I want to let you in on a secret. This season, there is a deck just as complex and skill rewarding as UW Delver was a year ago, except now it is a Red Deck Wins variant. Intrigued? Please read on.
I have been a dedicated red mage for a while now, and I really enjoy the challenge of finding every little bit of value in your very limited resources. I have never enjoyed the “all-in red” variants—while I love to turn guys sideways, I don’t want my games to be decided by the ten cards atop my deck. I want more decisions, and more opportunity to outplay an opponent. I don’t want to just up and lose to a double-wrath draw.
The last few seasons have seen Wizards push the power of red creatures at the expense of the quantity of playable burn available in Standard. This has been a real blessing, as the more aggressive creatures allow you to punish an opponent that has stumbled very well—especially now that we’re entering a time of comparably poor mana (relative to the last few seasons). Having a myriad of powerful 1- and 2-cost creatures available has been key to the resurgence of successful red decks in the last year.
When Theros was spoiled, I took a bit of time to parse the card pool and look for clues as to what sort of red deck I would enjoy playing. I like to study decks of the past for ideas—all of the aggressive 1- and 2-cost creatures that had 2 power with either a draw back or small upside reminded me a lot of Zendikar Vampires with a similar creature base, supported by manlands and card advantage engines. With that idea as my starting point, [card]Chandra, Pyromaster[/card] and [card]Mutavault[/card] quickly found their way into my list. After a little bit of tinkering, I ended up with this list, which had a huge amount of success in the first week of the new format:[deck]4 Ash Zealot
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Firedrinker Satyr
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Young Pyromancer
3 Chandra, Pyromaster
2 Annihilating Fire
4 Lightning Strike
4 Magma Jet
It was a synergy deck, built around small card interactions that work together to generate tremendous value. All of your guys are tiny and cheap. In most decks, they would be unplayable, but here they’re all-stars. For example, [card]Shock[/card] is traditionally a marginal inclusion in Red Deck Wins, as 2 damage for a card is underpowered. You’ll only want Shock if there are enough cheap but valuable targets in the format to make up for the times that you can only go upstairs. However, in this deck, Shock combines very well with all of the key engine pieces: Chandra (combines with her +1), [card]Chandra’s Phoenix[/card] (rebuys), [card]Ash Zealot[/card] (with the first strike), and [card]Young Pyromancer[/card] (tokens), making it a very good card.
This variant gets wins with traditional aggro draws, but it is also capable of grinding out longer games by generating on-board card advantage with cards like [card]Chandra, Pyromaster[/card], [card]Chandra’s Phoenix[/card], and [card]Young Pyromancer[/card]. The great thing about that element of the deck is that it means that you have a greater range of keepable hands, and are more adaptable to your matchups. For example, a traditional red deck will have a lot of difficulty against Selensya Aggro, where you would otherwise be outclassed at every point in the curve. With this variant, you’re able to adapt and play as control and bury them under a stream of tokens. The flexibility and resilience of the list made it a big winner when compared to the standard [card]Fanatic of Mogis[/card] builds—you weren’t locked into what is sometimes a losing strategy.
It is a very hard deck to play optimally. There many varied lines possible with most hands, and assessing the relative strength of each, and the differences in board states that will result in three or four turns from your decisions now, takes a lot of experience and calculation. It isn’t a “count to 20” red deck, and a lot of the time plays out much more like a tempo deck.
Some of these cards warrant explanation, as they have been controversial so far, though I honestly believe that a lot of players opining on their playability have very limited experience with the cards in a competitive environment:[draft]Young Pyromancer[/draft] [card]Young Pyromancer[/card]: I haven’t really seen this card in many other red decks, but in this list it is one of the defining cards. You’re running a higher than usual amount of burn to supplement your little creatures, and a Young Pyromancer in play makes all of your burn spells very powerful. The tokens can do a lot of damage against control decks, given that you’re burn has to target them anyway, and the incremental value is very significant, especially when they’re trying to rely on 1-for-1 removal. Young Pyromancer makes your spells into combat tricks and really dominate creature matchups, especially in multiples. [draft]Chandra, Pyromaster[/draft] [card]Chandra, Pyromaster[/card]: The new red planeswalker has seen a little bit of play in black/red or Dega control decks, which seem like a very poor home for her. If you draw a [card]Doom Blade[/card] when the opponent does not have a creature in play, then the draw is wasted. I think this misplacement explains the card’s relatively weak showing in Standard so far. However, in this list, you’re pretty happy with any of the outcomes. Land will let you mobilize threats faster and turn on your [card]Mutavault[/card]s, spells kill creatures or go to the face, and creatures are permanent threats. You can really bury your opponent in card advantage very quickly. Chandra’s +1 to ping and [card]Falter[/card] is also very powerful in a red deck looking to aggressively push through damage and is often more of a [card]Lava Axe[/card] than a [card]Flame Jab[/card]. On top of all that, Chandra dominates against other red decks and white weenie decks. [draft]Firedrinker Satyr[/draft] [card]Firedrinker Satyr[/card]: one of my teammates astutely pointed out that Firedrinker Satyr is this season’s inverse [card]Vexing Devil[/card]—a card greatly misunderstood by inexperienced red mages. The common criticism I hear is that the Satyr lines up poorly against other red decks, Selensya aggro, and Naya control. Well, let’s be honest, [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card] is very sub-optimal there as well, almost a blank card—both creatures are just blanked too easily. In every other matchup, Satyr is exceptional as a 2-power beater, putting a lot of pressure on control decks early, and as a really heavy-hitting creature late—sometimes as a 4/1 or better. In matchups where your own life total is relevant, you side him out anyway. [draft]Annihilating Fire[/draft] [card]Annihilating Fire[/card] was just in the deck as [card]Searing Spear[/card] 5-6. I thought it had a bit of additional upside against [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card] and opposing [card]Chandra’s Phoenix[/card]. It’s not a great card, but it is the next best available option.
