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Return to Red: Mono-Red in the New Standard

Whenever a new set comes out, I have a bunch of people asking me for my thoughts about the shape mono-red will take in the new Standard. Fortunately for me, I love playing red, so I’m usually happy to oblige by sharing my thoughts in article form, and the Return to Ravnica is no exception. Standard usually ranges from five sets (as we will now have) to eight sets (as we’re just finishing). This may not seem like a huge range, but we’re going from a pool of 1,625 cards to a pool of 1,144 cards. That’s a difference of 481 cards or almost 30%. For every ten cards you had to choose from before, you only have seven cards to choose from now. This makes a huge difference in deck construction.

Lightning Bolt
The actual difference in selection is even greater than 30%. Of the eight sets you were just building your Standard decks from, four are leaving. The fifth set being added is comprised of new cards, so you’re losing 50% of the cards you previously had to choose from. This means you have to have a completely different standard for determining which cards are Constructed-worthy. To give you a better idea of what this means, it’s kind of like how cards that are total bombs in Block Constructed are frequently completely unplayable in Vintage. This is largely a function of card-pool size. The bigger pool of cards you have to choose from when building your deck, the higher quality of threshold you can hold cards to when deciding whether to use them in a deck. This can easily be seen in Limited as well. The best example is probably the Mini-Master Sealed format. When you start with just one or two packs to build with, anything seems playable; each pack you add makes you reconsider what should pass muster. I played this format many years ago, and I remember that as the event progressed, it finally reached the point where many people’s decks seemed to consist primarily of Dark Rituals, Hypnotic Specters, Lightning Bolts, and a few really cost-efficient bigger creatures with some X spells.

So, what does all this mean? It means reshaping what we consider a tier-one deck. If for some reason your top-level Standard deck has been largely unaffected by losing four sets, congrats—you’re probably well positioned for the new metagame. I say probably for a couple reasons:

  • The strength of your deck may have been how well it matched up against the other top-decks in the format, which may no longer be around for you to beat up on. Perhaps you’re really good at beating control decks, for example, and now everyone’s playing aggressive decks; in this case, you may still have to make a change.
  • The new set may have introduced powerful new cards that are hard for your deck to deal with.

It will take some time for the new metagame to fully take shape, which will then allow us to design decks specifically to break it. So for now, it’s probably best to just build a deck that’s as generically powerful as possible. Aggressive mono-red burn decks are usually great for this purpose if the card pool allows. Let’s start by taking a look at what we’re saying goodbye to.

My previous red deck looked like this:

I just lost twenty of these cards. If it was just a third of the deck, that’d be bad enough, but it’s actually more than fifty percent of my spells. I’m left with just Stromkirk Noble, Archwing Dragon, Pillar of Flame, and Devil's Play. While these are all fine cards, Shrine of Burning Rage and Chandra's Phoenix were the backbone of the deck; plus, it just had twelve efficient burn spells ripped away. Well, let’s look at what new red cards are available in Return to Ravnica.

Bellows Lizard
Bellows Lizard It’s no Stromkirk Noble, but it’s a serviceable 1-drop if the deck ends up wanting more. It becomes more desirable if the deck needs a mid- to late-game mana soak.

Nivmagus Elemental This is one of the more intriguing aggressive cards in the new set. In an instant-burn-heavy deck, it seems that it could function a bit like an Atog or even Psychatog. Like them, it seems that it will be hard to use well, though. With the loss of Shock and Galvanic Blast, it might not be good enough.

Rakdos Cackler This card seems excellent for red aggro. A 2/2 that can’t block for 1 mana seems in line with many past 1-drops that were considered excellent for this archetype. The fact that in the late game it can be played as a 1/1 that can block seems good, too.

Ash Zealot While not synergistic with Devil's Play, the fact that Phoenix is gone makes this more tempting. Purely in terms of stats, this seems to be another strong option—among other things, haste is a really hot ability for red aggro.

Frostburn Weird This might be the wrong fit tempo-wise for a truly aggro deck, but it could certainly be a powerful sideboard option in the mirror, especially with less cheap instant burn in the format now.

Gore-House Chainwalker
Gore-House Chainwalker A 3/2 for 2 that can’t block is probably on the borderline, but it’s certainly not out of the question if the deck ends up with a hole at 2 mana.

Mizzium Mortars Given that it can’t hit players, it probably isn’t main-deck-worthy for a truly aggro deck, but it could be a solid creature-removal option for the sideboard.

Rakdos Shred-Freak For the most part, it’s just worse than Ash Zealot in mono-red, but the Zealot might be good enough that you also want these guys in the right deck.

Annihilating Fire This is not a great set for cheap burn, and this 3-mana spell is probably the best instant burn the set has to offer. Unless the environment ends up really rewarding the exile ability, I suspect it’s rarely going to be Standard-worthy though.

Guttersnipe This Goblin could be exciting in a deck bursting at the seams with burn spells, but with the loss of so much burn from the format, it’s probably a bit too weak.

Viashino Racketeer It could be a good top-of-the-curve card in an ultra-low-curve deck that needs to cycle excess land and rewards you for playing with random bodies. It would be even better if you had Phoenixes to throw away, of course, though at 3 mana, I would often rather just cast the Phoenix.

So yeah, there is nothing too exciting here for mono-red aggro. We have some solid 2-drops, but nothing you can base a deck around. With all the new cheap playable creatures, we can try a Hellrider build; lacking cheap burn, we can try more of a Big Red; or we can still try to build a deck that tops out with Archwing Dragon. Let’s look at the options:

The premise here is to maximize cards like Hellrider and Stonewright. That means playing a large quantity of cheap creatures and making sure you have a 1-drop. I like the Racketeer here because it helps prevent mana flood while it can also make sure you find the fourth land for Hellrider. At the same time, it’s another body to go with Hellrider or Stonewright. With Shock, Galvanic Blast and Incinerate gone, Pillar of Flame and Searing Spear are the best cheap burn. With this deck’s alpha-strike mentality and just a swarm of non-evasion creatures, Brimstone Volley makes a good finisher.

This deck is built around red’s two excellent Dragons. The Stromkirk Nobles and Frostburn Weirds give you some early pressure and/or blockers. I’m not really worried about mana flood with this deck because it has so many ways to soak up mana, but the two Racketeers are there more in case your hand becomes clogged up with Dragons or X spells. While it doesn’t have the brutal tempo of the Hellrider deck, it has a much better late game, and the Bonfires can help against swarm decks.

The premise here is to maximize the power of Mogg Flunkies and Angel's Tombs. The main ways I’m doing that are by playing with a lot of creatures and by making sure a lot of them have haste. The Archwing Dragons are especially good with both of them. The nice thing about this swarm deck is that it’s less vulnerable to cards such as Day of Judgment and Bonfire of the Damned because the top of the curve—Tomb and Dragon—are immune to sorceries.

So despite the body blows dealt to red by the changes in the format, it’s definitely not dead. While it may take time for the environment to congeal enough to know what the best version to play is, all of them should give you chance to win while the format is in turmoil.

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