Red-white Aggro; is it actually aggro?
By Neil T Stacey
Red-white Aggro has been a feature of Standard since before Fate Reforged was printed, and has gone on to become one of the most popular decks in Standard. Despite that, there doesn’t seem to be consensus on how best to build it. I personally have tinkered with a number of different approaches and never been that happy (or successful) with any one of them.
I’m not the only one flailing around here. Week to week, we see significant changes to the RW lists at the top tables. Even at the same tournament you’ll see disparate variations of the deck. One of the few fixtures in the deck has been Stormbreath Dragon in high numbers, and many of the deck’s advocates consider the card to be an automatic 4-of.
Ben Stark, on the other hand, got to the finals of GP Memphis last week with zero Stormbreath Dragon in his mainboard. Instead, he has maxed out on Outpost Siege. Initially not a popular card, it began to appear in sideboards a few weeks ago, as a trump in attrition games. Then one or two copies crept into maindecks.
Running a full set worked out for Stark, clearly, and his list was as follows:
RW Aggro by Ben Stark (GP Memphis)
4x Seeker of the Way
4x Soulfire Grand Master
4x Goblin Rabblemaster
4x Hordeling Outburst
4x Wild Slash
4x Stoke the Flames
3x Lightning Strike
1x Valorous Stance
4x Outpost Siege
4x Chained to the Rocks
4x Battlefield Forge
4x Temple of Triumph
3x Evolving Wilds
2x Valorous Stance
3x Stormbreath Dragon
2x Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
2x Arc Lightning
3x Mastery of the Unseen
When looking for pointers in how to design and play a deck, it is useful to look at similar decks from the past for direction. I’ve drawn mostly on my experience of aggressive decks when working with RW and that hasn’t worked out for me, I suspect because it’s fundamentally a mistake to think of this as an outright aggressive deck.
The deck lacks a set of good one-drops with which to go under your opponents. Even the two-drop slot is light on aggression. Instead, the deck’s strength lies in its ability to remove opposing threats in the early game, and presenting a series of threats that demand answers. RW is excellent at exchanging resources, and fairly poor at killing your opponent before they get to do anything. The exception, of course, is when Goblin Rabblemaster goes unopposed. That guy gets the job done.
That’s a rare scenario, however. When I ask my opponent if Rabblemaster survives to combat, the answer I expect is an emphatic no. More often than not, RW’s wins come later in the game, after an initial exchange of resources leaves both players relying on the top of their decks.
That game plan is similar to that of another Standard powerhouse from recent history. Take a close look at this deck list from June last year:
Mono-Black Devotion by Owen Turtenwald:
4x Lifebane Zombie
4x Pack Rat
4x Desecration Demon
4x Grey Merchant of Asphodel
1x Bile Blight
1x Ultimate Price
4x Devour Flesh
4x Hero’s Downfall
4x Underworld Connections
Superficially, these decks seem very different. But let’s look at how they break down in terms of the roles their cards are intended to play.
This deck breaks down into 16 threats, 14 removal spells and 4 enchantments that generate incremental card advantage.
Take another look at Stark’s RW list. It has 16 threats, 12 removal spells and 4 enchantments that generate incremental card advantage.
Looked at in this way, The RW list is much the same as Mono-black devotion of old, just with less removal. Despite the superficial differences, these two decks have near-identical structures, and similar game plans.
Of course, the removal in RW is less universal, so the deck depends on being able to put the burn spells to work on an opponent’s life total. Meanwhile, the Mono-black ran a couple more lands to support the higher curve, but it got to run Mutavaults as extra threats.
So despite having more threats and less removal than Stark’s RW, Mono-black Devotion was anything but an aggro deck. Sure, sometimes you won on turn 5 with an unopposed Pack Rat but that was plan B. Its game plan was to exchange resources with your opponent and either draw a stream of cards with Underworld Connections or outclass your opponent’s leftovers with a scary threat.
RW is starting to look more and more like a deck in the same mould. It has a ton of cheap removal geared toward exchanging resources early while its potent threats force your opponent to use their own removal, playing into your attrition game plan. A full set of Outpost Siege is the natural complement to this strategy, just as Underworld Connections was for Mono-black Devotion.
I’ve had very little success playing RW as a true aggressive deck, and I’ve often felt that it works best playing a more reactive role. That also fits my style of play a bit better; Mono-black Devotion and its variants brought me a lot of success and anything that plays similarly is appealing to me. I, for one, am very much on board for changing gears with RW and playing a game plan of attrition and card advantage. I just hope no-one notices my Mutavaults.