Hunka Hunka Burning Love

Three-time SCG Open winner Chris VanMeter tells you what he learned about Big Red and G/R Aggro while testing Standard last week. Get ideas for your next event!

Well, it’s over.

The Standard PTQ season for Pro Tour Theros has come to an end. I went into this past weekend with high hopes that I would do well at the double PTQ weekend. I had done well with the G/R Aggro deck in Knoxville, had spent time testing, and felt like I was fairly prepared for the field. Ultimately, I bricked just about as hard as I did all weekend with my Domri Rade +1s.

Brian Kibler G/R Aggro deck took the Standard format by storm, and it’s a shame that it came with only a few weeks remaining in the PTQ season. We still have StarCityGames.com Opens and FNMs, but soon focus will shift on M14 Sealed followed by Theros Sealed for those of us who want to try to quality for Pro Tour Born of the Gods. But I want to talk about something a little different.

I’ve got a fire burning and a lovely lady to keep it aflame.

I was wrong about Chandra, Pyromaster. I misevaluated her 0 loyalty ability and claimed that she was miserable and not worth the crack-laced cardboard she was printed on. To be fair, crack is expensive, and the comment was still correct—in context.

At the end of last week, I’d spent some time on my friend’s stream (Joseph Naseef), where he was playing with a Big Red deck similar to the one that had recently placed in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Calgary. I really liked the deck and thought that it looked very powerful and could be a lot of fun; it even had big daddy Thundermaw Hellkite. The one thing that I hated about the deck was that the Hellriders seemed very out of place.

I knew about how awesome Chandra, Pyromaster was from testing with her in the sideboard of the G/R Aggro deck and immediately knew that I wanted to play her in the Hellrider slot. The next day at work as I was chatting with Brian Braun-Duin about the Standard format and what I had been working on with the G/R Aggro deck, he mentioned that he really liked the Big Red deck and had a list with Chandra, Pyromaster over Hellrider that he’d been playing around with.

I knew it. He always comes up with the same idea—usually first.

Here is the first rough draft of the Big Red deck that I played with on my stream last week.

The main idea behind the deck is that we get to "cheat" and play Burning Earth in the main to prey on the top two decks in the format, which at the time were U/W/R Flash and Jund. Burning Earth is an extremely powerful spell that neither of these two decks were aptly prepared to handle. We also got to play cheap removal spells in the form of Pillar of Flame and Searing Spear and Boros Reckoner to brickwall aggro decks. Thundermaw Hellkite does a great job at going over the top of everything (literally) and closing out games quickly.

Chandra’s Phoenix is a very interesting card in this deck, especially now that we have Chandra, Pyromaster herself to rebuy the Phoenix when it dies. Chandra’s Phoenix lets us pressure the control/midrange decks without losing card advantage when they use their removal spell on it. If they opt to not kill it, then it continues to chip away two damage at a time, getting the opponents low enough for a Thundermaw Hellkite Dragon strike.

You also can’t miracle a Bonfire of the Damned if they aren’t in your deck.

Chandra, Pyromaster fills the awesome role of board control and card advantage. She’s also an actual win condition, even though her ultimate isn’t "game over" like a Jace, the Mind Sculptor ultimate, but a lot of the games you’re utilizing her in are similar to how you’d be using Jace. A 0 loyalty ability that nets you a card is very powerful—much more so than I imagined. Her +1 ability can pick off the plethora of X/1s that are being played right now—Lifebane Zombie; Blood Artist; Arbor Elf; Thalia, Guardian of Thraben; Knight of Infamy; Knight of Glory—the list goes on and on. She can also augment a Bonfire of the Damned for two on turn 5 to kill a X/3.

I’ve been so impressed with Chandra, Pyromaster that I’m convinced that if there were a Mind Stone in the format, a deck like this would be a major contender.

Burning Earth is a card that’s slowly losing stock. Jund is starting to play Golgari Charms post-board, U/W/R Flash is beginning to play more Detention Spheres than usual, and I even got hit by a Wear // Tear last weekend. As we move forward, we may want to shift Burning Earth to the sideboard, but at that point we’d be playing this deck just for Chandra, Pyromaster; Boros Reckoner; and Thundermaw Hellkite and there might be a better deck with those cards.

My sideboard for the initial list was absolutely terrible, although I did put some thought into the cards. I wanted Hellrider against control decks, where it would be able to attack unimpeded most of the time. Similar to how haste creatures augment the +1 on Domri Rade exceptionally, they also do the same for Chandra, Pyromaster’s 0 loyalty ability. Skullcrack was to combat Thragtusk and Sphinx’s Revelation, as it was designed to do.

