Peebles Primers – Investigating Standard and Discarding Red Aggro

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Wednesday, April 30th – Whenever new cards are added to the Constructed mix, the first port of call is often the Red Aggressive deck. With Shadowmoor packing a number of fantastic additions to the archetype, all should be good… right? Today, Benjamin Peebles-Mundy puts Red Aggro to the test, and explains why the deck may not be the strongest choice for your next Standard soiree. And of course, he offers an exciting alternative…

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my priority when it comes to Standard these days has been to find a good Red/Green Aggro deck for my teammate Steve to play. In that first article, I proposed a mono-Red list that generated quite a bit of discussion in the forums based around, primarily, the manabase and the exclusion of Tarmogoyf.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that this is the time for this particular deck. After Steve and I put the deck through its paces against four possible opponents, the results were decidedly underwhelming. Overall, the only favorable matchup among those we played was Blue/Black Faeries, with Reveillark seeming unfavorable and Green/White and Green/Red Big Mana both seeming unbeatable.

My plan for today, then, is to go over each of the matchups and explain why I believe things came out the way they did. While there are certainly other matchups out there beyond those I’ll cover in this article, my hope is that you’ll be able to see where the Red deck’s various strengths and weaknesses lie, and therefore be able to reasonably approximate how well you might expect to do against those decks that I don’t talk about.

The first thing to cover, though, is the Red deck itself. When I first wrote about this deck, it wound up mono-Red and generated quite a bit of discussion in the forums. Most people who didn’t like my build commented on either the lack of Tarmogoyf or the presence of twenty basic Mountains. Well, it turns out that Steve was one of the many who wanted to see the deck stretch to run Green, and I didn’t fight too hard. Karplusan Forest and Fire-Lit Thicket provide the needed mana, and Pendelhaven might mess with Flame Javelin, but can be very relevant when you’ve got a Mogg Fanatic or two lying around. The list, then, is:

If you remember my initial list, you don’t have to look hard to see the similarities between that one and the updated list. My Vexing Shushers have been replaced by Tarmogoyfs, and the fourth Shard Volley became a Pendelhaven. The general idea here is to get some early damage in with your men (particularly Boggart Ram-Gang), and then close the deal with the large amount of high-quality burn available. Steve also came up with a first-draft sideboard, which is clearly geared against decks like Reveillark and various aggro matchups. He played it through fifty games for your education.

The Red Deck versus Faeries

It took the Standard-playing world a little bit of time to realize just how good the Blue/Black Faerie deck was, but it’s been a while since anyone thought of any other deck as the “best” deck in the format. It made sense, then, to make sure that the Red deck could hold its own against this deck, because a bad matchup here would mean that it would have to be unbelievable against the rest of the format to make up for it.

We used the most stock of Faerie lists, Yuuta Takahashi’s deck from Grand Prix: Shizuoka, with some new lands:

3 Faerie Conclave
4 Mutavault
4 River of Tears
4 Secluded Glen
4 Snow-Covered Island
2 Sunken Ruins
4 Underground River

4 Mistbind Clique
4 Pestermite
4 Scion of Oona
3 Sower of Temptation
4 Spellstutter Sprite

4 Ancestral Vision
4 Bitterblossom
4 Cryptic Command
4 Nameless Inversion

The short version: the Red deck won six out of ten games, three on the play and three on the draw.

The long version: Yuuta’s Faerie deck doesn’t have much in the way of creature control. The best cards for the Red deck, then, are the creatures that can get through Bitterblossom. While there’s nothing in the deck with trample, I’m talking about cards like Boggart Ram-Gang, Tarmogoyf, and Countryside Crusher. The other three creatures in the deck essentially trade with a single token, and so they don’t tend to get the job done. Of course, Bitterblossom can wind up being a slight liability for the Faerie deck when you’re packing Flame Javelins, but the Faerie deck can get rid of it with Mistbind Clique or Cryptic Command after it has done its dirty work.

