Red Deck Wins (Again)

Posted in Top Decks on October 2, 2015

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).

Now that we've had some time to battle with the new set, it's time to take a look at the early frontrunners. Some of the best places to start when investigating a new format are decks that didn't lose much from rotation. It isn't a guarantee that every deck that didn't change much remains good, because the shifting metagame leads to changes even if the decks we are looking at didn't change, but it's a pretty safe bet that most good decks that didn't lose much are still going to be solid.

Monastery Swiftspear | Art by Steve Argyle

Mono-Red Aggro

As it so happens, one of the best pre-Battle for Zendikar archetypes didn't lose much at all. And better yet, it isn't a deck that particularly cares about what its opponents are doing. That's exactly the kind of deck we can expect to remain good, and I think it's one of the best places to begin. That archetype is Mono-Red Aggro, which can be built a few different ways.

The first, and simplest, is to update the deck that Pat Cox took to the Top 8 of Pro Tour Magic Origins. The combination of Mountains + burn spells + haste creatures is an equation as old as time, and has been effective at just about every point in Magic history.

Notable Losses

Let's take a look at the important cards that rotated out, to get a sense of what holes this archetype may need to fill.

These aren't trivial losses. Eidolon and Searing Blood are the two biggest, as they both offer burn spells that essentially two-for-one the opponent. Both of those cards are favorites to trade for a card while dealing 2 or 3 damage, and in the case of the Eidolon, sometimes much more. Stoke and Lightning Strike are high-quality burn spells, but replacing them with dash creatures or other burn spells isn't the end of the world, as they are basically just vanilla burn spells when it comes down to it.

Losing these cards is unfortunate, but red has enough options that it can certainly survive—and compared to some of the other decks in the format, it hasn't lost anything that impacts the overall game plan.

Josh Silvestri posted an updated list of this style of red in his early Standard breakdown article, and I think it's a good rough draft.

Josh Silvestri's Red Deck Wins

Download Arena Decklist

As promised, the game plan here is extremely simple. The deck is a bit more creature-heavy, to make up for the losses of Stoke, Lightning Strike, and Searing Blood, but otherwise this is essentially the same deck.

Having fifteen haste creatures, two of which being Goblin Heelcutter, means that Titan's Strength is frequently going to deal 3 damage for one mana. It can also help overpower an early blocker, and using Strength to kill a creature which undoubtedly cost more mana is not a bad deal.

Chandra helps get damage through when the board is stalled, and is an effective finisher. She is the only creature in the deck that is vulnerable to one-for-one removal, so playing her last is often a good plan. I don't love having exactly one card that doesn't trade favorably for removal in general, but I like her more in this red deck than in previous incarnations. This deck has so many creatures in it that it seems difficult for your opponent to sandbag much in the way of removal, meaning that if you save Chandra for the second or third wave of threats, she has a decent chance of survival.

Abbot of Keral Keep continues to be excellent, and will be a perpetual four-of inclusion in any low-curve red deck. This card is just too good to pass up, and part of excelling in the new Standard will be finding cards like this and using them efficiently. Abbot is a huge reward for playing a deck that can cast just about every spell off one or two mana, as it loses a ton of power in a deck with casting costs higher than that and decks with multiple colors. Basically, any deck that would have trouble playing the revealed card is losing value on Abbot, and Mono-Red Aggro is by far the best place to put him.

This is a very light burn package, as far as these decks go, though Lightning Berserker and Goblin Heelcutter play very convincing imitations of Fireball and Lightning Bolt, respectively. What having Firecraft, Slash, and Gorge as the only burn spells that can go to the face means is that opponents who stabilize with a bunch of blockers and creature removal have a good chance of living. This deck doesn't topdeck burn at as high a rate as previous incarnations, which is a real drawback. There just aren't as many options, since Draconic Roar doesn't damage players in this deck. That lack of burn spells is one of the restrictions Mono-Red Aggro has to live with, and even though it's one of the early frontrunners, it does mean that this build is more vulnerable to interactive spells than previous versions.

One way to get another burn spell, as well as increase the power level of the deck dramatically, is to add another color. I know I just talked about how that adds inconsistency, and it does, but the printing of Cinder Glade goes a long way toward making that less of an issue. In previous Standard incarnations, the Atarka Red mana base looked something like this:

10 Mountain

4 Mana Confluence

4 Wooded Foothills

1 Temple of Abandon

1 Forest

That's a painful mana base, with a land that enters the battlefield tapped and a land that doesn't produce red. I didn't like those mana bases, and one of the strengths of Mono-Red Aggro was that it had better mana without much of a loss in card quality.

Post-rotation, the mana for Atarka Red has improved, while the overall pool of cards has gotten smaller—so by playing Mono-Red Aggro you are giving up more in terms of card quality. Atarka Red loses less in rotation and gains more consistency, so I'd say the advantage is now firmly on Atarka Red's side.

Here's an initial build of the deck.

Atarka Red

Download Arena Decklist

It's possible the first Forest is better than the fourth Cinder Glade, but either way, I think you want that slot to be a green source. Glade may enter tapped, but it at least helps cast your red-intensive cards—and with just four Glades as non-basics, the drawback shouldn't come up all that often. Forest may be better in a two-land opener, though neither land is great there. I expect to figure out which land I want after playing the deck much more than I already have.

The main incentive to play this deck is revealed in the name, as Atarka's Command is just an absurd card. By itself, it deals 3 damage and prevents life gain, which would already be a solid card against Siege Rhino and Foul-Tongue Invocation. However, in concert with prowess creatures and token makers, Atarka's Command frequently deals 4–6 damage, and sometimes more—which for just two mana is insane. Become Immense is the fifth green spell, and it too offers 6 damage for one mana (most of the time). Between the tokens and haste creatures, getting something through isn't that challenging, and the damage-to-mana ratio can't be beat.

The other big difference between Mono-Red Aggro and Atarka Red is how many tokens Atarka can make. Playing the full eight token-makers means that Atarka Red tends to flood the board with 1/1s, which is stronger in some ways and more vulnerable in others. The combo with Atarka's Command is the main justification for all the tokens, though these cards do help this deck shrug off the vast majority of removal spells. Any one-for-one removal spell suffers, and sacrifice effects are just a joke. The drawback of playing all these tokens is that Atarka Red can get slower draws, as Fodder and Outburst aren't as aggressive on their own as cards like Mardu Scout, and sweepers like Languish or Radiant Flames are more effective.

Which Red Deck Wins?

Right now, I'd go with Atarka Red. As I mentioned before, the mana got better, Mono-Red Aggro's cards got worse, and the combination of those two effects pushes the advantage into Atarka's court (not actual Atarka, of course, though I suppose she can claim this as a victory of sorts). Even though Atarka Red has a more obvious weak point to attack (the token makers), it's more powerful overall—mainly because of its namesake. Atarka's Command is a really powerful Magic card, and when you have the option to play a burn spell that routinely does 6-plus damage for two mana, it would seem silly not to take it. I also like that Atarka Red can transform after sideboarding, as adding in extra lands and four-drops while removing some of the token cards can make the deck much more resilient against the cards it was weak against. Mono-Red Aggro has a similar sideboard plan, but it's less impactful because it was less vulnerable to begin with.

As we continue to explore the format, we will find many new decks and many updates of old ones—but starting with red is always a safe bet. Both of these decks have the consistency and power needed to compete in this new Standard format, and if you are a red mage, you have nothing to worry about.


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