“This list might not be optimal though. Hopefully Dan Paskins is going to write an in-depth strategy article covering the different red decks. He knows a lot better what is good and what is bad in this archetype.“
— Kai Budde, “Sligh at Reims”
Every year, there is one deck which does much better in the Pro Tour Qualifiers than it does in the Pro Tour. Two years ago, only two people played it at the Pro Tour and in the following qualification season it won a Grand Prix and qualified dozens of players for the following Pro Tour. Last year, its highest finish was 9th, and yet again, despite all the powerful decks, many of which have since had key cards banned, it was one of the dominant decks in the qualifiers. And this year it was one of the best decks at the Pro Tour. All of which means that even if you have no intention of playing the Red Deck (then please go away now), um, then this is a deck which you need to know all about.
So let’s start with a decklist for Red Deck Wins:
“>Seal of Fire
20 Red or Artifact cards
15 Red or Artifact cards
This isn’t, of course, a complete decklist. The first thing to understand with this deck is why the key cards I’ve mentioned above are so crucial, how they interact with each other, and which 35 Red or Artifact cards you might like to add to them to complete your deck and sideboard.
I’ve included a complete set of lands so that you don’t get tempted to do something stupid and add in other lands, like splashing for Green or Black cards or something horrible like that. There are 24 lands in the deck, which is a lot and means that there will be fewer games than with other decks where you don’t have enough lands to cast your spells, but they all have uses beyond simply tapping for mana, which is always a sign of a powerful deck, as anyone who has sacrificed their artifact lands to boost their Arcbound Ravager and make their opponent lose life with the Disciple of the Vault will know.
The Rishadan Ports and the Wastelands interfere with your opponent’s ability to cast the spells that they would like to cast, and make for seriously bad news for any opponent whose draw is light on land.
The eight fetch-lands help marginally to thin the deck of land, but their main use is that they help to power up Grim Lavamancer by putting cards in the graveyard.
And the Mountains? Although we are not allowed to use Fireblast, the best card ever for turning excess Mountains into dead opponents, cards like Lava Dart and Pulverize require the sacrifice of Mountains for powerful effects like killing a creature or an Affinity deck.
Jackal Pup, Grim Lavamancer, Seal of Fire and Cursed Scroll are essential non-land cards for Red Deck Wins, and I’ve picked them out because of their very different roles.
Jackal Pup is a straightforwardly aggressive card. Summon it, use burn spells on any which might seek to block it, and attack until opponent is dead. Since Jackal Pup can be summoned on turn 1, this combines pleasingly with the mana denial element of the deck – it is amazing how far ahead playing a Jackal Pup on turn one and using a Wasteland on turn two puts you against many decks. Even if Jackal Pup doesn’t kill your opponent, it also weakens them ready for…
Grim Lavamancer, which can get involved in some Wizard beatdown if the opponent has no creatures early in the game, but which is mainly useful as a recurring source of damage later in the game when you have a number of cards in your graveyard. Whether it is killing creatures or chipping away at your opponent’s life total, an active Grim Lavamancer is a guarantee that you will eventually win unless your opponent can kill the Lavamancer.
Cursed Scroll supplements the Lavamancer as a recurring source of damage, gets round annoying nuisances like “Protection from Red” and is at its best in a deck with plenty of land and cheap spells. Like this deck. One of the most powerful cards ever printed, it’s only bad against fast combo decks which usually win or lose before it becomes relevant.
As for Seal of Fire, it fulfils a simple role. It is the best burn spell available to Red in Extended. There are many other spells which perform a similar function, which we’ll come onto later, but the others all cost more mana, or have to be kept in your hand before being played, both of which are disadvantages. You can cast Seal of Fire whenever you have a spare red mana free, even if you don’t know what you want to kill with it, which can mean that you don’t have to choose between killing a blocker and using your Rishadan Port to tap one of your opponent’s lands.
Before we choose the rest of the cards for the deck, it is worth thinking about the different ways in which your Red Deck might win. This is a useful exercise for any deck, as it ensures that you choose the cards which will be most helpful for that purpose.
One of the great strengths of Red Deck Wins is the sheer variety of its roads to victory. Some people look at the decklists for a deck like Red Deck Wins and ask why people don’t play a deck with seemingly better offensive cards like Goblins. While it is entirely right that people should argue for Goblin decks to be more widely played, this deck provides more different ways of leading you to victory:
1. Simple beatdown. Play a two-power creature for one mana, follow it up with other creatures, and a host of burn spells. Kill opponent quickly, listen to them whinge for a bit and then find another opponent.
2. Mana screw. Use Wasteland, Rishadan Port and possibly some Red spells which destroy lands to stop the opponent casting their spells, then win at your leisure.
