The first batch of Guilds of Ravnica Standard results are in and they are weird.
Mono-Red Aggro ran roughshod over the Standard seats of #SCGCOL. It was the most popular deck on Day 2 of competition by a mile, with over twice as many pilots as its nearest competitor, Selesnya Tokens. This impressive performance culminated in three copies of Mono-Red Aggro making it to the elimination rounds, outpacing the competition. It didn't manage to take home the trophy, but it's hard to argue against Mono-Red Aggro being the deck of the tournament.
But then you look over to the results of the Magic Online PTQ and wonder how that event could possibly have happened the same weekend as the Open. Mono-Red Aggro was nowhere to be seen at the PTQ. It wasn't in the Top 8. It wasn't in the Top 16. You must go all the way down to 24th place before you find a single solitary copy of the deck. It's typical for Magic Online and paper tournaments to have slightly different metagames, but this level of disparity? Unheard of.
In between these two tournaments results-wise we have the Standard Classic that happened at #SCGCOL. There, Mono-Red Aggro did okay. It placed one copy into the Top 8, with three more copies lurking in the wings of the Top 16. Not the overwhelming performance of Mono-Red Aggro in the Open, but neither is it the complete lack of results the deck put up in the Magic Online PTQ.
So, where does the truth lie? Which tournament are we supposed to believe? Is Mono-Red Aggro a menace or a nuisance, a tiger or a gnat? These are the questions that this set of tournament results ask, and they aren't easy to answer.
The easy approach is to simply choose which tournament you believe. Maybe you have great respect for the rigors of Magic Online and trust its results blindly. Maybe you think the Open can be heavily discounted since it was a team tournament and Standard wasn't solely responsible. There's merit to these arguments, and they may get you closer to the truth, but they won't do anything to help you understand why these results happened.
For that, we're going to have to dive a little deeper.
A Look at The Enemy
Let's look at the enigma itself:
- 4 Fanatical Firebrand
- 4 Ghitu Lavarunner
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 2 Rekindling Phoenix
- 4 Runaway Steam-Kin
- 4 Viashino Pyromancer
- 22 Mountain
Let's get something clear right off the bat: Runaway Steam-Kin is the reason this deck exists.
Kaladesh and Amonkhet are gone, and that means Hazoret the Fervent and Bomat Courier are gone. Those were the big incentives to play Red Aggro in the last Standard format, without them the available red cards look much less appealing. Thankfully, Runaway Steam-Kin is here to pick up the slack and is without a doubt our new incentive to play a Mono-Red Aggro deck.
You can see the importance of Runaway Steam-Kin in how these Mono-Red Aggro decks are constructed. It's only natural when building with an exciting new card to put it in a shell that maximizes its strength. The Mono-Red Aggro decks from the Open surrounded Runaway Steam-Kin with a pile of cheap red spells, ensuring that the Steam-Kin would always have plenty of +1/+1 counters. At the same time, they're built to make excellent use of the mana Steam-Kin provides with Experimental Frenzy and Risk Factor. The two goals of having cheap spells to put counters on Steam-Kin and having mana sinks to make use of its mana generation are a bit contradictory, these Mono-Red lists found a way to accomplish both at once.
But let's put a pin on the importance of Runaway Steam-Kin for the moment. We'll get back to it later, but right now we need to talk about how to beat this Mono-Red Aggro deck. The obvious hypothesis for how a deck could dominate one tournament and not show-up to another is that the second tournament adjusted to the deck and found a way to beat it. Magic Online typically has a metagame a little ahead of the paper metagame due to how easy it is to iterate and adapt on a digital platform, a fact that lends itself to the support of this hypothesis. If we can show that Magic Online found a way to beat Mono-Red Aggro, we'll both make sense of last weekend's tournament results and have an excellent base of knowledge with which to make predictions about the future of Mono-Red Aggro in this Standard format.
So, how do we beat this Mono-Red Aggro deck? Good news on that front: Mono-Red Aggro is an archetype with a long and storied career in the game of Magic, which means that the strategies to beat it are time-tested and proven. In broad terms, the two pieces of the puzzle are consistent early interaction and the ability to close the door on their ability to win the game quickly. All that's left for us to do is analyze the specifics of this Mono-Red Aggro deck and figure out exactly how each of those puzzle pieces can be accomplished against this new breed of Mono-Red.
Closing The Door with Sweepers
When thinking about how to beat aggressive decks, we tend to hyper-focus on how to interact with their aggression and ignore how to close the door on them. There's this idea that if you just manage to stay afloat, the rest will sort itself out. After all, you're generally going to be playing a deck with a much higher average converted mana cost than the Mono-Red Aggro deck, so if you just manage to take a sufficient quantity of turns, your higher card quality will eventually convert to a win, right?
No, not right.
