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Eight Things You Need to Know About Kaldheim Mono-Red

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The Standard Red Deck might be the strongest strategy in the format. Thankfully it's not a runaway call or anything, but - admitting that Yours Truly does love a Basic Mountain (Snow-Covered or otherwise) - the Red Deck's Goldspan Dragons seem to be pulling away from the rest of the metagame in a number of large tournaments.

Let's start by talking about sandydogmtg's tournament-crushing build from Valentine's Day:


No one familiar with the pilot - his impressive digital credentials aside - would be surprised with either the First Place finish or selection of strategy. Of course, sandydogmtg is a [paper] Grand Prix Champion, swinging with hasty 1-drops and finishing games with Lightning Bolts across formats and all these planes of Dominia.

Since around this time builds like the one sandydogmtg piloted have - within a card or three - cemented themselves collectively as the Red Deck of choice for Standard. So, what are the Top 8 most important things to know about this influential version?

1. It doesn't play Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass

Shatterskull Smashing

Possibly my absolute favorite design choice here is simply not playing the once-ubiquitous modal double-faced card. Instead, at least in part in recognition of the fact that this deck wants to get to Goldspan Dragon mana, it just plays twenty-five actual lands.

Which is FINE!

Like many previous Mono-Red decks in Standard, sandydogmtg's build has Castle Embereth... Albeit only two copies. With the Maximum Number of Faceless Havens, this deck can't quite guarantee that Castle Embereth will enter the battlefield untapped. It is generally uncommon to activate multiple, different, copies of Castle Embereth in a game you actually win, so beyond not drawing the first copy, this build does not lose too much by declining to run all four.

Anyway, he has a different mana intensive mana source: The aforementioned Faceless Haven! Faceless Haven is obviously a very exciting card on its own, but in this deck can also power up Frost Bite. It's great!

... None of which directly addresses not playing Shatterskull Smashing.

I think part of it is that Shatterskull Smashing isn't really that good in this deck, even when you might want it. Playing Goldspan Dragon already puts this deck in an aspirational z1 mana-wise, and a Shatterskull Smashing with X=3 just isn't scaring too many Magicians. But it is likely the awareness of (7) below.... The necessity of the archetype's being effective against itself... That limits the utility of the modal double-faced card.

Every time you play Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass untapped, you've saved a mirror opponent what could be a full card. Maybe more. The upshot of a relatively weak Shatterskull Smashing is just not there.

Kill your darlings. (already done)

2. This Deck Will Most Often Win in The Red Zone

Red Decks across formats and Magic history present in a diverse range of potential offensive strategies. On one far end of the spectrum is The Lava Spike Deck, which plays such a high level of redundancy it can seem like a Storm Combo winning with Grapeshot... Or maybe a damaging-analogue to Brain Freeze. On the other side might be a Tribal Goblins deck... That plays such an overlapping redundancy that it feels like a Storm Combo deck winning with Empty the Warrens. In between there are decks with fast creatures that finish you off with burn spells, and decks with mostly burn spells that use their fast creatures disposably to help get you into fire range. There are even big creature and big spell decks that develop hard-to-interact-with plans over the course of many turns.

The current Standard deck isn't quite as far along the spectrum as the Goblins decks... But it has very few of the features or incentives of The Lava Spike deck, barely enough to qualify as a stock Red Aggro deck to borrow the parlance of Next Level Deck-building. More classic "Burn" decks use creatures to get the opponent into range of your remaining cards in hand and then have at it. This deck is a bit lacking in that last department.

Put simply, this is a creature deck that happens to be Mono-Red. The Valentine's Day build played a whopping six non-creature spells main deck... And four of those spells were Embercleaves! (You know, a non-creature spell that has essentially no text unless you're already in The Red Zone with one of your non-non-creature spells.)

