The Four Quadrants and How to Beat Red Aggro on MTG Arena
Two weeks ago I delved into what makes a control deck tick, dividing it into four quadrants and discussing how to beat one. Today i’ll repeat this process, but with another of the newer players’ greatest foes: Red Aggro.
Once again, the first step to beating a deck is to identify The Four Quadrants of it. In this case the quadrants are: Burn, Creatures, Card Advantage and Finishers. Red Aggro decks often function very differently to any of the other flavors of Aggro, and this is largely due to what I have highlighted with the first quadrant: burn.
Quadrant 1: Burn
The first thing I’d like to do is specify what I mean by “burn.” Burn is the division of spells which have the option of targeting your opponent directly, whether this be via the phrase “target player” or “any target.” In some of these cases, burn can also be used as part of the red removal suite. Burn is an inherently red mechanic; it is one of the defining characteristics to red’s position within the color pie.
The threat that burn poses comes from the fact that it represents an early game removal spell, but also a late game threat to your life total. The first step towards beating the burn quadrant is to respect it; you must always assume that they have the burn spell for lethal as well as understanding when this factor is not something you can afford to play around. Imagine a game state where you are at ten life against a red aggro player with three cards in hand. Your effective life total is not ten, it’s probably somewhere between one and seven depending upon what your opponent is holding. Thus, your best line here is to try and preserve your effective life total, that is, to play as though you are at one life. Be wary of dropping into the range where an opponent may have a potential kill. This may mean making unusual blocks and or thinking about how to best place life gain and card advantage spells. The second way to preserve your life total is to force your opponent to use their burn spells as removal. Play a threat that they need to answer. Although it feels bad letting your opponent deal with a potential win condition, your goal is to run them out of gaming-ending resources, thus further preserving your life total and chances of winning.
You can of course preserve your effective life total with life gain. You don’t want to play any cards that exclusively gain life, but good cards with life-gain effects stapled on them can be incredibly useful. Think Vraska's Contempt, Timely Reinforcements, Absorb, and Hydroid Krasis. By buffering your life total while synergizing with your gameplan, these cards are still relevant in other match-ups but can get you “out of range” of those pesky burn spells.
Most burn comes in three damage increments, meaning that the difference between a four toughness creature and a three toughness creature is huge. For example, Steel Leaf Champion and Spellskite lineup much better than Dread Shade and Noble Hierarch in their respective formats. It’s important to consider the burn spells of a format, and build your deck with these cards in mind if the Red Aggro deck is good. In the previously stated cases, Lightning Strike lined up badly against Steel Leaf Champion in Standard, and Lightning Bolt acted similarly against Spellskite in Modern.
The final point I’ll make is the importance of closing out the game. If you don’t actively look to get on the front foot and kill your aggro opponent, there is always a chance they will manage to draw into a lethal amount of burn. Remember that their creatures can also block, buying them time as a last resort. This point is hard to demonstrate without looking at some factors and as an example to do so I performed a calculation on IDoctor’s Modern Burn list. In this calculation I have made a few assumptions:
- There is always at least one prowess trigger on an attacking Monastery Swiftspear
- Searing Blaze represents an average of 2.5 damage due to the potential of landfall not being triggered
- Eidolon of the Great Revel represents two damage 50% of the time due to it being removed and a free redraw the other 50% of the time due to it chump blocking
- Sunbaked Canyon is a free redraw 100% of the time
Under these assumptions, each card drawn by the burn deck represents an average of 1.97 damage. And this doesn’t even account for any of the cards being used to their maximum: such as in the case of a large Swiftspear attack, or an effective Eidolon.
Thus, it can clearly be seen that given time, Red Aggro will often find a way to close out the game due to the inevitability of its draws. Limiting this time must be prioritized, so closing the game out as quickly as possible is a must should you wish to win.
Quadrant 2: Creatures
Creatures play a peculiar role in a Red Aggro deck. Whilst incredibly important to their strategy in the early turns, they are often simply outclassed in the midgame by opposing threats. This of course begs the question, what is their role and why are creatures even played? The answer to this is really quite simple, there are not enough burn spells in Standard and Historic, and in the older formats burn spells alone are often not fast enough. The creatures provide repeatable damage that can fill holes in a Red deck’s game, sometimes even outclassing the damage output of pure burn spells. We can use Goblin Guide to illustrate this. The first hit from a Goblin Guide only deals two damage for one mana, significantly worse than Lightning Bolt. However, should it hit a second time it has now become one mana for four damage, and potentially more going forward. It is here that we see the weakness in this quadrant, the requirement of a creature to connect twice before it is better than a Shock. If you can remove the creature, or block it, before it hits you for a second time, then your situation is hugely improved.
With this in mind, we want to look at making our removal suite as efficient as possible. We want our removal to be able to answer these creatures as soon as they come down, while also not losing utility against larger, slower decks. There are several ways of doing this. Often we are looking for one and two mana removal spells with either largely irrelevant downsides, or the potential to scale their utility in longer games. One example of such a card is Assassin's Trophy. Trophy has the downside of ramping your opponent, something worth taking into account against decks such as midrange and control. That said, against aggro this downside is far less relevant simply due to deck construction. An aggro deck is filled with mostly cheap cards, and as such is rarely limited by its ability to deploy these cards. Instead, these aggro decks are usually limited by their lack of ability to increase the amount of cards they have access to. At the end of the day, it is important to evaluate the pros and cons of a cards downsides vs. its mana cost. The best way to do this is by taking a look at how they line up against matchups, such as Red Aggro, that you expect to play against.
