Pioneer is constantly changing. It could be that next week the latest round of bannings invalidates my claims made in this article. For now though, Mono-Red Aggro as a strategy has evolved to the point where many players consider it the deck to beat. It's wild to think about how far the format has come in such a short amount of time.
The question I want to ask is whether or not the deck is actually too good to survive in its current form?
There are numerous variations of Mono-Red Aggro that have found success, but I'm going to start with the list that took down the most recent Classic.
This is a very classic version of Mono-Red Beatdown. Nothing especially fancy, other than high power creatures at each point in the curve to go alongside some choice burn spells. Some versions choose to play Goblin Chainwhirler, but instead we see here the full complement of Mutavaults, which means you can't really justify Chainwhirler. Legion Warboss and Goblin Rabblemaster are the type of cards that just win the game on their own if left unchecked, and in the right matchups Scab-Clan Berserker is an extremely potent three-mana threat.
Before I go more into specific card choices let's talk about what impact the development of Mono-Red Aggro as a tier 1 strategy has had on the format, and why it has risen to the where it is now.
Having Tier 1 Aggressive Decks Is a Good Thing
This is very important, as in many other formats we have seen aggressive decks continue to struggle. However, we don't want this to become equivalent to the Red Aggro decks that completely dominated Standard a year ago, as that was definitely too oppressive. I also want to mention that while this article is specifically about Mono-Red Aggro decks, there are other monocolored aggressive decks that have also done exceptionally well. Mono-Black Aggro in particular has also been putting up extremely good results.
Right now this is refreshing, and players would much rather Mono-Red Aggro be the best deck over Simic Nexus, for instance. This leads me to believe the chances are lower that we see something taken away from the deck right now.
Red Aggro Pushes Slower Decks Out of the Format
This is the downside. The better the aggressive decks are, the faster the format becomes, and the more it becomes about curving out. With Mono-Red Aggro as the top deck it becomes much more difficult for combo decks that can't actually interact with a three-drop creature. If I'm playing Lotus Storm for instance, it can feel almost impossible to beat Scab-Clan Berserker. It creates a situation where if you aren't playing an aggressive deck yourself, it is basically essential to have cheap removal and ways to stay alive in the early game.
Pioneer Manabases Are Not that Good
Part of the reason that we are seeing monocolor decks do so well is related to the mana. Without fetch lands, the feeling is much more like Standard than Modern in terms of what you can do with mana. However, there are still a ton of really powerful spells. This in turn makes it easy to fill up a single color with plenty of great options on the mana curve, and you still get to play Mutavault and Castles as a benefit.
Each Ban Not in Mono-Red Indirectly Improves the Deck
This is a straightforward concept, but one that is rarely thought about after bannings take place. When a card not in the deck you are playing is banned, that usually means that your deck gets better indirectly. For instance, when Smuggler's Copter was legal Mono-Black Aggro was the best aggro deck that could properly utilize it. Now that Smuggler's Copter has been banned, the stock of Mono-Red has drastically increased; while Mono-Black is still a good deck, that ban definitely hurt it. Some versions of Mono-Red did play Smuggler's Copter, but I would argue it wasn't a key card to the deck.
Mono-Red Aggro Is Easy to Play
Having a deck that is both really good and easy to pilot is a deadly combination. When difficult to play decks are very good there is still a barrier to entry, as it takes practice to get good with them, and it is easier to mess up.
Hopefully this provides some clarity as to some of the reasons why and how Mono Red Aggro has now reached the very top of the Pioneer metagame. Wizards of the Coast will need to consider all of this when deciding whether Mono-Red Aggro is too strong. My gut says that eventually something will need to be banned, but the time is not now, as players seem okay with this being one of the top decks in the format.
I mentioned earlier that you can choose to play a version with Goblin Chainwhirler, as the three-drop slot is one of the more flexible slots. This is the version of the deck I have been using while getting ready for the Player's Tour.
There are some minor differences between the two different versions, and it is tough to say which one is better overall, because each choice makes you better in one area but worse in another. Having access to Goblin Chainwhirler makes the Elvish Mystic matchups better, especially when you are on the play. Getting rid of 1 toughness creatures is one of the main incentives to play Goblin Chainwhirler. On the other hand, you miss out on Legion Warboss, which is another Goblin Rabblemaster sort of effect that tries to put as fast a clock as possible on the opponent. Also, playing Goblin Chainwhirler makes your mana worse, and you can't play the full set of Mutavault.
Other than that, we are talking about almost all the same cards between these two lists. The deck is not hyper-aggro because it does play a five-drop in Glorybringer, alongside a minimum of 25 lands. Glorybringer is the card that goes over the top of other creature decks, and three copies is the minimum number. Embercleave is another way to finish the game, though you don't need to overload on them. The card is great if you have already built up a board with something like a Goblin Rabblemaster though.
As far as the sideboard is concerned, the most important cards are definitely Tormod's Crypt and Scab-Clan Berserker. Scab-Clan Berserker is insane when it's good, and Tormod's Crypt is a necessary nod toward the existence of graveyard decks. This isn't a deck that needs to sideboard heavily in any matchup. This is why you see a smattering of different removal spells and one-of hate cards a lot of the time.
Up until this point I have been talking about the more classic version of Mono-Red Aggro, as it is the best performing mono-red deck at the moment. However, for a while Mono-Red Burn was the most played red deck, and it certainly still exists as a player in the format. There are also a couple different versions of this deck. Here is the heavy Burn version from the Top 16 of the Columbus Classic.
This deck has a much lower curve than the traditional Mono-Red Aggro, and is more similar to the Burn deck that has been a Modern staple for so long. It's interesting that so few red decks are playing Eidolon of the Great Revel, which is an indication of the metagame being heavily saturated by aggressive decks. Eidolon of the Great Revel is excellent against decks that don't pressure you quickly. Wizard's Lightning is one of the burn spells you have to work a little bit for, but Ghitu Lavarunner and Viashino Pyromancer fit with what the deck is trying to do anyway.
The prowess creatures start to get better as you add more burn spells to the deck, so it becomes a delicate dance as to how many spells vs. creatures vs. lands become the right mix. Light Up the Stage is good in this version because all the cards are so inexpensive. This version does splash white, but the splash is small for Boros Charm plus Chained to the Rocks, Deflecting Palm and Wear // Tear in the sideboard. This deck doesn't have the full prowess package, but by cutting white you can go a bit more creature heavy.
This is as simple as it gets. The deck is very cookie cutter in terms of the numbers, but you can see it is kind of a hybrid of Aggro and Burn. Lots of one-drop creatures means you can play a low land count and try to be hyper aggressive. Ramunap Ruins allows you to force in the final points of damage. Experimental Frenzy is a card I expected to see more play, but it's definitely better in the red decks that have a lower curve. I'm not sure how I feel about the full four copies, but the card is extremely powerful as we have seen in Standard red aggro decks.
As far as innovations, I'm ready to start adding Chandra's Defeat to my sideboard. I'm continuously running into various versions of Mono-Red, and think it might be time to start targeting mirror matches a bit more. My style leans more toward the Light Up the Stage versions because you get to play fewer lands, but recent results have pointed in the opposite direction. If things stay the same in Pioneer it's very possible that Red Aggro could be the most popular archetype at the upcoming Players Tour.
Seth Manfield is a professional Magic player and member of both the Magic Hall of Fame and the 2020 Magic Pro League.
Connect: Twitch Twitter Instagram