It has been a rough year for red decks.
The debate about the best red aggressive creature survive rotation might come down to a glorified Raging Goblin versus a glorified Goblin Arsonist. Not that anything would actually compete with Lovestruck Beast and Bonecrusher Giant, but it would have been nice to have the option to try.
It seems like maybe, just maybe, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt is giving us some cheap red creatures that matter. It’s not just Flame Channeler, but Flame Channeler is by far the best one revealed so far.
I’ll start with a word of caution: the bar is really high for two-drop red creatures that don’t have an immediate impact. On the draw they’re too often blanked by a three-drop, and letting your opponent trade a two-mana removal spell for a card at complete parity is a real bad deal. That’s how red decks get drawn into late games where their cards are outclassed without any early advantage to leverage. This issue gets even worse as you look at older formats, and once you hit Pioneer I’m skeptical Flame Channeler does a better job than Abbot of Keral Keep.
But Flame Channeler is Standard legal, and it’s a bit different than those failed slow two-drops. It does a decent job of brawling, but where it truly shines is when it gets blanked in combat.
Adding a cantrip to all your burn spells is a big deal down the stretch if your attacks are stalled out. You get closer to your next burn spell, or just churn up some chump blockers to do the same thing. Getting to pair the scry off Play with Fire to the face with Embodiment of Flame is super nice, since in a tight mana spot you get to know in advance if you are clear to flip a cheap spell.
That said, there’s a bit of an issue. It takes two instances of damage to get your first free card off Embodiment of Flame. Past Roil Eruption and Play with Fire, the burn in Standard gets dicey. I guess you can Igneous Inspiration to find Start from Scratch and live a dream, but that rate does not excite me.
Fortunately, two things are on Flame Channeler’s side.
The big one is that Flame Channeler triggers off any damage dealt by a spell, not just damage to players. Even you don’t have depth in the actual burn department, you get paid off for going after their creatures.
The other thing working for Flame Channeler are the Zendikar Rising DFCs. Both Spikefield Hazard and Shatterskull Smashing are sources of damage that replace lands. That extra density means your Embodiment of Flame has a chance to actually transform and chain off.
I think comparing Flame Channeler to Young Pyromancer is ambitious, as is trying to compare the Standard-legal burn options to Boros Charm and Stoke the Flames, but you can see the similar purposes. You have a cheap threat that gets in early damage and extends the value of your damage-dealing spells, and that lets your otherwise hyper linear burn deck consider less linear lines of play.
You will notice the complete lack of one-drop creatures in this deck to chip in with. Some of that has to do with the Temple of Triumph mana, but a lot of it has to do with just not wanting low-impact cards. This older Boros Burn deck put itself in a position where it minimized back top decks, because it knew it couldn’t end the game fast enough to not get to a late-game. I’m unsure the current small Standard format supports quite the density of high-impact burn spells, but I’m going to try to emulate this and disregard cards that would be good on Turn 1 and bad on Turn 4.
Instead, expect a lot of Thermo-Alchemist. Once you’re already in for the first two-drop without immediate impact, a second isn’t a big ask. In return, you get redundancy on extending the value of your burn spells and a bit of a buffer against small attackers. It’s not quite a Searing Blood, but it will do for now.
The other parallel to draw to Boros Burn is that Flame Channeler doesn’t have to be in a fast red deck. You certainly want to be assertive, but you want to turn down the heat a bit. Part of this is just the card turning creature removal into cantrips, and the other part is Shatterskull Smashing versus Snow-Covered Mountain. There is likely a completely different Mono-Red Aggro❄ deck you can build that does get to Faceless Haven people, but that isn’t happening with Flame Channeler’s need for non-snow DFC lands. You still get to Den of the Bugbear people, so it’s not the worst thing in the world.
Not being committed to Faceless Haven does mean you get to consider another color. I’m really not into putting Furycalm Snarl or Volatile Fjord into my deck unless I really need to, so that probably means green or black for the new Innistrad: Midnight Hunt slowlands.
