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The Twenty-Six Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Mono-Red

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The Twitter universe had spoken.

Just before Christmas my fourteen-year-old daughter had told me that she "liked Izzet" (she had opened a Niv-Mizzet, Parun on Arena), but "liked Boros more". As an enthusiastic father; an aspiring "cool dad" might understandably do, Our Hero jumped to a conclusion. Then another.

Okay, okay. I bought full Izzet and Boros decks from here on CoolStuffInc. Like lots of stuff. A full set of Steam Vents. An extra set of Sacred Foundries. I mean if Bella and I were both going to be playing on a Friday night, we'd each need our own Lava Coils, right?

"I didn't mean I actually wanted to, like, go to a Magic tournament," she let me down. "I just like playing Arena (which is a great game, by the way)."

So anyway I had all these DI new Magic: The Gathering cards. Might as well play some of them, right?

Well of course not!

Not according to So Big Twits.

This turned out fortunate, at least as far as FNM performances go. I'd won several with Mono-Red, and last Friday turned out to be my second or third consecutive undefeated-in-games outing.

Longtime readers may recall the origins of Who's the Beatdown. I watched one of my best friends and roommates misplay his mana in a crucial game at the end of a PTQ. He was saving his Lightning Bolts for Jackal Pups instead of just protecting his life total, and ended up bottlenecked.

Last Friday I dispatched a well meaning, if misguided Dimir player. He had multiple Blood Operatives and a Doom Whisperer on the battlefield, against my board of Goblin Chainwhirler, Fanatical Firebrand, and Treasure Cove (with attendant Treasure tokens).

"I would have won if I had just blocked," he opened.

That was ridiculous. Blocked with what? I had 10-12 points of burn in my hand (which I used to one-turn him after the not-block).

"I could have gained life," he retorted.

With what?

Moment of Craving? Doesn't kill the Chainwhirler, doesn't even hit the Firebrand (which would then execute an Operative).

"Respectfully, I could have put you to minus-four," I said.

"WELL WHY DIDN'T YOU?"

"Um, I didn't have to. I just killed you. In order to win, you would have had to attack with the Doom Whisperer at least two turns earlier.

"People misjudge the Mono-Red deck, sideboarded. They overvalue life gain and point removal. Then lose to all the card advantage."

... banter Banter BANTER...

Discussion // Disagreement

CONFLICT

"Are you saying Mono-Red has a better long game than Jeskai?"

"Well I'm not really sure what you mean when you say 'Jeskai' - which is really four different decks at this point - but, yes."

"That's ridiculous. Who has Inevitability? WHO'S THE BEATDOWN?"

I'm not sure if he realized who he was talking to with those last couple of comments, but I've been thinking about little else the past few days. I didn't do a convincing job explaining why Mono-Red has Inevitability against Jeskai; and he stormed off.

I kind of regretted the escalation. I mean it's frickin' FNM. But realized after some reflection that there was a valuable set of lessons hidden in that argument. I returned to Mono-Red after the Pro Tour, largely as a foil to the 1/1 creatures that were so numerous in the White Weenie-laden Top 8; but over the course of many matches that the average player simply doesn't understand the deck, or its place in the format.

FWIW, I 2-0'd Jeskai to complete the 3-0 two rounds later.

A is for Archetype

Let's start with the basics. There are at least three Mono-Red decks in Standard right now.

The Flame of Keld beatdown deck has many cards in common with what I just call "Mono-Red," but is a different macro archetype. Separately there are the bigger decks that have 1) more Rekindling Phoenixes, 2) some Siege-Gang Commanders, and 3) Arch of Orazca rather than Experimental Frenzy at the top end.

For clarity, I will refer primarily to this deck:


I have deviated not a single card from Busson's GP-winning deck near the first week of the format in the half a dozen or so FNMs since Grand Prix New Jersey. To me, Busson's deck can't be improved by the current card pool.

