Sullivan Library – Johnny Walker Red

Read Adrian Sullivan every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Adrian Sullivan has quite the pedigree when it comes to the State Championships. This year he worked long and hard with [email protected] DeGraff, polishing and tweaking an innovative Red deck that can drag wins from nowhere. Today’s Sullivan Library takes a look at the development of this powerful deck, and Adrian suggests that the deck is a true contender in the post-States metagame. If you’re looking for an innovative and exciting Red deck, then this is the article for you!

I remember when I liked the term “deck designer.” I don’t know when it was that I turned the page on this one. Sometimes I still use the term, but it’s kind of a force of habit, like thinking about Pluto as a planet.

I’m pretty sure that it was Randy Buehler that made me turn the corner. Or maybe it was Mike Donais. Regardless, I’ve come to think about deck “design” as an element of exploration, rather than design.

Take the various Red/Green Tarmogoyf decks that were played throughout States this year. They all had Tarmogoyf. They all had Tarfire. Some of them, perhaps most of them, had Garruk. Most of them probably had Mogg Fanatic and Incinerate. I bet that a fair number of them were running Greater Gargadon. I’m sure they all had Call of the Herd. I can easily imagine many of them running Stormbind. If I ran a deck like this, I’d probably cap the curve off with Siege-Gang Commander. As far as Enchantments or Artifacts go, it might even be worth it to include some number of each, even if it is a small number. Stormbind is one of those cards that I’ve always, generally loved.

4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Call of the Herd
4 Garruk Wildspeaker
4 Siege-gang Commander
4 Greater Gargadon
4 Tarfire
4 Incinerate
3 Stormbind
2 Llanowar Reborn
4 Treetop Village
7 Forest
9 Mountain
4 Karplusan Forest

Wow! I “designed” a TarmoGruul deck! W00t, w00t!

If someone were to play a deck like this, would they have to credit me? No, not really. Other lists like this, to a great or (probably) lesser extent have been published before this. Should it really be laying itself at their feet? Probably not.

Think of some place that is near your home that you didn’t know existed, and one day you stumble upon it. Maybe it is a great café or bar, or a great place to rent movies, or the best hamburger you can buy. But it’s close. Maybe you tell someone about it, and they say, “Oh, that place. I’ve known about it for a long time now. When did you stumble upon it?”

For a lot of reasons, thinking about deckbuilding as an exercise in exploration is a useful metaphor. When someone “goes rogue,” in a lot of ways, what they’re doing is traveling off the beaten path, going someplace that no one really was aware of before. Usually, these places aren’t worth revisiting. But, sometimes, every so often, they really become worth going to. Some of them are even the new hot place in town to go visit.

When I started working on States decks, it was late in the season to be doing so. I was on the plane back from Valencia. Gaudenis Vidigiris was on the plane several rows back, and I showed him the deck I was looking at. He was pretty dubious. It looked something like this:

4 Rift Bolt
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Incinerate
3 Beacon of Destruction
4 Siege-gang Commander
3 Hostility
3 Thunderblade Charge
4 Needle Drop
4 Mind Stone
4 Zoetic Caverns
4 Ghitu Encampment
4 Keldon Megaliths
4 Vesuva
9 Mountain

I had killed a lot of creatures in a PTQ with Needle Drop, and so I was kind of high on the card, but from another standpoint, it just looked like a card I could reliably use to finish of a Tarmogoyf, in general.

Gaudenis maintained his dubiousness, unswayed by my arguments.

I tested a little bit here and there, but mostly just tested in my head.

When I got back to the States, I started trying out some different cards here and there. It was talking to [email protected] DeGraff, and I managed to convince him to come into Madison to do some playtesting with me. By this point, I had already come up with a very different Red list than the above. He expressed some interest in playing a deck without Tarmogoyfs and without Thoughtseize. We talked a bit, and I encouraged him to express his opinions on what kind of Red cards should be in a heavy burn list. When I brought up Needle Drop as a way to finish off Tarmogoyf, his eyes lit up.

The other card that I brought up really made his eyes light up.

“Furnace of Rath!” he exclaimed.


“Wow. That makes it easy to kill anything, even if it is really big.”

“I know.”

“And you could just kill them, without hardly working at it.”


This is roughly where we found ourselves:

4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Incinerate
4 Rift Bolt
4 Needle Drop
4 Siege-Gang Commander
3 Beacon of Destruction
3 Molten Disaster
3 Thunderblade Charge
3 Furnace of Rath
28 Land

After testing, I wasn’t too keen on the Rift Bolt any more, and I didn’t think we really had the creatures to support Thunderblade Charge, but [email protected] was insistent. And I definitely wanted to explore the idea, just to see if it was worthwhile. “Rift Bolt is an auto-include,” he said.

For me, I was excited about Chandra. Chandra Nalaar in combination with Furnace of Rath sounded like it could be really, really hot. (So to speak, har har.)

Visions of people taking 20 from a single activation of Chandra’s Bomb-y ability swam through my head. My version ([email protected]) had already began to explore Chandra, but it didn’t end up making him too excited.

We playtested a session versus TarmoRack and then went our separate ways to test the deck. Pretty quickly I had ditched Rift Bolt. I asked [email protected] about his experience with the card. “Yeah, it’s not that great, like I thought it would be…”

As for Chandra, I’d managed to talk him into a few copies of the card, and he liked it. We were going to run with that instead. Beacon had proved itself so much to both of us that we were 100% certain that it should be a four-of. So often it would just kill a Goyf or some other large creature without any help. Directed at someone’s face, it just seemed like a huge blowout. Molten Disaster had also proven its worth. [email protected] was sure that it should be a four-of.

By the time I went down to Netherworld Games for some more testing, we’d advanced to this list:

4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Incinerate
4 Beacon of Destruction
4 Siege-gang Commander
4 Needle Drop
4 Molten Disaster
3 Chandra Nalaar
3 Furnace of Rath
4 Mind Stone
26 Land

I was pretty gung-ho about the Needle Drops for a long time. They really did seem to be getting a lot of work done in the deck. Sometimes, it would just make it so easy to finish off a wounded Tarmogoyf. Other times, you’d be really clever and you’d block something like a Treetop Village with a Ghitu Encampment and then finish it off with a Needle Drop and feel really, really proud of yourself.

And, in all honesty, I still think that it is a fine card.

But the deck doesn’t need fine cards.

I spent a long time playing against the Star City Games $1000-tournament-winning Elf deck. The problem with the Needle Drops was that they didn’t do enough on their own versus an opponent who was throwing a lot of different things at you. In fact, unless you were on the offense, or they were taking damage from a pain land, they could often sit there in your hand, while you wished you had some kind of spell.

At the same time, I sat down against Brian Kowal and his new Con-Troll update that I mentioned last week. (Side note to Hanno Terbuyken and the coverage staff at Wizards: the “unclassifiable” deck played by Bruno Panara is card-for-card Brian Kowal’s Con-Troll. Just so you know.) At the end of the session, it was clear that I loved Kowal’s deck. How could I not? It was Con-Troll! I loved Con-Troll. My only GP Top 8 is with Con-Troll! There were, however, a lot of things that I thought were probably wrong with Kowal’s deck.

It was a conundrum. Go forward and work on the deck I’d been working on, or start working on Kowal’s? I knew that I didn’t have the time to work on both. It was a question of resources, really. I had the time to test exactly one deck. Partly because the deck really seemed like it needed a lot of work for it to be “correctly” built, I decided not to go with that choice, even though it looked like the deck had even more promise than the deck I was working on. Given the time I had left, I stand by that decision. I still wish I had had more time, though.

I had concluded that there are occasionally problematic cards that it seems that Red is hard-pressed to deal with. Loxodon Warhammer. The Rack. And just the random possibility of the unknown. We end up debating back and forth about what to do about this, when [email protected] brought up the possibility of splashing other colors. By substituting Coalition Relic for the Mind Stone and tossing in some special land, we’d be able to easily splash other colors and still have access to all of the Red we need.

After a lot of searching, I realized that if we’re going to splash into another color, Oblivion Ring could be the random answer to the unknown problematic card. [email protected] quickly found us Ancient Amphitheater, and we debated back and forth about whether to also include Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] or not. I decided to take things a step further and try out Windbrisk Heights, thinking that it might be a card that could randomly be triggered fairly often off the Kher Keep in the deck or the Siege-Gang.

It ended up being pretty great, actually. The problem was the Oblivion Rings didn’t really seem like the most fantastic card choice. We could support the White, but did we really, actually want it? Running Oblivion Rings was fine and all, but what we really wanted to be doing was killing them. In addition, the playtesting against a large number of decks really made me feel like we needed to be making some other minor changes.

