Rakdos Or Bant, The Easy Way Or The Hard Way

See what Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin considered playing at GP San Antonio and the list that he settled on to get some ideas for Standard at this weekend’s SCG Open Series in Baltimore.

“Fogo de Chao on Thanksgiving honestly is like having McDonald’s on Thanksgiving.”

Look, I like McDonalds. I don’t love it, but it’s reliable. Honestly, I like McDonald’s Cheeseburgers better than gourmet burgers. I don’t eat there often, but it’s ok once in a while.

I love Thanksgiving food. I really do. I eat at Boston Market about three or four times a month because Thanksgiving 40 times a year is about right if you ask me.

I like Fogo, I do. I’ve been eating at Brazilian Steakhouses, most commonly Fogo, about once a month for years now. The novelty has long since worn off, but it’s still good. I am particularly a fan of Fogo at lunch, where it’s half price and is served immediately (which is super hot when you only have an hour for lunch). As luck would have it, I live right by a Fogo.

I say all this to say if I were to rank all of the days of the year in order of how much I would like to eat at a Brazilian Steakhouse, Thanksgiving would surely be 365th. They are pretty sweet, and I highly recommend them both for the experience and as a nice dining option when you just want infinite meat. They are just not what I think of when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner.

Obviously, this year Thanksgiving was at Fogo in San Antonio. Fortunately, I realized two things:

  1. The dinner party was a laundry list of awesome people that made for an extremely entertaining evening.
  2. When your problem is that you’re eating Fogo on Thanksgiving, you have no problems.

I was particularly excited to be in San Antonio more than a day early. I love absolutely love Texas, and getting to spend a day relaxing plus getting some games in was super hot. I’d been chatting with the Bant Control crew from last week, and the more I looked at the metagame, the more it seemed we all wanted to run it back.

While big papa Cuneo wasn’t going to be in attendance, Reid Duke, Sam Black, Owen Turtenwald, Shahar Shenhar, and Ben Friedman were all on the Bant train, and some audibling had Luis Scott-Vargas, Tom Martell, and Ben Stark all playing Efro’s Five-Color Control variant of Bant.

While eating all-you-can eat barbecue Friday night (a meal entitled “The Cadillac of Bar-B-Q” that Wrapter was so kind to treat us all to), the eventual Five-Color crew was mostly on G/W Aggro (except Efro, who knew his deck was nice). As we watched a parade float down the river, I deliberated on my options for the tournament. I wasn’t sold on Bant yet, but I knew it was a wasted effort to continue to work on my B/R Vampires list.

The Vampire list was actually decent, but I did not have nearly enough time to tune it the way I would want it. Besides, one of the best strategies in the format is a control deck that draws a million cards. How could I turn that down?

For reference, here is the Vampire list I was working on:


Kibler and I had been talking about B/R Control, similar to the list Michael Flores discussed here. Both Kibler and I had been thinking about similar concepts, which made it especially amusing to see how many people hated on Flores’s idea. However, we both shared the same concern we always have with (basically) Mono-Black Control: the card drawing.

It isn’t that Mono-Black (or Rakdos) doesn’t have good card draw right now. In fact, between Staff of Nin, Griselbrand, Sign in Blood, Disciple of Bolas, and Underworld Connections, black decks have quite a bit more good card draw than they usually have access to.

The problem is that Sphinx’s Revelation moves the bar way, way up. It’s not enough to have good card draw relative to other versions of the deck. You have to have good card draw relative to the format. Sphinx’s Revelation is so much better than any of the card draw you can play that it’s very impactful on our decisions. That doesn’t even factor in Jace, Architect of Thought, Tamiyo, the Moon Sage, Think Twice, Forbidden Alchemy, Amass the Components, Augur of Bolas, and so on.

What drew us to Rakdos Control? Well, for starters, Rakdos Keyrune is just absolutely awesome. Dodging all of these Wraths is big, but its body just brick walls so much of the format. Instant speed removal has gone up in popularity, but it’s still not all that high.

Liliana of the Dark Realms is pretty decent right now, and we like both Bloodline Keeper and Olivia Voldaren. If anything, I think the biggest oversight in Flores’s deck is the relatively low number of Vampires. Unfortunately, the meta was shifting away from Bloodline Keeper and Olivia. They were both awesome cards last weekend, but we expected a big increase in the number of Searing Spears.

