Recently I helped LSV record a Running the Gauntlet. The matchup was him on Valakut and me on Mono-red, and I got absolutely ranched, 5-0 in matches. In fact, the norm for Running the Gauntlet is only 3 matches but we were both having fun playing the matchup and agreed that it was not representative of how the matchup actually plays out because he was running so well against me, so we decided to play 2 more matches for value. Plus, it’s extra content, so why not!
The first thing you have to keep in mind is that LSV is one of the luckiest people in the world and I’m one of the unluckiest people in the world, so despite the fact that I play better than he does on average, he will usually end up with a winning record on me regardless of the matchup (hint: this is a joke). In reality, there are many things to consider when taking in these results. First thing I need to say is that I’m definitely glad I played these games and equally glad that they were recorded and posted for you all to see. I actually decided to write this article, my first article in quite some time, just to explain why.
First off, these videos are made some time before they are actually posted. I know Channelfireball is getting much better at this sort of thing so it will not be an issue in the future but it’s just something small you should keep in mind when watching; videos do take some time to edit and post. Also, this particular gauntlet series as you may notice is with post M12 standard when M12 isn’t even released on Magic Online yet, and for that matter it wasn’t even 100% spoiled in real life when we played. We were just using the reprints that we knew of and assumed would be strong enough for Standard in an effort to get a feel for the upcoming format. If anything, this is the rawest form of playtesting and our starting point for a lot of the Pro Tours. We had some idea of what the format might look like with Valakut, Red, Splinter Twin, various UB and UW control decks, and Vampires. So with a totally new format and totally new cards there are no stock lists; I can’t just go look at the last GP and find a Mono Red list with M12 that I can use. I have to use my best judgment for a good starting point and do some guessing.
The list I played for the first couple of games was something like this:
Plus two cards that I can’t remember, that wouldn’t be for Valakut anyway.
This was a list that Luis and I agreed would be a reasonable starting point for the matchup. I love Searing Blaze as much as the next guy and realize that you want 4 against tons of matchups, which is why I put the last two in the sideboard, but I also knew Searing Blaze wouldn’t be very good in the matchup so it was reasonable to hedge there and start some, knowing it would be standard to see Mono Red with some maindeck Searing Blaze but not 4. Also I wanted to try Dismember because it’s a sweet card and having too many Dismember/Searing Blaze could hurt a lot of your mulligan decisions because it’s too much targeted creature removal.
The next slot that was not intuitive for design was 2 Plated Geopede 2 Kargan Dragonlord. This deck certainly needs more creatures than 4 Goblin Guide and 4 Grim Lavamancer, but the options after that are just so loose. I knew I didn’t want to run Plated Geopede because he just sucks too much when he gets killed; you get no value whatsoever. At least when they kill one of your 1-drops you can get some value from it by at least attacking or having their removal cost more than 1 mana. Plus, Goblin Guide and Grim Lavamonguise are very, very good so you can justify playing them even if they die some % of the time because when they live they do so much for you towards winning the game.
After a couple games some things became apparent. It was not smart to try to rely on ONLY creatures to try to win the matchup. With Lightning Bolts and Pyroclasms for him after SB and only 12 creatures, my deck played out nothing like a Zoo deck. I had to try to get some damage in when I could and burn him out. To try and get around the problem of Lightning Bolt and Pyroclasm I decided to try sideboarding in Vulshok Refugee, but after only one or two tries I quickly dismissed him. This was even before Luis was running Solemn Simulacrum, which makes him even worse, but at the time a mix of Overgrown Battlement, Obstinate Baloth, and Green Sun's Zenith gave him more than enough answers to it. Despite me having 4 Dismember after sideboard as well, the Refugee costs 3 and can be so easily dealt with it was just not worthwhile.
Another problem that I ran into was that I just didn’t have enough burn to win. First, when one or more of my cards are creatures that will inevitably just die, and one of my cards is a Dismember, I’m already at a disadvantage. He was also able to consistently have 1-2 Obstinate Baloth thanks to 3 Baloth and 3-4 Green Sun's Zenith for Baloth. This would put me in a spot where basically I would never have enough creatures to be able to win the game with AND I would never have enough burn to able to win the game, so if I didn’t draw Koth, which was good against his removal and could punch past his life gain, I was in a bad spot. The best solution I could come up with for this was adding 2 more Shrine of Burning Rage, which I was very happy with the time I actually drew it on turn 2.