First of all, the deck really did want more creatures. Even if it was something to just hold the board ever so slightly, for the barest amount of time, it wanted to be doing it. Playing against Elves, playing against TarmoRack, playing against Red splashing Green, playing against Blue/White control, playing against Mystical Teachings decks — regardless of the particular matchup, it just wanted a few more men. Taking a clue from my Block mono-Red deck, I pitched Mogg War Marshal to [email protected] He had come to the same conclusion on his own…

In addition, there was the question of Furnace of Rath.

Furnace of Rath was incredible… conditionally. You only really wanted to cast it sometimes. If you had it at the wrong moment, it really did feel like a mulligan. Drawing two would be incredible sometimes, and other times be another mulligan. Yet, it allowed some really ridiculous things to happen. After we had included the War Marshal, there were plenty of times that we’d have a huge board presence of little weenies, and we’d drop a Furnace, and the whole world would go to hell for our opponent. The fantastic Furnace/Beacon combo ended so many games, it seemed hard to imagine cutting it. It was really the pressure of the land that got to us.

[email protected] and I were also getting into a large series of disagreements about the nature of the sideboard. I was advocating for Detritivore, largely after playing against Kowal’s deck. [email protected] insisted that we didn’t have the mana for it now that we had cut the Coalition Relics back for Mind Stone to return to being mono-colored. This got me thinking about mana. But first, a relevant aside on Brian Kowal…

I met Brian almost 11 years ago at a PTQ in Chicago. A few weeks would pass and I would meet him at a PTQ in Minneapolis, where he would get Top 4 with a Sligh deck of his own design, based largely, he said, on some of the comments I had given him in Chicago. Pointing him to the Dojo had led him to a ton of information about Sligh, and so he marched into Minneapolis with an Orcish Librarian-fueled Sligh deck, and only narrowly missed qualifying, losing in the semis of a two-slot Qualifier.

As time passed, he and I became great friends and collaborators. When I formed Cabal Rogue out of the minds of some of my favorite people on USENET and the Dojo, I invited Brian Kowal because he clearly had a fantastic mind for Magic. He’s shown this again and again. One of the things that I think he and I have in common is our ability to craft decks in largely unexplored formats that are heads above the general competition. Over time, these decks often fall into the center of the pack, but in that initial flurry, they are usually overwhelming for a typical opponent.

Among Brian Kowal’s many contributions to the game is the archetype known as Ponza. For those of you who aren’t sure what Ponza is, I would define Ponza as a Red-based control deck that includes some element of mana control. Randy Buehler once defined Ponza as “Mono-Red that takes out the Jackal Pups and replaces them with uncastable spells.” He was referring to cards like Wildfire.

Here is Brian’s comment about his deck for Rath Block that he made just before the end of that PTQ season:

“I lost one game all tourney playing against Trade-Awake, Humble-Prayer, Counterphoenix, White Weenie, and this crappy combo deck Castro played. It’s called Ponza Rotta Red. Here it is if you haven’t seen it.”

4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Fireslinger
4 Flowstone Giant
2 Ogre Shaman
3 Shard Phoenix

4 Shock
4 Kindle
4 Lightning Blast
2 Seismic Assault

4 Stone Rain

4 Stalking Stones
4 Wasteland
19 Mountain

The deck might not have been perfectly honed, but it had all of the elements that would define future Ponza decks. Copious burn (“the cheese”), solid creatures (“the meat”), mana control (“the sauce”), and, of course, the versatile mana (“the crust”). The Red deck that [email protected] and I were working on was in many ways a “sauceless” Ponza deck (which any true lover of ponzas will tell you doesn’t qualify as a ponza at all).

A bonza ponza

Still, though, it had some lessons for us with regards to “the crust.”

One of the keys to any high-mana Red deck is to have mana that can somehow translate into doing something else. Take Brian’s first Ponza: it is only running Stalking Stones and Wasteland, but both of those can be incredibly useful. It also happens to have an outlet for excess mana in the form of Seismic Assault. When I won Wisconsin States with Burning Ponza, my manabase looked like this*:

3 Barbarian Ring
4 Forgotten Cave
16 Mountain
4 Petrified Field

* I would also include 3 Burning Wish for Slice and Dice and Overmaster among my “mana.”