All three styles of Mono-Red are, in the parlance of Next Level Deck-building Red Aggro decks. The Flame of Keld deck is more aggressive, but has long been able to turn into a regular Red Aggro deck... It has some tinges of the Lava Spike deck, and a bit of Linear Aggro to it, but it's Red Aggro. Since I don't think Busson's deck can be improved, by definition I don't think The Flame of Keld is as good... But it matches up well Game 1. The ability to become a Frenzy deck gives it much of the same oomph over a match. It's a good deck, but tends to validate the opponent's strategy in a way Busson's deck doesn't.

The bigger deck is more a Pure Midrange than Red Aggro deck to me; more The Red Zone or Naya Lightsaber than Deadguy Red or Red Deck Wins. This Big Red favors card quality over synergy.

INTERVIEWER: The script obviously wasn't written for you and Moore's known to have incredibly complex panel descriptions, so what was it like drawing his scripts? It must have been challenging considering it was written for another artist and he tends to be incredibly descriptive in his panel descriptions.

LARSEN: [It was] absolute hell. He does not write to my strengths and there were all kinds of things he asked for which were a pain in the ass to draw -- there were panels with multiple things going on in the foreground and background and I spent a lot of time combing over other issues looking for reference. It was easily the most difficult script I've worked from. It was torture.

-Erik Larsen, on taking over Alan Moore's unfinished Supreme in 2012

To me, the Big Red rewards few, if any, transferable skills from playing other Red Decks. My MTGO win rate with Boros Angels (Brad Nelson's deck from GPNJ, rather than the more aggressive PT decks) is exceptional. My IRL win rate with Busson's deck even better. I stayed up until 4am playing Big Red last week and couldn't win a match. It seemed like I would tap out for Siege-Gang Commander and suddenly the opponent was a genius for the idea of putting Deafening Clarion in his deck. Or I would tank on Dire Fleet Daredevil. Do I sit back waiting for an opportunity to get two-for-one? How is that impacted by the fact that many decks give no opportunity for such a two-for-one unless I first hurl another Dire Fleet Daredevil into a garbage fire?

Clearly some others are having great success with Big Red. But heads up matches seem like a joke. They just start on 10 less life, establish kind-of a board, and then I kill them. Never did I feel with it that it was better than Sam Black's Boros Control deck, which in turn I think is worse at accomplishing the same goals than Nassif's Naya Ramp deck.

To me, Busson's deck is the unquestioned gold standard.

It's not the most aggressive deck, but because people mis-characterize it, they often play like it is. He's the classic: Busson's deck can apply pressure, but not the same level of "stop me now or I'll kill you" pressure as a Boros Aggro deck with Heroic Reinforcements. A Boros Weenie or White Weenie deck that just lays out every single permanent to get The City's Blessing is asking for Deafening Clarion, Settle the Wreckage, or Cleansing Nova. You can argue that if you don't answer appropriately, they just kill you the next turn. That's not Busson's deck.

So if you play the same way against Busson's Mono-Red, you often lose on the spot... It just takes 3-5 more turns and you haven't realized it yet. They might stick a Rekindling Phoenix, which is tricky to deal with when you have to tap out again but they have all their mana untapped. Or worse, the very same Control deck with Clarion, Settle, or Nova exposes themselves to Experimental Frenzy. Now, even if Busson's deck isn't the most aggressive deck in the metagame, it can actually play like it is... Because who cares? It is going to overwhelm you with a sheer volume of cards. Irrelevant garbage like Fanatical Firebrand is going to be sideways next turn - or maybe this turn, mana willing - while cards they can't wait to sideboard out (like Shock) are going to get cast on upkeep. Worse, every one of those becomes, increasingly, a must-counter threat.

Playing from the other side, this is a deck of surprising quality. There are many examples of this on a per-card basis, which will be discussed in many of the following letters.

B is for Banefire

You'll notice that Busson played two copies of Banefire in his sideboard. To their credit, the Big Red decks play this card main deck; it is consistent with both their Treasure Maps and their identity as more of a Control deck than the Busson.