So, in many games, this build is going to feel more like a StOmPy deck and not at all like a Burn one. With cards like Gingerbrute and Questing Beast propping up Green in the last year, the concept of a hasty 1-drop or expensive 4/4 is just an aspect of StOmPy now. The deck piloted by sandydogmtg not only doesn't have Lava Spikes, it really doesn't have Lava Spikes. If this deck is going to win, the vast majority of that time it will be with several creatures sideways. Literally the only way to deal damage outside of the Red Zone is with one side or the other of Bonecrusher Giant (itself technically a 4/3 creature).

Have you ever died, having eaten three Lightning Bolts, Rift Bolts, or Skewer the Critics in one three-mana salvo? Well, there isn't enough direct damage in this entire deck to even do that. If you want to finish someone with "burn" ... Best get them to two life in The Red Zone first.

3. That said, there is an awful lot of Haste...

The Valentine's Day build we started on plays twenty-nine creatures... Some fifteen (or more than half) provide some kind of way to attack the turn they enter the battlefield.

So, what does this mean?

The deck still largely has to win via combat damage... But to a degree it slays strategies. One longtime strategy for board control decks is to use efficient one-for-one removal on their own turn, or set up a go-wide opponent with sweepers. You know, stuff like...

Innocent Blood
Chainer's Edict

Into

Akroma's Vengeance

... And with so many creatures, this is obviously a go-wide deck with a small number of big damage standouts.

The problem is - sweepers or no - you can't only strive to kill its creatures on your own turn. There is just too much haste. In a sense it shares the incentive of the Modern Burn deck, which can suffer one-for-one trades, but always take a little damage from haste or Eidolon triggers to eke down life points along the way.

And when one of those haste creatures is Goldspan Dragon?

4. It is Resilient and Card Advantageous

The Standard Red Deck's resilience is bound, somewhat, up in the haste described directly above. The opposing control deck kills a creature - maybe kills three creatures - but eats two or four or whatever on the swing-back. Strategically you can play to make removal look good "on paper" but simultaneously exhaust the opponent's total removal resources.

The resilience goes beyond this, of course. Many cards are deceptively advantageous. The best example of course being:

Anax, Hardened in the Forge

That card is the removal-hater!

Phoenix of Ash (which also has haste) and Ox of Agonas are additional important tools for out-lasting the opponent's removal, even when their plan is theoretically working.

But on top of all those is:

Faceless Haven

The goal here is to push damage, even while the opponent is operating. We know. We KNOW this deck has to do the bulk of its damage in combat; and it's built to be able to do that while the opponent is casting spells that prevent combat damage.

5. It doesn't play Magda, Brazen Outlaw

I was very happy to see sandydogmtg not play Shatterskull Smashing, but I wasn't surprised.

Magda, though... I had to look twice.

In the earliest forays into Kaldheim Standard, Red Decks played on the synergy between Magda, Brazen Outlaw and incumbent Dwarves like Rimrock Knight and the big man himself: Torbran, Thane of Red Fell.

There is a lot of offensive synergy to be had between those Dwarves, and - in the manner of fantastical Dwarves - much treasure to be delved. This is doubly (triply?) synergistic given the top end of Goldspan Dragon; which, being a Dragon, is a legitimate payoff for Magda AS WELL AS an additional engine piece once on the battlefield.

Instead, we see Flameblade Charger essentially graduating to Staple.

Flameblade Charger was a Role Player in the previous Standard, but it really seems to have cemented itself in this StOmPy-esque Red Deck. Its main advantages are backing Fervent Champion on one, and various tricks related to pump effects. For instance, if the opponent blocks your Flameblade Charger with a 1/3 you can hurl a Boulder Rush at it and trade... And then get in an additional three damage to another creature (or face) essentially for free.

The "equipped" clause might seem narrow... But it's actually not all that crazy.

Surely you can imagine being on the wrong side of an Extinction Event, but keeping an Embercleave. If you have four mana you can play Flameblade Charger, pants up the Embercleave, and then be in The Red Zone for some double strike on the double.

Flameblade Charger is actually one of the most tactical and situationally challenging cards to reach Staple in recent memory. Most cards of that stripe tend to be overwhelmingly powerful and strategically dominating... But little Flameblade Charger morphs into different roles depending on when you draw it, what's going on around it, and how foolhardy your opponent is with blocks.

