Red Runs it Down in Memphis

Looking at the full breakdown of the Memphis results is a bit funny, not only in how well it matched most predictions, but also with how certainly holes in the metagame seem closer to being patched over than only a week ago. If you had asked me then for the 5 cards I thought would be seeing more play, I would have said:

  1. Niv-Mizzet, Parun
  2. Kraul Harpooner
  3. Rekindling Phoenix
  4. Growth-Chamber Guardian
  5. Siege-Gang Commander

Goblin Chainwhirler was also worth a mention, but that had already started seeing an uptick, so it’s less of a surprise. Ironically, the biggest thing keeping some of the best red cards out of the format was the popularity of Mono-Red. Jody Keith took a Big Red base and added some sweet black cards to the mix. He ended up winning Memphis with it.

Rakdos Midrange

Jody Keith

4 Dire Fleet Daredevil
4 Goblin Chainwhirler
4 Rekindling Phoenix
4 Rix Maadi Reveler
3 Siege-Gang Commander
1 Karn, Scion of Urza
3 Carnival/Carnage
4 Lava Coil
2 Shock
2 The Eldest Reborn
4 Treasure Map/Treasure Cove
4 Blood Crypt
1 Cinder Barrens
4 Dragonskull Summit
1 Rakdos Guildgate
14 Mountain
1 Swamp

1 Angrath, the Flame-Chained
4 Duress
2 Fiery Cannonade
1 Fight with Fire
3 Legion Warboss
1 Shivan Fire
1 Status/Statue
2 Theater of Horrors

Essentially, all of these cards are just good answers to where the metagame was headed if Mono-Blue and WW(u) kept seeing play. As we’ve seen from the Memphis results, Nexus decks can be strong, but are largely being kept in check by Negate and friends, as well as sheer aggression. Outside of Kenta’s impressive run to the Top 8, we didn’t see a whole lot of action from Nexus players. This meant decks like Jody Keith’s Rakdos and Shota Takao’s Gruul Aggro went from being reasonable options to great ones for the weekend.

The Rakdos deck moves away from the low-to-the-ground creatures, burn, refill-with-Reveler strategy that seemed to be popular. This build is solidly midrange and grinds the entire game. When was the last time we saw quad Treasure Map in a deck? Taking advantage of the cheap removal and Chainwhirler to stay alive in the early game, it’s difficult to actually run this deck out of cards. Considering your main competition in the midrange realm is Sultai, which has the triple-team of an explore package, multiple planeswalkers, Find // Finality, and Hydroid Krasis, that’s a pretty impressive feat.

Still, you have to ask yourself if Sultai Midrange isn’t just a better version of the same strategy. Sultai clocks better early with the explore package (a pair of 2-power donks and Chainwhirler doesn’t cut it). Goblin Chainwhirler specifically gives you bonus points in the White Aggro matchups and is fine against Mono-Blue, but it’s fair to say that Rekindling Phoenix and Siege-Gang Commander do most of the heavy lifting to close out the game. Sultai does this with Krasis and sometimes Carnage Tyrant, but otherwise it wants to get total board control and win from there.

So you have an interesting dynamic between the two where both decks are capable of playing a long game and have a handful of threats that can turn the game quickly. The primary difference seems to be that the end game for Sultai includes Find // Finality and Hydroid Krasis, which bury the opponent in resources. On the Rakdos end, the closest to this is chaining Reveler into a handful of 5s. One is just better on raw rate than the other.

So am I saying Rakdos is clearly inferior to Sultai? No, Dire Fleet Daredevil and Treasure Map are unique and provide an interesting angle of attack. The same goes for Angrath, the Flame-Chained or even Status // Statue when combined with Chainwhirler or Commander. There’s also the raw power of Rekindling Phoenix—if the opponent doesn’t have an answer, it can often end the game by itself. It also borrows from Gruul, where its sideboard allows it to demolish Simic Nexus by virtue of a very fast clock backed by disruption (Duress or Kitesail Freebooter in some builds).

Red-Green Aggro

1 Forest
9 Mountain
2 Gruul Guildgate
4 Rootbound Crag
4 Stomping Ground
4 Unclaimed Territory
3 Dire Fleet Daredevil
4 Zhur-Taa Goblin
4 Growth-Chamber Guardian
4 Goblin Chainwhirler
4 Gruul Spellbreaker
4 Rekindling Phoenix
3 Siege-Gang Commander
2 Collision/Colossus
2 Lightning Strike
4 Shock
2 Lava Coil

2 Kraul Harpooner
3 Legion Warboss
3 Cindervines
1 Collision/Colossus
2 Fiery Cannonade
1 The Immortal Sun
2 Karn, Scion of Urza
1 Lava Coil

Meanwhile, the Gruul deck from Shota Takao is in a similar boat—it may be the grindiest creature-based G/R deck I’ve ever seen. There must not have been any other options than Zhur-Taa Goblin, because after playing the deck for two days, man, is that card bad. Watchwolf has not aged well, and in the current format your best-case scenario is often that it trades off cleanly. You almost never use the 2/2 haste unless your cards line up in a very specific sequence or it goes in for lethal.

