We’ve all been there.
You eagerly sit down or queue up for a match of Magic, anxious to see what combination of fun and interesting cards your opponent chose to combat you. Your head stirring with so many possibilities of colors, cards, and strategies as you prepare yourself to triumph over whatever your opponent might throw at you.
And then your opponent plays a Mountain.
The color drains from your face as you look down at your hand and think, “Am I equipped to beat this?”
We’ve all played against the infamous Burn Deck with it’s many different names (Red Deck Wins, Mono Red, Sligh) and through it’s many iterations over the years of Magic. One thing holds true over all that time: if you don’t respect and plan for the deck, you’re going to lose. Today we’ll learn how to beat mono red decks.
Aggressive mono red decks aren’t going away as it’s just too popular and effective of a strategy. The best thing you can do is arm yourself with the knowledge and tools of how to beat it.
We’re going to discuss some ways to which you can combat the mono red burn deck, and turn some of those potentially frustrating losses into satisfying wins.
Before you can beat them, you have to understand the components of the deck on a fundamental level.
Understanding the Components of a “Burn Deck”
Everyone knows what this deck is. We’ve all played against it, and we’ve all played with it. (If you haven’t played with it, go try it. It’s fun.)
Whatever your favorite name for the solely red, cheap costed, aggressive red deck is (mine is “Mono Red”), it’s a very predictable combination of cards. It’s important to understand what makes this deck tick, so that we can exploit it’s weaknesses.
The deck’s bread and butter is the burn suite. Red is going to have some form of Lightning Bolts. It may not be literally called “Lightning Bolt”, but it’s a cheap spell that does 2-3 damage. There are usually multiple burn spells fitting this description in every Standard format, and there are certainly numerous in more eternal formats such as Modern.
Mono red pairs the best burn cards in the format with the best cheap aggressive red creatures. Red is a color that has primary access to Haste as an ability, and that keyword can make some of it’s creatures feel like repeatable-burn. These creatures usually have some sort of useful ability to manipulate combat, or even immediately deal direct damage.
Long Game Value
Lastly, the deck has some way to gas up the tank when it runs dry. In the event that you heed the deck’s initial aggression, Red as a color has access to gaining some sort of card advantage to help them not be worthless as the game passes turn 5.
The decklist below is a typical recent build of the Mono Red deck, and this one in particular is from Martin Juza of the Magic Pro League. This version plays 11 burn spells, 20 aggressive creatures, 9 cards that give card advantage, and a streamlined 20 mountains.
4 Viashino Pyromancer
4 Runaway Steam-Kin
4 Ghitu Lavarunner
4 Goblin Chainwhirler
4 Fanatical Firebrand
4 Lightning Strike
3 Wizard’s Lightning
4 Experimental Frenzy
4 Light Up the Stage
1 Chandra, Fire Artisan
Let’s see another deck, one that Wyatt Darby used to win Pro Tour Dominaria.
4 Soul-Scar Mage
4 Earthshaker Khenra
3 Bomat Courier
4 Goblin Chainwhirler
2 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
2 Ahn-Crop Crasher
4 Hazoret the Fervent
3 Rekindling Phoenix
3 Lightning Strike
You’ll notice that Wyatt had only 10 burn spells (prioriziting Abrade for metagame purposes), 26 aggressive and resilient creatures, and a heavier set of 24 mountains. He had less burn because the creatures were so absurdly strong.
As you can see, the shells of these types of decks are not that different. The deck has 3 types of spells that generally make it up:
- Cheap Creatures
- A way to grind out a game to a win.
Now that we understand the construction of the deck, how do we beat it?
Tip #1: Lifegain is only half the Answer
One of the most natural intuitions for us as Magic players is to try to counteract burn and direct damage by gaining life. This is not as good of a solution as you might think.
Let’s be clear here, there are two distinctions of lifegain; direct lifegain and indirect lifegain.
I call direct lifegain cards where the primary function of the card is used to gain life. An exaggerated example is Sanguine Sacrament.
These types of lifegain cards are not an effective way to combat red. Pretend you spend 6 mana to gain 8 life. I’m saying that is not particularly productive use of your turn, and there are often much better things you could be doing.
