The Road to Regionals – The Beautiful Struggle: Inside the Rakdos Studio

Magic the Gathering Regionals! Regionals are approaching fast… are you prepared? If not, then let Mark introduce you to his Rakdos Hellbent deck! Dissension brought us many powerful, aggressive cards, with the Rakdos guild teaching us that our hand is a resource just like any other: a resource which can be spent. As the Standard metagame takes a metaphorical shape, our “Road to Regionals” series will spread the tech that’ll keep you all one step ahead of the opposition!

There’s a certain criticism out here in the Magic community on the Net, which has been percolating more or less since the printing of Wild Mongrel and the rest of Odyssey Block, that the Wizards of the Coast “build our decks for us.” Hey, I don’t know what goes on in the Design and Development offices up there in Washington State. I suppose it’s possible that they do build our decks for us, during breaks from creating the sixth color and deciding when they’re going to reprint Black Lotus.

However, I think that it’s a lot more likely that blocks are designed with a theme in mind, and some of the cards in the block inevitably prove to be more powerful, leading to decks based around that theme featuring those cards. Sometimes mistakes are made in design and development, so that the powerful cards around which decks are built are too obvious to miss: the Mongrel, Goblin Warchief, pretty much all of Mirrodin Block. Sometimes the decks only “build themselves” based upon more subtle issues with the block’s theme; i.e., that Astral Slide doesn’t have an activation cost and it can “flip” over morphs without paying those costs.

Anyway, I’m writing today about one such interaction that has emerged from Dissension. Did it build my deck for me? Sort of. Is it broken in the Disciple plus Ravager style? I doubt it, though I’d expect more than a few matches at Regionals to be decided by it. That combo is Jagged Poppet plus Delirium Skeins.

First, the decklist:

The name of the deck refers to its most important asset: evil, evil Poppets. If you’re playing a Rakdos beatdown deck with no Poppets, you’d better give it a different name or I’m going to hunt you down and inflict some vile, Saw-like tortures upon you. By the time I’m done you’ll be begging for a quick death!

Um, yeah.

There are some unusual card choices in this deck, so I thought I would explain my thinking with respect to…

1) Manriki-Gusari versus other equipments
As with all aggro decks in this day and age, you have to have an answer for Umezawa’s Jitte. However, Jitte itself is a poor choice, since you may get multiple-Jitte draws that impede your Hellbent. Even if you don’t get those draws, your games will often come down to a topdecking war, and you don’t want to be in a position where you’re begging to topdeck Jitte first. So, it’s better to have the Manriki, which you can play on turn 2 and let it sit, waiting to swallow up opposing Jittes.

I’ve also heard people rave about O-Naginata as a weapon in the deck; the idea of attacking with a Naginata-wearing Poppet makes me giggle like a schoolgirl. However, only eight out of my twenty creatures would benefit from a turn 1 Naginata, and they all would benefit from a turn 2 Manriki-Gusari, so it seems like an easy choice.

2) Drekavac versus Rakdos Guildmage in the maindeck
It’s hard to resist the lure of Rakdos Guildmage. Continuous 2/1 haste guys, or recurring removal that enables your Hellbent? Sign me up!

Or maybe not. Spending four mana for those abilities is a problem for this particular format, because by that time most opponents can play a threat; if nothing else, they can play Wrath of God. On the other hand, Drekavac is everything this deck could want: a powerful threat who enables your Hellbent as soon as he hits play. Yes, he gets blown out by Repeal, but apparently I’m the only one who likes that card…

“Repeal? You guys were drafting?”
Brian David-Marshall

“I’m sure Mark Young is going to write an article about how good Repeal is. DON’T LISTEN TO HIM.”
Mike Flores

Well, if you’re not going to listen to me about Repeal, then I guess you’re safe to listen to me about Drekavac. Thanks, Mike!

3) Bile Urchin versus Plagued Rusalka
You have to have one-drops if you want to get Hellbent, that much is clear. Teammate Rick mocked my original suggestion of the Urchin, saying that Rusalka had to be better. However, some test games have made me unsure. The deck always wants to hit its two-drop on turn 2, and usually wants to play a three-drop on turn 3, so many times a turn-1 Rusalka was sitting around, doing very little.

The Urchin, on the other hand, has proved quite strong with Cry of Contrition because of its mana-free activation cost. Cry ends up being a Hymn to Tourach almost always, and if you should be lucky enough to play two copies of Cry on turn 2 after a turn 1 Urchin … well, I don’t want to say any more, for fear of jinxing it.

The lone advantage of Plagued Rusalka is that it protects your Poppet from stuff like Char and Shining Shoal. Having a Poppet targeted with Char definitely fails the LMF test. However, I think that the Hellbent deck is so dependent upon a speedy start that the Urchin is the preferable choice. It’s a tough choice, I’m not gonna lie; your results may vary.