What makes Banefire special in the games where it is in (usually against Jeskai or Esper Control decks) is that it gives Mono-Red Inevitability.

The core question of Inevitability is who has the advantage in a long game.

If one deck can and will eventually draw a card that will end the game successfully, in part because the opponent is of limited life total, and in part because the game has gone long enough (or has been intensified by Settle the Wreckage), and in part because the opponent has unwittingly agreed to these terms, we must almost definitively say that Inevitability belongs to the Red.

One feature of Red Decks that other default-aggro decks - even very good ones like Eldrazi StOmPy - don't have is their aura of sheer irrelevance. That is, at some point in the game, almost everything the opponent draws is irrelevant. Did you draw a Sinister Sabotage? Negate? Perhaps Dive Down? Then it doesn't matter. This here card will resolve and you will die.

Banefire is that aspect of Red Decks, but on steroids (or, as we've said, on Settle). Now everything is irrelevant, not just most things.

The only cure is racing. See also: [D], just two letters down.

C is for Card Drawing

This is something that many players simply get wrong.

The Red Deck, sideboarded, will generally play four Treasure Maps. This is equivalent to more than half the dedicated card drawing of the average Jeskai deck. Contextually, that is, given the length and available mana of a game, a Red Deck - especially one drawing two Maps - will have more access to carad drawing than almost any other deck.

This, too, is a hint at what Everyone Gets Wrong About Mono-Red.

If the Red Deck has access to the same card drawing as Jeskai or Izzet [in a game]... What incentive is there to be on the other side of the table? This is not a rhetorical question. Think a moment what that incentive might be.

Because it's not card drawing. It's probably not card advantage (see also: [E], two letters down). It might - again depending on the length of the game - even be about card quality.

I will hazard that it is only the very foolish Red Deck player who loses some of these games to card advantage.

Remember what I said about The Flame of Keld versus Experimental Frenzy players? One deck almost has to make Clarion good; the other one has the option to bait and maneuver; then stick something really good.

When you and your friend are chased by a bear in the woods, you don't have to be faster than the bear; only faster than your friend.

D is for Drakes

Alternately: Dive Down

When we ask who the beatdown is in Mono-Red versus Jeskai, at least sideboarded... I think the answer has to be Jeskai. Will it be successful as the beatdown? Maybe and maybe not. But it certainly won't if it's siding out Drakes or Phoenixes for life gain or whatever.

To my mind, Control doesn't want to play a long game with Mono-Red. There are at least two cards that make that a disaster, assuming the expected events of the early turns.

  • Play a pretty cheap threat for 3 mana or so.
  • Attack you 2-3 times, keeping you off-balance enough to land those attacks.
  • Win before you out-card me.

Does that sound more like Beatdown or Control to you?

E is for Experimental Frenzy

The defining card of the Busson build, Experimental Frenzy, main deck and as a four-of, is the biggest thing that Everyone Gets Wrong About Mono-Red.

This is the most powerful card advantage engine in Standard. Some very smart deck designers even compared it to Standard's Necropotence!

The game, from the Red Deck side, can be divided into two broad groups:

  1. In games without Frenzy (or in turns of the game before Frenzy hits), Busson's deck is like a bad The Flame of Keld deck. It's aggressive, but not killer speed aggressive. It's still plenty aggressive, and can put the opponent into the L column, especially if it does something dopey like draw a Ghitu Lavarunner into a pair of Wizard's Lightnings. This version of the deck must absolutely be respected... The problem is that many players put too much respect into this half, so lose almost by default to card [E].
  2. Once Frenzy hits, everything changes. The Red Deck's life total becomes suddenly important as a barometer of how many turns it can churn out 3+ cards per turn. Everything starts flying. Play patterns shift (most notably casting instants during upkeep). Card quality shifts. The good stuff - Goblin Chainwhirler and Rekindling Phoenix - become less desirable, not because they aren't still good, but because it's more exciting to cast 3-4 cards than one really good one, and Mono-Red doesn't play Wayward Swordtooth. To me, the failing of Big Red is that for all the increased expense of its cards, it doesn't actually generate more card advantage than Busson-Red with Frenzy online. Individual two-for-ones evaporate in the face of one-for-zeroes and the explosive mana of Runaway Steam-Kin. Many decks, such as Dimir Control, can't actually remove a Frenzy online. The closest thing they can come to is the back half of Discovery // Dispersal, but there are so many things wrong with that answer. For one, it might not even hit if the opponent has a Phoenix he doesn't care about. If he has any cards in hand at all - which is likely as he can't play any out of hand - he'll get a free unlock and then just re-play the Frenzy. Worst of all... YOU JUST TAPPED 5 MANA AGAINST A PLAYER WHO HAD FRENZY IN PLAY. Can you actually get the shields any lower?