The little creatures are actually fine, though, because they come out fast and because the Faerie deck doesn’t always have Bitterblossom. In the games where Faeries had to play fair with creatures, a first-turn Maniac could easily deal six damage. Mogg Fanatic is also quite powerful, as there aren’t many Faeries that live through it. Keldon Marauders, though, proved to be the weakest of the bunch; while it was always good for the two trigger points, its swing could be hindered by Pestermite or simply chumped by any random faerie. While it was rare for the Marauders to connect, it was obviously very good when it did.

Burn spells were also obviously good, but they were mostly used as creature removal. The Red deck was very happy to “waste” an Incinerate on a Scion of Oona or Sower of Temptation, because it meant that it had more time to swing with the big men. Mistbind Clique was also never truly safe, since all of the champion targets could disappear before it had a chance to really stick. Beyond that, Flame Javelin still answers it straight-up. It’s important to note that games were rarely won with a last-minute flurry of burn; in the games where the Red deck had no persistent threats on the board, Faeries was able to ride its few counterspells to victory. This is not to say that burn never went to the face, it just didn’t tend to finish the job when Faeries cleared the board at ten life.

The Red Deck versus Reveillark

The next step for us was the Reveillark matchup. Many people have dismissed Reveillark due to its bad matchup with Faeries, but I remain attached to the deck, and so testing this matchup served the double purpose of giving both of us data to work with. We used my latest Reveillark maindeck, which gained only new lands from Shadowmoor:

4 Reveillark
4 Mulldrifter
3 Riftwing Cloudskate
3 Body Double
3 Aven Riftwatcher
3 Mirror Entity
2 Venser, Shaper Savant

2 Careful Consideration
3 Momentary Blink
4 Wrath of God

4 Prismatic Lens
1 Mind Stone
4 Desert
4 Mystic Gate
4 Adarkar Wastes
7 Island
5 Plains

I’ve been playing this deck on Magic Online nonstop since the online release of Morningtide, and it continues to impress me. While Faeries isn’t something I want to see, I’m hoping that Shadowmoor will shake the format up enough that Faeries becomes less of an issue.

The short version: the Red deck won four out of ten games, three on the play and one on the draw.

The long version: Boggart Ram-Gang is the single best card the Red deck can draw in this matchup. There will be times when Reveillark is on the play and hit a Prismatic Lens, and can therefore Venser the Gang and chumpblock a Marauders, but there will also be times when Red is on the play and Reveillark takes at least six from the Gang before mustering an answer. In addition to being a great curve play, it’s a wonderful follow-up to Wrath of God. If you could play more than four of a card, this would be the place to start.

The various creatures in the deck are largely unimpressive against this particular list of Reveillark. Desert is very good against Maniac, since he has no choice but to run in there and die without even allowing you the ability to set up a bigger swing. Mogg Fanatic isn’t exactly an amazing clock, and Keldon Marauders has plenty of random dorks to run into. Tarmogoyf and the three-drops are much more powerful, but Reveillark’s game-plan means that it’s perfectly happy to just throw 2/2s in front of the big guys until something amazing happens. Desert is a problem here too, since the Reveillark player can do things like block with Aven Riftwatcher and then finish off the Countryside Crusher with a post-combat ping.

Burn spells are very much the game-enders in this matchup. Some Reveillark decks have counterspells to protect themselves, but this one doesn’t. This means that your hand of two Flame Javelins and Incinerate is probably going to get the job done as long as you can manage to squeak some damage in early. When these spells target creatures, the most likely options are Aven Riftwatcher and anything that’s being Blinked. Usually, though, targeting a creature means that you’re trying to stop Reveillark from comboing out, and this is a sign that things aren’t proceeding according to plan.

Unfortunately, there’s just not much the Red deck can do to stop Reveillark from doing its thing. From my perspective (as the Reveillark pilot), I’m just trying to stem the bleeding and make land drops. If I can chumpblock enough, eventually Reveillark (the card) will just take the game over. I don’t even need to combo out if I can just Evoke it to bring back a Riftwatcher and a Mulldrifter. Meanwhile, the Red deck can’t do anything but put my creatures in the graveyard, and that won’t stop me from eventually assembling the three combo pieces and some other guy to abuse. In this matchup, Entity + Double + Reveillark can kill with fourteen other cards (Riftwatcher for infinite life, Cloudskate / Venser for the lock, Body Double to copy Mogg Fanatic or Keldon Marauders, or Mulldrifter to draw into the previously mentioned cards), so it’s rare to find yourself struggling to complete the combo.

