Examining Red Deck Wins in Standard

Before the recent changes to Standard, I was among the biggest proponents of Red Deck Wins. I had a winning record at Pro Tour: Puerto Rico with it, I finished third at a $5K in Boston with it, and I made the Top 8 at the $75K in Chicago with it. While it might not have been the best deck in the format at the time (see Caw-Blade), I felt that it was the best deck for me. Since I’ve played and written about mono-Red so much, many people have asked me what I think about RDW in the new environment.

The keys to RDW are:

  • 1-drops
  • 2-drops
  • Burn
  • Late game
  • Synergy
  • Tempo
  • Sideboard

1-Drops

There are currently nine Red creatures that cost 1 mana in Standard. Most RDW builds use few if any artifacts, making Goblin Gaveleer and Slag Fiend obvious cards to avoid. The rest fall into three categories: controlling creatures, Bloodthirst-enablers, and damage-maximizers. Grim Lavamancers and Spikeshot Elders are control creatures, because they help you keep your opponent’s creatures off the board. The fact that these creatures can use their abilities to damage your opponent as well has helped make them two of the most popular 1-drops in RDW. While I didn’t run Lavamancer in my old RDW deck, some people mistakenly believed I did. Someone publishing deck lists from the $75K in Chicago posted my Top 8 deck as having contained Lavamancers, even though I wasn’t running fetch lands. The reason I found out about this was that the next weekend, a local player named Tony Patronick decided to run my deck at the Boston $5K, and he ran Lavamancers without fetch lands. Of course, the only reason I know that is that he finished in the Top 8!

Goblin Arsonists and Goblin Fireslingers aren’t great for killing your opponent’s creatures, and they don’t hit the hardest, but they’re great for making sure your Stormblood Berserker is swollen with blood when he hits the board. I usually prefer damage-maximizers, like Stromkirk Noble, Reckless Waif, and Furnace Scamp. I’m happy to depend on my burn to get creatures out of the way while using my creatures to kill my opponent as quickly as possible.

Not only did I choose not to play Lavamancer and Elder before the change in the format, but I feel that the change has hurt both of them. Losing fetch lands is a big blow to Lavamancer, and I think losing Teetering Peaks hurts the Elder. Obviously, with Goblin Guide gone, I need something on turn one. I don’t actually like any of the holdover options, so it’s good for me that Innistrad has introduced new options. Some people like Furnace Scamp, but I prefer a creature that is a constant threat and that can constantly do damage until my opponent either is dead or deals with it. Basically, I hate 1/1’s that don’t tap for mana, draw cards, or have some cool enters-the-battlefield effect. The obvious favorite for me, and for most RDW players, is Stromkirk Noble. If he hits once, he becomes an excellent 1-drop, and if he hits twice, he’s a hammer. The card I’m currently going with, but that I’m open to being wrong about, is Reckless Waif. Because of the nature of Constructed, it’s entirely possible that he’ll spend the entire game as a 1/1—even worse than Furnace Scamp or Spikeshot Elder. If I go first and play him on turn one, though, I like my chances that, against most decks, he’ll be hitting for 3 immediately. If that happens, I really like my chances of winning. It’s a little bit like playing a turn-one Goblin Guide. I almost always won when I went first and played a Guide. My opponents would then proceed to complain about how lucky I was. Well, that’s why I was playing with Guide: for those “lucky” games wherein I pretty much win any matchup. For now, I’m going to run the Waif and see if it’s worth it.

2-Drops

In the old Standard, many people seemed to feel that it was all about 1-drops and that 2-mana spells were for burn. They ran Guides, Scamps, Elders, and Lavamancers at 1 mana, and things like Incinerate, Arc Trail, and Searing Blaze at 2 mana. This was in direct opposition to my approach in the old Standard. With the exception of Goblin Guide, I felt that the power-level spike for creatures going from 1 to 2 mana was much greater than the gap between burn spells. I felt that my 2-drops were major game winners: Kargan Dragonlord and Kiln Fiend. I didn’t feel the need to spend more than 1 mana on my burn: Lightning Bolt, Burst Lightning, Forked Bolt, Shock, and Galvanic Blast. While the burn at 2 and 3 mana was good, I didn’t feel that it was a big enough upgrade to warrant paying extra mana, especially given how well cheap burn synergizes with Kiln Fiend and Chandra's Phoenix. It also gave me something to do for 1 mana, since I wasn’t usually playing creatures for 1 mana.

In the new Standard, the 2-drops are also weaker than in the old Standard. This is among the reasons I’m going with a flatter curve; I’m running eight creatures at 1, and eight at 2. The main reason is all the good burn that’s been lost, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Since I’m running twice as many 1-drops as I used to, I feel comfortable running Stormblood Berserker. I’m also running the best of the new crop at two: Bloodcrazed Neonate. Like Kiln Fiend and Dragonlord, this card has the potential to get bigger—something I’m a fan of. That’s actually something all of my 1- and 2-drops have in common: They start small, but can easily become jumbo threats.

My other 2-drop, of sorts, is Shrine of Burning Rage. I had the option of using it in the old Standard, and I chose against it. It’s mainly because so many of the best choices have been removed and not replaced; I think it makes the cut now. Ringing endorsement, right? Among other things, the existence of Splinter Twin decks in the format was one of the reasons I didn’t play it—that, and because opposing aggressive decks were too fast. In the new environment, I think the Shrine poses the right sort of growing threat that must be dealt with, because few decks can outrace it.

