Deep Analysis – Power Red, Speed Red, and The Siege

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Thursday, May 8th – In the never-ending quest for fresh Standard decks, Richard Feldman takes a leaf out of the Chapin Playbook today and tries some “innovative” builds of Red Deck Wins. He also revisits an old favorite, pumping in a fresh angle and some new cards… with surprising and exciting results.

I. Power Red

Red Aggro needs to be regarded as real. Why are people trying to make it Red Deck Wins? Why not use cards like Bitterblossom, Tarmogoyf, and Fulminator Mage?
Patrick Chapin

Why not indeed? Pat’s question, coincidentally enough, happened to be right along the lines of what I was working on last week. Have a look.

There’s a lot of beef here. Bitterblossom, check. Tarmogoyf, check. Fulminator Mage, check.

Bitterblossom fills a quirky Cursed Scroll imitation role in this deck; it is not at all fast to get its damage in, but in the late game, its grinding inevitability puts the opponent in a tough spot to try and stabilize. Even if you drop it turn 2, it won’t hit for more than a point of damage until turn 4, and even if its tokens go unblocked for the entire game, it takes until turn 6 before it’s attacked for six points. Tattermunge Maniac can do that much by turn 3, but we both know which one we’d rather have on the table when the opponent drops a Tarmogoyf.

Speaking of Goyf, he’s in here as well. Tarfire not only pumps up everyone’s favorite five million dollar 0/1, he helps me cheat in the Black and Green splashes simultaneously by representing four of the twelve cards that make Auntie’s Hovel playable in this deck. Fulminator Mage is a combination manland killer (and sometimes-two-for-oner) and combo disruptor, in a deck that has no real other ways to interact with something like Swans, and that’s the deck.

How’d the testing go?

Not well. I pretty much abandoned the deck after testing it against Faeries. The trouble was – believe it or not – the deck was practically too slow to beat Faeries. I had it batting just above 50-50 maindeck with them, and post-board when they have Dragon’s Claw and all I have is the hope that I drew my answer to Dragon’s Claw, I don’t see myself improving the matchup.

See, Faeries can actually race this deck. I may start off trading profitably, but pretty soon they Mistbind Clique me, hit me with it, Pestermite my biggest dude (Tarmogoyf or Treetop Village) so I can only attack back for one or two, smack me again with the 4/4 and the 2/1, and suddenly I’m a Red deck who is behind in the damage race. Then it’s Scion of Oona and lights out.

Sure, I also win plenty of games when their racing elements don’t come together, but unless I can Flame Javelin the Clique right away, it does an obnoxiously good job of turning around the damage race. Cryptic Command is another problem, as it taps down my entire team for a turn and bounces my most important threat at the same time. I’m always the fastest off the blocks, but I really have a tough time competing in the midgame with Clique and Command; if my early game doesn’t do enough damage to put them in burn range, I have to try hard to squeeze out a win if they stuck either Clique or Command on me.

Am I giving up too early? Am I selling the deck short? Maybe. But to me, the main reason to play a Red deck right now is to mash on Faeries, the format’s top deck. You’re certainly not choosing Red because you’re excited about that delightful Kitchen Finks matchup or because you think you can outrace combo. (I mean, barring the “Fulminator Mage randomly manascrewed you!” draw, what hope do you have?) Really, if you’re not decisively beating Faeries with your Red beatdown deck, is there any money in playing it?

Unless I’m missing something, it really seems this is not the way to go with Red right now. The mana is fine (though painful, which is admittedly part of why Faeries is able to race – but without three colors you certainly cannot play both Goyf and Bitterblossom), it just seems the fundamental choices of slowing down for Bitterblossom and Fulminator Mage make the deck too slow to be worthwhile against Faeries.

II. Fulminator Mage

Having played a few dozen games with it, I have to say Fulminator Mage feels very out of place in Red aggro. The two scenarios where he is best are clear: first, you can use him to get a two-for-one by trading with a dork and then killing a manland or something with damage on the stack; second, you can use him as a one-for-one Stone Rain when a Stone Rain would be a damaging blow to the opponent, though if a Stone Rain would not be helpful, you are free to leave him as a beater.

The problem is – at least against Faeries, and I imagine this would be the case in several other matchups – Stone Rain is often bad (if it weren’t, wouldn’t Red Decks just maindeck Stone Rain every season?), and when it’s bad, your alternative of a Grey Ogre sucks. The worst feeling in the world is when you’ve put the opponent on his heels with Tattermunge Maniac, Tarmogoyf, Mogg Fanatic, Tarfire that blocker, and then, to seal the deal, to put your aggression over the top and make sure he can’t climb back from your blistering offense… mopey 2/2 Fulminator Mage. Lose a land, boss. Go.

