Food For Thought: Configuring Rakdos-Dimir

Mike presents a new Standard deck for us today, one that’s been through the wringer for a number of weeks. While it posts some fantastic results against a plethora of powerful metagame decks, it’s not quite there yet. It’s a pure blast to play… but can Mike and the forums find the perfect build in time to shake up the Standard scene? Read, discuss, enjoy!

For the most part I post "finished products," but The Editor (a.k.a. Scouseboy) thought that people would be interested in the process behind a Rakdos-Dimir deck that I have been working on the past couple of weeks. My suspicion is that he just wants everyone to be reminded of the repeated drubbings he has given me with his Paladin en-Vec plus Umezawa’s Jitte (off the top always, I assure you).

First, a little back story…

At Pro Tour: Charleston my team lost our 13th round match with Why Would You Do Zis?, the team of Johan Sadeghpour, Anton Jonsson, and Rich Hoaen (yes, this would be one of the most dangerous Limited teams in the history of the Pro Tour). I dealt Rich only his second or third loss of the tournament, but Anton’s deck had a tremendous advantage over Steve’s, and Paul’s deck was at best ill-suited to dealing with Johan’s over-the-top burn suite. Johan’s deck really surprised and impressed me, so after Charleston, I researched a bunch of the Charleston burn decks to see if I could put together their best elements for Standard.

Another burn deck that really impressed me from Charleston was Jin Okamoto’s. My team played Vanilla Ice on Day 1. Let me tell you, if you want to make sure you knock off the ring rust and are awake for the rest of the day, play against a team of Japanese players with multiple Sundays like Tsuyoshi Ikeda (2), Jin (2), and Akira Asahara (only 1, but it was at the most recent World Championship) say… second round (not counting their 15 or so Grand Prix elimination appearances). I screwed up against Asahara for two points around turn 4 of Game 1, but my deck (which was far more awesome than I was) took over and the match was quite short (I really didn’t want to lose by two points, if at all). Paul won because Tsuyoshi flashed me his hand C-to-opposing A and I shouted across the table to stop him from making a Savage Twister play that might have cost us the match (big cheats). Steve won his opening game against Jin via the perfectly sculpted Hellbent Demonfire with Jin representing lethal (that one is for you, Gadiel), but Okamoto played this awesome card that I hadn’t seen in a burn deck before and certainly didn’t test, Clutch of the Undercity. Despite the fact that he was playing a macro archetype we had ostensibly tuned Steve’s deck to beat, Jin took the next two games (also for you, Gadiel). With Clutch, Jin could disrupt Steve’s board development or just move a Firemane Angel out of Solifuge’s path.

If you think about it, Clutch of the Undercity is an awesome "burn" spell. We were at one point considering Cackling Flames, and Clutch is basically Cackling Flames, only it does something productive while controlling the board (particularly against Karoo). My first attempt at Standardizing Johan’s deck was a hybrid with Jin’s:

Studying this initial build can give you some nice insight on what I call "tuning the weird numbers." When you contrast with later versions, you can clearly see the influence that a Clutch of the Undercity toolbox brings to the deck. I definitely wanted to play Bottled Cloister (like Johan), and Clutch gave me the option without actually having to play four copies as he did.

This version was okay. I remember dealing a perfect 20 with no cards left in hand against The Editor the first night of testing, which included Clutch of the Undercity versus a Saproling Token (which allowed my Giant Solifuge to live for a turn); the following turn was Solifuge to the face, trading with a token this time (but for value), and a finale of Rise on Yosei and Solifuge for the last four points while Craig was tapped out. My Solifuge may or may not have dealt 15 points that game. My joy at the perfectly sculpted games evaporated quickly when he started playing Paladin en-Vec and equipping Umezawa’s Jitte to it in the subsequent sideboarded duels.

Ultimately, I abandoned this version of Rakdos-Dimir as having too inconsistent a Dimir element. I had serious problems hitting UU for Clutch of the Undercity when it was the only card I had to fight Umezawa’s Jitte, so I often had to run it as a telegraphing Tutor, which could be good or awful (or, I suppose, passable). I really like splashing two colors on Karoos and Signets, but in this case it wasn’t workable because Clutch of the Undercity – the spell, not the Transmute in the abstract – was too difficult a cast.

