Tuning Mono Red Aggro in 7 Point Highlander (*9th in Win-A-Mox)

Hello everyone!

My name is Zen Takahashi, and I am an avid Eternal player from Auckland, New Zealand. Although I used to play a wide range of formats, for the past two years my Magic endeavours have narrowed down to competing in local Legacy events and playing Old School over webcam with overseas friends. Before the recent online Win-A-Mox event, my only experience with 7 Point Highlander was a local event I competed in many years ago, where I borrowed a friend’s Reanimator deck that I later found out wasn’t even utilising all seven points! Needless to say, this time around I was hoping to take advantage of all the points I could! 

Preparing for the Event and the First Two Rounds

My initial plan was to properly prepare for the tournament, but unfortunately I was fairly busy with work and Anthony Lee, Perth’s top player and my supposed sparring partner, decided not to play in the tournament. I ended up scrambling for a deck and scoured the 7 Point Highlander website with a few hours left before decklists were due, and found that Ethan Bird’s name kept popping up, so I just decided to submit their latest list without even looking at the deck properly. When I drew my opening hand for my first game, I was surprised to find a card I’d literally never seen in my life before staring back at me (it was Lightning Phoenix).

Deck List – Mono Red Aggro

I ended up playing the first two rounds with the above decklist, and started 4-0 (due to the double swiss structure of the event, each round consisted of two matches). I liked the deck a lot and it definitely felt powerful, but I also felt that the list was missing some good cards and I was primarily winning off just curving out on my opponent in games where the textbox mattered significantly less than the mana cost of the cards. Although I had minimal experience with the format, I felt that I could probably tune the list a bit better. My initial impression was that the deck had some cards that didn’t fit in an aggressive Mono Red deck such as Gitaxian Probe and Seasoned Pyromancer, and was missing more powerful, top-end cards such as Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Experimental Frenzy. I also believed that a lot of the curve-fillers were suboptimal compared to other alternatives, with cards such as Frenzied Goblin, Vexing Devil, Rimrock Knight, and Hellspark Elemental simply being inferior to other options that share the same mana cost.

Rebuilding the Deck

I decided to start off the rebuilding process by simply finding out what my options were. Firstly, I went through all of the first round decklists from the Win-A-Mox event by using Ctrl+F to search  for Goblin Guide and reviewed the twenty-seven decks that contained the hasty goblin. Most of the decks were either Mono Red or Rakdos Aggro, with many of the former being Ethan’s exact 75. I then went through Modern and Legacy Burn lists, and scoured through Standard Mono Red decks over the past few years for inspiration. Finally, I remembered the last time I played against a singleton Mono Red deck was on Andrea Mengucci’s rooftop, and so I looked through his cube list to see what cards he liked the best. 

After putting together a list of all my possible options, I shared it with the aforementioned  Anthony Lee, as well as Javier Dominguez, a former World Champion and a Mono Red expert – having permanently enshrined himself as the Fervent Champion. I got feedback from them, and put together the following ranking order:

Main Deck:

Sideboard:

*Cards in yellow were those I considered to be must-plays, while those in green were cards I considered to be viable options. The non-coloured cards were other available options but most likely were not going to make the 75.

Key insights from Anthony and Javier

After completing the Google Sheet, I shared it with Anthony and Javier to get some insight. While Anthony and Javier are both incredible players, I also consider them to be some of the absolute brightest minds in the world when it comes to deckbuilding in Magic. 

Below were their key thoughts on how I should approach building the deck after they reviewed my notes:

The deck needed to play more “good cards”. Some were obvious, which basically consisted of cutting bad cards like Frenzied Goblin and Hellspark Elemental for better options in those mana costs. Javier thought not playing Runaway Steam-Kin in the original list was shocking, as the card’s simply too powerful not to play. However, beyond that, they also believed in playing more expensive cards that had the potential to single-handedly win games. The singleton nature of the format makes playing higher curves more attractive, as the best four-drops are more powerful in a vacuum than the ninth and tenth best one-drops. For Javier, this included Hazoret the Fervent, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Experimental Frenzy and Embercleave. 

The deck needed more lands – ideally twenty four mana sources. The key to the deck is curving out, and as a lot of the lands have utility beyond just making mana, they can naturally mitigate flooding. Also, having Lutri, the Spellchaser as a companion meant that you had a natural hedge to flooding anyway.

