How To Build Mono Red in Pioneer

Building Mono Red in Pioneer

Burning Pioneers at the Stake

Author: Zen Takahashi

Hello everybody!

Over the past month or so, I played a lot of Pioneer on Magic Online to prepare for the new Regional Championships Qualifier season. I played nearly forty leagues on Magic Online with various decks, and while that number may be small compared to what the grinders get through, it’s the most Magic I’ve ever played in a given month – even more than when I was actually on the Pro Tour!

Can’t Go Wrong With Burn

I initially tried a couple of different archetypes, but quickly found myself being drawn to the Mono Red decks. I don’t think Mono Red is particularly better than the other strategies in the format, but I like how well-rounded the Red decks in the format are. If you compare Mono Red to other aggro decks like Humans, I think you’re a “worse” aggro deck i.e. your creatures are smaller, and your average curve isn’t as smooth as that of Humans’.

The strength of the red deck is its consistency and malleability.

You have more utility lands than any other deck in the format, which means you’re less likely to lose to flooding. Your burn spells double up as being both creature removal and going right at their face, which means you’re not worried about having “dead” cards in hand like you might do if you had Dire Tactics instead. You also have a lot of redundancy because many of your cards are similar to one another, e.g. Monastery Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage, Lightning Strike and Skewer the Critics. This means you can replicate the play patterns you’re after more consistently.

I also really enjoyed the process of finding the optimal red deck, as contrary to the belief that mono-coloured aggro decks are straightforward to build, I think there are a lot of ways to build Mono Red decks in the format right now. I did end up winning the first Qualifier of the season with Mono Red as well over the past weekend, but I don’t think my particular decklist was interesting, so instead in today’s article I will be breaking down the card choices for the archetype based on my experiences, and then I’ve got my take on how to build each of the three main Mono Red variants in the format right now – Burn, Wizards and Devotion

First Degree Burns

Kumano Faces Kakkazan NEO

I believe that the red decks in Pioneer want at least twelve one-drops, with the more aggressive builds wanting even more. Your best draws tend to be the aggressive ones, so it’s important you lean into that.

Against the unfair decks of the format, like Mono Green Devotion and Lotus Field, being fast is crucial to winning the game.

Of the one-drops you have available, I think Monastery Swiftspear, Soul-Scar Mage and Kumano Faces Kakkazan are the best options by a large margin. Even if you are playing the Devotion list with less non-creature spells, I still believe these one drops are the best.

If you go down the Wizards path, then Ghitu Lavarunner is an option. However, I dislike the card as I do not believe the average list plays enough instants and sorceries to support it, and Frank Karsten’s math seems to indicate you need about eighteen to nineteen instants and sorceries to make it work, which the Wizard deck doesn’t play. Having to play Ghitu Lavarunner is my main criticism of this version.

Other reasonable options include Bomat Courier and Zurgo Bellstriker. Bomat Courier is better if midrange and control decks are popular, while Zurgo Bellstriker is better if speed is what you care about. The Devotion lists can play Fervent Champion as it works well with Embercleave, but I still think it’s worse than the previously mentioned one-drops, and you don’t want more than twelve anyway since you’re more midrange. I know some people like Scorch Spitter and Fanatical Firebrand with Torbran, Thane of Red Fell, but I think these cards are just too weak on their own to play.

When Number Two Hurts

Eidolon of the Great Revel is the best two-drop creature, but there are significant costs to playing it.

First of all, the aggressive red lists don’t want to be heavy on two-drops because they would prefer to cast two one-drops on turn two instead. This means if you are playing Eidolon, you likely are not playing Viashino Pyromancer and Wizard’s Lightning, which fits with the aggressive plan well. Also, if you’re playing Eidolon, you cannot play Experimental Frenzy or Mutavault – two cards which I believe help with the matchups you struggle with (midrange decks with a lot of removal such as Black-Red Midrange and Niv-to-Light).

Eidolon of the Great Revel A25

If you go down the Wizards route, then your two-drop of choice will be Viashino Pyromancer. I initially expected the card to be terrible, but I was surprised by how reasonable it actually is. It’s not great by any means, but it applies a decent amount of pressure, and you can probably get four to eight damage out of it if you cast it on turn two. I’ve also liked how it can kill Planeswalkers – whether it be finishing off Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner or The Wandering Emperor in the second main-phase.

