If you've been playing any Standard during the past week, you're quite aware that Mono-Red Aggro has risen from a novelty to the clear frontrunner in the metagame leading into Pro Tour Hour of Devastation. Its success has come like its game wins, swiftly and indisputably. The deck is not only the scourge of Magic Online leagues, it won every major paper event this weekend. Its wins include the 200+ player Pro Tour Qualifier at Grand Prix Kyoto, where it filled five of the top eight slots, and the SCG Standard Classic in Atlanta. It was also the Standard deck of choice for both finalists in the SCG Team Open. Its combines hyper-aggressive threats and efficient removal and has caught the metagame off-guard, rendering most opponents completely unable to stop it. The metagame has been forced to push back against Mono-Red Aggro as hard as it can, and with it being the top deck in the metagame, it demands that players react by dedicating sideboard place to beating it.
There are some obviously strong sideboard choices against the deck like Chandra's Defeat, which will kill anything in their red army and even Chandra, Torch of Defiance itself, and it's great against their sideboard plan that often includes bringing in more expensive and robust threats like Glorybringer and Hanweir Garrison. Another effective sideboard plan is to bring in sweepers like Yahenni's Expertise and Sweltering Suns to stop their strategy of filling the battlefield with cheap threats. Creative players are turning to more unconventional means to fight against the red deck on a different axis, so today I'll explore the top ten creative sideboard cards for beating Mono-Red.
A strong plan against Mono-Red is to load up on life gain to counteract their aggression and gain ground against burn spells, so it's no surprise that many of the anti-red cards appearing in sideboards revolve around gaining life.
Perhaps the finest of these cards is Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, which shines against the red decks for many reasons. Its four toughness makes it relatively robust, so it can survive their burn spells like Abrade, and requires that opponents fire off two spells or play Collective Defiance. A key part of the Mono-Red strategy is using cards that shut down blockers, but the legend is large enough to be unnaffected by a cast Earthshaker Kenra. Assuming it is able to block, then it will survive against their attackers, which makes it an effective wall the opponent must deal with by using Ahn-Crop Crasher or Cartouche of Zeal.
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet also has the ability to make Zombie Tokens, which is very effective against a deck filled with creatures to trigger it, specifically small creatures that have a hard time fighting through these tokens. If Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet gets going and can start gaining life and making tokens, the red deck will not be able to recover, especially because it can sacrifice these tokens to grow into an even larger lifelinker.
A sort of Kalitas-lite is Gifted Aetherborn, which brings life gain to the table as early as turn two. Its three toughness makes it a strong blocker that will demand the red deck react with an anti-blocking card, or it can simply attack every turn to generate a steady Stream of Life.
Gifted Aetherborn is especially effective as a sideboard card in control decks like Grixis, against which the opponent will cut most of their anti-blocking cards and creature removal. Gifted Aetherborn is also becoming more valuable as a main deck card, so it could become a main deck staple in Black-Green Energy and delirium decks that can grow its size with +1/+1 counter cards like Verdurous Gearhulk.
Aethersphere Harvester is a lifelink creature that has become increasingly popular as a way to beat Mono-Red, and as a colorless card it can be used in essentially every deck with creatures to crew it. It's notable that Aethersphere Harvester stands above the other lifelink creatures as a particularly good blocker, because it can avoid all of the anti-blocking cards by being crewed in combat after the opponent has a chance to use any of their anti-blocking triggers. This makes it quite difficult for the red decks to beat without removal for it, and it's large enough to survive blocking against any attacker, even Glorybringer.
One place Aethersphere Harvester is becoming popular is in the sideboard of red decks themselves as a way to take over a mirror if the opponent doesn't have Abrade at the ready. It's also a staple of Vehicle decks, which can include it main deck, and it's so effective that I've seen lists that sideboard up to the full four copies.
Another approach to gain life is Sunscourge Champion, which doesn't have lifelink but instead provides life immediately with an enters-the-battlefield trigger. One advantage to this is it doesn't need to enter combat, so the life gain is not shut down by anti-blocking cards, but it's still a strong blocker that the opponent has to get through. If it's able to block and die, or if the opponent uses a removal spell, then it offers an even bigger chunk of life gain from the graveyard with its Eternalize ability.
Sunscourge Champion is the closest thing to Kitchen Finks in Standard, and that makes it a very attractive way to help fight against Mono-Red. It's appearing in all sorts of places, including in White-Blue decks with Oketra's Monument, which makes it cheaper, and in White-Blue God-Pharaoh's Gift decks, which can mill it to gain access to the eternalize immediately, possibly with God-Pharoah's Gift itself. It's also being used in Mardu Vehicles as a dedicated anti-red card, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it in any other deck with access to white mana.
