Arcane Teachings – Mono-Red in Shadowmoor Standard

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Tuesday, May 20th – With Pro Tour: Hollywood only days away, the debate still rages over what can be done to curb the Blue/Black Faerie menace. One popular option is Mono-Red Aggression, with copious amounts of burn ready to keep the Bitterblossom players on their toes. Is such a strategy ready for the big time, or will the Fae seize the day?

Shadowmoor brought us some very exciting cards for fighting Red decks. Tattermunge Maniac and Flame Javelin do a pretty good job of impersonating Jackal Pup and Char, but these cards were lost in the buzz about Swans of Bryn Argoll and infinite Persist combination decks. The newly supercharged Red deck finally had a day in the sun on Sunday of the Star City Games Mega-Magic Weekend, as Star City’s own Evan Erwin fought his way to the Top 4 with a Chris Nighbor-Owen Turtenwald collaboration. If you’ve been looking for a Red deck, this is your weapon. This article will talk about why his list is good, how to play against a few common opposing decks, and some possible changes to the decklist.

Something that amuses me to no end is the strange relationship that some good players have with the idea of playing Red decks. While I was playing games with Kyle Boggemes during my byes at Grand Prix: Philadelphia, Chapin walked up to us and recoiled in horror when he saw that I was piloting a Zoo deck as opposed to a Blue deck of some level. After a few moments of stunned silence, he said “Tom, what happened? You gave up!” I got a less extreme version of this when I was talking to Luis Scott-Vargas a few days before that tournament. He told me that he respected Zoo as a deck and thought it was good, but that it would take an act of God to get him to play a “Red deck” of any form. The attitude from both of them was almost as though playing a Red deck leaves you irrevocably tainted for the rest of your life; you may be able to hide from your family and friends that you once attacked with a Ball Lightning and then cast Fireblast, but you’d better be able to live with yourself and the knowledge of what you’ve done before you get involved in that kind of thing.

Not every good player feels this way, of course. Pat Sullivan and Dave Price have historically advocated for Red decks, and Jon Finkel and Bob Maher have both found major tournament success while attacking with Jackal Pups and activating Cursed Scrolls, and Midwest up-and-comer Owen Turtenwald was totally on board with the idea of playing Domain Zoo, and in an amusing contrast to Chapin expressed a strong sense of respect for people who are experts at playing Red decks.

The story behind Evan’s Top 8 performance with the Red deck is fairly pedestrian. He had been up until something crazy like four in the morning the night before, and wanted a deck to play that wouldn’t be too hard. I happened to be sitting next to Chris Nighbor, who had just decided to play Vintage instead of Standard that day after a somewhat disappointing 6-3 finish on Saturday. That meant that his physical copy of Standard Red deck was about to go unplayed, and a Red deck sounded exactly like what Evan needed. Ben Weinburg had talked on Saturday about how he thought that Nighbor’s Red deck looked awesome, so I sprang into action. All I did was connect Nighbor and Evan; Ben, Gerry, and I had nothing to do with the actual construction of the deck. Chris may not be a household name, but he is an associate of Owen Turtenwald and was also part of the development of the Chocolate Rain Red deck that was popular at the beginning of this past Extended season. Happily, there is an easy way to find Chris at a Magic tournament even if you don’t know what he looks like. Look around until you find someone with a shirt that says “I am Nighbor” on it. That person is Chris Nighbor. I’m not kidding about this.

Here’s the list of the deck:

There are many things about this decklist that are awesome. This isn’t really a surprise since it came from Owen and Chris, two proven Red Deck masters, but it still should be said. The first awesome thing about it is that it has tons of manlands. Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a pure attack deck is a mana flood, and playing lots of lands that fake being spells fixes this problem. The beautiful thing about the manlands in this deck is that they synergize really well with using burn spells as removal. The lands don’t cost you anything immediately, so you can spend all of your mana clearing the way until you’re ready to attack. This lets you take advantage of an empty board position with surprising speed. They also let you get away with playing a lower amount of actual creatures and filling the rest of the deck up with burn spells, which is exactly what Chris and Owen have done. There are only eighteen creatures in the deck, and Keldon Marauders hardly deserves to count for this, but with the lands the deck doesn’t feel creature-light at all.