Experimental Frenzy shifts almost every play pattern and incentive in Standard in favor of the Red Deck. Remember Ben Stark's Desert Red deck? Treasure Map was great in Mono-Red before Frenzy, but together they make maybe the best two-card punch in Standard (though Azor's Gateway and Banefire might have something to say about that). It does however shift one incentive the other way.

Mono-Red is kind of bad against large creatures. It has to play hyper specialized cards already. But against any large creature (some of which are extremely dangerous and give only a small window to be removed) having Frenzy in play can be a disaster. Imagine the opponent has a Lyra Dawnbringer or Niv-Mizzet, Parun in play in Game 1. Having Frenzy in play actually makes it harder to remove these, even when you have enough burn in hand.

When we way "everyone" ... We mean many Red Deck players, too!

F is for Fight With Fire

One of the Red Deck's most important sideboard tools, this card is essential for Jeskai's big creatures, the aforementioned Niv-Mizzet, Parun (where it will trigger only once, ideally), or Lyra Dawnbringer.

Everyone knows that... So what does "everyone" get wrong?

Red Decks might not side it in! (or at least not know what to side out)

It's not always right to side in all the copies of Fight With Fire, but in a Map deck, and against Settle the Wreckage, it's usually at least a bad Banefire.

I will always have all my Lava Coils and Treasure Maps in against Jeskai. The first card I side out is Shock, which has a lower average damage output than Fanatical Firebrand against a creature-poor deck. The card I am most excited to side out might surprise you: It's Goblin Chainwhirler! This card doesn't pay you back enough against a creature-poor deck, and gums up Frenzy if you don't have a ton of mana already.

G is for "Good Game"

What even is a "good game" when we're talking about Mono-Red in Standard?

If I play turn one Ghitu Lavarunner, and then Shock + Wizard's Lightning you on turn two, into your tapped Glacial Fortress... Is it a good game when I kill you the turn you Clarion me?

I think it's a great game!

I had to evaluate using two potentially precious cards with very limited information. I put you half your life total and had to gamble I could end it with essentially half my opening hand in response.

This is frustrating for many opponents; but playing from the Red Deck side has always been cerebral and measured for me, even if it doesn't always look it, so messy is the flurry of burn spells.

H is for Healer's Hawk

I was super excited to play Healer's Hawk when the card was revealed some months ago.

It was somewhat gratifying to see this excitement borne out in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica.

But as I've said above, the incentive to playing the Red Deck actually comes from opponents committing to 1/1 creatures, like Healer's Hawk here. The problem is that, on the battlefield, a 3/3 first strike is actually better than almost every body the opponent will present, and the fact that it got three-for-one the turn it came down really deflates the classic matchup.

Even History of Benalia is unexciting against the average Chainwhirler.

I is for Inevitability

Mono-Red doesn't always have it. And it doesn't always come from Banefire. But people get this one mad wrong.

I was railbirding a match at a recent Grand Prix and saw a young Golgari mage I was cheering for get utterly worked by the Red Deck. He seemed to have every tool, but lost to Rekindling Phoenix, Experimental Frenzy, and - I hate to admit it - Siege-Gang Commander.

