One of the most surprisingly consistent decks throughout the Battle for Zendikar Standard format has been the aggressive red decks. For a while there was some debate between various Mono-Red variants, and the Red-Green build, known as “Atarka Red” after the powerful spell, Atarka's Command. But little red men were a mainstay.
By now, Atarka's Command has been the chosen front runner. This change was thanks in large part to the combo of Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage. Together those two spells, castable at instant speed, began winning games out of nowhere. But in the intervening months, that combo became less of a surprise, and players adapted.
So though Atarka Red might still be the deck to play this weekend, the much of the surprise is lost. I talked to Patrick Sullivan, one of red's most famous advocates, about where Red was, and where it is now. fresh off his impressive tenure as a Magic commentator, he's ready to smash some faces this weekend with Atarka Red. But how is it positioned? Does it still have that “Wow” Factor?
“You know, right now, the deck is ‘fine.' It's one of several ‘fine' decks in the format.” Sullivan said. This is one of the best things to hear about a final metagame. Without a clear “best” deck, players are free to pick up the pile of cards they want to when sleeving up for battle. Case in point, Sullivan loves red, and he got to play red.
Pat explained why he used the term “fine,” specifically. “Every deck has a high fail rate. Whether it's your mana, or your enter-the-battlefield tapped lands, it's not often both decks are firing perfectly.” One of the biggest additions from Battle for Zenidikar were the new dual lands, like Canopy Vista. With the fetchlands also in the format, searching out multiple colors have never been easier. But this ineivitably leads to greed.
“All the best decks have that fail rate, but when both decks are firing, the games get hard to play.” He said that in addition to the on-board complexity of the most powerful cards in the format ramming against each other, “you also have to think about stuff like uncracked fetchlands that can enable different delve spells, for example.” It's very difficult.
With all that complexity, Sullivan chose Atarka Red because “it leverages my own play skill the most.” Taking maximum advantage of the little ins and outs hardest to maneuver around.
“[The deck] is very hard to play against. You have Atarka's Command, Temur Battle Rage, Titan's Strength, and Become Immense. They are all different, and require your opponent to respond differently.” He continued, “Often it's just a guessing game for them.” And that's the game you can win, and where Atarka Red finds its power. Because if they the opponent plays around the wrong thing, the game could end then and there.
For example, in Round 2 Sullivan battled out from under a seemingly unwinnable position. Slightly flooded with land, with a litany of spells in the graveyard already from the control deck's removal, Sullivan hoped to use his Hordeling Outburst to secure the win. Once a Virulent Plague came down that hope seemed lost. But Pat calmly cast a Monastery Swiftspear, then two Become Immense in a row to take out his double-digit-lifed opponent in one fell swoop.
“I used every single card in my graveyard, my hand, and every single mana,” he said. This is why Atarka Red is still good.
Patrick Sullivan next to the best Planeswalker
“Really it all depends on respect. If Abzan is packing Murderous Cut, Ultimate Price, and Surge of Righteousness in the board, their match-up is good, no matter what's in the maindeck ... and I know Jeskai players with 0, 1, 2, and 3 Radiant Flames in the sideboard. Each of those numbers can affect the match a lot.”
On the winning lines Sullivan said, “against some decks, the combo is much harder to work. Jeskai has a lot of instant-speed spot removal. But you can still chain removal, tokens and Atarka's Command, which is usually good enough.” Sullivan continued, “and even if they are ready for it, you can still leverage the combo.”
“It's almost never worth siding out the combo. Because, for example, with Jeskai, they still have to balance committing to the board right. They can't just sit back the whole game, or else you can just go one-drop, two-drop and get them that way.”
Though the combo-aggro deck seemed to some a flash in the pan, it's proven itself as one of the top-tier strats throughout the entirety of this Standard format.
The deck has multiple avenues to win, but the combo is still a centerpiece. “Even if you cut the combo—for something like extra removal—you still aren't favored in the long game. [Control decks] have so many two-for-ones, and card advantage, you still aren't going to win long term.” For Sullivan, it's about going for the gusto.
On the final thoughts about the deck, Sullivan said, “Looking back, the one critique I would have for the Atarka Red players is that people are too risk averse. You aren't going to win the long game, so sometimes you have to close your eyes and go for it. Because the burn in the format is so bad, getting them to 8 life isn't enough.”
He continued, “This is why I'm skeptical of people playing Outpost Siege in the board. That card doesn't give you enough advantage to overcome their two-for-ones. You can still just lose to a Dig Through Time.” But if you've got the gumption, Atarka Red will reward you.
Every format is better if there's a red deck represented. People will always force the color, but in Battle for Zendikar, it fit like a weave in a tapestry. Helped by the power of green, the little red men have found a house in the BFZ pastiche, and with Oath of the Gatewatch approaching, only time will tell if that house is a home.