The Beautiful Struggle: Return to the Rakdos Studio

In a ten-game set against a Simic Sky Swallower-based Urzatron deck, the deck lost only one game, in which the Tron deck drew a large number of Urza lands to power up a giant Demonfire. In the other games, it was almost impossible for the control deck to deal with both one-drops, instant-speed burn spells, and the overwhelming Genju of the Spires…

Once it became clear that I was not, in fact, going to grind into this year’s U.S. Nationals, I turned my attention to side events. The metagame for these events was interesting because of the only-semi-expected surge of Solar Flare. The interesting question was how to beat Solar Flare while also beating the decks that are supposed to beat Solar Flare (Magnivore, Heartbeat of Spring), while also not forgetting that U/R Urzatron and W/B Aggro were still hugely popular choices.

With all that in mind, I was shown the following deck the night before the amateurs-only iPod tournament:

Sand Burn v.0

4 Frostling
4 Dark Confidant
4 Rakdos Guildmage
3 Genju of the Spires
4 Shock
4 Seal of Fire
4 Char
4 Volcanic Hammer
3 Flames of the Blood Hand
4 Cruel Edict
4 Blood Crypt
4 Sulfurous Springs
5 Swamp
9 Mountain

I may be a card or two off, but that’s pretty close. I have no idea if the so-called Satanic Sligh or Sand Burn decks had made their appearance in any foreign Nationals by this point, but as you can see this deck is very similar to many of the lists that go by those names.

In a ten-game set against a Simic Sky Swallower-based Urzatron deck, the deck lost only one game, in which the Tron deck drew a large number of Urza lands to power up a giant Demonfire. In the other games, it was almost impossible for the control deck to deal with both one-drops, instant-speed burn spells, and the overwhelming Genju of the Spires. Turn 4 SSS was no help, as the Rakdos deck always seemed to be holding Cruel Edict.

I opted not to run the deck, instead going the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” route by running Solar Flare, for one good reason: Umezawa’s Jitte. The above list practically scoops to it, especially if it is attached to a Paladin En-Vec. We were considering Pithing Needle or Shattering Spree or Hearth Kami, but at the end of the day I just decided it wasn’t worth the risk to try and dodge Jittes all day while simultaneously praying to draw my outs if I did.

I tell this story for two reasons. The first is the Sand Burn deck which made Top 4 at Japanese Nationals in the hands of Hidenori Katayama:

Very similar, as you can see. Frostling is a nice card, but hardly essential, compared to simply having more burn. In fact, I have disliked Rakdos Guildmage for a while also, because while his two abilities would seem to be insane, spending four mana (and a card, in one case) per activation steals a lot of tempo from the Rakdos player. However, I’m not sure that there was a better alternative to the Guildmage for Hidenori; in my pre-Nationals testing with a Rakdos deck, running three-drops was slowing the deck down too much when you consider a possible Wrath or Pyroclasm coming from the other side of the table.

Neither Paladin En-Vec nor Jitte had become rare enough that the Cruel Edicts could be cut. The fact that Hidenori ran several snow lands but no Skred was a sort of bluff; not only would opponents possibly fear Skred, but they might also try to play around other cards that Hidenori wasn’t running, such as Stalking Yeti or Mouth of Ronom. Pithing Needles were chosen as the anti-Jitte sideboard weapon, which is kind of lame because they deal no damage – then again, other possible choices like Shattering Spree and Icefall don’t do any damage either.

Much is made of eventual champion Katsu Mori’s 7-0 record in the Swiss Standard, but I did some peeking in on Hidenori’s match record and it appears he did pretty well also: 6-0, with an intentional draw in the final round. Hidenori faced a pretty impressive group, too, including Shouta Yasooka (member of the champion team at PT: Charleston) in round 3 and Takuya Oosawa (Top 8, PT: Prague) in round 12.

So I guess the deck is good. Guess that’s yet another wrong call I made at U.S. Nationals.

The second reason I tell the story of my discarded Rakdos deck from Nationals should be obvious: that deck’s biggest weakness was a Jitte, and we shall soon be losing the Jitte.

Who won’t be happy to see Kamigawa Block go? It’s not like there were any influential cards there to miss except the Jitte and Sakura-Tribe Elder. Once the Jitte is gone, I can cut the anti-aggro slots in my Heartbeat of Spring combo… er, I guess I won’t have to waste time with an anti-artifact combo in my Gifts deck… well, now I can’t lose the game when I curve out with Isamaru into Hand of Honor into Promise of Bunrei… oh, to hell with it.

