Previous Level Rakdos

If you’re looking for something different to play at SCG Standard Open: Oakland or SCG Classic Series: Columbus, be sure to read about the B/R deck Mike’s been working on.

If you have been paying attention to the shape of Standard since Pro Tour Theros (or at least perusing the Flores Friday columns of the last several weeks), you know that it is a format largely about Mono-Blue Devotion and Mono-Black Devotion decks. Sure, you have awesome one-of performances like Brad Nelson and his Naya Control deck and a second tier of Sphinx’s Revelation decks, but it has largely been around Devotion and Devotion.

But earlier in the season when we were all wide eyed and naive, Return to Ravnica-Theros gave us a more varied tapestry of red beatdown, G/W Aggro, and multicolored black fatty decks. Is there a legitimate reason that we don’t play some of these decks [as well]? Instead?

A few months back I was the beneficiary of some back-office acrobatics by Cedric Phillips and Evan Erwin (and the hard-working folks who pull orders and ensure the delivery of the cards that pay all our bills whose names we rarely mention). I wanted to play a Big Dega (B/R/W) deck at States, and even though a lot of the cards I wanted were out of stock, Ced and Evan somehow wrangled me all the Temples and Desecration Demons I needed.

I ran this (which is a variation on a strategy that is probably at least a little familiar to you):

The Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros hadn’t been announced at the point I made my deck, so I didn’t know that the black decks would evolve to be so soft to Assemble the Legion (or make for Pack Rat poster boys). I did get a ton of practice against proto-Orzhov decks [much worse than the one Patrick Chapin and Paul Rietzl fielded], the various aggressive performers of the format’s early Opens, and of course Mono-Blue Devotion.

The scariest threat in the format at the time (to me at least) was Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Ergo I myself played a ton of Blood Barons and wanted to play cards that beat up on Blood Baron like Lifebane Zombie and Mizzium Mortars.

But—and remember this is States we are talking about—I wanted to put a little sizzle under my steak. Whip of Erebos + Obzedat, Ghost Council was trump in basically any game that went long and awesome whenever I had time to pull it off. But the most popular decks prior to the Dublin Top 8 were beatdown, not control. What cuteness could I assemble for those?

Do you see it?

[ Boros Charm ]

[ Boros Reckoner ]

[ Whip of Erebos ]

Whip of Erebos, like Azorius Charm, gives Boros Reckoner lifelink. Boros Charm makes Boros Reckoner indestructible. The B/R/W midrange removal deck actually had the ability to run like an infinite combo deck! The nature of Whip of Erebos meant that I didn’t even have to have a live Boros Reckoner to set up the combo. I couldn’t resist.

I was winning at a good clip on Magic Online, but I never managed to actually pull off the three-card infinite combo. That probably should have told me something, but like I said, I couldn’t resist.

The tournament itself was kind of uneventful. I had a game where I employed the scry mechanic every turn from the first turn (generally keeping my top card) and lost . . . not a great testament to my play that game probably. I played well against some attack decks but lost one too many times to opposing Desecration Demon decks packing Devour Flesh. Basically they had lots of the same big removal I had—including maybe the fourth Hero’s Downfall and some Dreadbores—but also Devour Flesh.

Some of them even had Underworld Cerberus to lock down Whip of Erebos! Tons of spot removal + Underworld Cerberus. Yes. Lost anyway. It was quite frustrating because I didn’t like Devour Flesh at all. Devour Flesh is so bad against cards like Judge’s Familiar and Master of Waves and kind of like wet paper against Whip of Erebos too.

There were probably some structural problems with the deck. I worked really hard on the mana base. Turns out that you can’t sub Orzhov Guildgate for Rakdos Guildgate; I mean you can to cast Boros Reckoner, but one of them really doesn’t help kick Mizzium Mortars.

I had an insane number of lands that hit the battlefield tapped, which is not lethal in and of itself. But it is bad when your fourth or fifth land comes into play tapped; if you are not tapping for your Desecration Demon or five-drop to stabilize, you are often going to take a jaw full of damage.

The mana base was pretty good for what I was trying to do, but it is a different question whether I should have wanted to do that thing.

I went home that afternoon, and like I often do after a less than optimal day at the tables, logged into Magic Online to try to put some of what I learned into what my good friend Patrick Chapin might call the Next Level.

I thought a ton about what I was getting from white and what I was trading to get it.

A lot of players I respected from the New York area had chosen to play B/R Control decks in Dublin. Some of them did all right, though none made Top 8. I thought about what they complained about in their own performances. And of course I looked at the newly minted Top 8 decks! Was Underworld Connections over Read the Bones going to be a thing? The thing?

I came up with this:

I played a bit with it, liked what I saw, and then spent a bunch of weeks leveling my Infinity Blade III characters.

This week I thought back about that deck and decided to dust it off, previous level or no. Turns out it’s kind of great given the current mix.

I always liked my Mono-Blue Devotion matchup. I think you are a favorite in that matchup, which is important given how popular and successful that deck is.

My philosophy is around two core principles:

1. Their deck pretty much is just a bunch of little guys. Even if they are drawing three cards a turn, they are mostly just more little guys.

