Last weekend, I competed at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar with Atarka Red. I failed to make Day 2, but I still liked the deck. Today I’ll go over an updated list, explain the card choices, and guide you through the matchups.
In a way, this will be an update to my Mono-Red deck guide for Magic Origins Standard, but it’s a huge update since so many cards have rotated out. As Brian Demars demonstrated a couple of weeks ago, the combo of Temur Battle Rage and Become Immense is the best way to build the deck these days.
The main game plan is straightforward and pretty much the same in every matchup:
- Get on the board quickly with a creature on turn 1 or 2.
- Sneak in some early points of damage.
- Finish off your opponent with the combo kill of Become Immense plus Temur Battle Rage.
Thanks to these pump spells, the deck plays out similarly to Affinity in Modern or Heroic in the old Standard, and it can kill out of nowhere. For instance, after a turn-4 Languish, you can come back with Monastery Swiftspear, Become Immense, and Temur Battle Rage to swing for 18!
Atarka Red Deck List
The list I played at the Pro Tour had a few different card choices, but this is how I would play it right now. The changes are based on my own experiences, some theorizing, and on a discussion with Pedro Carvalho, who did well with the Brazilian/Portugese/Spanish version of Atarka Red. Of all Atarka Red players, their list put up the best performance in the Standard rounds as Javier Dominguez went 8-2 on his way to a 9th place finish. My own build at the Pro Tour was closer to theirs than to Paulo Vitor’s, and the updated list is even closer.
Deck Difficulty – Easy to Start, Hard to Master
The deck is easy to pick up and play at a reasonable level, but it can be tough to play optimally. You have to know how to mulligan, how to sequence your cards, and how to play around removal spells. You also have to be able to do some quick math on prowess and pump spells. But if you liked Affinity or Heroic decks, then this red deck may be in your comfort zone.
What Is A Favorable Metagame For This Deck?
Atarka Red is well-positioned if:
- Mana bases with lots of fetchlands are the norm, so that opponents effectively start the game at 17 life.
- People are playing with slow, clunky 4/5-color decks.
- Instant-speed removal, which can disrupt the combo-kill, sees little play.
- People don’t respect the deck and don’t bring enough sideboard cards.
Is Today’s Red Deck Better than Ever?
Well, no. In my opinion, the red deck in the current Standard is worse than Atarka Red at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir and Mono-Red Burn at Pro Tour Magic Origins.
Compared to Atarka Red at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, we most notably lost Foundry Street Denizen and Stoke the Flames. The token strategy was powerful, but without these cards, it has gotten much worse. In exchange, Battle for Zendikar offered a better mana base with Cinder Glade, but that’s pretty much it.
Compared to Mono-Red Burn at Pro Tour Magic Origins, we lost Lightning Strike, Searing Blood, Stoke the Flames, and Eidolon of the Great Revel. It’s nice that we still have Atarka’s Command, but we simply don’t have enough good burn spells these days.
So the token-heavy plan and the burn-heavy plan, which were so strong in previous Standard formats, are underpowered nowadays. Yes, Hordeling Outburst and Exquisite Firecraft are still around, but that’s not enough—you need more cards to make those game plans coherent and reliable. As a result, I think it’s correct to focus on the pump spells instead: Titan’s Strength, Become Immense, and Temur Battle Rage. Not because they are utterly broken or anything—if that were the case, people would have played these cards instead of the tokens and burn cards in the previous Standard—but mainly because the alternative game plans have gotten so much worse.
Atarka Red Core Cards
Monastery Swiftspear – Excellent if you have 18+ spells to trigger prowess. Monastery Swiftspear typically attacks for 2 damage a turn, and the consensus is to play 4 copies.
Zurgo Bellstriker – A 2/2 for 1 mana is an excellent rate, and the dash bonus outweighs the no-blocking drawback in an aggro deck like this. The question is whether you should play 3 or 4 copies. This is tough because I don’t want to draw multiples of the legend, but I also want to have enough 1-drops. The tiebreaker for me is that the other playable red 1-drops all have 1 toughness, which matches up poorly against Hangarback Walker and other popular cards. With that in mind, I reluctantly recommend 4 copies of Zurgo.
