Monored strategies seemed to be looking like a good choice to play this past weekend as, with the addition of Goblin Piledriver specifically, Goblins was expected to be one of the top decks at SCG Chicago; unfortunately the goblin strategies didn't fare too well. Could this be because many players were well-prepared for Monored Aggro? Is the deck not strong enough? Perhaps players aren't building their decks correctly. While I wasn't in attendance in Chicago I have a feeling that it is very possible for monored to thrive, it may just be a matter of preparation and timing.
At the moment the top two decks in Standard seem to be Green/Red Devotion and Abzan Control; one of those decks is traditionally a favorable matchup while the other is unfavorable. As a Monored Aggro player I would rather be playing against Abzan Control than Green/Red Devotion, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways of making the Devotion matchup better. Here is a look at the highest finishing Monored Goblins deck from SCG Chicago:
This list played by Michael Bernat shows a lot of finesse, and actually seems set up pretty well versus Green/Red Devotion. Looking at his choices of one-drop creatures there is a little bit of everything there, but the emphasis is on having one drops that are also goblins. Before Magic Origins Frenzied Goblin was seeing virtually no play, and yet now Michael is choosing to go with three copies of Frenzied Goblin and only a single Zurgo Bellstriker! This may seem bold to a lot of Monored Aggro players, as Zurgo Bellstriker is clearly the more powerful one-drop in a vacuum. However, the reason this deck is playing so many copies of Frenzied Goblin isn't just because it's a goblin.
Goblin Piledriver is of course the creature that incentivizes playing as many goblins as possible, and has the ability to swing games in your favor very easily. The key against these decks full of creatures is that you do need to be able to get the Goblin Piledriver through. That means that preventing creatures from blocking against a deck like Green/Red Devotion is going to allow Goblin Piledriver to swing the game in your favor. Not only are there three copies of Frenzied Goblin, but there are also three Goblin Heelcutters, and another in the board. This is a case of redundancy, which works especially well in conjunction with a turn two Goblin Piledriver. For example, the start of Foundry Street Denizen, into Goblin Piledriver, into a dashed Goblin Heelcutter is a pretty typical start, and is ten damage right off the bat.
As is traditional, there are still a bunch of burn spells in the deck which are capable of ending the game once the opponent has either set up their defenses with blockers or even played a mass removal spell. I understand that many players are scared of Languish coming out of the Abzan Control decks, but Languish is much less threatening than Drown in Sorrow. Both cards will kill all of your creatures in play, but Languish being a turn slower is very relevant. However, since Languish is so versatile a sideboard card and maindeck addition, I would be expecting to face it more often than Drown in Sorrow, and the Abzan Control players actually seem to be shaving Drown in Sorrows from their sideboards. Of course the other reason why Goblin Heelcutter is so good is that it dodges these sorcery speed mass removal spells, so it is easy to prepare for them, and I will almost always dash Goblin Heelcutter for this reason.
Abzan Control normally just has one or two random blockers but they can't necessarily be dealt with through burn spells, so naturally a Frenzied Goblin or Goblin Heelcutter does the trick. Versus Green/Red Devotion however they will be boarding in multiple copies of Hornet Nest. Hornet Nest is the scariest card for a typical Monored Aggro deck to be facing off against. However against Green/Red Devotion their main way of killing your creatures is by blocking, and it's not until they get to Dragonlord Atarka that it is possible to burn their own Hornet Nest. This is yet another reason to play the creatures that prevent the opponent from blocking.
As many Monored players are no doubt already aware of, not only are the actual creature's goblins but the reason why Goblin Piledriver is so good is the token generators are goblins as well. This makes it easy to make Goblin Piledrivers power consistently very large, as Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst provide the necessary additional goblins. I like the four/two split between Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst. Hordeling Outburst is the card that has the larger impact but there is a lot of demand at the three mana slot. It is very important to have both a two-drop and a three-drop in this deck. Besides the aforementioned three-drops Michael is going with the full complement of Goblin Rabblemasters. This is a bit surprising to me as traditionally there are a couple main and a couple more in the board. Perhaps Michael is valuing the fact that Goblin Rabblemaster creates an immediate goblin to help Goblin Piledriver very highly.
