When Kaladesh was first spoiled, R/B Aggro was considered one of the top decks in the format. With some great aggressive creatures, burn spells, and one of the best removal spells we’ve seen in some time, the pieces were all there.
Inventor’s Apprentice is a big selling point. Kird Ape is one of the premier aggressive creatures in Magic’s history, and the Apprentice arguably has fewer restrictions. A 2/3 creature for 1 is an incredible rate, and that extra point of toughness gives you some defense against Liliana, the Last Hope. It also has the perfect size, with an artifact in play, to continue getting aggressive in combat against format staples such as Thraben Inspector, Grim Flayer, Reflector Mage, Selfless Spirit, Spell Queller, and any tokens Gideon might produce.
That it requires you to have an artifact in play is definitely a restriction, and unlike Toolcraft Exemplar, you can have your artifact removed in combat and lose the Inventor’s Apprentice’s bonus. While Fragmentize isn’t going to catch anyone by surprise in combat, both Natural State and Appetite for the Unnatural are commonly played instants that can ruin your day. If your only artifact in play is a creature, any instant-speed removal spell can ruin your day. Keep this in mind when getting aggressive with your Apprentices.
Early and aggressive artifact creatures are the perfect complement toInventor’s Apprentice and Kaladesh has them in spades. Bomat Courier and Scrapheap Scrounger have little and no interest in blocking, respectively. Both are looking to get into the red zone to maximize their potential.
Bomat Courier’s floor is a Raging Goblin with upside. It doesn’t actually require red mana to cast, which is a nice bonus, but it can almost always be cashed in for at least a new card. Having the “floor” of a cycling effect for 1R is a great aggressive creature. Now, that floor can drop when Liliana is involved, as she can pick off a Courier for free if you don’t want to sacrifice it or don’t have red mana, but in that instance you’ve at least gotten in some damage.
Courier serves a number of roles. Early in the game, a 1/1 haste isn’t huge, but it can get in for a few points of damage while your opponent develops their game plan. It only costs a single mana, so any answer to it will cost tempo. In an aggressive deck looking to empty its hand, such as R/B Aggro, you can often cash in your Bomat for value. The closer your hand gets to empty, the more value you get for grabbing all those cards the Bomat Courier exiled.
So Bomat Courier represents an aggressive creature with haste, an artifact, a way to gain card advantage in the middle stages of the game, and a discard outlet. R/B Aggro features a number of madness spells, so Bomat Courier can also enable those for cheap and at instant speed. This is one of the most important cards here and offers more than you’d expect from what looks like a less impressive package.
Scrapheap Scrounger is a huge payoff for an aggressive deck with access to black mana. This is another artifact creature, so there’s synergy with a card like Inventor’s Apprentice. It will also give you a large payoff for going to your graveyard, so you don’t care if the Scrounger dies in combat, or even if you discard it to your many madness outlets. You can cash in your Bomat Courier to draw a bunch of cards while discarding Scrounger, as now the Bomat is in the graveyard to exile, letting you keep up the pressure.
Scrapheap Scrounger won’t be doing any blocking, so it’s important to stay aggressive. Since R/B Aggro actually has a midgame, and can scrap and grind out games after sideboard, there will be times where the Scrounger is a bigger liability than a benefit. Just keep in mind that letting Scroungers go to the graveyard for value is not a bad thing, and remember to bring them back during an opponent’s end step to keep up the pressure when applicable.
Pia Nalaar gives you 3 power for 3 mana, and helps meet your artifact requirements thanks to her Thopter production.
Where Pia Nalaar really shines is as a mana sink. Using the Thopter and other artifacts, Pia can remove opposing blockers to get the last few points in, or she can send some additional pumps their way to get in extra damage. The real beauty comes in being able to sacrifice a Scrapheap Scrounger repeatedly in the same turn, or over a series of turns, to turn excess mana and creatures in the graveyard into a free attack your opponent can’t block.