Something else to note is the fact that the Red deck started the set off 3-0. I’m not sure if this is just a coincidence or if it means that I managed to figure out a better way to fight the Red deck, but after game three the Red deck won only one more game.

The Red Deck versus Red/Green Big Mana

Before Faeries rose to the top spot, Big Mana was at or near the top of the heap. It won multiple Star City Open events, and it made a strong showing on Magic Online before it got pushed out of the metagame. While some people have found success splashing for Black, our gauntlet list remains Black-free.

4 Treetop Village

1 Scrying Sheets
2 Mouth of Ronom
4 Highland Weald
6 Snow-Covered Mountain
7 Snow-Covered Forest

4 Tarmogoyf
4 Cloudthresher
4 Wall of Roots
4 Deus of Calamity

3 Garruk Wildspeaker
1 Primal Command
4 Into the North
4 Harmonize
4 Skred
4 Incinerate

The big Shadowmoor addition is Deus of Calamity over Siege-Gang Commander. I’m not entirely sure that this is the right call, as Siege-Gang tends to demand a Wrath out of Reveillark and leaves behind three 1/1s when it’s dealt with by something like Nameless Inversion. The Deus, though, pretty much also demands an answer, and it can’t be killed off by a simple +3/-3. While I’m not sure which is better in the grand scheme of things, the 6/6 for five proved very powerful in this matchup.

The short version: the Red deck won one game out of ten, on the play.

The long version: There’s just not a lot to think about. The Red deck has twenty-four creatures in it, and not a single one is a problem for Skred, and only Tarmogoyf can present issues for Incinerate. Cloudthresher and Deus of Calamity are extraordinarily large, and extremely difficult for the Red deck to actually get through. Meanwhile, Wall of Roots is absolutely enormous, Garruk spits out Beast tokens or ends the game in one turn, and the “lucky” Primal Command tends to win the game on the spot.

The one game that Red won involved the Big Mana deck just sitting there and doing nothing. Into the North was the accelerant that game, and it was followed only by Harmonizes. The Red deck, though, had a good curve including Boggart Ram-Gang, and burn to finish the job. The rest of the games tended to involve Wall of Roots and Treetop Village buying small amounts of time so that Tarmogoyf, Garruk, or Deus of Calamity could show up. All of those cards could show up early, and the Big Mana deck usually managed to stabilize behind them at a comfortable double-digit life total. Cloudthresher’s Hurricane ability sometimes seemed to prove a liability, but the 7/7 body is big enough that it was worth it.

Unfortunately, it appears as though the Red deck doesn’t have a strategy to use to help itself out here; the outcome is based solely on the strength of the Big Mana deck’s draw. If Big Mana isn’t affecting the board at all, then the Red deck can just swing through the open door, but if Big Mana is playing 0/5s and 6/6s, things go bad fast.

The Red Deck versus Green/White Big Mana

This is a new one that Steve cooked up, and it’s seemed very impressive so far. While I would like for it to have more early pressure against something like Faeries, it seems extremely strong against any variety of creature deck.

5 Forest
3 Plains
4 Treetop Village
4 Brushland
4 Horizon Canopy
4 Wooded Bastion

3 Oversoul of Dusk

3 Cloudthresher
1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
1 Crovax, Ascendant Hero
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wall of Roots

3 Garruk Wildspeaker
1 Primal Command
4 Harmonize
4 Search for Tomorrow
4 Wrath of God

This deck looks very similar to the Red/Green Big Mana deck above, and that’s no accident. However, the burn has been replaced by Wrath of God and some extra creatures, and the Deus of Calamity is represented by Green/White’s piece of the cycle, Oversoul of Dusk. It’s very hard to describe just how amazing the Oversoul is, but the short version is that it’s an unstoppable 5/5 that you might find yourself casting on the third turn. Not only can the Red aggro decks never get through it, Faerie decks find themselves relying on Cryptic Command tap-outs and Mutavault chump-blocks to hold of certain death.