Burn

The loss of Bolt, Burst, Forked Bolt, Blaze, and Staggershock hurts. A lot. That, and the loss of Goblin Guide, are the reasons I initially dismissed RDW in the new Standard. The reality of the situation is that decks across the board have been hurt by the changes. The obvious first step was to try to invent entirely new decks that take advantage of the changes rather than being hurt by them. To an extent, we’ve seen that with token decks, Wolf Run, Solar Flare, and so forth. The same themes remained however: Blue-based control, base-Green ramp, and Red aggression. The control decks have become a little slower, which allows RDW to lose half a step and still be Tier 1.

I think 1-mana burn is still needed for tempo reasons, even though the three best cards are gone; I’m left with just Shock and Galvanic Blast. In the old Standard, I also chose Shock over Incinerate, and my reasoning hasn’t really changed. The single reason it’d be worth paying double the mana for 1 more point of damage would be if the format was dominated by 3-toughness creatures or regenerators. In most cases, you’ll just be spending twice the mana to accomplish the same task. RDW usually has very tight mana, with the game-winning decisions found in how you choose to spend each precious mana in the first four turns. While I have less burn in this deck, it’s both because there’s less burn available and because there’s less need for it without Kiln Fiend needing to be fed. While the Shrine helps give the deck some finishing “burn,” I’ve also decided to suck it up and play some 3-mana burn: Volt Charge and Brimstone Volley.

I love the Volley as a finisher; I have to attack with my Neonate, and, thus, the opponent never knows if I’m just trying to set up for Morbid. The problem is that I hate crowding this part of my curve. My old deck was all about 1 and 2 mana, with the exception of the Phoenix, which I’m still running. Without Dragonlord to sink extra mana into, though, I think it’s reasonable for me to raise my curve slightly, and it’s probably needed from a power-level standpoint. Still, I’m not willing to run four Volleys and four Charges, so I had to choose which to focus on. I chose the Charge for its synergy with Noble, Shrine, Neonate, and Berserker. Deck-building is often a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing, of course. Should I play Charge to go with those cards, or should I choose those cards because they go with Charge?

Late Game

In the old Standard, Guide and Fiend were great tools to help me entirely avoid the late game. This is really the truest goal of any aggressive deck: Kill the opponent before his deck can start achieving its goals. You know you’re doing something right when you leave your opponent frustrated and complaining, “If only I had one more turn . . . ”

Of course, you shouldn’t build any deck so that it can only prosper in a best-case scenario. In the old Standard, I depended on Phoenix and Dragonlord to power my late game, although being able to kick Burst Lightning was good, too. Once the game passed turn four, these cards were pretty much always the cards I wanted to draw, and they were my only ways to survive mana-flood. I still have Phoenix, but, unless you count Shrine, my main concessions to the late game now are the slight raising of my mana-curve, the addition of creatures, and the subtraction of a land. Mana problems are the bane of aggressive decks; you can’t survive early mana stall, and mana flood is usually even worse. This makes it critical to correctly balance your mana-curve with your mana quantity. Besides that, you need to be fearless when mulliganing, and getting a little lucky helps, too!

Synergy

There are two main types of synergy in Constructed. The first one is the basic level. Making sure you’ve included the right balance of mana: your mana-curve and things that allow your spells to function properly. Like with any deck, properly balancing mana and mana-curve are critical in RDW. It’s also important to make sure your cards function properly: You need to have 1-drops to set up the Bloodthirst on Berserker, have a lot of cheap Red cards to power up your Shrine, and so forth. The second type of synergy is second-level synergy: finding ways to make your cards perform at an even higher level without watering down your deck. In this deck, it’s making sure to have a lot of cheap burn to retrieve your Phoenix and playing Volt Charge with a ton of cards that can benefit from Proliferate.

Tempo

Tempo is important in any deck, but it’s especially important in aggressive decks. Having early turns in which you don’t really do anything is a sure way to give away a game. You need to make sure that, every turn, you accomplish as much as possible toward killing your opponent. Playing the biggest possible threat every turn and efficiently removing key opposing permanents are the keys to success. This is the biggest reason that I end up playing Shock in RDW: It usually accomplishes the same thing that Incinerate or Volley would accomplish—removing a potential blocker. It just does it for less mana, which allows you to accomplish more in a given turn. Obviously, Incinerate is better for killing your opponent with direct damage, but with cards like Lightning Bolt and Burst Lightning gone, it’s harder to just burn people out, and it’s more important to tempo your opponent out with creatures.

Sideboard

This hasn’t changed as much from the old Standard as the main deck has. I love four Dismembers in almost any matchup with creatures—except the mirror match. Manic Vandal is good against Red and White Shrines, while also being great against Tempered Steel–style decks. Traitorous Blood is a great finisher against Titans and Wurmcoil Engines. Arc Trails are great against decks with a lot of small creatures, including the mirror, especially now that Guide is gone. Hero of Oxid Ridge gives the deck more late-game punch, and, in the right situations, the “can’t-block” effect will be amazing with your growing creatures.




Based on the results of the State Championships, RDW is still a Tier 1 deck. Now you just have to find the right build for you. It might be a little different than mine, but be sure to consider all seven of my keys when putting your build together.