Red is the best color in today’s Standard. The Top 8 of Pro Tour Dominaria featured seven red-heavy decks with Goblin Chainwhirler. The speed and the efficient removal of red, combined with the raw power of Goblin Chainwhirler, makes it exceptionally difficult for opposing decks to ever get on solid footing.
As if that wasn’t enough, the 4- and 5-mana spells in red are among the most powerful and punishing in all of the format. Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer have been winning tournaments for over a year, while other options like Hazoret the Fervent, Rekindling Phoenix, and Angrath, the Flame-Chained have tremendous appeal. Additionally, some players might turn to cards like Hour of Glory and Vraska’s Contempt in order to break parity in mirror matches. The one thing I can say for sure is that I want to play with as many of these cards as possible in my next Standard tournament. But when you can’t have them all, how do you choose?
When a format has a clear best deck, the first question a savvy player will ask is how they can get a leg up in the mirror.
Traditional wisdom, when it comes to aggro and midrange creature decks, is that you want to go a little bit bigger than your opponent. By that I mean going up slightly on the mana curve, and packing your deck with extra late-game power. The early turns usually involve some predictable trades, and once you get to the midgame, you want your deck to be stronger in a topdeck war.
Traditional wisdom holds true in Standard. It’s ambitious to hope that you’ll run over your opponent in the face of a dozen cheap removal spells—Magma Spray, Chandra’s Defeat, and Abrade, to name a few. This is particularly true when Bomat Courier and Earthshaker Khenra are liabilities against Goblin Chainwhirler. The better plan is to defend yourself, jockey for position, and then hope to land a Rekindling Phoenix or Glorybringer. There’s only one problem…
In a Top 8 playoff of virtually all red mirrors, the winner wasn’t the slowest deck but the fastest—Wyatt Darby with Mono-Red. Outside of tight play and a few lucky breaks, the most important factor behind Wyatt’s victory, at least in my opinion, were his four copies of Hazoret the Fervent.
Wyatt Darby, 1st place at Pro Tour Dominaria
Hazoret is the single best card in the red mirror. She’s unkillable, hits harder than everything else, embarrasses opposing planeswalkers, and puts the opponent on an inexorable clock, even when they have blockers and removal. If you could promise me four lands and a Hazoret every game, then all I would ask out of my other spells is that they be cheap and easy to cast.
Hazoret creates two distinct options for approaching red mirrors. The first option is to stick to MTG 101 and sideboard into cheap removal and a healthy number of Rekindling Phoenixes and Glorybringers at the top of the curve. The downside is that you won’t be able to empty your hand quickly and will therefore be unable to take full advantage of the single best card. The second option is to remain sleek and efficient in order to attack with Hazoret as early and as often as possible. The downside is that you’ll be heavily outgunned in the games where you don’t draw her.
Hazoret is my favorite of red’s top-end options. She’s good across the board, including being the best card in the mirror and strong against control. I love that she can tag a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria the turn he comes down, and can unload damage without attacking into Settle the Wreckage. She’s a great game 1 card, but does preclude you from raising your mana curve too much. Since my stated goal is to play as many of red’s powerful haymakers as possible, Hazoret presents a bit of a problem for me.
After Hazoret, Rekindling Phoenix is the best card for red mirrors. It’s simultaneously hard to kill and hard to race. In any kind of close game, if you’re spending two full removal spells to kill a Phoenix, you’re probably losing. Phoenix does not preclude you from raising your mana curve—removal into Phoenix and Glorybringer is a strong and reliable plan.
While a very powerful card, Phoenix’s biggest weakness is U/W Control decks in general, and Settle the Wreckage in particular.
Of the commonly played options, Chandra is weakest in the mirror match. She’s still okay because she’s powerful in a topdeck battle, and amazing if either player has a removal-heavy draw. But she can be a liability against Hazoret, or if you’re getting swarmed by too many creatures. Generally speaking, I’m fine drawing one, but prefer not to draw two.
On the other hand, Chandra might be the best option against the field at large. A noncreature threat is invaluable against Fumigate and Settle the Wreckage, and the ability to shoot down a creature and leave behind a planeswalker allows you to shred the green and white creature decks.
I advocate for three copies of Chandra, Torch of Defiance in the 75. How many you put in your main deck will depend on how much you want to emphasize mirror matches versus making your deck strong against the field at large.
There’s never been any controversy about Glorybringer—it’s simply an amazing card. It’s great against creatures, great against planeswalkers, and it’s easy to get value, even if your opponent has a removal spell. I’ve been happy with a total of three 5-drops in the 75, and Glorybringer stands head, shoulders, and wings above the other options.
At best, Angrath is a 1-of sideboard card against control and decks with Ghalta, Primal Hunger. But he’s quite good at that job if you feel that it’s a job that needs to be done.
Siege-Gang Commander is a nice way of combating opposing Hazorets since it generates a ton of blockers and gives you a lot of control over a racing situation. There’s a bit of tension since it’s bad against Goblin Chainwhirler, but your opponent will typically have played out their Chainwhirlers by the time you’re ready to play Siege-Gang. Getting burned by a topdeck Chainwhirler 10 or 15 percent of the time might be an acceptable price to pay for such a powerful card.
Believe me when I say that Vraska’s Contempt is one of my favorite cards in Standard. I know how tempting it is, but I recommend against putting Vraska’s Contempt and Goblin Chainwhirler in the same deck. Your choices are to play multiple Swamps—yuck—Cinder Barrens—bleh—or be unable to reliably cast your spells.
At single-black, these options are a lot more reasonable as answers to Hazoret and Rekindling Phoenix, particularly because they both have applications elsewhere. Still, I think you’ll win more by being the one presenting threats rather than turning to overly-specific answer cards. Put another way, I’m not going to turn to Hour of Glory and Doomfall until I already have four Rekindling Phoenixes in my deck.
The following is the configuration I played in my R/B Aggro deck at Pro Tour Dominaria. I put up an 8-2 Constructed record, and everything about it felt smooth and effective. I’ll be playing the exact same configuration in my next Standard event as well.
Eight haymaker cards felt good in the main deck, and I think you can go up to ten after sideboarding before you begin to unbalance your deck. This is somewhat of a middle-ground where you get to play with Hazoret but won’t be attacking with her on turn 4 particularly often.
This was a great configuration going into the PT, where we expected a balanced field, and were willing to make sacrifices in the mirror in order to gain ground against control, and I absolutely love Chandra, Torch of Defiance. If having seven red decks in the Top 8 heralds a metagame of 50% Chainwhirler decks, then those Chandras probably need to become main deck Rekindling Phoenixes in order to improve in the mirror. Personally, I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach, as I think there might be other ways for the format to adapt instead of degenerating into all red mirrors.
I hope this discussion of red’s top-end options has given you a better understanding of the format, of how to approach building your red decks, and of how you can build your nonred decks with these cards in mind. There’s no need to copy my exact configuration since you now have the knowledge you need to build toward your own preferences and toward the decks you expect to face.