The most creative way to fight against Mono-Red that I've seen is Cartouche of Ambition, which can make any creature into a source of life gain! It also comes with a -1/-1 counter, which is as good as a removal spell against the red deck filled with 12 or more one-toughness creatures. This means Cartouche of Ambition has an incredible ability to turn a game around by removing a threat and gaining a large chunk of life while presenting the red deck with something they must deal with.
Cartouche of Ambition has appeared in the sideboard of black-green decks, and it could be used in any creature-heavy black deck with plenty of good targets to enchant.
Another way to gain life is with spells, and Essence Extraction provides a nice chunk of life combined with a removal spell. An advantage of this is it doesn't allow the opponent to prevent the life gain by stopping a blocker or killing a creature, so it's life gain that can be relied upon. Destroying a creature helps to contain their battlefield presence, and this buys time for more powerful cards to take over. A downside of Essence Extraction is it can be a net-negative tempo play against their one and two-mana threats, but the value of the life gain can't be understated.
Essence Extraction is a particularly strong card in decks that can cast it again from the graveyard, like in Grixis Control decks with Torrential Gearhulk, and it might be even better in Black-Red Control decks with Goblin-Dark Dwellers that can cast it a second time a turn sooner.
An extreme way to fight back against Mono-Red is Authority of the Consuls, which gains a life for every creature the opponent plays. It goes further to tap their creatures, which hoses their many haste creatures. Preventing this initial attack effectively gains even more life, and given that the Mono-Red deck plays 12 or more haste creatures, the impact of an early Authority of the Consuls can add up to a tremendous amount of life gain that no other card can match.
Like when Authority of the Consuls was used against the Saheel Rai-Felidar Guardian combo, it's a viable sideboard card for any deck with access to white mana. It seems best in controlling decks that can clean up their creatures with sweepers before they ever have the chance to attack, but it could also be strong in aggressive decks that like Mardu that are attempting to race, or in decks like White-Blue Monument that attempt to grind out the red deck.
The Mono-Red Aggro mirror match is becoming increasingly important, so players wielding the deck need to find an edge in the matchup. One of the most successful options appears to be Sand Strangler, which fights the mirror match by going bigger with a two-for-one that destroys a threat while presenting one of its own. The red deck includes eight or more Desert lands, which will consistently unlock Sand Strangler's three-damage ability and turn it into the source of value and tempo that makes it effective in the matchup.
Another way to gain an edge in the Mono-Red mirror is Blazing Volley, which easily finds something to trade with against a deck with 12-16 one-toughness creatures, and can potentially set up a devastating tempo and card advantage swing by hitting two or even more creatures at once. There's an argument against the card because the Mono-Red decks tend to go bigger after sideboarding by trimming some of these creatures for more robust cards like Sand Strangler, but there should still be enough one-toughness creatures in the deck to make it an effective card in the matchup. Blazing Volley has been seen in Mono-Red decks, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it in more decks with red, like Mardu and even Blue-Red Control, as a way to blowout unsuspecting Mono-Red opponents.
One of the more interesting and potentially fantastic sideboard cards against Mono-Red Aggro is Weaver of Lightning, which combines a great defensive body with massive value in its ability to turn every spell into an extra point of damage. This extra damage is very effective against a deck filled with one-toughness creatures, so it has the ability to really take over the game against Mono-Red.
I've seen Weaver of Lightning as a sideboard card for the mirror match, where it will surely provide a big edge, but I am slightly concerned about it being beaten by Chandra, Torch of Defiance or Glorybringer. It could prove even more effective from the sideboard of control decks like Blue-Red Control, which has more spells to trigger it, less concern for Glorybringer, and the ability to counter the planeswalker, which leaves the red deck with little recourse.
Effective sideboarding against Mono-Red also includes bringing in more conventional and flexible cards that have uses against other decks but are still very effective in the red matchup. Magma Spray, Fatal Push and Declaration in Stone are all examples of sideboard cards that are strong against Mono-Red and should be part of any well-rounded plan for beating them. It's also very important to understand how Mono-Red sideboards against your deck, which is often going bigger with Glorybringer and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. As such, more expensive disruption like Never // Return can be effective post-sideboard, as can be Hour of Devastation. Sorin, Grim Nemesis is another card that, while expensive, is a great solution to their larger threats, and comes with massive gain, making it very effective in the matchup.
Mono-Red Aggro is here, and while the pros are working tirelessly to beat it and will reveal more creative decks and sideboard cards to beat it, they will also be further developing the red deck into an even more efficient and tuned killing machine. It's likely that the metagame after this weekend will look similar to what we see now, with Mono-Red being a defining factor in it, so these sideboard cards I shared today will be important until Ixalan changes things this fall, and maybe beyond.
What are you doing to beat Mono-Red Aggro? Share your ideas in the comments, and I'll answer any questions.