Mono-Red Insight: A History From Amonkhet to Dominaria
Hasty creatures, direct damage and painful deserts: mono-red is one of the most successful decks in Standard since Amonkhet was released. From its origins to the recent banning and right down to its various configurations, we are going to break down the fastest deck in the format.
Mono Red decks or Red Deck Wins are well known both for their effectiveness and their affordability when playing a format for the first time. In Both Legacy and Modern, Burn is a solid strategy, with busted powerhouses such as Price of Progress or Fireblast in Legacy and Eidolon of the Great Revel and Goblin Guide in Modern. These strategies revolve around one of the simplest and most linear concepts in Magic. If you can put enough damage down fast enough, you'll hit that magic number 20 and walk away with a clean victory. The math doesn't lie, this is almost always good.
The deck’s main virtue is an explosive early game, playing fast threats alongside some cheap interaction in the shape of removal and direct damage to end the game as soon as possible. However, they all share the same weakness: the lack of resilience or recurring cards in the late-game.
However, the Standard version has something not seen since Barbarian Ring was printed in Odyssey - direct damage in the shape of lands with Sunscorched Desert and Ramunap Ruins, the namesake of the deck before it was banned.
That's one reason why the deck is the only successful mono color strategy in Standard right now, posting excellent results at Pro Tours, GPs and Magic Online Championships. Let’s dissect the keys of its success as well as looking at whats to come before much of the mono red package rotates out.
Before Amonkhet block was available in Standard, the format was dominated by UW Flash, BG Delirium and to a lesser extent Mardu Vehicles. At that time there was no Mono Red Deck or at least it wasn’t competitive by any means. Nevertheless, some brave souls tried to brew a preliminary version with the cards available at the time:
Callous88's Red Deck Wins in an MTGO Competitive Standard Constructed League
|21Mountain||4Bomat Courier||2Chandra's Pyrohelix|
|4Kari Zev, Skyship Raider||3Aethersphere Harvester|
|4Lathnu Hellion||4Chandra, Torch of Defiance|
|4Reckless Bushwhacker||2Sky Skiff|
|4Village Messenger / Moonrise Intruder|
|2Chandra's Pyrohelix||1Dual Shot||3Impetuous Devils|
|3Incendiary Flow||1Invigorated Rampage||2Kari Zev's Expertise|
|2Tears of Valakut||1Wrangle|
In this early configuration, we can see the early cards from the Kaladesh cycle that would go on to be a core part of mono-red aggro in Standard. Firstly, we have Bomat Courier, a key card for the archetype as a one-drop haste that can eventually refill your hand given that he isn't removed, and you don't need his damage anymore.
The second major innovation this deck made was the inclusion of Kari Zev, Skyship Raider, who provides evasion thanks to her menace ability as well as first strike and she attacks with 3 power together with her beloved Ragavan. Her legendary status restricts the number of copies though, as you don't want to be stuck with extra unplayable copies in hand when you need every card to contribute to that total of 20 damage.
The other significant cards are Shock, cheap removal as well as direct damage and Chandra, Torch of Defiance, a card that has been fluctuating between the main deck and the sideboard depending on the meta-game but is a must in the 75. She’s the only red walker with four abilities and she makes those abilities count, having card advantage, direct damage, mana acceleration, creature removal and a finisher that wins you the game on the spot. And yes, that was five different things she does, despite having only four abilities. She's a very good Planeswalker.
Ramunap Red After Pro Tour Hour of Devastation
Comback Red by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa at PT Hour of Devastation
|4Ramunap Ruins||4Bomat Courier||4Shock|
|2Scavenger Grounds||4Earthshaker Khenra||2Chandra, Torch of Defiance|
|4Sunscorched Desert||4Falkenrath Gorger|
|3Hazoret the Fervent|
|3Kari Zev, Skyship Raider|
|4Village Messenger / Moonrise Intruder|
|2Aethersphere Harvester||2Chandra's Defeat||2Chandra, Torch of Defiance|
|2Glorybringer||1Oath of Chandra||2Pia Nalaar|
|2Sand Strangler||2Savage Alliance|
At Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, five of the decks that reached the Top 8 were Ramunap Red. The archetype became the event’s winner by a wide margin and since then, its popularity has been on the rise. Let's see what cards define the strategy:
One Drop Creatures:
A total of 12 one drops guarantee an aggressively start. Bomat Courier found compatriots in Village Messenger and Falkenrath Gorger, later replaced by Soul-Scar Mage. The deck needs at least eight Turn One creatures that ensure damage on the first turns of the game.
Two Drop Creatures:
Here is the Achilles heel of the deck; since it only has 7 two drops in the shape of creatures. In addition to Kari Zev, the only creature all versions play is Earthshaker Khenra.
This Jackal Warrior attacks with haste and avoids small chump-blockers, but its most important upside is Embalm. We do not mind losing it to removal, since it comes back as a 4/4 for six mana.
Right now, there are no other decent two drops. Amonkhet also brought Harsh Mentor, which might become useful as a sideboard card, but he doesn’t always ensure damage.
Three Drops and More:
On turn three, red decks have Ahn-Crop Crasher, another hasty threat that also prevents opposing blockers thanks to its exert ability. It’s a fundamental piece of the deck that perfectly combines with Earthshaker Khenra to "nullify" opposing defenses.
Pia Nalaar is a solid three drop as well, generating two bodies, which will make removal less effective and the thopter token attacks in the air. Pia can also spend extra mana to increase the strength of any thopters and couriers you might have a and can sacrifice any artifact to prevent opposing blockers, creating a wide range of tools that inhibit blocking and make sure the damage the red player puts down ends up going through.