Seriously, though, the Rakdos deck doesn’t lose much when Kamigawa Block rotates out. If you wanted to run a beatdown version, there are plenty of 1/1s to replace Frostling: Scorched Rusalka comes to mind, Karplusan Wolverine is good against Savannah Lions and Dark Confidant, and Lightning Serpent is interesting (although probably bad). As far as burn spells go, you lose only Flames of the Blood Hand.

That’s not to say the deck would necessarily be a world-beater; there could be problems. Skred will almost always kill your Dark Confidants. Loxodon Hierarch and Faith’s Fetters are trouble, but there is the possibility of sideboarding Rain of Gore as an anti-lifegain weapon. The only loss that would really discourage me from playing the deck is Genju of the Spires, which was your best anti-control card because it snuck in under countermagic and could not be permanently dealt with by most removal spells.

However, Time Spiral does bring some interesting things to the table for the interested Rakdos player. One is the obviously insane Jaya Ballard, Task Mage. As long as you untap with her in play, you’re sure to get your money’s worth in damage. The fact that you are discarding cards to get your damage is not such a big deal, since the deck is intended to run on The Philosophy of Fire anyway. Turning spare lands and Signets into Incinerate and Inferno is obviously a fantastic deal for a deck like this.

You might wonder why I like Jaya so much when I was so down on Rakdos Guildmage earlier, and the answer is pretty simple: two is less than four, derf. If the Guildmage’s abilites cost two they would perfectly preserve tempo for you and he would be an auto-include in the deck (of course, he would also become the lamest, dumbest possible way to lose a Limited game, possibly exceeding Jitte in that regard). So, even though Jaya’s Incinerate ability can only be used once per turn, the fact that its cost is a better fit for your tempo makes her a shoo-in for the maindeck.

A second card that I might want to run in my Rakdos deck is this:

Phyrexian Totem

Almost any man-land or man-artifact, even something as lame as Jade Statue, would still be under consideration for our Rakdos deck because it provides a Wrath of God-proof threat that also empties our hand for the inevitable Demonfire. It’s the same reason Genju of the Spires was an auto-include in the decks all the way back to the zero-version I saw at U.S. Nats. That this is a mana-producing artifact that turns into a Phyrexian Negator makes it an essential choice.

Finally, Time Spiral brings the Suspend mechanic to the table, particularly the card Wheel of Fate. What doesn’t this card do for the interested Rakdos player? Having no casting cost makes it a fantastic Bob flip; the “discard your hand” clause isn’t much of a drawback considering all of the burn that you will be throwing at the opponent’s head during the Suspension; and the draw-7 refills you to start all over again. Remand is an obvious concern, but the card lets you have so many other awesome things that to complain about a possible Remand just seems greedy. The fact that I could run four copies of Wheel of Fate in my States deck is already bringing a smile to my face.

With that in mind, here are a couple of decklists for the States environment. I haven’t gotten around to testing this format yet, but everybody needs to start somewhere…

With the creature-based version I thought about trying to go with a snow theme, and I considered trying an “8 Stone Rains” type of deck also, but I decided that my first test deck for States should opt for the simplest plan possible: burn the opponent’s face off. Then, if testing suggests you need Skred or Cyroclasm instead, you can go for that.

For the slower and more controlling version, I did decide to go with a snow theme, so that you get at least one decklist that allows you to test the terrific firepower of Skred:

I like snow decks, but the problem is that when I go snow I always feel like the deck is missing something. Maybe it’s that I have to go with 24 land because the Carnarium is no longer available, or maybe it’s because I got scared off of Dark Confidant because the deck was going to be so heavily Red. Whatever it is, the only thing that I can say I like about this deck is that its Skreds will be completely awesome.

You’ll notice one thing about both of these decks: they both feature 4 Dark Confidant and 4 Demonfire. Yes, they also share Seal of Fire and Char, but I honestly think replacements could be found for those slots; Bob and the X-spell are how these two decks will win. Those are possibly the two most powerful cards in the States format, and I think you’ll want a playset of both if you don’t already have them. The fact that they stay around is the whole reason why this strategy remains viable.

This article written while watching the phenomenal Donnie Yen in the movie “Killzone.”

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