Lash Out is also awesome. Nighbor’s argument for the card was very simple. How often do you Incinerate a creature? Wouldn’t it be sick to also Incinerate their face a third of the time? Given the way that Wizards has built this Standard environment, you are extremely unlikely to play against a deck that has no targets for your Lash Out. The card is somewhat awkward against Faeries because they don’t play many creatures early, but you’ll eventually get to use it against a manland or a Scion of Oona if you have a little patience. I usually sideboard out one Lash Out in matchups where I may not be able to conveniently leverage two in the early game, but basically everywhere else the card is an all-star.

Maindeck Magus of the Moon is awesome. Magus is an absolutely spectacular way to luck out opponents who are using the amazing variety of nonbasic lands that we currently have access to in Standard to do lots of fun things with their manabases. Faeries is the accepted best deck at the moment, and they have a maximum of six or so basic lands to operate on underneath a Magus. Black-Green Elves has seven or eight. I also expect to see some crazy five-color mix-up decks that use Reflecting Pool and Vivid lands at the Pro Tour, and God forbid those decks have to play against a Magus. Of course, in many other places Magus will be reduced to a Grey Ogre, but maindecking Magus is making a statement that you’re willing to ride the variance and he can be conveniently sideboarded out when he isn’t useful.

Of course, nothing is perfect and there are things that I wish were different. My biggest issue is something that Chapin touched on yesterday, and that is that Shard Volley is very awkward in practice. I often find myself wanting to spend only one mana to kill something on turn 2 or 3 when I really can’t afford to sacrifice a land. Yesterday Chapin said that he thought that burn spells that did less than three damage weren’t worth the card, but I don’t entirely agree. I would be willing to play a few copies of Shock as concessions to the curve. I don’t think I want more than two, but I very much want the ability to spend one mana to kill something in early turns.

I also don’t like that there are only seven manlands. I want the full eight. I really hate drawing all basic Mountains when playing with this deck, and the curve is wonky enough thanks to the lack of two-drops other than Keldon Marauders that I don’t usually have a hard time finding a convenient time to play one. I also feel very naked when I don’t have a manland or two waiting in the wings for when I run out of gas or have a moment when I can sneak one in for a few free damage.

Neverending Torment has big, big problems. Yesterday Chapin called it “shady,” but I’m completely willing to go all the way to calling it terrible. Ostensibly, you are boarding it in against people who play Kitchen Finks and Primal Command to gain lots of life. There are two categories of decks that play these cards. The first category is pure creature attack decks like Black-Green Elves or the Mono-Green deck from the Star City Games $5000 Open Top 8. These decks will just add Kitchen Finks as part of their already-impressive package of Creatures That Are Bigger Than Yours and then call it a day. Neverending Torment may stop them from gaining life, but it is going to cost you a whole turn to get into play and you don’t exactly have that kind of time when Chameleon Colossuses or Wilt-Leaf Lieges are raining down on you. If you spend a turn to preemptively stop Kitchen Finks from gaining life, that’s a turn that you weren’t dealing with the enormous creatures they are playing and attacking you with. Wasting that turn is a quick way to get overrun.

The other category of deck that will play life gaining cards against you is slow Big Mana Green decks, including straight Red-Green Ramp and the goofy Black-Blue-Green Mannequin Ramp decks that have been bouncing around. Neverending Torment is actually okay here because these opponents aren’t playing a ton of creatures that require immediate answers, but we can do better. Instead of just taking away their ability to gain life, why not really punish them with Manabarbs? Big Mana decks will be more likely to play Primal Command than Kitchen Finks because they need more high-impact cards to make their mana ramping worthwhile, and Manabarbs does a nice job of making Primal Command and any other big expensive cards look rather silly.

I played Evan’s list of the deck against the list of Faeries that Ben Weinburg and Gerry Thompson played and the Green-Black Elves list that Calosso Fuentes played at the same event. Both opposing decks were piloted by Adam Yurchick.

