Examining Red Deck Wins (and Wins and Wins) for Standard

Really, I think the title says it all. Except for the fact that, if you didn’t already know, this deck really does win and win and win…

"What are you doing?" Josh pleaded.

I was as surprised as he was at the pairing. Though he was – at one point – the top rated Standard player in the digital world, with a huge volume of matches under his belt, I rarely play in 8-Man queues on Magic Online, and it was certainly the first time we had ever met.

"I’m sure this hand is terrible against whatever you’ve got."

Josh’s grip, it turned out, was in fact not terrible against what I had. My first turn play was a Genju of the Spires. I didn’t have a two-drop (I had no idea what he was running, either), so by the time my beats were online, Josh had drawn a Quicksand; on turn three, we traded lands. He had a Hinder for the Genju replay, and even had another Quicksand to follow up. I saw the writing on the wall when we hit turn 7 and he was still on twenty life, but still "extracted" a Threads of Disloyalty before being made to look foolish with a couple of one-for-twos.

"You’re just lucky you won the flip," I told him.

For game 2, I swapped out four Yamabushi’s Flames for three Threatens and a Pithing Needle. The Needle was probably wrong.

I started on Frostling and then dropped another pair on turn 2. I could have played Hearth Kami, but I figured it would be better to play multiple off-curve creatures with the same amount of power for the mana… Josh beat me in game 1 with cards like Quicksand and Threads of Disloyalty, so a bigger weenie that couldn’t sacrifice to kill itself seemed poor.

In any case, I got my beat on and Josh answered with a Persecute, though Underground River made him pay for his two-for-one (he was playing Rich Hoaen version of U/b Jushi, with cards like Tidings and Persecute but without Drift of Phantasms). The Persecute hit me for a Zo-Zu the Punisher and Volcanic Hammer, but I topdecked into the cards necessary to smoke Meloku the Clouded Mirror twice, never missing an attack.

I sided out the one Needle for one Umezawa’s Jitte because I figured he had sided out Jushi Apprentice. Almost all of my guys fight Jushi well enough…

In Game Three I started on triple Frostling again. It turned out that Josh didn’t side out Jushi Apprentice, but the 1/2 was essentially his only creature defense. I Shocked it and won pretty easily with a grip full of fire.


"I should beat you 100% of the time."

"I should beat you 100% of the time!"

Josh said that the matchup should favor Blue, due to Quicksand and Threads of Disloyalty, and it’s true that I played such that I would have been wrecked by Hideous Laughter (a card, you will note, that I didn’t play in my States version, but was vaguely aware I was playing into), but I came in under the impression that Mono-Blue was the best matchup. After all, I got the deck from the Red Deck Wins Pro Tour Qualifier master himself, who used it to score the Los Angeles Last Chance Qualifier, leaving a trail of Mono-Blue corpses along the way.

No matter how good my decks look, I never win in the MTGO Queues, so opening up on a 1-0 against one of the best players in the world good old U S of A was pretty uplifting… even if I get to play with him all the time if I want to. Busting out the little Red men for this affair was part of our pre-Guildpact proto-Pro Tour testing anyway.

Here’s what I played:

Boros Guildmage
This is probably the best available two-drop for Red Deck, though it will certainly have competition a week from now. Boros Guildmage has two toughness, meaning that it can fight with Sakura-Tribe Elder, and the Haste ability is quite useful when you have four or more available mana.

Mostly it’s there to kill Meloku. It does this quite well, and is also good at killing Planeswalkers.

Frenzied Goblin
The most unexpected card in this deck is also one of the most effective; I actually never lose against creatures when I draw this. It invalidates the Sakura-Tribe Elder defense early, and the "tap out for Keiga" defense late. It makes Drift of Phantasms look foolish, and gives you a more consistent first turn in general. I’d play eight if they let me.

Is it the worst Mogg Fanatic ever? Frosty is also the only Mogg Fanatic we have right now. This card, when strategically held back, gives Red Deck Wins (and Wins and Wins) a unexpected chance for that brass ring we all reach for in Magic: the elusive two-for-one.

Genju of the Spires
One of the strongest cards in the deck conditionally, Genju of the Spires is also conditionally awful. I’ve said it many times over multiple articles: Red Decks don’t lose when they connect once with this card. It’s not quite Ball Lightning, but the recursive element makes it similarly frightening. Possibly Pat’s third in the sideboard (see below) is right, just because decks with Wrath of God have a hard time with the Genju… that said, now that they are all on the Faith’s Fetters kick, that is less of an upside.

