Food For Thought: Black/Red Haakon

If this were one of my typical articles, this whole discussion would simply have been an elaborate bridge into a Haakon, Stromgald Scourge/Ashes of the Fallen/Hounds deck. As it is, however, the bridge is lacking, and we’re left with something merely elaborate. But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart.


To the typical Magic player, the name evokes power, ruthlessness, and rotting flesh! To 2,184 Norwegian men, the name evokes feelings of envy toward those lucky enough to be named Robbie or — I mean, this is Norway after all — Sander. So long as we’re denigrating Norwegians (Okay, so long as I’m denigrating Norwegians), it’s worth noting that Haakon — though once a strong, vibrant title in this untamed land — is now a full ten times less popular than Terje, a name which, interestingly enough, has the same pronunciation in Danish as terrier. As in the dog.

Quo vadis?

Now, if this were one of my typical articles, this whole discussion would simply have been an elaborate bridge into a Haakon, Stromgald Scourge/Ashes of the Fallen/Hounds deck. As it is, however, the bridge is lacking, and we’re left with something merely elaborate. But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart.

Contrary to all appearances, this article does, indeed, involve Haakon, Stromgald Scourge. The trouble is, unlike, say, Stampeding Wildebeests, everyone is already talking about good, old Haakon. Pat Chapin, for example, just recently wrote a winky-tickling little number on everyone’s favorite Zombie Knight, and I agree that a U/B deck probably is best suited to use Haakon. Since I feel this way, I’m willing to put a lot of time into testing that sort of deck. For now, however, while Coldsnap still has an aroma of freshness to it, if I want to talk about Haakon, I’ll have to do so in what may well be a sub-par context.

You know, there’s something strange about Haakon. Excepting dicey, fragile Ashes of the Fallen shenanigans, there just aren’t any immediately obvious uses for him in Standard. Sure, you could throw together a W/B Haakon deck and go to town. Heck, Paladin En-Vec, White Shield Crusader, and Leonin Skyhunter all have double-White mana costs, but you were counting on WWBB for that turn 4 Ghost Council of Orzhova anyway. The trouble is, even notwithstanding the mana issues, this strategy looks so insanely underpowered that we’re left wondering what, precisely, the deck is meant to do once an opponent has cast anything with toughness greater than three. Wrath of God plus Haakon may be every astronaut’s wet dream, but you’re still playing imperfect beaters in a deck that needs to be diluted with discard outlets. Having said this, I’m sure that I’ll someday be crushed by the sheer synergy of a W/B Haakon deck. The fact is though, when I think of a non-U/B, non-W/B Haakon deck, I think of B/R.

Let’s get something straight: Red has no knights at the moment, and although Time Spiral may offer us more sweets than that hairy guy standing at the corner outside the liquor store, right now the only playable Black knights are Stromgald Crusader and Mr. Haakey-Pankey himself. This means that a B/R Haakon deck isn’t going to be based on Haakon. Haakon may be synergistic with the rest of the deck, but he won’t be able to carry the whole darned thing on his broad, rotting shoulders. From this perspective, we have to look at Haakon as a graveyard-shy 3/3 creature for three mana that takes a bit of effort to get going. I’ve seen it noted before that three mana 3/3s are hardly tearing up Standard at the moment, yet comparisons to Gnarled Mass aren’t really apt since a dead Gnarled Mass only rarely ceases to be dead and stands, thus, in a neutral relation to Hellbent.

Now, when I say Hellbent, I don’t truly mean the mechanic. I mean all of those Rakdos cards that require you to discard… spells like Rakdos Augermage, Rakdos Guildmage, and Avatar of Discord. Demonfire, Infernal Tutor, and Cackling Flames are great, but they have no place in most Aggro decks, and the only competitively-costed Hellbented creatures are Gobhobbler Rats, Rakdos Pit Dragon, and Jagged Poppet. If you happen to be running some creatures with Hellbent alongside, say, Rakdos Guildmage, it’s just another heap of icing on that cake of yours. In this context, Haakon and his crusading friend really shine: they’re not “broken” by any means, but recurring Knights that don’t lead to card disadvantage when discarded in the service of some super-powerful effect are more solid than those cookies you’ve had stored in the tin since last Christmas.

So, assuming that we’re primarily using Haakon and Stromgald Crusader as an excuse for running cards that might otherwise be disadvantageous, let’s see what sorts of disadvantageous spells are on offer:

Avatar of Discord: The king of card disadvantage. Typically, this little number will either win or lose the game for you very quickly. If you manage to discard Haakon to its comes-into-play effect, you’re liable to feel a bit smug. However, the important thing to remember with Haakon is that, if you’re running four copies, he’ll only be in your opening hand a little less than half of the time. Avatar of Discord is such a high-risk creature that you’ll only want to run it if you have other reasons to empty our hand.