Zealous Conscripts was primarily meant to take Thragtusk and opposing Thundermaw Hellkites, but it also has some niche uses like taking a Ratchet Bomb to put it out of range of your important permanents or taking a Trading Post from a tapped-out opponent. Volcanic Strength was primarily for pushing damage through Boros Reckoner or making creatures bigger than what most burn can handle—neither of which is something this deck is worried about. Flames of the Firebrand was a holdover from the G/R Aggro sideboard, as I wanted something that I could use as a pseudo-wrath against Elves and Junk Aristocrat.

While playing the deck in this iteration, I noticed a couple things.

Playing four Mutavaults with 25 lands wasn’t right. I found that I had to cast Boros Reckoner on turn 3 against a lot of decks and was just unable to. In fact, there were multiple opening hands with two Mutavaults that I ended up having to mulligan because it was too risky to hope to runner-runner Mountains.

Brimstone Volley was the absolute worst. It’s nice to think that you might get to morbid it and kill a Thundermaw Hellkite, but our only one-mana removal spell just happens to exile the creature—not the combo-wombo we were looking for.

After I’d streamed for a few hours testing this list out, BBD shipped me the list with which he was tearing up eight-man queues. It was so much better than mine, and I loved it!

The card differences filled in a lot of holes and were just strictly better at what they were supposed to do than some of the choices I made.

Flames of the Firebrand as a pseudo-wrath over Rolling Temblor—come on buddy.

Playing a couple Shocks in the main was perfect. It allows us to further protect ourselves from early aggression and gave us another answer to a mana accelerant on turn 1. It also combines with a Searing Spear to kill a Thundermaw Hellkite, which is important.

Swapping a Mutavault for a Mountain was great as well since it instantly made the mana feel better. Being able to board up to 26 lands when we bring in more five-mana spells was perfect too. I also like going up to 26 lands in matchups in which we absolutely have to hit five mana and end the game soon. A good example of this is Craig Wescoe W/R Humans deck. It’s primarily Slayers’ Stronghold that forces us into this situation, where we end up taking control of the game at a little less than ten life but have to finish the game soon since every creature is a hasted +2-power threat.

Possibility Storm[/author]“][author name="Possibility Storm"]Possibility Storm[/author] is the BBD brainchild as far as I’m concerned. I’m sure there are others out there that play the card and love it, but it was BBD that talked me into using it as a way to combat U/W control decks. Turning off all of their Sphinx’s Revelations and counterspells is huge.

Ratchet Bomb is perfect out of the sideboard here too. It kills plenty of one- and two-drop creatures and also serves as a way to get rid of problem enchantments like Detention Sphere, Oblivion Ring, and Blind Obedience.

Thunderbolt is really cute because it kills Restoration Angel and Archangel of Thune and at worst serves as a Searing Spear, going up top for three damage when you flip it off a Possibility Storm[/author]“][author name="Possibility Storm"]Possibility Storm[/author].

I had this list going into the PTQs last weekend and even had the deck with me; however, after playing a bunch of games against Glenn Jones piloting the G/R deck the night before the tournament, I felt far from comfortable with the matchup against it. Every time he cast a Hellrider I felt like I couldn’t win. I had to progress my board to combat his Flinthoof Boars and Strangleroot Geists and was always tapped out the turn he jammed Hellrider.

The G/R deck is very good at producing threats that attack on different axes from each other. Strangleroot Geist has haste and is very resilient. Flinthoof Boar has haste and is larger than most bodies at its cost. Hellrider also has haste and does a billion points of damage. Scavenging Ooze doesn’t have haste, but it turns off opposing undying, gains life, and gets huge—basically a jack of all trades and a perfect post-Supreme Verdict follow up. We all know what Thundermaw Hellkite does—zib zap zibbity zoo, you’re dead! The problem with decks that try to answer everything from G/R Aggro is that all of the pressure is on you to have the right half of your deck at the right moment or you just die.

From testing the G/R deck against Andrew Cuneo’s U/W deck from Worlds with Glenn the week leading up to the PTQs, we found that Blind Obedience was close to unbeatable once it was in play. Making all of the threats from G/R come into play tapped takes away the huge benefit they gain from having haste. Thundermaw Hellkite loves to enter the battlefield tapped and attacking, but entering just tapped is quite the party pooper.

Here is the list of G/R Aggro that I played at the PTQs last weekend.

While I still love this deck, the mirror feels pretty miserable, akin to the old Valakut mirrors where winning the die roll was much more important that it should be. Moving forward, I think we will need to find something to handle Blind Obedience since that card is such a huge beating and I expect more people will start playing it.

Anthony Lowry won back-to-back Game Days last weekend with a Big R/W deck with Chandra, Pyromaster. That deck could play Blind Obedience . . .

I’ll be streaming with the Big Red deck more this week, so keep an eye out if you’re interested in watching Chandra, Pyromaster lady-handle people.

Until next time, may all your opponents’ creatures have one toughness.

<3 CVM

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