The primary incentive for playing Rakdos Control instead of something like Grixis is gaining access to Mutilate. Mutilate is pretty darn close to Supreme Verdict, which is one of the two reasons we play white in Bant (the other being Sphinx’s Revelation, of course).

If you try to play full-on Grixis, you get access to cards like Forbidden Alchemy, Desperate Ravings, Augur of Bolas, and possibly Jace, Tamiyo, Dissipate, and Snapcaster Mage. The thing is that you have to work really hard to make up for no Supreme Verdicts or Mutilates. Magmaquake is underrated and Mizzium Mortars is good again, but both are much closer to Terminus than Supreme Verdict since it takes so much mana to get them going. Barter in Blood is a fine card, but it doesn’t really get the job done against G/W.

We quickly realized it was a bad Bant deck. We did really like the Vampires, though, so the evolution slowly moved towards B/R Vampires. To be fair, Kibler was more watching in amusement at this point, but Wrapter, Ochoa, Sam Black, and Jackie Lee all contributed their two cents.

The real turning point was taking out Jace Architect of Thought and replacing it with Stromkirk Captain. The Captain doesn’t really get a lot of love, but he’s pretty darn good. Obviously +1/+1 is nice, but giving your entire team first strike is incredible for creature matchups. Of particular interest is Vampire Nighthawk, as deathtouch plus first strike is a big game.

While on the topic of Rakdos decks, it should be noted that the talk going into the tournament, was that Rakdos was the big up-and-comer. We knew G/W and Bant Control would be big and that U/W Flash would lose a ton of popularity, but Rakdos was the big mover and shaker of the week.

This new breed of Rakdos had some elements of B/R Zombies but was aiming to be much bigger and more resilient than the older versions. Gone were the Blood Artists and Lotleth Trolls. Now they use Hellrider and Thundermaw Hellkite to complement the Falkenrath Aristocrats for maximum haste.

Here is the poster boy of new Rakdos, grinder-winner Orry Swift (who I ended up playing and losing against on Day 1 of the actual GP).


As you can see, there is only a very minor Zombie theme in the form of Gravecrawler partnering with Diregraf Ghoul or Geralf’s Messenger. Really, this deck is about threats that laugh in the face of sweepers. Against aggro, you play control, killing their key threats then dropping boom-booms.

If this is your sort of deck, I definitely recommend this list since it’s very reasonable against Bant and G/W plus smokes U/W Flash (if anyone still plays that in your area). I do think the Bant lists will evolve to be better against it, but it will continue to be a very solid deck.

Leaning towards Bant, I had one more option to consider. Gerry Thompson was toying around with an Esper Control list, and I liked a lot of what he was talking about, so I sat down to jam some games against Cedric Phillips. Cedric piloted a fairly typical Rakdos deck, while I was packing something very close to the following:


I liked the idea of a lot of wraths, and if Bant Control was as popular as we thought it’d be, a bunch of Drownyards sounded like a powerful trump. Unfortunately, Lingering Souls just didn’t impress me, and trying to beat Rakdos without Thragtusk was a real pain.

The final conclusion was no one involved wanted anything to do with anything involved. I settled on Bant, while Gerry decided to play red instead of black. Cedric was not in love with his mana base, and some last minute musings by Gerry had him lying in bed all night brewing Mono-Red Aggro instead of sleeping.

After last minute chats with the Bant Control posse, here’s the 75 I registered:


This list is obviously cut from the same cloth as the Bant Control list most of us played last week, but there were a number of changes.

To start with, we all cut at least one Augur, and Sam actually cut all three. Augur is certainly a nice card against Rakdos, but we had stuff we wanted to make room for and could not afford to go any lower in the sorcery/instant department.

For me, this bonus card was Staff of Nin. The card is still underrated and makes for a very reasonable fifth Sphinx’s Revelation. People don’t actually have all that much artifact removal, so if you can play it and don’t die immediately it gains a pretty big advantage. That it taps to deal one damage is actually a very important part of the “not dying immediately” plan. There are a lot of one-toughness creatures, so this will often be as good as drawing two extra cards a turn (instead of just one). Some people used Amass the Components or an extra Jace instead of the Staff, but I was happy with it.