I wouldn’t play the card if I wasn’t looking to support Wizard’s Lightning, but I’m happy to play it to make it work.

Other reasonable options include Kari Zev, Skyship Raider and Runaway Steam-Kin. I like Kari Zev a lot, and it works well with Kumano Faces Kakkazan, as a 2/4 is quite hard to kill in this format, especially for red-based decks, dodging removal like Flame-Blessed Bolt, Lightning Strike and Fiery Impulse. Runaway Steam-Kin is great on turn-two and works great with Experimental Frenzy, but it’s very weak to removal and can be a bad draw later in the game.

Burning-Tree Emissary is good in the Devotion lists as it grows Anax, Hardened in the Forge and putting more creatures into play early makes Embercleave cheaper. However, I wouldn’t play it in other red decks. Abbot of Keral Keep, Earthshaker Khenra and Robber of the Rich are other two-drops I’ve seen people play. I think of these, Abbot of Keral Keep is the one that interests me most, but I haven’t tried it yet.

Earthshaker Khenra and Robbert of the Rich seem worse than the options already available.

The ONE Three-Drop (and Alternatives)

The three-drop slot is definitely where the choice most depends on what version of the deck you are playing, with the most aggressive versions even eschewing them completely. 

That said, the most popular three-drop regardless of the build is BONECRUSHER GIANT!

Initially, I was underwhelmed by the card, as I felt like I wasn’t making the best use of the Stomp side, especially on the draw. Other than against Spirits, most of the deck’s two-damage targets are one-drop creatures. On the play, it’s fine to go one-drop into Stomp on Llanowar Elves/Favored Hoplite/Soul-Scar Mage. But on the draw it doesn’t work. On turn two on the draw, you’re probably facing down an Old-Growth Troll, or the same Favored Hoplite/Soul-Scar Mage can now be grown out of size.

The creature side is just a 4/3 for three mana, which isn’t a playable rate on its own in this format. Putting them together is fine, but if you think of Stomp as only being able to target their face, which commonly is the case, then the card isn’t very exciting. You’d much rather have Viashino Pyromancer – two damage and a 2/1 body for two mana, than Bonecrusher Giant – two damage and a 4/3 body over five mana. 

However, when I started playing lists without them, I immediately started to miss them. The card just covers a lot of ground and is really flexible.

Even though the Stomp side may feel weak when being pointed at the face, if you have two prowess creatures in play, that’s four damage. Also, while the Stomp side may not be able to kill big creatures, it can do so when combined with another burn spell, and then you mitigate the card disadvantage by then casting the creature side.

I think the card is likely not a four-off except in the Burn version because they can be clunky in multiples, but I think I always want at least two in my red decks. The other breakthrough I had with the card was that, similar to Eidolon, the card can be boarded out on the draw in various matchups. For example, against Green Devotion, it’s good on the play as it can kill manadorks, but not on the draw as it is too slow.

Chandra, Dressed to Kill VOW

Other commonly played three-drops include Chandra, Dressed to Kill, which is the go-to choice for the Burn lists. This card helps turn on Skewer the Critics and Light up the Stage, while being a solid threat on its own. I really like Chandra, and I think even in the non-Burn red decks, I would play a few copies in the sideboard as a card to bring in against midrange and control decks. 

Anax, Hardened in the Forge is good in the Devotion lists because it plays so well with Embercleave. That’s at least ten damage on its own, and likely you’ll have some other stuff in play, making it often a near-lethal attack. 

Goblin Chainwhirler and Rampaging Ferocidon are also options, depending on the metagame conditions. Though I suspect if you feel like you need Rampaging Ferocidon in the main-deck, then you probably shouldn’t be playing Mono Red. I think Fable of the Mirror-Breaker is also an option in the Devotion lists, though I haven’t tried it yet and it’s probably just worse than Chandra, Dressed to Kill in a similar role.

Four-Drops… in Mono Red?!