The sideboard was never quite right in this version. I was very excited about playing Ribbons of Night but I had massive holes in the initial structure, viz. a Paladin en-Vec wearing Umezawa’s Jitte ("the best combo in Type II" according to Tsuyoshi [Fujita]), and no real way out of that problem. I probably should have had one Hidetsugu’s Second Rite somewhere… It would have been an "easy win" component, which is something Fujita has been teaching me to include in my aggressive decks.

The next version of the deck, which is the version I have spent the most time playing, went straight B/R in kind of a backlash against the initial version’s color limitations:

Easing up on the number of colors gave me space to play Ghost Quarter, and this build dates back to the initial days of my Ghost Quarter phase (around "Vore: Still Awesome" and "The Next Step in Steam Vents"), which is where the Quarters come from. I really liked this version of the deck, and for a while flirted with taking out all the copies of Rise / Fall for Volcanic Hammers (but Chapin quickly cured me of that).

It was during this development period that I really started to learn about what kinds of decks the deck was good against, and what kind of decks it didn’t want to face. Basically, the archetype is strong against ‘Tron (wow those Ghost Quarter) and Heartbeat (Quarters are fine there, too), and less great against creatures. The updated sideboard was a result of wanting to not lose to Paladin plus Jitte. You have to sequence Hideous Laughter into Hit / Run (with Smash redundancy) but it isn’t pretty, and it doesn’t even work if the opponent has some sort of terrible Glorious Anthem deck (obviously I hadn’t seen the French Top 8 decks at this point). If you know anything about how I sideboard today versus in 1997 or so, you know I absolutely hate reactive cards and it pains me to play more than two total dedicated enchantment / artifact destruction cards in my sideboard… but there they were.

If you play this deck at all, you will likely find it to be fun and addictive if not "the best" deck. I started a run where I was "winning more tournaments than I lost matches" on MTGO with White Wafo-Tapa and to a lesser extent Vore, and yet all I wanted to do was game with Rakdos-Dimir in the Tournament Practice Room. Part of that addictive nature comes from Bottled Cloister. This is a powerful card that is underplayed. And yes, sometimes it buggers you unexpectedly like a bad surprise in the shadowy corners of the wrong bar… not that I‘d know or anything.

Without bogging you down too much with every iteration of the deck, I will just move to the most recent version, which is an amalgam of efforts from myself (against cobbled primarily from Johan’s PT deck), Pat Chapin, Jon Becker, and Julian Levin, the N’Sync Intern, a.k.a. Mother Superior:

Rakdos Signet:
When Chapin started sending me Rakdos primers early on in Dissension (Chapin makes more decks than I do), he had a whole 50% of potential Rakdos decks that had this card. Admittedly he was going for third turn Pit-Dragons, but I was skeptical. Eventually he was playing Boros Signets in the burn / bigger spell versions (that had, um, Skeletal Vampire) and I wasn’t skeptical any more… No reason why a deck can’t play the right mana accelerator is there?

Phyrexian Arena:
Julian insisted that I move from Bottled Cloister to Phyrexian Arena. I don’t ever actually lose any games to Arena life loss that I wouldn’t have lost to getting my face smashed anyway, so I don’t know why this change rubs me the wrong way. "The Arena turn" (turn 3 Arena off Rakdos Signet, followed by Rakdos Carnarium) is almost Compulsive Research-like in this deck, and that is infinitely better than the same Bottled Cloister turn where I might either have to take two or not be able to run third turn engine due to having Karoo for my third land. Still, I don’t like Phyrexian Arena and you can’t make me… But I’ll play it because it’s right. Probably the deck can afford some number of Cloisters in the sideboard, but they would only be good against B/W.

Giant Solifuge
It’s like two Shocks… Except when it’s like four Shocks. Did I tell the story about the time I dealt Craig 15 with one Solifuge yet? I think it’s a few paragraphs up.

Hit / Run
One of the main reasons to play this kind of a deck is to play this card. I think that, sadly, some people don’t understand how this works. They think a Signet is "Simic Sky Swallower protection." I GUESS that’s how it works sometimes, but more often, you get a kind of insane Molten Rain that occurs at instant speed and ALSO leeches two mana from a deck slower than you. Forget about the times that you mise a Jitte or offer the opponent some kind of horrendous choice. This card is a miser. It’s quite bad against some strategies, but for every one hundred stranded Hits, you get that one game where you timed it right and the opponent with mana has to sacrifice his Meloku and take five. Wow. I love Magic: The Gathering.