Rakdos Guildmage: Discarding a Knight to the Guildmage is merely a one-off semi-free activation, and the Guildmage’s ability is too slow to empty one’s hand early in the game. Still, it’s a fine aggressive creature that can act as removal later on. I have a feeling that, since Rakdos Guildmage is already so popular, I’m just stating the obvious here. So I’ll stop.

Rakdos Augermage: The sadist with the goggles hasn’t seen much play, despite being both a rather efficient attacker and a nightmare for Control. If you’re aiming for Hellbent, have already played out stronger creatures than your opponent has on the table, or have a Knight in hand, the Augermage’s ability is relevant against just about any deck. Even Zoo and Gruul are likely to have a cards in hand for which you’d gladly trade your final cards.

Delirium Skeins: You never want to play Delirium Skeins if you have more than one non-Knight card in hand. Maybe it could be useful out of the sideboard against Control, but there’s a reason why this particular discard spell/Hellbent-enabler isn’t seeing play. That reason is that it costs three mana. The three-mana slot is totally gridlocked in Rakdos, featuring Rakdos Augermage; Avatar of Discord; Lyzolda, the Blood Witch; Hypnotic Specter; Jagged Poppet; and in our case, Haakon.

Rakdos Augermage can be fairly said to benefit from your having an empty hand, so it’s already a sort of honorary member of the Hellbent Club. What about those other Hellbent creatures we mentioned before?

Gobhobbler Rats: Clearly, a 3/2 regenerator for two mana is a great deal, and even a 2/2 isn’t all that bad in B/R. Still, one every other non-one-drop we’re looking at playing has the possibility of being an absolute game-breaker, so the Rats fail to overwhelm. You’d usually prefer the Rats to Stromgald Crusader, even if you have Haakon on the board, but unlike the Knight, the Rats don’t ease the pain of discard.

Jagged Poppet: Like Avatar of Discord, Jagged Poppet has the potential to backfire. It is, however, a far better topdeck and an absolute monster when Hellbent. The question is, how dangerous is its drawback? Obviously, you won’t attack with Jagged Poppet until you’re either Hellbent, have the opportunity to go Hellbent mid-combat, or feel there’s a good chance that the Ogre will go unblocked. Since you’re unlikely to be attacking with it prior to turn 4, it’s very likely that — except against Zoo or Gruul — your current board position will be better than your opponent’s and your opponent’s hand will be stronger than your own. The only really disastrous thing that can happen is that your Poppet meets a Char. Shock and Volcanic Hammer are irritating, but the pay-off for the Poppet’s dealing damage will nearly always be higher than the cost. Many opponents will simply chump block the fellow, and considering the sorts of things (Hypnotic Specter, Rakdos Augermage, endless Haakon fun) you’re likely to be doing concurrently, the balance of power will usually be on your side. It’s tempting to build a Hellbent/discard deck with a very low curve, hoping to just flood the board, but this seems counterproductive. Your opponent can play creatures like Kird Ape; Isamaru, Hound of Konda; and even the dreaded Carven Caryatid which will stop that sort of deck cold, but if you load-up on powerful three-drops (most of which are better than the available four-drops), then the aforementioned creatures are less of a problem. Against most sorts of defence, a single 3/4 is superior to three 1/1s if neither player has any cards in hand. The point is, cards like Jagged Poppet, Avatar of Discord, and Rakdos Augermage may cause you to discard one another, but the only reasons you’re running so many three-drops in the first place is to ensure that you always have power plays before the fundamental turn 4 attack/activation stage (when the first of your three-drops is typically getting down to business) and that you have in-game flexibility. You shouldn’t feel guilty about discarding a Hypnotic Specter, Avatar, or Poppet; that’s what they’re there for, and you don’t need all of them.

Rakdos Pit Dragon: When you’re Hellbent, it’s huge, and it’s a great topdeck. There’s not much to say about a beast with no drawbacks. Nevertheless, I’m more interested in the moment at a B/R deck that doesn’t know the meaning of “four mana.”

Other options for the deck include:

Dread Slag: There are a few advantages to Dread Slag over Rakdos Pit Dragon: It’s easier on the mana in a deck that wants to be heavily Black; it makes Sickening Shoal two Xs larger than any other card you’re considering playing; and it’s usually bigger than the Dragon, which is more prone to removal and needs two activations before it can overtake Dread Slag in the damage-dealing department. On the other hand, Dread Slag still costs more mana overall, is yet another creature in the deck which cries at the sight of bounce, and makes running Dark Confidant very stupid indeed.

