If you followed the PT Columbus coverage at the Tournament Center, you know that my favorite deck of the Pro Tour was Red Deck Wins. I watched Shuhei Nakamura win a series of improbable matchups on his way to a loss in the finals (to what should have been a good matchup). He played for the most part a very tight game, constricting the turns that his opponents had to answer his threats, bowling them over with a combination of aggressive attackers and finishing burn that would make Dave Price proud. Red Deck Wins is a straightforward deck that doesn't get color-screwed, doesn't fizzle, and has game against every single archetype. Despite the fact that (as BDM tells me) 100% of Small Children (tm) seem to be testing Life (the bane of the beatdown), Red Deck Wins remains my favorite Extended deck.
But which version is optimal?
That is an interesting question; in order to answer it, we need to ask more questions. We have seen several vastly different looks at the same basic archetype in recent years, each with its own advantages and special features. Some versions of Red Deck Wins are better against creatures, and some are better against combination. Some are built for pure aggression, and some hinge their games on time advantage. All share a common mana base and core of threat and direct damage spells. This article explores the interactions of the different Red Deck Wins builds against one another specifically. If you look back at perhaps the greatest Red Deck victory of all time, Dave Price at LA 1998, you will see that Price and the Deadguys credited their success with intense Red-on-Red testing. This led them to innovations like playing Giant Strength to pull their Canyon Wildcats out of Cursed Scroll range, and, more importantly, including multiple Rathi Dragons in the main and side. With Shuhei Nakamura's finalist finish in Columbus, Red Deck Wins will be more popular than ever on the Qualifier trail. Taking home the coveted Blue Envelope for Red Deck Wins this time around will require not just a keen understanding of your own deck, but the key cards that finish - or fail - in the mirror.
Though Red Deck Wins dates back to Mark Wraith's win at UK Nationals 1999 (not to mention top finishes by his teammates, including our own Mr. Paskins), the "modern" Red Deck Wins begins with Dan Cato at last year's Extended Pro Tour. You may remember Dan's deck as the unlucky 9th place finisher. After that event, the editor-in-chief, in Be Warned That You Might Have To Face Tinker: Lessons From New Orleans suggested that you look at Dan's deck, which missed Top 8 on tiebreakers alone. Dan's deck probably isn't the optimal Red Deck Wins, but it is the first public deck to espouse most of the important principles that make the archetype go:
Dan's deck showcases the Onslaught lands as proxy Mountains in combination with Grim Lavamancer for free card advantage. The unique elements of this deck are the inclusion of Tangle Wire and Slith Firewalker, and the absence of Mogg Fanatic.
Moving forward chronologically, the next build of Red Deck Wins that I looked at was Patrick Sullivan's from last year's PTQ season. Pat defeated Mike Pustilnik (playing The Rock) to take a post-bannings PTQ slot with the below listing. His deck is extremely straightforward with no frills. When Josh Ravitz told me about it, I started asking him all kinds of questions about cards that simply weren't present (like the aforementioned Tangle Wire and Slith Firewalker). As you might have read in Osyp's article last week, the Sullivan Red Deck Wins plays "eight Jackal Pups" for a redundant one-drop spot and has the unique element of Lava Dart main, over the generally played Firebolt.
Last, but most fresh in our collective minds, is the deck Shuhei Nakamura played in Columbus. This deck includes Magma Jet, a card that neither Cato nor Sullivan had access to, as well as Pillage, a card that neither forces through damage, nor does damage itself.
The experts seem to agree that Red Deck Wins should have certain cards main. The following are non-negotiable:
The land base
All three decks have the exact same mana base. No matter what else is varied, each of these successful decks plays 24 lands, eight mana control lands, and the maximum number of relevant Onslaught sacrifice lands. These cards serve two purposes: In the main, they fuel Grim Lavamancer. Out of the board, they turbo charge Fledgling Dragon. In any case, they allow the deck to play 24 lands but thin out its own count in order to keep the threats flowing.
4 Cursed Scroll
4 Seal of Fire
While other burn elements vary from deck to deck, these are constant. Cursed Scroll gives Red Deck Wins an otherwise absent card advantage engine. Seal of Fire is simply the best available burn spell, which we will discuss in greater detail regarding the mirror match specifically, below.
4 Blistering Firecat
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Jackal Pup
I actually think that Blistering Firecat is actually a negotiable slot, more of a concession to the speed of the rest of the field than anything else, actually. Despite being a de facto win in the mirror if it ever sticks, Blistering Firecat is extremely difficult to cast, with a RRR mana cost, and remarkably vulnerable to removal.