Interlude: The LMF Test

You may have wondered what I meant when I mentioned the LMF Test in the previous section. This is a complex social science experiment that tests how highly people value intangible desires.

The test works like this: someone douses you in gasoline, produces matches, and orders you to do X. If you respond, “LMF” (Light Me on Fire), then X fails the test. Notable failures of the test include Punisher comics, episodes of Alias where Jennifer Garner was pregnant, every Kate Hudson movie after Almost Famous, and the test that started it all, Yanni. [Having no idea who/what Yanni is/was, I popped the word into Google. My eyes, they burn! — Craig, now thinking of Chris Romeo.]

Back to Playing the Deck
Your goal is to establish a soft lock where the opponent has no cards in hand and is facing a Hellbent Poppet or a Rix Maadi activation (or both!) every turn. At that point your two- and three-drop creatures, which are equal or superior to most other creatures at the same costs, should dominate the game. Typically, the opponent’s hand will be emptied by a Delirium Skeins – that gets most of their hand and gives you Hellbent – followed by a Poppet attack. However, it’s possible that a hot Cry of Contrition plus Bile Urchin draw could also clean the opponent out as well.

The First Rule of Hellbent is a simple one: Your hand has become a resource. I mean, your hand has always been a resource in the sense that you spend cards from it to obtain threats or answers; but with the advent of Hellbent your hand becomes a resource in the same way that mana or life points would be.

Many times you might want to avoid playing a Drekavac or a Delirium Skeins, either because you could get good use out of the card(s) you would discard or because you are concerned about over-committing. This is the wrong way to be thinking. Instead, you need to look at it in terms of a payment; your spells have a cost of X mana and Y cards in hand, to obtain an effect that’s a lot more powerful than your opponent could get for paying X mana alone.


People always forget about the Red Deck. Mike Flores might try to push some mono-Red monstrosity on us, but for my money this is the best burn deck you can take to Regionals. The replacement of Moldervine Cloak with Seal of Fire takes it over the top, guaranteeing that Scab-Clan Mauler will always be 3/3, and possibly 4/4 if Simic Initiate is as good as early testing suggests. So, as you might expect, this is a tough matchup in game 1. Sickening Shoal is awesome, but it’s the only maindeck removal you have, and it will be spread pretty thin trying to take care of Kird Ape, Mauler, and Burning-Tree Shaman.

This is a matchup where you are trying to win games 2 and 3. Getting a Poppet hit by Char is simply a disaster, so all but one copy joins the discard suite in the sideboard in exchange for removal. Although he has many big-butt men, including the Shaman, Rakdos Guildmage comes in nonetheless; just the threat of a Guildmage activation will change quite a few of their attacks.

Sideboarding: -3 Jagged Poppet, -4 Cry of Contrition, -4 Delirium Skeins, +4 Last Gasp, +4 Rakdos Guildmage, +2 Seize the Soul, +1 Swamp.

Black/Green/White Control (including Greater Good)
These decks are pretty similar for you; both use Wrath of God to stall until they combo off with “giant dudes plus enchantment.” Greater Good in one case, Debtor’s Knell in the other, and you can’t remove either one. Plus, Loxodon Hierarch is better than every single one of your men, and Mortify prevents your Poppets from going buck-wild. Not a good matchup.

Victory for you depends upon a very hot discard draw; creatures alone aren’t much use, since they will often have spot removal alongside their Wraths. In fact, it was for matchups like these that Cry of Contrition entered the deck; it can discourage their Wraths if they know that they’ll lose their hand in so doing.

Surprisingly, the non-Greater Good decks are the bigger threat, since you can have them completely Poppet-locked and they can just use Sensei’s Divining Top to find Debtor’s Knell and win anyway. Greater Good doesn’t topdeck, or even Top-deck, nearly as well. You have been warned.

Sideboarding: -3 Manriki-Gusari, -1 Infernal Tutor, +4 Rise / Fall.

Interlude: Since Zvi Doesn’t Live Here Anymore…

…I took it upon myself to present the Ravnica Block Legends!

Kos, Wojek Blogger
Bog Borg Bobryg Oh The Hell With It
The Ravnica Boys’ Choir
Circu, Writes Michael Bay Movies
Kraj, Creator of Ninja Turtles
Give It Up Ben Those Bill Cosby References Are Soooo Over
Jerry Springer
Isperia, Plays Poker Well
Lyzolda Keeps Insisting That Wiccans Get a Bad Rap
Mike Flores, Smug Visionary
Niv-Mizzet, Needs More Curiosity
Rakdos Didn’t Like Your Filing System
Akroma’s Anorexic Little Sister
Savra, Queen of the Malkanians
Patty and Selma
Vice President Szadek
Teysa, Lame Minivan
Tibor Insists ‘She is a Scientologist’
Lone Wolf and Cub
Tim Aten

Back to the Matchups

Heartbeat of Spring
When a new set comes out, you always hear people make authoritative proclamations as though they are so obvious that the rest of us would have to be morons to question. Sometimes they are correct — as when someone told you at the Saviors prerelease that Pithing Needle was the rare of choice to open — and sometimes they are wildly, wildly wrong, such as when an opponent told me at the Ravnica release event that Eye of the Storm and Sins of the Past were going to be emergency-banned.

