Mono Red Aggro Deck Tech

Hello! I am Phelddagrif, and I played Red Deck Wins to a 5-0 finish in the Gladiator Games: Kamigawa Neon Dynasty tournament that took place on March 5, 2022. Here is my decklist, and I’ll be sharing my thought process of the card choices one might not necessarily see too often in these types of lists (like anyone needs to know why, for example, Lightning Bolt is in the list) But before that, here is the list:

As you can see, the core of the list is a standard Red Deck Wins list that aims to bring the opponent’s life total to zero in a quick and efficient manner. To do that, there are some cheap and aggressive creatures that either have haste or directly deal damage to the opponent without the need to connect in combat. It also has spells that work as removal in the early game or as finishers in the late game. 

Why I Chose Mono Red Aggro:

As this was my first Gladiator tournament, I wanted to pick a deck that had a streamlined strategy and played quickly. While I do love playing Control in general, I felt like I ought to be a bit more familiar with the format before I could successfully pilot a deck with a reactive strategy. Control decks in general are also more time consuming, giving less time to unwind when necessary between rounds. The reason I chose Mono Red Aggro over any other Aggro deck is that I wanted my removal spells to also deal damage to my opponent when needed.

33 Lands:

For me, 33 lands plus Spikefield Hazard as a potential land felt reasonable for three reasons.

First, my list has only three cards with mana value four, with 13 cards with mana value three after that. I wanted to make sure I could also consistently draw the lands to play them in a timely fashion. Secondly, Mono Red Aggro doesn’t have cheap tools like Opt or Consider to dig out lands when needed, so the list needs to have a naturally higher land count. That said, you don’t want too many lands as you run a greater risk of flooding. So, 33 lands felt like a perfect number for me. Lastly, some of the other lists I’ve seen run more MDFC lands and less basics than I did. The most common one was Shatterskull Smashing. I didn’t include this one because both of the sides feels too awkward for the effects the card offers: Three life against Aggro can be an issue and an overcosted Chandra’s Pyrohelix that can’t even target the opponent didn’t make the cut in my book.

I think only one of them might stick out of the bunch, and that’s Forgotten Cave. I added that as a way to prevent flooding in the late game as you can Cycle it, and it operates as a land in the early game. It also has some synergy with Wayward Guide-Beast to Cycle later!

36 Creatures:

Most of the lists of this archetype I’ve seen have played more creatures than this one, and to be honest, I’m quite baffled by this. The reason is that decks running almost 50 creatures run a greater risk of losing to a sweeper or a flock of blockers while the opponent is at between one and three life. One of the strengths of Mono Red Aggro is having access to plenty of direct damage for the win in scenarios like this. In my experience, a higher creature count also has matched poorly against Mono White Aggro, which happened to be the most popular archetype at the tournament in addition to being one of the top contenders in the whole format. And the final reason: Yes, I’m more willing to lose because I drew a burn spell than by drawing creatures that are irrelevant considering the boardstate. For example, the previously mentioned Mono White Aggro decks are blocking your creatures with first strikers, or decks like Mono Green Aggro are blocking your creatures with bigger creatures than you have.

Speaking of creatures, there are a couple of creatures that are uncommon compared to other lists. I’m going to list them here and give a bit of the reasoning behind them:

In theory, this is a two-mana 2/2 in the early game, and a four-mana 3/2 haste creature in the late game. It also has the potential to swarm the board with 1/1 Goblins that also benefits from its ability. In reality, however, a red Grizzly Bear isn’t gonna cut it, and the late game option seems to fall a bit too short way too often. I never saw this card during the tournament, and to be honest, I didn’t really miss this card. This card feels better in a Goblin tribal deck, but Mono Red Aggro has better tools to offer.

This is a creature that deals damage by either activating its ability or connecting in combat. I saw this once during the tournament, where it immediately soaked up a removal spell. I admit, I was a bit too hasty on casting this as I left no mana open for its ability. But even when cast “correctly,” this was one of the clear underperformers in the list.

When taking Adventure spells into account, there are a total of 33 cards in the list that triggers this creature, making all those spells a bit more powerful. The reason I chose this over something like Kessig Flamebreather is the more aggressive 2/1 body.

Even though it’s an awkward turn one play, I still wanted to add this since it’s most likely the best one-drop creature after the first two turns of the game. Most of the time you’re likely to have other cards to cast during turns one and two. And if you have no land drop to make you can replay a tapped land, essentially netting you +1 mana for the turn. And as mentioned before synergising with Forgotten Cave, turning a land into possible action can make a difference between losing and winning. Lists that have more MDFC lands in them can benefit from the ability even more: You can play these first as lands, and return them back to your hand when you need them as spells. As this creature triggers the land bounce whenever it deals combat damage to an opponent you should be very careful with Embercleave or other means to give double strike.