Yes, your cards might be better than your opponent's pound for pound, but your opponent entered the tournament with the full and complete understanding that this was going to be the case against most of their opponents. Lightning Strike you. Risk Factor, jump-start Risk Factor. Use Experimental Frenzy to play three cards in a turn, every turn. The Mono-Red Aggro decks have tons of plans to continue playing Magic even after their early creatures are stymied. You need to do better than that.
The easiest and cleanest way to close the door on your opponent is to reduce their life points to zero. Ending the game is the ultimate door slam, leaving them no chance whatsoever to steal the game away from you. You've already won it.
For most decks in Standard, ending the game is going to involve attacking. Against Mono-Red Aggro, your creatures are serving a dual purpose: holding back the hordes of small red creatures seeking your demise and lowering your opponent's life points. They can't do both at once and that's a problem. Attacking before the battlefield is completely stable opens the door wider in the name of winding up to close it, but you risk losing the game in the narrow window you give them.
There's lots of solutions to this problem, but the one the Magic Online PTQ landed on is both relatively novel and surprisingly uniform in its adoption: conditional sweepers.
I'm just going to say it: the sheer volume of sweepers in the winning lists of the PTQ is wild. I can't recall the last time where a major tournament that had a Top 8 with five distinct archetypes that each maindecked at least two sweepers. The other three decks put the sweepers in the sideboard, but every single deck in the Top 8 had access to at least three sweepers in their 75. This phenomena can't even be traced back to the flexibility of split cards, as only one of the decks played any copies of Find.
Clearly, the Magic Online metagame has decided that sweeper effects are good right now. Just look at this deck:
- 4 Adanto Vanguard
- 4 Knight of Grace
- 4 Resplendent Angel
- 3 Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice
- 4 Lyra Dawnbringer
- 3 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
This is the deck that really sells me on the premium being placed on sweepers. It's a creature deck for crying out loud, anaggressive creature deck. Its sweeper flat out kills twelve of its twenty-two creatures, not to mention every Knight token made by a History of Benalia. It's playing three copies of that sweeper! Sure, you can pay four life to save your Adanto Vanguard. Yes, you're actively interested in the lifelink mode on Deafening Clarion in a wide range of matchups thanks to Resplendent Angel. I still don't buy that this deck would touch Deafening Clarion with a ten-foot pole in a vacuum. It's playing it because it's good in the format, and it's good in the format because it's good against Mono-Red Aggro.
So, here's how sweepers contribute to closing the door on the Mono-Red Aggro deck: they let you attack. Earlier, I mentioned that your creatures are serving in two roles, working both as your defense and your offense. Defense takes priority, because offense takes time, but if you never start attacking you'll never finish attacking. Sweeper effects against this incarnation of red free up your creatures from defense duty and are very important in enabling you to turn the corner.
The reason that we're seeing sweeper effects pop up against this version of Mono-Red Aggro when they've never been this popular against Mono-Red before is that the long-game plan of these decks is new. Thanks to Runaway Steam-Kin, this new version of Mono-Red can depend on having access to lots of mana in the mid-game despite only playing 22 lands. Because of this, they can use Experimental Frenzy and Risk Factor to great effect, guaranteeing a heavy card flow in the lategame. Their cards are worse, but they're going to get to play more of them.
What this ends up meaning is that this Mono-Red Aggro deck can keep presenting a formidable battlefield no matter how consistently and well you manage it. Against other Red Aggro decks, a few spot removal spells would often be enough to keep their battlefield under control as you entered the lategame, but that's not the case now against this version that can realistically deploy three creatures a turn multiple turns in a row no matter how deep into the game you take them.
As a side note, the preponderance of sweepers in the PTQ Top 8 lists also explains the lack of Selesnya Tokens in that Top 8. Selesnya Tokens was the second-best performing deck at #SCGCOL, and its lack of results in the PTQ was almost as confusing as that of Mono-Red Aggro. Sweepers are certainly great against Selesnya Tokens as well as Mono-Red Aggro and do a lot of work to keep both decks down. I don't think there's a lot of value in discussing the chicken and egg problem of which deck was the main reason for all these sweepers; they're good against both decks, and both decks suffer from their popularity.
Consistent Early Interaction
Closing the door is more important than we tend to give it credit for, but that doesn't diminish the importance of early interaction. Mono-Red Aggro historically has two components: early-game creature aggression and lategame reach. This has been the formula since the days of Sligh and this incarnation is no exception. Like most Standard red decks, Mono-Red Aggro is decidedly not a burn deck. It has enough reach to close out games after strong starts, but not enough to take the opponent all the way from twenty to zero without making use of the combat step at all. This means that the focus of our early interaction needs to be on dealing with the creatures of the Mono-Red Aggro deck.
