For months now, it seemed as if Standard had strangled me. Time and time again, someone would take Pack Rat and win a tournament while I was left staring at my opponent's unbeatable hand. Thoughtseize is a fine card, but it can also be incredibly demoralizing. Seeing your opponent's hand is a double-edged sword sometimes, giving you "false information" of sorts. If your opponent ends up topdecking a specific card, it changes the entire texture of the game, making your choice with Thoughtseize or potentially your choice during subsequent turns turn out to be incorrect.
Perhaps I'm looking into it too much, and Thoughtseize really is the best card in Standard. I should probably just take my licks and keep jamming Desecration Demon until my fingers need bandages. After all, all the "greatest great pros" at the Pro Tour played B/W Midrange, so I must be doing something wrong when it comes to Black decks.
But honestly, I think the thing I'm doing wrong is playing the Black decks. I haven't branched out much over the last few months, mostly sticking to Mono-Blue Devotion or Esper Control for every tournament. I never tried out Jund Monsters, and I only played Mono-Green Devotion in one Standard Open. The format has a reasonable number of options and potential strategies to employ no matter what colors you choose to play. So why am I being so angsty?
This past weekend, there were two Invitational Qualifiers within a reasonable driving distance of each other in North Carolina, meaning we could actually play some Magic outside of GenCon or the California WMCQ. I wasn't stoked about the idea, and considered bailing out on the drive when I didn't get much sleep on Friday night, but I didn't see a good reason not to go. In fact, I'd been stuck in my house alone for multiple days as my loving wife, Kali, went to GenCon. To say that I was going stir-crazy was an understatement. I may or may not have played Fallout: New Vegas for nearly 24 hours in a three-day span.
Building a Better Breakfast
But we hit the road early on Friday morning, meeting over at Brad Nelson's apartment. On my way over, I decided to grab some biscuits for everyone for breakfast, an act both selfish and selfless, as I didn't want us to have to waste time stopping for breakfast. But as I pulled up, I saw Brad outside waiting already...with what I could only describe as a "better breakfast." He got everyone biscuits and orange juice too! What a show-off!
We were joined shortly thereafter by Stephen Horne, the Mountain Who Drives, and Charissa Noel, the Mistress of Waves. For those of you who don't know Charissa, the girl can sling some Magic cards. We regularly joke about how she's much better than her fiance at Magic. And when I say "joke," I mean "she is better than him." Her deck of choice is Mono-Blue. Stephen's is Jund Monsters. Brad spent an hour yelling at Stephen (okay maybe not yelling, but giving him a stern talking to) about how Jund Monsters is bad and he should feel bad. Brad ended up playing some B/W Midrange deck with Brimaz and horrible mana which he continually defended throughout the entirety of the trip.
The drive up was fine, but we were all tired. Waking up around 6am after going to bed at 1am is a beating but nothing we aren't used to at this point. I had opted to play Esper Control, similar to the list I gave Brad for Grand Prix Cincinnati, while Brad turned his attention towards me. I wasn't playing his deck even though he had put in countless hours over the last week battling on Magic Online. Usually when he does this, I know his deck is good, but it always looks like a gigantic pile, and I haven't been able to test with the list he ends up on because it changes by five-ten cards each day. As he learns what is and isn't good in the format, I try to pull my knowledge of the format from previous experiences. After all, the Standard format hasn't changed much in the last nine months or so. I was confident in Esper Control because I know most players will just be on Mono-Blue, Black Devotion decks, and U/W/x Control.
When we arrived at Be There Games, we were happy to hear it would only be six rounds of swiss. A short day and a few hundred dollars is always a good day, after all. I started off 2-0 with Esper Control, beating up on G/W Aggro and Mono-Green Devotion (though Dissolving Nissa felt so wrong!). After that, I just couldn't get anything going, losing three rounds in a row to miss out on SCG Open Series points and any amount of prize. I felt fairly discouraged, finding myself once again on the losing end in Standard.
I watched Brad casually stroll into the Top 8, and I hated his stupid face for laughing about it the whole way (he just laughs a lot, it wasn't personal). Charissa died pretty early in the tournament as well, and so did Stephen Horne...or so we thought! While Stephen took his second loss in one of the middle rounds, his tiebreakers ended up being good enough to squeak into the Top 8 at 4-2! It doesn't happen often, but when it does it feels so good! Stephen was speechless, thinking he was just playing for Top 16 and some booster packs, but instead battling for a qualification to an Invitational and a lot of money!