Forgotten Cave and Barbarian Ring could be both translated into another use entirely, and the four Petrified Fields could compound this utility by copying whichever side was more useful. Many, many games could be won based on a repetition of Barbarian Ring, turning a mana flooded draw into a new spell, or just getting Threshold more easily.

Here’s another example of Ponza mana, from my 1999 Regionals deck:

Veggie Ponza
Adrian Sullivan, 6th Midwest Regionals

4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Shock
4 Incinerate
3 Arc Lightning

1 Shard Phoenix
3 Nevinyrral’s Disk
4 Wildfire
1 Apocalypse
4 Avalanche Riders
4 Stone Rain

4 Ghitu Encampment
1 Shivan Gorge
3 Stalking Stones
4 Wasteland
16 Mountain

28 mana is a lot of mana for a deck that isn’t running card draw or counterspells. If you make your mana useful, though, it is actually hard to get flooded, even when you draw a lot of it.

I started thinking a lot about our manabase. I really wanted the Detritivores, but from my experience in Block, I had to agree with [email protected] that they were largely underwhelming unless you were actually activating them for quite a bit. Perhaps it was time to return to Coalition Relic. But, the problem I had found was that I didn’t want to cut the Mind Stone. They were too good. They reminded me so much of the synergy of Petrified Field with Forgotten Cave. But, I agreed that we needed Coalition Relic if the Detritivores were going to make any sense.

I thought about it a lot, and realized that I was thinking about a manabase with Relic and a two-drop artifact accelerant, and a lot of land besides. Immediately, my mind went to Gerry Thompson update of his Teachings deck, and Luis Scott-Vargas update of that update. I looked up the LSV deck, and found the mana: 26 land, 4 Prismatic Lens, and 3 Coalition Relic.

This would be my base. Time was running short, however, and so I took a shortcut largely based on my gut. Whereas LSV had 26 land, he also had card drawing, most importantly Careful Consideration, to ditch any glutted land. I didn’t have that luxury. I decided that 25 land would cut it.

This still left too many slots though, and so I had to return to the Furnace of Rath. I agreed with [email protected] that the card was too good not to include. But if I ran two copies of the card, I was at 61 cards. If I could help it, I didn’t want to run a 61 card deck. Every other spell had really proven itself, but the Furnace was sometimes a dead card. It was completely insane in some matches, especially if you were up against any amount of life gain, but in others, it was only situationally good. Even in the matchups where it seemed not great, it could be a total way to steal a game.

The solution I proposed, that [email protected] eventually agreed with, was to play only a single copy of the Furnace. This way, we would never draw a second copy, completely eliminating the possibility of an automatic mulligan status to the card. It would give us a potential (or even likely) out against any deck that got to a very late game with life gain. It still would provide us the occasional game stealing, and we could board in more against any opponent. We tested it in the short time we had remaining, and were very, very satisfied.

Our sideboard got rounded out by Pithing Needle (the colorless “Oblivion Ring”) as our answer to some of the problematic cards, as well as being a catch-all against anything truly unforeseen. The Detritivores made it in, and Sulfurous Blast won out over Pyroclasm and Martyr of Ashes as our sweep spell. The final slot, Quagnoth, became our answer to the Rack, as well as being an occasionally massively problematic spell for the control matchup.

At this point, the deck was essentially completed. [email protected] and I essentially agreed on every card in the deck, and agreed enough about the sideboard that we decided it would be the right call. Much phone-calling and running about later, the deck was finally complete:

An unnamed Red deck
Adrian Sullivan and [email protected] DeGraff

4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Mogg War Marshal
4 Siege-Gang Commander
4 Incinerate
4 Beacon of Destruction
4 Molten Disaster
3 Chandra Nalaar
1 Furnace of Rath

4 Mind Stone
3 Coalition Relic

4 Ghitu Encampment
2 Zoetic Caverns
2 Keldon Megaliths
3 Fungal Reaches
1 Pendelhaven
1 Kher Keep
12 Mountain

4 Quagnoth
4 Pithing Needle
3 Sulfurous Blast
3 Detritivore
1 Furnace of Rath

A piece of advice: if you’re going to make a deck which could be called innovative, you should make sure you have it named before you begin playing it in an event you think is important. Maybe I’m just superstitious, but I really think that it is why I didn’t do as well as I would have liked. I’ve played the deck a lot since Regionals (with very slight modifications), and I’ve completed been impressed by it. It played out well. Really well.