Seal of Fire: This falls under the category of Trying to Reach Hellbent / Use Augermage without Drawbacks. Sometimes, Seal of Fire will be able to remove that blocker which is making funny faces at Jagged Poppet, but besides Dark Confidant, there are very few creatures with two or fewer toughness which Seal of Fire can kill and which you have to worry about in Standard at the moment. If Dark Confidant is your fear, then you’re better off running Frostling instead. The primary problem with the plan of emptying your hand fast is that it only works if you’re running a good number of very cheap spells. You clearly need some one-drops, but Seal of Fire may not be the best option.

Plagued Rusalka: This one-drop is a different story altogether. It can remove a nettlesome Dark Confidant on either side of the board, halt Faith’s Fetters’ lifegain, and — if you happen to have mana open at the time — can snatch a Jagged Poppet out of Char’s way. Some players will be tempted to use Scorched Rusalka, a more aggressive and color-friendly (you’ll be tapping your Black mana more frequently than your Red) alternative, and I can’t really argue with this. It simply seems to me that a deck that plans on using Jagged Poppet and Avatar of Discord would rather have the creature that can take away blockers. Both Rusalkas, by the way, are nice in the late-game with Haakon plus Stromgald Crusader, with emphasis on the Crusader.

Wild Cantor: Wild Cantor both empties your hand and permits your broken draws. The card disadvantage of sacrificing Wild Cantor may be worth a tremor-inducing turn 2 Hypnotic Specter, Avatar of Discord, or Rakdos Augermage. Hypnotic Specter has not performed as well as some expected in the current Standard environment, and as it is not terribly aggressive, it should only be played if you’re also playing Wild Cantor. Turn 2 Jagged Poppet will not generally be the best move unless your hand is stuffed with Knights. The riskiest move in the game is, of course, the turn 2 Avatar, who is practically begging to be four-for-one’d. With this in mind, I’d never run the early Avatar out blind (unless you have Haakon, etc.), but if you know your opponent’s relevant removal comes online at four mana, it might be worthwhile, especially if you’re playing first and/or have a means of causing later discard. All I can say is that if you’re brave enough to try it, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Dark Confidant: It might seem counter intuitive to be running Byggemand Bob in a Hellbent deck, but besides Jagged Poppet, there aren’t any cards we’re considering playing which are actually harmed by Dark Confidant’s presence. Avatar of Discord and Rakdos Guildmage both want more cards, and Rakdos Augermage will appreciate better card selection even if you’re unable to cast more than one spell a turn. If, as I think is best, your curve tops out at three mana, Dark Confidant won’t even be all that painful. There is no superior way of recouping your self-inflicted card disadvantage.

Umezawa’s Jitte: No comment.

Hand of Cruelty: While this would be great against Gruul, Zoo, and Paladin decks, it does not add to B/R Haakon’s focus. Jitte, Confidant, Guildmage, and Crusader are all ahead of the Samurai in the two-slot queue.

Last Gasp: This may sound awful, but removal spells that cost mana fit poorly into our plan. Seal of Fire may even be superior.

Sickening Shoal: Yet more card disadvantage for those who just can’t get enough. Sickening Shoal is practically a combo with Jagged Poppet, requiring your opponent to leave up multiple blockers if you have two cards in hand. Like any other spell in this deck, if you find you can’t use the Shoal, you can always pitch it to an Avatar. Creatures like Avatar of Discord and Rakdos Augermage are strong enough that it’s worthwhile to put a card in your deck that’s only terribly useful on turn 4.

Hypnotic Specter: This guy isn’t all that hot in context without Wild Cantor. Still, it opens you up for free wins every so often and should be sided-in against Control.

Hit/Run: If you were running more removal and fewer three-drops, sure.

Rise/Fall: There’s a bit of a problem here. Fall, already a great spell, only gets better with Hypnotic Specter and Rakdos Augermage. Unfortunately, on turn 2, Fall has not yet peaked, and on turn 5, you’ll no longer have it in your hand.

Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace: Although there are plenty of things cards like Rakdos Guildmage and Stromgald Crusader can do with your mana, you’d prefer to play three lands and then never draw a land again. Rix Maadi uses four mana in all. Add to this the fact that the mana costs in the deck I’ll present below include a total of just twenty colorless mana, and Rix Maadi is not a good option.

Rakdos Carnarium: I actually feel that a Karoo would be great in this kind of deck, despite Jagged Poppet. Unfortunately, when our curve tops at three, we don’t want to run too many lands, and we never want a Karoo except as our fourth land anyway.

Rakdos Signet: See above. We never need to accelerate to four.

Rakdos the Defiler: If there was ever a deck that could afford to sacrifice permanents, this is it! Just imagine… you have three Knights on the table and attack with Rakdos! All of a—. Oh, forget it.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been spending more effort on U/B Haakon than on the B/R version, so my testing, while up to some people’s snuffs, certainly won’t be up to others’.