31 Non-Creature Spells:

Most of the 31 non-creature spells are instants or sorceries to make cards like Frenzied Geistblaster and Electrostatic Blast more consistent, but there are some other cards as well that offer utility in different ways. Given the fact that I have more noncreature spells than other lists I’ve seen so far, I have some cards that aren’t usually included. Here I have them listed, and my reasonings behind them:

I thought to include this to answer all the X/1 creatures my opponent might have. However, the problem is that as long as your opponent is doing anything else but spewing out a bunch of one-toughness creatures, this quickly falls short on power. For this reason, I don’t think this card has a place in Gladiator.

I wanted to include all of these to combat Mono White Aggro or other decks that greatly rely on a swarm of small creatures. And unlike the previous option, these don’t have that big of a drawback when the opponent isn’t deploying multiple X/1 creatures. Each of these cards have their own merits: Chandra’s Pyrohelix is one mana cheaper and it’s an instant. Flames of the Firebrand, while more expensive, deals more damage. Magic Missile is better against blue based Control decks as it can’t be countered, giving a way to finish off Control players low in life and arrogant enough to think counterspells and removal are enough to stabilize. While I wasn’t too excited about any of these, they felt strong enough to warrant a place in the deck.

In a deck that doesn’t have too much card selection, having an effect that offers card selection while following the deck’s plan is too good to pass up. I saw this card once during the tournament, and shipping those two lands to the bottom, thus preventing flooding, felt pretty good! And in other formats where I have played this, I’ve never felt unhappy about this card.

This might be the biggest controversial card in the list, as punishing effects are usually shunned. I have to admit, I added this simply out of my curiosity. As long as you’re treating this as one of the decks mana sinks, it becomes a tad more bearable. And you can slightly ward off flooding by ditching a redundant land for the Jump-start mode.

Usually, I tend to shy away from planeswalkers in lists like mine as protecting them becomes harder without quality removal spells or sweepers. This one, however, offers a solution to the most irritating thing in the whole game: life gain. Getting a maximum of two 1/1 bodies with damage-dealing death triggers from the activation is a nice bonus on top of the life gain prevention.

I wanted my list to have at least some potential to grind out if the game goes too long. Unless you get unlucky with multiple lands on top of your deck, this card allows you easily to play four spells in a turn, making your opponent’s life way harder than they’d like to admit. While this card prevents you from playing cards from your hand, it doesn’t stop you from playing cards from either exile or from your graveyard. That means you can, for example, cast Stomp from Bonecrusher Giant from the top of the deck and still cast the creature side from exile. Also, not casting cards from your hand means you can store up gas if your opponent ever happens to answer the Experimental Frenzy. I saw this twice during the tournament, and one of the cases was against Control where it was easily enough to overwhelm the opponent.

While this isn’t as extreme a card advantage engine as Experimental Frenzy, this card is still good at offering more gas as the game goes longer. And the Torbran, Thane of Red Fell imitation for a turn is nothing to scoff at, as your one- and two-powered creatures “suddenly” dealing three or four damage is no joke against high toughness blockers.

I put these under the same category since they share one thing: They can’t hit players. While I usually detest spells that don’t hit my opponent, there are two reasons why I included a “whopping” four copies of these effects: 1. The card pool in Arena is limited so it’s either these or creatures, and I ended up wanting removal spells more and 2. Connected to the first reason, I thought that the decks are more reliant on creatures, making running these more justifiable. Each of these has a different kind of utility over others: Flame-Blessed Bolt exiles the creature, answering recursive creatures opponents might have. Frost Bite is a one mana spell that deals three damage to a creature, handling a bit better all the x/3 creatures you might face. It is also the reason I ran Snow-Covered Mountains instead of the normal ones. Unholy Heat is the only card in the list that cleanly answers bigger creatures if you have Delirium. Abrade is the answer to cards like Valkmira, Protector’s Shield or other problematic artifacts.

Afterthoughts of the list:

Overall I was quite happy with the list, but there were some cards that I will change for the next time I’ll be attending any tournaments. I’ll be taking out (at least) the following cards:

I already gave my reasonings why I disliked these cards (barring the two Mountains), and for the next time I’m going to be trying the following:

Having the potential to cast two cards on turn two for an Aggro deck is powerful enough for me to want to at least test this card.

There are enough one mana instants and sorceries in the list that I’m willing to test this creature out. Getting to cast two Lightning Bolts sounds tempting, after all!

While Raging Goblin itself is somewhat… unimpressive, the real reason is the ability: Reconfigure. Giving haste to creatures that lack it is something that I’m willing to test out. Dreadhorde Arcanist will be much more potent with this card as having two power grants the ability to cast so many more spells from the graveyard.

Having an untapped red mana source that in the late game turns into two 1/1 hasty creatures is a pretty free switch with Snow-Covered Mountain. Funnily enough, this will be the second land that has synergy with Wayward Guide-Beast.

Initially, I left this land out because I already had one creature land in the list, and Den of the Bugbear was my choice due to its ability to produce red mana over colorless mana. However, I’m willing to include more tools against Control if the cost of the trade is as little as swapping it with Snow-Covered Mountain since my basics already are snow-covered.