Beating Mono-Red Aggro

by Simon Nielsen on 11 February 2019, Monday

Simon Nielsen

With the announcement of the Mythic Invitational, grinding ranked play on Arena suddenly has a purpose. And it doesn’t seem to stop anytime soon with invites to Arena Mythic Championships being promised to top ladder finishers in the coming seasons.

They did introduce best-of-three constructed ranked play (called Traditional Ranked), but it runs on the same rank as best-of-one, albeit where each win progresses you double and each loss degrades you double. This might not seem like a favorable conversion rate, considering that each best-of-3 match takes 2,5 times longer than best-of-one (assuming you play a 3rd game half the time), and it might even be more since postboard games are usually longer.

So if you really are in it for the grind, or just want some quick games, you will still have to face a lot of best-of-one. Magic without sideboards is a weird thing, and it especially seems to favor archetypes that have become unreasonably popular and quite despised among the community members: Mono-Red Burn and Nexus of Fate variants such as Turbo Fog.

Mono-Red is mostly annoying due to its sheer numbers, as it’s both cheap and a quick deck which makes it perfect for ranking up. Luckily, we have lots of wisdom from the past to draw from in order to learn how to defeat these red decks, and I’m here to bring that knowledge to you.

Know your enemy

I already covered the Red deck previously, but just for reference, I’ve included a suggested deck list for best-of-one matches. This one takes advantage of Arena's algorithm that increases the chance of having an opening hand with a land ratio equal to the one in your deck. 18 lands is a good number for ending up with 2 or 3 lands in your opening hand most of the time, while having 1-landers (which are often keeps) more often that 4-landers (which are often mulligans). This is a quite experimental field, deckbuilding under the best-of-one rules, but I’m interested to see if it can pan out. 

Simon Nielsen's BO1 Burn (Standard (Ravnica Allegiance) - Others)

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Even though I support the lower land-count by not including Runaway Steam-KinRisk Factor or Experimental Frenzy, you can still get a gist of exactly how many burn spells this deck supports. 

We’ve had burn-heavy aggressive Red decks in Standard before, and some things never change. In this case there are some general rules that usually apply to beating them.

Fireproof: How not to get burned out

The baseline thing you need to understand, is that burn decks most likely have inevitability. What this term means is that if the game goes long enough, the Red deck will eventually and inevitably win. This is because you can sit there with all your removal spells and walls. At some point, your opponent will have just drawn 20 points of burn damage. 

This means that you have to end the game at some point, and usually you’ll be at a low enough life total that you better end it quickly!

So you should be prepared to turn the game around, closing it out in a couple of turns even if you have to take some risks in the process. But in the early parts of the game, your objective is different. Here, you must take as little damage as possible. This means you don’t attack if you can block instead, you play removal spells instead of fragile blockers so that a burn spell on your creature doesn’t enable an attack and you don’t waste time to set up your draw.

So as a recap: Try to take as little damage as possible in the early game from their creatures, then plan to end the game quickly in the midgame.


This part comes into play once shocklands are involved. You’ll often face with the dilemma of whether you should play your land untapped to develop your game plan or save the life points by playing it tapped. Decks with twelve shocklands, especially ones that rely on their early game plays, can struggle against Mono-Red for this reason.

There’s of course no hard and fast answer to this question, but in general you have to consider how much extra time you give and how much damage you can save from creatures.

It’s important to consider how much you slow down your own clock. That is, how quickly you can kill them. If playing your land tapped makes you win the game more than one turn slower down the line, it’s better to play it untapped. This is because if you win the game slower you give them more draw steps. From the list above, 1 draw deals 1.25 damage on average, so you can see how it can be worth it to take two damage to shorten your clock down the line.

This might involve envisioning how the game will go five turns from now, but if you know your deck well, you should be able to get an idea of how it will play out.
Then do the math. Always do the math!

Usually, it’s worth it to play your land untapped if you get to interact with their board or curve out much better. For instance, you might have a hand where you can play nothing if the land is tapped on turn 2, but you can play your 2-drop if it’s untapped. This means you actually gain two mana if you play your land untapped.

But it’s most often not worth it to take a couple of damage for something like Opt, even if your hand might need some sculpting. You’d probably be better off just hoping that the top of your library delivers.

Risk Factor

Another decision that comes up frequently happens when your opponent casts Risk Factor and you wouldn’t immediately die from taking 4 damage. Sometimes the decision is made easy for you and you have to give them three cards, but other times you are at 10 life and won’t kill them in the next few turns.

Well, what’s it gonna be? Take 4 or let them draw three?

Again, there are no hard and fast rules here. With the info from above in mind, 3 cards is worth very close to 4 damage. If the game drags on too long, they’re going to be worth even more, because creatures might attack multiple times, and dead draws like a Mountain can be converted into another go at the Risk Factory, courtesy of jump-start.

