Two days ago, I thought I was onto something great. At the time, I had a 21-4 record on Magic Online with a unique deck and was poised to make slight perfections to it before unveiling it to the world today.
Yesterday was a different story.
Within 24 hours, the decks I was playing against seemed to dramatically change. They became leaner, more efficient, and began doing similar things to what I was trying to do. I was still winning, maybe not as much, but the tide was turning. Standard was evolving and fast.
My plan to write a primer today quickly lost its luster. I no longer could justify doing so as presenting information in that way ran too high the risk of being irrelevant by the time this weekend rolls around. There was also the increasingly realistic chance that the information I provided was flawed. Instead I've decided to talk about one specific aspect of Standard and bestow onto you everything I know about…
I've played a metric ton with a large portion of the red cards at this point, and there's a lot of things I've learned. I'm going to present the information in a unique way, so I'd love to know if you liked this process.
Red's changing. The hyper-aggressive elements are being exchanged for more efficient cards. One-drops like Fanatical Firebrand and Ghitu Lavarunner are being replaced with Dismissive Pyromancer and Goblin Cratermaker. Red's going bigger and for good reason. The only "real" one-drops are removal spells. Siege-Gang Commander, Demanding Dragon, and Fight with Fire are seeing more and more play.
The reason for this is how impressive both Runaway Steam-Kin and Experimental Frenzy are. Red doesn't need to risk playing with low-impact cards as the color has the raw power to go toe-to-toe with opposing strategies. The strategy does run the risk of getting too big for its britches and losing too many points against Teferi deck but for now, it's clearly the correct choice.
There have been smatterings of Goblin strategies floating around, but for the purposes of this article, I'll be ignoring them. I've found them exceptionally weak against other red strategies, which is not somewhere I'd want to be this weekend.
One-mana removal is vital as it's once again good against two-drops and even some three-drops, like Legion Warboss. Shock synergizes better with Experimental Frenzy, but rarely is that relevant. I've found Shivan Fire to be a much better card when Wizard's Lightning is not a part of the strategy.
Lava Coil is amazing. It kills Rekindling Phoenix, Steel Leaf Champion, and many other problematic creatures in the format. Besides being able to target the player, the only advantage Lightning Strike has over Lava Coil is being an instant - which, admittedly, is very relevant - but no red deck should go without four Lava Coil in the 75. The same cannot be said about Lightning Strike.
Justice Strike isn't mono-red but red decks are capable of a light splash, and it's a card worthy of that sacrifice. Ghalta, Primal Hunger, Doom Whisperer, Lyra Dawnbringer, and Nullhide Ferox are all extremely difficult to deal with for these red decks. Alternatively, aggressive starts with Rekindling Phoenix are difficult for decks that contain the aforementioned cards to deal with, but Ghalta, Primal Hunger strategies are starting to splash for Venerated Loxodon and Conclave Tribunal, making it vital to interact with their most powerful spells.
- 2 Kraul Harpooner
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Pelt Collector
- 4 Steel Leaf Champion
- 4 Thorn Lieutenant
- 3 Thrashing Brontodon
- 4 Venerated Loxodon
- 3 Ghalta, Primal Hunger
Fight with Fire is seeing a lot of play recently, as it's a nice way to kill Lyra Dawnbringer but also interacts well with Runaway Steam-Kin. Red mirrors also tend to go exceptionally long thanks to the efficient removal and cards like Treasure Map and Experimental Frenzy help create large bundles of mana. Dealing ten with Fight with Fire isn't only possible but has been a relatively reliable strategy.
Fiery Cannonade was my tech from Tuesday but many had already caught on themselves. The card is very good at dealing with History of Benalia, aggressive red strategies, and most of the cards in Selesnya Tokens. It's also a card that doesn't kill many of the caster's own creatures. This is a very good sideboard card and one I believe is better than Deafening Clarion. A split isn't bad though, especially if your fear is Selesnya Tokens sneaking a Venerated Loxodon onto the battlefield. Personally, I'd run the risk of and just play Fiery Cannonade, as instant-speed has been exceptional.
Wizard's Lightning strategies aren't good against the new iterations of red. It's difficult to get enough damage through as the early creatures deal little to no damage.
Ixalan's Binding is a great tool for mirrors as Experimental Frenzy, Treasure Map, and Rekindling Phoenix are all commonly played cards in the mirror. There're other ways to trump these types of cards like playing giant threats in a timely fashion, but it's also vital to play enough removal which runs the risk of it not lining up or drawing too much of it. Ixalan's Binding is also nice against certain non-green strategies, but do not rely on this card to contain Ghalta, Primal Hunger.
