History can be a powerful learning tool. If something worked (or failed) in the past, there is precedent for the same thing to happen again. But solely using history to predict the future can also have negative consequences. Circumstances change, and what worked years ago may not work tomorrow. Let history guide you, but do not be a slave to history.
Now, let's talk about Magic!
Anyone who has played in tournaments for a reasonably long time knows that Magic has changed over the years. To be specific, the cards have gotten more powerful, and creatures that passed as Constructed playable before the Y2K bug crippled society may struggle to make the cut of your Draft deck today. When I read Brian Kibler's articles on Selesnya decks, I laughed to think that Mike Turian's GP Top 8 deck from Mirage Block may struggle against some M13 Draft decks.
However, there is something that can be learned from looking at decks from the past. Why were those cards good for their era? Were they the biggest, the fastest, or the splashiest cards? Not always. However, the way they interacted with the other cards represents something we can learn from.
I will be looking at a variety of Rakdos decks that had some significant tournament success, figuring out what drew these deckbuilders to black-red over other potential color combinations. Some of these decks were before my time (I played my first tournament in 2000), so I'd like to give a shout out to Adrian Sullivan for being more of a dinosaur than myself. Thanks Adrian!
(Stupid Disenchants, shoring up Rakdos weaknesses of no enchantment removal.)
Ah, the Skull. Necropotence was one of the dominating forces of Magic back in the Dark Ages. Initially misunderstood, once players learned to pair Necropotence with cheap spells and life gain (basically Drain Life), other decks had a difficult time competing. There were Necro decks and Anti-Necro decks (that weren't even all that great against Necro). Randy's deck had a nice edge in Necropotence mirrors, as his cheap spells were burn spells aimed at punishing an opponent for using Necropotence too liberally. In addition, Firestorm is one of the best possible cards to draw after drawing a ton of cards with Necropotence.
The sideboard was lost to the annals of time, but it seems that Mirage Block Constructed was quite the place for strange looking, underpowered decks. This is basically a burn deck backed with aggressive creatures from black. There are certainly some out of place cards in the deck, including Coercion, Stupor, Necromancy and the Snake Basket (!), but as you'll see, small black creatures backed by red burn is a traditional strategy for Rakdos decks. This deck is no different, even if the creatures are much worse and there are eight Swamps in a deck with four Fireblast.
As a fun fact, if you've ever heard the story where Mike Long got his opponent to concede after having discarded his only way to win (a singleton Drain Life), this is the player and the deck from which the faulty concession came from.
Once again, no sideboard. Apparently they weren't seen as an important part of coverage back then. This is probably a unique deck in terms of how Rakdos decks are built. Most Rakdos decks aren't seen as combo decks, and I'm fairly certain this deck is only Rakdos because that's where the cards happened to fall. Necropotence is quite the card. While Necro decks had been dominating Magic for quite a while at this point, Adrian was the first to pair his Necropotences with some deadly combo instead of a bunch of Black Knights. In this case, the combo is Pandemonium + two Phyrexian Dreadnaughts (with a Reanimate happy to replace the second Dreadnaught) dealing a nice 24 damage to the opponent.
After this deck, there were quite a few combo decks that followed the Tutors + ritual = Necropotence -> more Tutors + rituals = combo pieces. The notorious NecroDonate deck took advantage of this even without Mana Vault and Dark Ritual.
- 4 Blazing Specter
- 3 Crypt Angel
- 3 Flametongue Kavu
- 4 Nightscape Familiar
- 4 Ravenous Rats
- 3 Skizzik
- 4 Thunderscape Battlemage
(Let's ignore the tainting of this Rakdos deck by the singleton Tranquility in the sideboard.)
Before his World Series of Poker and Vintage exploits, David Williams was a mainstay on the Pro Tour. Where Justice's deck was interested in using the Rakdos colors to end the game quickly, David took advantage of the fact that both red and black are the colors that are best at blowing things up. David's deck is interested in blowing everything up. There is enough card advantage (primarily via discard spells) that his removal spells can clean up everything else.
Going into this Pro Tour, red was by far the most dominant color based on powerhouse cards such as Urza's Rage, Skizzik, and especially Flametongue Kavu. While Williams eschewed Urza's Rage, he paired red with some excellent Rakdos cards such as Terminate and Void for an excellent board control deck. Zvi Mowshowitz won this Pro Tour with eight protection from red creatures in his maindeck, largely to prey on decks like this.
