2005 Championship Deck Challenge: Taking Red to the Limit in Standard

Welcome to StarCityGames.com’s 2005 Championship Deck Challenge, where each some of the best writers we have (including Chad Ellis, who returns from hiatus today) square off against each other in a battle to deliver the best deck for States. Each deck must adhere to the theme for the week, and on Friday Supreme Arbiter Flores will choose a victor. This week’s theme: Build a Mono-Colored Monstrosity.

Ted thinks I’m dead. I’m not dead. Honest. I’ve just been insanely busy.

We launched Battleground at GenCon. It did insanely well – we sold nearly 600 copies over the weekend which is pretty much amazing for a new game. At least it’s amazing for a new game that doesn’t have lots of hot women on it. Wench sold 1,000 copies. Perhaps our next expansion should be an amazon army? Anyway, since then I’ve been talking to distributors and retailers and building up our demo program (email me if you’re interested!) and writing articles about Battleground and writing content for our website and playtesting our next faction and otherwise acting like I’m still working in a startup.

At least my personal life has been pretty calm. Well, we bought a house and moved into it in September. Somehow that absorbed a fair amount of time. Jade is now 18 months old and loves bubbles, running around her new house and having stories read to her. Oh, and finding and chewing up rares.

So I’ve been off the radar screen, trying to keep everything going and not having enough time to write articles. But when Ted sent out his latest email about the topics he’d like to see covered, I couldn’t help noticing something. For the request that writers take on decks for the new Standard, no one wanted to do Red.

It could be that everyone assumed that Red was already taken by Dan Paskins. I almost did. But perhaps there’s a better reason: no one wanted to figure out how to keep Red alive with so many of its goodies leaving. With Mirrodin goes Arc-Slogger, Slith Firewalker, Magma Jet, Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author], Shrapnel Blast and even non-Red cards like Chrome Mox, Blinkmoth Nexus and Jinxed Choker that featured so prominently in Red strategies. R/W gets some goodies to replace those missing cards, but even a cursory look at the Ravnica spoiler shows that there aren’t nearly as many good mono-R cards entering as leaving.

Things are so bad that the mighty Teddy Cardgame proclaimed that mono-Red is dead. [To be fair, I was referring to the aggro strain of the deck – I think a control deck may exist. – Knut]

Sounds like a good time for Red deck to win.

At the risk of giving my good friend Dan a heart attack, Red decks are a lot like Blue decks, at least in one important way. Both decks thrive when people count them out as dead. There is something fundamentally powerful about countering key spells and drawing extra cards, so we keep seeing the same pattern; people consider Blue dead and then it starts dominating. Similarly, there is something fundamentally powerful about cheap, efficient threats and removal that can and will go to the dome when the opponent’s life total is low enough. This is especially true if a new, multi-color-themed set tempts people to playing lots of colors and (gasp!) lands that make you pay life if you don’t want them coming into play tapped.

When one of these archetypes is relatively weak, people start tuning their decks in ways that make them good again. If there’s no permission out there, big spells start to dominate the metagame. If there’s no Red Deck to worry about, people start doing all sorts of silly things, like playing decks without early drops and with lands that either come into play tapped or make you lose life. White Weenie should keep that somewhat in check, but White Weenie doesn’t have reach, meaning that control decks will prepare for it in ways that won’t necessarily help them against a Red deck, e.g. counting on shutting down the combat phase after taking significant damage. Then they end up “stabilizing” at nine life against the Red deck and all they have to do is survive for another four or five turns…which is typically two or three more than they have.

Before we try to figure out just how our new Red deck is going to look, let’s see what Ravnica gives us as new tools…and mise well start with the insane card. Or rather, what I thought was insane.

A legacy of burn.

When I first received my top-secret spoiler from Wizards so I could write a “top ten” preview for Beckett’s Magic Magazine*, Fiery Conclusion was the one card I almost couldn’t believe wasn’t a typo. Could they really have reprinted Shrapnel Blast with creature sacrifice instead of artifact? (Let alone, could they really have made it a common?)

Despite rereading the official spoiler and having both this and my Beckett article proofread, and despite knowing that Fiery Conclusion was too good as written, I managed to keep my hallucination going all the way through writing the first draft of this article and submitting it. Ted had to enlighten me to the fact that going to the dome is not an option. How sad. I mean, it’s nice to know that Ravnica draft isn’t going to be a complete travesty and that constructed isn’t totally broken, but how sad nonetheless.

What else do we have?

Char is a very solid burn spell. It’s on the high end mana wise, but four damage for one card is a good deal and the two points it does to you shouldn’t matter unless you’re already in trouble. The fact that it can (checking twice) hit both creatures and players makes it arguably better than Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] in an aggressive Red deck.

At the top of the curve we have Hunted Dragon. This is the best Hunted creature in the abstract for a range of reasons – it can actually handle the tokens it generates while they can’t handle it and since it has haste it can beat its tokens in anything like a fair race. Of course, I hate valuing cards in the abstract and thankfully Hunted Dragon is even better when put in context. If your opponent can’t deal with it, it’s six to the dome this turn and another six next turn… if there is one.