Maxing out on Ixalan's Binding runs the risk of getting beaten by opposing copies of the card. The first copy cast can end up under an opposing Ixalan's Binding, locking the rest of your copies from ever being cast. The only fix for this is to play a low number, diversifying the effects, or playing spell-based artifact/enchantment removal. I'm not currently a fan of any of these options but I haven't been playing against the card much either.
Tuesday, I wrote about Runaway Steam-Kin purely from theory as I'd never cast the card before writing the article. Within twelve hours, I felt like a genius as I've quickly realized just how disgusting the card could be. Before Cedric even had a chance to read the article, I DM'd him about some of my adventures - one being the time I cast two Goblin Chainwhirlers and a Rekindling Phoenix on turn 4.
Everything I wrote about Runaway Steam-Kin came true.
I sideboard it out on the draw in the mirrors and lean more heavily on card advantage and removal. Again, this is only possible if you splash white as you need answers to their card advantage. It's not like Runaway Steam-Kin isn't playable in the mirrors, but it's not a reliable two-drop against Goblin Chainwhirler either. We all know by now that Goblin Chainwhirler isn't the best card in the red mirrors after sideboard, but being able to take down Rekindling Phoenix when combined with a Lightning Strike leaves it important enough to keep in.
I'm not a fan of either of these cards though they help keep creature numbers high and both can kill certain permanents. Goblin Cratermaker being able to Shatter Treasure Map or The Immortal Sun does excite me but playing the card despite that still concerns me because it's just not a powerful card. Dismissive Pyromancer does help mitigate flood in the mirrors, but it's just too slow against most of the other strategies in the format.
The jury's still out on Dire Fleet Daredevil, but so far I've been impressed by it against Vraska's Contempt strategies and the mirrors. It's not the most impressive card to play, but Lava Coil being a must in the mirrors does mean you'll more often have an answer for an opposing Rekindling Phoenix. Obviously this card will get cleaned up by Goblin Chainwhirler, but it should almost have always generated value before doing so. It's also a Lava Coil that can be cast off of Experimental Frenzy on an empty battlefield.
I'm honestly not a fan, but I can't get myself to make a bolder claim than that right now. Goblin Rabblemaster was my jam back in the day, but times are different now. I've played a lot with this card, and rarely has it been that good. There are just so many creatures and removal spells roaming the battlefields that I've rarely seen Legion Warboss really get going. In fact, I've only played it longer than I realistically should have because of how similar it is to Goblin Rabblemaster. In theory the card should be good, but in practice it's been below average to outright bad.
See Goblin Chainwhirler.
Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice is a very powerful card in red mirrors as Fight with Fire is the only red card that can kill it. Outside of that, the color needs to either two-for-one itself, pair Lava Coil and Goblin Chainwhirler together, or cast a white removal spell. It hasn't been impressive in every Boros deck though.
A better way to say that is that every Boros deck hasn't been impressive.
- 4 Adanto Vanguard
- 4 Knight of Grace
- 4 Resplendent Angel
- 3 Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice
- 4 Lyra Dawnbringer
- 3 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
I really like the direction Bertram has taken with his list. It's focused, plays powerful cards, and relies on less synergy than other Boros strategies. Its threats can also ignore some of reds more powerful threats like Experimental Frenzy and Rekindling Phoenix through sheer force.
A Rekindling Phoenix knock-off at four mana and an all-star at seven, not many people have been Verix Bladewing, but I sure have. It's actually been pretty good (I've always paired it with Sarkhan, Fireblood but more on that later). This card was never good enough thanks to Chandra, Torch of Defiance but now that the Planeswalker is gone, I've found it to hold its own in the format.
This card's pretty good against non-green strategies. Multiple bodies are nice against removal spells, and the ability is great against creatures. Sure, Goblin Chainwhirler can sweep up the tokens but lining that up in mirrors is rarer than one would guess. The one issue with Siege-Gang Commander in the mirrors is that a savvy opponent can bring in sweepers if you're playing this alongside Legion Warboss. Not saying you'll get two-for-one'd, but there might be a stronger option for the mirrors.