2. One well-placed removal card can badly affect their development. That’s why I have Pharika’s Cure main even though it probably seems a little weird. It is an instant; it isn’t red. Ergo you can snipe a Master of Waves on the cheap.

Unlike Mono-Black Devotion, which relies entirely on one-for-one removal, this deck has both one-for-one removal and sweepers. You therefore have a lot more catchup capability than Mono-Black Devotion. Mono-Black Devotion is considered by lots of players to be the favorite in the Devotion-on-Devotion duel; however, a card like Bident of Thassa can put Mono-Blue Devotion over the top, with Mono-Black Devotion unable to draw sufficient one-for-ones to deal with all the ‘phid hits. With this deck, Mizzium Mortars and Anger of the Gods can give you the ability to zero the Bident card advantage and turn the tables or at least manage the board so that you are not dead to the God of the Sea in two.

Like I said, I like my Mono-Blue Devotion matchup quite a bit . . .

But nowhere near as much as I like my Mono-Black Devotion matchup.

I think I am approximately one million forty-two and zero against Mono-Black and B/G Pack Rat decks at this point. The most annoying thing they can do is draw a bunch of Thoughtseizes (which is admittedly super annoying)—but you can do the same thing and more.

In the heads-up matchup, B/R has three key advantages over Mono-Black:

1. Rakdos Keyrune – This is the best card in more than one matchup. It’s insane against U/W Control (especially when you curve into a Stormbreath Dragon) but awfully good against black control decks too. Not only do you get more materiel online, but you both accelerate and increase the magnitude of Rakdos’s Return. Plus you have the cute "save the Thoughtseize" strategy waiting for the one-for-one on turn 3 with your free mana.

2. Rakdos’s Return – This card is an insane killer against a similar deck. A lot of games involve two players with Desecration Demon in play but no removal in hand due to Thoughtseizes aplenty. A big question is whether to block and trade or try to race. Let me tell you, a decent Rakdos’s Return removes all notions of a fair race and is an almost obvious strategy annihilator. You can just clear their hand, dealing X, and then play your 6/6 or Stormbreath Dragon and try to kill them before they draw an appropriate one-for-one. They have maybe three turns to draw a removal card (and half the time it can’t be a Doom Blade), but you still have a hand. I like my chances.

3. Mono-Black Devotion largely obtains card advantage via Underworld Connections, often combining free cards with the hunger of Pack Rat. It’s a strong possibility that Underworld Connections is just a better card than Read the Bones, but that’s probably not strictly true. What is true is that Chandra, Pyromaster for one incremental mana makes for a huge upgrade over Underworld Connections. They do similar things, but instead of paying a point, you make them take a point.

You can use your Read the Bones to set up situations where both Underworld Connections and Chandra, Pyromaster are online. You’re drawing a bazillion cards and it might not even seem like you’re winning, but your opponent sure isn’t doing anything. It can be very difficult for them to stockpile Gray Merchant of Asphodel because you can explode their whole hand at any point. You feel so powerful, like the first time you got unlimited texting on your mobile phone.

I won a PTQ like fourteen years ago where I went something like 5-1 against Pox decks, including win-and-in and Top 8. I missed a super tight race to lose the one time around round 3 or 4, but they were all extremely stressful three-game matches. I was playing this Suicide Black deck, and it seemed to me like Pox was a terrible matchup for me. My friend Jon Becker kept telling me that I had gone 5-1 or whatever against Pox, so it must have been a pretty good matchup. Never computed though. Forget the results; I would have rather played against Goblins.

I kind of feel like that with Previous Level Rakdos against red beatdown decks. I feel like they should be steamrolling me, but I have been doing pretty well there. Part of that is respecting their Chandra’s Phoenix by adding Anger of the Gods to the sideboard, but a bigger part is the presence of super-speed defense cards Shock and Pharika’s Cure. Those are probably the two best cards for managing the tempo of a Standard red deck, and we have access to all eight copies.

Against red decks I am generally willing to blow my Mizzium Mortars as one-for-one instead of stockpiling to trade time for card advantage. If you let the opponent accumulate bodies, you can’t defend yourself as well with Desecration Demon, and moreover one of the main ways to lose in a matchup where you can manage the opponent’s resources is to make their Fanatic of Mogis good.

An interesting topic is how a deck like this one might match up with Sphinx’s Revelation decks. I think that if you play the game that they want to play where both players pretend to buy into an equivalency of cards/resources you’re probably going to lose. You can actually potentially keep pace on cards to a degree, but overcommitting to card advantage resources on the table can get you in trouble with Detention Sphere.

I would instead recommend an exhaustion paradigm.

How many ways do they have to win? How many of those ways are Aetherling?

How many ways do they have to say "no?"

Esper decks might only have two Dissolves or even less because it looks like people are cutting them but might have as many as four Thoughtseizes starting. U/W decks might have four Dissolves and some number of Essence Scatters.