Hearth Kami
Barring specialty beaters like Goblin Piledriver, this might be the best purely Red offensive two-drop ever. I actually thought Hearth Kami was the most strategic drop in the G/R Kiki-Jiki deck from States 2004, just because it was cheap and had two power against slow decks, while still having great game against Affinity; Wisconsin, of course, played three. Now that Affinity is out of Standard, you would think that Hearth Kami would lose some juice, but it’s just switched over to Jitte duty instead. The only thing I don’t like about this card is its toughness, which is an almost necessary condition of its color. Just suck it up and Shock the Tribe Elder first.

Speaking of Shock, this card isn’t good. That said, it gets the job done for a cheap mana cost in a deck that doesn’t have a lot of stray lands. Strategically playing this instant against decks with Jitte or that require elaborate sequencing, like the Critical Mass Update, can buy you a lot of time and turn around matchups that look horrendous on paper.

Volcanic Hammer
Two mana, three damage; if it’s good enough for Extended… No, it’s not Lightning Helix.

Yamabushi’s Flame
I side this out a lot of the time because in many matchups it’s like a worse Hammer and a worse Char. Still, removing creatures from the game is pretty good, especially when they do annoying things like tap you out or steal your guys.

Death By Landmass

Zo-Zu the Punisher
The A#1 reason to play this deck is the last card listed alphabetically. The current environment is one where people are seeking far, growing rampantly, reaching for the Kodamas, and blocking with 1/1 Snakes. In the words of Dave Price: take two. You can tell a really good player by how he approaches battle with the Punisher. For example, when I was playing against Josh, he cast Tidings and elected to discard a land rather than play a sixth. He understood that doing so was giving me a Howling Mine for a turn.

Pithing Needle
I think you need this card due to Circle of Protection: Red. You are basically kold to that card in the alternative. It is also useful against the beloved game accelerator Sensei’s Divining Top, and it costs twenty-five tickets.

4 Umezawa’s Jitte
Blah blah blah, words words words.

3 Rathi Dragon
A veteran of the Red Deck’s proudest moment, Rathi Dragon still has a role to play eight years later, and that role is flying over Sakura-Tribe Elder, Carven Caryatid, and other such effronteries to the tradition of Berserk. This card is fast – faster than you might think – and hard to handle for a surprising amount of the field. I bring it in against most Green decks, and anything that lacks spot removal.

Cheese Dreams

3 Threaten
People simply don’t play around this card. They tap out for monolithic Legendary creatures and hope that you don’t crack with your seemingly pathetic 1/1 and 2/2 forces. See what happens when you take the other guy’s Bandit Warlord equipped with Tatsumasa the Dragon Fang (I’ve never actually done this but sometimes I lie awake at night, palms sweating, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how great it would be… and therefore can’t sleep because I feel the anticipation of a fourth grader on Christmas Eve).

At the LA LCQ, Pat played a different sideboard:

4  Umezawa’s Jitte
3  Pithing Needle
3  Rathi Dragon
2  Mountain
2  Flames of the Blood Hand
1  Genju of the Spires

I thought about Threaten for my G/R Extended deck, and I decided that it is a strong addition to his deck, filling holes that might not have been apparent in October. Genju of the Spires is a spectacular card in this deck because if you get one hit in, you never lose… but I didn’t think of it as a particularly strategic sideboard card, nor one I would want to draw in multiples. Flames of the Blood Hand seemed a bit narrow to me (am I supposed to leave three open from turn three onward against Ghazi-Glare?), but the rest of Pat’s choices seemed quite effective. My Dave Price Fan Club teammate Tim McKenna had another idea for the sideboard, which I’ll get to later. Some of you will think it’s fantastic.

Round 2, my opponent (once again) won the roll… then played turn 1 Island. He was Hattori-Hanzo Tron and had the lead for most of the game, but never put me away.

I think the key turn of the game was when he was down to four life with three Mountains in play and two cards in hand. He had played a lot of card drawing and had plenty of mana open, but no real board presence. I dropped Boros Guildmage. He thought for a second before letting it stick. I was pretty sure he had Pyroclasm and Mana Leak, and was electing to burn the Guildmage rather than spend a Counter that might save him from a burn kill.