The Burn version and the Wizards version don’t usually play four-drops, but I’ve been impressed by them. The problem I find is that against decks like Black-Red Midrange and Blue-Red Phoenix, they have enough removal and card advantage to answer everything you have. So you want some number of difficult-to-answer cards that naturally line up well against their removal, which can help close out games once the initial aggression is handled by them.

Therefore, what I am looking for in a four-drop is one that’s resilient to the commonly played removal spells. I’ve been most impressed by Hazoret the Fervent and Experimental Frenzy, as both dodges most of the commonly played removal spells and can single-handedly win the game. They’re also both solid in Mono Red mirrors as well. Hazoret the Fervent does require you to be fairly aggressive, as you want to be attacking with it on turn four or five if possible. Experimental Frenzy I’ve been blown away with by how good it is against Black-Red Midrange, which is one of your worst matchups, but unfortunately you cannot play it alongside Eidolon of the Great Revel so only the Wizards lists can play it. Still, it’s the perfect trump card for the midrange matchups.

The Devotion lists play Torbran, Thane of Red Fell, which I think is decent in that deck. However, I don’t like it in other versions because it dies to removal easily and needs other cards alongside it to make it work. This is fine in the Devotion lists where you have other good creatures that can bait out removal, but less so in the more aggressive versions. 

I’ve disliked Chandra, Torch of Defiance as it’s quite susceptible to creature-lands. I’ve had it come up enough times where I cast Chandra to kill their creature, only for them to activate a creature-land and kill it on the swing back or just stomp it with a Bonecrusher Giant.

I want more from my four-drop than a four-damage removal spell that gains some life.

Less Creatures, More BURN

I think Play with Fire and Lightning Strike are the two best options for rate, and I would look to play a playset of both before playing any of the other burn spells.

Wizard’s Lightning is great if you can support it, though you do need enough Wizards to make it work. Frank Karsten’s math says a minimum of eight to nine Wizards is needed, with twelve being the ideal. The problem is that this means you need to play Ghitu Lavarunner, which I dislike, as previously mentioned. Two routes that I would like to explore is playing less Wizards but also fewer Wizard’s Lightning or making up for the Wizards count by playing Mutavault. Since the Wizards lists don’t play Eidolon of the Great Revel, I think you can support some copies of Mutavault. With the creature-land, you can always turn Wizard’s Lightning into at least a Lightning Strike by tapping the Mutavault to activate itself.

If you’re playing Chandra, Dressed to Kill, then Skewer the Critics is an option.

However, I don’t like playing more than two copies, as it is not very good if not combined with Chandra. You want to cast your burn spells pre-combat damage, so you can either kill their creatures and/or trigger prowess. Having a burn spell you can often only cast post-combat is very awkward. That said, going turn three Chandra into Skewer is one of the best plays you can make, and hitting a Skewer off a spectacled Light up the Stage is quite nice too. 

In the Devotion lists, I think Reckless Rage is an option worth trying. Compared to the more aggressive red decks, you are less about being able to go to their face with the burn spells, but dealing with creatures like Thing in the Ice and Ledger Shredder seems important, and you have a high enough concentration of creatures you can target it with.

I really like Light up the Stage in the aggressive versions. It’s easy enough to trigger and just ensures the deck continues to have enough gas to keep going after maintaining an early start. It’s at its best when your curve is low, and it works really well with Chandra, Dressed to Kill. I’ve seen some people play Reckless Impulse instead, which might be better than being able to cast it pre-combat to trigger prowess or find a burn spell to kill a blocker seems nice, but ultimately I think the difference between one-mana versus two-mana is too significant. 

In the Devotion lists, Embercleave is obviously one of your best cards. While the other red decks cannot play it because they don’t have enough high-powered creatures, it is one of the biggest draws to playing the bigger version.

Red Lands

To me, the biggest draw to playing Mono Red is that your mana-base is just greatMany decks in Pioneer have bad mana-bases, especially the ally-colored decks. But beyond just having the right mana to cast your spells, red’s mana-base is so enticing because of the utility lands it gets to play. Den of the Bugbear is one of the best creature-lands, and Ramunap Ruins fits the deck’s plan of trying to deal twenty damage ASAP. Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance may not be as good as Otawara, Soaring City or Boseiju, Who Endures, but it fits into what red decks want to be doing, and I’ve set up my share of lethal attacks thanks to the Kamigawa land.