Adding Fuel to the Fire
Well, a few weeks went past and I won a lot of packs. The metagame began to settle and I wanted to re-assess the position of my variant and look for improvements against what were the best decks (or at least the most played decks). Red decks in general were in decline, Mono-Blue and Mono-Black were on the rise after recent successes, and GR Ramp had seen a peak in interest (and why not? the deck is awesome). All of these decks posed unique and difficult questions to Red Deck Wins, and while some of the matchups were OK, I knew that I could do better.
The answer, it turned out, was in a very simple white splash. One problem that I would sometimes have trouble with was my opponent landing a single difficult to remove creature that I could not win through in a turn or two. Where this was the case I would be unable to go into straight burn mode and throw cards away to finish them off—where this didn’t happen I would usually win easily. The big culprits were [card]Boros Reckoner[/card], [card Polukranos, world eater]Polukranos[/card], [card]Master of Waves[/card], [card]Nightveil Specter[/card], [card]Desecration Demon[/card], and the occasional rogue enchantments deck that would suit up a quickly unbeatable creature.
However, it turns out that for a single white mana, you can remove all of these problems and then get back to the fun part: beating up on your poor opponent. [card]Chained to the Rocks[/card] answered every problem, and by splashing white, a host of interesting and powerful white sideboard cards became available. Maybe the best part about Chained to Rocks is that it costs only a single mana, allowing you to further develop your board while removing their blocker, often time-walking them.
I ended up here:[deck]4 Ash Zealot
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Firedrinker Satyr
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Young Pyromancer
3 Chandra, Pyromaster
2 Chained to the Rocks
4 Lightning Strike
4 Magma Jet
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Temple of Triumph[/deck]
So, a very light splash—only for two cards. You still want to be as close to mono-red as possible, both for consistency and because the deck has so many moving parts that changing the balance too much stops adding value and actually starts to make the deck worse. Mono-red is very well positioned at the moment and it would be a mistake to move too far from that formula.
There are only two Chained to the Rocks in the main deck (I usually play the other two in the board however), because although the card is very powerful, you cannot afford to play too many spells that cannot kill your opponent. Sometimes removing a blocker isn’t enough and what you actually needed was just more reach. The deck sees a lot of cards between scry and Chandra, so two copies is usually enough to find one in the matchups you need it, without causing you to draw multiples in the matchups where it is worse than a burn spell (e.g.: Esper Control).
The other point of interest is that the deck only runs eight white sources, which is very few. You won’t be casting your Chained to the Rocks early in most games. However, I have found that isn’t important because:
you were only casting [card]Annihilating Fire[/card] on turn 3 at the earliest (often later) anyway, and the matchups were you want Chained to Rocks don’t need it early, usually only turn 4 or later (e.g.: for Desecration Demon).
This gives you quite a bit of time to find a white source, and [card]Magma Jet[/card] often helps a lot as well.
That list’s matchup spread against the top 5 decks in the format is as follows:
Mono Black Devotion: Very favorable
Mono Blue Devotion: Even
Mono Red Devotion: Favorable
Esper Control: Very favorable
Mono Green Colossal: Slightly unfavorable
Keep in mind that the deck was designed for the MODO metagame, wherein the top three listed decks (the three devotion decks) account for near 60% of the meta, which positions this deck very well. The matches with some of the less represented decks are still even (Dega, Naya) to good (Selensya), though the Junk matchup is very poor.
There is some amount of customization possible—for example you can switch [card]Ash Zealot[/card] out for [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card], which I have tried and been pleasantly surprised with the results—the extra mana helps a lot to give effect to your resources quickly, given how mana hungry the deck is. You could also try cutting some number of [card]Mutavault[/card] for more red sources, which makes [card]Boros Reckoner[/card] playable out of the sideboard—this version forgoes that for more Mutavault because of the preponderance of black removal online.
