and Pro Tour Dominaria days:

It’s close to the original list from Standard, and though I wish there were better one-drops, it’s not clear that in this midrangey version of the deck that we have much to gain by turning our Soul-Scar Mages into Monastery Swiftspears. We could play Zurgo Bellstriker instead, if desired, though it’s not particularly exciting either, and it doesn’t synergize with Goblin Chainwhirler the same way.

I’d like to include Forge Devil as a supplemental Goblin Chainwhirler-style effect to punish opposing Llanowar Elves, but it’s just not as good of a body with no Copters to crew and a less-aggressive general stance.

Another card ripe for inclusion in a deck like this is Mizzium Mortars. It’s a crisp two-mana removal spell, similar to a Cut // Ribbons, but on the flashback from Chandra, Acolyte of Flame (with sufficient mana) it becomes a Plague Wind, which is pretty stellar. 

Looking at the insane collection of red spells from the last six years of Magic, it seems entirely appropriate to start assembling a new Pioneer Red Box, a la Patrick Sullivan legendary grab bag of aggressive goodies. There are a half-dozen great choices at every mana cost up and down the curve, and every possible color combination has its merits. But where do we start, with such an abundance of options?

Let’s start with what decks other people are likely to play. Aside from semi-mirrors, people are going to pick up control decks, Oko decks, and Hardened Scales decks in the wake of the banning. There might be a few white aggro decks as well, a bit of Arclight Phoenix, and some Delirium shells, depending on how much metagaming people want to try.

To be frank, the best four-mana threat in the face of Oko is Experimental Frenzy. It also dodges Abrupt Decay and most other removal spells. Compare it to planeswalkers, which can be attacked, and creatures and artifacts, which can be turned into Elks. Frenzy is the most powerful and least-targetable option. This leads us towards a deck that can best present Experimental Frenzy post-sideboard. 

Our choice at that point becomes whether to play Mutavaults and a bigger, 24-land deck, or stay low to the ground like the first deck and try to go from Ghitu Lavarunner to Experimental Frenzy between games. 

My recommendation is to run with the lower land count to start, as with the London Mulligan and Light Up the Stage it’s easy enough to consistently do your thing with a more aggressive deck.

However, it might be worth it to explore a middle ground, one that employs twelve one-drops and a full-fledged aggressive strategy without sacrificing everything in terms of power.

My final, tentative recommendation for a Mono-Red deck in Pioneer for the first week of the new format, then, is as follows:

Between this and the more all-in version with Wizard’s Lightning, there’s certainly a deck available for all flavors of red players poised to crush whatever nonsense your opponents are throwing your way.