Sullivan Library – The Three Red Decks (No, Not RDW)

Wednesday, November 17th – There are three very viable red decks in Standard right now, and Adrian discusses all of them! None of which are “Red Deck Wins.”

A few weeks back, I flew down to Charlotte to join

in doing the coverage for the StarCityGames.com Open Series. This event solidified for me the current state of red decks (no, none of them are Red Deck Wins*), and the way that they should probably all be built. Rashad Miller, as always, was great company, and I had a blast
covering the event.

One small, unfortunate thing about going to Charlotte was that I really didn’t know anyone local. This meant a lot of things; first and foremost, I had no idea where a local bar of any quality would be! This might not be important to a lot of people, but for me, I really do enjoy being able to get a drink somewhere out on the town that’s solid. A great jukebox is always a huge boon to a bar, but, alas, I really had no idea where to go. I’d have to figure it out on my own, I suppose.

Without a certain destination in mind, I settled in to enjoy my first FNM in about two or more years. Ben Wienburg was in attendance, looking to get in some last-minute practice with the R/U/G Control deck that’s been important from block. FNM wasn’t started

so we played some games. By the end of the evening, I’d

convinced him to switch decks, but not quite; our heads-up record ended up being an overwhelming 12-4 in my favor, with most of his wins, he acknowledged, being from awkward mana screws for my 26-land deck. In the end, when we wrapped up the FNM, in the final round he let out an audible cheer when he and I weren’t paired against each other. We both finished up 4-0; I went undefeated in games, but he ended up being the #1 on tiebreaks. Boo! Still, it was fun to get the games in, because I knew I’d be working hard the next two days, rail-birding rather than playing, albeit the work-heavy kind of rail-birding: 12+ hours of coverage each of the next two days.

Thankfully, Rashad had arrived at this point, so we went off and ended up finding a mediocre sushi bar to try to sate our appetites. The sushi was fairly mediocre, and I was tempted to order a drink, but the incredibly awful music (spun by a live DJ to an empty bar) encouraged me to do as little as possible to lengthen our stay. In the end, I was glad to have something in my stomach, but mostly looking forward to getting back to the hotel.

The next day was Standard, a format that I’ve really grown to love. Chris Cannon charged forward to a second-place finish on the back of an exciting Kuldotha Goblins deck. I’d seen another attempt at this archetype in the hands of Wisconsin’s own Bob Baker (of Giantbaiting.dec fame), but there had been something about Bob’s deck that just struck me as a little off.

Deck One: Kuldotha Goblins

Cannon’s deck was similarly a little off, to my mind, but it was

potent. Part Goblin deck, part explosion, it felt like it could just do an incredible amount of damage in the early game. In one match against his semifinal opponent, he cast a turn 1 Kuldotha Rebirth, and his opponent, on the play, chose not to Pyroclasm. I don’t remember exactly what it was that I said in the GGsLive coverage, but I remember that it was trying to communicate just how terrible that line of play was. In the next turns, with a Bushwhacker followed up by a Goblin Chieftain, and eventually a Masticore, the otherwise fantastic draw of the R/U/G player fell apart under the onslaught of Goblins, all because the R/U/G player didn’t respect just how much damage might be coming down his throat.

As we were doing the coverage, I discovered that Cannon’s deck was a redux of his Georgia State Championship deck! This was pretty exciting news. Despite a lot of the unorthodox card choices, clearly there was something important going on here.

The keys to the deck seemed to be, in my mind, a sufficient number of ways to cast a turn 1 Kuldotha Rebirth, the Bushwhacker/Chieftain pumping power, and just Goblin Guide as a powerful weapon to tear things up. Like all of the Goblin Guide decks, sometimes you just win because you cast a turn 1 and 2 Goblin Guide. But this deck’s impressive use of Rebirth was pretty inspiring.