The Golgari player had all his advantage-bearing stuff. Cast Down for enough speed. Better guys on the ground; Carnage Tyrant into Find // Finality even. In another game, he had gone over 50 life with Wildgrowth Walkers! I didn't actually understand how he could lose.

The answer in both cases was just Frenzy. At some point the games went long enough that Frenzy-into-Phoenix became inevitable. Blocks didn't have to be great. Blocks just had to keep the Red Deck alive. Drawing three cards a turn - when some of them were Fight With Fire - did enough of the rest. Fifty life? Yeah. Crazy. You know how but your Wildgrowth Walkers must be at that point?

Still not big enough to get past Rekindling Phoenix, apparently.

J is for Jadelight Ranger

This one took a long time for me to wrap my head around, especially at the start of the format when I was tag-teaming Explore guys and Frenzy. Most people are only playing one or the other and start out with a not-wrong - but still not-wholly-accurate - context for Jadelight Ranger-against-the-world.

Yes, Jadelight Ranger is awesome. No question. Sometimes it's a three-for-one! It keeps your cards flowing, and is even a cool Tutor. How great is it to bin a creature you don't have enough mana to cast + get a Memorial that you can use to resurrect that creature later in the game? Gorgeous, right?

Jadelight Ranger, contextually, can be a good clock; a great enabler for Wildgrowth Walker; or... Um... That's it. The card advantage of Jadelight Ranger is fairly meaningless unless you were stuck on land. You don't get to play more lands unless your rg, and as we've long established, the long-game card advantage is in favor of the Red Deck, almost against the whole format.

I used to think that Jadelight Ranger was this panacea, but it isn't even all that great at soaking up damage. 2/1 Jadelights die to Chainwhirler activations or even Firebrands. 3/2 Rangers trade with everything but cost you 3 mana. 4/3 Wakefield-sized ones weren't really the droids you were looking for. The big-big guys are outclassed by both Goblin Chainwhirler and Rekindling Phoenix, and make for inconsistent defense in the face of Lightning Strike.

The resources in Magic aren't about how many cards you have in hand or how many lands you have in play. They're about how many cards you can cast and how much mana you can actually use. That's why manascrewed players with seven - or sadly, eight - cards complain as much as mana flooded players with all the lands in the world but nothing to spend them on. It's not that two-for-one card drawers aren't good. They're great sometimes! But don't be fooled into thinking that they're giving you some magical resource. Jadelight Ranger isn't like Chemister's Insight. It's not getting you more spells. You're still bound by the essential symmetries of Magic. You just have another land in hand.

Good. Sure. Great! Even. Sometimes.

Just not good / great in exactly the way you might start out assuming, at least in context.

K is for Knights

Remember the naive days two months ago when gw players weren't sure what 2-drop to play? They'd have three each of Adanto Vanguard, Thorn Lieutenant, and Knight of Grace (certainly all four Honor Guards to brown Golgari, but that's another article)? Remember when?

rw decks played Knight of Grace, too.

Both decks could potentially get paid off with History of Benalia.

When I first picked up Mono-Red I assumed gw was a horrible matchup. Turns out it's not. It's fine. It's not super exciting. You don't salivate at the prospect of being matched up against it, but it's not an auto-lose. For one thing, the Knights are super medium. I'm talking about Knight tokens at this point (obviously). Most of that stuff just isn't scary compared to Goblin Chainwhirler. No one attacks. Blocking is random for everyone involved. It's weird.

If I'm playing a multicolored White creature deck, I'm 1) Adanto Vanguard, 2) Tocatli Honor Guard but I'm a core metagamer. Adando Vanguard is the best against Jeskai, and if I'm a multicolored White creature deck, I'm scared of Jeskai. Honor Guard is actually great against the Red Deck and underplayed. Blocks almost everyone; turns off Chainwhirler and Pyromancer. Pyromancer is hitting the showers Game 2 regardless; that guy wins no fights with anyone. In Green I'm Thorn Lieutenant next and Conclave Tribunal over another body. In Red, I just go straight to Lava Coil, but then again, I'm a metagamer.