3. Get control of the game by using recurring sources of damage like Grim Lavamancer and Cursed Scroll to kill of your opponent’s creatures or damage them every turn.
4. Overpower your opponent’s creatures as above in 3, but also using cards like Lava Dart and Flametongue Kavu to kill multiple creatures with minimal effort.
5. Play some Red spell or artifact that is completely devastating for your opponent. Examples include Ensnaring Bridge against Reanimator decks and Pulverize or Meltdown against Artifact heavy decks.
Or as Zvi Mowshowitz, not a fan of the Red Deck, once put it, “The purpose of this deck is to inflict the largest possible number of horribly unlucky defeats on your poor opponent.”
The great advantage of this approach is that you get the best bits of being an aggressive deck and of being a defensive deck. You’ll win some games by casting early Jackal Pups and finishing with a Blistering Firecat. Some games your opponent will just get a bad draw with not enough lands and your deck is better set up than any other to make sure that they don’t recover. Where your opponent has a lot of creatures, like the aforementioned Goblin decks, your removal and card advantage spells give you a great chance of coming out on top, while against control decks prepared for the creature beatdown, the reusable damage provides a difficult challenge. And if none of that works, you have access to every broken Red or artifact card printed since 1998, and can randomly cast one of them and win the game.
The drawback of this is that you have to get your deck construction just right in order to win a qualifier. You can beat any deck with the correct configuration of cards, but the cards you choose to fill out your deck decide what probability you have of winning the game by each of the routes above. Every qualifier season sees different decks become popular and then less popular week-by-week. There is not one optimal version of Red Deck Wins, but many different versions depending on whether control decks, beatdown decks or combo decks are what you expect to face.
For reference, a control deck is one which seeks to react to the cards you play, a beatdown deck seeks to attack you with more powerful creatures and damage you more quickly than you can damage it, and a combo deck does not play cards which interact with your cards, but instead tries to assemble a combination of cards which lead to victory if all successfully cast. An example of a control deck would be Blue/White, an example of a beatdown deck might be Affinity, and an example of a combo deck might be Reanimator. To help, here is a guide to some of the cards which you might like to round out your deck with:
1. To Help The Jackal Pups
Why it’s good: seven-power for four mana means that if you manage to attack successfully with Blistering Firecat, you are very unlikely to lose. Additionally, its morph ability helps against many of the popular cards which people might want to use against you, such as Circle of Protection: Red and Chill. It’s particularly good against combo decks, to help you kill them before they can assemble their combo.
When it’s not so good: Sometimes finding the three red mana to cast it can be a nuisance, and it is likely to be the most expensive card in your deck, so if you are sideboarding in other expensive cards, then consider removing it. Also, in matchups where the other deck is likely to be more aggressive, such as Affinity, Firecat is not at its best, although it can sometimes switch a damage race in your favor.
Why it’s good: It’s like a Jackal Pup with no relevant drawback. What is this “blocks or becomes blocked” of which you speak? Playing with this and Jackal Pup gives a very high chance that you will be able to summon a two-power creature on the first turn to begin the beatings. Great against combo and control decks with few to no creatures.
When it’s not so good: The only time the drawback matters is when your opponent has a blocker which you can’t or have no particular interest in removing, like a Wall of Blossoms or something, and you have two creatures that you would like to attack with. This comes up from time to time and is highly annoying when it happens. Also, I once played in a PTQ and my opponent in the first round had four maindeck Simian Grunts. That made for a really unwelcome surprise during the attack phase of my third turn. The last point is that there are some matchups where you don’t want 12 creatures (Pup, Firecat, Cadets) devoted to attacking and nothing else, and if it is likely that you’ll be playing in a tournament where the majority of decks you face fall into that category, then the Cadets may not make the cut.
Why it’s good: I feel dumb having to write that. It beats, it shoots, it scores. Against any other deck with creatures, it is removal, a blocker which kills another creature as it dies, or an attacker as required.
When it’s not so good: The one time is when your opponent hasn’t got creatures. It’s still okay, but deals damage sooo slowly that a combo deck has time to do whatever dirty combo things it has to.
Why it’s good: Left alone, the Firewalker kills in, um, er, sev-, no, that’s not right, durrr, that’s it, six turns. So you can summon a Firewalker, and let it get on with attacking while you burn any potential blockers. After a while, it gets big enough to look after itself in a fight, as well. There are some odd situations, like when your opponent has a Powder Keg, when the fact that it costs two mana, unlike most of your spells, helps as well.
When it’s not so good: It costs twice as much as Goblin Cadets, and getting two red mana can be either difficult, or merely inconvenient as it stops you using a Rishadan Port or a Wasteland on the second turn. It’s a slightly better blocker than Jackal Pup or Goblin Cadets, but it’s not exactly going to deter an Arcbound Ravager or even a Frogmite, should that be what’s required.
