Many assume the upcoming months will be a tough time to be a Red mage in Standard. It's not hard to see how people draw this conclusion. With the rotation of Zendikar block and M11, and along with it the loss of Goblin Guide, Searing Blaze, and Lightning Bolt, aggressive red decks lose what has been their foundation for well over a year.
Still, I remain ever the optimist, for a number of reasons. Scars of Mirrodin block contains its fair share of superstars to build around. Kor Firewalker won't be around to randomly assign game loses. And Innistrad, though lacking in anything over the top, still provides some powerful options for people who love pups and bolts. There isn't any Snapcaster Mage level idiocy for Red (more on that guy in a minute), but there's some good stuff and a healthy amount of depth.
Aside on Snapcaster Mage:
I will delve into why I hate this card so much shortly, but director of R&D Aaron Forsythe sums up my sentiments nicely, though in reference to a different card shortly after the release of M10:
"I really like Baneslayer Angel, and I think it sends a good message when one of the best cards in the set is something a newer player can appreciate—an Angel—as opposed to a dual land or a mana artifact or a card-drawing spell or a one-mana piece of removal."
There's a larger thought about tournament-level Magic being communicated here. For a very long time, kitchen-table Magic and tournament Magic were entirely different animals. With your buddies in your basement, Magic was about Shivan Dragons and Serra Angels duking it out, while tournament Magic was about Winter Orbs and Necropotences.
That dichotomy proved alienating to casual players, and it's no coincidence that Magic tournament attendance blew up when decks like Mythic and Jund posted excellent results. Yes, those decks did powerful (and occasionally frustrating) things, but they still resembled normal Magic decks. The average player could look at a decklist and figure out what was going on. Spot removal, life gain, and good blockers could provide a reasonable defense against these sorts of decks, as opposed to Caw-Blade (and similar decks), where those sorts of measures are absolute jokes.
Snapcaster Mage is extremely powerful and is especially good at enabling blue control decks that aren't interesting in playing nuts-and-bolts Magic—you know, the types of decks that have dominated Standard play an unhealthy percentage of the time and whose recent iterations resulted in multiple bannings.
- Because of the versatility, it's almost always a great draw assuming you can cast it.
- The card is nearly impossible for low-to-average level Magic players to play around well, since inducing it and mitigating the results is too complicated.
- Even if the card is “played around” well, its raw power is high enough that it often doesn't matter, especially in the hands of a competent pilot.
I don't want to sound like I'm just badmouthing some powerful control card. I actually didn't mind Jace, the Mind Sculptor as much as most people did. The card is powerful, and the numbers are too good, but that's a feature of every format-defining card. Nor am I suggesting that Snapcaster Mage is better than Jace, because it isn't.
But I do think that Snapcaster Mage will be more frustrating to play against, which is saying a lot. Recursion is annoying to play against, and so are “damned if you do, damned if you don't” board states. Even something as innocuous as “opponent has four mana up with Doom Blade and Mana Leak in the graveyard” means it is likely your whole hand is shut off, and the power level of Snapcaster Mage scales up as the game progresses, as more powerful cards enter your opponent's graveyard (having already been cast once).
Tournament-level Magic is already too much about the stuff Snapcaster Mage encourages (cheap counterspells, cheap removal, and cheap card drawing), and I'm stunned that R&D shot this high on a card that works on that axis. It makes the likelihood much greater that the best deck in Standard is some Teachings/Faeries/Caw-Blade-esque deck yet again, which is not where I believe R&D should be pushing the envelope, especially in light of the last year or so of Standard.
However, I've been tasked with reviewing some of the honest cards in the set, so let's take a look at some of the goodies, along with possible fringe players.
This gets my vote for “Best Red Beatdown Card in the Set.” Five damage for three mana is a crazy rate, since Flame Javelin, Char, and Staggershock have proved worthy of tournament-level play. Of course, morbid isn't exactly a free roll, so it's worth looking at easy ways to get it turned on.
The Mogg Fanatics and Furnace Scamps are the easiest way, of course. Using it to “play around” removal is another good path. Expensive, sorcery-speed sweepers and removal (Day of Judgment, Gideon's second power, etc.) easily expose your opponent to getting burned out, and even using this after Doom Blades and such shouldn't be tough once you've run out of things to do with your mana. It's worth noting that this card also plays very well with Goblin Grenade.
Even without going through hoops, morbid just happens in normal games of Magic, especially if you cram your deck with cheap creatures. Your opponent will cast their Doom Blades; they will block when you run your sea of idiots into their Thrun; so the odds that this gets stranded as a three for three (not even the end of the world) is super low.
There's nothing wrong with this card inherently, other that it appears in the same set as Devil's Play. The metagame would have to be in a very strange to justify this card over Devil's Play, but there could be times you want both.
I am lumping these two cards together since they are pretty similar. They are both powerful one-drops that are potentially insane on the first turn and get dramatically worse as the game progresses. Assuming you're not doing anything specific (bloodthirst, equipment, tribal considerations, etc.), these dudes likely outclass Spikeshot Elder and Goblin Fireslinger and compete with Grim Lavamancer and Furnace Scamp for your one-drop slot.