Both Brad and Stephen had to play against G/W Aggro in the quarterfinals, and unfortunately, both of them ended up losing to reasonable draws. Brad ended up on a mulligan to four in game 3,which was pretty brutal. After we were all defeated, we decided to get on the road towards the next tournament which was a few hours away. Stephen booked a hotel room and we were off.
As we rode in the early evening, discontent rose in the car. Brad wasn't happy about losing but kept beating himself up about it. But after a little while, he decided to turn his sights on Stephen. For those of you who don't know Stephen Horne, he's a great guy. He's kind of a "n00b," in the sense that he hasn't been playing very long, but he has one of the strongest drives to get better that I've ever seen. Every tournament, he's asking our opinions and wanting to jam games. Every car ride, he's asking about certain cards or certain decks, devouring information like a carnivorous earwig.
Not that he's like a parasite...but just curious and...oh never mind.
Anyway, one of the first times we interacted with Stephen was at some Standard Grand Prix last year where Stephen started off 6-0 with a Dynacharge Mono-Red deck. While he was talking about the deck to us, he seemed happier than a carnivorous earwig who just met Albert Einstein and (OKAY FINE I'LL STOP TALKING ABOUT EARWIGS! THEY GROSS ME OUT TOO!). But round after round, he kept running people over with small, red creatures and Dynacharge. It was awesome! So very obviously Brad kept asking Stephen why he was playing Jund Monsters instead of Rabble Red, a deck he had worked on for Pro Tour M15. Honestly, I thought the same thing. The deck seemed right up his alley.
Long story short, Stephen had reasonable success with Jund Monsters and was moderately afraid to try anything else. But times have changed, and I don't think Jund Monsters is as good as Jund Planeswalkers (or ever was that good, sorry CVM). So I jumped in to help Brad convince Stephen that Rabble Red was the right choice for the second tournament. And when Brad told Stephen he had multiple copies of the deck (thanks to Pro Tour testing), how could he say no? After we arrived at the hotel, something about the texture of the trip changed. I don't know exactly what happened, but when I went to sleep the night before...I too was playing Rabble Red.
Let it Go!
Fine! At least it wasn't Burn, right?
- 2 Ash Zealot
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Firedrinker Satyr
- 3 Firefist Striker
- 4 Foundry Street Denizen
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 3 Legion Loyalist
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Rubblebelt Maaka
I could hear the voice in my head, berating me for such a deck choice. I told it to f*** off. After all, I wasn't winning with anything else. Why not give something fun a try?
After talking with Brad about the deck a reasonable amount, I came to some conclusions. My first conclusion is that I was probably wrong about most of the things I wanted to change because he had worked on the deck significantly more than I had. In fact, I hadn't worked on the deck at all, so I took his word as lore. The only change came when I asked if he thought a third Firefist Striker would be better than the third Ash Zealot, and he said yes.
Hurray! Now Rabble Red was my deck!
But seriously, Rabble Red is a very strong deck. I watched it in action at Pro Tour M15, and it seemed much stronger than everyone was giving it credit for. Yes, you had a tough matchup against Mono-Blue, but so does everything except U/W Control. At least we have a plan!
It was actually difficult finding these before the tournament, as it was the only card Brad didn't have access to and the store was sold out when we got there. We sheepishly asked around if anyone had any to spare and luckily found the amount we needed before the tournament began.
And once the tournament began, I immediately regretted my decision.
Dying on turn 4 in your first game of a tournament while you fail to hit a second land drop on the draw is...exhausting. But after sideboard, I had access to many powerful effects against an aggressive white deck thanks to Mizzium Mortars and Magma Spray. The second two games were a breeze, and I started to gain some confidence with the deck.
My second round came against a Burn deck, something that Brad had told me was a bad matchup. "Great," I thought. Warleader's Helix and Eidolon of the Great Revel. This was going to be fun on a bun. And it was, because I had five attacking creatures on Turn 3. The second game was a bit grindier, but I eventually killed him with a little help from a few Mutavaults.
At this point, I was feeling pretty good about the deck. My draws had been solid, and I had "gotten there" with my one-land hands almost every time. I was excited to be playing an archetype that I hadn't played much and winning was making it all worth it.