So often I wished he was a big, dumb animal like Countryside Crusher so I could keep the pressure on. The times when I used him as a Stone Rain because the opponent was behind on mana, a big animal would have been plenty to keep him from recovering. I understand the guy’s appeal; I remember back in the day when you’d open with Jackal Pup and then devastate the opponent with Wasteland and Rishadan Port while chucking Seal of Fire and whatnot at whatever he tried to put in front of the Jackal Pup, but Fulminator Mage starts attacking the opponent’s manabase on turn 3 at the earliest, and often closer to turn 5. Molten Rain can get away with that because it goes to the dome as well, but Fulminator Mage doesn’t offer that bonus damage. By that time he’s already got resources to work with; I might cut him off from Mistbind Clique for a turn, but he gets that turn back with Pestermite on my Goyf followed by a block to my Tattermunge Maniac. Yeah, the Fulminator does more heavy lifting against a combo deck that doesn’t throw cheap blockers at you left and right, but how reliable is Stone Rain Guy as your only form of disruption against the Lotus Bloom Deck?

Of course, the problem is, if you don’t play Fulminator Mage, how do you even interact with a combo deck? I’ll save you the suspense and let you know that this deck doesn’t goldfish as fast as the combo decks do, and considering one of them maindecks Kitchen Finks, I’m pretty much out of reasons to think this list is a contender.

III. Speed Red

Let’s try this again, without the Mages, and with a focus on at least beating stupid Faeries.

As the name implies, this list is set to max out on speed. No comes-in-tapped lands, no Fulminator Mage, just twenty lands and a curve that starts with “Jackal Pup” and Mogg Fanatic and ends with Boggart Ram-Gang and Flame Javelin. Tarmogoyf and Keldon Marauders in the middle, and both Mudbutton Clanger and Mudbrawler Cohort rounding out the bottom of the barrel.

Truth be told, both Clanger and Cohort are actually fine in this deck. Granted, Cohort is only any good because there are twelve Red one-drops – rarely is he anything but a 2/2 Haste for two – and Clanger only works because there are 28 cards in this deck that are either a Goblin or a Warrior. Goyf has all the tricks necessary to power him up to 5/6, and if an opponent cracks a Terramorphic Expanse or loses a manland, Goyf can get all the way up to 6/7.

However, this deck is entirely a one-trick pony. There is no disruption, no countermeasures for… well, anything, no shame whatsoever. It just attacks and goes for the dome, and hopes that’s enough. Kitchen Finks? Primal Command? Bummer. Let’s hope I can get there anyway.

I was partway through confirming that this deck can actually beat Faeries (it was doing well), when I had an idea.

What about Ronom Unicorn? That guy kills Bitterblossom and Seismic Assault. Interesting…

IV. The Siege

After several failed attempts to cram Neal of Cleansing into a Red deck, I revisited an old favorite.

I smashed a few different variations of this deck into Faeries before arriving at the above build. The two big breakthroughs were noticing how poorly Garruk fit in the deck and realizing how strong Mana Tithe is right now. Both Faeries and the Red decks run very tight curves, and Faeries in particular tends to lean on a timely Cryptic Command or Mistbind Clique to turn races around in their favor. Besides negating a critical spell at the right moment, the tempo swing of paying one mana to trade for a three- or four-mana spell can be absolutely backbreaking – and even the fact that they might need to hold off on playing that spell out of respect for your untapped Plains can be all the breathing room you need.

To me, the obvious includes are Doran and Kitchen Finks at the three-spot. Like Tarmogoyf, Doran is massive and undercosted, and Kitchen Finks has my vote for best card in Shadowmoor – you heard it here first. In my experience, Finks is easily on par with Loxodon Hierarch on average, and significantly better in certain situations.

Suffice to say, Ronom Unicorn is strong right now. It blows up two of the format’s most critical cards – Bitterblossom and Seismic Assault – as well as Everlasting Torment (post-board) and Enchanted Evening, assuming the latter is relevant. (It can also abort your own Bitterblossoms if you are running low on life or would like to give your Tarmogoyf +2/+2, but the real value is against those first two cards.)

Note that Unicorn versus Seismic Assault can end in Assault’s favor if the Swans player has seven mana and is holding an extra land; in that case, they’ll play Swan, then Assault, then pitch a land to shoot the Swan. I’ll respond by activating Unicorn, and they’ll respond by discarding the Salvage to shoot the Swan again, going off before my Unicorn activation ever resolves. However, the Unicorn’s presence on the board makes their combo much more difficult to execute; it demands that they have seven mana available (highly unreasonable unless they have drawn Lotus Bloom and I didn’t Oblivion Ring it) and an extra land in their hand – easier said than done when they already need to have seven mana on the table.

Garruk is enticing, particularly in conjunction with Bitterblossom, but he’s a big, slow finisher in a deck that really wants to lean heavily towards the “aggro” side of midrange aggro. I’ll keep him in mind for the sideboard, but I’m almost positive I don’t want him in my deck against Faeries, combo, and red decks, which are just about all anyone’s talking about right now. Yeah, the Mana Ramp and Elves decks are still around, but I’m not so sure I’m going to have bad matchups against those decks that I want to actually play maindeck Garruks as de facto hate cards against them.