Anthony’s key insight was to play Mana Crypt over Strip Mine as the two-point slot in the deck (between Mox Ruby, Lutri, the Spellchaser and Wasteland, the other five points were accounted for). Anthony correctly identified that Mana Crypt works well with your best cards (Hazoret the Fervent, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Experimental Frenzy) while Strip Mine is mostly only good on your worst draws (trying to mana screw your opponent). Mono Red isn’t a straight tempo deck, and its ideal draw involves more of a curve-based sequence than trying to limit your opponent’s resources with mana denial. Also, many decks in the format can’t beat a turn one Blood Moon/Magus of the Moon. 

The deck should play some fetchlands over basic Mountains. Although the life can be costly, they just brought a lot of benefits to the deck. This included fuelling Barbarian Ring and Grim Lavamancer (which Javier thought was a mistake not to play in the main deck), Experimental Frenzy and landfall creatures. Anthony also had the idea of playing off-colour fetchlands and dual lands (e.g. Misty Rainforest could fetch either Taiga or Volcanic Island), which incidentally could give you enough mana sources to reasonably splash other colours (cards such as Ancient Grudge and Scrapheap Scrounger were appealing). However, we ultimately scrapped that idea as it would make us too vulnerable to Price of Progress and Wasteland.

Building the Deck

Based on their insights, I then went through my list and narrowed it down to a list of 71 cards for the main deck. I then shared it with Javier and Anthony again, as well as two-time Grand Prix Champion and World Magic Cup winner Simon Nielsen, with the task of getting this list down to 60 cards. 

Javier:

Javier’s list was built to take advantage of the more powerful and expensive permanents. For the rest of the deck, he wanted to focus on efficiency, which meant focusing more on the curve than the actual quality of the cards. He wanted to build around an 8-8-5-3 curve at minimum, and compared to Ethan’s list, wanted to focus less on burn spells. Due to cutting down on spells overall, he also omitted Monastery Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage, and instead opted for one mana creatures that were guaranteed to have two power without any additional help.

Anthony:

Since Anthony and Javier are basically two peas in a pod, he independently reached a list that was exactly the same as Javier’s, except he had Scrapheap Scrounger over Dire Fleet Daredevil on the rationale that the Daredevil isn’t actually a two-drop creature as you never wanted to play it on turn two. To support the Scrounger, he wanted to play Badlands and Blood Crypt, which could be grabbed by the red fetchlands and also allowed for more options in the sideboard.

Simon:

Out of the three, Simon’s was closest to Ethan’s in nature, as he wanted to focus more on being aggressive with nine one-drops and nine-two drops including Burning-Tree Emissary. Unlike Javier, he didn’t like the landfall creatures as he felt they were too weak of a top deck. He also chose to cut Anax, Hardened in the Forge and Embercleave, as he opted for more burn spells, but decided against any three-mana-for-four-damage burn spells like Slaying Fire and Exquisite Firecraft as he felt the rate was too weak.

Final List for Round 3:

Deck List – Round 3

The sideboard was difficult to build as I wasn’t very familiar with the format. I mostly looked at other decklists and noted how many of each card they had in various buckets e.g. how much graveyard hate and how much artifact hate etc, and then picked what I felt were the best options in those categories based on the Google Sheet. 

From the two matches this round, my key learnings were as follows:

  • I had fairly mixed feelings on the fetchlands. I felt that I lost one game due to the life I lost by drawing multiple fetchlands, but I also won another game where I exactly had threshold for Barbarian Ring thanks to a fetchland I drew earlier.
  • Akoum Hellhound was one of the better one drops to start with, but it was one of the worst to topdeck. That wasn’t to say the card was bad, but I felt unsure about how to evaluate the card. It was a card with a high ceiling but a low floor. 
  • Robber of the Rich overperformed for me. It single handedly won me a game where I got to cast a Tasigur, the Golden Fang off it. 
  • I wished I had more burn spells, but I agreed with Simon that the three-mana-for-four-damage burn spells were clunky. Still, in one of the games Flame Javelin was key for dealing with a Spawn of Mayhem.
  • Embercleave was underwhelming. While this deck isn’t a Burn deck and is more focused on creatures, it also doesn’t go wide very well. This meant that Embercleave was often difficult to cast, even if it has a very high ceiling.
  • I felt that my current list had enough tools to be good against control decks already. Instead, I wanted to focus on improving my combo matchup. However, my options were fairly limited. 
  • Mental Misstep felt underwhelming overall. Instead, I wanted a Pyrostatic Pillar, which seemed like a good option against both combo decks and control decks. 

