Ever since Zurgo Bellstriker was released in Dragons of Tarkir, I’ve been enjoying red aggro decks in Standard. These days, they typically splash green for Become Immense and Atarka’s Command, but you can pair Zurgo with black cards as well.
One-and-a-half weeks ago at Grand Prix Kobe, 5-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Tomoharu Saito registered a fascinating red-black aggro deck, which he piloted to an 11-4 finish.
According to Saito, he faced Abzan 9 times during the tournament, winning 6 of those matches. Since Abzan is by far the most popular deck in Standard right now—it was 35% of the Day 2 metagame in Kobe—his record is an indication that his deck may be well-positioned. So what does the black offer, and what are the key cards in the deck?
Drana, Liberator of Malakir
Drana received a lot of hype when Battle for Zendikar was released, but she doesn’t match up well against Mantis Rider. This used to be a problem when Jeskai was on top of the metagame. Recently however, Jeskai has been on the decline, so now may be the time for Drana to shine.
She dodges Abzan Charm the turn she comes down, flies over ground creatures, and pumps the rest of your team before they deal combat damage. The +1/+1 counters synergize very nicely with Hangarback Walker or a swarm of Thopter tokens. All in all, she is a good threat against Abzan. The double-black cost is not trivial for a deck that wants to play Zurgo on turn 1, but the fetchland mana base yields 20 black sources, which is more than enough.
Self-Inflicted Wound, Roast
Saito’s deck is preboarded against Abzan! Other red-black aggro decks may run Draconic Roar or Fiery Impulse instead, but those burn spells can’t touch Anafenza, the Foremost or Siege Rhino. With 4 Self-Inflicted Wound and 4 Roast in the main deck, those Abzan creatures should not live long.
But aren’t these removal spells too situational to maindeck? Actually, they are fine for the current metagame. Self-Inflicted Wound has targets against almost every Standard deck other than Atarka Red: it can deal with Dragonlord Ojutai, Mantis Rider, Scythe Leopard, Rattleclaw Mystic, Wingmate Roc, and many more. Roast is even better because it’s not dead against Atarka Red. There are plenty of nonflying creatures to burn in Standard, such as Monastery Swiftspear, Jace, Rattleclaw Mystic, Knight of the White Orchid, etc. So while you may not be thrilled to draw Self-Inflicted Wound and Roast against a deck other than Abzan, they are often serviceable. As long as Abzan remains popular, they are not unreasonable maindeck inclusions.
Early Game Creatures
Saito’s build has a lot of resilient creatures that shrug off removal spells. Other red/black aggro decks may play Forerunner of Slaughter over Hangarback Walker, but with Esper Dragons on the rise, it can be wise to play a lot of sacrifice fodder for Foul-Tongue Invocation.
Rounding out the deck, there are 6 big Dragons that consolidate the flying theme. Decks like Abzan tend to clog up the board with ground creatures, so it is nice to have a way to break through.
The Dragons also enable reward spells: there are 4 Foul-Tongue Invocation in the sideboard. Interestingly, Saito’s build eschews Draconic Roar completely, which is surprising especially considering that he included them in his red/black aggro deck at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, but Foul-Tongue Invocation may be better in the current Standard environment. After all, Jace and Mantis Rider are on the decline and Dragonlord Ojutai and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger are on the rise.
I haven’t played enough with the deck to provide an in-depth matchup and sideboard guide, but I can provide several rough recommendations.
- Against Abzan, the deck is preboarded and I don’t think there is a need to swap any cards.
- Against Atarka Red or RG Landfall, I would transform into a control deck: bring in 15 cards and cut Bloodsoaked Champion, Flamewake Phoenix, Self-Inflicted Wound, and a mix of Zurgo and Roast.
- Against Esper Dragons, I would add Foul-Tongue Invocation, Outpost Siege, and Duress. It’s safe to remove Roast, Murderous Cut, and a few 1-ofs.
- Against Dark Jeskai, I’m not entirely sure how to board, and it likely depends on who is on the play. I’m interested in boarding in Duress, Outpost Siege, and possibly Foul-Tongue Invocation. I would consider shaving some combination of Roast and Self-Inflicted Wound and, especially when I am on the draw, several aggressive creatures like Zurgo and Flamewake Phoenix.
- Against Eldrazi Ramp, I would bring in Foul-Tongue Invocation and Duress for Roast and Murderous Cut.
I have been playing this deck online—a set of videos will be up tomorrow morning—and so far it has been performing well. If you are interested in a different style of Zurgo Bellstriker, then I encourage you to try this red/black aggro build!
[Editor’s Note: This article mistakenly identified Catacomb Sifter as a target for Self-Inflicted Wound.]