History of Benalia has been... fine. Good, never backbreaking, for me. Other Knights? Not good enough for inclusion. I think most of the rest of the metagame has gotten this mostly right.

Then again, look who's around the corner!

L is for Lyra Dawnbringer

Lyra is obviously the apex predator of everything we've been talking about in this article. Lyra is the worst. And by that I mean the best card against Red. She's hard to remove, and increasingly so if the Red Deck's primary source of long game card advantage Experimental Frenzy comes online.

Let's look at it like this:

  • I play a threat.
  • Even if it doesn't kill you, it might beat you in one swing.
  • As a classic dance, its presence challenges your card advantage engine.

What does this look like to you?

Who's the Beatdown, indeed?

M is for Moment of Craving

I think this card is fine.

Players who have it main deck certainly have some percentage that players who don't have it main deck might not have. I don't think it's so much better than Golden Demise or Ritual of Soot, contextually... Just based on how the Red Deck tends to play out in Game 1.

It's not that it's suddenly so bad sideboarded, but it kind of misses the point. See also [O] a few lines down.

Fast removal can be good, but not necessarily. I keep no-one-drop-turn-two-Treasure Map ALL THE TIME. If you're heavy on Moment of Craving you might have already lost.

N is for Novice Knight

So I opened a Goblin Chainwhirler on Arena yesterday.

Super excited.

Should I start to stream?

Cracking every last Gold in Dominaria packs gave me three straight copies of Grand Warlord Radha - I spit you not - but still no Wizard's Lightning (uncommon). No streaming yet :/

First matchup with my shiny new Goblin Chainwhirler (plus friendly neighborhood wild cards)... turn one Novice Knight. turn two, two Novice Knights.

No, we didn't win that one.

Thank God we didn't start streaming [yet].

There is a lesson here, but I'm not 100% sure what it is. Someone definitely got something wrong somewhere in this exchange. Could easily have been Our Hero.

O is for Opening Hands

Standard is great right now. There are legitimate decks of each of the three traditional styles; in Arclight Phoenix, we have more-or-less a combo deck. There is a ton of play and a ton of possible customization. Personally, I think Adrian Sullivan's Jeskai win was one of the most rewarding deck-building moments in recent memory.

All that play makes for some wonky assumptions and opening hand evaluations though.

Here is a question: Is Duress good against Experimental Frenzy?

Some players swear by it. "I can take your Frenzy."

The problem is you can't stop me from topdecking a Frenzy, and the success of your sideboard strategy rests on my having a Frenzy when you cast it. To me, the battle is more on the battlefield, and I would approach it from that perspective. Big Jadelight Rangers, bigger Wildgrowth Walkers. Side in Thief of Sanity in Dimir! I might not have Shock in sideboarded games, and if it gets going, it will out-card me, and has a potentially higher likelihood of burgling Frenzy than Duress. Make the world small so my good stuff has no room. Choke my resources. Put ME on the clock so I don't have time to GET to that good stuff. Duress lets me play my lands and just play something else with those lands.

I'm not a big Duress guy against Frenzy decks, but I've lost games where it was cast, I suppose.

Moment of Craving is similar. I've definitely beaten the smiling Cheshire Cat with two Moments in opening hand. He doesn't get that I'm turn-two Treasure Map this game, and that I'm not casting anything proactive ahead of Phoenix; no way.

Maybe the best is when you play possum with a lot of land and then lay out a Steam-Kin. 1/1? I can Moment of Craving that, the other guy thinks. Only you have two instants. It's a mess. Even if they get right of your giant Steam-Kin, they didn't get the value they wanted; but they left how much mana fallow?

The problem with certain opening hand evaluations are that the cards are so volatile; they work if the Red Deck cooperates and don't if it doesn't. But you overvalue your hand regardless.

P is for Protect the Queen

This is one of the best strategies against Mono-Red, and underplayed.