Abbot of Keral Keep – It’s a fine 2-drop that is good in the late game, and that is exactly what the red deck needs. I most frequently cast Abbot on turn 3, in which case he’ll provide a land in roughly 1/3 of the cases and a 1-cost card in slightly below 1/3 of the cases. That’s great, so you should play 4 copies.
Wild Slash – It triggers prowess, kills Jace, counters Become Immense in the mirror match, and can burn out the opponent in a pinch. The ferocious clause, which is easy to achieve in this deck, can help force a burn spell through a Dromoka’s Command. Playing 4 Wild Slash is not mandatory, especially if you want to run the full 4 Become Immense and 4 Temur Battle Rage, but I like to have access to Wild Slash, so I have 4 in my list.
Titan’s Strength – It can act as a Lightning Bolt when cast on an unblocked creature, it sets up a combo with Temur Battle Rage, and you get to scry towards the cards you need. You most frequently cast it during combat, but if you need to topdeck a burn spell or are looking for lands, then it can be correct to cast it in your upkeep. Regarding numbers: I don’t mind playing only 3 Titan’s Strength to reduce the risk of having multiple pump spells in hand with no creatures in play, but I play 4.
Become Immense – If everything goes well, it’s like a double Lightning Bolt for only 1 mana, which is an insane rate, especially when you have the combo with Temur Battle Rage. Another nice aspect is that the rotation removed Hero’s Downfall and Lightning Strike from the format, which leaves opponents with fewer ways to disrupt the combo. While Become Immense is great, you can’t run too many delve cards in the deck because they heavily tax your graveyard if you draw multiples. With the number of fetchlands in the deck, however, I think that 4 delve spells is doable in the main deck. The reason why I only have 3 Become Immense in my recommended list is that I have Hooting Mandrills in my sideboard as well.
Temur Battle Rage – This card is clearly meant to be combined with Titan’s Strength or Become Immense for the combo-kill. Without those pump spells, it’s a mediocre trick that you don’t really want in multiples. It can still do some work, such as turning an attacking Abbot of Keral Keep into a 3/2 double striker, but that’s still not great. To mitigate the probability of drawing multiples, I recommend only 3 copies of Temur Battle Rage.
Atarka’s Command – Most of the time, this will deal 3 damage to your opponent and pump your team. Remember that the pump ability gives reach, too, which is relevant against Thopter tokens, Mantis Rider, and Thunderbreak Regent. The anti-life-gain clause can help versus Siege Rhino, Soulfire Grand Master, and Arashin Cleric. I have yet to put a land onto the battlefield, but it could come in handy to let Makindi Sliderunner survive Radiant Flames.
Mountain – In the abstract, I think that the ideal number of lands in the main deck is 21 because this number maximizes the probability of having a 7-card opening hand with 2 or 3 lands. If you run 4 Makindi Sliderunner and additional 3+ mana cards in the sideboard, then I prefer to play 22 lands instead in total. Among those 22, I certainly want 2 Cinder Glade, 4 Bloodstained Mire, 4 Wooded Foothills, and a bunch of Mountains. Beyond that, you can go up to 4 Cinder Glades and add additional Mountains, or you can play several Windswept Heaths and a Forest. I chose the latter because, as I showed, the probability that you’re stuck with a tapped Cinder Glade on turn 2 or 3 is roughly 14% in the 4 Cinder Glade list, but only about 3% in the 2 Cinder Glade version.
Atarka Red Optional Cards
Now let’s go over the cards that are often included, but ultimately optional. You certainly want more creatures (at least 19) but which ones are the best?
1-drop creature options besides Zurgo and Swiftspear
Goblin Glory Chaser – It’s great when you’re on the play, but when you’re on the draw, the card is embarrassing against Hangarback Walker, Jace, Dragon Fodder, Arashin Cleric, and various other 2-toughness blockers. It’s just so difficult to renown in those games. At the Pro Tour, I played a list with more than 8 one-drops including a singleton Goblin Glory Chaser, but I was never happy with any of the 1-toughness creatures because they match up so poorly against some of the most popular cards in the format. In my updated list, I have no Goblin Glory Chaser. I only included creatures that have 2 toughness or that can gain toughness with prowess or landfall.