The white splash really opens up the sideboard opportunities, giving you a great deal more flexibility. I am loathe to give a definitive 15-card sideboard, as I believe that you should try to optimize for the decks that you expect to face. With that in mind, the core cards of my sideboard that have survived all of the versions of the deck from early on to the present are:[draft]Boros Charm[/draft]
2 [card]Boros Charm[/card]: Clean switch for [card]Chained to the Rocks[/card] against Esper. Obviously very powerful as both protection and reach.[draft]Chained to the Rocks[/draft]
2 [card]Chained to the Rocks[/card]: Sometimes you need more copies, either for when you want to play control against other aggressive decks, or for the times that the opposing deck plays a lot of must answer-creatures. Particularly devastating against decks like Selensya and Naya that are reliant on creature size to make up for limited card advantage engines.[draft]Flames of the Firebrand[/draft]
2 [card]Flames of the Firebrand[/card]: While not aggressively costed, Flames of the Firebrand has really proven itself for me against other little aggro decks.[draft]Mizzium Mortars[/draft]
2 [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card]: While the deck’s removal options are very good already, sometimes you just need more (for example, against Selensya Aggro). Mizzium Mortars is either [card]Flame Slash[/card] or [card]Plague Wind[/card] if you draw it late, and both modes are very welcome.
Beyond just including more copies of the aforementioned cards, you have many options, though it is important to keep in mind that you never want to be bringing in too many white spells, as you still rely only eight white sources. Some of the options that I have tried and found to be very good include:[draft]Act of Treason[/draft] [card]Act of Treason[/card]: I am a huge fan of [card]Threaten[/card] effects, and while this is the least aggressive variant at this cost, it is all we have right now. The more there are decks that rely on playing a single large creature to stabilize, the more powerful this effect becomes. Great if you’re seeing a lot of Mono-Black (hello [card]Desecration Demon[/card]!) or Naya Control ([card]Loxodon Smiter[/card], [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/card], and Wurm tokens are prime targets). [draft]Assemble the Legion[/draft] [card]Assemble the Legion[/card]: While sadly not very good against blue control decks (the card doesn’t beat [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card]), it is fantastic against Selensya Aggro (where all you want to do is kill everything they play and resolve a card advantage engine—this is a particularly difficult one for them to interact with) and Mono-Black. [draft]Boros Reckoner[/draft] [card]Boros Reckoner[/card]: So long as you have made adjustments to your mana base (you need at least 20 colored sources!), Reckoner is a fantastic choice to bring in against other aggressive decks, if they’re popular where you play. It not only shuts down all of their ground creatures (giving you time to find the right cards) but it’s another form of on-board card advantage that synergizes well with what else you have going on.
It doesn’t make the main deck in my version only because Mono-Black is the most popular deck online and Reckoner is very bad in that matchup.[draft]Hammer of Purphoros[/draft] [card]Hammer of Purphoros[/card]: Similar to Assemble, but better against UW and Esper. Both halves of the card are very powerful in this sort of matchup, effectively giving you 100% spells drawn while the Hammer is in play. [draft]Peak Eruption[/draft] [card]Peak Eruption[/card]: I have gone back and forth on this card many times, depending on what is seeing play. If there are enough midrange decks running Mountains (some GR Ramp variants, Big Boros, Dega Control, and Naya Control) then this spell is absurdly powerful. If there aren’t, well, there are much better cards to have access to for red mirrors. [draft]Skullcrack[/draft] [card]Skullcrack[/card]: I used to really hate this card during last Standard, because most life gain was attached to creatures and this did nothing to catch you up when behind on board. Now, however, the format has changed substantially and some decks are going to rely on a single moment of substantial life gain to save themselves (a [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] or playing [card]Desecration Demon[/card] into [card]Whip of Erebos[/card]) and preventing that is just game-winning now. I really like having access to a few copies, at times as many as the full four against Esper and Mono-Black. [card]Wear // Tear[/card]: Just a very flexible card, and some decks are going to give you a lot of targets. I don’t think it is always worth including, since you can play around so many cards that would need this answer anyway. For example, the deck already fights through [card]Whip of Erebos[/card] very well, so it isn’t wise to dilute your threats for another reactive card. Still, some decks play a lot of key artifacts and/or enchantments, so the option is always there.
Hopefully this inspires you to give the Boros Pyromaster deck a go. The deck is well positioned against major archetypes in the format, and very skill rewarding. You will really see the benefits of practice and preparation in your results. If you’re looking to just turn guys sideways and hope to count to 20, then this isn’t the deck for you (but I hear that Selensya Aggro is always there).
For more information, please check out my stream at: www.twitch.tv/zemanjaski