Rise / Fall
It turns out that while the deck, sadly, cannot reliably accommodate Clutch of the Undercity, it has just enough Blue to hit Rise exactly when you want Rise. Usually Rise is an endgame play that steals mana and sets up a nigh-lethal Solifuge. Pat says not to play Fall on the second turn, but I find myself making this "bad" play with increasing regularity (especially when I have multiple copies of Rise / Fall… like three).

I actually side this out a disturbing amount of the time. Still, it’s like three Shocks, which is good. It would be GREAT, but one of the Shocks is always aimed at you.

By a mile, this is the best card in the deck. I win 80% of my games on one or two Hellbent Demonfires (even games where I Demonfire Maher on the second turn or something). That is why Arena (and previously Bottled Cloister) is so vital to the deck. Does that make sense? You need to go deep in your deck and set up the ten-plus card Demonfires. They are Hellbent because along the way you are spending mana efficient burn turns or laying Signets anyway.

Seal of Fire
This card is really good when you are on the draw. I side it out a fair amount of the time against power decks (Tron, Heartbeat, etc.), but it is obviously one of the highlights of the color combination.

Volcanic Hammer
I ultimately decided the right cut was Rakdos Guildmage rather than Rise / Fall. A lot of the time Rakdos Guildmage is just six mana for a Shock, and they Faith’s Fetters it anyway. Volcanic Hammer is just better most of the time, especially against decks with Kird Apes and other creatures that out-class a 2/2. Volcanic Hammer is quite good. It helps a ton against the decks that are hard to beat – the ones with Kird Ape and second turn 3/3 beaters – because what you want is time to set up and start playing trumps.

Pithing Needle
Becker wanted me to play four copies maindeck. Yeah, I’m really going to do that. These do zero damage. However, I think they are an okay compromise for someone who doesn’t want to play four Smashes. I randomly bring them in against Greater Good, Circle of Protection: Red, & co. Actually I play Greater Good a disturbing amount of the time considering it hasn’t won a relevant match since Worlds 2005, and I actually really want to draw Needle in that matchup (this is me thinking out loud at this point so go ahead and move on to the next card). Maybe Becker is right?

Hideous Laughter
I had to cut something to fit all the cards I wanted, so I cut one of these. I justified the change because I was adding Wrecking Ball, which is also a four mana defensive instant that can kill creatures – okay, creature. This thing is still here – in lieu of Pyroclasm – to kill Paladins.

Ribbons of Night
Yay! It’s back! It turns out that on top of being able to play Rise, the deck has exactly enough Blue to kick Ribbons of Nightmost of the time. This card is needed more than ever with the change to Arenas because you have to cut your Game 1 draw engine against Zoo, et al for fear of giving them half-Shocks at essentially the same rate you draw them (seeing that the deck is 28/60 mana). That said, Ribbons of Night is basically a Tidings against beatdown. You get their guy (1), draw a card (2), and pick up two point five Shocks (4.5) for five mana. I equate the post-sideboard swap to 1999 Standard when Randy switched from Magpile to Buehler Blue for Worlds, and edt stated that the advantage he got out of the format by not having to tap on his own turn for Thieving Magpie was essentially via his paradigm shift (in that case on essentially the same turn) to a Dismiss– rather than Magpie-driven primary card advantage mechanism. In sum, I’d play eight copies, but they won’t let me.

Wrecking Ball
These replaced Cranial Extraction when I realized that I kept Extracting Zombify out of Solar Flare, and that I was siding idiotic Cranial Extraction in all kinds of matchups where I have no idea if they were even good. Wrecking Ball gives the deck a bit more defense against creatures, which it needs, and doubles as insane percentage against Tron. Wrecking Ball plus Hit / Run plus awesome burn cards equals a solid game plan against the top (previous top?) MTGO deck. It’s possible that if people insist on playing Sky Hussar that Cranial Extraction or Nightmare Void will have to return. Nightmare Void, poor Nightmare Void… What did you do to anyone? Why won’t anyone play you?

Refer to article.