I did a ten-game set against Faeries and scored 7-3; definitely better than I started out with Power Red. Emboldened, I decided to take the deck for a spin against Patrick’s Swans list from Monday. Here’s how the games went.

I start game 1 off with Llanowar Elves into Doran, then a Treetop Village with Mana Tithe mana up in case he has the exact combo on turn 4. He doesn’t, though he Beseeches for what I presume to be the last piece. However, it is too slow; next turn I Oblivion Ring his Lotus Bloom and play Ronom Unicorn, meaning he is too short on mana to play both Assault and Swans next turn. Instead, he plays just the Swans as a last-ditch blocker, but Treetop Village and the team swarm around it for the kill.

Game 2, I start with a Thoughtseize on a Swans, then a pair of Bitterblossoms. While those crank out tokens, I add a Ronom Unicorn. He plays his first of two Assaults, and I Oblivion Ring it. He doesn’t have enough mana to play Assault and Swans in the same turn, so my Unicorn holds down the fort long enough for my Bitterblossom tokens to finish him.

Game 3, I keep a hand with no White mana rather than going to five, and I am unable to play any of the disruption in my hand without it. I don’t find the White source I need in time.

I open game 4 with a Treetop Village, a Goyf, and a Doran. My opponent has Lotus Bloom come in on turn 4, but I have Mana Tithe at the ready in case he happens to have the exact combo in hand. It turns out he doesn’t, so he has to rawdog a Swans to block, lest he die to my attackers next turn. I Shriekmaw it and attack for the win.

Game 5, I am beating him down with two Ronom Unicorns, Bitterblossom tokens, and Treetop Village. I am feeling pretty good about myself until his Lotus Bloom comes in, at which point he plays Swans and Seismic Assault. He pitches Salvage, I respond with Unicorn. He pitches another Salvage in response, I respond with my other Unicorn. He pitches Shivan Reef, the second-to-last card in his hand, and I’m toast. Rough.

I have no relevant disruption in game 6. I have Mana Tithe, but he plays around it and rawdogs Assault plus Swan. A shot at the Swan from a Shivan Reef yields a random card and another land, and a shot from that land leads to the Salvage. That’s game.

Game 7 is looking good for him until I topdeck Unicorn. That puts him short on mana yet again, and Doran and Treetop Village rip him apart.

Game 8 I have the Unicorn again, he has the Bloom again, and I have the Oblivion Ring again. With their powers combined, he is unable to combo, and has to run a Swan out in the open to keep from dying. It has to block a Doran to stave off lethal damage, and one of the five cards I draw off the interaction is Shriekmaw.

Game 9 is stupid. I Thoughtseize his Seismic Assault and he just never finds another.

In the final game I Oblivion Ring a Lotus Bloom, then catch a Swan on a double Mana Tithe. That powers up my Goyf to 4/5 and allows me to smash across for the win before he can find a replacement.

Also 7-3. Looks like we might be on to something!

V. Preliminary Sideboard

One of the best parts about this deck is that it is not Red. That means it’s not vulnerable to Dragon’s Claw, one of the format’s deadliest sideboard cards, and that it can actually use Firespout while being a beatdown deck. (Sadly, R/G aggro can only use that card for its intended Faerie-Wrathing purpose when it can come up with three mana without tapping anything for Red; otherwise Firespout takes out the caster’s troops as well.)

I am on the fence about Dragon’s Claw versus Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender in the board here. On the one hand, I know which one I’d rather have in play on turn 2 against a Red deck: the artifact. On the other hand, I can expect most opponents to be boarding in countermeasures to Dragon’s Claw, but not to Forge-Tender, and Forge-Tender actually has some potentially strong applications against R/G Mana Ramp, while Claw really does not. To make a long story short, I’m going to start with BFT and see how he works out.

As far as I can tell, Extirpate is the combo-killer of the hour unless Dragonstorm makes a comeback. All it takes to stop the Swans deck from going off is to hit their Salvages, and likewise all it takes to stop a Reveillark or Juniper deck from looping indefinitely is to hit the Lark or the Persist guy in question. That said, I’d be surprised if this deck didn’t have a really rough time with Reveillark anyway. Lark has a lot of different ways to ruin a midrange deck like this one, and I don’t see Extirpate solving them. Then again, I don’t know what will solve them (or even if there’s a problem in the first place, or if Lark will even remain on the collective radar), so I’m going to hold off on that issue for now.

We’ll see if this sideboard holds up to playtesting next week. For now, I’m just excited to have found a Kitchen Finks deck that seems to work against both Faeries and Swans. If it can pull that off while maxing out on maindeck Red-smashers Kitchen Finks and Doran, I see good things in this deck’s future.

See you next week!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
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