Bloodhall Priest is a new addition that didn’t see much play in early iterations of the deck. The initial concept of an aggressive deck with some burn to finish off your opponent is tried and true, so a 4/4 creature isn’t that necessary. The fact remains that the Priest is often undercosted and facilitates the burn plan. With additional madness outlets to turn it on, Bloodhall Priest can mow down blockers and start getting in for huge chunks of damage. An instant-speed madnessed Priest that can come down during the end step, shoot for 2, then get another 2-point shot in before attacking for 4 on the following turn is a great way to close out a game.
While Bloodhall Priest is more susceptible to removal spells like Grasp of Darkness, the value it provides and the fact that there are so many other creatures that demand removal spells make it a premium threat. With no cards in hand, the Priest can shoot down an Ally Knight and knock off Gideon in a single swing.
Smuggler’s Copter is the glue that ties all of these strategies together. A 3/3 flying creature for 2 mana is already significantly above the curve, and being an artifact for Inventor’s Apprentice, Pia Nalaar, and more is a bonus. Looting through your deck is an advantage even without a bunch of madness cards, but this is the one deck in Standard that utilizes both aggression and madness well. With enough creatures to turn it on, there is no deck that can take advantage of all that Smuggler’s Copter can offer quite like R/B Aggro.
Insolent Neonate isn’t the strongest card, nor should it realistically be considered as a 4-of here, but an early creature to get in some damage is a fine benefit. Threatening to trigger madness at instant speed whenever you need it is going to create a real challenge for opposing decks.
Unlicensed Disintegration is one of the big payoffs for playing a bunch of artifacts. On the surface, Disintegration is 1 additional mana for a Terminate with some Blightning upside. In a deck that already presents a wide range of aggressive threats, many of which are artifacts, it’s a game changer. The extra 3 damage represents an entire additional spell for decks that are looking to close the game out in a hurry. Instant speed, unconditional removal with a huge upside is fantastic.
Fiery Temper is going to be Lightning Bolt by the time you want one more often than not. There are plenty of ways to trigger madness, and Standard isn’t exactly a format looking to fire off 3-point burn spells on turn 1 very often. You can, however, get 3 damage in on a turn where you can cast 2 spells to gain a big tempo advantage. If you need to dig deeper and finish an opponent off with burn, the single mana is going to be a difference maker.
Cards like Incendiary Flow and Harnessed Lightning are excellent. Trading 2 mana for 3 damage is a powerful rate. Incendiary Flow can exile hard-to-deal-with threats, and Harnessed Lightning can scale up in the later game to deal with bigger creatures. They also have very real downsides.
Incendiary Flow often didn’t work out. It was the first card out in many matchups and the sorcery speed doesn’t play well in a format with flash creatures and threats that scale out of range quickly. Harnessed Lightning can’t target players, and with so many madness outlets, Fiery Temper will often be a better and cheaper way of handling problems. While these cards are worth considering for your R/B Aggro deck, they likely won’t make the cut.
Key to the City isn’t a burn spell, but it plays like one. Alongside cards like Smuggler’s Copter and Bomat Courier, is should be easy to dig to the important cards in your deck. It’ll trigger madness, get in extra damage, and turn mediocre cards or madnessed cards into fresh draws.
Lightning Axe is one of the most efficient removal spells you could ask for, but it comes at a price. When you’re already happy madnessing out spells, or getting Scroungers or excess lands to the graveyard, that cost is mitigated. It’ll answer Ishkanah or Archangel Avacyn at instant speed, which gets even better with Bloodhall Priest.
Gerry Thompson and Josh Utter-Leyton are two of the best deck builders of recent times. When they get together and hash out a list, we should all pay attention. Here’s the list Utter-Leyton used to finish in the Top 64 of Grand Prix Denver:
Josh Utter-Leyton, Top 64 at GP Denver
This looks like a truly excellent way to approach the starting 60. In my opinion, all of the 4-ofs in this list should remain untouched, but the other numbers can all be adjusted. In the end, going down to 3 copies of Pia Nalaar since she’s legendary, and expensive in a deck that’s utilizing a playset of Bloodhall Priests, makes complete sense. While drawing excess Keys to the City isn’t a huge deal as you can discard the second to the first, that’s a serious loss of tempo. You have to cast the first Key and then pay 2 mana before you can ever see a new card. This is worth it in slower matchups, like when you’re trying to get through an Ishkanah (you would be happy to always see at least 1 Key), but you can’t afford to do that against a deck that’s pressuring you.