For this reason, it’s only a good idea to let them draw three cards if you have already established a clock. You might be able to close out the game before the cards kill you.

Let’s say you’re at 7, and they cast an end-of-turn Risk Factor with four lands in play and no cards in hand. You have them dead next turn, so they will only have one additional draw. In this spot, you always give them the cards, because their 4 draws are not going to add up to more than 5-6 damage on average, and they might not even be able to cast all their cards. But if you take the damage, you risk a topdeck 3-damage burn spell (or get to jump-start to hit land and Lightning Strike).

Sometimes it’s a lot more tricky than this. I’ve had a game where I knew my opponent had 2 Wizard’s Lightning and a Skewer the Critics in their hand while they were stuck on three lands and had no board position.

They cast Risk Factor and since I was at 14 life and had a clock going, I thought I could just give them more cards and they surely wouldn’t be able to cast them all before they died.

Well, my opponent drew a wizard, and all of a sudden their burn spells cost 1 mana, and they were able to empty their hand over two turns to burn me out. But if I had just taken 4 damage, I decrease the chance that they can cast more than one spell a turn. That would actually lead to less damage overall.

The Extinguishers

Obviously, you can’t gain your entire edge against Red from just gameplay. The way you build your deck can determine so much of how well you are set up to beat Red decks. Sometimes this is possible with powerful silver bullets, and sometimes you can craft a game plan where they are no longer the deck with inevitability.

If you make sure that they can’t win the long game no matter how many burn spells they topdeck, that’s a good way to fundamentally break up a burn decks infrastructure. This is most likely achieved with repeated lifegain, like a Wildgrowth Walker and a heavy slew of explore creatures. Attacks with Lyra Dawnbringer should also do the trick after one or two hits. Or you can keep up mana for multiple Absorbs while your Teferi, Hero of Dominaria ticks up.

Some of these aren’t literally examples of inevitability, because you’ll run out of lifegain at some point, but they do have built in clocks so you shouldn’t have to worry about that. Luckily the burn players still only have 20 life themselves.

A Silver Lining: White can pack a punch against burn

As for silver bullets, it’s hard to gain life in Standard if you don’t play White or explore creatures. If you are packing Plains, however, there are plenty of options.

Shalai, Voice of Plenty doesn’t exactly gain life, but the burn player has to spend two cards to get rid of it before they can continue with their gameplan. Postboard the card gets much worse as it’s an easy target for both Lava Coil and Fight with Fire. Bonus points if you assemble the soft-lock in tandem with Tajic, Legion’s Edge!

Knight of Autumn is another miracle worker as it gains more than a burn spell’s worth of life. And if it doesn’t get mopped up by a Goblin Chainwhirler, it even trades with a creature. Postboard, it’s especially crucial when it also gets to destroy Experimental Frenzy or Treasure Map.

I do think that Basilica Bell-Haunt is the biggest heavy-hitter. It can be upwards of a 4-for-1, as it discards a burn spell, counters another with its lifegain and takes two cards to get off the battlefield. As with all of these cards, it does get worse postboard, when the red deck gets to rely on card advantage tools like Experimental Frenzy to put on a control role in case it needs to.

If you are so inclined to play a ton of gates, Archway Angel can really ruin a Red mage’s day. You even get to supplement it with Plaza of Harmony. Be aware of these gate decks, burn players! The correct build likely hasn’t been found yet, and I’ve been impressed most of the time I’ve seen these decks in action.

Assembling the task force: The decks that stand a chance

For non-White decks, our options get slimmer. We can turn to Deathgorge Scavenger or colorless options like Fountain of Renewal or Diamond Mare but those are hardly maindeck options.

Otherwise, you mostly have to be able to present a fast clock without weakness to Goblin Chainwhirler. Preferably, you’d run a two-colored deck so you don’t have to play a billion shocklands and pack some support from cheap interaction like Shock.

Izzet Drakes manages to have a fine match-up against Red thanks to disruption like ShockLava Coil and Spell Pierce, while it presents 4-toughness blockers that can end the game in a turn or two once you decide it’s time to turn the corner. Often you need to sweat their topdeck, but since their top card still only delivers 1.25 damage on average, you are often favored to win the flip.

Brad Carpenter's Izzet Drakes (Standard (Ravnica Allegiance) - Others)

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Esper Control is another good candidate. It is ripe with life gaining interactive spells like Moment of Craving, Absorb and Vraska’s Contempt. This deck also boasts a good matchup against some Turbo Fog variants, and gets to trap people with dead removal spells, so it is a prime choice for best-of-one standard.

If you REALLY want to hate on Red, you can just look to the deck that Brian Braun-Duin smashed the ladder with by the end of last season, before Ravnica Allegiance came out. This won’t give you any hope against unfair decks like Nexus of Fate, but if we only have one purpose …

BBD's Selesnya Angels (Standard (Guilds of Ravnica) - Others)

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This article was written by Simon Nielsen in a media collaboration with

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