Burn decks will usually have some number of creatures on the board to simply attack you again, immediately negating the life you just gained. Plus, you’re giving them a free turn to potentially gas-up the tank for a big turn in the near future.
The type of lifegain you’re looking for is indirect lifegain. These are cards that gain you life, but that isn’t their primary function. Their primary function is something else that is useful and the lifegain is essentially a bonus effect.
Let’s look at a few cards from recent sets that were used to beat Mono Red strategies.
Some examples of effective indirect lifegain are Moment of Craving and Oath of Kaya. These are removal spells coupled with gaining life. Killing a creature and gaining 2-3 life can be a two-for-one type of value against Red; after all, 3 life is a burn spell worth of life. More on this later.
Not all removal with lifegain is great though. For example, Vraska’s Contempt is still removal that gains you life, but you’re probably overpaying to kill a cheaper costed creature, and that tax on your mana isn’t the best way to answer red. If Vraska’s Contempt is the first removal spell you have against red, playing it on turn 4 might also be the turn you die. It’s not worthless, but it’s not ideal.
One of the best recent cards for fighting Mono Red is Basilica Bell-Haunt. This card attacks red on 3 different axis: it gains you life, it puts a creature in play, and it taxes their hand. The card itself is not particularly strong in other matchups, but against Red it’s an all-star.
Another reason Basilica Bell-Haunt is such an all-star against red is that it’s a big body that stands in their way, and they have to move it. The number of cards it might take to get rid it’s 4 toughness is another key idea to fighting back against Red, and it’s tip #2.
Tip #2: Make Red have to Interact
Another thing you can do to combat red is to give them something else they need to burn, other than your face. If they’re not burning your face, then you’re a happy Magic player.
One thing about Lightning Bolt that will never change is the fact that it, alone, does 3 damage. That means in order to kill your 4 toughness creature, your opponent will likely need more than a single card to kill it. That’s great news for you, because you’re about to get some value.
Another reason Basilica Bell-Haunt is such an effective card is that it has 4 toughness. Not only does it gain life and attack their hand, but it presents a difficult to handle creature standing in their way, too.
The creatures or Planeswalkers you want your opponent to interact with need to be cheap enough to play before you’re dead; ideally starting on turn 2. Try to run their resources low with your first 5 to 6 turns. With a couple value-gaining cards mixed in along the way, you’ll be able to untap comfortably and present a threat to turn the game in your favor.
Of course, here we’re assuming the magic number that a Lightning Bolt does is 3. If you’re in a format with something to the effect of Flame Javelin, where the Red deck has easy access to 4 damage burn, then that magic-toughness-number goes up to 5.
What’s Played Now?
You’ll need to be aware of what the current version of Mono Red is playing for damage and creatures, and adjust accordingly. For example, 3 toughness creatures are always going to be easily killed. Recently, Goblin Chainwhirler sharpened his teeth on your 1-toughness creatures immediately as he came into play, and was practically unblockable by smaller creatures from his First Strike ability, too.
Furthermore Throne of Eldraine has given Red another 4 damage burn spell of Slaying Fire, which means our 4 toughness creatures might no longer be safe. We may need 5’s.
Tip #3: Give them a Problem they Can’t Handle
Red as a color has some holes in it’s slice of the color pie, as every color does. One way to really give Burn Decks issues is with strong Enchantments, since Red as a color can’t deal with Enchantments. (White and Green are the strongest colors for that!)
Cards like Leyline of Sanctity render their burn to your face impossible from the very first turn. (Leyline was reprinted in Core 2020 recently, so Standard and Modern formats all have access to it!)
If red can’t burn you directly, it slows down a lot of what they want to do. That extra stumble you’ll be giving them can be plenty of time to stabilize a board and win a game.
Another type of card that Red has a hard time handling is simply really-damn-big-creatures. If you can slap a fatty down that has 7 toughness, it’s likely going to take three cards for them to deal with it; which is a trip to value-town for you.