The Swing Cards:
Though Osyp talks about Lava Dart in relation to Pillage and Magma Jet v. Goblin Cadets, I view the swing cards differently. To me, Lava Dart seems more at odds with Firebolt (both one-mana flashback spells), and Magma Jet is more easily compared with Volcanic Hammer. On the other hand, Goblin Cadets seems to fall in the "unique elements" area. In Patrick's list, it sits in a spot that would otherwise be taken up by Pillage or Tangle Wire, exemplifying aggressive damage over tempo or flexibility.
Which of these two mana burn spells is appropriate is an interesting question. Once upon a time, creatures from Erhnam Djinn to Derelor were chosen in Constructed deck because of their ability to withstand an unaided Lightning Bolt. We have come a long way... nowadays the default three damage burn spell costs twice the mana and fires at sorcery speed.
In discussing these cards with my onetime apprentice Josh Ravitz (great job in Chicago, Rabbit!), he wisely stated that Red Deck Wins is a seven card combo, and that both of the above burn spells, for purposes of winning the game Philosophy of Fire-style, are "one and a half cards." For purposes of taking out a creature, my scan of the Columbus Top 8 shows only Task Force as a relevant target with the three toughness high water mark... and sending a Volcanic Hammer Task Force's way seems like a colossal waste of a good spell. There are times where Volcanic Hammer is more helpful than Magma Jet, such as when taxing a Wild Mongrel or taking out an Exalted Angel or Rorix Bladewing without "wasting" an additional point of damage (or even third card), but for the most part, Magma Jet's two damage seems overall adequate for this format. It is about equal at killing Myr Enforcers, knocks Somber Hoverguards out of the sky with a little extra oomph next turn, and is much better at fighting Blinkmoth Nexus and instant speed Meddling Mages.
There is an additional time when Volcanic Hammer shines (which we will get to in the mirror section, below), but I tend to like Magma Jet better.
I can tell you in the mirror testing, I hated Tangle Wire the most, Pillage the second most, and found Goblin Cadets to be "not that terrible." But not every matchup in the mirror. When I played Tiger Woods last year, my wins over certain decks came with the help of Tangle Wire. In a deck like Cato's, a fast Jackal Pup + Slith Firewalker draw will end the game with a third turn Tangle Wire in most non-Red Deck matchups. Similarly, as much as I disliked Pillage against other Red Decks, I did see Shuhei Nakamura use it to pull a miracle game out against Gabe Walls in the Feature Match area. Gabe got Crusade and Absolute Law out, dominating the board with his enhanced, invulnerable White creatures before Nakamura locked the game with Ensnaring Bridge. Even with the Bridge, Gabe had done a lot of damage and was threatening to end it with his Cursed Scroll. As if on cue, Nakamura's Red Deck produced the Pillage, Gabe's Cursed Scroll disappeared, and a flurry of Grim Lavamancer activations ended what looked like a totally one-way brawl.
As much as I hate to say it, if there are three key cards to the Affinity matchup - Aether Vial, Arcbound Ravager, and Disciple of the Vault - all the Red Deck Wins decks have ample ways to deal with Disciple of the Vault, but precious few to stop an Arcbound Ravager once it has started eating innocent bystanders (a.k.a. burn targets). Pillage is one of the few cards that can eliminate a huge Ravager; in combination with an instant speed burn source, it can two-for-two the Ravager, all its counters, and whatever creature was gunning for the next BMOC position, without a big headache.
The Mirrors Proper
Cato v. Sullivan
This match was the most lopsided of them all. Patrick's deck buried Dan's in an 8-2 rout. While Dan had Tangle Wire, a card that does nothing in the matchup, Patrick supplements Seal of Fire and Cursed Scroll with the second best burn spell in the mirror - Lava Dart - and is the only deck to do so of the three I tested. Moreover, Dan's deck is hampered by having zero Mogg Fanatics. While no creature reliably does a lot of damage in the Red Deck Wins mirror, Mogg Fanatic is by a mile the most effective. It is a guaranteed two-for-one if the opponent has any creature in play, and has to be played around if he wants to start an offensive. Usually a Red Deck Wins player has to send a Firebolt or some similar at the Mogg Fanatic - knowing that it will just dome for one - before playing a threat. Chris Pikula used to call the Fanatic the best one-mana creature ever printed, better than Savannah Lions, Ramosian Sergeant, or Birds of Paradise; it is certainly the best creature in the mirror.
