How to Build with Red

Posted in How to Build on November 29, 2016

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

There may be five colors in Magic, but only one can truly light the competition on fire: red. Tapping Mountains all the way to victory has a storied history in the game, and in today's Standard field, it's still finding success the same way it did 20 years ago.

Red is the color of passion and emotion, and that gets expressed through dealing with issues immediately. Spells that deal damage directly to creatures, creatures that attack quickly, destroying physical things like artifacts and even lands—red's motto is to hit first and ask questions later, and that's generously assuming we need to stop to ask any to begin with.

With Standard Showdowns happening all this month, now is an excellent time to jump into the format, where red finds itself in an excellent position. Direct damage—burn spells—answer many of the common threats while also giving you ways to win over those too big to toast. Fast creatures duck under the shields and answers in popular decks, dealing damage faster than opponents expect. And there's untapped potential for some of red's biggest cards to make a splash beyond the tried and true Standard choices.

Let's sleeve a few Mountains and get started.

Why Is Red Great in Standard?

Several red cards are key to making a variety of decks work, and we'll start with the most ubiquitous: Harnessed Lightning.

There are several things going for Harnessed Lightning that put it into every deck playing Mountains:

  • It's an instant, meaning it can answer things that sorcery-speed options can't (like crewed Vehicles or opponents' combat tricks).
  • It generates three energy but doesn't always need to use it all to kill something, leaving you with more energy for decks that want it.
  • It can spend more than three energy if you have it handy, scaling up to bigger threats with proper planning.
  • It's easy to cast, requiring just a solitary red mana and one of any anything else around to fire off.

While it can't hit players, Harnessed Lightning is a centerpiece to any strategy relying on red. Alongside other sources of energy (I'm looking at you, Aether Hub!) it's even better.

Not far behind Harnessed Lightning is another reason to go in with red: Galvanic Bombardment.

Just like Harnessed Lighting, Galvanic Bombardment makes up for its inability to hit players' life totals by being fast and scaling up:

  • It's an instant, handling Vehicles and playing as a foil to opponents' tricks.
  • It hits harder for each one you've cast before, answering bigger threats later in the game.
  • It's both easy to cast and efficient at just one red mana.

While it doesn't synergize with much beyond itself, it's among the best removal spells for both aggressive decks (it's cheap enough to cast and play another threat in the same turn) and more controlling options (easy to cast and represent with untapped mana).

Another card that's a Standard contender for playing red is our favorite pyromancer: Chandra, Torch of Defiance.

As arguably the most exciting card released with Kaladesh, Chandra, Torch of Defiance comes with a whopping four abilities that play together nicely:

  • Exiling a card to play or deal damage means it doesn't matter what you hit on top of your library as you're progressing the game. Left unchecked, this ability alone will let you win.
  • Adding two red mana at once may seem small, but the turn you play her for four mana you still get to play a two-drop. If you untap with her you can accelerate to a six-drop or higher.
  • While taking loyalty away to directly deal with a creature is tough, hitting for 4 damage is enough to kill anything small.
  • If you can get to her emblem you're in great shape to win shortly thereafter, but realistically it's the other three options you'll be using game to game.

Chandra isn't going to be the most important part of any red deck in Standard, but her abilities and inevitability will force opponents to answer her. If they can't in short order, you're in business.

Another red card that sees plenty of Standard play returned from its original run in Torment: Fiery Temper.

Shadows over Innistrad brought the madness mechanic back, and one of the best impressions of Lightning Bolt came with it. Fiery Temper is fuel for decks looking to take advantage of madness, and thanks to the mechanic's focus and enablers in both Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon, it's easy to see why any plans to discard cards will include it.

And since it's an instant, you already know how it plays well as a counter to plenty of other Standard strategies. What puts Fiery Temper into an interesting position is that it can also hit players directly, setting up game-ending plays opponents won't see coming.

Three multicolor cards using red are worth a nod as well, each pulling a red-based Standard deck in different directions:

  • Voltaic Brawler is a powerhouse in a deck that cares about energy. The ability to hit really hard beginning on the third turn along with playing nicely with Harnessed Lightning pushes toward a Red-Green Energy deck with explosive potential.
  • Veteran Motorist makes Vehicles better, and Vehicles like Smuggler's Copter are already very good. It's powerful enough to crew all the best Vehicles, and providing a scry 2 after hitting the battlefield means it's worth casting even without something to pilot. If you like that, White-Red Vehicles decks are where you go next.
  • Unlicensed Disintegration is a feature of two decks for, oddly, the same reasons. It's a universal answer against creatures at instant speed, delighting control and aggro decks alike. Shota Yasooka's Grixis Control headlined his victory at Pro Tour Kaladesh, and Black-Red Aggro appreciates the ability to kill things getting in the way as well. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that Unlicensed Disintegration destroyed artifacts. This error has been corrected.]

What Else Can We Do?

The proven Standard tools in red are already enough to follow for a powerful deck, but there are other cards waiting in the wings for the right mind to put to use. The foremost is Combustible Gearhulk.

Combustible Gearhulk is a challenging card to work with. Giving your opponent the choice of whether to take three cards worth of damage or let you draw three more is a "punisher" mechanic, and you can count on your opponent always choosing the one that will help them more than help you.