Lightning Berserker – It can act as a Fireball with buyback in the late-game, but the 1 toughness is a strike against the card. My recommended build has no 1-toughness creatures in the maindeck at all, although there is a Lightning Berserker in the sideboard against decks without Dragon Fodder or Hangarback Walker.
Lavastep Raider – If you want more than eight 1-drops with 2 toughness, then this your creature. Unfortunately, the rate on the card is so bad that it’s almost unplayable even in draft, so you’re better off with any 2-drop.
Scythe Leopard – The card is good if you have 24 lands with at least 13 green sources to play it on turn 1. The problem with these landfall decks is that they tend to draw too many lands in the late game, and they still miss the correct mana for their 1-drop in slightly over 10% of the games.
I tested landfall as well, but I preferred versions with fewer lands that only have green as a splash. I may be wrong here, as the landfall decks did well at the Pro Tour and their creature base is better, but I am still concerned about their mana base and tendency to flood.
2-drop options besides Abbot
Dragon Fodder – It puts 2 power in play, helps you beat spot removal spells, fuels delve, triggers prowess, and combos nicely with Atarka’s Command. So in theory, Dragon Fodder does a lot of good work for the deck, and I ran 4 copies at the Pro Tour. But there is a problem: 1/1 is not a good creature size right now. The tokens don’t attack well into Hangarback Walker, Knight Ally tokens, Monastery Swiftspear, Soulfire Grand Master, and so on. Moreover, playing Temur Battle Rage on a 1/1 is embarrassing. I was never happy to draw Dragon Fodder during the Pro Tour, and after I learned from Pedro Carvalho that their version had Makindi Sliderunner instead, it was easy to convince me. I have to admit that I’m not 100% confident about this assessment, as Dragon Fodder is good in theory and Paulo Vitor had 4 copies in his Top 8 list, but the version that I recommend has no Dragon Fodder at all.
Makindi Sliderunner – It can potentially attack for 4, which is great for a 2-drop. Moreover, it can trigger ferocious on Flamewake Phoenix or Temur Battle Rage, it has trample which is great with all of the pump spells, and it can gain more than 1 toughness. All in all, it attacks much better into creatures like Hangarback Walker than Dragon Fodder, especially if you leave a fetchland up, and I think it is correct to replace Dragon Fodder with Makindi Sliderunner going forward.
Dragon Whisperer – If you want more 2-drops, then this is a reasonable option that can fly over any ground stall. But, the double-red cost is a little awkward in a deck with a basic Forest.
Den Protector – It’s fine in lists with 24 lands, at least 12 untapped green sources, and pump spells to abuse its evasion. But my version of Atarka Red doesn’t match those mana requirements.
Ire Shaman – Like Den Protector, it’s a serviceable 2-drop that brings value if you play it in the mid-to-late game. With my Mountain-heavy mana base, it’s even slightly better than Den Protector. I considered putting in a singleton as a 9th 2-drop, but it was eventually cut.
My recommended list only has 16 creatures at 1 or 2 mana, which is on the low side, but all the alternatives have their issues. It’s possible that the landfall build is better because it has a better creature base with more early drops, but I’ll stick with my Atarka Red version for now.
3-drop creature options
Flamewake Phoenix – This is mainly a good sideboard option against Radiant Flames. Radiant Flames is a popular sideboard card these days—not just in Jeskai, but also in various green midrange decks that splash for it. I like how Flamewake Phoenix allows you to develop your board in a way that is not terrible against the sweeper. The ferocious trigger is relatively easy to achieve with pump spells or with 4-power creatures like Thunderbreak Regent, Yasova Dragonclaw, Lightning Berserker, and Makindi Sliderunner. Finally, flying is useful to go over Arashin Cleric, Warden of the First Tree, and Gideon. If you’re under pressure or facing Mantis Rider, you always have the option to play Flamewake Phoenix in your second main phase as a blocker. Although I view Phoenix as a valuable sideboard card, it’s always decent in game 1, so I have 2 copies in the main deck to free up sideboard space.