Cards like Shivan Fire and Fatal Push are good illustrations of spells that are both cheap removal spells to slow down aggro decks, while also using Kicker or Revolt as added utility later in the game. Choosing removal spells that can be effective in many stages of the game is extremely important. In this case both spells can capably blunt early aggression while staying relevant against cards such as Thought-Knot Seer and Siege Rhino when approaching the midgame.
Burn spells also contribute to the added difficulty of combat against Red Aggro. While a four toughness creature is often safe from a single burn spell, it is a very common play pattern for a Red player to pair combat damage with a burn spell to finish off a husky blocker. Even with this line of logic, because Red Aggro puts us on a clock, it is often correct to block even if you are expecting a burn spell to finish off your creature. If all goes as according to plan, you will require your opponent to use two of their resources to tackle your one, so it’s a favorable trade! Just make sure to be aware of when you should turn into the attacker yourself, and save your creatures to finish off the game.
Quadrant 3: Card Advantage
Just as with control, the turn a deck deploys card advantage can be an exploitable one. Card advantage is not something Red decks have traditionally had access to, but in the current standard alone we have access to Experimental Frenzy, Risk Factor, Chandra, Acolyte of Flame, Chandra, Fire Artisan and Light Up the Stage. It should be noted that very few red card advantage pieces actually draw cards, instead exiling them and giving the red player a limited time to cast them. This leads them to be more exploitable than their blue counterparts.
Permanent sources of card advantage can single-handedly swing a game to favor the red deck. In order to prevent this, we need some form of versatile removal in order to get the permanent off the board as soon as it hits. Fortunately, Wizards is aware of this and has given us access to versatile tools with cards such as Thrashing Brontodon and Assassin’s Trophy. Both of these cards answer Frenzy cleanly. Thrashing Brontodon does not take away Chandra as well as Trophy, but this dino is a good example of balancing your pin-point answers. His four toughness allows him to be a versatile answer; he is both good against small aggressive creatures AND problematic permanents.
Where possible, we want to factor in deploying our versatile removal spell on turn four or five, depending on who went first, since this is when we will most commonly see the permanent based card advantage spells cast. Planning our path to victory out while also strategizing to make our opponents card advantage weak is crucial for securing a win.
Spell-based card advantage is a little trickier to exploit, but it is less impactful, so we are inherently less worried. Your opponent drawing cards is never good, however as usual we want to make their plans as awkward as possible.
In the case of Light Up the Stage we can do this by prioritizing blocking if it appears our opponent may be trying to set up to cast the powerful sorcery. This may lead to our opponent using a burn spell in a not-so-optimal spot in order to unlock the cheaper Spectacle casting cost. By forcing this action on our opponent, we deny them access to mana and the information gained from Light Up prior to them using their burn spell.
Risk Factor relies on damage in a different way. As I calculated above, the average card is worth upwards of 1.97 damage, meaning three cards could easily be worth 6 damage. In other words, it is almost always correct to take the damage and not to play the odds. In order for Risk Factor to draw cards, the Red player needs you to be at such a low life total whereby the damage from Risk Factor itself is now enough to threaten lethal. By preserving your life total against burn and by preventing the damage from their creatures you lessen the likelihood you will be put in such a situation.
Quadrant 4: Finishers
Finishers is quite the scary name for a quadrant. These are the cards that end the game, and fast. Hazoret the Fervent, Experimental Frenzy and the Temur Battle Rage/Become Immense combo all fall into this quadrant. The first thing to note is that all three of these finishers act on extremely different axes, and as such it is incredibly hard to produce a general rule for invalidating this quadrant. The finisher’s role after all, is to end the game and end it quickly.
The first piece of advice I have is to do your research. Find out what finisher cards you are expecting to face. Once you know what you are fighting, you can prepare for it. That’s why you’re reading this article anyway right? Finally, you need to spot the weakness in the finisher and exploit it. With cards such as Hazoret and Experimental Frenzy, this is reasonably easy, come prepared with removal that answers the finisher. With the Battle Rage / Become Immense combo this is a little trickier, but is doable. Incidental graveyard hate might do the trick, but a lot of exploiting this combo is not letting yourself be taken by surprise with your shields down. All told, the important thing to remember is that Red Aggro is only one of your potential matchups, so diversify your answers and keep track of how well they lineup against the rest of the format.
What if we just...go bigger? Although their cards are good, there are better ones. The Scarab God and Lyra Dawnbringer are just two examples of cards that fulfill the finisher role in various archetypes. By utilizing this strategy, you force the Red deck to fight your finisher, not the reverse. Remember that you always want to keep some type of pressure going in order to close out the game.
I hope that my guide to beating Red Aggro has been useful. Be sure to join me again soon, and until then, go beat up on those Red Decks!
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