Besides Goblin Piledriver the other new addition from Magic Origins to Michael's deck is Exquisite Firecraft. This card certainly doesn't have as high an impact as Goblin Piledriver does, but it is another four damage burn spell to provide essentially more Stoke the Flames and, against control decks, the fact it can't be countered when spell mastery is turned on is super nice. There are also plenty more burn options in the sideboard and each of them is very matchup dependent, with Roast and Searing Blood being the most important ones of note. The other interesting thing about this list is the Wild Slash have been relegated to the sideboard. Previously these types of Monored Aggro decks would play four maindeck Wild Slashes but they are at their best in the mirror matchups, and since Monored Aggro seems to be declining a bit, here we see them in the sideboard.
Overall we see some pretty dramatic changes in this list, which seemingly provide upgrades to previous versions of Monored Aggro. The key though is to make changes to the strategy without making the deck worse. There is a fine line between making changes to a deck and making too many changes to the Monored Aggro decks, which I have a feeling was the case this past weekend. Of course Monored Aggro hasn't traditionally been the most popular flavor of red aggressive decks, and it is worth also talking about versions that are still playing Atarka's Command. Here is a look at Jason Kohnert's Atarka Goblins:
Jason has opted to play fewer copies of Frenzied Goblin and Goblin Heelcutter, but this makes sense as he needs to cut something to make room for the green cards. The one peculiar thing about this list though is the three maindeck Searing Bloods. This seems like a lot of that card, though perhaps the fact that Abzan Control now has a reasonable target for Searing Blood in Nissa, Vastwood Seer / Nissa, Sage Animist means that this is okay. Atarka's Command is definitely very strong with all of the Goblin Token producers, the question is of course whether the splash is worth it. The issue I have is that with Languish now being a big part of the format it means more mass removal, and it take a few turns to set up Hordeling Outburst into Atarka's Command.
Jason is playing the full set of Goblin Piledrivers, but he has zero copies of Exquisite Firecraft. I wonder if he intentionally chose not to play any, if he didn't think about the card, or couldn't get ahold of any. This is a burn spell that, if nothing else, does seem worth devoting sideboard slots to versus control. This list is much more devoted to beating the mirror and killing small creatures though, with the Searing Bloods and Wild Slashes.
Alright, there is one more red deck worth going over from the past weekend, but this one is a little bit different, though it is the only monored deck to crack the Top 16 of the Open. This is Shane Campbell's Big Red deck:
This is not an aggro deck of course, and it has been awhile since we have seen a deck like this do well. It is true that there have been monored decks topping out with Thunderbreak Regent, but Shane is going even bigger. There are in fact not any creatures slotted in before turn three, unless you count Dragon Fodder. This is almost like a Monored Dragon deck because it is playing seven dragons to go alongside four Haven of the Spirit Dragons. Since the curve is so high there is a big adjustment to the manabase, with the total land count being 26, including the six nonbasics.
The card that may stand out the most is the addition from Magic Origins, Pia and Kiran Nalaar. This is a value creature which I have heard compared to Siege-Gang Commander, and the resemblance is unmistakable. This card provides a ton of value, and even if the opponent kills your Pia and Kiran Nalaar you still have the leftover thopters. For four mana this card is the perfect creature which can't be answered with a single removal spell. Pia and Kiran Nalaar doesn't need to be played alongside a bunch of other artifacts, it is good enough on its own.
Another card which has made a bit of a comeback here is Chandra, Pyromaster. Since the printing of Outpost Siege, Chandra, Pyromaster hasn't been seeing as much play, but it seems like it is a natural fit for this deck. There are plenty of burn spells and creatures to help protect it. Overall I will say that this deck has promise though it doesn't look like a finished product. The numbers could be cleaner, as a sideboard card like Rending Volley really doesn't need to be a four of. However this was clearly a brew of Shane's and perhaps his success with it this past weekend will inspire others to pick up the deck as well.
Personally I think monored variants have the tools to be tier one, it is just a matter of finding the optimal build, like Atarka Red before Magic Origins. The existence of Goblin Piledriver does make things more complicated though, and this may have had to do with monored decks struggling a bit this past weekend.
Thanks for reading,