War of the Spark is one of the most high-powered sets we’ve ever seen. Several of its cards are not only seeing play but shaping even the older, super powerful formats, and there are many Standard decks based on planeswalkers that might as well be War of the Spark Block Constructed. This is why I am recommending *checks notes* Mono-Red with zero War of the Spark cards in it.
For those who don’t know, this was the list I played in the first week of MPL play:
20 Mountain 4 Fanatical Firebrand 4 Ghitu Lavarunner 4 Runaway Steam-Kin 4 Viashino Pyromancer 4 Goblin Chainwhirler 4 Shock 4 Lightning Strike 4 Light Up the Stage 2 Skewer the Critics 2 Wizard's Lightning 2 Experimental Frenzy 2 Chandra, Fire Artisan Sideboard 4 Dire Fleet Daredevil 3 Tibalt, Rakish Instigator 2 Rekindling Phoenix 4 Lava Coil 2 Experimental Frenzy
I went 2-0 in the week, defeating Autumn Burchett on Mono-Red and Marcio Carvalho on Mono-White. Obviously that’s only two matches—they were both close and one was the mirror—so it doesn’t actually mean anything in terms of how good the deck is, but I think it’s legitimately a good deck and recommend it going further.
The thought of playing Mono Red certainly isn’t novel. After all, the first big War of the Spark tournament was an SCG Open that had three Mono-Red players in the Top 4. That said, it’s understandable for someone to feel skeptical about it because almost every early format is dominated by aggro decks, especially aggro decks that already existed last season. People always try to max out on the new cards to try them out with no regard for what their opponent is doing, and aggro decks just burn them to the ground before they can even play a spell.
This is mostly what happened in week 1 of MPL play. We had a bit of a short notice, and many players weren’t even home yet from MC London by the time they had to submit a deck. Therefore, instead of playing a largely untested brew with the new cards, the majority of the league defaulted to aggressive strategies that they knew were never going to be bad in the face of the unknown. Four people submitted Mono-Red, and over ten people submitted White Weenie decks, with or without blue. I’ve never liked playing the White Weenie deck, even though I accept it’s very good, so I picked Red, but I didn’t have a particular reason other than Martin Juza telling me it was good.
So this explains why these strategies did well at the SCG and why they were popular in the MPL. The reason I think they are legitimate strategies, and not just a flash in the pan courtesy of an underdeveloped format, is that the direction I see the metagame going is actually good for Red. Right now, people are still in the experimentation stage of things, but almost every new flashy deck I see is a planeswalker deck that’s designed to grind. Everyone has baby Teferi and Narset, some people are maindecking Elderspell or playing four Command the Dreadhorde in their decks, and so on. The more these decks adapt to beat each other, the weaker they become against red builds.
Individual Card Choices
Experimental Frenzy vs. Chandra, Fire Artisan vs. Risk Factor
The only meaningful difference in Mono-Red builds is the “expensive card” slot. At the SCG Open, one of the three builds played Chandra, the other played Frenzy, and the other played Risk Factor. The winning build was the one with four Chandras. In the MPL, both Autumn and I played two Frenzy and two Chandra, Seth played three Chandra and two Frenzy, John Rolf played four Frenzy, and Ben Stark played none.
I’m going to start by eliminating Risk Factor as I think it’s underpowered compared to the other options. This leaves Chandra and Frenzy.
Chandra has some key advantages over Frenzy. First, it’s better in multiples. Revealing Frenzy to Frenzy is awful. Second, it’s harder to kill in a lot of matchups. People play Mortify, Vivien Reid, Knight of Autumn, and Thrashing Brontodon, all of which can kill Frenzy. Chandra also has some key disadvantages—namely, it’s just a much worse card. Plus, nowadays people have been shaving on Mortifies and Vivien Reids, and again some people even main deck The Elderspell.
In my first MPL match, I played two and two. My reasoning was that I would much rather draw one Frenzy and one Chandra than two of each. That’s sound, but in the end the impact of that is just lower than the “I drew Frenzy therefore I win” impact. I think that decision is wrong, and *spoiler alert* in the deck I submitted for week 2 of the MPL I’m playing four Frenzy in the main.
The way I see it, Mono-Red has two types of games: games it’s winning and games it’s losing. In games it’s winning, Frenzy can still be a good card and “win the game more.” In the games it’s losing, Frenzy is the only card that wins. If there’s ever a card that swings an advantage bar, that’s Experimental Frenzy, because it subverts everything that is theoretically good against Mono-Red and turns it to your advantage. Normally, people like to trade 1-for-1 and gain life, knowing that if they stall the game long enough, they just win. Experimental Frenzy can beat someone from no board when they are at 25 life. By itself, it lets you assume the control role in matchups such as White Weenie—you can kill their board and all of a sudden, if the game goes longer, you win.
