Atarka Red is an aggro-combo deck. This means that for most of the game you act as an aggro deck, and then some percentage of the time, you combo kill your opponent out of nowhere. This is very similar to Splinter Twin in Modern, where it’s a control-combo deck that plays a control game, flashes in Deceiver end of turn, and then makes infinite copies on the next turn using Splinter Twin. While your combo doesn’t actually deal infinite like Twin’s combo does, it usually will deal enough to kill opponents if they do not have a removal spell.
So what is the combo? Any creature, any pump spell, and Temur Battle Rage. The main combo is obviously Become Immense plus Temur Battle Rage, but even something as innocuous as Titan’s Strength and Battle Rage can deal a large enough amount of damage when combined with a prowess creature. For example, Titan’s strength plus TBR on a Swiftspear is 12 damage!
None of the creatures have hexproof, so how are you supposed to beat a removal spell? That’s where the aggro part of aggro-combo comes in. The rest of the deck is full of “normal” Atarka Red cards. The Red Deck Wins game plan of the Atarka Red deck is strong in and of itself. Without the combo, you are playing an okay-to-good aggro deck. Sometimes your cards will be good enough to win on the back of the aggressive strategy, especially if your opponent keeps up mana every turn for fear of being combo killed from 16 life. Eventually your opponent will have to start casting spells to stop your army of Goblins and prowess creatures, and hopefully you will be ready to strike by dealing about 100 damage with one of your other creatures.
The combo aspect of the deck gives it something that separates it from any red deck in recent memory: the ability to play a slower game. In other red decks, you would always have to kill them before turn 4-5, or opponents would just get to cast much more powerful spells than you every turn. Now, not only is it hard for them to tap a significant amount of mana at sorcery speed in the midgame, but the lines you are capable of taking are equally as powerful.
Here’s the list we played at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar:
Deck Difficulty: Easy to Medium
Cheap interactive spells and sideboards. While the deck stands apart from other red decks, it still shares the problem of almost always getting worse post-board. Your game plan is so specific, that there are some narrow sideboard cards that are quite good against you, particularly cheap instants that kill creatures regardless of toughness.You can sometimes maneuver around other removal spells like Wild Slash or Fiery Impulse with your prowess creatures and Titan’s Strength.
When Should You Play Atarka Red?
Avoid playing Atarka Red if you expect a lot of decks like Jeskai—this is particularly a bad matchup because while opponents have a lot of cheap interaction, their main threat, Mantis Rider, is hard to kill, clocks you, and blocks all of your creatures. Not all blue decks are bad matchups though. Jeskai also having a clock is key—a deck like Esper may be able to deal with your threats, but without a clock, you will keep pressuring them until you find an opportunity to combo them.
Monastery Swiftspear, Zurgo Bellstriker
These are your 1-drops. They are the most efficient ones in the game, and they also both have haste. Being able to kill your opponent from an empty board is very important, because it means that opponents always have to be wary of dying—even when you end your turn with no creatures in play.
Your combo requires an attacking creature, so one way to fight this deck is to play a lot of 1-for-1 removal. Dragon Fodder is great because any creature has the potential to be a huge threat when combined with Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage. I’ve had multiple opponents have to Wild Slash, Fiery Impulse, or even Crackling Doom my Goblin tokens to try and not fall too far behind.
Abbot of Keral Keep
Your other 2-drop. Prowess works especially well with TBR, as each trigger is essentially worth 2 points of damage rather than 1. Abbot also helps fight removal in the same way Dragon Fodder does, the creature represents a lot of damage, so your opponent will often need to kill it, even after you benefit from the card advantage. Abbot also helps win the games where you mulligan by sometimes recouping the cards you lost.
Whatever split you choose between Wild Slash and Fiery Impulse, you should have at least a total of 4 of this effect in your deck. There are a lot of creatures running around as speed bumps that you have to kill like Seeker of the Way, Soulfire Grandmaster, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Warden of the First Tree, and many others. 1-mana spells are also just great to have when you have multiple prowess creatures in play, as casting multiple spells in a single turn equates to a lot of damage.
One of the best cards for your aggro game plan. Atarka’s Command synergizes extremely well with cards like Dragon Fodder, Hordeling Outburst, or any of your prowess creatures. It is often worth 6-7 damage, which for a single card is a very good rate.
Titan’s Strength is a card that plays well into both game plans. As I mentioned when talking about the Shocks, 1-mana spells are very useful when you have prowess creatures in play, and often a Titan’s Strength produces 4-5 damage, even when you don’t have a TBR. The scry 1 is also very good in this deck. A lot of games come down to opponents answering your plays, or tapping out and allowing you one turn to combo. In these scenarios, scrying a card to the bottom is basically drawing a card.
Become Immense, Temur Battle Rage
The combo cards in the deck. While the combo is extremely powerful, there are a few reasons why you don’t just want to jam 4 of each of these into your deck. Drawing multiple Temur Battle Rages without any pump spells is usually going to be bad. Become Immense doesn’t have the same problem, as drawing 2 would be fantastic—if you could cast them both. While the deck is fairly well set up to reliably cast a Become Immense for 1 or 2 mana in the early turns, you will be hard pressed to find enough cards in your graveyard to cast two.
Card Choices for the Final Slots
5th or 6th Shock
This is what we decided to go with at the PT. We expected a lot of cheap creatures, and found that being able to kill them would often be the difference between winning and losing.