When you compare this deck to Jody’s, you see a clear parallel. They run the same core of power red cards in Chainwhirler, Phoenix, and Commander, back them up with cheap red removal, and then diverge due to color choices. Whereas Jody has engines in Treasure Map and The Eldest Reborn, Takao adds a creature engine in Growth-Chamber Guardian and a handful of other mid-sized threats.

While this helps vs. Esper, I hate this approach in every other matchup. You don’t want to get dragged into grindfests against Sultai Midrange, and your creatures aren’t outclassing those found in WW once they play an anthem effect, which is the premier aggro deck of the format. It’s fine versus Mono-Blue, but swapping Zhur-Taa for Kraul Harpooner would accomplish that goal just fine and give the deck more ways to fight a Tempest Djinn.

Growth-Chamber Guardian on its own is fine, and good at grinding out these aggro decks after the initial rush, but Keith’s Rakdos deck does a better job of playing relevant cards against decks that don’t really care about an extra 4/4 or two.

What’s important about both of these is a shared core that can be iterated and improved.

4 Goblin Chainwhirler
4 Rekindling Phoenix
3 Siege-Gang Commander
8 Cheap Pieces of Red Interaction

Arguably 3-4 Dire Fleet Daredevil is the place to be as well.

Whatever you want to do with this information is up to you, but I’d be very surprised if these are the final builds now that we’ve seen this shell perform so well in the metagame. Now, how long a shelf life these decks in particular are going to hold will depend heavily on what we see in Cleveland this weekend. Part of the reason they’re so well positioned is their ability to bully other small aggro strategies while not getting punished by heaps of Vraska’s Contempt. The same goes for the minor resurgence in Treasure Map. If people aren’t packing tools to deal with it, the Map is one of the best ways to help keep your spells and mana coming in these midrange mirrors.

As for how Memphis played out, it more or less matched the expectations I set out in last week’s article. I didn’t foresee the rise of Rekindling Phoenix, but otherwise it was clear where the metagame was heading.

Grand Prix Memphis Breakdown Top 8

  • 2 Sultai Midrange
  • 2 Mono-Blue
  • Rakdos Midrange (Winner)
  • Simic Nexus
  • WW
  • Gruul Midrange

Top 9-32

  • 5 Mono-Blue
  • 5 Esper Control
  • 5 Sultai Midrange
  • 2 Mono-Red Aggro
  • 2 Azorius Aggro
  • 1 Drakes
  • 1 Ken Yukuhiro special (Esper Bugler) – 29th place list.
  • 1 Sultai Climb
  • 1 Simic Nexus
  • 1 Gates Nexus

Full lists and coverage can be found here.

Some nifty conversion rate stats.

As for other choices, I’ve continued my on-again-off-again relationship with the Drakes deck where I steadily convince myself that there’s no possible way I could keep a two-lander with cantrips and not see a land in my next 7 cards. Spoiler: I won’t see that land. To combat this I steadily went into 3-color builds with high land counts, with Temur Drakes grading out as a mediocre deck showing promise. A few observations: Hydroid Krasis on 4 is an actual dumpster fire compared to Niv-Mizzet, and Growth Spiral is the best card in the deck if you go to 23-24 lands. Even with that revelation, I just haven’t seen enough winning in the builds I’ve made to keep going with them.

Maybe the answer is to cut some of the Drakes for Rekindling Phoenix so you no longer need to babysit them with Pierce or Dive Down. Maybe there’s a Temur Midrange deck that has a similar shell but wants different threats. I had minor success bringing back Jeskai Drakes with Deafening Clarion and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria but for the most part that’s just moving some percentage points around. You now get a fair shot against WW and Teferi helps versus midrange and Esper, but you’re going down to 30% game 1 against Simic Nexus, and lose points against anything packing Rekindling Phoenix (since those matchups rely on Lava Coil or racing).

As for anything else, the Mythic Championship is probably the last chance to prove there’s a de facto best Nexus of Fate or Wilderness Reclamation deck, whether that be a better version of Simic or Gate Nexus, or an all-new variant. Otherwise, it’ll likely end up as the midrange watchdog of the metagame. If people shift back to endless Sultai versus Rakdos versus whatever midrange wars, Nexus (and Gates) decks are around to go way over the top. With some coverage, we’ll get to see if this is going to go down as one of the best Standard formats of all time or just the best opening month.


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