Primer Section

Good Matchups

U/W Control, et al
We might as well start with the easiest matchups. U/W Control, viz. White Wafo-Tapa… There ain’t nothing easier to beat. I don’t actually think they have a chance. They have so few ways to win, and you have so many copies of Hit / Run glutting your hand in a long game. Ultimately it will come down to your Demonfires. The onus is on you to play properly because you will win if you don’t mismanage your hand. You play a methodical game going long, but you are essentially the beatdown, so don’t be afraid to spend cards, even if they seem controllish in most situations. The goal is to get your finisher Hellbent, and you aren’t going to get there unless you start on the road of good intentions.

I wouldn’t sideboard very heavily in this matchup, but I would always bring in my Needles. Remove two burn spells. I’d say Seal of Fire, but Seal of Fire is so good on the draw when you have Carnarium as your second land, I hesitate. Another option is to remove – gaspGiant Solifuge for two Needles and two Wrecking Balls (or some sort of ponderous hand destruction if you are going that way). U/W has to respect your Solifuges, and Solifuge / Rise combination in a long game, so you can really murder them with this swap, even though your net card power goes down.

These games only go one of two ways. Either they combo you out quickly and you have no resistance (read: not enough burn), or you win. If the opponent runs one of those "I’ll win next turn" pre-critical mass Heartbeat of Spring turns, you basically win 100% of the time ("Here’s my hand, brah"). You can also hold Hit / Run – or multiple copies of Hit / Run – for the long long game, assuming they go for the Maga kill. I’ve never actually accomplished this on MTGO because it usually doesn’t go that long, but the one time I tried he had the Invoke kill and, um, slew me and my two copies of Hit / Run (what a bad beat); however, I assume the way it works is that he casts Maga and Maga has mana cost 40 or something, and you Hit him before the nasty 187 trigger resolves. Possibly this is wrong and some judge will comment as such in the forums, making me look foolish (quite winnable matchup even if you don’t mash the Maga).

Sideboarding is somewhat subjective. For instance, Giant Solifuge is kold to a Carven Caryatid, and that’s not really a fight you want to get into in a match that favors them as time progresses (although I have won many times on Hit / Run and even Rise / Fall to the Caryatid). I bring in Needles but always feel dirty doing so. I get less of the dirty feeling from Wrecking Balls, which, when placed correctly, really destroy the tempo of a game. As with most matchups, you can only cut burn spells, but don’t cut Demonfire, because that is how you win. Seal of Fire is pretty irrelevant in this matchup unless they are transforming (Kudzu), and Volcanic Hammer is the next to go if you are leaving in Solifuges.

I like this matchup because sometimes you can destroy every relevant permanent on the other side of the table and then Demonfire them (take that, dirty Demonfire-winning ‘Tron deck!), and it’s like Dan Paskins idea of Goblin heaven (I mean the Blue and Black cards wouldn’t be invited, except maybe for the Split and / or Gold cards, but you get the idea).

I will side Wrecking Ball for Seal of Fire, but sometimes you have to be wary of your own life total, so I move Char around if I get the feeling the next game is going to be about damage (they have a lot of Electrolyzes or show you multiple different burn spells). I don’t know that the Rakdos-Dimir deck is a massive favorite or anything, but this feels like a matchup I would not mind playing all day, if that makes any sense.

Creature Decks

Red Beatdown, viz. Heezy Street and Zoo
These decks are venom. In Game 1, you tend to lose if you lose the flip. You tend to be fine if you can manage their beatdown with your burn spells by going first, viz. you can Volcanic Hammer Watchwolf before it tags you for three, but when they have the initiative, you quickly become subject to a slippery slope of inevitability. The problem is that even as you move to stabilize in the middle turns, your life total will tend to be less than they can deal with any kind of a reasonable set of their own Solifuges and burn spells. Also you have to play Arena sometimes, and it sucks.

Both maindeck and sideboarded games are contingent to some degree on mana development. If you miss your Signets and you can’t hit your costs, you are going to lose. I know this seems obvious for any deck or matchup, but when you consider the relative damage curves of both decks – your ability to race with a Demonfire or two versus their ability to punish your missteps in the early turns – the damage factor really does bear strategic mention.