One thing that was clearly problematic in watching Cannon, though, was his choice to include Masticore in the deck. Molten-Tail Masticore just kept rotting in his hands! But at the same time, I could see exactly why he might want the card: it provided a real option for sideboarded games as a way to dodge out of the risky elements that a weenie-deck can sometimes fall to. In examining the older list, I noticed something key: Cannon had dropped two lands from the list; I’m pretty sure this simple change was just

his Masticore plan, but he hadn’t seemed to notice, yet. Literally every game, Masticores just clogged him up. Surely there was something better one could do?

The next week, in Boston, two decks showed up that were Kuldotha Goblins decks. One of them provided the solution: Chimeric Mass.

Chimeric Mass isn’t the turtle I might sometimes want it to be, but it’s a generally superior alternative to Mox, which is not only legendary, but often simply reads: “0, Legendary Artifact” – not that exciting… Chimeric Mass, on the other hand, can actually turn into a monster that attacks if you need one in a midgame! Some of us discussed Chimeric Mass at the event, but
Michael Farrell’s inclusion of the card in


verified that this might be a great path to take.

Taking in all of the data, here is my build of Kuldotha Red:

I still think that Cannon was on to something in running Masticore in the board. But I also acknowledge that Masticore isn’t castable without more mana. Cannon was seemingly able to support this with 21 lands for the Georgia State Championship, so that’s how many I’m running here. Mark
of Mutiny seems to be a huge weapon in this current environment, so I’m including it here. In my experience, running Mark of Mutiny becomes

better when you have access to a minimum of three Teetering Peaks, so my extra land is a Peak. Arc Trail, Shatter, and Perilous Myr are brought over from the majority of lists, and I still think that they have a lot of value.

Kuldotha Goblins was clearly a real deck, and it was radically different from the other ways one might build Red. What were the other ways, though?

Deck Two: Sligh

It’s been a while since I’ve felt this good about a deck, I have to say. The past few years, I’ve largely been playing many variants of Goblin Guide-based burn decks, bringing out my old Ball Lightnings to great effect, and really enjoying what Unearth could do for you.

As I was working on variants of the deck,
I ended up with a Sligh deck by accident.

In the end, the deck was solid, but nothing incredibly, over-the-top exciting. However, once the format rotated, the deck was largely left intact, and there was a lot to be excited about once my results started coming in…

Yeah, I was pretty excited…

The sideboard shifts around a fair amount; if you have, for example, a ton of WW in your area, a fourth Ratchet Bomb is a necessity.

In many ways, this is

much like
Cedric’s Red deck.

I was working on it with perennial Red Mage, Ronnie Serio, and after talking about the deck with Brian Kowal, he brought up that it might be a lot like Cedric’s list. I was pretty sure he was right, and I looked up where I was at and where Cedric was at, and basically felt like he and I were essentially playing the same archetype.

There are only two card choices, at large, that separate our decks: Spikeshot Elder and Flame Slash.

Initially, I was on board with Spikeshot Elder. I had a bunch of them in my deck. Then, over time, I had less. Then I went down to none. I kept trying to put them back in, hoping that they’d somehow impress me, but basically they never managed to want to stay in the deck. The investment to get anything of value out of them just didn’t feel as solid as what I was getting out of Ember Hauler, but Ember Hauler was just

much more consistent, always supplying an aggressive body, and being able to take out creatures as well.

Flame Slash is the other card where we differ. In essence, I basically feel that a card like Flame Slash doesn’t philosophically belong in the maindeck of a Red deck, which should generally be concerned with ending the opponent’s life, potentially, with any draw (even if there might be a one-turn delay). Flame Slash doesn’t play this game well. Yes, Wall of Omens exists, and, yes, Overgrown Battlements exists. There exist things that you want to Slash, and that you can Slash to good effect.

But, in querying a bunch of the long-time red mages that I know, the most I got from the old-timers was this:

(yes that’s a second ‘f’) the metagame is particularly skewed, one

choose to run it main,

That’s pretty intense.

The issue is this: in your game 1, you really want to be as single-minded as possible; do your task of ending the opponent’s life. In the most skewed of metagames, the vast majority of decks are

the most popular deck, even if you’re only counting the “winner’s metagame”: i.e., those decks that spend the majority of the tournament in contention for Top 8. Even as a metagame call, reducing your cards that strictly take down your opponent’s life total, as a game 1 choice, usually isn’t worth the cost. From the sideboard, this is more than reasonable, but then you get to tailor it to those decks that actually demand them. In nearly every case, in these slots, I prefer Searing Blaze, which, while still limited, can be topdecked and kill the opponent.

A lot of people don’t like the Valakut in the deck. Here, it’s simply the case of your returns, from an EV perspective: the cost to not having another Mountain is actually very low, but the potential return of Valakut is huge. In your best games, you’ll kill the opponent long before Valakut could ever come online. But, there are many, many games where your opponent puts up some resistance, and the game goes long. This is particularly true in two matchups: dueling aggressive decks with creature elimination, and control decks with few actual finishers. In these matchups, the game usually doesn’t end quickly, because you end up trading cards, and the game goes to a late game. Where a lot of decks aren’t able to compete in a late game, this red deck can, on the back of Molten-Tail Masticore, Kargan Dragonlord, Koth of the Hammer, and, yes, Valakut.

Since the deck is also running Mark of Mutiny in the board, it would be unconscionable to not have access to three Teetering Peaks, but, even with these six “enters the battlefield tapped” lands, you have

untapped lands. The moments where a Valakut interrupts the flow of your deck is incredibly low, but the

on the Valakut are often extraordinary, blowing out card-trading wars in aggressive matchups, or finishing a control opponent who might be able to stop everything else that would come at them.

Particularly after sideboarding, when it’s possible to actually become a much more controlling deck, the Valakut become incredibly valuable. I started out with zero in the deck, but one thing happened when I added them in: I won more. That was enough for me.

I’ve certainly lost my share of matches with this deck, but at the same time, the deck has been overwhelmingly good in terms of its returns in terms of packs on Magic Online; the last time I had a deck that performed this well built on MODO it was Ravnica Block Constructed, so it’s been a while. While there are small shifts this deck can make for any particular metagame, right now, it’s set up incredibly nicely, and I’m excited to have it in my roster of decks – particularly because I

playing it.

My sideboard includes a few unusual choices, certainly. Mark of Mutiny and maxing out Searing Blaze is pretty common, but the rest are stranger, certainly.

Ratchet Bomb is there as a potential answer to Kor Firewalker (on top of Masticore, Valakut, and Kargan Dragonlord, which just trumps it), but it also doubles as a semi-answer to Pyromancer Ascension (a truly wretched matchup), and one of your best answers to White Weenie/Quest, as well as just having random utility. Set at zero, it’s

against Kuldotha Goblins, or even just the threat of Devastating Summons from any deck, period. If you face a lot of Memnite decks, this should be a four-of.

Mimic Vat is my answer to opposing Mimic Vats, among other things. For the aggressively anti-creature decks, a Mimic Vat can just

games. While getting Ember Hauler on a Vat is great, you don’t need to go that far to get value out of it; merely just having endless creatures, however temporary, is just potent, even if they start out chumping. From a lot of board positions, Mimic Vat just reads “win the game.”

Staggershock and Chandra are simply more creature kill. Chandra can actually take out a Titan or provide an alternative kill against decks that have a lot of critter kill, but a dearth of actual planeswalker answers. Staggershock can two-for-one on a good day, or simply be a cheap way to deal four damage. Of all of the cards in the board, these four are the ones that are most easily replaced to suit your regular metagame.

If I were to recommend a red deck to anyone, it would be this deck. It’s powerful in its own right and incredibly versatile. Someone that

wants to beat Red will still be able to beat you, but they actually have to know how to do it; if they merely toss in four Kor Firewalkers and think that that and their Baneslayer Angel will be enough, they’ll be sorely mistaken. On the other hand, if you have a lot of U/R decks in your area, this is a deck that probably is going to be underwhelming: easily, the two worst matchups are Pyromancer Ascension and the Eminent Domain updates (Frosty/Force).

