Red has evolved a fair bit over the years. While it has remained the burn color, its focus on land destruction, chaotic effects, and global destruction has toned down a bit. Instead, its replaced its former weakness (cheap creatures) with a strength (cheap creatures). Additionally, fast mana and Tormenting Voice style looting was added to the color, in order to try to expand its range a little.
Analyzing the top 25 red cards of all-time is particularly challenging. What's "better," another ritual banned in powered formats, or another insane five-drop Dragon that dominated Standard?
I guess we'll just have to see...
#25: Flametongue Kavu
Flametongue Kavu being only 25th on this list might be sacrilegious by some folks' accounting, particularly given how historically warping the card was when it was in Standard. If we were going to only count the impact cards would have in most Standard formats, Flametongue Kavu would undoubtedly be much higher. While it can get stranded against a creatureless opponent, having access to a quality 5/5 or two goes a long way for giving you a backup plan.
Flametongue Kavu's first Pro Tour was the Invasion Block PT Tokyo 2001. While Zvi Mowshowitz ran the final table and took home the trophy with his innovative U/W "Solution" deck built to hose Flametongue Kavu decks, it was the Team ABU build of R/G Aggro that dominated the swiss like few decks ever have, putting four members of their team in the top 8 with the same deck.
- 4 Blurred Mongoose
- 2 Flametongue Kavu
- 2 Kavu Runner
- 4 Kavu Titan
- 4 Raging Kavu
- 4 Skizzik
- 4 Thornscape Battlemage
- 4 Thornscape Familiar
Interestingly, despite Flametongue Kavu being the consensus best card in the format, the ABU R/G only maindecked two, assuming enough of the metagame was going to be built to make the card line up poorly.
If the format gets warped enough, we start to see some funny things, such as Thornscape Battlemage getting the nod over Flametongue Kavu, despite no white mana. Why? Well, Thornscape Battlemage can kill protection from red creatures, not to mention being able to be played into an empty battlefield or go upstairs with its damage.
Of course, even if it was somewhat a victim of its own success, Flametongue Kavu is still a much better card.
#24: Goblin Ringleader
Long before he picked up the mantle for best player in the world, Hall of Famer Owen Turtenwald picked up his first GP Top 8 at Grand Prix Columbus 2007 (the GP where Flash + Protean Hulk was absurdly broken).
While Flash Hulk dominated the event and the conversation, Owen rode an unassuming Goblins deck all the way to the finals, relying on just enough interaction to buy himself time and the powerful card advantage made possible by Goblin Ringleader.
- 4 Gempalm Incinerator
- 4 Goblin Lackey
- 4 Goblin Matron
- 4 Goblin Piledriver
- 4 Goblin Ringleader
- 1 Goblin Sharpshooter
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 2 Siege-Gang Commander
- 2 Tin Street Hooligan
Goblin Lackey deserves an honorable mention, to be sure, though quite a few of these Goblins would show up in the top 50 list.
When a card's primary function is to accelerate you, the difference between a one-cost card and a two-cost card can be a lot, and when it's a creature with summoning sickness, the difference is felt even stronger.
#23: Imperial Recruiter
Finally, you can find Parasitic Strix and put your opponent out of their misery.
While this may seem like a lot of cards, remember, you only need to actually draw an Imperial Recruiter and an Aluren to pull it off. You just need to play at least one copy of the others somewhere in your deck.
- 4 Baleful Strix
- 1 Parasitic Strix
- 4 Shardless Agent
- 1 Cavern Harpy
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 1 Dream Stalker
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 4 Imperial Recruiter
Once Painter's Servant hits the table, everything becomes blue (making your Force of Wills and Red Elemental Blasts better), which in turn, means a single Grindstone activation will mill your opponent's entire deck. Imperial Recruiter can find Painter's Servant outright, or Trinket Mage, in order to find the Grindstone.
Goblin Welder and Auriok Salvagers are an excellent couple of possible Recruiter targets, and Adams' sideboard really comes alive when Imperial Recruiter can help him find so many of his sideboard cards more often.
Meanwhile, Trinket Mage's toolbox is even more extensive. In addition to the Grindstones and Lion's Eye Diamonds' core to the deck, Adams had access to Sensei's Divining Top, Pyrite Spellbomb, Aether Spellbomb, Engineered Explosives, Ancient Den, Tormod's Crypt, and Pithing Needle, when the occasion called for it.
#22: Seething Song
While there have been more than a few red rituals that net one mana, Seething Song was an extremely uncommon high tier ritual that netted two. While more restrictive than Dark Ritual, of course, Seething Song still proved to be too much for Modern, contributing to too many fast combo kills, particularly in Storm decks.
Unlike most red rituals, Seething Song was so strong, it was actually a staple in "fair" decks, literally just looking to play cards that cost five or more two turns ahead of schedule. For instance, in Seething Song's very first Pro Tour, it appeared in some big red decks, frequently powering out early Arc-Sloggers.
I think there's a reasonable case to be made for Arc-Slogger to appear somewhere on the list, if we were looking solely at Standard contexts, but even still, the card is an especially powerful threat when played on turn three.
To be fair, Peset's deck did have a little bit of a combo feel when facing an Affinity deck. Furnace Dragon was so frequently game over, getting it onto the battlefield two turns early was a key component of Peset's strategy for the event.
Of course, not all Seething Song strategies fought so fairly. In fact, most of them didn't. For instance:
Dragonstorm began as a much maligned fringe combo deck, but over time, it grew into such a force it was considered the dominant deck in the format by the time Ravnica block and 9th Edition were rotating out, taking with them Seething Song, Hunted Dragon, Gigadrowse, Sleight of Hand, Telling Time, Remand, Steam Vents, and more.
Surely, this kills the Dragonstorm deck…
#21: Empty the Warrens
The following year's Standard was littered with R/G Ramp decks, with occasional tribal aggro decks and Vesuvan Doppleganger/Brine Elemental decks adding up to a format wholly unprepared for Storm.
One of the most common uses of Empty the Warrens has been out of the sideboard of Storm decks looking to transition away from Grapeshots or Tendrils of Agony, into a backup plan capable of winning with Storm counts much lower (albeit, less reliably and less quickly).
The Mono-Red Dragonstorm deck Gabriel Nassif, Mark Herberholz, and I took to the 2007 Magic World Championships was the epitome of a "one-week deck," with a historically dominant performance in its debut event. This extremely rapid ascent was matched by an equally rapid fall from the metagame entirely, as everyone updated their lists to feature a wide variety of hate cards that were very successful in cutting this list down to size.