Chandra or Hordeling Outburst
You really don’t have room for 3-drops, so I would advise choosing between these two rather than try to play both. They both have merit, and I want them both in my 75 either way. The one you maindeck depends on what you expect to play against. The Outbursts are much better against decks that have a lot of cheap removal, and where tapping out for a Chandra only to have her killed by a 1- or 2-mana spell is likely. Those matchups also tend to be the ones where opponents are killing most of the creatures you play, so having one spell that makes three tokens will often be enough to overwhelm them.
Chandra is much better against green decks. Those decks usually only have few ways to remove Chandra, and when she flips, she will often win the game on her own.
Another 1-drop threat that can gain haste. Berserker is one of the best things you can be doing against a control deck with a lot of sorcery-speed sweepers like Languish or Planar Outburst. These decks will almost always have to tap out on turn 4 or 5 to play a sweeper, and often they will be low enough where a dashed plus fully-pumped Berserker will finish them off. Berserker is lacking against decks with many blockers, particularly blockers like Goblin tokens or Hangarback Walkers.
Sliderunner is a solid 2-drop with two relevant abilities. 10 fetchlands mean it’ll likely attack for 4 damage on turn 3. Holding up a fetchland also gives it protection from instant-speed Wild Slashes, which forces your opponent to Slash it on their own turn. Trample is great when you have Titan’s Strength or Become Immense but no Temur Battle Rage.
Another 2-drop that has some merit. The main reason to play Dragon Whisperer is its ability to gain flying—you will rarely ever use it to make Dragons. Flying is a great way to finish off green decks after they gum up the ground with Knight Ally tokens or Rhinos. If you expect a lot of green decks, Dragon Whisperer is a good choice.
Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh
A great way to beat players whose main sources of interaction require the creature to be attacking, or to have a power of 3 or greater. Chandra will very often win the game when she flips.
Another card that is good against green decks. While Heelcutter has been the go-to card to fight Rhinos in the past, we found that you can’t really afford to have too many 3-drops (which Heelcutter counts as 90% of the time) in your deck. I think Chandra is generally going to be better against any deck where you would want Heelcutter.
I highly recommend having access to 4 of these post-board. Outburst is the best thing you could be doing in the mono-red mirror. It’s also good against decks that rely on sweepers. If you don’t have a Berserker to dash for lethal, one of the next best things you could be doing post-Languish is to restock your board presence with 3 Goblins.
We found that the 4-drops were just not what they used to be. While Outpost Siege may still be good against pure control decks, I think it’s bad everywhere else. I found that you often couldn’t afford to tap out for a Dragon in the mirror and risk getting combo’d, let alone tap out for a card that does nothing until your next upkeep, not to mention the fact that the deck only plays 21 lands with 10 fetches, so casting these reliably on turn 4 is optimistic at best.
This is another card you see in most Atarka Red sideboards that we omitted from our list. Every deck is prepared to beat a Hangarback Walker right now. Every matchup you would want to bring this in against has some way to exile it. The problem is that a single 1/1 Thopter token doesn’t apply a significant amount of pressure on its own, so you have to spend turn 2 and 3 casting and activating it. Your early turns are very important with this aggro deck, you really can’t afford to waste them when opponents can cast a Silkwrap or Complete Disregard on turns 2-4.
While Hangarback isn’t bad in the mirror, we again just found that it was too slow and didn’t do enough to hinder opposing combos. You almost always would rather cast a Hordeling Outburst.
Boiling Earth is a card that is almost exclusively for the mirror, and really only good if they have Outbursts. If Atarka Red becomes popular, I recommend playing one of these. It also happens to be great against Team TOGIT’s UB Aristocrats, so if that deck picks up in popularity, it’s reasonable to include a Boiling Earth in your sideboard.
Rending Volley is great against Jeskai. It kills almost every creature in the deck for just 1 mana. Mantis Rider makes things extremely difficult, because it kills you reasonably quickly while providing defense, so having a way to kill it is extremely important.
A card that’s great against decks that don’t have black removal, especially in the mirror.
Great for matchups that have a lot of removal and you need to grind them out.
The Best Cards Against You
Tips and Tricks
- Don’t board out the combo in the mirror! This was one thing we assumed we would do before we started testing the matchup. It seems like it might not be great if all the creatures are trading and both players have lots of cheap removal, but the reality is that creatures don’t trade as much as you’d think because of cards like Monastery Swiftspear and Atarka’s Command, so being able to combo is actually very important.
- Be patient. Your deck is capable of doing a lot of damage at once. Unlike other red decks, if your opponent is at 18 life on turn 3, you can very much still win the game. If your only creature is something in play, and you suspect your opponent has a Surge of Righteousness in hand, it’s perfectly fine to not attack. By not attacking, you force them to keep 2 mana open every turn whereas if you attack, they can just play their Surge then tap out for Gideon and not get punished.
- Sometimes it’s right to sandbag your haste creatures. When things are starting to get out of hand, sometimes the only way to win is to induce a mistake from your opponent. One way of doing this will be to not play your haste creature. Your opponent may assume that the coast is clear because you passed the turn, and tap out for a powerful spell, only to take 20 damage from your 10/11 double-striking Swiftspear.
- Sometimes it’s better to save Atarka’s Command. Often, when you are attacking with a few 1/1s, it can be correct to save your Atarka’s Command as to not tempt your opponent to use a removal spell. Players are often very reluctant to use a Wild Slash on just a Goblin, and will take a few extra points of damage until they realize they have to use their removal, but if you use Atarka’s Command, they will Slash your Goblin right away.