You may have noticed a theme in these cards – they’re all rather pricey for a deck that wants to be built on a tight mana curve. I’ve got one entrant at the low end of the curve, and I’m not yet sure just how exciting he is: Frenzied Goblin.

Mike Flores is fond of denigrating spells that involve the archaic concept of “blocking” and he’s generally right to do so. But blocking has been making something of a comeback in Magic, and smart people really like to block Red creatures when allowed to do so. Especially people running cards like Sakura-Tribe Elder.

He'd be pretty nutty if he actually said that.

Frenzied Goblin would be pretty awful if his ability made him unblockable. Woohoo, I pay R and you can’t block my point of damage. Instead, however, he prevents a single creature from blocking anything. That’s much more exciting because opponents typically only have one blocker available anyway; that is, his ability is a lot closer to “When Frenzied Goblin attacks, you may pay R. If you do, your opponent can’t block.” Considering your hope of attacking with a lot of X/1s including Genju of the Spires, that’s a pretty major ability.

In building this deck I’m drawing heavily on the Hidetsugu’s Second Rite deck that I wrote about a while back. Playing with that deck showed me that Akki Avalancher really was as solid as I thought it might be. It’s no Jackal Pup, but provided you’ve got an aggressive enough deck, the prospect of him hitting for three becomes quite serious rather quickly.

Despite my happy results with Second Rite.dec, I’ve dropped the Second Rite’s down to just one for this deck. I really want one, because if you see it in your opening hand you can often win the game with it, but I don’t want more than one for a couple of reasons. There’s no Chrome Mox to imprint extra copies on, and I found the Second Rite to be problematic if I wasn’t consistently putting my opponent down to ten life in the combat phase, since they could manaburn down to nine. With one copy in the deck I have the prospect of some free wins and the threat of Second Rite may persuade “smart” people to burn down to nine when I don’t have it.

Red Deck Wins 2005, version 1.0

This deck’s strategy remains fundamentally single-minded; deal twenty to the dome as quickly and efficiently as possible. With 12 legitimate one-drops you will almost always start attacking on turn two, and in many cases you will simply dump as much damage on your opponent’s head as possible.

What makes me optimistic about this deck is not merely the prospect of turn 4 goldfishes, but how difficult it is to make it stop dealing those last few points of damage. People often caricature Red decks as mindless burn and attacks, but inevitably the best Red decks steal a lot of wins through very careful play. You start off hitting as hard as you can but your opponent stabilizes. At that point you enter a maneuvering phase, where they must defend their life total, giving you the initiative as they must keep back creatures and often untapped mana in order to prevent you from winning on the spot.

I haven’t been able to test Frenzied Goblin much yet, but I strongly suspect that even having one on the table will be a nightmare to any opponent trying to form a counter-attack. If WW stabilizes at seven life, how many creatures does it need to leave back? One is already out of the picture and another could easily be burned away, but if it leaves back three blockers how will it kill you before you just go to the dome with burn?

You’ve also got a lot of ways to use your mana in the mid and late game, making it unlikely that you’ll be totally outclassed if you get there. Genju of the Spires turns Mountains into 6/1s and Lava Spike plus Glacial Ray lets you spend five mana to do seven damage when you’ve got the time to spare. Mikokoro is no Nexus but should be great in stall situations, since the extra burn you draw will usually outweigh whatever your opponent gets.

It’s always difficult to nail down a sideboard in a new environment, but there are some obvious candidates. Molten Rain is sorely missed, but even Stone Rain deserves consideration, especially if (as I suspect) people start running mid-range and slower decks and relying on shakier mana bases. Stoneshaker Shaman is a more radical form of land destruction that could be sexy but probably won’t be, since he has to resolve, survive and be facing an opponent that wants to leave mana untapped. He does, however, make Circle of Protection: Red a suboptimal solution, and will torture any Gifts decks that are low on removal.

Ishi-Ishi and Zo-Zu are both worth thinking about as ways to push slower decks off the table before they can stabilize. Yuki-Onna is a bit slow, but card advantage and a 3/1 body aren’t the worst thing ever and you have a reasonable chance of reusing it in a longish game, particularly if the new Signets become Standard staples. Finally, while I don’t think Jitte belongs in the maindeck it could easily merit sideboard slots against other creature decks, both for powering up your own creatures and for killing opposing Jittes.

Finally, 1-3 Hunted Dragons belong in the board for other Red decks and for other decks that will be hard to push off the table with an early rush but which can’t deal with a flying fattie, i.e. Green decks. Sorry, Jamie.

I’ll be testing this deck and will let you know if I come up with any improvements – hopefully you’ll do the same in the forums. Until then, may your curves be tight, your creatures efficient and may your last burn spell go straight to the dome.

Hugs ’til next time,


* Yes, I’m gloating that I knew all the cards before you did. I need something to gloat about since my current hectic life doesn’t let me go to Prerelease tournaments.

** OK, for those who know that “order of magnitude” means, it clearly isn’t an order of magnitude better. But it’s a lot better.