- 3 Gempalm Incinerator
- 1 Goblin Grappler
- 4 Goblin Piledriver
- 2 Goblin Sharpshooter
- 4 Goblin Sledder
- 3 Goblin Taskmaster
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 4 Siege-Gang Commander
- 3 Skirk Prospector
- 4 Sparksmith
While there may be better finishes with the Goblin Bidding deck, only Eder had his deck immortalized in the World Championship Decks series. Onslaught Block was supposed to be a tribal block, but only the Goblins really proved to be a Constructed playable tribe. Basically the predecessor to the Legacy Goblin decks we see today, this Goblin deck was interested in flooding the board with Goblins, sacrificing them for fun and profit.
If too many Goblins died (or committed suicide), Patriarch's Bidding stepped in to provide a combo kill. If you returned a Goblin Warchief, Goblin Piledriver attacked for copious amounts of damage or Goblin Sharpshooter gunned down the opponent's entire side and often their life total with it. Skirk Prospector and Siege-Gang Commander provided yet another way to produce lethal Biddings. Goblin Bidding was a driving force of Standard for much of its life.
- 4 Epochrasite
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Greater Gargadon
- 4 Keldon Marauders
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Mogg War Marshal
- 1 Nantuko Husk
- 4 Scorched Rusalka
From a personal standpoint, this Standard format was probably one of my favorites of all time. Antonino used Greater Gargadon, Nantuko Husk, and Scorched Rusalka in combination with cards that allow you to sacrifice creatures profitably (Mogg War Marshal, Threaten, Epochrasite) to create some excellent synergies. Fatal Frenzy was also a fantastic surprise on a Husk or a Gargadon for a big finish, while Pendelhaven and Scorched Rusalka let you nickel and dime opponents to death if need be.
While I really enjoyed Antonino's deck, I personally played a less creature-oriented Rakdos deck at the time. Instead of Greater Gargadon, my arbitrarily expensive card to reveal to my Dark Confidants was Hit / Run, and I combined it with plenty of burn spells, including the format-defining Demonfire.
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 4 Kalastria Highborn
- 4 Pulse Tracker
- 4 Vampire Lacerator
- 4 Viscera Seer
While plenty of people had success with Vampires, I remember Caleb being one of the initial champions of the archetype, hence the decklist is his. Harkening back to the Mark Justice era, Caleb used the efficient creatures in black and the best burn red had to offer to create a potent Rakdos beatdown deck.
While Mark Justice had to rough it with 3/3 haste creatures for four mana, Caleb enjoyed multiple potent one- and two-drops, all of which were capable of beating down on their own but offered some nice synergy when put together. I lost plenty of games to the combination of Viscera Seer, Bloodghast, and Kalastria Highborn from this deck. It was quite good against the green decks I favored at the time.
- 4 Blood Artist
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
Tell me if you've seen this before. During the first week of the new Standard rotation, Joe went the traditional black creatures + red burn spells route and had success with this list. As our current format evolved, the two best cards have clearly been Sphinx's Revelation and Thragtusk. Both of those cards gain life, which makes cards like Bump in the Night seem awkward. Thus people have turned towards higher-curve Rakdos decks. Red mana is emphasized a bit more with Hellrider and Thundermaw Hellkite.
The finals of the three most recent Standard Grand Prix (Nagoya, San Antonio, and Charleston) have featured a whopping four Rakdos decks. Hard-hitting threats that are resilient have been crucial to the success of many players, and for perhaps the first time in history, a Rakdos deck is clearly king of the mountain. If you want to win a Standard tournament (perhaps this weekends' StarCityGames.com Standard Open or Invitational in Los Angeles?), then I would recommend either playing or learning to beat this deck piloted by Tyler Lytle or one of its variations.
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 3 Hellrider
- 4 Knight of Infamy
- 3 Thundermaw Hellkite
So what makes a good Rakdos deck? Honestly, luck. Rakdos has really gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to competitive guild-based decks. During the few times they have been competitive, the reason for being so had to do more with individual cards in the format as opposed to any tried and true Rakdos strategy. The only real theme is something that we can build on now: small black creatures + burn spells. Red and black have both been getting some excellent creatures lately based almost solely on aggression. "Can't block," "comes into play tapped," and "haste" are quite poor defensive abilities, so it makes sense to dial up the beatdown when you are playing these colors. Gone are the days of disruption-based decks like David Williams'. Get your beatdown on!
Modern and Legacy are nearly devoid of powerful Rakdos decks, likely for good reason. The burn spells that are red's strength don't mesh well with the attrition-based strategies that synergize with the discard and removal of black. Based on history, a smaller format is more likely to be a home for Rakdos decks than a larger format. This is simply because the new wave of powerful cards in red and black are mostly combat-oriented creatures, which is what Standard is about.