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Pantheon Deck Tech – Atarka Red

Hello, my name is Ben Rubin and Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir is my first Constructed tournament since Amsterdam 2010.

I was privileged to work with ChannelFireball’s Team Pantheon for the tournament, which meant lots of great players to work with and plenty of ideas kicking around during the preparation process.

While the Standard format was fairly old hat for most of my teammates (with the exception of some Dragons of Tarkir cards), I had never cast a Siege Rhino, a Goblin Rabblemaster, or a Sylvan Caryatid until preparing for this tournament.

I started learning the new format by reading deck lists from recent tournaments and watching some of the matches on YouTube and Twitch. Then a month before the Pro Tour we began playing remotely. My first decks tended to revolve around midrange red spells. Sometimes Mardu, sometimes Jeskai, sometimes all four colors. I assumed other people understood the Abzan and Sultai decks extremely well already, and in my first Pro Tour back I thought it would be more economical for testing and for finishing matches (I do not play quickly) to take a more aggressive stance.

The first deck I liked came about 10 days before the tournament:

This deck did a great job at disrupting creature decks and closing the game out with Dragons and Rabblemaster. I also got Crackling Doom and Draconic Roar which let me both kill creatures and begin creeping up on their life total to leave less work for my Dragons. Against decks like Green/Red, Green/White Devotion, Temur, and Abzan Aggro, I really liked this deck.

However, my game was obviously weak against control, because so many of my cards are weak game 1.

I then tested a very important matchup: Mono-Red.

I had hoped that my large creatures and removal (and maybe a timely Draconic Roar with Grand Master in play) would leave this matchup within reach.

Unfortunately, it did not. I was constantly behind, and my removal (other than Wild Slash) was often clunky.

I started to wonder: why am I not playing Mono-Red?

I was excited about Draconic Roar—they have Searing Blood in their sideboard. I was excited about Crackling Doom—if I really wanted I can splash black for Self-Inflicted Wound.

I had recently played with and watched Mono-Red with a splash for Atarka’s Command. With 4 Mana Confluences already in my deck I had to wonder… maybe this is worth trying?

Andrew Cuneo and I had already put together an Atarka’s Command red deck for testing, so I mostly ported that list and prepared a sideboard that would have access to a Swamp and Self-Inflicted Wounds, taking advantage of maindeck Mana Confluences, Llanowar Wastes, and Bloodstained Mires.

Though it went through a few iterations, my deck did not wander drastically from where it ended up for the Pro Tour:

This deck takes advantage of the frankly ludicrous density of efficient aggressive creatures in red to overwhelm the opponent. The creatures are so efficient they can often deal enough damage before a Drown in Sorrow (Drown/Anger of the Gods-type effects are the only thing keeping this deck in check as far as I can tell) that the opponent never quite gets a chance to stabilize.

Where the deck traditionally used Goblin Heelcutter as its finishing move, Atarka’s Command has proven to be a more powerful alternative—usually providing +1/+1 to the whole team and dealing 3 damage to the opponent. In combination with tokens, dash creatures, and Monastery Swiftspears, this often means 5-8 extra damage for only 2 mana, and even when not going for the kill, it leaves combat very precarious for decks like Jeskai tokens and other red strategies.

I believe most decks of this kind have Roast in their sideboard instead of Self-Inflicted Wound, which is very reasonable. However, in testing I found that against some decks Roast didn’t quite cover as much ground as I would’ve liked, being ineffective against Sylvan Caryatid and Hornet Nest most importantly. I also imagined there might other difficult-to-kill creatures like Dragonlord Ojutai or heroic creatures (backed up by Gods Willing) that would be very sad against Self-Inflicted Wound where they would’ve been safe from Roast.

There is a price for this splash, as it means that in some games I will want to fetch a Swamp for Self-Inflicted Wound AND a Forest for Atarka’s Command—particularly painful if I also have an Eidolon in my draw. This was unsettling enough that two of my teammates, Jelger Weigersma and Gaudenis Vulgaris, elected to play this deck with Roasts instead of the Self-Inflicted Wounds.

Looking back at a metagame with relatively few Sylvan Caryatids and no one playing Heroic, it’s possible they were right.

Some other interesting disparities between this deck and other Atarka’s Command red decks:

  1. I did not like Lightning Strike very much, especially since I had better removal waiting in my sideboard for the matchups where it’s necessary. Almost everyone else plays 3-4 Lightning Strikes, but I was happy to have only one.
  2. I liked Goblin Rabblemaster over Hordeling Outburst (playing 4 and 2 where most would play 2 and 4). This is also something of a metagame call. If you expect a lot of spot removal the Rabblemaster may be inferior. But I found that opponents couldn’t afford to wait on their removal and by the time I played Rabblemaster it had a decent chance of living—or being swept away by Drown in Sorrow or End Hostilities which take care of Hordeling Ourburst even better.
  3. I did not go for an Outpost Siege plan B. I think it’s an interesting idea, but found that too often it got Duressed (black decks often bring in Duress and take out Thoughtseize), or was too slow and unreliable to get online. I preferred Goblin Heelcutter, Hall of Triumph, and Thunderbreak Regent as a back-up plan against control decks.

The Standard format currently has a lot of decks running around, but as far as I can tell Atarka-red is the most powerful and deserves a lot of respect. It also leaves some interesting choices if you indeed decide to pilot it yourself. Good luck.

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