If you play as much Magic Online as I do, you become resigned to the fact that you are going to play against a lot of monored. Even when the deck isn't very good in a format you will still see a reasonable amount of it. And when it is good there is absolutely no escaping it. Right now it's good. Real good.
This is the build my friend Jake Tilk used to win the TCGplayer Diamond event in Flint, MI. His list is pure red, but the monored deck spirit can also be found in the green splashing Atarka Red deck. Regardless of exact form, the basic strategy of the red deck is always the same: blisteringly fast aggression backed up with significant amounts of reach. In my time grinding Magic Online I've been forced to develop strategies to quickly adapt to and beat red in any of its incarnations. When you are not ready to play against red the matchup can be some of the least fun Magic there is, but when I am properly prepared I find the matchup to be some of the most pure numbers Magic there is and highly enjoyable. Today I'm going to share my approach towards learning and playing Standard monored matchups.
Know Your Enemy
The first thing to do when a new monored deck rears its ugly head is to understand what it is capable of. Put the time in, study the lists. Figure out what their reach package looks like and how much damage they can output with X cards in hand and Y mana available. Note what haste creatures they are playing. Look for the potential sideboard choices like Magmatic Chasm, Break Through the Line or Harness by Force that let them Demolish a stabilized board position. These are the things you need to know prior to facing the matchup so that you can always gauge how close you are to being dead in a game.
Once you know what the lists look like and can figure out if they can kill you in various board positions, it is time to get an idea for what their early turns look like. Some people can get a really accurate idea of this just by looking at the list, others need to play games. Myself, I like to watch feature matches. Regardless of the method you choose, knowing how their early turns play out allows you to figure out what your early turns need to look like to survive.
When it is good, monored is a very consistent linear strategy. It does exactly one thing, and it does it well. This is its greatest strength, but we can turn it into a weakness. Any deviation red takes from its core game plan is just strictly less powerful and less fast. This means red will come at us in basically the same way every game. It is on us to throw up a roadblock strong enough to stop it.
For a long time, my biggest weakness in playing against red was that seeing the turn one basic Mountain and one-drop opening would send me into Panic mode. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I would play out my spells as quickly as possible, block at every opportunity and essentially do everything in my power to not take a single point of damage. I wasn't playing with logic, but with fear.
Fear is the ally of the red deck and the enemy of its foes. Vanquish it from your mental state. This is the purpose of learning exactly what red is capable of. Yes, the deck comes at you fast, but you know how fast. Their reach can kill you after you stabilize, but you know which life totals they can Threaten and which they can't. There's nothing to be scared of. You can't afford to play scared because the red deck will punish you for the smallest inexactitude. Games against red are often won or lost by half a turn. There is absolutely no room for error.
So take a deep breath, relax. Figure out how much life you can use as a resource to find profitable blocks. Know how long you can wait before pulling the trigger on your sweeper. Delay deploying your blockers until you can protect them from removal. There is a ton of cool ways to buy yourself turns against red by not fighting every point of damage. Just be confident in your knowledge of what they are capable of, ensure that your life total stays high enough to be safe, and spend the rest of it eking out any edge you can find.
Congratulations! You've weathered the early storm and reached the midgame more or less intact. Now it is time to take the fight to them. This is a critical step in beating red. You cannot give them infinite turns to find the reach they need to beat you from your stabilized position. This can be an unintuitive step for a lot of players because so much of the early game thought process in the matchup is how to stay safe. Your life total is less safe with your creatures sideways, but it is necessary to win the game.
The time to start attacking is not when you can do so and still leave sufficient blockers back to hold back red's force. Sometimes it is, but often it is far earlier than that. The time to attack is whenever your clock is faster than your opponent's. Look at their cards in hand and lands in play, figure out how much damage they are representing if you come crashing in. Be mindful of their reach and potential haste creatures, but aim to turn the corner as soon as you can.
In testing, if you aren't sure if the time is right to start attacking, go ahead and try it. It is important to develop a good sense of when the time is right for some of your creatures to go sideways, and the best way to develop that sense is through trial and error. You might end up surprised at just how early you can start to attack.
Play the Percentages
Winning every game against red isn't possible. Intuitively we understand that because Magic is a game with a sizeable amount of variance we cannot possibly win every game. However, I find that it is really easy to lose sight of this intuition when it comes to the monored matchup. When you are in tune with the current form of the red deck and really understand the matchup, the consistency of the enemy deck makes the games start to feel like a puzzle - and puzzles are solvable.
Keeping in mind that you can't win every game allows you to gain percentage points by accepting that you can't beat something. Generally, the thing you decide you can't beat will be some threshold amount of reach. Maybe it's two Stoke the Flames. Maybe the cards fell poorly for you and this game you can't beat the first Stoke the Flames. That's ok: know it, own it, and play to your outs.