I bring in Ribbons, Wrecking Ball, and sometimes Hideous Laughter depending on their version (Selesnya Guildmage may prompt it); obviously you want to side Hideous Laughter against Boros. Arena leaves, as does – perhaps surprisingly – Char most of the time. Char is an interesting card. It kills most threats, but almost always concedes tempo. The bigger deal is the two damage coming the other way. Did I mention I would play eight Ribbons of Night?

B/W Decks (beatdown, but including B/W control)
A lot of my testing against B/W decks was with the previous versions, which dawns on me now that I am about to make this statement: They can’t destroy your Bottled Cloister. Ingenius, right? I don’t find B/W decks particularly difficult to beat. They play creatures, you kill those creatures. Usually they’re doing nothing productive at all – certainly not slamming you with Solifuges and Rumbling Slums or second turn Hill Giants off of first turn earbud-wearing Hurloon Minotaurs – and you can race easily. The only difficult – if indeed "difficult" is the right term – matrices revolve around whether or not you want to let Maher live. Sometimes it is very bad to let Maher live, sometimes it makes winning academic.

The control B/W decks are just miserable, worse than the U/W decks maybe. Whenever I play one of those, it’s like they don’t do anything. Even when I get Persecuted I don’t care if I have a draw engine. Sometimes the top of my deck is enough. Speaking of this kind of opponent on a macro level, I was quite surprised by how good the Rakdos-Dimir is against The Masterpiece, which has good finishers and eight life gain main. Rakdos-Dimir is a heavy favorite, which seems odd to me. Have you ever Hit a Loxodon and his master to death with the four life on the stack? Simic Sky Swallower is sexier, but there seems to be more of a sense of accomplishment when you run it against a Hierarch.

Bad Matchups

Solar Flare
It’s odd given how good the deck is against U/W, B/W, and The Masterpiece that it would be terrible against Solar Flare… but I never win basically. I think it’s because they play third turn Persecute for Red like every time, and then follow up with a reasonable card draw, and then some kind of 5/5, and I have nothing, certainly no hand. B/W control for some reason never makes this kind of scary play… So much less proactive. Maybe it’s because they don’t have eight Hussars and Researches setting up their offensive game plan, or three Remands for every Solifuge? One can only assume.

I’d talk about sideboarding, but seeing as how I never win, it would probably only hurt you.

I showed Patrick Sullivan this deck because he likes Red Decks, and all he had to say was "I can’t see how you would beat Vore, ever." I was actually winning a fair amount against Vore with the Cranial Extraction version (they tap for Research and you have the Signet? Good game!), but Vore is an uphill battle. Unlike ‘Tron, they can murder your board position. Also they have all kinds of cards you care about, and can kill in a two- or even one-turn window. Oddly, a lot of games develop such that they haven’t wrecked you, and neither of you are doing anything, but you’re starting to glut on Hit / Run. This is problematic because your game plan is to set up the death Demonfire, and Hit / Run in hand is anathema. Why won’t he play a stupid Magnivore? When you start firing Hit / Runs end step to manage your hand and set up the kill card, you will inevitably draw a non-land card (usually the fourth Hit / Run) that ruins your kill turn anyway, and then the bastard will get you with a 13/13.

I have therefore decided to cut most or all the Hit / Runs, even though they seem like they would be good, and win you Game 1 a fair amount of the time, for Wrecking Balls, or if you have them, Cranial Extractions; sticking an Extraction is almost the same as a win in this matchup. Unlike Solar Flare, Vore is winnable, if difficult. If you hit your Arena, you may have a better chance than you may think.


Usually I try to figure out a format and build according to how I can best exploit its inefficiencies (this is why I gravitate so much towards "fair" decks with specialized mid-game strategies). The Rakdos-Dimir, and the infectious joy that playing it brings win or – too often, for my liking, lose – is about as close as I come to top-down deck design.

As I said in the beginning section, this deck is not what I would consider a finished product, though I think the style has a great deal of potential (did I mention it’s fun to play?). I’ve actually started moving towards a more controlling version similar to the one Pat Chapin has up today. Pat and his unwavering affection for Rise / Fall were to great degree the spiritual genesis for this deck and the pre-Rome.dec build I talked about in "Vore: Still Awesome." It is in the spirit of Pat’s conclusions that I am soliciting input the way he does at the end of all his articles.

So… Any ideas on how to make this okay germ of a deck great?

Thanks for reading, and any input in the forums.