Of course my last card was a Mountain. I dropped it and the hasty It Girl scampered into the Red Zone for two.

He was now under lethal pressure and spent a bunch of mana making his board better with a 5/5 Dragon Spirit. I ripped a Shock and killed him.

This is an interesting situation where he had all the cards necessary to win, but the demeanor of my play, even online where it is much harder to communicate a bluff or swindle, allowed me to win. Many times players will mechanically – and incorrectly – drop a second extra land against a deck with Mana Leak pre-spell, regardless of the fact that that doesn’t do anything. Or worse yet, they wait until they can play around that counter, and lose a war that they are not equipped to win when down every resource. By letting the opponent believe that I was playing into his comfort zone, I was able to eke out this win when, by all rights, he was heavily favored.

Game 2 wasn’t very difficult. His only sources of Red or Blue mana were Shivan Reefs, so he kept taking random damage for every action. Moreover, I had a decent curve, coming in for a few and then hitting Zo-Zu the Punisher on turn 3. The Little Goblin that Could poked for two, two, two, until it was a standoff between his Keiga with full UrzaTron and my little band of 1/1 and 2/2 guys. A grip of Char and double Yamabushi’s Flame meant that even if he was holding nothing but countermagic, the Reefs would kill him.


I declined a draw offer, and for the finals it was Hattori-Hanzo Tron again.

Game 1 I kept a hand with Frenzied Goblin and some burn, but never drew a second guy. I got some decent beats in, but when you are making the right play and going down on cards every turn, you will eventually lose to, say, Meloku, untap Meloku, untap Keiga. Which is what happened.

Game 2 I lost on turn three. I hit Frostling into Hearth Kami, and he opened on Tron piece and Sensei’s Divining Top. His second turn was Shivan Reef into Dimir Signet. This put me on a terrible play. I could smell the Pyroclasm, but thought to myself "He would have gotten the cheap two-for-one… he even has the Reef!" Of course, this was awful reasoning because he never used his Top and had scripted the Signet the same way a Green mage eschews the Top play to run a Tribe-Elder on turn two. So on the third, I dropped land and Punisher, losing three guys to his Topped up Pyroclasm. This was wrong for so many reasons, not least of which was the fact that I could have stolen his Signet if I had left mana open. Worse yet, I didn’t have another creature in hand and missed my next creature drop while he hit his mana. At the end of the game, I could get him to one several different ways, but the loss of not just a creature but the potential land-Ankh damage made it look like a blowout; the game was all about the one freebie turn (not to mention extra card), a bad decision really early in the game that simply could not be corrected after being made.

I played this Red Deck Wins (and Wins and Wins) a little both before and after the 8-Man. I knew about the deck from the Pro Tour LA LCQ, but never really gave Pat’s list another glance; it was Dan Paskins comment in last week’s Unified article that got me thinking about this archetype. There are legitimate incentives to devoting a team slot to Red Deck Wins, even over another beatdown deck. For one thing, the Jittes are completely incidental in this deck. It has decent tools to win a Jitte war, including Hearth Kami and Needles, not to mention subtle stuff, like fighting with Frostling to keep counters off even when the opponent is ahead. You can play your Jittes in another deck, or just run them in the sideboard as Pat did. Alongside the Jittes are seventy-one cards that don’t really go into any other decks. The deck is so exclusive that you can almost play Boros Deck Wins AND this one on the same team. I’m not a big fan of Shock in Boros, but in that staple’s absence is the issue of splitting something like two Chars.

While I was playing, McKenna complained about not being able to win, and I suggested he try the Sullivan deck. He decided to sideboard Blood Moon and said that he brought the card in for six straight matches. I tried the Moons myself and found them to be solid; that is, I was siding them in, and they were relevant, across many matchups. My only problem with Blood Moon is that I would have certainly brought them in against Hattori-Hanzo Tron… to not much avail. That deck’s main problem is its inability to hit Red mana when it needs Pyroclasm against an aggressor, and Blood Moon provides free Red. My opponent had Dimir Signet, which means he could easily have hit his Legendary mana costs despite being laden with non-basics. When playing Hattori-Hanzo Tron, I always side out my countermagic and Confiscates against a deck like Boros Deck Wins for Ribbons of Night, which means that the Moons would have been meaningless (Dimir Signet makes BU, and there would have been no UU costs left). I’m not sure if Blood Moons are right or if Threaten should stay, or if Pat’s original sideboard is better than either. My guess is that if this deck stays viable post-Guildpact, Threaten will be a key feature to the anti-Gruul strategy of taking a 5/5 "blocker" and whacking its master with it.