The short version: Out of ten games, the Red deck won zero.

The long version: There’s just no way for the Red deck to compete with this one. Wall of Roots is just as good here as it was in the other Big Mana deck, but Kitchen Finks is just mind-bendingly amazing. It trades with two guys and gains you four life while it’s at it, and it happens to be even better when Tattermunge Maniac is making sure you have the opportunity to get that first trade in there. On top of the back-breaking Finks, the Big Mana deck has access to three Oversouls, one Crovax, and one Akroma that are all amazingly difficult to beat. The only way to hope to win is to just throw as many men on to the table as possible. And then get Wrathed.

Seriously, none of the games were even close. Not only that, they all played out exactly the same: the Red deck would get some early damage in, usually bringing Big Mana down to something like 12 life. At this point, the damage from creatures would be completely contained, and it would be up to the fifteen burn spells to finish the job. Unfortunately, they didn’t have time to come off the top of the deck, because Tarmogoyf, Garruk, Oversoul, and Cloudthresher don’t take too long to deal twenty points of damage. Add the Finks lifegain into the mix, and sometimes the burn job was just impossible to consider.

Take a look at this lifetotal count:

Green/White: 20, 18, 20, 19, 18, 15, 22, 20, 24, 22
Red/Green: 20, 12, concession

I remember that particular game quite clearly, because the Green/White deck had one of the best possible draws I can think of, but the summary is this: a second-turn Wall on the play was followed up by a Finks and a Tarmogoyf. A fifth-turn Primal Command fetched up another Finks, which came out alongside a third on the sixth turn. I played Tarmogoyfs number two, three, and four on the following turn. There was no eighth turn.

The Red Deck in General

When the Tattermunge Maniac was previewed on magicthegathering.com, I was one of the many who simply couldn’t believe that they’d print something that good. Right now, I’m thinking I was tricked. A 2/1 for one mana might sound good, but the Maniac is really not very good. Even when it’s at its best (against Faeries), it can be answered in so many ways that it just can’t make up for the times it charges into a 5/6 Tarmogoyf that had nothing better to do than destroy it. Meanwhile, there are so many other creature decks out there that can simply outclass your 2/1s and 1/1s for one with their Wren’s Run Vanquishers, Doran the Siege Towers, and so on. Your early assault just isn’t as good as you might hope.

Boggart Ram-Gang, on the other hand, is no trick at all. Not only is a 3/3 Haste for three mana already a deal and a half, it’s got Wither stacked on top of all that. You might love that it allows you to come right back from a Wrath of God, but you’ll also love that it smacks Wall of Roots to the side and mortally wounds opposing Tarmogoyfs. Unfortunately, the Red Deck Wins strategy just doesn’t seem to be good enough to give the Ram-Gang the home he needs.

At this point, Steve has given up on the Red deck. He hasn’t given up on the Star City Open, though, and I expect that he’ll be looking to the Green/White Big Mana deck as his next deck of choice. I don’t blame him; the cards in it are all extremely strong, and if it can post winning numbers against Faeries, I think it will be a great choice for a big tournament. My only concern at this point, and one that Steve shares, is that it has very little game against a Gaddock Teeg. Not only does Teeg shut out Wrath of God, Garruk Wildspeaker, and Harmonize, he also implies the presence of a Green/White aggro deck on the other side of the table, and your Oversoul of Dusks aren’t going to be as good against that player as they are against a Red Deck Wins opponent. Brainstorming led to the obvious Oblivion Ring, as well as the slightly-less-obvious Last Breath. As the Green/White deck tends to hit the opponent for huge chunks of damage, the four-point freebie shouldn’t be too hard to overcome.

If you’re looking to play Red Deck Wins, then hopefully you can take these results and smooth over its weaknesses. If you’re looking to play something new, I think that Green/White Big Mana might be a very strong competitor.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM