It’s game one, round one of a Pro Tour Qualifier. You have made the excellent choice of playing Red Deck Wins, and you win the dice roll to go first. You draw your opening seven cards, to find the following:
Lava Dart, Cursed Scroll, Pillage, Blistering Firecat, Wooded Foothills, Mountain, Mountain.
Do you keep this hand, or mulligan it?
What about if your hand instead was:
Lava Dart, Cursed Scroll, Firebolt, Goblin Cadets, Wooded Foothills, Mountain, Mountain ?
This Extended qualifying season has seen leaps and bounds in innovative decks. Whole different strategies, like Life and Cephalid Breakfast, have been combined. Desire decks have moved away from adding Black towards adding White. Aether Vial has been popping up all over the place. And Red Deck Wins? Well, Red Deck Wins looks pretty much exactly like it did before the Pro Tour. Some people have swapped Tangle Wire for Pillage, or Lava Dart for Firebolt, but that’s about it. This is because of that rule that everyone knows about, and has always known about for every Constructed format. The rule is that as soon as you make a good version of a mono-Red deck, you have to stop testing it and instead work on all your other decks until they can beat it.
With a handful of exceptions, this rule has been in force in every Constructed format for the past eight years. Early on in a testing process, you make a good mono-Red deck – which beats all or most of the not-very-well-tuned decks which it is put up against. Then all the other decks improve – Cephalid Breakfast gains the ability to gain millions of life, Desire splashes for Sphere of Law, Goblins add Gempalm Incinerators to remove Grim Lavamancers, until they all beat the Red Deck and everyone can gloat on the internet about how it should be called “Red Deck Loses” rather than Red Deck Wins.
Actually, though, there is no rule against improving the Red Deck. There never has been. All that exists is a self-imposed code by most players who want to justify their prejudice in favor of control decks. And if you don’t follow their code, you can do awfully well.
The first and greatest example of this, of course, was Dave Price in Pro Tour: Los Angeles in 1997, which was a Constructed format that only allowed cards from the Tempest expansion. There are, as anyone playing Extended even now will know, a lot of absurdly powerful Red cards in Tempest, so the first deck that everyone built was the mono-Red deck. Then most of the Pros who wanted to play their control decks tested and tested against these Red decks, and found that the way to beat them involved having Bottle Gnomes, which as a 1/3 were really good against the 2/1 creatures in the Red Deck, and which could generate large life swings when they traded for a creature and a burn spell and then were sacrificed to gain three life. What Dave did, though, was to go back to the Red deck and look for a way of tuning it to take back the advantage, eventually finding out that by adding Giant Strengths to his deck, the Bottle Gnomes (and their controllers) were made to look just a little bit silly, as the Bottle Gnome chump blocked a 4/3 Jackal Pup.
Using this as our inspiration, what are the plans which people have adopted in order to beat the Red Deck in Extended today, and how can we modify the Red Deck to take the advantage back from these decks?
Unlike in the Tempest block, the fact that there are about seven squillion more cards available has meant that people have adopted two different sorts of plans, rather than just the one. The first route that many have taken is to play a combo deck, which is just a little bit quicker to win than the Red Deck, and which can shrug off a lot of the disruption that Red Deck Wins usually relies on. The switch from splashing Black in Desire decks to splashing White, which gives Sunscape Familiars (harder to kill than Nightscape Familiar), and which tends to go off the turn before the Red Deck would win, is a moderate example of the combo route. The Life decks with Aether Vial, which not only blunt the creature beatdown from Red Deck Wins while they are setting up their combo, but use the Vial to weaken the land disruption plan of the Red Deck, are a more extreme example of designing the deck to work well against the traditional strategy of the Red Deck.
The other change is in the Goblin deck, which used to be a good matchup for the Red Deck, but which against current versions of the Goblin decks tends to be very difficult, because you tend to trade your removal spells for their Goblins, and they have 4 Goblin Ringleaders, 3-4 Gempalm Incinerators and 4 Goblin Matrons to gain card advantage, and Aether Vials to help dodge the sorcery-based removal spells and get a steady stream of damage through. Affinity also makes good use of Aether Vial, card drawing and sideboard cards to try to achieve a similar result.
Which brings me back to the two hands which I posted at the start of the article. The problem which Red Deck Wins has at the moment is, oddly, that it is not consistent enough. If you draw a hand full of removal without a one-drop, and your opponent is playing Life, Desire or Aluren, then you are going to lose even if they have a bad start. What’s more, the way that the combo decks have evolved means that you really need a 2-power creature to cast on the first turn, because a Mogg Fanatic or Grim Lavamancer isn’t putting them under the amount of pressure needed to give yourself a reasonable chance. Equally, a draw without removal spells is going to get stomped by Goblins, and to a lesser extent by Affinity and Blue/Green Madness.
The other noticeable thing at the moment is how underwhelming Blistering Firecat is. Against other RDW decks it is bad because of Lava Dart, against the combo decks it is not all that because you have to mulligan a hand with a Firecat and no early pressure, and it often interferes with the need to Port their land, and against Goblins it will randomly win a few games but more often be cast as a morph and then trade with a Goblin, which is not really the standard which we expect of Red cards in this day and age.
The other cards which are not optimal are Pillage and Tangle Wire. Pillage is a card which does a number of different things not very well (overcosted artifact destruction, a bit of land destruction), which is all well and good in a neutral metagame where you can get away with cards which do a bit of everything, but not good when every deck you face is likely to be heavily tested against RDW. Tangle Wire is a card which I’ve never liked in the Red Deck, and is awful against Goblin decks, Affinity and other RDW decks, and only good against combo decks if cast on turn 3 following an early creature rush.
The thing with all three of these cards is that you’ll remember the games when they were really good – when the only card that you could draw to win was a Firecat, when Pillage mana-screwed your Life opponent or destroyed your opponent’s Cursed Scroll, or when Tangle Wire locked up the game and never gave your opponent a chance to set off their combo. You won’t remember nearly as well the marginal hands that you had to keep with these cards in them when you got beaten.
We’re still going to keep most of the rest of the deck – the land, the Pups, Fanatics, Lavamancers, Seals, Darts, Hammers and Scrolls. But we’re going to replace the Firecats and Pillages with cards that maximize our chance of drawing hands which give us the best chance of winning whether facing beatdown decks or combo decks – which as we’ve seen is one with at least one two-power one-drop and a load of removal spells.
The obvious choice for the extra creature is Goblin Cadets. At the PTQ last weekend, I saw someone play with Goblin Patrol, which made me weep tears of shame as he kept on not being able to use his Rishadan Port on turn 2, or paying the echo cost and then seeing his Goblin get Lava Darted or other horrible misfortunes. There are no other reasonable alternatives, and for those of you who haven’t yet got the message, “blocks or becomes blocked” is not something worth worrying about.
There are three choices for the other slot of four cards – Firebolt, Shock and Magma Jet. At the PTQ, John played Firebolt, and I think that this is probably the best choice, because sometimes it will kill a creature early and then a creature or player in the late game. The only thing is that against Aether Vial having sorcery-based removal is pretty weak, so I can see a case for another instant burn spell, but neither of the main options are obviously outstanding.
With all this in mind, let’s go back to the question at the start of the article. What to do if you draw:
Lava Dart, Cursed Scroll, Pillage, Blistering Firecat, Wooded Foothills, Mountain, Mountain.
This hand would need a phenomenal set of top decks and/or bad luck on the opponent’s part to beat an opponent playing Aluren, Desire or Life. The first attack which you can make is on turn 4 with the Firecat, unless you topdeck a creature next turn (which you have a less than 1 in 4 chance of doing). Even with the opportunity to Pillage their land on turn 3, small amounts of land destruction not backed up by any pressure has never been that good a strategy.
Against beatdown decks, this hand is, if anything, worse. The Pillage and Firecat are slow and clunky and unlikely to be relevant, and their presence in your hand means that it is unlikely that you will be able to use the Cursed Scroll until turn 5, or very possibly turn 4 depending on what you draw. Again, you would need a good set of top decks to keep yourself in the game against most of the decks which you are likely to face.
So despite the hand above being one with a good mix of land and spells, and some powerful cards, you would have to seriously consider mulliganing it.
Let’s turn to the other hand:
Lava Dart, Cursed Scroll, Firebolt, Goblin Cadets, Wooded Foothills, Mountain, Mountain
Much better. Your Cadets are guaranteed to be able to swing for 2 damage in any vaguely likely scenario on turn 2, giving you the pressure that you need to be able to take advantage if your opponent stumbles on mana or if you draw Wastelands or Ports. It’s not a perfect hand against combo, but it is clearly a lot better than the previous one.
Against beatdown decks, it is, if anything, even better. The Cadets are not the best card in the world, though they are likely to be able to deal damage at least once or twice, and last I heard a card which dealt 4 damage for one mana was pretty good, but the other cards are great for removing creatures, and the Scroll could be on line as early as turn 3, unless you draw spells you want to cast on turns 2 and 3, which isn’t exactly a disastrous situation.
All of which leaves us with the following, which John took to the semi-final of the PTQ at the weekend, before losing to a Reanimator deck (hey, it happens).
4 Jackal Pup
4 Goblin Cadets
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Lava Dart
4 Seal of Fire
4 Cursed Scroll
4 Volcanic Hammer
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Rishadan Port
As for sideboard, you’ll want 4 Fledgling Dragons for the mirror and a few other odd situations where having a 5/5 firebreathing flier for four mana is good. Against Affinity, which is worth devoting the effort to beating because the sideboard cards which you have are so good against them, a combination of 2 Meltdown and 2 Pulverize should see you through. And 4 Ensnaring Bridge is a necessary evil against Reanimator and, I guess, against Madness and White Weenie, though I found it a rather disturbing sight to see the willingness of RDW players at the PTQ to board in Ensnaring Bridge against more or less any creature deck and transform into a Burning Bridge deck regardless of whether this was likely to make for a more favorable matchup. The other three slots are up for grabs – the case can be made for Sulfuric Vortex, Cursed Totem or Pyrostatic Pillar against various combo decks, but a card which looks more and more appealing the more new multi-colored decks get developed is Price of Progress. Which would leave us with a sideboard of:
4 Ensnaring Bridge
4 Fledgling Dragon
3 Price of Progress
I’m not making the claim that this version of Red Deck Wins has favorable matchups across the board. What I am claiming is that these tweaks to the deck have given it better matchups than older versions, and have responded to the new challenges thrown up by this qualifying season. The results from the qualifiers have shown that despite the hate, Red Deck Wins is still one of the top decks, with as good a record as any other deck for putting people into the Top 8 and qualifying them. But the fact that a deck is doing pretty well is no reason not to continue to try to improve it, and to seek that extra edge.
I’ll be doing my best to continue to tweak this deck in the run up to the Grand Prix, so please do post your thoughts on any of the above in the forums, and let’s get those Red Decks Winning again.