Editor's Note: Congratulations to Seth for making Top 8 at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation!
Spoiler alert: I decided to play Mono-Red Aggro at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, and was one of the major champions of the deck on my testing team.
It feels good to finally have a mono-colored aggressive deck be good in Standard again, but that time has come. In order to arrive at my final deck choice, I definitely had to work my way through multiple other decks. For those looking for my final decklist, it won't be available until after the Pro Tour is completed, but I will still talk about some of the key cards in the deck.
Typically, I don't like playing the known deck or best deck in a format, I would rather play something that can beat it pretty comfortably. Mono-Red Aggro has been on the radar for a couple weeks now, along with typical choices like Black-Green Energy, Zombies and Mardu Vehicles. Out of these decks Red is the newest, as it hasn't been popular for very long, which also means it is the one that deserved the most attention in testing. Of all the possible decks, it's what Team Genesis felt had the highest ceiling.
The first deck I picked up did have a good matchup against Red, but had some difficulties against many other decks, which ultimately led to me choosing not to play it. My take on Black-Green Aristocrats:
This deck is based off of the black-green deck that multiple teams played at the last Pro Tour, and did poorly with. However, that was in a format full of Aetherworks Marvel, which is clearly very different than the metagame now. This deck can make so many small creatures that it is able to invalidate the small creatures that the red deck plays. The red deck spends an entire card to play a one-toughness creature, while a single Weaponcraft Enthusiast spouts out three creatures at once.
The deck typically wins with Westvale Abbey. Getting to five creatures in play is very manageable, and unless the opponent is able to play removal that can answer Ormendahl, Profane Prince the matchup should be good for Black-Green Aristocrats. Unfortunately, there are multiple removal spells that can exile creatures, and most white decks are playing some amount of those cards. A Zombies player is also often able to use Dark Salvation and Grasp of Darkness to attempt to take down Ormendahl as well. If these removal spells are successful it is very difficult to rebuild your board after sacrificing five creatures.
In the end, this deck has too many cards that aren't strong on their own. The impact of one-drops like Blisterpod and Loam Dryad wasn't impressive enough against the metagame as a whole. The new split card Driven // Despair is good once you are able to build up a board, and Distended Mindbender is really nice when emerged on turn four. There were strong aspects of the deck, like its good Red matchup, but removal like Incendiary Flow and Magma Spray were too effective against creatures like Blisterpod and Carrier Thrall.
After decided against Aristocrats, I decided that rather than playing small creatures I would try and go more controlling. Blue-Red Control has been a pet deck of mine, and I figured it should be fine against Red if it survives the first onslaught of creatures. The issue is that if the red deck has a good draw the blue-red deck's early removal like Magma Spray and Harnessed Lightning is overly taxed. Most games the red deck is able to run over Blue-Red Control before taking advantage of late-game spells like Glimmer of Genius and Torrential Gearhulk.
Then I went for a different take on the color pair. At this point in testing it became clear that the Deserts in Hour of Devastation had a major impact on Standard. Beyond being mainstays in single-color decks like Zombies and Red, they also opened up more possibilities for Eldrazi decks. This Blue-Red Eldrazi list that did well in an online PTQ was the next deck I looked into.
Blue-Red Eldrazi was too reliant on big creatures. A single Ahn-Crop Crasher being exerted could be enough to win the game for the Red side, and even though Eldrazi Skyspawner is good because it creates two blockers, it often wasn't enough. One aspect of the red deck that makes it so good is having haste creatures that also stop opposing creatures from blocking. It makes getting in early damage and racing the opponent pretty easy. As it turns out Blue-Red Eldrazi is much better against control than it is against the fast decks of the format. I don't think this is going to be the Pro Tour to prioritize a control matchup over an aggressive one.
This was the point where I switched over to trying Red out for myself. Playing online helps provide a good feel for the current metagame, and there was a lot of the deck online. While it's true that the deck was pretty cheap to put together, it is also incredibly good.
There are many different versions of Mono-Red Aggro out there, which is part of what makes the deck so interesting. This version of Jim Davis's is where I started.
If good players are playing Red at Opens you have to keep a close eye on the deck. At heart, I am an aggressive player, so the idea of having lots of cheap creatures backed up by burn is appealing. One part of Jim's list that I like was not relying on cards like Consuming Fervor or Cartouche of Zeal. You don't want to put yourself in a position to get blown out by opposing removal. Most of the time against control decks your first couple threats end up dying anyway.
As part of the Team Genesis, a few days before the Pro Tour I became "The Mono-Red Guy." Teammates would jam games against me on the deck, and get frustrated when I beat them. Even various life gain cards and planeswalkers like Liliana, the Last Hope were not good enough to beat Red. Two days before the Pro Tour, Red was the deck I had played with the most, but it was also the deck on everyone's radar. This is scary.
Playing a deck that everyone is gunning to beat is risky. I kept worrying there was some life gain or hate card that we missed that was secretly great against Red. In the end though, my teammates were not able to beat the deck. There is definitely a stigma attached to Mono-Red Aggro about how a deck like this isn't skill intensive to play. After having played with it, I can say definitively that isn't true, and there are lots of little decisions that can make a big difference.
Teammates who were respectively "locked in" on Mardu, Black-Green Energy, Control, or Zombies, slowly started shifting towards Red. When friends or teammates start to want to play the deck you have been testing and think is good, it is very validating. Eventually my entire testing group came to the conclusion Mono-Red Aggro was the way to go. As I am writing this, I have no idea what decks will actually be at the Pro Tour, so hopefully we got it right.
The metagame has been shifting from day to day, and that makes it difficult to keep up with. One day Mono-Black Zombies is popular, and the next day everyone has The Scarab God and is splashing blue in Zombies. Red has been doing well, but we have seen small creature versions that I consider more stock, and then the big creature versions that have Eldrazi and try to go bigger. There are definitely different approaches you can take. Some lists have tons of one-mana cards and only 21 lands, while others have a few more lands and more of a top end.
In the end, I prefer a spin on the more classical approach of having small creatures to pressure the opponent, at least in game one. Most decks aren't going to have lots of removal in game one, so your creatures are at their best. I was very impressed with the White-Blue God Pharaoh's Gift deck when it became popular, and having a quick clock is key in that matchup. In most matchups, the opponent has late-game inevitability so you are put into the aggressive role.
Still, even though Mono-Red Aggro is going to be the more aggressive deck in most matchups, it can grind out games that go long if necessary. Bomat Courier is actually a really good way to provide some card advantage while also being a key source of pressure. Being able to attack for a few turns with Bomat Courier and then use it to gas back up feels amazing. The opponent needs to respect Bomat Courier and often is forced to kill it rather than a creature that hits harder, all because of its ability to draw cards.
The other part of Red's late-game is in the mana base. This is a deck that only needs to get the opponent low enough early so that they are within range of your Deserts winning the game for you. The Deserts can often add up to an additional five or six points of damage, and that makes it much easier for the creatures to be good enough. It just isn't fair for a Red deck to have reach in its lands, allowing it to win so late in the game, is it?
Beyond Mono-Red Aggro being one of the top decks in the format, it also fits my playstyle. I feel very comfortable playing it, and feel like I got enough practice in with it. Feeling confident in a choice is important, if our results are accurate Red will be the most popular deck at the Pro Tour. This is where trusting the testing comes in.
I look forward to going over more about sideboarding strategies and card decision regarding the list I played after the conclusion of the Pro Tour. Until then I'm going to keep crashing in, fingers crossed!
Thanks for reading,