Cato v. Nakamura
This match was closer, 6-4 in favor of Nakamura, but felt more like a 7-3 or so to me. While Nakamura's deck is more streamlined than Cato's, it still has the clunky Pillage, which does very little in this matchup. When playing Pillage in the mirror, there are only really two things you can do. One of them is to eliminate the opponent's Cursed Scroll. This seems good, but most games don't yield the six mana required to operate two Cursed Scrolls, and a destroyed Cursed Scroll was replaced roughly 100% of the time in the 20 games I played with Nakamura's deck before the game ended. The other conceivable plan is to manascrew the opponent. Of the three builds of Red Deck Wins we are looking at today, Cato's is the most easily manascrewed. He has Slith Firewalker at RR. You would be surprised at how difficult it is to produce a Slith Firewalker in a mono-Red deck with 24 lands. The opponent has four Rishadan Ports for starters, and against a naked Seal of Fire, there is almost always something better to do. That said, I never saw a Firewalker with more than one counter on it. Every time it hit, the poor Firewalker eventually took a Firebolt or Volcanic Hammer to the face. Congratulations on that one.
Sullivan v. Nakamura
This match ended 10 games at 5-5. Patrick's deck feels like it has a slight edge in the mirror, and opened up the testing session with a 4-0, only losing in the late games to some bad mana draws and ill luck. If I had played more games, I'm sure Patrick's deck would have shown a greater advantage in the perhaps 55% or 60% range. Nakamura's deck is of course fantastic, but in a straight up mirror fight, Lava Dart is just much better than Pillage. One hits a Blistering Firecat, one clogs your hand with Cursed Scroll in play.
It is a little unfair to compare these three decks as they were played, because Nakamura's deck has an entire block's worth of cards as additional tools, and the decks played in wildly different metagames. In a sense, that is a blow in favor of Cato's deck... the other two had to play against third turn kills with much less frequency and to my knowledge, Lava Dart has never gone toe-to-toe with a Metalworker. In sum, I'd say that Tangle Wire is probably the best against a deck that can't stop your early beats but might have a faster goldfish (but is almost completely useless in the mirror), Pillage might slow down a faster goldfish in a game that is otherwise winnable, and Goblin Cadets isn't racing anyone but will win the games where the opponent isn't a purely faster goldfish with more regularity than either of the other two cards.
Mirrors in General
Any mirror games that aren't completely lopsided (i.e. one guy mulliganed into all Jackal Pups or the equivalent) play in about the same fashion. Both players take a few points from their Onslaught lands while setting up their initial games. No creatures stick. If you pass the turn with a creature on the opponent's side of the board after turn 4, it means that you are getting ready to untap and kill him with a burn flurry, or (more likely) you are getting destroyed because you didn't draw enough heat to deal with his A Game. Creatures other than Mogg Fanatic very rarely trade. No one lets a Grim Lavamancer live if he can help it.
The midgame is about one card: Blistering Firecat. The question is, did someone get hit by one? Blistering Firecat is at the same time a very odd card. It is very hard to hit the opponent with one because it costs RRR and more to play (and he's got Rishadan Ports) and it has one toughness. Half the time when you have Firecat mana the other guy has an active (if not 100% accurate) Cursed Scroll or some other way to hold it off. Blistering Firecat is clunky and hard to get rid of as you move into the third stage of a mirror game. That said, if you hit with one, you usually win. In the 30+ games (really mucking around in the 60-100 range) I played for this article, in only one game did a deck win a game that it was hit by Blistering Firecat that it did not hit back with its own. On the other hand, you don't necessarily want to draw Blistering Firecat at all. For every game where it is spectacular, there are two or three games where you would rather have just topped a Mountain. Like I said, Firecat costs a ton of mana - most of it Red - and is quite vulnerable to removal. Drawing a bunch of Firecats in the midgame usually means you didn't draw Seal of Fire to defend yourself, or that your hand is choking on cards and you can't get your Cursed Scroll into sniper mode.
The late game is about one card: Cursed Scroll. Cursed Scroll often makes an appearance in the midgame as well, but the last turns are all about doing two at the end of the opponent's turn. If one player has active Cursed Scroll and the other doesn't, he will usually only lose if he took a ton of early game damage while gaining control of the board, he never took control of the board and just happens to have an active Cursed Scroll, or if the opponent has a ton of individual heat seekers that he can assemble into Critical Mass before the Cursed Scroll itself can go lethal. Cursed Scroll is a persistent damage source that cannot be cancelled by another damage source. It wards away Blistering Firecat and facilitates the Philosophy of Fire. There's a reason it was banned in block.