6. Rimrock Knight Has Never Been Better

I had decided on making this bullet one of The Top 8 Things You Absolutely Need to Know About Standard Mono-Red even before I realized the build in question did not play Magda.

I decided it was still true, so kept it!

While the offensively single-minded Dwarf Knight isn't getting buffed or making much Treasure, its instant speed shenanigans with Flameblade Charger will surprise you by how well they "punch up" against flashier cards.

It shares a kind of pseudo-card advantage with all Adventures... And being a Knight, can put on a lot of hurt following an early Fervent Champion.

Get a little more oomph situationally with Anax. Get a lot more oomph tactically with Embercleave.

None of this is new.

What is?

Goldspan Dragon

Boulder Rush, Rimrock Knight's front side, targets. Therefore, if you target your Goldspan Dragon you get Treasure! You can even sacrifice the Treasure to make the Rimrock Knight post-combat... On account of Goldspan Dragon Treasures making double.

Never.

Been.

Better.

7. It might be a victim of its own success

The Valentine's Day build of sandydogmtg played only two copies of Frost Bite. Which is great! This is mostly a StOmPy deck, and Frost Bite doesn't do any damage [to face, that is].

However the Same Top 8 - Top 4, really - included a similar deck, albeit with more Frost Bites (and the full quad of Shatterskull Smashings).

If you look forward to sandydogmtg's next several Standard finishes - all with Mono-Red - you will see some slight, but telling, changes. This one is from a $5,000 Kaldheim Qualifier:


Namely the addition of more Frost Bites main, plus cards like Fire Prophecy in the sideboard, and the addition of a Redcap Melee. These are all instant speed cards that can counter Red Deck threats at similar speed, or pre-empt the value brought by haste. Scorching Dragonfire is a card with greater flexibility, as it can hit Planeswalkers, but Fire Prophecy is the one you want if you need your deck moving to keep pace with an opponent capable of pushing the pace; you know, like another Red Deck.

Doubling Frost Bite and Redcap Melee counts isn't just because they're good cards. These are contextually driven decisions made by someone who knows how good the Red Deck is.

But it goes beyond that!

Here is a recent take on Naya:

Bonecrusher Giant is about the best card against fair beatdown decks that a fair Standard deck can play!

... Unless you count Lovestruck Beast! One half trades with one of many 1-toughness bodies in the Red Deck, the other side is an insane 5/5 blocker for 3 mana.

The "regular" cards are great against Red. It even gets to cheat by borrowing Red's own tools like Redcap Melee.

What about the specialized ones?

Glass Casket

Is there a more perfect one-for-one for fighting three mana threats that are inherently resistant to removal, like Phoenix of Ash or Anax, Hardened in the Forge?

What kind of lands, now?

As a longtime aspiring Fire God I can tell you one thing: If people want to beat a Red Deck, they just have to decide that, and try.

8. The... Sideboard...

I think I've been unambiguous about how I feel about this Red Deck generally. But like most Mono-colored aggro decks in Standard, the sideboard is somewhere between inflexible and clunky. Is Ox of Agonas a bigger spoiler for Dimir than Reidane, God of the Worthy is to Snow-Covered Mountain? Probably... Only there isn't as much Dimir near the top tables.

Shredded Sails is kind of an awesome card in Boros Cycling, but uninspiring as an aggro sideboard card. Gets the job done, sure; but think about it this way...

The Red Deck presents the opportunity to attack the opponent in multiple different ways in Game 1. It can start early, go wide, top up on Torbran or a hasty 4/4 Dragon. It can eke out card advantage or bait the opponent into a Wrath effect that just wasn't that profitable. It has counter-plans for opposing plans and just plain coherent cards for every-when else.

After sideboarding, the opponents have all kinds of mischief to improve against beloved Red Aggro. In some cases Red will be able to drop the hammer with an Ox of Agonas... But it does not improve by nearly the same level of drama in most other cases.

Still...

LOVE

MIKE

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