The idea of accepting that you can't beat a certain card or combination of cards is universal in Magic theory, and I often hate the places where it is applied. I believe we are, in general, far too quick to decide that if they have X card we can't win a game that will last another five turns. But against red, the games won't last another five turns and we can see that if they have it we die on the spot. Further, against red we sometimes end up playing against the top of their deck and find ourselves needing to fade a burn spell for a turn or two. Trying to play around them ripping burn is an admirable goal, but often ill advised.
When red is good in a format, you need to respect it. The deck by its very nature forces you to interact with it early in the game. If you don't, you won't get a chance to interact with it later, as you will be dead. Because of this fact, you simply have to have certain tools. No matter how well you play, your three CMC spells will not interact on turn two. Make sure you have ample early interaction in your 75 or don't complain when you find yourself unable to beat red.
Some decks will want to make life gain a key part of their plan against red. That's a fine plan, but make sure you include enough in your 75 to make it reliable -- you can't throw one high impact life gain spell into the board, call it a day, and expect to beat red. The red decks are far more robust than that. Life gain is a temporary nuisance to red and needs to be coupled with a way to kill them before they can deal the extra points. If your deck cannot kill them in a timely fashion, life gain may not be a good fit.
The other part of being prepared is mulliganing appropriately for the red matchup. I'm not advocating for blind mulliganing game ones as if they are on red, but in games two and three you need to find a hand that can sufficiently interact with them. You can't rely on drawing into your early interaction, as you don't have the draw steps. Aggressive mulliganing is an important part of my postboard play in the red matchup. The good news is that you don't need a lot of cards to beat red -- you just need the right ones.
Pay attention to the lands in your openers. Red is absurdly good at punishing stumbling, so your mana needs to be smooth. Keeping two ETB tapped lands with a couple pieces of two mana removal and four or five mana high impact spells is a recipe for disaster. You are unlikely to actually manage to interact with them on turn two and if you miss even one land drop you will probably die before casting your late game spells. On the other end of the spectrum, hands of four or five land and all early removal play much better than they look and are some of my favorite hands to keep in the matchup.
TIps and Tricks for Current Standard
Since the red matchup does hinge on very small margins, very nuanced pieces of strategy play a pivotal role in the outcome. It is very hard to give advice on how to develop this nuanced knowledge for any format and any red deck, but here are some of the things I've found about the current red decks.
As a general rule, the correct sequencing against Standard's red decks is to Remove their creatures (non-token) before playing blockers. The tempo and damage hit of playing Fleecemane Lion into their Lightning Strike and getting hit by their board of Monastery Swiftspear and Foundry Street Denizen is huge and very difficult to recover from. Playing your removal first also lets you play your cheap creatures later with mana up to protect them from burn with effects like Abzan Charm, Dromoka's Command, or the prowess mechanic.
The widespread sideboard play of the three mana sweepers (Drown in Sorrow and Anger of the Gods) has forced the red deck to slow down post-board and play a game more reliant on the dash mechanic. You generally have a little bit more time in games two and three than you did in game one. Don't get comfy; the deck is still blisteringly fast and will kill you dead if you rely overmuch on this trend
The current generation of red deck has a lot of good tools for unstabilizing a stabilized board state. For this reason turning the corner as soon as possible is even more important than against the typical red deck. You have to end the game before they can go wide with tokens or utilize Goblin Heelcutter to find profitable attacks into a stabilized board.
Atarka Red splashes green for two cards: Atarka's Command and Become Immense. These spells are immensely powerful and command respect. Play around them as much as humanly possible, as they will beat you if you forget about them.
If your deck has a lot of targets for Searing Blood, keep it in the forefront of your mind and try not to let it get you too bad. If you can set up to counter the Searing Blood with a pump spell of some kind, it's often worth the time investment to minimize your exposure. If you have only a few Searing Blood targets and you can do without them, consider boarding some copies out and play the ones you leave in much later in the game. If you make it to late game with no Searing Blood targets on the field and they have a card in hand that seems to be dead, Think Twice before playing a two toughness creature.
Dromoka's Command is the best anti red card I have ever had the pleasure of playing. If you are in the color combination and want to up your game against red I cannot recommend it strongly enough. The ability to both protect your creatures from burn and Remove their creatures simultaneously is very strong, but what really pushes the card over the top is that it also acts as insurance against their last piece of reach.
This weekend is the TCGplayer $50,000 MaxPoint Invitational in Las Vegas where I'm sure monored decks will be out in full force. How do you plan to beat the monored menace in the upcoming weeks or expect players to prepare for them? Share in the comments!
Thanks for reading,
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