Untapping and potentially getting to attack with a Lyra Dawnbringer is exceptional in-matchup. Niv-Mizzet, Parun is nearly as good; in part because he's such a great racer. Drakes are less good, but then again they cost half the mana.

Dive Down is the most directly effective methods of queen-protection, but Spell Pierce and other cheap, fast, cards can break a Red Deck's back, especially when it requires multiple resources to take down Niv-Mizzet.

Q is for Quality

Quality may be the single biggest thing Everyone Gets Wrong About Mono-Red.

The typical saw is that the Red Deck wins on some overlap of synergy (get you low and burn you out) or volume (my cards may not be good, but I sure can cast a lot of them). Both of these ideas are true... But Red's cards are also quite good in Standard.

Well, maybe that's not 100% true; but they're not so much worse than other people's cards that they're worth less than a card. Vraska's Contempt is a good example. This card is the cadillac removal spell. It kills Rekindling Phoenix and other pesky, resilient, creatures dead; and it kills the biggest threats, no matter how big, so long as they can be targeted.

Lava Coil and Fight With Fire... Well... Neither has Vraska's Contempt's flexibility. That's kind of why Red Decks have to go to the trouble of playing both. But in the right spot, Lava Coil will end an Arclight Phoenix permanently, or force through six points of damage through a four-toughness Drake of however much power. Fight With Fire can kill Lyra Dawnbringer one-for-one, and is no more painful an answer to Niv-Mizzet than Vraska's Contempt. Basically, these cards are "worse" ... But still good.

Viashino Pyromancer isn't winning many fights against Knight of Grace or Thorn Lieutenant. In fact, it's embarrassing against the Lieutenant's minions ... But it does the same amount of damage for the same amount of mana. Worse in a way... But still good. Enough.

R is for Rekindling Phoenix

The top of the Red Deck curve is the best example of the Quality metric.

This is a card that Jeskai decks (three colors) are willing to play. Midrange Boros decks, too. Decks that have access to Lyra Dawnbringer and Crackling Drake; or Lyra and Aurelia tap the same four, one land at a time, for the same 4/3 as the Red Deck.

Obviously the Red Deck appreciates Rekindling Phoenix more, if only because it has fewer high quality threat playmates than Jeskai, Boros, or other multicolored decks can field.

S is for Settle the Wreckage

This makes your Banefire good even better.

But watch how you play into it; no reason to give them a free Phoenix if you can help it. Unless you'd kill them otherwise or some such.

Side note for Jeskai-hating players of other color combinations.... Settle can dig up a single basic Mountain for you. Free Tech!

T is for Tocatli Honor Guard

It seems to me two weeks into the format this Soldier was a four-of fixture in every placing deck that could cast it. By the Pro Tour? 1/2 and even 0/3 options for w were favored over a 1/3 for 1w.

Honor Guard is awesome against the Red Deck. If you don't have it main, I would generally encourage you to side it in. It brickwalls every creature on the ground but Goblin Chainwhirler; and even there, the Honor Guard erases the best Gnarled Mass's text box. This creature makes Firebrand not very good, and Viashino Pyromancer an absolute embarrassment.

In terms of disincentivizing damage, this is like a Novice Knight you might actually play.

U is for "Until the end of your next turn"

Emphasis on next.

Last time I mis-evaluated Red Deck card Light Up the Stage

Light Up the Stage

Unless you literally play your third land and then tap out for Light Up the Stage, revealing two Mountains... this card is basically better than a Red Divination. You can use instants the way they were intended, and even play two lands over two turns so long as you didn't play one already.

Great card. Excited to try it soon. Retraction. Et cetera.

V is for Vraska's Contempt

Besides the obvious tension on mana (Vraska's Contempt costs the same as Ravenous Chupacabra), I think this one is underrated against Mono-Red. People play fewer four-ofs. The life gain is nice, but it differs from Moment of Craving in many ways.

