It doesn’t matter whether it’s Modern, Legacy, Standard, or Pioneer—there is always a Mono-Red deck. I recently piloted the Pioneer version to a Top 16 finish at Grand Prix Phoenix, made a few changes since then, and today I will present my latest build and guide for Mono-Red Aggro in Pioneer.
Mono-Red Aggro - Pioneer
The plan, as always, is to curve out with cheap aggressive creatures, deplete the opponent’s life total, and finish them off with burn spells. But within this overarching strategy, a lot of variation is possible, so let me explain my card choices.
What’s with these 3-drops? Where is Goblin Chainwhirler?
At the Players Tour in Phoenix, I played a Mono-Red list that was similar to the ones that Grzegorz Kowalski and Juan José Rodríguez López found success with at the Players Tour in Brussels. Kowalski wrote in his Deck Guide that “Goblin Chainwhirler is a reason to play this deck, and PLEASE, don’t cut it.” While Kowalski’s assessment may have been true for the metagame in Brussels, where Mono-Black Aggro was the most-played deck and there were plenty of 1-toughness creatures to kill, this was no longer the case in Phoenix.
Goblin Chainwhirler is not a relevant threat against Dimir Inverter or Lotus Breach—it’s basically a 3/3 for three with no abilities—and the list I played was too slow. I did not do well at Players Tour Phoenix as a result.
After bombing out in the Players Tour, I immediately registered for next day’s Grand Prix, for which I based my list on the one Zachary Kiihne was using to crush the Players Tour. Instead of Goblin Chainwhirlers and a top-heavy curve, there were more early drops, fewer lands, and Goblin Rabblemasters. This not only provided a more suitable 3-drop but also enabled more Mutavaults in the mana base. This list performed much better: Kiihne finished in the Top 8 of the Players Tour, and I made the Top 16 of the Grand Prix.
Looking at the metagame right now, Goblin Chainwhirler is still great against Bant Spirits, can pick off stray Satyr Wayfinders, and combines nicely with Soul-Scar Mage or Torbran to demolish an opponent’s board. But most Pioneer decks right now don’t rely on 1-toughness creatures. And Bant Spirits, if you can deal with their Lords, is a good matchup anyway.
Overall, I think it’s better to run either Goblin Rabblemaster (which is best against control and combo decks), Rampaging Ferocidon (which is best against Heliod or Uro decks) or Ahn-Crop Crasher (which is best against Uro or Inverter of Truth). I’m on Goblin Rabblemaster right now, with Ferocidon and Crasher in my sideboard. The Crasher, by the way, is a card I ended up preferring over Kari Zev’s Expertise because it is still a good proactive threat if your opponent doesn’t control a 6/6. It also helps bash through Courser of Kruphix, and it can even set up surprise lethal against Dream Trawler. All in all, you have to keep an eye on the metagame to find the perfect split of 3-drops, but fitting more Mutavault into the mana base is great one way or another.
What’s up with the weird splits of 1-drops and 2-drops?
My list has ten 1-drops and eight 2-drops, which matches Kiihne’s mana curve. It’s lower to the ground than most red decks, and I am confident that is the way to go in the current Pioneer format. To race the combo decks, you need to go fast. If they win on turn 5, then we have to win on turn 4.
I wouldn’t mind even more 1-drops, but it’s hard to find good ones:
- I don’t want a third Zurgo because of its legendary status.
- I don’t want Bomat Courier because it doesn’t synergize with Torbran, Thane of Red Fell.
- I thought Ben Weitz’s signature Satyr’s Cunning was genius because it triggers prowess, but he said it was “probably worse than Zurgo after all is said and done,” so it probably doesn’t deserve a slot either.