Green is a color that likes to ramp and play big creatures. In standard, cards like Voracious Hydra, Realm-Cloaked Giant, or Hydroid Krasis are creatures that can hit the board and be virtually unkillable late in the game.
Your opponent doesn’t ever want to spend two or more burn spells on a creature in their way, so if you can force them to use two resources on yours, that’s a big win in terms of raw numbers in your favor. And believe me, numbers and value are important.
Tip #4: Every Card is a Bolt
Let’s do a thought exercise similar to something I read about a long time ago from Mike Flores.
Let’s pretend your opponent has a deck of 40 Lightning Bolts and 20 Mountains. How many cards does it take for your opponent to beat you?
Well first off, call a judge, because you can’t play 5 Lightning Bolts, let alone 40. Second off, it takes 7 Bolts to deal 20 damage, which is going to appear in roughly their top 12-ish cards.
That’s a starting hand of 7 cards, plus 5 draws.
That’s it. You’re dead.
Of course, your opponent can’t actually play that many Bolts, but they will be playing as many cards as they can that look and play like Lightning Bolt.
What is a Lightning Bolt?
Consider a card from above: Earthshaker Khenra. This 2/1 creature isn’t a Lightning Bolt, obviously, but it functionally is almost the same. It moves any early blocker out of the way to get through for 2 damage, like a Shock would. There might be another creature or two alongside it, making the single “can’t block” effect into even more than 2 damage; perhaps 5 or 6 even.
This is a way in which Mono Red disguises it’s card advantage. If Earthshaker Khenra effects the board for 5 or more damage; that’s essentially card advantage for Red since that represents about two Lightning Bolts worth of damage from a single two-mana card.
Another card, Ahn-Crop Crasher is a similar effect, although pummeling for 3 damage this time in addition to other creatures they might have. Again, this can represent multiple Bolts, which can effectively be card advantage because it’s so efficient.
Viashino Pyromancer is effectively a Shock that can continue to attack for more Shocks. Any additional attacks it sneaks in fully justify it’s purpose, and trading the Pyromancer for a creature of yours only clears the way for more creatures to come.
Counting by 3
As we’ve seen, Mono Red doesn’t play entirely burn or entirely creatures; it plays the most efficient and effective ways of counting to 20 as quickly, unpreventably, and abrasively as it can. Using the tips from above and your in-game intuition; your job is to never let them get to 20.
Simply put, don’t let them play 7 Lightning Bolts at your face. Perhaps gain enough life to make them have to play 8-9 Lightning Bolts (5-8 life). Make them spend some of those Bolts on problematic creatures, maybe having to spend two cards to kill one creature with an ideal toughness stat.
All these tactics are buying you extra time to get into your higher costing and more effective spells to ultimately swing the game.
If your opponent draws 7 Lightning Bolts over their first five turns, but has to spend 3 on creatures and another 1 to counteract the life you gained; suddenly they only have 9 damage left for you.
Tip 5: There is No Perfect Solution
At the end of the day, there is no perfect solution to beating red. There is no one-card that definitively is going to give you the win. Ultimately, you’ll need to assess how your deck can best adjust itself to be able to handle the matchup by using these tips.
Ask yourself: how many “Lightning Bolts” is your deck capable of stopping or distracting before they’ve pointed 7 of them at your head? And what are you casting when you’ve finally arrived at a turn where you can comfortably stabilize?
Defeating Mono Red might always be a challenge. However if you know what solutions to look for you can improve your chances at withstanding the fire.
Remember, indirect lifegain is your friend, as is the number 4 (or more) for toughness on creatures. Land a threat or defensive spell against red, and they’ll often have a hard time handling it. Therefore causing the game to quickly turn in your favor.
Every Mono Red player only wants one thing, and it’s disgusting: To count to 20 as fast as possible.
Don’t let them.
If you enjoy discussing Magic or seeing the occasional decklist, feel free to give me a follow over on the Twitter-verse @JW_Chief. If you have a different opinion or want to discuss any of the ideas here, that would be a great place to do it. I’m certainly one for discussions and sharing opinions. Even after 18 years, Magic is a game I’m continuously learning.
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