Hordeling Outburst – PV’s list contained 2 main deck and 2 sideboard. With Dragon Fodder, this gives him the option to swarm the board. I didn’t like the card because the 1/1s get blocked by everything, and there are no more Foundry Street Denizen and Stoke the Flames to benefit from. I also didn’t like them as a sideboard plan against Jeskai or other red midrange decks because the tokens just run into their 2/2s and die to Radiant Flames. For those reasons, I prefer the Flamewake Phoenix plan instead.
Yasova Dragonclaw – The dream is to play Become Immense on Yasova, steal their Siege Rhino, get back Flamewake Phoenix from the graveyard, and swing in with a bunch of fliers and tramplers. Against GW Megamorph, she also dodges Surge of Righteousness, invalidates Archangel of Tithes, and is tough to efficiently remove with Dromoka’s Command. She’s not great against decks with Wild Slash, but I like 1 Yasova in a deck with Flamewake Phoenix.
Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh – If Chandra lives, she will typically deal 5 damage to your opponent and leave you with a 5-loyalty planeswalker. The problem is that Chandra needs to live, and even removal-light decks like GW Megamorph have access to Dromoka’s Command and Silkwrap these days. Another problem is that she is not the best creature to target with your pump spells. I ran 1 copy at the Pro Tour and she was fine, but I cut her in my updated list.
Managorger Hydra – I tried this one in testing, as it naturally has trample and can quickly grow out of hand. However, it matches up poorly against Deathmist Raptor and Wild Slash and didn’t perform as well as I had hoped in real games of Magic.
Goblin Heelcutter – It’s a fine card especially against Hangarback Walker and Siege Rhino, but my version already has Flamewake Phoenix and 4-power creatures in the 3-drop slot, leaving no room for Heelcutter.
Scab-Clan Berserker – It’s good against control decks with lots of noncreature spells and few blockers, but those decks only make up a small percentage of the metagame. Against most decks, Scab-Clan Berserker is too easily blocked, especially because we don’t have many burn spells to clear the way.
Additional burn or pump spells that you may consider.
Call of the Full Moon – If you want another pump spell that also gives trample, then feel free to add a singleton Call of the Full Moon. I tried it during testing, but cut it after I had a turn where I played Abbot of Keral Keep, flipped Call of the Full Moon, and then was forced to sacrifice on my opponent’s next upkeep because the Abbot also counted as a spell. My opponent couldn’t stop laughing.
Exquisite Firecraft – It’s a fine card, and I wouldn’t fault you for adding a few copies to your deck, but it just doesn’t support the main game plan. As I mentioned, today’s red deck tries to take advantage of pump spells rather than burning out the opponent, so you are rarely pointing burn spells at the face. And if you try to kill creatures, then Fiery Impulse is more efficient unless Abzan Aggro grows in popularity.
Touch of the Void – Compared to Exquisite Firecraft, it doesn’t kill Anafenza, but it’s a much better answer to Hangarback Walker and Deathmist Raptor. Exiling Jace is also relevant against Dig Through Time or Ojutai’s Command. In the right metagame, this card may actually be better than Exquisite Firecraft.
Fiery Impulse – I have 1 in the main deck and 2 more in the sideboard. Fiery Impulse is a great answer to Arashin Cleric, Mantis Rider, a 3/3 Warden of the First Tree, or an opponent who tries to go for the pump combo.
Possible Sideboard Cards
Arc Lightning – Its main role is to clean up multiple tokens from Hordeling Outburst or Hangarback Walker, but the creature base of my build is already designed to match up reasonably against those cards. I prefer additional copies of Fiery Impulse that can disrupt the combo in the mirror match and kill Jace or Mantis Rider at a more efficient mana point against Jeskai. However, if Jeskai Ascendancy Tokens grows in popularity, then Arc Lightning may be worth considering after all.
Boiling Earth – This is like a less-flexible Arc Lightning for one fewer mana. You will almost never hit awaken, but it’s a decent option nevertheless.
Rending Volley – This kills Jace, Mantis Rider, Arashin Cleric, Seeker of the Way, Soulfire Grand Master, Shambling Vent, and Dragonlord Ojutai. And there’s nothing that Dispel can do about it. Considering the current metagame, I like 3 Rending Volley, and I wouldn’t mind the 4th.