In terms of 2-drops, my current build has a two copies each of four different cards, which just looks plain weird. But there’s a method to the madness. First off, there are four creatures that you really want to play on turn 2 (Kari Zev and Ash Zealot) and four creatures that can act as late-game mana sinks but could act as a 2-drop in a pinch (Rimrock Knight and Abbot of Keral Keep). This 4-4 split compromises between early-game explosion and late-game staying power, while ensuring that we have a 2-drop the vast majority of the time. Hopefully that part makes sense. But even then, why all the two-ofs?
- Kari Zev, Skyship Raider is a legend, so I didn’t want to run more than two out of fear of drawing multiples.
- Ash Zealot then fills the remaining slots for 2-drops that are meant to come down on turn 2. It punishes opponents for escaping Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath; using Jace, Telepath Unbound; exploiting Underworld Breach; or activating Emry, Lurker of the Loch. It also dodges the Unravel the Aethers and Natural States that Lotus Breach players generally board in to answer Damping Sphere. So Ash Zealot is kind of a sideboard card, but one that you can reasonably run in the main deck. In that sense, it’s similar to Eidolon of the Great Revel, except that Ash Zealot has a decent body and no downside in creature matchups, whereas Eidolon of the Great Revel can be a liability, especially on the draw. So I felt Ash Zealot was the better main deck option.
- Rimrock Knight’s key role is to increase the spell count for the prowess creatures. As I wanted to draw around three spells in the early game on average, I desired 16 noncreature spells, which meant that I needed to add 2 Rimrock Knights. More weren’t needed.
- Abbot of Keral Keep counts as a fractional land. I felt like 22 lands was a little low while 23 lands was a little high, so I split the difference with 22 lands and 2 Abbot of Keral Keep.
How about the Wizard variant?
There is a faster Mono-Red variant that generally runs Ghitu Lavarunner, Viashino Pyromancer, and Wizard’s Lightning alongside Bomat Courier and Light up the Stage. I tried such a list as well and felt it was viable, but it did come across as a little flimsier. Some of the issues I encountered:
- The Wizard variant has have fewer sources of repetitive damage (i.e., creatures) and therefore has more trouble beating removal spells or recovering from mulligans. Especially since it lacks heavy-hitting 3+ mana threats.
- Ghitu Lavarunner and Viashino Pyromancer are subpar creatures and wouldn’t be in there if it weren’t for their creature type.
- Without a critical mass of cheap burn spells, Light Up the Stage felt mediocre, as casting it post-combat for one mana represents awkward timing for a deck filled with prowess creatures.
For these reasons, I prefer my build.
How about the Eldrazi variant?
Ben Weitz won Grand Prix Phoenix with his awesome Mono-Red Eldrazi list. Eldrazi Obligator and Thought-Knot Seer are excellent threats against Dimir Inverter, and depending on the metagame, the Eldrazi variant may be better positioned than mine. Still, I’m sticking with my build because his list has some downsides:
- His mana curve is top-heavier and there are more lands, which brings an increased risk of mana flood.
- Battlefield Forge is necessary to consistently cast the Eldrazi, but in creature matchups the extra damage you take from your lands could be the difference between winning and losing.
- The surprise value is lost by now. I’m sure that Ben’s opponents at the Grand Prix did not see Eldrazi Obligator coming, but people are playing around it by now.
Maybe it’s based on inertia or comfort, but I have still been happy to play my version.
Why did I bring back Embercleave?
Embercleave has always had a special spot in my heart, and it’s arguably the best card in Standard Mono-Red. In Pioneer, it should be even better because it also triggers the prowess creatures and because opponents generally don’t expect it anymore. My two-of Embercleave makes me happy for several reasons:
- Equipping Bonecrusher Giant or Goblin Rabblemaster produces a very fast clock that can race the combo decks.
- Thanks to the large number of early drops and the tokens created by Goblin Rabblemaster, Embercleave usually costs only 2 or 3 mana.
- Embercleave is one of the few ways to profitably break through an opposing Uro.
- You can cast Embercleave as early as turn 3 by curving a 1-drop into Kari Zev.
