It’s that time of year again! Red review time!
While I’ve been playing a lot of more controlling decks lately, I’m still someone who aggressively loves red decks of all kinds. When it comes to my red reviews, I always make a point of making clear that what I’m doing with them is not simply reviewing all cards with red mana, but making sure that what we’re thinking about is decks that use red as their base.
Take a classic deck, like certain R/W lists.
- 3 Simian Spirit Guide
- 1 Aven Mindcensor
- 2 Kitchen Finks
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
- 4 Leonin Arbiter
- 4 Blade Splicer
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 1 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
This list has a few red cards in it. It even has Lightning Bolt. But I’m not concerned about a list like this. I’m concerned about cards for lists that are likely to run the card “Mountain” and a lot of them, lists that are primarily based in red.
Over the last few blocks of sets, this has actually been a challenge. Tarkir block, especially Khans of Tarkir, had a lot of colors as a part of the theme of the set. Battle block, especially Oath of the Gatewatch, had a lot of cards that required or employed the pseudo-color of colorless mana.
Thankfully, we’re back in the mix with a “normal” set, insofar as we’re talking about mana.
Now my take on these cards is not a universal take. You’ll notice below that Harness the Storm is in the “Marginal” category. That isn’t because Harness the Storm is bad but because, for the kinds of base-red red decks I’m talking about, it strikes me as unlikely to be a major player.
Enough preamble. Let’s get to it!
The Cards to Watch
Usually, I only find one card in this category. They don’t necessarily change the world, but they could. It’s all about potential, really.
Each of these three cards has that potential. Avacyn’s Judgment might just be a weak Forked Bolt. On the other hand, if sufficient madness enablers are a part of your red deck, it really does feel like an absolutely absurd effect.
This is, in some ways, very similar to Goldnight Castigator, except instead of needing the proper outlet, it just needs the proper environment and friends. If you’re able to position yourself as the true aggressor in a matchup, Goldnight Castigator is an incredible card, hard to kill without black mana and an impressive source of hasty damage. On the other hand, it also comes with quite a drawback; I’ve had this on the battlefield and then suddenly found myself surprised by just how in trouble I was!
Westvale Abbey is also clearly an incredible card. In the context of several red decks, though, it seems like an obviously absurd add-in. Eldrazi Red might be a red/colorless hybrid, but it basically still takes on the characteristics of a red deck as far as I see it. Between Thopters, Elementals, potentially Eldrazi, and the black/white Humans of the Abbey, this card can threaten to be a real issue. Aside from Eldrazi Red, a Big Red-style eck might use this card just as a part of a potential late-game as well.
While still not tough enough to survive a lot of combat, the mass trample/pump effect of Neck Breaker threatens a ton of damage, whether you are running tokens of various sorts or if you’re simply running a number of efficient creatures. Also important: the damage threatened by a Neck Breaker should your opponent simply happen to stumble is colossal. While we’re not talking Goblin Rabblemaster levels of damage, it is always a big deal to be able to take so much advantage of a struggling opponent that they simply fall over dead.
Sadly, while there are a fair amount of good cards, there aren’t many others I’d say are excellent.
Normally I’d say the phrases “loses indestructible” is not that important an ability, but we are in a world with Archangel Avacyn, so that isn’t entirely true. However, that ability alone would just make this card marginal. I do think that X-spells, just in general, can be an important tool, especially if there are sufficient one-toughness creatures to make this a strict removal spell on turn 2. This is only barely in the “Good” camp, but I think it suffices, especially given that we live in a world where Chandra, Flamecaller is in reach for a lot of red decks.
Another card for the Big Red players, this card isn’t likely to be a part of concerted mana acceleration on turn 3 unless Magmatic Insight or Fiery Impulse is involved. That being said, for the slower Big Red archetypes, having a turn 2 play can be less likely, and it is absolutely reasonable to see a turn 3 that involves a removal spell followed up by a Grafstone activation that makes for that fourth mana of the turn.
I would love this card to be even better, but for the most part, it feels as though this card in a red deck just is a 2/1 for one, with very little of its text making much of an impact. If Falkenrath Gorger had madness itself, that would probably change the equation quite a bit. As it is, the card is fine for an aggressive deck, but nothing phenomenal.
Three mana for three damage isn’t incredible, but one mana for three damage is outside the range of what Wizards gives us anymore. Add to that the ability to interact with the few madness enablers we have, and you have a solidly good card. Expect this card to improve with the next set.
Some people have this card higher in value as a haste creature, but the three-mana slot is actually fighting with a lot of other cards. For my money, I’d rather have Breakneck Rider in general. Two toughness is a real issue, and the upside is only helpful with other Werewolves.
A 4/3 haste for five isn’t great, but at three, we’re getting into the absurd territory. This might make sense in an aggressive deck with sufficient outlets, but more likely I see this as a potential midrange aggro card, which has a slower clock in general but more likelihood of the outlets necessary to make Incorrigible Youths good.
Another Big Red card, Magnifying Glass is sufficient at ramping you, but great at making sure that the gas tank is never empty.