Regardless, I doubt they have enough Dissolves to stop your Rakdos’s Returns if you are careful with your Thoughtseizes. One line is a question of managing your big X against their big X as a lead-in. Can you Thoughtseize / clear them into a spot where your small number of sizable threats can win before they recover? Desecration Demon is badly outnumbered. He’s pretty much going to get countered or killed every time unless you set him up with discard. Stormbreath Dragon and Rakdos Keyrune though can actually hustle respectfully as long as you get them down. Azorius Charm doesn’t even hit the Dragon, and Underworld Connections and Chandra can help Rakdos Keyrune muscle through.

Basically, you can craft a game with discard/big discard that puts the opponent under a three turn clock or so, but you have to be a bit patient. It is very easy to play into their two-for-ones (or worse) or basically guarantee your guys get killed before doing very much.

Another line is to sit back for a long exhaustion game. In this game you basically concede card advantage as a concept and focus only on the opponent’s ways to win. How many times can you trade Hero’s Downfall for a planeswalker? If the answer is "four," you have to trade approximately two Thoughtseizes / Rakdos’s Returns for threats, and you basically can’t lose. The beauty of this plan is that the opponent might not realize this in enough time where they can make an adjustment.

How much mana does an opponent need to have to safely drop Elspeth? The answer is at least nine. If you tap for her on six and make three tokens, she’s biting it under the 1BB Minotaur hoof. Can you deal with three 1/1 creatures sometime in the next seven turns? Yeah, I’d hope so. Chandra takes care of that and keeps chugging by herself.

The big question mark is if they play with Aetherling. How many? Where did it start? If you can Thoughtseize Aetherling prior to turn 7, great. If they topdeck it with a ton of lands in play, you’re in for a race yourself, and there is little you can do but trade your instants as Fogs (maybe). Topdeck Jace? Might just Shock that; topdeck Aetherling? Not so much.

The interesting thing with this paradigm is that a lot of the kinds of cards you default think of as being not very good actually gain text . . . as long as you don’t mistake having most of the creatures and all of the hasty Dragons as actually being the beatdown.

Some numbers that are important:

1. Zero – This is the number next to Chandra’s card drawing-like ability. This is also the number of times you should use that ability if your opponent has no pressure card and you have a land in hand. It took me a long time to love just dealing one damage. It’s not just the missed opportunity to [+1] Chandra; it’s the fact that when you flip a Mizzium Mortars or Hero’s Downfall with nothing to shoot at, you have now lost that asset for the future. No land? By all means. Opponent has a monster? Ditto. Just be mindful here.

2. One – The number of copies of any key permanent you typically want to have in play against U/W. I am normally a deck designer that wants to play four copies of all the best cards (or what I perceive to be the best cards). But you really don’t want to play into their Detention Spheres. Rakdos Keyrune is one of the best threats against U/W; acceleration is awesome, and a threat that is so hard to block, fight, or sweep is super welcome . . . except when you give them the free two-for-one. For the same reason two Underworld Connections is generally substantially worse than one Underworld Connections and one Chandra, Pyromaster.

3. Five – That is how much life is unaccounted for in the formula 4 + 4 + 7. Stormbreath Dragon hits for four on five mana, four again on six, and seven on seven. If you can hit with Stormbreath Dragon three times, you only need to deal five more damage; if the [hapless] opponent has five cards in hand . . . super-duper. But what about only three cards? A forward-thinking mage might have actually invested in a seemingly random Shock on turn 2 or 3.

This deck is soft to:

1. Boros Charm – I have never beaten Benny Beatdown’s Boros deck. Stupid Boros Charm deals four.

2. Assemble the Legion – Much like Mono-Black Devotion, if less soft due to Anger of the Gods and Mizzium Mortars. Basically you are on notice. Desecration Demon is not going to save you probably. Stormbreath Dragon is usually pretty good against Assemble the Legion decks luckily.

3. Nightveil Specter – Asterisk here, as both of the Nightveil Specter archetypes are good matchups, but I feel like the 2/3 is better than it should be. There are a fair number of ways to deal two, but Pharika’s Cure and Shock have to team up with Chandra more than I’d like in this case. I think I am going to cut the sideboard Rakdos’s Return for another Anger of the Gods or perhaps a Dreadbore (which [also] has text against Sphinx’s Revelation decks).

Cards I didn’t play that might be very good:

1. Ratchet Bomb – Actually pretty good against Detention Sphere or better yet Detention Spheres. Reasonable catch-up against beatdown or Elspeth tokens or in blunting Master of Waves. Probably warrants some serious consideration for the sideboard.

2. Lifebane Zombie – Like my favorite guy, and I even own a set! Just no one to fight.

3. Pack Rat – Is strength against Pack Rats a reason not to play them yourself? There are some strong arguments for B/R to adopt this little guy. Then there is Tom Martell, who played four in Albuquerque, cast it all of once in the Grand Prix, and sided it out over and over on the way to a Top 8 near-miss. I am not sure what this is better than in this deck, though I can respect both its initiative against Mono-Blue and its potential inevitability against Mono-Black.

I’ve been quite happy with this build recently. If you want to break up the format’s devotion to Devotion, I suggest you give it a try.


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