Mana has always been one of the key factors of any format. For Standard, especially non-《Attune with Aether》 Standard, it just so happens that mana is quite bad, and becomes downright atrocious if you have any intention at all to attack.
That lack of options has given players an incentive to run Mono-Colored aggro decks, and some of them have seen at least limited success (Mono-White with 《Oketra's Monument》, Mono-Black with 《Bone Picker》, and more recently even Mono-Green have seen a little bit of play) while one has been very strong for about a year now in Mono-Red.
Well, it just so happens that Dominaria did not help all that much with the mana, but gave each color a very good reason to keep in simple in 《Benalish Marshal》, 《Tempest Djinn》, 《Dread Shade》, 《Goblin Chainwhirler》 and 《Steel Leaf Champion》.
So, my question is: what to do with those guys?
《Benalish Marshal》: Build Me an Army!
《Benalish Marshal》 is probably the easiest one to figure out: he is a walking 《Glorious Anthem》, designed to play in white weeny deck with a low curve and / or the ability to flood the board with tokens so as to maximise its own impact.
The thing is, I do not love the early beaters the format has to offer: most of them are a little bit too weak to ensure that your opponent will actually want to remove them before the 《Marshal》 hits the board, and I just do not think piling cheap creatures with no disruption is a valid strategy when those cheap creatures are…well, bad.
On the other hand, we still have the core shell of 《Oketra's Monument》 and 《Legion Conquistador》. Yes, I know, 《Oketra's Monument》 is quite the combo with a WWW creature. Or is it? Keep in mind that you still get to produce a bunch of tokens, that will now be 2/2 thanks to our friend the 《Marshal》. But this is not the part I am the most interested in, what I actually like here is how the 《Marshal》 makes up more solid draws overall: Mono-White 《Monument》 used to be a deck that was amazing when you drew both the 《Monument》 and 《Legion Conquistador》, but that felt clunky as hell when you only had the Conquistador.
Well, the new kid on the blocks helps you fix this, making it a little more appealing to invest three mana into a 3/3 that also creates card advantage while making the “classic” combo even more stupid. You might not want to run all 4, because that would make for quite a lot of 3-drops in your deck, but it should be a solid addition if you already liked the deck.
If you still want to go full-on aggressive, which is supposed to be a good strategy in the opening weeks, then I guess you’d want to try and push the Knight subtheme: 《Dauntless Bodyguard》 might be the best 《Savannah Lions》 ever printed, and 《History of Benalia》 is a good a way to build board presence which doubles up as a way to “kind of” dodge mass removal if you know how to time it. It is just so disappointing the 《Gideon of the Trials》 is a Solider, and not a Knight, but what can you do?
《Tempest Djinn》: Take to the Skies
For some reason, I like Mono-Blue decks. 《Tempest Djinn》 is at least an extremely interesting card, since it is a reasonable attacker as a 3/4 flyer for 3 mana, but it also scales absurdly well later in the game. For that reason, I think it pushes you towards a little bit of an aggro-control gameplan like blue always should.
I think the 《Djinn》 is powerful enough that you want to run a few cards to protect him; I mostly like 《Siren Stormtamer》. A fine way to try and play the deck would be to push It further towards a flyer / permission direction, making use of 《Warkite Marauder》 and 《Dreamcaller Siren》 alongside 《Favorable Winds》 to mount a serious air-borne attack. Most of the shell was actually already there in Ixalan, including countermagic like 《Lookout's Dispersal》, but you’ll still have to struggle a bit to fill the 2-mana curve with playable spells.
A fairly elegant solution that I’d be willing to try would be to go as far as 16 evasive 1-drops with 《Siren Stormtamer》, 《Artificer’s Assistant》, 《Mist-Cloaked Herald》 and 《Slither Blade》, and run the full 4 《Curious Obsession》 alongside 《Dive Down》. I know how was that sounds, but such a deck would actually have a lot of game against most midrange to control decks with their clunky removals, and against Mono-Red you’d still have a lot of early drops to trade with 《Tempest Djinn》 to transition into a more powerful late plan…unless they draw 《Hazoret the Fervent》, of course.
《Dread Shade》: Be Good at Every Stage
Can’t see it? That is understandable. My reasoning here is that 《Loxodon Smiter》 mostly saw play in Bant Control decks where it was an anti-esper threat (not a great one, I’ll give you that) that doubled up as an amazing way to roadblock the RG aggro deck that was all the rage back then.
《Dread Shade》 is just that: an insanely mana-efficient creature that will be relevant at any stage of the game, against any strategy you face. It is even difficult to kill with red removal, since it can get so big so fast, and it will virtually unkillable in combat if you do not want it to die. Not too shabby for 3-mana…There is even another Dominaria card that pushes you into that same direction in 《Cabal Stronghold》.