First of all, unlike a Moment-heavy hand, no one is running a victory lap over a Contempt-heavy one. They know it costs four and will evaluate accordingly. More importantly, this card can permanently remove Rekindling Phoenix, which is one of the creatures the Red Deck is likely to lean on against a black opponent going deep.

W is for Wildgrowth Walker

Red Mages: Kill this on sight. I don't care if it costs you your hand on turn two or three. I double-Shocked one just this morning and won handily... In a game where my opponent played two Merfolk Branchwalkers, a Seeker's Squire, a Jadelight Ranger, and a late-game Memorial. If I had waited even two turns to make proactive plays, the Walker would have been out of Shock range. I would have just gotten killed by it instead of making all those Explore guys look silly with my three Chainwhirler draw.

Can't emphasize this enough. Do what you have to do. Lava Coil it on turn two in a sideboarded game. DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO.

X is for X-Factors

I once spent half an hour trying to explain to my opponent that I was just playing Busson's same-seventy-five from the Grand Prix. He was obsessed with the mid-range-ness of my deck, and how he kept expecting me to play Karn.

Clearly it was more how I played (and sideboarded) than the card choices themselves (which, as I've maintained throughout, were stock). I like to side in Treasure Map in almost every matchup. There is always something I don't want (usually Fanatical Firebrand). Or my opponent's guys are just much better than mine and I don't want to draw random 1/1 and 2/1 guys late game when I'm already losing ground on the ground. Or I anticipate 5/5s so am trading flexible burn for big removal. Maps are good with everything, and help make up for the fact that this deck only has 22 lands... But aspires to play the game of a 25-land deck in sideboarded games.

Ultimately, x-factors go in bot directions. If you anticipate an opponent coming out quickly with 1-drops and hasty Pirates... Your sideboard strategy is going to look pretty inappropriate against Treasure Map and all slow, progressive advantage, cards. By the same token, the Red Deck has to have the right answers to the right problems in sideboarded games, if it aspires to be the Control instead of the Beatdown.

Like I said above, Thief of Sanity is a good card to side in. Many aspiring fire gods will not have Shock in against Dimir or Esper in a sideboarded game. Thief of Sanity will shred them. Each of the Red Deck sideboard answers is very specific. All of the non-Treasure Map cards does the same thing, but to a different class of target: Opponents, Angels, Drakes / Phoenixes, or Saprolings. If you do random things, bring in unexpected cards that don't have nicely interlocking LEGO answers, the Red Deck will become inefficient. Margins can be narrow in non-Frenzy games, and burn doesn't add up well in Frenzy games. If you have a card like Dream Eater, it will likely steal a damage going down. I still don't have a good idea about how to answer Doom Whisperer.

Y is for You (yes, you)

Just making sure you're still with me! We're six thousand words in at this last point:

Z is for Zzz

Just don't sleep on Mono-Red.

I returned to it because of all the White Weenie decks at the PT; but at my FNM? No one even plays them anymore. I've found some other things. Like it's not that bad against Golgari. You have to play really well sometimes, and the wins aren't pretty... But you can still win.

Perhaps most important is this:

I can't buy a 40% win rate with Izzet on MTGO. I lose the overwhelming number of matches I play with Drakes and Niv-Mizzet. Which is weird because I have a very good win rate with Boros and Mono-Red, which are less popular decks.

I've come to the conclusion that the decks that I win with more are constantly teetering on the verge of disaster. They have to draw the exact right cards to get out of certain problems. So the only way to play is to play exactly correctly such that if you draw the right card, you can take advantage of it. This is very different from Izzet or Golgari, who are so lousy with flexible answers, or Jeskai and its life-on-easy-mode ticking up of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.

The Red Deck makes you - or at least me - play better; because if I don't, I don't win at all. The answers are narrow; and while not so much worse... The cards are worse. But in that is a different kind of freedom.

Or, you can just blow everyone out with Chainwhirler and good matchups. Either one is fine. Sleeping on the Red Deck would be a mistake in either case.

LOVE

MIKE