I found the Red Deck to be quite solid against most opponents. There are games, especially when you are on the play, where it seems impossible to lose. You just get a nice curve into Zo-Zu and the opponent has to take an extra four points. You have so much burn on your hands the limiting factor is how many you can cast in a single turn, not whether or not you are going to win. If he doesn’t hit the Pyroclasm, you usually have him right there.

One thing I like about Threaten in the sideboard is that it makes it easier to side symmetrically. Against decks like Boros and other burn decks, I was taking out Zo-Zu and Char (hurts yourself) for Threaten, Jitte, and the Mountain. With Blood Moon in, you either have to keep a "hurts myself" element or go for Rathi Dragon, which can be either spectacular or suicidal depending on how the boards play out… Standard today isn’t Tempest-only Rath Cycle when the only burn card available was Kindle; the last thing you want is for your Rathi to hook up with Faith’s Fetters or, even worse, Pacifism. Initially, Tim thought that the deck would be strictly worse than Boros Deck Wins ("Don’t they just have better cards?") but playing the matchup out shows that Boros doesn’t even have a clear advantage head-to-head.

I had a lot of success taking early beats and dropping a second turn Frostling. It is okay to take some points unopposed, even when it is coming from something like Lightning Helix, in order to get a two-for-one down the line. The corollary is that you don’t want to play into the opponent’s potential two-for-ones. By letting your opponent drop a couple of guys, you can steal tempo by slow-playing yours and giving up three to five life points. Like any such beatdown deck, Boros tends to highly value its ability to get Jitte advantage, and in game 1, Red Deck Wins (and Wins and Wins) can control Jitte tempo with everything from Frostling to Hearth Kami to Yamabushi’s Flame. No one is saying that they want to be on the wrong end of that defining equipment, but for a deck that doesn’t actually play the Jitte, it is surprising how resilient this deck can be.

After sideboarding, I think the advantage is clearly in the Red Deck camp. You can play a Jitte game that is better on the numbers if you want, or depending on the opponent’s configuration, simply maul him with an offensive overload.

Given how popular slow do-nothing decks are in Standard – at least online – I think that this deck is a good choice for the next few weeks at least. Red Deck Wins (and Wins and Wins) plays an essentially classic Deadguy Red game of terrible beater into finishing burn. It doesn’t really matter how bad your spells are, or what trades you are willing to make, if the gears are all turning and if even the tiniest guys are connecting twice. Let’s be honest – there are few things as satisfying as swinging past a Tide Star thanks to Frenzied Goblin.

That said, the deck is pretty bad against Ghazi-Glare. I wasn’t able to beat it in the Tournament Practice Room, because even when you Shock and Needle the Guildmages, the City Trees can effectively fight you. You have to spend your burn on their Legendary Dragon Spirits, so you don’t necessarily have much for the face… and don’t get me started on the Panacea Pachyderm.

As Guildpact approaches, I am very interested in the further development of Red Deck Wins (and Wins and Wins). Depending on how many vanilla bears you can stomach, Izzet Guildmage might go straight in. The smart-and-a-little-crazy version is, in a sense, less synergistic with the core Red Deck plan than Boros Guildmage, but allows the deck to move into new directions. Depending on how bad you are willing to make your deck fundamentally, Izzet Guildmage can provide at least two different infinite damage combinations. Otherwise? Maybe it’s good enough to just double a Volcanic Hammer. I think Pat would probably find some of the other rumored offensive cards satisfying as well.

I think that Red Deck Wins (and Wins and Wins) is a very good deck has gone without the spotlight for long enough. It is much better than it looks on paper, has game against a huge portion of the field, and completely squashes a ridiculous number of viable – if "cute" – opponents. Pat Sullivan is probably the most underrated designer in all the realms of Dominia, and I hope you try his latest variation on his favorite theme on MTGO as we wait for Guildpact to come online; I will certainly be running it in (probably more ill-fated) 8-Man Queues.