Match-Up Analyses

Zoo and Gruul: These two decks play somewhat different games, but your strategy against them is pretty much the same. You want to hit hard, hopefully not needing to risk everything on an Avatar of Discord. Gruul packs more burn in general, but Zoo might have more relevant burn in the form of Lightning Helix, Char, and perhaps Volcanic Hammer, all of which kill Avatars. Your one- and two-drops don’t exactly trade with Kird Ape or Watchwolf, but Rakdos Augermage, Jagged Poppet, and Haakon all have some sort of advantage over your opponent’s later creatures. After sideboarding, the Rats can help hold down the fort, and Manriki-Gusari could help give you Jitte advantage. You are at a disadvantage.

Sideboarding: -4 Avatar of Discord, -2 Stromgald Crusader, +3 Gobhobbler Rats, +2 Manriki-Gusari, +1 Rakdos Augermage.

Ghost Husk: Mortify and Shining Shoal are the real enemies here, since you’ll be placing much of your hope on Avatar of Discord. Even though Stromgald Crusader dies to Orzhov Pontiff, it will be useful as a flyer and a means of blocking Ghost Council of Orzhova. Ghost Husk’s lack of direct damage makes Jagged Poppet a safe bet, even if it can’t rustle with the Council or Nantuko Husk. Your position in this match-up is very dependent on your opponent’s build but will usually be unfavorable.

Sideboarding: None.

Snakes: Jagged Poppet will do very little here except help your other attackers break through. Avatar of Discord is a real problem for your opponent, as only Patagia Viper can stop it. You’re in trouble if Coat of Arms or Seshiro, the Anointed show up, but hopefully, Rakdos Augermage and Hypnotic Specter out of the sideboard will help disrupt this plan. Spell Snare, it must be noted, does very little against your deck, yet because you rely on aggression, you’ll need to risk being countered by Remand, Mana Leak, and friends. An even match-up, turning to favorable if you get out an Avatar.

Sideboarding: -3 Stromgald Crusader, -2 Haakon, -2 Sickening Shoal, +4 Hypnotic Specter, +2 Manriki-Gusari.

Solar Flare: Here, your disruption helps. There’s always the possibility that you’ll help your opponent discard a zombifiable Dragon or Angel, but the odds are on your side. Your opponent’s lack of early-game creatures helps Jagged Poppet hit though counterspells could put you hazardously behind on tempo. A slightly favorable match-up.

Sideboarding: -4 Sickening Shoal, -1 Rakdos Guildmage, -2 Plagued Rusalka, +2 Delirium Skeins, +1 Rakdos Augermage, +4 Hypnotic Specter.

Heartbeat: You’re definitely slowing your tempo while sideboarding, but it’s worth the sacrifice in order to bring in an extra nine sources of discard. Favorable.

Sideboarding: -2 Plagued Rusalka, -4 Sickening Shoal, -3 Stromgald Crusader, -2 Haakon, +4 Hypnotic Specter, +4 Delirium Skeins, +1 Rakdos Augermage.

General Analysis

I’m not happy with Delirium Skeins in the sideboard; they definitely need to go. In fact, the sideboard in general needs work. Haakon, meanwhile, performs well against both Aggro and Control, but considering that Rakdos Augermage also performs well across the board without being legendary, it might be best to add an extra Augermage to the maindeck in place of Haakon.

There are times when B/R Haakon wins more quickly than either Gruul or Zoo, but it is usually the other Aggro decks that come out quickly. Its advantage over these decks is that, in some metagames, its exceptional discard package makes things hard for Control, which seems to get faster by the day. That Solar Flare is now around, and really heavy Blue Control decks aren’t having much success, is definitely good for this sort of strategy. I would never go so far as to say that the above, not-remarkably-tested deck is a universally a better choice than any of the more established Aggro decks, much less than any of the established decks in general. The upcoming Standard rotation is not that harmful to B/R Haakon, as it removes only Jitte and Sickening Shoal. Sickening Shoal is, admittedly, a great card here, but Jitte is not that impressive when played on turn 2, and without the threat of opposing Jittes in the future, the deck may well be better off without them anyway. It is possible that Time Spiral will add some juicy, new Black Knights to the mix. It should be clear enough that the only reason Stromgald Crusader is around is for Haakon’s sake.

A final note on Haakon: the desire to break this card might make us forget that it is, if nothing else, an excellent creature all on its own. I could imagine both Aggro and Control decks with a heavy Black component wanting to run Haakon as a one- or two-of that supplements a deeper well of slightly inferior options.


Adam Grydehøj
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