With the impending ban announcement just around the corner, players are continuing to speculate what Pioneer might look like after the bans. It seems quite likely that Geological Appraiser will be getting the axe and there’s a solid chance that Karn, the Great Creator will be joining as well. Obviously, if these cards do get cut from the format, Discover combo and mono-green Devotion get significantly weakened.
First of all, though, these aren’t guaranteed to be the only bans. Cards like Lotus Field or Treasure Cruise could theoretically get banned to give the format even more of a shakeup. There could even be unbans, such as Smuggler’s Copter or Walking Ballista. In this sense, it’s a bit hard to predict exactly what the entirety of the announcement will entail for Pioneer.
There are some strategies that have almost no chance of having a card get banned, however. One of these archetypes has been noticeably on the rise over the last week and perhaps banning some cards around it will help the deck surge forward even further. This strategy is none other than mono-red aggro. Thanks to the addition of Ojer Axonil, Deepest Might, the core of the mono-red deck has changed. It has a much heavier focus on cheap, sometimes repeatable ways to deal non-combat damage to the opponent. This deck most recently made top eight of Saturday’s Magic Online Pioneer Challenge. Could the archetype be due for a breakout?
The Usual Mono-Red Suspects
In its current configuration, this mono-red deck runs some interesting inclusions to maximize Ojer. That being said, there are still a few mono-red mainstays that help this deck win even in games where Ojer doesn’t show up. In the one-drop slot, this deck makes great use of Monastery Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage. In a deck centered around dealing non-combat damage, it’s not much of a surprise that there is a plethora of ways to trigger Prowess.
Playing both the Creature and non-Creature role nicely, Kumano Faces Kakkazan is an amazing card in this deck. It triggers Prowess, provides a buff when you follow up with Soul-Scar Mage or Swiftspear with its chapter II ability, then transforms into a Hasty Creature. The one weakness of the card is that drawing it late isn’t always ideal. Thanks to Ojer, that problem is largely fixed, as getting to deal four damage to the opponent when the Saga enters the battlefield rather than one can be a game changer.
It also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that, alongside the Prowess one-drops and Ojer, we’d see some cheap burn spells. Aggressive mono-red decks almost always play Play with Fire and this deck is no exception. Play with Fire is a decent removal spell against early blockers, but the ability to Scry and set up your next draw step when hitting the opponent is rather underrated.
Where things with this deck starts to deviate from the norm is with its multitude of ways to deal minimal amounts of non-combat damage, either for cheap or repeatedly over multiple turns. One of the best ways to deal large chunks of damage with Ojer is by using Chandra, Dressed to Kill. Chandra’s +1 ability deals four damage to the opponent with Ojer in play. Additionally, Chandra’s +1 ability makes mana that can be used either to help cast Ojer in the first place or cast more burn spells.
Speaking of burn spells, most mono-red aggro decks make use of more impactful burn spells like Bonecrusher Giant, Lightning Strike, or Wizard’s Lightning. Rather than relying on individual power level, this deck maximizes efficiency over anything. As a result, this decklist utilizes a playset of Wild Slash as well as Play with Fire.
The idea here is twofold. First, with Ojer in play, there’s a good chance you will be pointing burn spells at the opponent’s face rather than their Creatures. Thanks to Ojer’s damage boost, it doesn’t matter whether your burn spells normally deal two or three damage, they will deal four damage regardless. As a result, it makes sense to ere on the side of efficiency. Second, these efficient, one-mana burn spells also work quite well with Chandra’s +1. You can immediately cast Wild slash or Play with Fire after ticking up Chandra on turn three, which you can’t do with Bonecrusher Giant’s Adventure.
While not technically a burn spell, Fanatical Firebrand plays a similar role. It can attack early and kill early copies of Elvish Mystic or Llanowar Elves to stunt the opponent’s mana development. It can be cast off of Chandra’s +1 ability, and be sacrificed to deal the opponent four damage with Ojer in play.
It’ll be interesting to see exactly how this deck holds up after the ban announcement. Right now, the deck is crafted pretty aggressively to try to handle Discover combo. As good as Roiling Vortex is in conjunction with Ojer, playing four copies in the maindeck can be awkward. The card is pretty weak against other fast decks like Boros Convoke. Because of Roiling Vortex’s ability to immensely punish Discover combo by dealing the opponent five damage every time they cast a spell for free, it makes sense to maximize the card for now.
Assuming Discover combo, or at least Geological Appraiser gets banned, this deck will likely be forced to adapt a bit. If Karn gets banned on top of this and mono-green Devotion gets weakened, there’s a good chance removal-heavy decks like Rakdos midrange get more popular. As a result, going all in on Ojer may not be as reliable. Still, Ojer is naturally decent against removal. The ability to transform into a Land makes Den of the Bugbear and Ramunap Ruins easier to utilize. Getting to deal four damage to the opponent and transform the Land back into Ojer isn’t out of the question, either.
The reality is, this deck has game against a lot of different strategies. Chandra and Ojer are great in attrition matchups. This deck has blazing speed, giving it a good shot against combo. Against Creature-heavy decks like Convoke, End the Festivities is solid and Rampaging Ferocidon out of the sideboard can be devastating with Ojer in the mix, resulting in the opponent taking four damage every time they play a Creature.
While it’s unclear if this archetype will be in a better position post-ban, it certainly should draw some attention given its recent success. One thing is for certain: Ojer is a very strong card. It can take over a game just like Torbran, Thane of Red Fell, but is significantly better against removal. For aggro lovers, it may just be time for mono-red to shine.