There are some differences, though. Barring some Human deck that can't kill creatures, Stromkirk Noble is roughly the same quality against every opponent.
The Waif has a much greater range. Against opponents who can't reliably cast a spell on the first turn and can't reliably cast two spells in one turn in the mid-game, Reckless Waif has the potential to blow them out of the water. Against opponents with numerous cheap spells, he might never flip due to opponent inactivity.
Additionally, Reckless Waif influences your own deck construction. If you're overloaded on one-drops, he's likely to be bad because you want to spend your second turn casting two spells. More midrange builds with a smoother curve and Koth aren't likely to experience this interference and are a better natural home for the Waif.
I believe the Noble to be the most “naturally” powerful of the two, but against some control decks, the Waif is a beating, so he's worth keeping in mind if the metagame gets skewed in that direction.
This card is kind of corny, but there are numerous times in my life I would have played this card in my sideboard. Between this and Shrine of Burning Rage, you have plenty of potential range that has nothing to do with connecting with creatures. Since many opponents will be siding in ways to fight creatures, the Curse gives you a potential “conversion” plan against opponents going down that road. The rate on this thing is not exciting, so if your opponent is siding in life gain, this card is likely to be garbage, but it could be decent against decks that have a bunch of creature removal but have difficulty wiggling out of enchantments (U/B control traditionally).
Dark Ritual is traditionally associated with killing your opponent on the second turn, but mana spells have a rich tradition in Red mirrors of ramping someone into some sweet fatty. During Onslaught Block Constructed, Seething Song and Skirk Prospector generated some fast Rorix Bladewing beatdowns, and my Nationals deck from years back used similar cards to get a quick Sword on a Slith Firewalker.
Now this card comes with extra baggage because having to sacrifice a guy is a huge cost, but this card can potentially enable draws more explosive than Seething Song can. Who's beating a second-turn Koth? (Spoiler Alert: No one.) This card also fully enables Brimstone Volley.
Now, I doubt this card will make the cut in your standard pup-and-bolt skeleton, but this card allows for other builds that are ramping into a fast somethingorother, or to enable conversion plans into Big Red style decks.
Creature enchantments are a dodgy proposition, but the rate on this thing is awesome. Stromkirk Noble makes an especially attractive target, since you just want to attack with him every turn anyway. Spikeshot Elder locks out a bunch of stuff with a Furor on it, and Stormblood Berserker (or other evasive creatures) can go nuts with this thing. Assuming your opponent doesn't have a way to blow you out (a big assumption with Dismember everywhere, I know, but still), this card roughly equates to a one-mana, two-power haster with extra value depending on how good your target is. Also, you can use it as a slow, bootleg way to get big blockers out of the way, though that seems like a poor use of the card generally.
Blaze-style cards rarely make the cut in Sligh decks, but this one actually has a bit of potential. The flashback on this card can just be Firebolt (among other things) assuming the colored mana requirements aren't an issue, and Firebolt was no Constructed slouch. The upfront rate on this card probably makes it a non-starter for traditional beatdown decks, but it could be a nice sideboard in any attrition-oriented matchup, especially if the opponent has their own little creatures.
In Big Red decks, this is an entirely different animal. These decks are always struggling for sources of actual card advantage; Devil's Play provides it along with another “Big Spell.” Of course, this is an ideal card to play alongside Koth, which is a card you were almost certainly playing anyway.
This is basically my list of “cards I could easily see myself playing over the next few years,” and there's some other cards not on this list that I hope not to play, but could see happening if times got tough enough. A half-dozen cards is a really good hit rate, and while none of these are Goblin Guides, the depth here is better than nearly any set I can recall (though perhaps my standards have just lowered).
This is a pretty straightforward build. It is possible Arc Trail should be Shock, depending on the speed of the format, or Hero of Oxid Ridge if Timely Reinforcements is all over the place. But you have a nice curve of attacking creatures, and Spikeshot Elder, Shrine of Burning Rage, Brimstone Volley, and Goblin Grenade give you a surprising amount of range after your little beaters have gotten in a few times.
This deck might not be making good enough use of Grim Lavamancer, and there's two ways to correct this. One is to just cut him; this deck has a reasonable infrastructure for Reckless Waif, so if he's not awful against the expected field, he could slide right in. The other is to add Ghost Quarter. This deck doesn't have significant colored mana requirements so it can afford some colorless lands, and the Quarter is a decent way to get a couple extra cards in your graveyard.
Snapcaster Mage aside, I'm really excited about Innistrad. Resonant flavor is a necessity for Magic. It's what got me hooked 15 years ago when I was battling with Rock Hydra, and it's what got me reenergized about Magic when M10 came out. The structure of the block (the color combinations and tribe breakdown) seems really well thought-out, and I'm excited to see what development does with a graveyard block with better information than they had during previous attempts. I'm just hoping one card doesn't ruin the fun for everyone. In the meantime, may your opponents always die when they tap out for a Titan.