The best cards in the mirror are (in order) Cursed Scroll, Seal of Fire, Mogg Fanatic, and Lava Dart. Cursed Scroll is active on the winning side about 90% of the time. Seal of Fire just sits there, keeping Blistering Firecat away. The opponent will often try to use single threats to bleed a Seal of Fire, but those threats usually just take a Firebolt wile the Seal itself lies waiting to be part of the last turn, six-point-burn flurry. Mogg Fanatic is like a Seal of Fire that attacks. Along with Cursed Scroll, the Fanatic is a rare source of card advantage, doing double duty as a blocker and a Limited-style trick. Lava Dart is like the sneakiest Seal of Fire ever. When you play with the Dart, spend it early. Every single threat in the mirror match has one toughness! Lava Dart can handle it! Getting the Dart out of your hand helps to set up Cursed Scroll, but more importantly, in the graveyard, it serves as Blistering Firecat insurance, even when you are tapped out. I can't emphasize how effective this is in the mirror.
The worst card in the mirror by a mile is Jackal Pup. Volcanic Hammer is awesome against Jackal Pup because not only does it not waste two points of damage (most elimination spells waste damage when aimed at creatures), all three points go to the dome. Of the non-unique cards, Blistering Firecat is in second place. A lot of the time, you work and work to get the Firecat in, and it dies to a 25% Cursed Scroll shot anyway. If it hits you usually win, but that can be a big "if". Maybe the most important thing I learned in this process was, if you know you can hit with your Firecat, go for it, no matter what you are giving up on the turn. In one game, I gave up Pillaging the Cato deck's only land with two Rishadan Ports in play because I knew I had a Firecat open. Lo and behold, if I had made the Pillage play, the next turn there would have been a Mountain off the top and a Seal of Fire in play and the Firecat would never have stuck. Game to Nakamura.dec.
Honorable Mention goes to Magma Jet. In the mirror, Magma Jet is a little clunky when compared with Firebolt or Lava Dart, but its ability to set up the deck goes a long way. I think that the reason the Nakamura build was able to hold steady against the more streamlined Sullivan deck in my testing was that Magma Jet set up Cursed Scroll and lands. The goal in the mirror is to have as much life as possible while digging into Phase Three, and Magma Jet is simply the best available card for that specific task. Unlike Volcanic Hammer, it can stop a Slith Firewalker or Blistering Firecat from ever hitting. It can put Jackal Pup on the bottom of your library while you look for Cursed Scroll, and it can dig you out of your opponent's Rishadan Port draw.
The most surprising card was Goblin Cadets. It wasn't that bad at all. I mean if the opponent is going to play with Wall of Blossoms, Goblin Cadets is clearly terrible, but in the mirror match where every potential blocker has one toughness, it is like a Jackal Pup with no drawback. Anyway, if it can get four in, Goblin Cadets is an all star. Like everything else, it doesn't stick around very long. The only thing you have to watch about Goblin Cadets is not to run it into a Mogg Fanatic. When you play a bazillion mirror games, you kind of lose track of the fact that Goblin Cadets has a fairly serious combat drawback because, well, no one ever blocks. Usually the script is to swing into Mogg Fanatic or otherwise make him use it so you can play your next creature without a risk of two-for-one. Unfortunately, Goblin Cadets didn't get the correct memo and stuff. Just don't swing (Matt Boccio typically allows me only one take back per turn in Vs. testing).
Side note on testing methodology:
This is a pet peeve of mine. The games that I am reporting on are pre-sideboard game ones. In a PTQ level Game One, you typically don't know what your opponent is playing. In Day One of a PT, the same is for the most part true. What does that mean? If you want to simulate the game environment rather than just propping up your bragging rights testing percentages, you can't really optimize your plays as if you know ever card in the opposing deck before a single card is played (this is something Scott Johns and I discussed recently, with Scott expressing some disdain about certain matchup articles).
Over and over decks in my testing had to mulligan hands like Seal of Fire, Seal of Fire, Cursed Scroll, Magma Jet, Mountain, Mountain, Wooded Foothills (the nut high hand that will very unlikely lose a mirror game) because in a tournament, you don't for the most part play hands without a one-drop (imagine having that hand against Mind's Desire or even The Rock... with no clock, you can't win). I had to mulligan hands that I knew would not lose into hands like one Mountain, Jackal Pup, Jackal Pup, Blistering Firecat, Cursed Scroll, Volcanic Hammer and pretend like it was all happy fun time. If you know what your opponent is playing it is one thing, but sculpting your playTEST mulligan decisions around such knowledge isn't doing your long game any good.
The remaining question is what supplemental elimination should you play when preparing for the mirror?