The secret to unlocking the power of the red Gearhulk is to ensure neither choice is great for your opponent. Delirium decks can use something like Emrakul, the Promised End to ensure that if the cards go to the opponent's face they regret it, but if drawn you're already working at making it castable for far less than thirteen mana.

Combining this with things like Sin Prodder or Scourge Wolf puts the pressure on opponents regardless of their choices.

For flying high, Goldnight Castigator has seen hints of Standard action too.

The Angel is, at a glance, and efficient 4/9 body. Getting around the drawback is the key bit, and it's possible through a deck that hits fast enough. There are a few ways to ensure you accelerate hard, so adding in something like Reckless Bushwhacker and some token generators would allow you to explode before opponents take advantage of the Angel's drawback.

Another card waiting for its moment to return is, well, Kozilek's Return.

When ramp decks—decks that cast spells to get lands onto the battlefield faster—were all the rage, it was because Eldrazi were dominating the format. Recently it's been Emrakul, the Promised End leading the way in decks that don't try to artificially get ahead on the land count.

If you wanted to bring back Hedron Archive and Sylvan Scrying, quickly building up to Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger or World Breaker, you'll want to be able to defend yourself early and late with Kozilek's Return.

Putting it All Together

Red is a critical piece of the current Standard landscape, providing the tools a variety of decks need. Even better, it can stand alone as a deck unto itself as Robert Leader proved making the Top 8 of TCGplayer.com's New Jersey Standard State Championship:

Robert Leader's Mono-Red Aggro

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Leader's list puts all of red's best tools into one shell.

This deck is straightforward, and each piece builds on the other:

  • Insolent Neonate and Falkenrath Gorger are first-turn plays, with Thermo-Alchemist and Speedway Fanatic right behind them. Early, powerful creatures put opponents on a fast clock and force answers out of their hand early.
  • A bevy of burn spells, along with some madness synergy, let you pile the damage up faster than opponents can answer.
  • Bedlam Reveler and Geier Reach Sanitarium play off each other, as enabling madness or otherwise getting more instant and sorcery cards into the graveyard should pay off for you.

The sideboard is a multi-box of the best you can do with red, including more madness synergy (Lightning Axe), a powerful way to stop other aggressive decks (Weaver of Lightning), and even the explosive power of Goldnight Castigator to speed things up if needed.

Of course, red is established in Standard, so taking a look at the most common options is important too. We'll start with Reid Duke's recent StarCityGames.com Classic–winning White-Red Vehicles:

Reid Duke's Red-White Vehicles

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Duke's deck is the evolution of the standout aggressive deck of Pro Tour Kaladesh, and his choices reflect what he expected to battle in Baltimore. Here, red is more complimentary than primary, as it's multicolor cards like Depala, Pilot Exemplar and Veteran Motorist that power up Vehicles.

Harnessed Lightning makes its obvious appearance, but the addition of Chandra, Torch of Defiance gives this deck a wrinkle against slower decks without good ways to pressure planeswalkers. Reckless Bushwhacker also gets in on the action, dramatically changing the combat math right before declaring attackers. And thanks to Standard's abundant—and great—enemy color pair dual lands, this type of aggressive deck makes spells easy to cast, too.

Another red-plus-a-color deck worth considering is Red-Black Madness, as Mogged took to a recent 5-0 Competitive Standard League finish:

Mogged's Black-Red Madness

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Black-Red Madness is a deck that works thanks to Cathartic Reunion. By discarding away creatures you want in your graveyard, you end of having plenty of madness spells to cast. The cards in your graveyard are outlets to discard too, and chaining Fiery Temper to get back Haunted Dead, which also gets back Prized Amalgam, is powerful.

Another Magic Online user, Matsume, brought the energetic side of red to bear for 5-0 victory in a Competitive Standard League:

Matsume's Red-Green Energy

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Cards liker Voltaic Brawler and Lathnu Hellion are best when paired with more energy sources, something that's abundant in green. By pushing through early damage, it's possible to set up an Incendiary Flow victory or a well-timed Chandra, Torch of Defiance to make decisions difficult for opponents.

Out of the sideboard, Radiant Flames can reach 3 damage to every creature (thanks, again Aether Hub!), giving you the option to mop up an opponent's aggressive deck before settling in to explode with your own.

What Comes Next?

Finding the Friday Night Magic or Standard Showdown near you comes next, as regardless of the flavor of red deck you put together, you'll want to find your local game store to take it to. Battling alongside friends, getting the camaraderie and feedback that only comes with in-person play, and learning a format all add up to an unforgettable experience.

Practicing on Magic Online is also a great idea, as you can quickly find a variety of opponents and far more deck variety than in your typical one-shot tournament at your local game store. Learning the ins and out of your deck quietly, away from others, is a safe way to make mistakes without it being the end of your Magic day.

After all that, it's really up to you. Once you've mastered the power of Mountains, you'll be an unstoppable force—or at least one that leaves opponents a little burned after playing you. Don't ever turn the heat down.


Standard Showdown is four-week event celebrating all that is Standard, with local tournaments, cool prizes, and opportunities for bragging rights and brewing.

Looking for a Standard Showdown tournament near you? Use this locator to find your nearest store hosting one of these fun events.




 

Already been to an event and crushed it? Submit your name, decklist, record, store where you played, and any fun photos you have at standardshowdown@wizards.com or by filling out the form below.

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