2. To Kill Blockers, Players Etc.
Alongside Seal of Fire, you have a number of options, all of which serve a similar purpose. These are Volcanic Hammer, Fire / Ice, Magma Jet, Firebolt and Lava Dart. There is no conceivable situation in which you would want more than 24 spells which deal either two or three damage (including Seal of Fire), and all of these spells are better than Shock because they deal more damage (Hammer, Firebolt), let you search for a powerful card (Magma Jet), or let you kill two one-toughness creatures (Lava Dart, Fire/Ice), all of which are more useful abilities than being able to deal two damage at instant speed. You’ll probably have room in your deck for between 8 and 12 of these spells.
I think Volcanic Hammer is better than Magma Jet except in matchups where you are desperately searching for a particular card like Ensnaring Bridge or Cursed Scroll, and Lava Dart is better than Fire/Ice because you can use it to kill two creatures even if there aren’t two good targets the first time you cast it. Firebolt is best in games where you don’t expect your Grim Lavamancers to live, as otherwise it is nearly always more convenient to let the Lavamancer remove it from the graveyard along with one other card to deal your two damage than to faff about with tapping five mana and flashing it back.
3. Other Useful Cards / Supplementary Strategies
As long as there is a wide range of decks to contend with as at the moment, all of the cards for your main deck should probably come from those listed above. To help against particular strategies, you can fill your sideboard with some of the following, and if particular strategies or decks become particularly prevalent, add up to four of the following into your main deck as well.
This comes in two flavors: one-off removal and mass destruction. Pillage is the best single removal spell, as it can also hit lands and supplement mana denial strategies. Next best is probably Overload, which only costs one mana and deals with pretty much any artifact that I can think you might be worried about except for Masticore, or Shattering Pulse which is a lot slower but reuseable.
As for mass destruction, Pulverize, Rack and Ruin and Meltdown are your best options. Bearing in mind that your opponent may well have Chill as a sideboard card against you, Pulverize is probably the best of these.
Killing creatures even better
Flametongue Kavu is extremely powerful against decks which don’t have Chill and do have lots of creatures. If you find that decks like “The Rock” (Green/Black control with lots of creatures) are becoming popular, then the best Kavu ever (not a difficult accolade to gain) becomes a useful option. Masticore is another useful creature – not so much against the large creatures of the Rock but against White Weenie decks (apparently there are such things) or Blue/Green Madness decks.
More mana denial
Tangle Wire has been a popular card in Red Deck Wins. I’m with Kai Budde on this one (always a good place to be), when he writes that he’d rather have another creature or a burn spell, but if combo decks become prevalent, and if you have the ability to cast it on turn 3 after a couple of creatures, then it is worth remembering as an option – it was most popular while Tinker decks were running rampant. Pillage is a decent choice because it is never a dead card, and while it will rarely be amazing, it is quite useful against Affinity beatdown, in the mirror match to destroy Cursed Scroll, against control decks and against combo to keep their number of lands down, but I would be very wary of adding Stone Rain or Molten Rain as well.
I went through a phase of having eight land destruction cards in all my sideboards in Standard. This rarely met with satisfactory results, due to what I shall term the Ponza principle, which runs as follows:
Any matchup where your best hope is to try to sideboard in a bunch of land destruction spells and try to mana screw your opponent is, by definition, a really bad one.
This counts double in a format like Extended, where all the other decks are so powerful. It is something which can kind of seem like a good idea, especially at 4am the night before a tournament (“hey, if I side in 4 Stone Rain and 4 Molten Rain to go with my Pillages, Ports and Wastelands, I can smash any control or combo deck”), but don’t do it. It’s like a version of the Fear, where you don’t trust that your deck is good enough to win unless you get lucky and kill all their lands.
Big creatures are particularly good when facing other Red Decks, as when every spell deals two damage, a 5/5 can be really difficult to deal with. Some big creatures can also be good when facing down a deck designed to handle your small creatures and burn spells. Your choices are Fledgling Dragon, Rathi Dragon, Lightning Dragon, Chimeric Idol and Balduvian Horde. I’ve used all of these at various times in the past, and Fledgling Dragon is by popular consent the best – Chimeric Idol isn?t particularly big and is vulnerable to artifact removal, and the others require sacrifice/discard and/or lose in a fight or a race with Fledgling Dragon upon it gaining Threshold. Your Grim Lavamancers won’t live long when taking on other Red Decks, and the only annoying thing is that you will lose a few games because you don’t have threshold or any way of getting it. You were probably going to lose those games anyway, though, as most cards in your deck are designed to be put in the graveyard for fun and profit.