Demanding Dragon has been nice, but the biggest issue that has tainted some of my testing is that the card is currently bugged on Magic Online. Currently, the card forces the opponent to sacrifice a creature if they can instead of giving them the option. For testing purposes I've never exploited it, but it has caused some opponents to sacrifice a creature when they would rather take five which is very annoying. That didn't stop me from trying the card a little bit though, as I wanted a decent frame of reference on how it would perform. That said, the bug has left me without a proper objective opinion on the card.
I haven't actually tried the card yet, but it's on my to-do-list.
Card Advantage Spells
Treasure Map is a strong card in the mirrors after sideboard and also works very well with Experimental Frenzy. Many red decks do play at least one Field of Ruin, but rarely does that actually line up. The card isn't that great against other strategies though as they can go over the top of Treasure Map fairly easily. It's also great with Fight with Fire, but I'm unsure how reliable the strategy of getting to nine mana with the burn spell in hand actually is. I would play both of these cards in my deck if I didn't splash for white though.
I quickly realized I didn't want to play other aggressive creatures when I started looking into trying Runaway Steam-Kin out. The one-drops looked awful, and even the other two-drops weren't enticing. Some of the Boros creatures looked fine, but I wanted to play Goblin Chainwhirler without playing Boros Guildgate. I just wanted to go big but playing too many lands runs a serious risk, one that Sarkhan, Fireblood mitigates without being a 2/2 for 1R.
I've said a few times that people need to stop building decks the way they would have last season, and Sarkhan, Fireblood is an example of this. The card was not remotely playable last season thanks to Heart of Kiran and Scrapheap Scrounger. Times have changed though, and almost always this card lives through a turn 3 casting. From there, it does two things I've found very effective - sifting through extra lands and casting big flying Dragons. The ultimate is even a thing I've done which surprised me.
I'm not sold decks supporting Sarkhan, Fireblood are good as of yet, but this is the centerpiece of the deck I was referring to when I said I started the format with a 21-4 record.
Experimental Frenzy has been the talk of the town and it should be. This card can do some serious lifting but does have deckbuilding restrictions that I'm currently on the fence about. First, you can't fill your deck with too many expensive cards as you want to be able to churn through your deck when it's active. You also need to make sure the battlefield is clear before doing so or you run the risk of getting tempoed out if the right cards aren't available at the right time. That still doesn't change the fact that I've seen this card do some disgusting things both when playing with it and against it. I've also seen it be really bad.
Right now, it's a race to perfect the card and also understand how to beat it. I expect to hear very polarizing opinions about Experimental Frenzy for the next couple weeks.
This is another card that works very well with cards like Fiery Cannonade and Fight with Fire and is a great way to mitigate flood. That said, it's still not that great of a card, though I've had decent results with it, but not enough of them have appeared for me to continue playing with it for now. I've actually played a ton with Jaya this week in many different shells trying to maximize Fight with Fire, but in the end, I'm starting to conclude that strategy is just too cute. I was very high on Fight with Fire a few days ago, but I'm not even sure I'll be playing any copies this weekend.
This card is a house in red mirrors as it makes your spells cheaper, pumps the creatures, and draws an extra card every turn. It's also a card that can come in against the mirror but also shuts down a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria if it resolves. I'm not sold that all of this makes The Immortal Sun great, but it's one we should spend more effort into trying out.
Putting It All Together
Up to this point I can't honestly tell you what's the best version of a red deck is. The only thing I really can do is show you where I'm currently at.
I've had great results with this strategy against the non-control decks but have struggled against my very few Teferi opponents. Sorcerous Spyglass may seem like it serves as an anti-Teferi card but that's not its only role. I've had promising results with the card naming either Treasure Map or Experimental Frenzy against opposing red decks. Further, Sarkhan, Fireblood is a great way to get rid of dead cards, which lets you get a little fancy with sideboard options.
Lightning Mare has been fine against control decks, but it's really shined against Mono-Blue Aggro which I've played rather frequently on Magic Online. Mono-Blue Aggro hasn't felt that bad either, so I wouldn't be surprised if I played against it in a tournament this weekend.
I'm still playing Legion Warboss in my sideboard as it's important to have a few more proactive elements in the deck on the play sometimes, but I wouldn't be surprised if I end up registering zero soon. I've dabbled with Treasure Map myself, but I've had the best results when I just cast giant fliers and want to lean on that as much as possible.
I hope this article was helpful, and I would greatly appreciate it if you took the time to let me know one way or another. I would gladly write more articles like this if it was a useful tool, but I'd need to know for sure before doing it again.