On turn four, red decks gain access to potentially the most powerful creature in all of mono-red aggro: Hazoret the Fervent. This red goddess is the reason why Mono Red is as strong as it is, and I could write an entire article about her impact in both Standard and Modern.
Being an indestructible 5/4 with haste is not her main upside, however. Her main upside is that she generates extra damage by discarding useless cards or extra copies of herself or other legends in the late game. This ensures that every card goes to dealing damage and that red decks don't lose gas in grindier matchups.
Burn Spells and Mana Base:
The rest of the deck is basically the “burn” package with Shock, Chandra and Abrade. Abrade, in particular, is a multipurpose tool that allows us to get rid of small creatures or annoying artifacts such as vehicles from the Kaladesh cycle, Walking Ballista, Gearhulks or the scary God-Pharaoh's Gift.
Finally, the mana base is pretty straight forward - a bunch of mountains and ten deserts. As we mentioned before, being mana flooded while playing Mono Red meant you didn’t draw enough “business” spells to end up the game. Extra lands were useless in an archetype that only needs 4 or 5 to fully function.
Ramunap Ruins, together with Sunscorched Desert granted something that only Energy strategies had in Standard: a mana base that provides extra resources.
The free damage they generate has an additional advantage, it cannot be fought with counterspells or discarded and that is why the red desert was ultimately banned in Standard.
Ixalan Block and Bannings
In September of 2017, the format rotated with the Ixalan’s release. Ramunap Red barely lost anything for the deck from the Zendikar or Innistrad cycle; they were either redundant or easily replaceable.
|15Mountain||4Ahn-Crop Crasher||2Cut // Ribbons|
|4Ramunap Ruins||4Bomat Courier||4Lightning Strike|
|1Scavenger Grounds||4Earthshaker Khenra||4Shock|
|4Sunscorched Desert||4Hazoret the Fervent|
|3Kari Zev, Skyship Raider|
|2Aethersphere Harvester||4Chandra, Torch of Defiance||2Dual Shot|
|2Glorybringer||3Pia Nalaar||1Rampaging Ferocidon|
As you can see on this list from the World Magic Cup, Ixalan was when the archetype reached the pinnacle of its popularity. Regarding new additions, Lightning Strike improved the burn package and, at the same time, pushed Abrade into the sideboard.
Rampaging Ferocidon was the best creature the deck could have asked for: a 3/3 menacing body for three mana, able to completely disallow the new tribe of life-link vampires. Plus, his second ability deals damage for each creature entering the battlefield nullified any token based strategy.
With only three months in Standard, the dinosaur suffered the ban-hammer rage along with Ramunap Ruins when Wizards decided to preventively “nerf” mono-red because they were taking down its biggest counter in Energy based archetypes.
The deck had to adapt itself to these losses and stopped being called Ramunap Red, but luckily it got new additions with Rivals of Ixalan. The first was Fanatical Firebrand; an upgraded version of Mogg Fanatic with a pirate patch. His ability sort of gets around blockers, by allowing you to sacrifice it to deal one damage to a player or creature. It’s the kind of light threat that makes your opponent think twice before spending removal on the card, as it can simply sacrifice itself for extra damage.
Finally, Rekindling Phoenix started as a one-of and has slowly gained its place in the deck and is Hazoret's best friend on turn four, forcing Chandra to the side. Its ability to return to the battlefield repeatedly with haste forces the opponent to spend multiple removal spells on it or forces them to spend their precious exile removal spells on the phoenix instead of the powerful red god.
Challenger Decks and Dominaria Release
Mono Red Aggro by Jon Rolf at GP Memphis 2018
|3Grasping Dunes||4Bomat Courier||4Lightning Strike|
|3Scavenger Grounds||4Earthshaker Khenra||1Magma Spray|
|4Hazoret the Fervent|
|3Kari Zev, Skyship Raider|
|2Aethersphere Harvester||3Chandra, Torch of Defiance||2Abrade|
|2Dire Fleet Daredevil||2Pia Nalaar||1Rekindling Phoenix|
|1Vance's Blasting Cannons||2Magma Spray|
We now have less than six months before the next rotation, which will end with the archetype as we know it, losing the majority of its base, but there is still time to enjoy it. Of course, mono-red aggro will always be a deck waiting to be seized upon in any format with cheap hasty one-drops, so it could return, albeit in a very different form post-rotation.
Thanks to Wizards' recent marketing strategy, we now have Challenger Decks, budget versions of the most famous archetypes from Standard based on the Kaladesh and Amonkhet blocks. Due to these releases, Mono Red is cheaper than ever, and Chandra and Hazoret are both quite affordable.
Additionally, Dominaria will offer new toys for mono-red to play with and we've seen quite a few of them already:
Verix Bladewing: a very powerful four drop with flying that would fight for a place with the aforementioned Phoenix. If you pay the kicker cost you will get 8 power into the battlefield but seven mana might be too much for the strategy.
Ghitu Lavamancer and Wizard's Lightning could make wizard tribal a powerful archetype moving forward and mono-red might take advantage of them. With Soul-Scar Mage and the new Ghitu Lavamancer, we might be able to play Wizard’s Lightning for only one mana, which would mean mono-red gets lightning bolt in Standard!
All in all, mono-red has succeeded within the Standard metagame since its inception and will continue to do it, highlighted by its adaptability and high-quality low-cost cards. It could be a while before red achieves this power level again in Standard.
So, burn lovers, keep worshiping the Jackal goddess while you tap mountains. Thanks for reading and as always thank you all for your support and comments.
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