Tips and tricks
Here are some non-obvious things to keep in mind when playing the deck:
- Sometimes you’ll want to pump an opponent’s creature with the adventure side of Rimrock Knight. This comes up when you want to trigger prowess but suspect your opponent holds a removal spell.
- An animated Mutavault is all creature types, which means that it counts for Goblin Rabblemaster.
- In game 1 against an unknown deck, I would mulligan nearly every hand without a 1-drop or 2-drop creature. However, if I know that I am playing against another creature deck (usually because it’s game 2 or 3) then I don’t mind keeping a creatureless hand with burn spells, as my burn spells would allow me to interact with the board in the early turns.
- Abbot of Keral Keep and Chandra, Torch of Defiance are similar, but slightly different. Abbot allows you to play cards until end of turn, which means that you shouldn’t play a land before casting Abbot. Chandra forces you to cast the card right away, which means that you should play a land beforehand.
- When a Spell Queller dies while it has exiled Bonecrusher Giant, you choose whether to cast the creature or the Adventure side. For this reason, I usually don’t mind if my Bonecrusher Giant gets Quellered, as it allows me to set up a cascading inferno later on.
- Damping Sphere and Eidolon of the Great Revel provide symmetric effects that may hurt you. Keep this in mind when sequencing: Have these cards be the last thing you play on a turn.
- Torbran’s replacement effect can be puzzling, so I’ll point out two things. First, if you control Torbran and Soul-Scar Mage and Wild Slash an opposing Uro, your opponent gets to choose which replacement effect is applied first, which means they choose if it receives two or four -1/-1 counters. Second, you must assign lethal damage in combat before applying the replacement effect. So if Torbran gets double blocked by two Arcanist’s Owls, you can’t assign one damage to each—you must assign 2 damage to one Owl, which ultimately means that you deal 4 damage to it.
- Wild Slash‘s ferocious ability rarely matters, but it does trump Gideon of the Trial‘s damage prevention effect.
Below, you can find how I would approach sideboarding. Goblin Rabblemaster is usually a little worse on the draw. Keep in mind that it’s just a guide, and I regularly switch it up. For example, I might board out Embercleave when my opponent has seen it already and I’m on the draw. And knowledge of whether my opponent has Legion’s End or not would also influence me to board out singleton copies of my 1-drops or not.
In: 3 Eidolon of the Great Revel, 2 Ahn-Crop Crasher
Out: 2 Wild Slash, 2 Ash Zealot, 1 Bonecrusher Giant
In: 2 Damping Sphere, 3 Eidolon of the Great Revel
Out: 2 Abbot of Keral Keep, 2 Bonecrusher Giant, 1 Wild Slash
In: 3 Eidolon of the Great Revel, 2 Rampaging Ferocidon, 2 Ahn-Crop Crasher
Out: 3 Lightning Strike, 2 Abbot of Keral Keep, 2 Goblin Rabblemaster
In: 2 Rending Volley, 2 Rampaging Ferocidon, 1 Chandra
Out: 2 Ash Zealot, 3 Goblin Rabblemaster
In: 3 Abrade, 2 Rending Volley, 1 Chandra
Out: 2 Ash Zealot, 2 Goblin Rabblemaster, 2 Rimrock Knight
In: 3 Abrade, 1 Chandra
Out: 2 Rimrock Knight, 2 Goblin Rabblemaster
In: 3 Abrade, 1 Chandra
Out (draw): 2 Rimrock Knight, 2 Goblin Rabblemaster
Out (play): 1 Monastery Swiftspear, 1 Soul-Scar Mage, 2 Torbran
In: 3 Eidolon of the Great Revel, 1 Chandra, 2 Ahn-Crop Crasher
Out: 4 Wild Slash, 2 Soul-Scar Mage
In: 3 Abrade
Out: 2 Rimrock Knight, 1 Goblin Rabblemaster