Three: Burn

Of course, there’s always another path. Rather than trying to maintain a stable, aggressive force, you try to make the game go as quick as possible, and just tear the opponent open. This was the goal of one of the first decks to be

“Sligh,” but really fail to have that title. You’d have Ball Lightning hit your face, paired with a Bolt and double Fireblast, and wonder how you just went from 16 to –1, but there it was – you were dead.

Burn decks sometimes are truly single-minded. My favorite Burn deck in recent memory is the Legacy Burn deck piloted by my brutha from anotha motha, Patrick Sullivan:

This deck is great. I really love it. In talking about the deck with Patrick, there are certainly a few small things, here and there, that can be done to help it out a smidge, but they often are incredibly dependent on metagame.

Standard, however, does have an analog to this deck, even if it isn’t able to pack the sheer power that the Legacy deck can provide.

Brian Siu, 1st Place, NH State Champs 2010

Peter Johnson, 2nd Place, ID State Champs 2010

David Russo, 3rd Place, NY State Champs 2010

Anthony Eason, 2nd Place, US Nationals 2010

Anthony Eason’s deck, obviously, is from a different era of Standard. As far as burn decks go, it’s pretty straightforward: it runs every efficient haste creature that deals an excessive amount of damage and every burn spell that’s definitively considered powerful, and it runs four of them. About the only thing I don’t like about his list is that I think it should’ve run an extra Mountain, but that’s pretty minor.

The other lists are all accommodating the inclusion of Scars of Mirrodin, and they’re all novel takes on what to do with this style of deck now that M10 and Shards Block are out of the mix. Kiln Fiend is their weapon of choice, and, if it connects, it can truly be devastating. Of course, a part of the problem is that “if”…

I wasn’t that sure about Kiln Fiend until Alexander West smashed me upside the head with one during Red on Red testing in preparation for PT San Juan. The card was clearly incredibly potent, but it has that big question mark on it: what happens if someone, you know,
kills it?

You still need to have a deck if Kiln Fiend is dead.

A part of the answer is having a deck that’s otherwise just quite resilient. You need to be able to be aggressive, successfully, if Kiln Fiend isn’t connecting. Having a consistent source of a lot of damage, in this case, with a huge amount of burn and a solid amount of alternate damage sources, can help make this work.

Unfortunately, in return for the explosive damage, you do end up losing a lot of consistency. This style of deck is very potent, to be sure. But it’s also less consistent. Unlike the Legacy build of the deck, this deck has to rely on attacking to get the majority of its damage in, and thus it can be more easily shut down by more paths than pure and simple burn can.

This style of deck, though, is best against those decks who might be trying to race to an effect or are trying to not interact as much. Standard, right now, though, is fairly interactive. Most of the decks really are interactive right now, and attempting to directly play with and against the opponent. Even the Pyromancer Ascension deck is largely interactive, at least with creature decks.

That said, there is still a place for a deck that exists to rob wins from the opponent. Here is the build I’ve been testing, based on the other decks that have done well, and some of my own feelings about what should be done with the archetype:

This list is mostly pretty straightforward, though it does have a few strange things going on.

First of all, the deck is only including

copy of Assault Strobe. The more I played with Assault Strobe, the more I’d just end up getting absolutely destroyed by an opponent who would kill my Plated Geopede, Kiln Fiend, or Elemental Appeal token before it could deal damage. At the same time, it would be absolutely devastating when it did happen. It might be that two copies is the most appropriate number of copies, but I’m confident that four is wrong; it just puts too many of your eggy-weggs into one basket, and that is simply not acceptable. By playing only one, you never get flooded with it,

but at the same time, the threat of it is potentially possible. I’m still unsure if there should be a second copy, but I’m confident that zero or four is completely wrong.

This version of the deck is pretty heavy on the fours, with three Koths and three Appeals. I have to admit that this is largely because I’m not fully committed to 24 land in this deck, and so Zektar Shrine Expedition just feels too questionable. Koth, on the other hand, is a very dependable aggressive spell. I do think that I might end up wanting to drop to potentially two Koths, but I’m not 100% on that change yet.

