Red Decks Return

Posted in ARCHIVES - ARTICLES on October 24, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

Between Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir and Grand Prix Los Angeles, the metagame is starting to coalesce, although I do think there's plenty of room for new decks. There are some clear frontrunners, although Jeskai may be less of one than previously assumed, and there are many niche decks that will vary in population from week to week, depending on the rest of the field.

After the Pro Tour, I would have said that the top of the heap was Jeskai and Abzan, and the Day Two metagame in Los Angeles seemed to support that. However, much like in Honolulu, Abzan outperformed Jeskai at the end of the tournament. Siege Rhino looks like the king of the format at the moment, although that doesn't mean every Abzan deck is the same. There are three or four Abzan decks in every Top 8, and I expect that to happen often, but that isn't a cause for despair, nor is it a sign that the format is stale (we've had this format for a matter of weeks, and it's nowhere near solved). The Abzan decks look different, are built differently, and play very differently. The fact that Negate and the fourth Dig Through Time is a viable sideboard against some Abzan decks and the opposite of what you want against others is telling, and lumping all these decks together under the same banner is selling them short. Siege Rhino is the card that binds them all together, but there's basically nothing else that is an auto four-of across all the lists (even the classic Courser-Caryatid combo).

Just by looking at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, Mike Sigrist and Ari Lax both made Top 8 with fairly different Abzan lists, and they did a good job of representing each end of the spectrum:

Mike Sigrist's Abzan Aggro—Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir

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Sideboard (15)
1 Silence the Believers 2 Erase 3 Bile Blight 3 Drown in Sorrow 2 Despise 1 Whip of Erebos 2 Wingmate Roc 1 Ajani, Mentor to Heroes

Herald of Torment, Rakshasa Deathdealer, and Heir to the Wilds are telltale signs that you are dealing with an Abzan Aggro deck, although the lack of Sylvan Caryatid is also relevant. This is the deck that uses Siege Rhino to its fullest potential, and in fact the Rhino is the top of the curve instead of the middle or low end. The deck is kind of funny in that it's an aggro deck that starts on turn two, as all of its one-drops are lands that enter the battlefield tapped, and it's an aggro deck that has a lot of long-game punch. All of its two-drops scale well into the late game, with Fleecemane Lion becoming monstrous, Rakshasa becoming a monster, and Heir trading for cards that cost much more mana. It even has some Planeswalkers, which lets the deck battle well against removal.

In this vein, I like the updates that Ryoichi Tamada made, and they almost got him a clean sweep in this Swiss (he lost in the last round to "only" go 14–1).

Tamada Ryoichi's Abzan Aggro—Grand Prix Los Angeles 2014

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The main difference here is that Tamada added Courser of Kruphix, a card that played very well for him over the course(r) of the weekend. I got to watch from the booth as his Rakshasas and Lions ran rampant, thanks to the steady stream of lands from his Coursers. They also synergize well with his sideboard plan, as Courser makes casting Wingmate Roc and Nissa both easier and more effective. After board, Tamada has the option of turning into a more midrange version of the Abzan deck, which is certainly a good option to have. It's also funny that Carlo Falcis, who made Top 8 with actual midrange Abzan, has three Rakshasa Deathdealers in his sideboard so he can side into Tamada's deck!

It's pretty well proven that Fleecemane Lion is an awesome Magic card, and its presence in almost every Abzan deck (save the slowest version) confirms this. What I'm starting to come around to is the possibility that Rakshasa Deathdealer should also be accorded this treatment, as a late-game Rakshasa is a fearsome sight to behold. It attacks as a 10/10, but the mana need be spent only if needed, and because of regeneration it dies to very few removal spells. It's highly possible to find opponents with zero to two answers in their decks to a Rakshasa with a ton of mana untapped, and that sort of late-game inevitability is something many decks are looking for. I do think it's not necessarily great as a four-of in a deck that doesn't need to hit its two-drop on turn two every game. I'd definitely recommend trying one or two of these in midrange Abzan, and I suspect that we will see more of that moving forward.

Aggro Abzan is a fine choice, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from playing it. I'd start with Tamada's list, although I wouldn't hate a Herald of Torment or two. He cut them for Coursers, but having a Herald to draw into to bestow onto a Rakshasa or Lion sounds awesome. I've seen Herald + Rakshasa come out of nowhere to deal 11+ damage in a turn, and having even one copy gives you the capability of killing the opponent on an otherwise-stalled board. Your opponents also don't know how many copies you are playing, so having one copy of a card can make them play around it disproportionately. I'm not going to lie and say that's the main reason I like one-ofs, since the real reason is that they are sweet, but it is satisfying when your opponent plays around your one Force Spike after you get him or her with it in Game 1.