I was out of contention by round 3. [email protected] was knocked out of contention in the final round. To be fair, both of us were only a single match loss out of Top 8. And both of us made an error that might have cost us a match. That said, we didn’t make Top 8.

I still think the deck is amazing.

I looked back on my rounds, and I usually felt well in control of the match. The only time this wasn’t the case was when I played against Jasper, Wisconsin’s last and only Limited State Champion, who would go on to Top 8 with his Kithkin deck. I got hit by a surprise Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender via a Windbrisk Heights in combat that just really got me. If I had realized he could activate it, I might have won that game. But, I didn’t.

One of the things I absolutely love about this deck is the sheer amount of damage that it is capable of dishing out, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. I remember playing a game against a Doran deck where I stalled him out with a pair of Mogg War Marshals, and then dropped Furnace. I did the math. Unless he had a bona-fide Giant Growth, he’d be unable to kill me. I’d drop to 4. He comes in, I block. I swing back with a dead War Marshal’s mourner for 2, cast a Beacon for 10, and an Incinerate for 6. Take 18. Boom boom!

Even without a Furnace out, there are so many cards that can just dish out a ton of damage on their own. An unchecked War Marshal can end up dealing a surprising amount of damage, but when you toss a Siege-Gang out, it is usually enough to end a game unless they deal with it. Chandra usually doesn’t go boom, but the mere threat of her going boom is problematic enough. Molten Disaster does a ridiculous amount of damage, often at kicker, when power up by 32 mana sources without even considering the impact of Reaches and Relic.

Still, though, I’m sure that the board was wrong.

4 Pithing Needles was just too many. We never need that many. Detritivore was underwhelming. I was also somewhat underwhelmed by Quagnoth. Even in testing against decks with The Rack, I felt like I could be doing better. Sulfurous Blast was incredible in testing.

After a lot of soul searching, I changed around the sideboard to include the changed sideboard. One of the interesting things, though, was that I always felt like I wanted slightly more mana. The 32 didn’t seem like enough! But I didn’t want to cut a single spell. In the end, [email protected] and I decided that 61 was acceptable. We agreed on every spell, and both felt like a teeny tiny bit more mana would have helped. Working with “the crust” principle, we made the extra land another Zoetic Caverns to reduce the potential for pure flood.

And we came up with the name of the deck:

I asked Richard Feldman if Furnace of Rath/Beacon of Destruction and Furnace of Rath/Chandra Nalaar was a Johnny combo. He laughed and said “Definitely.” With a total of 6 Planeswalkers between main and board (though the Time Spiral Jaya hasn’t yet made the transition), the name just kind of sprung up, in a kind of perfect harmony.

If I were forced at gunpoint to drop a card from the deck, I’d cut 1 Chandra Nalaar, but I’d hate myself for it. I’d rather run the 61. Honestly, the only card that I feel gets really hurt by the inclusion of the 61st card is less chance of drawing Kher Keep. Kher Keep is a complete beating. I can’t tell you how often a Kher Keep has turned a game from scarily against me into a complete blowout. If it weren’t Legendary, I’d run two.

Much of the sideboard remains the same, though now it includes Jaya and Browbeat. Browbeat is a very good anti-control damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t spell. Browbeat is one of those dangerous cards that can sometimes be completely dead in the wrong deck or in the wrong matchup. Essentially, if you’re on the defensive or at the end a very tight race, a Browbeat does nothing for you but waste your time. In the right deck, in the right matchup, you can push your damage over the edge, whether it is one-for-one, or drawing into more of it.

Jaya is a card designed to answer potential tempo races (like Blink), or to be brought in against decks that have weak answers to it. An unchecked Jaya can totally dominate the table. Jaya also makes the Keldon Megaliths much more powerful. Against a Blue opponent, an untapped Jaya is very, very problematic, negating any Blue permanent they might put out, and changing any bad spell into an Incinerate. I’m actually quite excited by the inclusion of this card in the board.

I’m not sure how this deck will fare as the Standard metagame develops, but I know that I’m going to be playing it incredibly regularly in the coming weeks. Not only is the deck a complete blast to play, but it is also incredibly powerful.

If only I’d actually named the deck, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was a triply-crowned Wisconsin State Champion. Alas…

Until next time, good luck in any tournaments you might be in. Anyone playing the deck out there in the world, shoot me a line in the forums, and let me know how it goes…

Adrian Sullivan