A swap most of us made was replacing a Jace with a Tamiyo to diversify our victory conditions. Tamiyo’s ability to keep a permanent locked down helps shore up weaknesses to nonbasic lands, but it’s also more effective against Rakdos than Jace.

One place I strayed from the others was with wanting a maindeck Terminus. While many of the others loved Think Twice, I was a little less keen on it, deciding to trim the fourth for a maindeck Terminus. I think Sam was the only other person to cut a Think Twice, but he actually greatly dislikes it in Bant, opting to play stone zero. Of course, Sam went in a little bit different of a direction than the rest of us, playing no Augurs or Angels either, giving him lots of room for all the sweet cards you don’t normally get to play if you Augur, such as Ground Seal and multiple Detention Spheres plus a playset of Azorius Charms main.

Reid said that it was vital to have at least three Azorius Charms in your 75, and he would recommend four. The primary motivation is needing ways to buy time against Aristocrats and Thundermaws. I’m glad I listened and played the four, as they were awesome all day. I do think it would have better to play three maindeck instead of just two. The card isn’t the highest impact sideboard card but is never really terrible.

I debated whether or not to actually maindeck the Elixir, as I expected lots of aggro and sideboard it out quite often. Unfortunately, if Bant is super popular, it can be pretty tough to win without it. Also, the card has a dramatic impact on the Reanimator matchup. Most of the time you go real big against them, but if you don’t have Elixir, you just run out of gas. You often have to wrath every other turn, pretty much perpetually.

Owen, Shahar, and Reid realized Bant needs Elixir to play its best game against Reanimator, so we all took our Rest in Peaces out. Some people might have had one copy to board against U/W Flash (where it is an all-star), but we generally thought U/W Flash was on the way out, so we didn’t want to waste the slot. If you expect a fair bit of Reanimator, I would just use a Grafdigger’s Cage or two.

Another new piece of technology the guys came up with to battle Reanimator was Alchemist’s Refuge. Being able to Wrath at instant speed is absolutely game winning when they’re all-in on Craterhoof Behemoth (which they are). As an added bonus, it’s really nice in the mirror and against any other blue decks.

I expressed my reluctance about Drownyard again, as it did nothing for me last week. Sure enough, after Day 1, Drownyard did basically nothing for me except make my mana tougher. Of course, I only faced one control deck in eighteen rounds so far (between last weekend and Day 1 of San Antonio). The gang all swore it was vital, and I definitely trust their judgment on this matter. Besides, if all the DIs played a Drownyard and I didn’t, how was I realistically going to win the tournament (having to make it through some amount of them).

Making room for the Alchemist’s Refuge was a bit tricky. After all, everyone wanted to keep the Drownyard, and there’s almost no chance I’d cut a Cavern. They are just too important against every blue deck. This led to people wanting to cut an Island. I actually ended up “cutting an Island,” but unlike most of the others, I had actually cut a Hallowed Fountain last weekend, making room for a third Island.

People were dubious of cutting a Hallowed Fountain at first. After all, you want Sunpetal Grove to come into play untapped. However, we have way too much white mana in this deck anyway (since Farseek basically always gets Hallowed Fountain), so it comes down to how often does the two life matter versus how often does Sunpetal being tapped matters.

I think it’s close because both are very close to the same thing for our purposes. However, my intuition was that the Island would be slightly less likely to “cost us” since the fail case generally involves Sunpetal Grove and if you have both, you’re actually fine playing Sunpetal on 1 then Island on 2. It’s only if you draw the Sunpetal after playing an Island that it really hits you. Getting to play one less land that does damage to us seemed kind of nice with how much aggro we were expecting. After one day of competition, I stand by the split.

It’s certainly possible that Glacial Fortress should have been cut instead, but in my experience, when you have both M10s and shocklands, the M10s are better and make you want to play as many as possible.

The sideboard had a couple of minor tweaks. To begin with, we replaced the third Centaur Healer with a Rhox Faithmender. This was largely because Centaur Healer’s utility dropped a bit now that everyone flies over the top and has Searing Spears. Rhox Faithmender is a better blocker and balls pretty hard when combined with a Thragtusk. Additionally, he blocks Loxodon Smiter and Rancored Thalias and Precinct Captains.

Rhox Faithmender was actually at the heart of one of the most epic matches I’ve played in a while. It was a feature match against Wrapter that you can read about here. I recommend checking out the full match, but here’s the cliff’s notes version of the exciting game 2 (aka the Rhox Faithmender game).