Lastly, Mark of Mutiny was highly underwhelming; it was a dead card in my hand for the entire game until he got Primeval Titan into play, so it wasn’t helping me burn his face or apply pressure with creatures and just having it in my hand meant I’d taken a mulligan and he would have more time to set up. Plus, with the extra time to set up he could always just play Tumble Magnet and make it real embarrassing, Zenith for Avenger of Zendikar, or just not play Titan and beat me down with Baloths. I’m certain there were games where he could have cast Primeval Titan but didn’t because he didn’t need to risk losing to Mark of Mutiny; basically the way he was playing and the way it was making me play turned a great sideboard card into a stone cold blank.
The list I ran for the last 3 matches of the recording looked something like this:
Against Valakut my sideboarding strategy was
I added a 4th Dismember as he had tons of creatures after SB that were just out of my burn range; Obstinate Baloth, Urabrahski, and Overgrown Battlement. I cut down on Mark of Mutiny because it was really underwhelming in our first set of games, though it’s possible 2 is the correct number just to keep them honest. I also cut a Burst Lightning for a Spikeshot Elder because I was having a problem sticking cheap creatures past all of his cheap removal, and my burn was really quite weak against him.
Shrine of Burning Rage seemed to be one of my best cards against him, and even though I didn’t draw it frequently in the recorded games I still think you want 4 in your mono red deck list, possibly maindeck. I think as the season goes on Valakut will be forced to run 1 Viridian Corrupter to Zenith for to whammy some Shrines, making it less of a total blowout.
If you watched the matches then you’ll know the rest of the matches were a total blowout in Valakut’s favor. I believe there are many reasons to explain this:
First off, I was playing an untested brew against an established deck. We knew going in that Valakut was going to be one of the best decks in the format; this is evident by it being chosen for a Running the Gauntlet in the first place. We know (almost) exactly how to build Valakut and why each card deserves to be in the deck. We also know when playing Valakut how to fight a mono red aggro deck, as opposed to playing mono red, where you don’t know for certain what creatures in the format might be better or worse than Plated Geopede or if it’s correct to play 0 or 4 Dismember and so on. It’s easy to see the best ramp deck and add Rampant Growth and now Solemn Simulacrum while it isn’t exactly intuitive to know if mono red will benefit from having more creatures and less burn or more burn and fewer creatures when you don’t know what the format will look like or how the creatures you select from will perform.
Second, I did not play perfectly. I’m not too arrogant to admit when I play poorly and I can say I did misplay some in the recorded games but I will restate this is a good thing. I mentioned it earlier but it bears repeating: watching us run the gauntlet is you getting an insight into our playtesting. You get to learn what works and what doesn’t work at the exact rate that we do. When I see Plated Geopede die to a sideboarded Pyroclasm or Koth die to an Urabrask I see what blowouts are possible in the matchup and what to avoid either by building my deck differently or playing differently come tournament time.
How else do we know what cards are important if we don’t see for ourselves? Some cards you can safely assume are correct based on previous experience playing Magic and playing similar matchups, like I know Grim Lavamancer is good in mono red and I know Obstinate Baloth is good against mono red, but until I see my Koth die to an Urabrask I could easily think that Urabrask is too slow and should be sided out against mono red OR that it’s great because it’s too big to die to Incinerate and Lightning Bolt while also being the full Time Walk when you have it the turn before you have Primeval Titan.
Third, Luis runs so good. He always runs good against everyone. I had turn 2 Shrine of Burning Rage once and he always had Tumble Magnet when I would have Mark of Mutiny. Plus I think I mulliganed a bit more than normal and he usually just ‘had it’ every time, be it Lightning Bolt, Obstinate Baloth, or Primeval Titan.
So, in conclusion, I believe mono red is still a good choice for Standard post-M12 but you are an underdog to Valakut assuming both decks are optimally constructed, but not by much. There are a lot of different directions you can take the deck and most of them seem viable or at least worth consideration and with nationals around the corner I’ll be trying my hand at putting some of those together. I think it’s entirely possible to run more 1-drops, be it Furnace Scamp or Spikeshot Elder, to enable Stormblood Berserker, or even a version with my personal favorite combo, Goblin Bushwhacker and Devastating Summons.