I won seven of ten pre-sideboard games against Faeries. This matchup is simple strategically, but tactically very interesting. Your job is to just kill them, and you have both the early game and the late game. This would be hideously bad for the Faerie deck if it weren’t so good at taking over the midgame out of nowhere, which is what they will be trying to do with Mistbind Cliques and Scions of Oona. The first thing you need to be careful of is to not expose a burn spell to a Scion. If they have three mana up and have not yet had an opportunity to play a Scion, don’t run a burn spell at a Faerie if you can’t back it up with another one (or a Mogg Fanatic for a possible Scion). Wasting a burn spell in this way is a quick way to lose your tempo advantage. If you ever have an opportunity to kill a Scion while they are tapped out, take it. Second, try to manage your turns to make your opponent’s mana as awkward as possible. Attacking with a manland in lieu of casting a spell while your opponent has counterspells but no removal in hand is really annoying for Faeries because it means that their mana is wasted. On the other hand, if they have a removal spell they want the manland to attack because that means your turn was spent without casting a spell and you also lost a creature. Try to use how your opponent plays the early turns to figure out if you think they have removal or counterspells left when you have to make this decision.

Something that is somewhat odd to me is that Bitterblossom is actually very important to the Faerie player in this matchup. A turn 2 Bitterblossom is actually still good and goes a long way toward outracing the Red deck’s burn spells. A Bitterblossom later than that is usually a bad idea for the Faerie player to keep in play, but what they can and should use it for is a safe way to get a Mistbind Clique out. If your opponent doesn’t play an early Blossom, try to hold one or two Flame Javelins for the purpose of re-exposing a championed Blossom in the late game.

I won nine of ten pre-sideboarded games against Black-Green Elves. This may have been an anomaly, since three of the games were decided essentially by an early Magus of the Moon that went unkilled and kept the elf deck from playing Magic at all, and one of the games involved the Elves deck mulliganing to four, but I do think that the matchup is good for the Red deck in game 1. This matchup is fairly straightforward to play. You have two different strategies, and the biggest decision you will face is when to switch from one to the other. You’ll start the game by trying to kill every creature your opponent plays so that you can keep getting through with your own creatures for damage. The more creature damage you can get through in this phase, the better. At some point, your opponent can get out so many creatures that you can’t burn them all, and at that point you need to start chump-blocking and using your burn spells as much as possible to go to your opponent’s face. The arrival of a Tarmogoyf in the mid-game often causes you to switch into this mode.

I spoke above about how I was unhappy with Shard Volley, but I don’t really know what to do about that slot if I cut it. I would want two Shocks to keep the burn count up, but the mana curve can’t really handle more three-drops and all the other options for two-mana Red creatures are really quite bad. One card that I did not have time to explore in this deck but have been impressed with in other Red decks is Intimidator Initiate. It may look ugly, but Frenzied Goblin was an all-star for Herberholz in Honolulu and Initiate played a very similar role. It also happens to be mind-blowingly awesome against Kitchen Finks, which depends a lot on the ability to block and trade for it to be good against the Red deck. Gaining two life for three mana is pretty bad, and that’s what the Initiate reduces Kitchen Finks to. I worry about playing that many 1/1s for one mana, but that’s definitely a card to watch. You could try this:

I changed to all Countryside Crushers in the maindeck to give the Intimidator Initiates something exciting to sneak through more of the time. Other than that, this should look fairly familiar.

The list of the Red deck that Evan Erwin played is good, but it’s unlikely that it will survive the Pro Tour as the canonical Red list. The parts of the list that I would consider sacred are the Maniacs, Fanatics, Marauders, and the sixteen burn spells that are not Shard Volleys. You’ll need to choose some sort of three-drop to play, but I’m fairly indifferent at this point between Magus of the Moon, Countryside Crusher, and Fulminator Mage as long as you have access to four Magus of the Moon after sideboarding. Time (and a Pro Tour!) will tell if the Red deck is a good place to be, but for now I’m just excited to have a Red deck around again.

Hollywood is this coming weekend. I’ll be back next week with a Pro Tour report, and I’ll do my best along with the rest of the fine writing staff here to get you prepared for your Regionals once we have a defined metagame.

Tom LaPille