Other than these three obvious utility lands, other options include Castle Embereth and Spikefield Hazard. The former is good in the Devotion lists where you play less Ramunap Ruins and more Mountains, while I just love the latter as it helps mitigate flood and can easily trigger prowess and spectacle when it’s not busy killing your opponent’s one-drops. 

If you are not playing Eidolon of the Great Revel, I think you should play some copies of Mutavault. People seem to have forgotten the card exists outside of Mono White Humans, but the creature-land is as good as ever and also counts as a Wizard. I’m also surprised people aren’t playing Shatterskull SmashingI think it’s a fine one-off.

Red Deck’s Sideboard

The red decks’ sideboards mostly look similar. You generally have about five to seven cards allocated for “bigger” removal i.e. for killing things beyond your burn spells.

Most common is Lava Coil, since it kills Thing in the Ice, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, and Old-Growth Troll. Beyond that, you usually play some situational but more efficient removal spells such as Redcap Melee, Rending Volley, Abrade, Burning Hands and Fry.

Most lists nowadays play some number of Unlicensed Hearse in the sideboard. With Blue-Red Phoenix and Black-Red Sacrifice both being popular right now, I wouldn’t leave home without at least two copies of the vehicle

Unlicensed Hearse

The aggressive versions of the deck tend to play some combination of Roiling Vortex and/or Rampaging Ferocidon as an answer to lifegain. I like the dinosaur more, as it is a threat on its own, so you can bring it in against decks like Niv-to-Light (for Omnath, Locus of Creation) and Black-Red Midrange (for Graveyard Trespasser and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet).

I’ve mostly been unimpressed by Roiling Vortex – it’s for the control matchups but Blue-White Control has March of Otherworldly Light for it, and it can be a bad topdeck later in the game. Overall, I wouldn’t overload on these anti-lifegain cards as if you feel like you need to, then you probably shouldn’t be playing a red deck in that metagame.

Most lists tend to play one or two “bigger” cards for the midrange and control matchups. Popular options include Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Hazoret the Fervent, with Experimental Frenzy being my sleeper pick. I’ve already discussed these at length before when I talked about the four-drops, but one thing to note is I wouldn’t play more than two copies of Experimental Frenzy or Hazoret the Fervent in my seventy-five as they are bad in multiples. 

Other options include Outpost Siege, which is like an Experimental Frenzy but can be played alongside Eidolon of the Great Revel, and Burning Earth, a card I found while going through Gatherer that I think is surprisingly good against Black-Red Midrange and Blue-Red Phoenix as they play so few basic lands. Another card I think could work in this slot is Rekindling Phoenix, but it’s too much of a liability against Graveyard Trespasser and is probably just worse than the other options. 

If the Lotus Field Combo becomes popular, then Alpine Moon and Damping Sphere are decent options. But I don’t think that’s necessary right now. If you’re not playing Chandra, Dressed to Kill or Eidolon of the Great Revel, then you should be playing Jegantha, the Wellspring as a companion

The Three Red Decks

Without further ado, let’s get to the decklists. We have three viable Mono Red decks, starting with a classic Burn deck, a Wizard deck and Devotion deck.

I hope you enjoyed this article, as I covered in detail what I believe are the best card choices for Mono Red decks in Pioneer, as well as how I would build each of the three key Mono Red variants in the format. I’ve been enjoying playing Pioneer recently, and while I’ve now qualified for the Regional Championships, I will continue to explore the format in-depth for the next few months in preparation for the big event. Expect more Pioneer articles from me coming your way soon!

Till next time!

Zen Takahashi

@mtgzen on Twitter 

About the Author

Zen Takahashi is a seasoned writer and mainstay on the Three for One Trading writing team. He is an avid Eternal player from Auckland, New Zealand and enjoys competing in local Legacy events and playing Old School over webcam with friends.

Previously, he was a Silver Pro for multiple years and his results included five Grand Prix Top 8s, a 27th place at Pro Tour Amonkhet, three consecutive online Regional PTQ wins, and he co-created the Modern Dredge deck.

Nowadays though, he primarily plays Legacy, his favorite format, but he also branches out into Pioneer and Modern.

Zen Takahashi

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