Here There Be Dragons

The winning deck of the weekend was a new take on an old staple. RG Monsters was declared dead, perhaps prematurely, and seeing it play out was impressive. Daniel Scheid managed to combine some of Green Devotion's upsides with a bunch of expensive and aggressive red cards in a manner that worked out very well. I saw him win games via ramp + Nykthos + Genesis Hydra + Hornet Queen and I saw him win games via Ashcloud Phoenix, Stormbreath Dragon, and Crater's Claws, both of which overlap more than they might initially appear to.

Daniel Scheid's RG Monsters—Grand Prix Los Angeles 2014

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We don't have much data besides the fact that Daniel won, since this wasn't a big part of the field (unsurprisingly), but it does look like a very real deck, and I'd expect to see it pop up at other events. Green Devotion has been moving toward being more of a fringe archetype, but it could just be that the Green Devotion lists were in need of an update. The BG list that first saw play could have been good for Week 1 of new Standard, but if people were taking that and playing it without thinking through what the format looked like, it wasn't necessarily going to perform well (and it for the most part didn't). There are many ways to build devotion, and in fact the word "devotion" might be exaggerating what the deck needs to do. Daniel's RG showed that you don't need to play 4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and 4 Genesis Hydra to get some of the goodness that devotion provides, and a lighter devotion list could be what the deck needs to excel.

Another take on the list does the opposite, and that could also be viable.

Matt Sperling's Green Devotion—Grand Prix Los Angeles 2014

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Matt Sperling placed 19th with his Mono-Green list, and I found his reasons for playing the deck to be very compelling (reasons he goes into here). His deck seems like a big game, and the plan of going for speed and focus Game 1 and sideboarding into a grindy deck Game 2 makes a lot of sense to me. Nessian Game Warden is a sweet card, and it's exactly the sort of card that would tempt me into playing Green Devotion.

Regardless of which direction you go (I'd lean toward the RG version to start with, just because of how fast and proactive it is), Nykthos and Polukranos are not done with Standard yet. Going big to beat Abzan is a real thing, and if Jeskai starts trending downwards, green monsters are a good thing to be wielding.

Red's Redemption

One of the discussion points on the weekend was how bad 2/1s for one are in the current Standard, but the two copies of Mono-Red that made Top 8 (not to mention Top 4 and finals) indicates that perhaps they are not as bad as they seem. If the format stops preparing for a super-focused red deck, such a red deck could be the right call.

Eric Pei's Red—Grand Prix Los Angeles 2014

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Even though Denis Ulanov made the finals by defeating Eric Pei, I like the Hordeling Outburst + Hall of Triumph plan that Eric has going on. Goblin Rabblemaster is too easy a card to answer, and too many decks are prepared to do so right now. Playing a ton of one-drops, pump spells, Hordeling Outburst, and burn spells is a good plan if you expect to play against very few Drown in Sorrows, and my assumption is that both red decks did just that.

Playing Firedrinker Satyrs and Akroan Crusaders may not be my cup of tea, exactly, but that should not stop anyone who wants to play such cards from doing so. I do think this is the exact kind of deck that can be insane one weekend and terrible the next, so pick your spots wisely. I'm guessing that the weekend after two red decks did so well is not the time to play the deck, but red mages tend to not care about petty considerations like that.

Marduing It

The last deck I want to take a look at is the deck Brad Nelson used to make Top 8 (with a second copy coming very close). The deck is a slightly more aggressive token-based take on Mardu Midrange, and it is playing a card that I think is just awesome right now.

It takes some sacrifices to play Chained, but it's such a good card if you do. Standard is defined by these cards that cost three, four, and five mana, and most games end up with players taking turns casting such cards. Your Siege Rhinos meet their Hero's Downfalls, their Sarkhans meet your Utter Ends, and so forth. Chained to the Rocks lets you land a haymaker like Goblin Rabblemaster, Sorin, or Sarkhan in the very same turn that you deal with your opponent's, and that's something not readily available in this format. This deck gets to essentially take an extra turn in the middle of the game, and that alone is reason to be interested.

The rest of the deck looks solid as well, as all the cards are solid on their own while having good synergy. There are a lot of tokens and cards that care about tokens, like Butcher of the Horde, but nothing absolutely depends on other cards to be good. It's a well-constructed deck, and one that looks like a good choice.

I'm not sure what deck I would play, although I still think there's a great Jeskai build out there. It isn't like Jeskai just got mauled this weekend, but there isn't a clear best way to build it either, and figuring that out is what interests me most. Hopefully, next week I'll have good news on that front, but at the very worst I'll have something to cross off the list!