The problem I see here is that it is not about finding a Mono-Black deck where 《Dread Shade》 will be good: it will always be. The problem is to build a good Mono-Black deck so that you get to play with 《Dread Shade》, and that is a little trickier in the sense that it will probably have to be a metagame call: you can build it with 《Gifted Aetherborn》 and 《Walk the Plank》, and dismantle every aggro deck, or pack 《Scrapheap Scrounger》 and other recursive, cheap threats to pray on control deck.
Both strategies have shown success in the past, and both will benefit greatly from this new toy, but that might have to wait for the metagame to stabilize.
《Goblin Chainwhirler》: Improve Your Deck, I Guess?
《Goblin Chainwhirler》 is a little harder to figure out. Unless the other creatures, he does not really comply you to build around him, and you can just jam it in a traditional Mono-Red shell. The question then becomes: how good will it be?
Being a 3/3 First striker is nice, but let’s face it, no one is impressed by this performance. So, the real question is: how good is the enter-the-battlefield ability? It is quite obviously metagame dependant, but I can see a lot of interesting options. You get to kill some creatures in the mirror (and have a great blocker to dominate the board), wipe out thopter tokens, get rid of 《Glint-Sleeve Siphoner》, and maybe most importantly kill 《Llanowar Elves》.
This last one is hard to evaluate, but I have a feeling that the little green guy is one of the best cards in the set, and killing him “for free” on turn 3 has to be backbreaking.
The opportunity cost is also not that big: since 《Rampaging Ferocidon》 let us, Mono-Red players have had to make do with 《Ahn-Crop Crasher》, which is a fine card but could easily be outclassed by the Goblin. To put it simply, it all comes down to which is the better 3-drop: should 《Chainwhirler》 get the nod, then it will become a 4-of in a large number of decks. Do not sleep on it just because he lacks the “wait what” factor that the other have.
《Steel Leaf Champion》: Now We’re Talking
I saved what I think is the best for last: 《Steel Leaf Champion》 is the real deal. I heard lots of people comparing him to 《Leatherback Baloth》, but I think that is extremely unfair. See, the 《Baloth》 was a Mono-Green build around that wanted you to block. Which makes no sense, since a Non-Ramp Mono-Green deck will lack control tools to win that kind of games.
On the other hand, I remember dearly Raphael Levy’s 2013 World Magic Cup winning Mono-Green aggro deck making use of 《Predator Ooze》, and I think the 《Champion》 is miles better. I combine amazing stats with a relevant evasive ability to dodge thopter tokens and 《Gonti, Lord of Luxury》, and you can easily power him on turn 2 thanks to 《Llanowar Elves》.
Is there a shell for him? Well sure there is! Not only do we have plenty of aggressive green cards like 《Resilient Khenra》 or 《Greenbelt Rampager》, along with the perfect pump is 《Blossoming Defense》, we even have the best payoffs for casting large, cheap dudes in 《Rhonas the Indomitable》 and 《Ghalta, Primal Hunger》. 《Ghalta》, you said?
Actually, I think there is a much more reliable, powerful option to go alongside 《Llanowar Elves》 in 《Verdurous Gearhulk》. This guy is still amazing, make good use of your mana acceleration, and should make your deck a little less all-in than the big dinosaur.
What I love about this shell is that you do not need to “fix” stuff to enable your self to play the 《Champion》: the tools just happen to be there. Aggro match-ups are already figured out, with Mono-Green being a textbook horrendous match-up for Mono-Red. Midrange? I just mentioned 《Verdurous Gearhulk》 and 《Rhonas the Indomitable》, did not I?
Control is probably the tricky one here, but it is not like you have no tools: 《Blossoming Defense》, 《Heroic Intervention》, 《Bristling Hydra》, 《Carnage Tyrant》 and 《Nissa, Vital Force》 are all there to help you find a way through. I hear you, nothing in the deck stops 《The Scarab God》. Well, the same is true for Mono-Red, to a large extent: you just plan on winning before he makes an appearance.
Since I have such high hopes for this deck, here is a list before I leave you to your own brewing:
4 《Hashep Oasis》
-Land (24)- 4 《Llanowar Elves》
4 《Merfolk Branchwalker》
4 《Resilient Khenra》
4 《Steel Leaf Champion》
4 《Thrashing Brontodon》
2 《Rhonas the Indomitable》
3 《Ripjaw Raptor》
3 《Verdurous Gearhulk》
1 《Carnage Tyrant》
Until next time,