That splash is going to be for two things: a good threat or interaction that covers the things red is traditionally unable to kill. Of the allied colors, green seems like the clear loser here. It isn’t known for interaction, and the good green threats don’t really mesh with Flame Channeler. You don’t want Ranger Class in your spell-based deck, and Arlinn, the Pack’s Hope wants you to play ramp or bulky creatures that don’t quite mix with Flame Channeler’s style.
Meanwhile, black just has it all. Need to kill a Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider? Poison the Cup or Baleful Mastery. Want a great threat that also plays into a burn-spell heavy strategy? Sedgemoor Witch, done deal. Sedgemoor Witch is even better than the Young Pyromancer comparison looks, since both the ward life payment and the Pest token lifegain go a long way to letting you extend the game for lethal burn top decks.
There’s not a lot of fancy stuff going on and this deck certainly has a bit too many maindeck creatures due to lacking the full Innistrad: Midnight Hunt set list, but the goal is clear. Play some creatures that directly convert to damage, leverage your burn spells, or both. Deal damage wherever makes sense to get you to dealing lethal damage in a game. Supplement your slightly stretched mana by just playing more lands, since eleven of your lands are also good spells or creatures.
It’s an almost complete freeroll to have a small splash of a third color in this deck thanks to Pathway mana, but I don’t know what that would be for. I briefly considered Rowan, Scholar of Spark, but as clean as the Will, Scholar of Frost splash is, I don’t think the card is even good. Maybe you just want some weirdo Lesson like Containment Breach? In both cases it’s super sweet that failing to find one of your eight Pathways to fix the third color doesn’t leave you with a dead card in hand, but the quality of the splashed card is close enough to a dead card already that I’m skeptical.
If you want to get a little sketchier with the mana, Flame Channeler does have the creature type Wizard on both sides. That was previously one of the tougher types to access for Mardu Party, but I think Jadar, Ghoulcaller of Nephalia puts a pin in that one. You would be playing just enough damage-dealing spells (and Shatterskull Smashings) to make Flame Channeler acceptable, where Jadar is just a good card.
I’m much more interested in exploring actual Wizard synergies, since those got extra layers beyond Zendikar Rising in both Kaldheim and Strixhaven. Poppet Stitcher seems like a natural fit next to Flame Channeler, filling a similar role to Sedgemoor Witch with a little less immediate pop in exchange for a bigger finish. I’m willing to try Frostpyre Arcanist to extend my number of viable hits for both, and I’m still convinced that Relic Amulet has a place in a lower powered format to repeatedly gun down opposing creatures as you cantrip away.
Yes, I’m aware that “friends don’t let friends play Snarls”, but you know, preview season. There’s still time to work out the actually playing with them part. Or maybe the format will be low power enough that you can accept that level of mediocrity.
Even if this isn’t the exact shell to support it, be prepared for Consider plus Expressive Iteration to be a core part of Standard for the next year. This deck probably under utilized the graveyard equity of Consider, and I honestly wouldn’t be shocked to see Galvanic Iteration showing up in small quantities with them. I get that Doublecast doesn’t have the best competitive pedigree, but when it comes with flashback and a Consider freeroll, it’s way more exciting to have access to that effect. I’m actually more excited about that card than Arcane Infusion, which is kinda weird until you think about one of these effects having an immediate return on mana spent by copying a spell as opposed to just being another durdling card selection effect.
I also have high expectations for Tempted by the Oriq, or I guess high expectations if Old-Growth Troll remains a staple of the format. In the short term, it may get outshined by Lullmage’s Domination in a similar role, but that depends largely on whether decks like this are looking for the effect or if Soaring Thought-Thief is still looking for a Control Magic.
I’m not expecting Flame Channeler to warp the Standard metagame, but it’s a key role player in figuring out what red decks look like in a post-Embercleave world. After over a year deprived of real options, basic Mountain fans including literal @BasicMountain now actually have choices to make and things to try. That already has me hopeful for the format compared to the last million years of Embercleave plus bad cards failing to beat anything else.