At the Dissension event, the statement was “Heartbeat is done, thanks to Rakdos.” My testing seems to bear this out. Delirium Skeins by itself quite a bit of disruption, and Cry of Contrition plus Bile Urchin is quite the combo against them, but the Poppet is the final nail in the coffin. There were multiple occasions during testing where the combo deck would be forced to discard six cards in a single turn by Skeins plus Poppet attack. Since you can usually kill them faster than they can build up enough mana to transmute for Savage Twister and Twist for four all in one turn, the soft lock then forces them to combo off in one turn, or mise a one-of Savage Twister. Good luck with that.

Sideboarding: -3 Hand of Cruelty, -1 Sickening Shoal, +4 Rise / Fall (you leave in some Shoals so that you can punch through Vinelasher Kudzu or Carven Caryatid; you leave in Manriki so that they have to muster a giant Savage Twister).

Ghost Dad
If there are two cards that Jagged Poppet absolutely does not want to see, they are Shining Shoal and Pillory of the Sleepless. They have Dark Confidant, which can help them recover even if you were able to get the fabled discard-six play. Here is a matchup where you’d definitely prefer to have Plagued Rusalka over Bile Urchin, derf. Plus, they have Descendant of Kiyomaro and your entire strategy is based upon emptying your hand. D’oh!

Having said that, this is not a lost-cause matchup. The good news is that you can kill their men in ways that are unpreventable by Shining Shoal — you have Shoals of your own in game 1, and Last Gasp and Rakdos Guildmage in post-board games. Also, as with all poor matchups, you can mise a win simply by getting an amazing discard draw and depriving them of all their gas. Still, they have so many awesome cards against you that I would have to describe this as a win-games-2-and-3 matchup.

Sideboarding: -4 Cry of Contrition, -4 Drekavac, -1 Infernal Tutor, +4 Last Gasp, +4 Rakdos Guildmage, +1 Swamp (although it sucks to have Poppet damage Shoaled away, a hot Skeins/Poppet draw is still your best shot at beating them, so they have to stay in; Drekavac, on the other hand, invites you to waste cards in a matchup that is all about card advantage, so he goes out).

Ghost Husk and other Black/White Aggro
Ghost Husk is probably your worst matchup. You can’t race their various combos, and you can’t play the control deck against Nantuko Husk, whom it is nigh impossible for you to kill. You can’t even go for the “mise a hot discard draw” plan because they have between eight and twelve quality one-drops, depending upon their build. Plus they have Shining Shoal coming in from the sideboard. I just do not see how you beat them; it seems like every deck has at least one unwinnable matchup, and this is yours.

Other Black/White decks have Paladin en-Vec, who is annoying, but at least you can try and race with Hand of Cruelty. Ghost Husk does not even leave you with that option.

Sideboarding: -4 Delirium Skeins, -4 Cry of Contrition, -1 Infernal Tutor, +4 Last Gasp, +4 Rakdos Guildmage, +1 Swamp. The Guildmage’s reusable abilities are your best hope against Husk and Ghost Council, but even then it doesn’t look good.

Green/White/U decks
I’m almost sure the Green/White decks with Glare of Subdual and Chord of Calling will splash blue for Patagia Viper and Supply/Demand. These decks are not spectacular matchups for you, because they’re willing to throw tokens in your face all day long until they can dig up Yosei or Simic Sky Swallower. Of course, you don’t have any way to deal with Glare either, and don’t forget that they may be running Shining Shoal.

You can get them with discard, or with creatures if they don’t draw much gas; thanks to Sickening Shoal, you can usually beat one Hierarch. The problem is that with Supply/Demand and Chord of Calling in their deck, you rarely end up facing only one Hierarch.

Sideboarding: -4 Cry of Contrition, -3 Infernal Tutor, -2 Delirium Skeins, +4 Last Gasp, +4 Rakdos Guildmage, +1 Swamp

There are other decks that I haven’t been able to get to yet, such as the W/U Skies deck that everyone seems to think will be good. However, as I’ve already said many times before, many matchups can be decided by the proper use of your discard effects, even if they seem bad for you on the numbers. Sideboarding is pretty obvious against most random decks; either your discard in the main goes out for removal (remember to bring in the Swamp whenever you bring in the Guildmage), or your removal in the main goes out for Rise / Fall.

Until next time, here’s hoping your Jagged Poppets are always Hellbent.

This article written after reading Mark Waid’s JLA: Year One.

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