Red decks have been a menace in Standard since the dawn of time (Boss Sligh), but things have changed more in the past year than they have in the past few. The red decks are winning. They are really good. There has always been some winning in each Standard season as players thought red couldn’t compete and came underprepared for the matchup, but now the red decks are well known and still viable.
What are the keys to red decks’ success? It starts with quality aggressive creatures. Once upon a time, this card was Jackal Pup, redefining aggression with 2 power for 1 mana out of a color with enough cheap burn to make sure that it kept getting in. Creatures have continued to improve from there. Goblin Guide is the Modern superstar that is certainly far too good for the Standard format—but take a look at Monastery Swiftspear. This thing is ridiculous and sees play in Modern and Legacy, as well. Swiftspear is the lynchpin on which red decks have relied for success over the past year.
Monastery Swiftspear, Zurgo Bellstriker
You can only draw a Monastery Swiftspear so often which means that the red deck will need access to some more quality 1-drops. Zurgo Bellstriker is an excellent turn-1 play with late-game application thanks to dash. The only thing holding him back in this deck is the legendary status, because if you want to block creatures with Zurgo and you can’t, you’re probably already losing.
Lightning Berserker acts as a pseudo-Fireball with buyback. Leaving back no untapped creatures on defense could mean a ridiculous amount of damage out of nowhere for your opponent. Creatures like this have been forcing players to leave up blockers even on an empty board, which is a tremendous advantage for decks that may need an extra draw step to find the burn they need.
Abbot of Keral Keep
Abbot of Keral Keep is the most legitimately broken card that red decks have received in some time and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this thing become a major player in Legacy down the road. A 2/1 prowess creature for 2 mana is already a reasonable deal, but the ability to get a free card off the Abbot is amazing. Playing fewer than 4 copies is a mistake and is the biggest draw for me to want to play red.
The rest of the creature suite varies, but most players go with a token-based strategy. Dragon Fodder is not an amazing card. It’s barely even decent. However, it gets the job in a deck looking to flood the board and cast pump spells deliver the final blow. If Dragon Fodder is passable, Hordeling Outburst is excellent. One extra mana is easily worth it for the extra creature, although the need to keep the curve low tends to mean fewer copies of Outburst will be played than Fodder. The ability to go wide against decks playing Foul-Tongue Invocation is very powerful.
The spells are where the red decks shine. In today’s world, it’s the “combo” finish that Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage bring that makes this deck exciting. This combo kills out of nowhere and the combination of these 2 cards with a Monastery Swiftspear is 18 damage for potentially only 4 mana (and it’s trample damage and you could do it on a turn on which you started with no board presence). Titan’s Strength acts as a mini-Become Immense that needs no setup. The cost of 1 mana for potentially 3 damage is already excellent, but adding the functionality to scry puts it over the top. Titan’s Strength also combines nicely with Temur Battle Rage for way more damage than anyone should ever be able to do for so little mana.
Not much needs to be said about the Shocks of the format. Wild Slash and Fiery Impulse are not overly impressive, but they do what needs to be done. They clear the way and, in the case of Wild Slash, will occasionally provide lethal damage.
Atarka’s Command is a true beauty and the reason behind the name of the deck. This card does it all and does it efficiently. More often than not, Atarka’s Command will represent 5-or-more damage for 2 mana. It will regularly be more, depending on the number of creatures you have in play or how much life your opponent attempts to gain, as countering the gain life abilities of an Arashin Cleric or Foul-Tongue Invocation is very real. This is also the card that takes Dragon Fodder from playable to excellent. I’m surprised when I see anybody board out copies of this card in any matchup, as I view it as untouchable (along with Abbot of Keral Keep).
The sideboard options in an effectively mono-red deck are pretty limited and generally significantly weaker than any other deck in the format. This tends to be the biggest weakness in red decks as any prepared deck will improve dramatically against you after sideboard while you often can’t do nearly as much. That being said, you do have some solid tools and your odds of winning game 1 will always be high.
Here’s the list that Takuma Morofuji used to take down GP Kobe last weekend:
By Takuma Morofuji, 1st Place at GP Kobe
Atarka Red Mirror
Tokens are the key to this matchup. No access to Boiling Earth is tough, so if you expect to play the mirror regularly in your expected metagame, consider cutting a card like Act of Treason from the sideboard for more anti-red cards. In that case, I would take out more copies of Titan’s Strength as it can be a mediocre card against a deck full of Shock effects and not as powerful as the core combo pieces.
Having access to 4 copies of Rending Volley is huge in this matchup as nothing is more efficient against Jeskai. Many people bring out the entire combo in the matchup, but Jeskai players often have to tap out to deal with your threats. Having more token creatures just adds to the ability to flood the board where your cheap creature removal and Atarka’s Commands can end things. This is a very tough matchup, so hoping to get lucky on the combo is reasonable.
I’m not a big fan of Act of Treason in this matchup, but if I have them in my sideboard, I’m bringing them in. I am definitely a big fan of Roast, however, and the full 4 copies are amazing against Anafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino. The Shock spells are rather weak here as killing a Den Protector is not really where you want to be. Hordeling Outburst just gets outclassed by bigger creatures too easily, so Chandra is the preferred 3-drop that threatens to win the game if you untap. Outpost Siege is a fine card in the matchup, but makes Dromoka’s Command too valuable for opponents.
Again, too many creatures for the tokens to not get outclassed at 3 mana. This is a good matchup as it’s tough for them to interact with your combo, but you have way too many Shock effects in after sideboard with not enough to bring in that will actually improve things. More copies of Chandra would be excellent here (and I would cut Wild Slash from my deck for them after board if I had access).
Rending Volleys are excellent in this matchup as they are the best tool at your disposal against Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Dragonlord Ojutai, and Shambling Vents (not to mention Arashin Cleric). I would advise playing the full playset because of how good Esper Dragons is right now, even if Jeskai starts to fall out of favor. Hordeling Outburst is excellent against Foul-Tongue Invocation and is one of the best follow-up plays to a Languish. Outpost Siege is only truly excellent versus the control decks. Chandra is OK here, but not amazing. I want to take out all the Shock effects (especially when I already have Rending Volleys for Jace) and Chandra is excellent if you untap with her, but having too many combo pieces against spot removal is not a great position to put yourself into. Become Immense for value is still strong and can allow you to potentially attack through a Dragon.
I believe the main reason behind playing Act of Treasons would be to steal Eldrazis, but Ramp is already your best matchup, so I have to say that I would cut them entirely. There is a nice application against Nantuko Husks, but it’s not worth playing for me. I would suggest adding a third copy of Chandra and a single Boiling Earth (and make the sideboard changes I advised if you do), but maybe I’m missing some more places the Acts can shine.
So where do you think red goes from here? Do you prefer the token version or prefer landfall creatures and other cheap threats? Red decks are already a decent option when people are prepared for them, but when the metagame starts to sleep on them even a little bit, that’s when everyone should be prepared to burn.