Final List for Round 4:

Deck List – Round 4

I opted to make minimal changes to my list for Round 4, as I swapped out the Embercleave for a Lightning Strike in the main deck and cut the Mental Misstep in the sideboard for a Pyrostatic Pillar. 

Overall, this list felt well tuned, and I was happy with it.

Final List for Round 5:

Going into the final round, there were a few external factors that impacted my deck building process. The first was the release of Modern Horizons 2, which brought with it Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Fury – both of which I felt were good enough to make the deck. The second was that I was still in contention for Top 8, as I was at 6-2 with the second highest breakers. This meant that I wanted to focus my list more on the decks that were being played by the players at the top of the standings as opposed to the overall field. While I was waiting for Round 4 to finish, I went through the twenty-nine players who were at 5-1 or 6-0 at the time and made a list of what decks they were on so I could gravitate towards focusing more on them. 

With these two factors in consideration, I submitted the following list:

Deck List – Round 5

The key changes I made to the main deck was cutting the two low-rate burn spells (Slaying Fire and Flame Javelin) and the Rift Bolt. As previously mentioned, the former were simply too inefficient for their cost, while Rift Bolt felt more suitable for a dedicated Burn deck but not this creature-based aggro deck. In these slots, I added a Searing Spear, Torbran, Thame of Red Fell and a Pyroblast. I felt that without Embercleave, the deck was lacking a bit in the top-end and Torbran felt like an excellent addition, while Pyroblast was due to the large presence of Blue decks at the top tables.

I also swapped out the Akoum Hellhound for Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, and cut the Prismatic Vista for another Mountain to go alongside it. While I liked the landfall creature, the new monkey was simply too good not to play and I felt the Hellhound was the worst one-drop in the deck.

In the sideboard, I substituted out the Faerie Macabre, Smash to Smithereens and Boros Reckoner for a Mental Misstep, Null Rod and Dragon’s Claw, which were all metagame considerations as there was a lack of graveyard-based decks, the artifact decks were mostly Zirda combo-based, and Mono Red was the only aggro deck that was doing well. I also swapped out the Searing Blood for a Fury, as I felt the new card was just a better option against creature decks. Finally, I added a Relic of Progenitus in the place of the Pyroblast. I was initially going to add a Grafdigger’s Cage as I had previously lost to Oath of Druids, but Anthony pointed out that it’s a complete nonbo with Experimental Frenzy, so I had to resubmit my deck just minutes before decklists were due.

Conclusion

In the end, I finished in 9th place out of 204 players with an 8-2 record – just a few percentage points short of sneaking my way into the Top 8. While it was gutting to miss out on the playoffs, I’ve only got myself to blame as I completely threw away the third game in one of my matches in Round 4 when I was considerably ahead. Credit to my opponent, Riley Beck, who navigated that match really well even though they were plagued by mulligans all three games.

Overall, I am not sure whether this build of Mono Red is better than the more stock list aka Ethan Bird’s. My record with this version of Mono Red was worse (4-2 vs 4-0 with Ethan’s), but I think the quality of my opponents in the latter rounds were higher than in the first few rounds as they were at better records. 

I think fundamentally, which version to play mostly comes down to a metagame choice. In a combo-centric field, I would lean towards building more similarly to Ethan’s list as you actively want to win the game as quickly as possible. However, in a field with a lot of mirrors and/or more midrange decks like Esper or Omnath Control, I would learn towards this list being better positioned, as the more expensive cards can allow you to grind through longer games where cards like Village Messenger and Rimrock Knight won’t be enough to get you over the finish line.

Finally, I want to thank the organisers of the event for a brilliant tournament, as well as all my opponents for all being such great sports. The gameplay of the format was quite enjoyable as the in-game decisions around what to play around was different to other formats I usually play, where your opponent’s key cards are commonly four-offs. I also relished the vast spectrum of decks I got to play against, even though I played one of the less creative decks, and it was fun arranging matches from players from all corners of the world! Since I don’t play Arena, there aren’t many big events I can compete in at the moment, so I’ll definitely be looking forward to more events like this in the future! 

Till next time!

Zen Takahashi
@mtgzen on Twitter

Zen Takahashi

Zen is an avid Eternal player from Auckland, New Zealand who enjoys competing in local Legacy events and playing Old School over webcam with overseas friends. Previously, Zen was a Pro Tour mainstay for multiple years and holds the record for the most Australian Grand Prix Top8s with five to his name. He also co-created the Modern Dredge deck. Nowadays, he can be found playing bad legacy decks and trying his best to make Worldgorger Dragon happen.