Delirium can be hard to achieve, but if you can, this card shifts from “solid” into “very powerful”. Before that, though, the rate is completely fine, and first strike is a strong ability for an attacker.
People have largely pooh-poohed this card as a Boggart Brute, but this is certainly better than that. Evasion of any kind is actually meaningful, but importantly, Sin Prodder’s ability is meaningful, and it can actually be a part of creating delirium for that Scourge Wolf we just talked about. In a low-mana deck, not getting a land some 35% of the time is just fine, as you likely don’t need much more than three to operate, but the incidental damage matters.
A 5/5 for five wouldn’t be sufficient to pay attention to, but letting you hurl your cards is reasonable. There are a lot of creatures out there, and where there aren’t creatures, there are often a lot of planeswalkers. Just 1R is quite a cheap price to pay to kill a permanent. This is fine in a midrange red deck or something closer to Big Red.
The Sideboard Cards
Sometimes you’re looking for a very cheap semi-Forked Bolt card. There are other spells that might be better at taking care of a mass of tokens, but if what you need is that “instant” part of this card, this is a great choice.
Kill that big creature that is otherwise out of reach. Four mana is a lot to pay, but there really aren’t all that many creatures that end up managing to dodge this as far as removal goes.
The number of madness enablers are few and far between, but this might be sufficient for a deck with enough payoffs.
In a midrange aggro deck, having every single creature become five power seems pretty solid. It takes a lot of investment, so it probably isn’t solid enough.
If you have enough Vampires, this could make combat hard.
For that slow version of All-In Red, this might see some play for those people who really want to cast an expensive spell and perhaps want delirium.
If you have the outlets and the removal, this can potential hit for a lot. It just takes a lot of work.
For that Big Red deck that is getting cards into the graveyard, this might be a land slot, especially if you’re also casting colorless spells.
This is pretty unlikely to see play, but it is a kind of X-spell variant for decks that have a lot of mana.
Too expensive when compared to alternatives; still, it might be worth looking at if you’re playing against someone who hits you with a ton of little papercuts.
This is a lot of mana for only two damage, but if you’re on a blue splash and you have enough targets, it might end up worth it.
The two-mana mark has a lot of cards fighting for this slot from aggressive decks, but the ongoing damage that happens regardless of attacking makes this potentially possible if delirium is a realistic target.
Like Gibbering Fiend, there is a lot of competition at this mana cost; the ability might just be solid enough if smaller creatures are in the mix of the format.
Killing a big creature can be difficult, and it does enable madness. Even with both of those things, this still feels very marginal.
If you have enough madness enablers, this is a reasonable Threaten.
Initially this card isn’t that impressive, but with enough pumping up, it becomes huge very quickly. At four mana, this is probably not enough.
Making this card work seems difficult, but when it does, a 3/4 for one (with a wait) would be a nice payoff.
Not only marginal but also likely a sideboard card. If you feel like you’re aggressive enough to get a payoff in the damage from this card, but you also want to hurt someone’s mana, this could do it for you.
Probably only playable in a deck that is trying to smush in all of the haste it can, and even then, this souped-up Raging Goblin might not be enough.
These won’t have an impact because they are either reprints or cards that would otherwise be in Standard, or are simply wildly outclassed.
Both of these cards are reasonable in a splashed green or black red deck. The enemy-color versions are not, simply because they enter the battlefield tapped.
If you have enough creatures in your deck that the initial +1 ability of Arlinn Kord is in your wheelhouse, this card will be up your alley. This isn’t a straight Xenagos, the Reveler, simply because the stream of damage it puts out is much, much slower and less consistent.
If you’re cheap and have that blue splash, this is actually a real monster of a card. The damage clause is frightening.
In a midrange red deck or a Big Red deck, if you’re splashing a little bit of white, this ability is actually very reliably powerful, both as a means to remove difficult permanents and as a madness enabler. Totally solid.
While more likely to see play in a pure R/B Vampires list than in a red deck splashing black, this is still sufficiently aggressive enough to consider in a base-red deck. In that deck, it will certainly do the job it claims it will do.
Ultimately, this is a pretty disappointing set for red. Usually we actually see a fair number of cards that are truly excellent. Instead we have some conditionally absurd cards in the “Cards to Watch” with Avacyn’s Judgment, Goldnight Castigator, and Westvale Abbey, all of which might end up awesome but might not, and one card, Breakneck Rider, which is likely just to be strong on its own.
While there are a fair amount of “Good” cards, what Magic tends to care about are the topmost category of cards – the ones that really shake things to their bones. Contrast this with white, which received Archangel Avacyn and Declaration in Stone, both of which are real format-shattering game-changers. There is a lot of solid stuff here in red, but very little which is going to do anything even approaching that level, which, in-and-of-itself, is bad news for red.
I’ve already had a blast so far drafting Shadows over Innistrad, but I do have to say I’m disappointed that I didn’t see very many ways to help out an aggressive red strategy. I think those strategies do and will continue to exist in the newest Standard format, but I don’t imagine they will get much of a lift from the new set.
As always, fellow red lovers, keep the flame burning, and may your opponents melt before you!