Draconic Roar – If you have at least 5 Dragons in your sideboard for a transformational plan, then this can be superior to the other burn spells, as it will deal 3 damage to your opponent in over 50% of the games.
Self-Inflicted Wound – A potentially sweet card if you can fetch a Smoldering Marsh, but 9 black sources is not a lot (especially if you sometimes have to fetch for Cinder Glade instead) and Self-Inflicted Wound doesn’t always hit the creature you want to hit, so I would stay away for now.
Having a few of these burn spells is nice, but they don’t allow you to drastically change your strategy or come from a different angle. If opponents board in cards like Surge of Righteousness and Radiant Flames while you’re only making a few small tweaks to your burn suite, then you will be an underdog in the post-board games. Moreover, sometimes you want to be able to board out the pump combo altogether, and a sideboard with only burn spells doesn’t give you enough flexibility for that. For these reasons, you need to have a bunch of cards that allow you to present a different game plan.
Flamewake Phoenix – I already praised the Phoenix while discussing the main deck cards. I like how it allows you to play around Radiant Flames while flying over ground blockers. I have Phoenix number 3 and 4 in my sideboard, and the next few cards go well with it.
Thunderbreak Regent – It gets back Flamewake Phoenix, flies over Deathmist Raptor, beats Mantis Rider in a fight, and survives Radiant Flames. At the Pro Tour, I had the transformational plan of 4 Flamewake Phoenix, 4 Thunderbreak Regent, 3 Draconic Roar, and 1 Avaricious Dragon in my sideboard. It was fine, but there are still several issues with Thunderbreak Regent. First, it’s 4 mana, which is sometimes hard to reach. Second, it is too easily chumpblocked by Thopter tokens. Third, I thought it would be good in the mirror match as I hoped that they would board out the combo for fear of Fiery Impulse, but I learned that most players kept it in, so tapping out for Thunderbreak Regent is a recipe for disaster.
Hooting Mandrills – I think that Monkeys are better than Dragons. I initially dismissed Hooting Mandrills after testing against decks with Siege Rhino and Deathmist Raptor, but I failed to realize that it’s great against Jeskai and the mirror. The Brazilian/Portugese/Spanish team had them in their board, and I wish I had played them too. Hooting Mandrills may not have flying, but it makes up for that with trample, and it solves all three problems that I described for Thunderbreak Regent. It is very tough to kill for Jeskai because it dodges Surge of Righteousness and they sometimes board out Crackling Doom. The only downside is that it puts a big strain on your graveyard along with Become Immense, but cards trade more frequently in the post-sideboard games, so I think that 5-6 delve spells can still work in those games. I recommend 3 copies going forward.
Sarkhan the Dragonspeaker – The card is good when it hits play, but 5 mana is too much. It’s a lot even for the landfall versions with 24 lands.
Hangarback Walker – It’s decent against the spot removal and sweepers that opponents often board in, but it’s still terribly slow, and the red deck is not the best at playing a grindy game. It doesn’t fit the explosive character of the deck, and it’s miserable to see it get exiled by Complete Disregard or Silkwrap after dedicating time and mana to it.
The Best Cards Against You
For versions with Dragon Fodder and Lightning Berserker, cards like Hangarback Walker, Dwyen’s Elite, Hordeling Outburst, Arc Lightning, and Orbs of Warding are nightmares as well, but these cards are beatable with my updated build. Life-gain cards such as Feed the Clan and Ojutai’s Command are okay against us, but they are not as effective as they were against the burn-heavy versions from the previous Standard.
All in all, the deck is beatable, but players have to dedicate enough sideboard slots to it.
Here are a few general guidelines:
- If you have five or more lands, mulligan. Your deck doesn’t need that many lands, and you will get flooded. Four-land hands on the draw are prime mulligan candidates as well, unless those three cards are perfect (such as Monastery Swiftspear, Temur Battle Rage, and Become Immense).
- If you have only one land, then you can consider keeping if you have a Zurgo, a Monastery Swiftspear, and a Wild Slash in hand and you are on the draw. Otherwise, it’s probably too risky.
- If your hand doesn’t contain a creature, then you should mulligan. After all, you won’t win the game with burn spells and pump spells only.