The sideboard is definitely interesting, so let’s take a look at the choices.
Galvanic Bombardment is a great way to deal with aggressive decks. Small creatures looking to crew Vehicles fall victim to Bombardments quickly, and you’re never going to be losing the tempo advantage with a 1-mana removal spell. Having these additional cheap spells in your deck will also make it easier to empty your hand and maximize value out of Bloodhall Priest.
Key to the City is for Ishkanah, Grafwidow. Ishkanah is a huge problem for aggressive decks that can’t get through a 3/5, not to mention all the struggles of dealing with the smaller Spiders. Key to the City continues to provide that pressure, hopefully aided by your early rush, finishing off your opponent with a couple hits and a little burn.
Goblin Dark-Dwellers is one of your great ways to grind. In conjunction with discard spells, or burn spells like Fiery Temper and Unlicensed Disintegration to go upstairs, Dark-Dwellers is a great way to cash in some card advantage and make it tough for your opponents to block.
Pick the Brain is one of your better tools for trying to fight through a tough Marvel matchup. If you’re able to turn on delirium, Pick the Brain can be a game winner. Taking their Marvel is plan A, much of their deck is going to crumble from that point. Trying to beat a non-focused delirium deck isn’t too much of a struggle. If you take their Emrakuls or their Ishkanahs, you can present a winning game plan.
Your deck is not going to be as fast as Mardu Vehicles, and Marvel is one of the matchups where you will suffer as a result, since your interaction is limited. That said, you do have burn and you do have the ability to swarm. You need to cash in your burn before they take your turn, but if you’re able to do that, you can win the game.
Sinister Concoction is your best removal spell for Emrakul, the Promised End, and edges out To the Slaughter on cost, and because Emrakul decks can have multiple creatures in play. Concoction is a great way to turn on delirium and help fuel a Pick the Brain, but it’s also a cheap madness outlet and a way to get useful cards in the graveyard. The fact that it’s a reasonable card to board in against G/B and U/W tells you just how strong this card is.
Chandra, Torch of Defiance is a tricky one, since there’s nowhere it truly shines—it’s just a good card. When your opponent loads up with Dead Weights, Natural States, and Flaying Tendrils, a Chandra can really catch them unprepared. It can burn someone out quickly and also requires a quick answer before the ultimate guarantees a quick death. For just 4 mana, it presents a threat on a totally unique access—much like the number of white decks in Standard that board in Gideons.
Keep in mind that there is nothing in this sideboard that promotes getting more aggressive in games 2 and 3. Every single card there is going to slow the deck down, but present a game plan that may be tough to deal with. You should expect the games to be grindy after sideboard, as people will be boarding out their expensive cards and making sure they have plenty of interaction. Trying to go pedal to the metal when you’re already not the fastest deck and people are more prepared is a mistake. Luckily, this deck has lots of reach and resilience.
Your game plan is to get in some good damage early. Inventor’s Apprentice, Bomat Courier, and Scrapheap Scrounger are all excellent at doing that. From there, you’re looking for your powerful midgame spells to close things out. Burn is great for that, as is Key to the City for providing those last few points and drawing those critical last few cards.
R/B Aggro is still a cohesive deck with some awesome lines of play and interesting decisions. I expect it to be a force in Standard for some time to come, and with many of the pieces coming from Kaladesh, we can expect to see R/B Aggro as a strong choice for a long time. While the madness cards will eventually rotate, the aggressive nature of the R/B cards utilizing artifacts is sure to only improve.
R/B Aggro isn’t the most powerful deck or the most popular deck, but it’s fast, capable of shifting gears, and punishing. What direction do you think R/B will take going forward? Is there a sideboard card that you love that people may have missed for the strategy? Sound off in the comments!