The common thread tying the creatures of the Mono-Red Aggro deck together is how cheap they are to cast. Sure, Max McVety's list from the Open from above included Rekindling Phoenix, but his adoption of that card is the exception, not the rule. And even Max was only playing two copies, not enough to change the fundamental dynamics of the deck. What we need to focus on doing is stopping a bunch of one- and two-mana creatures in their tracks.
Roughly speaking, there's two main ways to deal with early aggression: spot removal and early creatures of your own. When going down the spot removal path, you really want pieces of removal that trade at mana parity with the cheap red creatures. You aren't going to beat a bunch of Raging Goblins with a handful of Murders. Sadly, Fatal Push has left Standard, which makes finding appropriately cheap removal to play a non-trivial proposition. Not undoable mind you, but certainly not a given.
Still, the preferred option is going to play a bunch of early creatures of your own, creatures that can block the Mono-Red creatures effectively. We saw that earlier in the Boros Angels deck, but check out how that plan is executed in this beauty:
- 1 Golgari Findbroker
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Knight of Autumn
- 2 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 3 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 4 Seekers' Squire
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
- 1 Izoni, Thousand-Eyed
This list plays a full ten two-drops that all block the Mono-Red creatures passably well and follows them up with eight three-drops to really close the door on the aggressive red creatures. Ideally, turn 4 will be another two two-drops, but if not there's four good four-drop creatures, not to mention four copies of Vraska's Contempt to handle any pesky Runaway Steam-Kins floating around. This deck looks like a nightmare for Mono-Red Aggro to play against. There's no way to consistently get through on the ground, and the second a Finality gets cast the game is going to end in short order.
Before moving on to the future of Mono-Red Aggro in the metagame, let's talk a little about the 'consistent' part of consistent early interaction. I've glossed over it so far, but it's incredibly important. Mono-Red Aggro is built to come out of the gates fast and powerfully every game it plays. This means that if you stumble, if your second land enters the battlefield tapped, if you miss your third land drop, if you simply draw nothing to play in the first two turns of the game, you will quickly find yourself impossibly far behind. Mono-Red Aggro is the best in the business at capitalizing on a stumble from the opposition.
The consequence of this fact is that the quantity of interaction that you play and the strength of your manabase matter a ton. Magic players have a bad habit of rounding percentages to things they shouldn't. If something is 70% to happen, we complain when it doesn't. Sure, your 25 land deck with seven two-drops should have something to play on turn 2, but that doesn't mean it will. The PTQ lists, especially the Golgari Midrange decks, take this to heart and really overload on their early game, and I adore them for it.
Mono-Red Aggro and the Standard Metagame Going Forward
So, where does this leave Mono-Red Aggro in the weeks to come of this Standard format? Recall:
Too wild, I think. I don't think it's possible for an equilibrium metagame to exist where every top deck maindecks multiple sweeper effects. It's just too exploitable. It's way too easy to build a deck that these conditional sweepers do nothing against and beat up on all the midrange decks that came prepared for Mono-Red Aggro and Selesnya Tokens. See:
- 3 Doom Whisperer
- 1 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 4 Thief of Sanity
- 2 Lazav, the Multifarious
- 3 Nicol Bolas, the Ravager
This Grixis Midrange deck plays well against all the conditional sweepers seeing play. Sure, Thief of Sanity dies to a few things, but that's about it. Throw in Lazav, the Multifarious and the deck has six creatures vulnerable to a Deafening Clarion. That's not a big deal. Playing sweeper effects in your deck is a real liability against this deck, and it's no surprise to me that this deck was able to make it all the way to the finals of the PTQ by beating up on the decks gearing for Mono-Red Aggro. Of course, the deck that it lost to in the finals was one of the three decks in the Top 8 that played no maindeck sweepers. Coincidence? Doubt it.
That's a quote from the very beginning of this article, and it's a lie. Sure, Mono-Red Aggro wasn't in the Top 16 of the PTQ, but you can see the fingerprints of the dramatic effect it had on the format in every single decklist that made the Top 8. Mono-Red Aggro didn't fail to crack the Top 8 because it wasn't good enough, but rather because the competitors in the PTQ were ready for the strategy.
All the things we've talked about that the PTQ lists did to beat Mono-Red Aggro are extremely exploitable. Playing sweepers isn't free. Playing huge quantities of cheap value explore creatures isn't free. There's room in the metagame for these strategies to be preyed on, and when those decks emerge I expect that we will see a resurgence of Mono-Red Aggro. In my article last week, I talked about how the removal available in Guilds of Ravnica Standard lends itself to a cyclical metagame, and I think we're looking at the first stage in that cycle. First there was Mono-Red Aggro, then there was Sweeper Midrange. Next comes Teferi, Hero of Dominaria? Then Vivid Renewal Control? I can't honestly tell you I know the next stage of this metagame, but I know the one that comes after it: