Stirring The Pot

Join Matt Higgs as he tells you about a deck idea he had last year that he recently managed to turn into a budget-friendly FNM-worthy list.

Among many of my fabulous hobbies, I love to cook. Whether it’s a Thanksgiving feast or a simple chicken dish for a night in, I enjoy getting my hands dirty and making something tasty. I like to follow recipes, but I’m starting to make things up as I go along more and more; I’m far less picky than I was in my youth, so I have a larger range of flavors to draw from to create a unique dish. I learn more about when to do what based on the nature of the food I’m making, and I’ve been humbled through lessons of "less is more" in my seasoning amounts. Many dishes, while tasty and satisfying throughout the year, are especially delicious or meaningful certain times of the year, whether it’s the weather or a holiday that defines the dish’s quality.

Yeah, most anything can be an analogy for Magic.

Today’s deck has been a long time in production. When the constituents of an expansion begin to emerge a couple weeks before their release, it has been my tradition since Zendikar to create a document where I brainstorm deck ideas. Dozens of ’em usually pour onto the page, and most of them aren’t worth the 45 seconds it takes to add them to the list. Many I scratch out and some I modify to mention in one of these articles, but an occasional few bubble to the top, right where I can’t ignore them.

If you’ve read any of my articles about (or referencing) my Theros Block Constructed deck, I love heroic. In general, it’s a fairly weak mechanic, requiring the expenditure of a spell on one of your creatures and leaving you open to two-for-ones in the form of removal or just being able to effectively block or negate the creature’s effect. Some have given it a shot on occasion and resorted to a more traditional aggro or tempo shell regardless of the color choices.

Although I’ve made a version with nearly every possible color combination, black has proven to be the best core color with which to begin. Green (for now) has almost nothing, and blue’s offerings are generally non-aggressive, where I think a heroic shell works best. White has proven strong for Block Constructed, but I decided to take up the Cult’s mantle when turning to Standard.

My initial scribble came up with this rough Rakdos shell back in September.

It was a bit grainy, but it played heavily on the heroic theme, jamming cheap creatures like Akroan Crusader. As it lay amongst 30-odd other potentially interesting and exciting brews, I let it sit for months without touching it. Then autumn began, and I reached from this deck’s brethren before I gave it a glance and passed it over again. The other recipes were flashier and more colorful, and this one collected dust in the stack.

It wasn’t until the new year that I revisited this list; I had gotten a feel for the metagame and felt more comfortable making deck selections based on what other folks were playing. Moreover, I love doing budget decks, so I prowled my original deck templates for something juicy and came across this list. Noticing how inexpensive the deck’s parts were, I decided to give it a shot, though I modified it before getting the pieces to test it.

As I plunged into the budget angle, I fashioned a more tailored version of the deck, which looked like this.

Let’s look at the deck more in depth.

Beginning with the creatures, Tormented Hero, our format’s Diregraf Ghoul, does its job ably, providing two power for one and a nifty heroic effect that remains highly conducive to chipping away at your opponent’s life total. Bonded with the instants and enchantments present in the deck, this innocuous 2/1 can be the workhorse of an effective aggressive strategy. Rakdos Cackler is a worse but easier-to-cast version of the Human Warrior, but his place in Rakdos Aggro is not in question.

Likewise, Spike Jester staples a whopping three power to a two-mana hasty critter. Three power is enough to take a lot of more expensive creatures down, and the added power given by the deck’s spells makes this a one-shot kill in the right situation. Haste is a great tool to fight slower and more powerful removal. Akroan Crusader makes lots of attackers that also have haste; I wish he had it too, but you can’t have it all. The more guys you can attack with, the more targets your instant pump spells have, and the more effective alpha-strike spells like Dynacharge can be.

Finally, Agent of Fates is a respectable 3/2 that has the potential to trade up in combat. Furthermore, his heroic ability can be highly effective in sizing down creature bases in low-creature builds.

Lots of cheap spells complement the aggressive suite of critters, and every single one of them provides targeted additional power to an anemic attack. Boon of Erebos, while being a crappy Bull Rush in some instances, has the potential to save your enchantment-laden Voltron for one measly black mana. The additional power is often relevant by itself, but this is mostly a reactionary spell meant to trigger heroic and provide you value on the cheap. Deviant Glee, this format’s Unholy Strength, comes attached with a trample enabler, which is perfect for sneaking damage past a chump blocker as your opponent scrambles to survive. The point of toughness can be relevant to move a weak creature out of burn or drain (-X/-X) range, keeping your creatures relevant on an evolving board.

Madcap Skills does nothing for your second stat, but it sure helps your first one while providing additional evasion. Pair with Agent of Fates for a great one-two punch of beatdown! Dynacharge, while a sweeping power boost in the best of situations, can Bull Rush for a heroic trigger or the final cheap push of damage on an unblocked attacker. Titan’s Strength is a redundant effect, but the single scry also allows a bit of card selection to an otherwise flavorless draw step. Dragon Mantle is a cycling heroic enabler, but it has potential on an unblocked attacker to flatten your opponent outright as well.

The land base removed the Mutavault; expense color was a concern, and the heroic spells would do little to capitalize on the land’s creature-on-demand nature. The spells that required BB forced more Swamps than Mountains, and the need for speed expunged the potential for Rakdos Guildgates.

In the sideboard, a set of Thoughtseizes can pluck the win condition or removal spell that could win the game for the opponent right out of his or her fingers, and it capitalizes on decks that frequently mull down to get removal. This deck regularly burns its own life total to cinders, so why not add another self Shock?

Nighthowler, a relic from my B/W Heroic Block Constructed deck, seems to have a good place here too. A Mortivore that can when enchanted survive a removal spell seems like a win on its own. Even if its power and toughness are zero at first, placing it on a creature is still acceptable. Once its target dies, it will come into play as a 1/1; having zero toughness would only kill it if it were still true the next time state-based abilities are checked. By the time that happens, the smoldering remains of your opponent’s removal spell target will be sitting (un)comfortably in your graveyard.

Shadow Alley Denizen was admittedly a bit deep, but I figured with the plethora of black creatures available this would trigger frequently enough to let a Deviant Glee laden Spike Jester sneak by. Resolving a Spike Jester could help it sneak itself through too. Dying Wish was an addition as a bit of a cutesy way to ensure the survival of your greatest threat. It allows a bit of tapout security when stacking one creature with tons of Auras. Casting Hero’s Downfall on a Tormented Hero with a Madcap Skills and a Deviant Glee is brutal, but adding a Dying Wish to the mix makes it a lot less sexy.

Rakdos Charm is one of those sideboard cards for which I always find space, for good or ill. Here my intention is to use it when the opponent adds a bunch of blockers or tokens to the field. Perhaps a couple Elspeth, Sun’s Champion activations or Assemble the Legion triggers and this could kill them outright? Erebos, God Of The Dead survives from the original list, with his drawing ability and life-gain prevention providing a utilitarian but necessary piece to the long-game puzzle.

This was a clean, tidy, and inexpensive list. For those of you interested at home, this list as of the time this article was written costs about $150 top to bottom, and most of that rests in the boarded Thoughtseizes and the maindeck Blood Crypts. If you decided to make this deck more cheaply, here is a breakdown of the replacement costs based on StarCityGames.com pricing and allowing a nickel for each basic land.

Full Deck: $143.60
Replacing Thoughtseizes with Duress: $65.60
Plus replacing Blood Crypt with Rakdos Guildgate: $31.60
Plus replacing Erebos, God Of The Dead with Underworld Connections: $25.10

For the stripped-down version, that’s the price of two movie tickets for a Standard-ready deck with sideboard. On Magic Online the full-priced deck is a hair under 50 tickets, which is a good bargain for a good online deck.

Okay, let’s pump the brakes—is it a good deck?

Unlike some of the decks I’ve whipped up in the past, I’ve tested this one extensively across a wide range of matchups. Before testing I felt great about this list as is and had many of the pieces online, so I picked up the rest and queued up some tournament practice to gauge the deck’s effectiveness.

Playtesting results after ten matches: 5-5

Well, that’s not too bad. I won against aggro and midrange matchups, but once the removal came in I was toast a lot of the time. W/X Aggro and Esper were putty in my hands, but any black- or red-based removal had me over a barrel. I also found that I had to mulligan into oblivion frequently; I wouldn’t find a land in two or three mulligans in one game, and I’d draw infinity of them the next. The deck had to give me a good seven right off the bat because the presence of removal to two-for-one me and Thoughtseize were often enough to decimate a suboptimal draw.

Mono-Black Devotion proved a real stumbling block for me; the removal seemed to be tailored to smack me down. Most of my creatures were too small to survive even a Pharika’s Cure, putting me at a severe disadvantage right out of the gate. Thoughtseize could often pluck the only creature out of my opening hand, leaving me stranded with two or three targeted spells. Something had to change, so I went back to the drawing board for a rehash.


-3 Dragon Mantle, -3 Dynacharge, -2 Swamp, -2 Mountain
+1 Agent Of The Fates, +4 Lightning Strike, +1 Coordinated Assault, +4 Rakdos Guildgate


-2 Rakdos Charm, -1 Nighthowler
+3 Dark Betrayal

I went back into the grinder for some more matches after I made some adjustments. Dragon Mantle rarely had a relevant target, and Dynacharge was almost never applicable as anything more than a Shock. Agent Of The Fates seemed increasingly relevant. Rakdos Charm proved to be awful underwhelming, and Nighthowler was often too expensive to reliably cast in a deck where one and two is about all I can manage.

Playtesting results after five matches: 1-4

Uh oh, that’s the wrong direction. This time my mulligan troubles only increased. The deck had a terrible time balancing color, and I kept keeping hands with Mountain, Akroan Crusader, and a bunch of black spells, only to surprisingly get crushed two or three turns later when literally any removal spell clobbered the Crusader. Removal became increasing obnoxious as I fought more B/W/x Control decks, and midrange decks just simply went over the top of my plan. I decided Akroan Crusader without Dynacharge was a sad excuse for a creature; I never felt good powering it up (it always turned out to be a poor investment), and the 1/1 it made was often equally irrelevant. I swapped it for a card I tried in Block, but I was curious if it would work here.

That’s a lot of downside; the regeneration is shamefully expensive, and the forced attack clause can be a real bummer. Still, the three toughness for two and its ability to survive late in the game through a hail of destroy effects seemed like a vast improvement over a 1/1 making 1/1s at the low, low cost of your whole draw step. I also decided that the deck instead of Guildgates needed a scry land to help smooth the draw out. With that revelation came the discovery of a handful of Profit // Loss copies I’d picked up in during my perennially forced Orzhov DGR block drafting days. It seemed like a more promising option than Titan’s Strength, and a few other numbers shifted too.

Here’s the final recipe.

Playtesting results after ten matches: 9-1

That’s better.

Turns out Deathbellow Raider is a house against control decks. Potentially the best topdeck late game, this two-power bull-man indefatigably pummels any deck that relies on removal to stay afloat. I noticed I was boarding in Nighthowler and Erebos, God Of The Dead in for nearly every matchup, so I made room for them in the main. Nighthowler’s power increased with the ability to squash creatures more frequently in combat.

Erebos always provided draw when I needed it, edging me out over control and midrange matchups alike, and having an extra was always helpful, ensuring a quick find when the games went long. Profit // Loss proved to be crucial in one of my toughest matchups, Mono-White Aggro. Otherwise, Soldier Of The Pantheon undoes me. Madcap Skills and Deviant Glee are still exceptional on the right creature, and the higher power level of the creature base helped the trample be relevant.

The sideboard shifted a bit too. I originally considered Read the Bones, but Toil // Trouble seemed infinitely better. I noticed control decks holding five or six cards at a time, and an aggressive start from me followed by a Trouble could finish them flat out. Fuse them together and you can take a full-gripped opponent down eleven points. Against Mono-Black and U/x Control, this worked wonders for me. In tandem with Erebos’ Skullcrack effect, their Sphinx’s Revelation did little to help them stabilize. Gift of Orzhova was also a great tool against green decks, whose large bruisers could handle me on the ground but would quickly crumble once I took to the skies. The ease of casting adds to its value here, and this on a Madcap Skills infused target was unstoppable.

As a side note, Mono-Black Devotion and Mutavault variations are everywhere on Magic Online; fully half of my matches were against this plan. If this is the case at your local shop, I highly recommend giving this deck a shot. Pre- and post-board this deck trounced nearly any Mono-Black variant. As the creature base got denser, Thoughtseize was less effective and in many cases turned out to be little more than a free Shock. Toil // Trouble punished Underworld Connections users, and Deathbellow Raider dies only to a Devour Flesh. Dark Betrayal takes out their early Pack Rat or late Desecration Demon; it even answers a Gray Merchant of Asphodel if they’re foolish enough to play it alone (you lose no life if they have no devotion when it resolves). Being one mana was huge, and I was happy to have it every time.

Detention Sphere and G/W Aggro (with their fancy-shmancy "Selesnya Charm" removal) presented the largest problem, but even they could be overcome with a strong draw. The scry lands were huge in smoothing out draws, and the tapped clause rarely mattered. With a bit of practice, Rakdos Rumble became a savory succulent dish made from ingredients you can find in your cupboard at home!

This deck is exciting to play, giving you the power and speed of an aggro deck, the good play sequencing of a midrange deck, and the single-spell win conditions of a control deck all on the cheap. Even the adjusted version of this deck, with two Erebos and the addition of some scry lands, stays a healthy distance away from $200, even assuming you are building it utterly from scratch. This deck can compete very well at the FNM level, and it may have the potential with further high-level playtesting to make it in the big leagues. It’s a difficult matchup to counter, as it has elements of each deck type with which your opponent must contend.

This was a fun journey. I still enjoy playing it even after dozens of matches, and it feels good to get on the outside of some of today’s strongest archetypes. Give it a try yourself; the ingredients are cheap, and the flavor is out of this world!

Although I’ve babbled on for a minute, before I go I want to draw out a list that I published almost a year ago based on the enchantment Pyroconvergence. Even though I didn’t feel like any of the multicolored offerings from Theros merited an inclusion, Gatecrash and Dragon’s Maze had a few. Here’s how I’d build this year-old list today.

Thanks for hanging in there today, and I hope you enjoy cooking up fun decks with me each week. Spoilers keep pouring out daily, and my eyes will be glued to the screen the whole time. Soon we’ll be knee deep in the new brews that these 165 new cards bring us. I can’t wait to taste them!

Until next week, don’t forget to untap!