Of course, there are situations where it’s bad. Sometimes you have a close game and you don’t even have time to play Frenzy. Sometimes you play Frenzy, reveal another Frenzy, and you lose a game you were ahead in. This is the cost of playing four Frenzy, and Chandra is better there. But it’s such a swingy card in the games you’re losing that I think it’s worth it. Without Experimental Frenzy, I would not play the deck.
The other thing I feel strongly about is 20 Mountains. Some people play as low as 18, but you want 20 with four Frenzy and you also want 20 because you increase your curve by a lot in sideboarded games. You could sideboard some Mountains, but you actually have valuable slots this time around (which is a welcome change in Mono-Red), so I’d rather main deck them because I think they’re fine game 1 anyway. Some people also splash green for Cindervines. I don’t love this idea because I think having Rootbound Crags and Stomping Grounds does hurt you in some matchups (you take damage or have to mulligan hands you would otherwise keep) and the payoff isn’t big enough, as the deck Cindervines is best against is already a good matchup, but perhaps it’s good enough versus the planeswalker decks that it’s worth it.
Past that, I think you’re free to customize the deck as you wish, though the only thing that seems customizable is the number of Wizard’s Lightnings and Skewer the Critics. I play two and two but I have no real confidence that this is right. Most people play more Wizard’s Lightnings, so I wish I played Wizard’s Lightnings instead because it’s probably right.
Here’s the list I submitted for week 2 of the MPL (I will be playing Mike Sigrist on Esper Control, a week after normal—our match was postponed because I’ll be traveling on that day):
20 Mountain 4 Fanatical Firebrand 4 Ghitu Lavarunner 4 Runaway Steam-Kin 4 Viashino Pyromancer 4 Goblin Chainwhirler 4 Light Up the Stage 2 Skewer the Critics 2 Wizard's Lightning 4 Experimental Frenzy 4 Shock 4 Lightning Strike Sideboard 4 Dire Fleet Daredevil 3 Tibalt, Rakish Instigator 2 Rekindling Phoenix 4 Lava Coil 2 Chandra, Fire Artisan
The sideboard for the deck is actually quite strong because it lets you adopt a different, more controlling plan without necessarily losing the potential to be aggressive.
Three Tibalt: Tibalt is my favorite card in the sideboard, and the best addition from War of the Spark. Most of the time, when people play cards versus red, these cards involve gaining life. Enter the God-Eternals, Oath of Kaya, Moment of Craving, even Lyra. All the planeswalker decks rely on Interplanar Beacon as a way to survive burn, and Wildgrowth Walker is still heavily played. Tibalt puts a stop to all this life gain, and also randomly acts as a good card versus Mono-White, which means I sideboard it in a ton of matchups.
Four Dire Fleet Daredevil: This is for the mirror, as well as any deck with Thought Erasure.
Four Lava Coil: Lava Coil lets you go full control mode versus White-Weenie, and that’s the mode they have the hardest time beating. It’s also very good versus green decks since it kills x/4s you normally have trouble with.
Two Chandra, Fire Artisan: For grindy matchups, and as a payoff when you assume the control role.
Two Rekindling Phoenix: Versus decks that are trying to attack you and can’t get past it (W/W, Mono-Blue, Green).
Mono-Red is a deck that can board very differently depending on whether you’re on the play or on the draw, and whether you know their list. For example, Runaway Steam-Kin is much stronger on the play than on the draw in the mirror since it dodges Goblin Chainwhirler. When I played versus Autumn, I knew they had only one Rekindling Phoenix, so I didn’t even bring in Lava Coil, whereas I would have if I saw four of them. The key part is that your deck must be cohesive post-board. You can’t bring in a bunch of Lava Coils and take out a card like Experimental Frenzy because then what does your game plan turn into?
You also have to be mindful of your curve, but not as much as you’d think. Games go longer post-sideboard, so you have time to play your expensive cards. Still, curve considerations make me keep, say, Fanatical Firebrand in the mirror, even though it’s not actually a good card because I don’t want my deck to be all 4s and 3s. I also don’t sideboard in Rekindling Phoenix in the mirror for the same reason.
Here’s a rough sideboard guide (though you should know, as always, that it’s highly dependent on what is actually going on):
Depending on what you see and who is on the play, you can board in Lava Coils or Phoenixes. You can cut Steam-Kin on the draw and Fanatical Firebrand on the play for them, and Skewer is also very cuttable.
Out on the Draw
In on the Draw
Out on the Play
In on the Play
Here, a lot depends on what build they have. If they have infinite Enter the God-Eternals and Basilica Bell-Haunt, for example, you might want Lava Coil. If they don’t have a lot of life gain, you don’t need Tibalt.
You don’t Daredevil much, but it’s usually better to just have a threat, and sometimes you get an Opt, a Growth Spiral, a Chemister’s Insight, or exile something to make flipping Search for Azcanta harder (as well as Tamiyo).
Overall, I don’t think Mono-Red is broken or anything, but I think it’s clearly very good, and the format seems to be moving in a direction where it’s becoming even better. I definitely recommend it for upcoming tournaments, at least until the metagame shifts again.