The Japanese, a nation which knows a lot when it comes to Red Decks, included Blood Oath in their sideboard. These had a lot of people scratching their heads. They are intended for matchups where you have lots of cards which you would like to take out of your main deck (Seal of Fire and whichever other burn spells you have), because your opponent has few or no creatures. Blistering Firecat is highly valued in such matchups because it can deal seven damage, but Blood Oath can easily deal more than that, and at instant speed.
Ensnaring Bridge is totally useless except against Reanimator decks, where it is essential. It won’t win you the game, but it gives you time while your opponent gets Echoing Truth or whatever card they have as an answer. Bridge is much better than Scrabbling Claws or Thran Foundry, which are the other choices, as it can help even if they summon Akroma on turn 1 or something equally unpleasant. Similarly, Sulfuric Vortex and Pyrostatic Pillar are somewhat narrow answers to particular decktypes (Life and Mind’s Desire) – while they can be used against other decks, they are much worse than other options already mentioned, so if those decks are ones which you expect, then load up on the narrower cards, otherwise stick with Blood Oath.
A brief note on things to watch out for
You will play against people who will get very angry when you beat them. They believe that they should win because they have put cards like Chill or Circle of Protection: Red in their sideboard.
It is unwise to write too much about this, because it is nice when people continue to rely on cards which aren’t nearly as devastating as they think they should be against Red Deck Wins, but the nature of the deck means that people who rely on particular cards to turn a bad matchup for them into a good one are likely to be disappointed. Keep a look out for which cards your opponent might be using and take the appropriate action – against Chill, make sure that you don’t have too many expensive cards in your deck, against CoP: Red make sure that you have Cursed Scrolls and Firecats ready to go, against Exalted Angel make sure that you have enough burn spells lying about to kill it, against Pernicious Deed and Powder Keg make sure, as far as possible, that you can recover from having all your little creatures and Scrolls in play destroyed.
Far more dangerous than particular cards is when people try to configure their entire decks to be a counter to the Red Deck. We’ve discussed how you can mix up your strategies for victory to make this difficult, and some consolation is that a deck which is too heavily weighted against the Red Deck is likely to be paired against a Blue/White control deck in round one and thereafter not be a problem for you.
To give an example of how different your deck might look depending on which kinds of decks you choose to focus on, here are a couple of extreme examples, followed by the version designed by Patrick Sullivan, with a different sideboard, which is the one that I am currently testing with:
Extreme Version One (if you expect lots of creature decks)
4 Jackal Pup
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Blistering Firecat
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Cursed Scroll
4 Seal of Fire
4 Lava Dart
4 Magma Jet
2 Flametongue Kavu
24 land (as required above)
Extreme Version Two (if you expect lots of control and combo decks, and few or no creature decks)
4 Jackal Pup
4 Goblin Cadets
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Slith Firewalker
4 Blistering Firecat
4 Tangle Wire
4 Seal of Fire
2 Shrapnel Blast
2 Cursed Scroll
3 Chrome Mox
21 land (-1 Mountain, -1 sacland, -1 Port)
Red Deck Wins
4 Jackal Pup
4 Goblin Cadets
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Blistering Firecat
4 Cursed Scroll
4 Lava Dart
4 Seal of Fire
4 Volcanic Hammer
4 Sulfuric Vortex
3 Fledgling Dragon
3 Flametongue Kavu (or Ensnaring Bridge if you think there are likely to be Reanimator decks and not many Green creature decks)
Sideboarding involves either putting in the cards designed against one particular decktype, or slanting your deck more towards extreme one or extreme two, depending on whether the opponent is playing beatdown, control or combo. For the mirror, you go -4 Pup, -1 Firecat, +3 Dragon, +2 Masticore.
Over the course of the Extended season, the kinds of threats that you have to face will change. In the first week, a lot of people might try out this “Life” deck, and some will play Affinity. This will lead to a rise in people playing with masses of artifact hate and control or combo decks to beat the Life decks, which will pose different challenges. As last year, decks like White Weenie or “Dump Truck”, which are specifically designed to keep up with the Red Decks and use cards that we don’t like to face, might spring up in later weeks. There are also a whole range of familiar decks such as the Goblin deck, the Rock deck, Blue/Green Madness and Mind’s Desire to prepare for, as well as the mirror. Red Deck Wins is a very resilient deck, though, and you always end up surviving the hate cards better than your opponent thinks that their testing shows that you should. Good luck!
‘Til next time, may no Task Forces be sacrificed to a Worthy Cause,
Kai Budde – Sligh at Reims, an overview.
Mike Flores – Who’s the Beatdown?
Mike Flores – Intricacies of the RDW Mirror Match
Dan Cato – Report on 9th place in Pro Tour