Wrapter went for lethal, and I responded with a three point Sphinx, barely surviving. On my turn, I swept the board and dropped the Faithmender. He presented a Sublime Archangel that quickly picked up trample from Rancor and double strike from Silverblade Paladin. I played a Thragtusk and a Restoration Angel and attacked, shooting me all the way up to 25.

Of course, his swing back had me on the ropes again. He Nevermored Sphinx’s Revelation and had me back down to just a couple life. Fortunately, I topdecked Azorius Charm to gain 34 points of life thanks to double lifelink all around. This combined with a Centaur Healer put me at a comfortable enough life total to win the race despite taking nearly twenty a turn for several turns in a row.

I ended up going on to lose the match after an epic game 3. I played my heart out and frankly would have beaten 98% of people in that spot, but Wrapter made several really tough, close calls that got him one extra damage, resulting in me having to Sphinx for four just to stay alive against an Avacyn’s Pilgrim (with Township) while at two life.

If I’d had a single additional life point, I could have Farseeked twice and played another land, letting me Sphinx for seven instead of four. As it turned out, I drew all land, but three extra cards would have easily won it for me.

Reid has been on the Sigarda, Host of Herons sideboard plan forever, but it was not until this weekend that I came around. It’s not so much that she’s a reliable victory condition but that she’s such a good blocker against Aristocrats, Hellriders, and sometimes even Dragons. In fact, if not for Thundermaw’s come into play ability, I would have played a second Sigarda.

Owen was advocating a two-two split of Negate and Dispel (which is what he ran last week). After having used three Negate and one Dispel last week, I was inclined to agree with him. The extra mana you save can make a big difference when you’re protecting your Sphinx for four (instead of four) and other such permission battles.

I was not totally on board with the Jace in the sideboard since it was my worst sideboard card last week. However, everyone said it was very important for the control matchups, which I thought I would encounter this week. After Day 1 of GP San Antonio, I’ve only faced one control deck, but Jace won me the game I drew it.

As part of our effort to improve our game against giant hasty fliers, we all added a Detention Sphere. Sam actually played three, and I’m not sure that’s such a bad idea. I would like to find something better against Falkenrath Aristocrat, but if I can’t come up with something, I wouldn’t hate the third Sphere. There is real tension with Augur of Bolas, but the card was good for me all day.

Finally, Pithing Needle is probably the weakest card in the board at this point. I wasn’t sure I wanted to play it seeing as U/W Flash was majorly on the decline. However, it seemed like there might be enough random planeswalkers to take a chance on it. Still, if I had to register again tomorrow, I think I’d replace the Needle with another card against Aristocrat. I considered boarding it against Aristocrat, but that seems like a losing battle.

I wonder if Pacifism might be the ticket. Aristocrat makes it much less effective against Messenger and Gravecrawler than it would otherwise be, but it’s cheap and somewhat effective. It’s a bit more exciting against G/W, though Faith’s Shield diminishes this somewhat.

If all we want to do is fight Aristocrat, Midnight Haunting is another option. Sometimes you’ll actually catch a naked Aristocrat, but more often than not it will mean two turns of chump blocking (and sacrifices). Of course, a single Knight of Infamy throws a serious wrench in this plan.

I gotta call it a night. As of this writing, I am 7-2 at GP San Antonio, having defeated Mono-Red Aggro, Bant w/ Huntmasters, U/W/R Tempo, and G/W Populate. As mentioned above, my two losses came at the hands of Wrapter’s G/W Humans deck and Orry Swift’s B/R Aggro deck.

Despite being only 7-2, I am super pleased with my performance today, as it was the first time I punted zero games all day at a GP in months. Most players greatly underestimate just how many games they throw away every single day. Being painfully aware of just how many matches I could be winning with perfect play is generally a tough pill to swallow, but a day like today, where I was at the top of my game, feels pretty darn good regardless of what actual record I ended up with.

Maybe there was something I could have done to try to get Wrapter to make a mistake in our match, but when it comes to actual technical play, I completely stand by every single major decision I made in each of my two losses. Hopefully, I can keep this going into tomorrow. I’ll be back Wednesday, hopefully singing songs of glory (not to mention discussing that five-color deck I alluded to earlier and what I would do to it…).

See you then!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”