One card that I keep coming back to is Chandra’s Spitfire. I’ve played against the Spitfire more than a few times, and it really does feel a lot like a fifth through eighth copy of Kiln Fiend. At the same time, it’s even more frustrating than Kiln Fiend because it costs one more mana, and thus is even more prone to being blown out by a kill spell.

The sideboard steals the Summons/Whacker plan that can be incredibly successful against decks that are often otherwise resilient against an Aggro Red plan. This, of course, includes other red decks. Normally, I hate this combo, but basically what you’re doing is just throwing a potential coin flip in against any potential opponent; if your matchup is a rough one, making the matchup into a potential coin flip is a real boon. This combo also means that it’s reasonable to cut the Marks down to only three, since you bring those cards largely against the same decks. The Panic Spellbomb could just as easily be a dedicated “answer” card like Brittle Effigy or Ratchet Bomb (or even a Molten-Tail Masticore) – something solid against a Firewalker, for example.

Overall, this deck is very potent, but at the same time, is less explosive in the earliest moments of the game than the Kuldotha Goblins deck and less consistently powerful than my build of Sligh. As such, I think that it’s a deck that should only be chosen if you legitimately feel like you need to get lucky, either because your skill level is a little less honed than your prospective opponents (if you’re being honest with yourself), or if you just don’t have the practice in. This deck is largely a blunt instrument, so it can’t be shifted to build a birdhouse (like the Sligh deck could); it can only be leveraged to smash one into bits; as an aside, this

make it particularly good against opposing (non-White Weenie) creature decks, even more so than other builds.


In essence, right now, the three decks that seem reasonable in red right now are all very different. Kuldotha Goblins is an explosive deck that has any number of lines of play in the early game that can overwhelm an opponent. The Burn deck is particularly potent against opposing creature decks or in a race, but it does seem to flop around against any real resistance and has a bigger glass jaw than any of the other reasonable red decks. Right now, though, my own current preference is to a more pure Sligh deck, particularly the build I’ve been working on for a while, listed above. I’ve been making it into a pack factory on MODO, and, particularly given how little time I have to play Magic these days, it’s fabulous to be able to just have it keep turning around and feeding me endless packs. I have no question that if a Standard tournament were around the corner, I’d play it.

I honestly can’t wait til the next time I can play it… I’m literally going to start a game now! I’ll be writing less frequently for a little while – the demands of teaching and doing grad school are surprisingly large – but I’ll be here regularly, if less frequently. Do let me know how my Sligh deck plays out for you.

Until next time,

Adrian Sullivan

*So, are there any decks that are out there that actually get to have access to a name like “Red Deck Wins”? No. And I’d also claim that it’s been several years since there have been any

Red Deck Wins decks out there (at least, any that are winning). Red Deck Wins was, long ago, the name given by Dan Paskins to his particular offshoot of Red: an aggressive Sligh deck that touched into a slight land sub-theme, specifically because Paskins wanted to increase the potential to mana-screw the opponent. In 1999, in the UK National Championships,
Paskins would lose to Mark Wraith, playing in a Red Deck Wins mirror match.

Other decks don’t have the dedication to attacking the opponent’s mana (usually eight cards, but sometimes more) while maintaining an aggressive stance; Sped Red at US Nationals in 1997 might have been the “first” RDW of any renown. Sped Red and Red Deck Wins are, in my estimation, the same archetype. Ponza, on the other hand, goes into the land of midrange, whether midrange beatdown or midrange control.

I know that Red Deck Wins is fun to say and all, but in calling all of the red decks “Red Deck Wins,” you really are robbing you and the people you work with the ability to accurately communicate to each other the contents of the decks you’re talking about; it doesn’t cost much to be more exacting in your choice of names, and it gives you back
a lot.

Most of the decks that get called “Red Deck Wins” are more accurately either Sligh or Burn (“Blitz” if you’re from Chicago-land) depending on how dedicated they are to maintaining a board presence or how much they go for a more immediate kill.

I imagine that trying to maintain any semblance of utility in deck names is a fruitless exercise, but I just can’t help myself.