- If your only creature is a 3-drop, then you should strongly consider mulliganing as well, as such a hand may be too slow.
- When in doubt, check if you have a 1-drop. Games go much better if you have Zurgo or Swiftspear on turn 1, so if it’s a close decision, then you can use that as a tiebreaker.
Atarka Red Sideboard Guide
I have added favorability ratings and sideboard plans for all the matchups, but please take these as guidelines only. They are based on the versions that I tested against, and things can change a lot depending on their specific versions, their sideboard slots, and who is on the play or on the draw.
Atarka Red (Even)
You don’t have to be terribly afraid of getting burned out, but you have to be careful of the pump spells. Keep an eye on their graveyard to figure out if they can play Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage in the same turn. Keep in mind that Temur Battle Rage can be cast before Become Immense for delve, but they may miss trample under this sequence. If they have the graveyard and mana for the combo, then save a Wild Slash if you can. Even if you don’t have it, you may sometimes wish to keep a red mana up to discourage your opponent from going for the combo.
Even though you will likely face more instant-speed burn spells after board, you can keep (most of) the combo. Hooting Mandrills in particular has enough toughness to help out here.
Dark Jeskai (Unfavorable)
If they are ready with plenty of instant-speed interaction (Wild Slash, Fiery Impulse, Dispel, Crackling Doom, Jeskai Charm, Kolaghan’s Command) then it will be tough to keep a creature on the table, let alone go for the combo. So it depends a bit on their version, but usually Jeskai is not a great matchup.
You can expect to face Arashin Cleric, Surge of Righteousness, and/or Radiant Flames after board. Against so many cheap interactive spells, your pump spells are just waiting to walk into a 2-for-1, so I recommend shaving them in favor of robust threats. Flamewake Phoenix and Hooting Mandrills are tough to remove, and you back it up with removal for Jaces and Mantis Rider. Against versions with Tasigur, you may even wish to board in a few Roasts (replacing Wild Slash).
I’m lumping Megamorph and Abzan together, even if they are not entirely the same. Both have decently-sized creatures and Dromoka’s Command. Try to bait it out with a Titan’s Strength, and then you can respond to Dromoka’s Command with a devastating Become Immense. Another nice play that you can make against Abzan in game 1: If your opponent leaves GBW up on turn 3, then you should consider not playing a land so that your Makindi Sliderunner cannot be hit by Abzan Charm.
Hooting Mandrills is not great against them because it just runs into Siege Rhino or Deathmist Raptor. You can expect Surge of Righteousness, Arashin Cleric, and/or Lantern Scout post-board. This means that they do have a bunch of instant-speed removal spells, but they need to tap out for Siege Rhino or Wingmate Roc eventually, and then you can still get them with the combo.
Esper Control (Even)
Slow control decks are traditionally good matchups for fast red decks, but things can change if they are prepared with enough sideboard cards. If they are ready with Arashin Cleric, Surge of Righteousness, Duress, or Dispel, then the matchup may be unfavorable.
There are many flavors of Esper. There’s a version with Demonic Pact, a version with Dragonlord Ojutai, one with Gideon, and a version with Ojutai’s Command. So it’s hard to give one specific sideboard guide, but generally speaking the combo is not great against the removal Esper has access to. Hooting Mandrills doesn’t excel in this matchup, especially if they have Languish, but you have to bring in something. Rending Volley takes out Jace, Arashin Cleric, Shambling Vent, and Dragonlord Ojutai, so I prefer it over Wild Slash.
I don’t think the perfect version of Atarka Red has been found yet. I like the Flamewake Phoenix/Hooting Mandrills approach that Javier Dominguez, Guilherme Medeiros Merjam, and Pedro Carvalho did well with, but I expect Paulo Vitor to advocate the Dragon Fodder/Hordeling Outburst version this week. It’s also conceivable to me that RG Landfall is just better, but I still have my worries about that deck’s mana base and propensity for flooding.
All in all, I hope that my guide and PV’s thoughts on the deck provide enough different perspectives to help you find the ideal build of the deck. I’m looking forward to seeing what Standard has in store for us at Grand Prix Quebec City from the commentary booth.