The rest of the tournament felt like a blur. All of my matches ended in less than twenty minutes, though most of them went to Game 3. This deck is incredibly explosive, so being on the play is fantastic. I won nearly every single Game 1 that I played, lost to some hate cards or bad draws while being on the draw, and proceeded to mangle my opponents in the third game while being on the play. I did end up losing in Round 5 to G/W Aggro, a matchup that felt absolutely horrible. Even with Magma Spray for Voice of Resurgence, they are casting creatures that force me to spend an entire turn killing them, which means I don't have time to cast creatures of my own.
After that loss, I proceeded to beat a B/W Midrange deck and a U/W Planar Cleansing deck, virtually locking me for Top 8 with a draw in the last round. While I ended up as the eighth seed, I knew the deck was powerful enough to overcome being on the draw. In fact, I only won two die rolls on the day, meaning I was on the draw for most of my Game 1s.
Red Deck Wins
In the quarterfinals, I ended up playing against R/W Burn once again, but this time was a lot closer. I made a slight misplay to lose to running four-damage burn spells in the second game but had a reasonable draw in Game 3 to end up on top. Legion Loyalist is quite good against Young Pyromancer!
The semifinals found me facing off against The Mountain Who Drives. Stephen ended up having to mulligan to four in the first game, which I sheepishly took down after he failed to play a land on Turn 1. The second and third games were pretty awesome though. We went back and forth for multiple turns each game, switching between control and aggressive roles. Many a Rubblebelt Makka was cast, and I actually learned a lot about how combat works in the mirror. This would lead to conversations on the way home about whether being on the play or the draw was better in the mirror. After much consideration, I think Brad is probably right, and I should have chosen to take the draw, but I hadn't been on the play much that day and I was feeling frisky.
I ended up taking control of the third game at a healthy two life when Stephen was at eighteen, peeling a very powerful spell when you have access to six mana.
I ended up fading his eight-outer for a few turns and went on the offensive with my squad. On his final draw step he revealed....
Not exactly a game-changer.
The finals pitted me against U/W Control for the second time on the day, and it went almost exactly how you would expect it to go. Since they don't have Detention Sphere, your only real fear is Supreme Verdict. I had plenty of time to set up my forces in the early turns, pecking away at his life total with a Mutavault on reserve. Once he tapped out for Jace instead of casting Supreme Verdict, I was able to bust through with enough two-power creatures and a Stoke the Flames to finish him off.
In the second game, we went hard in the paint with burn spells. He opted to side in Negate, which ended up being pretty awesome against my draw, but I eventually found the line to kill him when I peeled a land to do exactsies with an attack through Jace along with Skullcrack and Lightning Strike.
After winning the tournament, I was handed an envelope filled with to the brim with Benjamins, and I was ecstatic. The deck didn't play out anything like I had expected it to in that I expected it to flood out and die most of the time. In fact, this was one of the most complex Red decks I've ever played. To quote Brad, "It's almost like a Red Aristocrats deck." You have so many triggers, so many lines, and I have to say that Stoke the Flames is one of the most head-scratching burn spells you will ever have to play. Figuring out certain paths is difficult, to be sure, but this isn't your run-of-the-mill Red Deck Wins.
Red Light, Green Light
I will almost assuredly be playing this deck again (with a few minor changes) for the Open Series in D.C. I fully expect to get hit with Drown in Sorrow and Pharika's Cure, but I also expect that I won't care. Plenty of Drown in Sorrows were cast against me, and I fought through them the same way I fought through Supreme Verdict. Facing down Desecration Demon and Drown in Sorrow is pretty similar to facing down a Jace, Architect of Thought and Supreme Verdict, after all.
I haven't played a Red deck in a long time that felt like it had as much longevity as this one while still having explosive draws in the early game. Goblin Rabblemaster was ridiculous, and my opponent died almost immediately if I ever got to untap with it. The synergy between Rabblemaster and Mutavault is fantastic, as Mutavault allows you to play more lands without getting flooded, on top of pumping your Rabblemaster.
Rubblebelt Makka was probably my MVP of the tournament, since most people thought blocking was actually an option. Brute Force never looked so good! Even the games where I was casting it as Hill Giant weren't all that bad. In fact, I think I do pretty good in Limited formats where Hill Giant is a fine threat, and this is one spicy Hill Giant if I say so myself.
1. Stephen Horne for Top 8'ing both events.
2. Brad Nelson for breakfast, even though it overloaded my breakfast.
1. Brad Nelson for playing a bad midrange deck instead of Rabble Red.
2. Charissa Noel for bumming around in Subway and getting free refills all day.
3. Burning-Tree Emissary. C'mon buddy.