About a year ago, I played a Cato-inspired deck at a Neutral Ground PTQ. After starting out 3-0, I faced off against a Red Deck Wins deck and took the first game despite drawing only one creature because of complete and utter Cursed Scroll dominance. I had this bright idea that morning and took out my Lava Darts and sided Flametongue Kavu instead.
It was dismal.
Flametongue Kavu costs four. He sided into the Cato Pillage + Stone Rain suite. Flametongue Kavu doesn't kill Blistering Firecat (which he left in). I thought that leaving Firecat in was weak... until he hit me with it. While I was staring at Flametongue Kavu. If I had had Lava Dart I would have made Top 8 that day; as it was, I lost that match and the next. This is not to say that Flametongue Kavu isn't a good card or anything. It has play against Myr Enforcers, Ravenous Baloths, and many other large threats... I just don't think it is as good in the mirror as some of the other burn options.
Patrick made an odd choice to run Fire / Ice in his sideboard. Fire / Ice is a lot better than Arc Lightning, and we ran Arc Lightning in Red Deck mirrors in years past to good effect. He already had Lava Dart in his main, so Fire / Ice probably seemed like the next best choice. My only reservation about this card is that it is so rare for the opponent to have two creatures in play... That said, I am perfectly happy to blow one or even two points of burn in getting rid of threats, so maybe that isn't that big a deal. In any case, there is no reason you can't sandbag for a two-for-one. In a Philosophy of Fire mirror, life total tends to be more important than naked card advantage, but possibly the only reason this hasn't come up for me is that I haven't tested beatdown with Fire / Ice against beatdown without.
I've wondered a lot about the lone Gamble in the Japanese sideboard. But as I played a lot of Red Deck Wins mirrors, I found that I was often looking for either a Cursed Scroll or a land to make it go. Gamble might be the world's worst Vampiric Tutor, but it can find either a land or a Cursed Scroll. I don't know if I would actually side that card, but I can see its flexibility as a proxy.
This deck is obviously from a different era. It has Fireblast. But that doesn't mean that we can't learn from it. In developing the next generation of Red Deck Wins decks, maybe a lesson or two from the past makes sense.
Brian Kibler taught me the tao of the Barbarian Ring back in 2001. My counter decks would consistently establish control and then die anyway. I don't know if Barbarian Ring can be reasonably accommodated if we are expecting Red Deck mirrors, especially given the eight Onslaught lands that would ironically turbo-charge the land, but it is certainly an interesting card that has potential in a slightly different listing.
Bob was fighting Counter-Oath decks with no good answer to Chimeric Idol. Chimeric Idol seems fantastic in a mirror match where the opponent has no direct removal spell that can destroy it. On the other hand, Brian David-Marshall pointed out to me that it really screws up your Rishadan Port plan. In the RDW mirror, where Rishadan Port does not rule the board the majority of the time, Chimeric Idol will either consistently do three or rack up more card advantage than Blastoderm. Both are good things. In addition, as an artifact, the Idol can help fuel a strategy like the one recently advocated by Dan Paskins:
Dan posted that deck in "Why Red is Simply the Best Color". I like how he consistently ignores conventional design elements to fit in Shrapnel Blasts (he did the same thing with Sitting Dead Red). This deck plays Chrome Mox and a totally different mana base than every other (read: conventional) Red Deck Wins on the planet. Interestingly, it also plays a million "unique" elements from our core decks - Pillage, Slith Firewalker, and Tangle Wire! Chimeric Idol would fit in nicely in this list... but I'm a little wary about its low burn count in the mirror.
Last but not least, let's remember the "other" DP in Red Deck evolution. Here's Dave's deck from the Top 8 of US Nationals 1998. Notice how it is almost exactly a modern Red Deck Wins deck, spending too much mana on Fireslinger over Grim Lavamancer maybe, but getting that mana back on Ball Lightning over Blistering Firecat:
That deck is pretty savage. Erik Lauer played a deck within 1-2 cards at that Nationals, missing Top 8 only by losing to Jon Finkel (but who doesn't lose to Jon Finkel); Finkel and Chris Pikula played essentially Dave's listing at 1998 Worlds, both making Dan Paskins happy with Top 8 performances.
That's all I got for this week. Actually I'm going to write about Red Deck wins in different matchups coming up. But keep the mulligan questions coming in! This article dealt with having to mulligan what would have been an auto-win hand in context, but an objectively weak hand given the wide variety of Extended decks (thou shalt not run it without a drop). KK and I will battle over the mulligans in an upcoming article (series).