Choosing a deck to play at Worlds was, as always, a challenging process. I thought Ixalan had a lot of interesting cards, but the hard part was meshing them with the cards from Kaladesh, since both sets were parasitic in their mechanics (meaning they work within their set only). There were no energy cards in Amonkhet or Ixalan, and not many good artifacts to make the artifact synergies work. At the same time, there were only a few Vampires and Pirates in Standard, and no Dinosaurs or Merfolk to speak of. You could try to build decks with either set, but fitting both in the same list wasn’t easy.
We tried a bunch of different strategies—Search for Azcanta decks, Hostage Taker decks (including God-Pharaoh’s Gift, Pirates, and Sultai Energy), Legion’s Landing decks (all color combinations), and Dinosaur decks. Ultimately, we couldn’t quite make any of those decks work, as they all had problems. Usually, that problem was Hazoret, which was almost impossible to deal with without Grasp of Darkness in the format, but almost as often the problem was The Scarab God or Glorybringer. Both Dinosaurs and Sultai Energy, for example, had major issues with the Dragon.
Other than the decks themselves, there were also three special characteristics of this tournament that led us towards the Red deck:
- You can’t rely on your opponents making a lot of mistakes at the World Championship, so there’s less value in a deck that lets you outplay people. The Mono-Red mirror, for example, is often very silly—being on the play is a huge advantage, as is drawing Hazoret, and there’s nothing you can really do to turn those things in your favor. In a GP, where I’d expect most of my opponents to be less experienced than me, this would be a point against Red, and I’d try to play a more interactive deck. At Worlds, it didn’t really matter.
- Deck lists are exchanged after round 1. This means that “surprise effect” types of cards get a lot worse. The Sultai Energy deck from the SCG tournament, for example, likely won a lot of games because people didn’t expect it to be playing 4 copies of Blossoming Defense. For Worlds, Blossoming Defense would be a much worse card since everyone would know exactly how many you have and would be able to play around it.
- The metagame is completely unpredictable. Normally in a PT or GP, we can predict the metagame with a certain degree of accuracy. For example, if we expect 10% U/B, then it’s probably not going to be less than 5% or more than 15%, or 20% if we’re way off. For Worlds, since it’s a small tournament and teams often play the same thing, a deck can be 50% or 0%. Playing a deck that gets smashed by U/B is OK in a PT since there’s an upper limit to how popular it can be, but doing it at Worlds could end up meaning that you have no shot of winning if 2-3 teams arrive at the conclusion that U/B is the deck to play.
This third point was the most important in my decision to play Red, because I knew that no matter what people played, I would never be a big underdog since you can beat anyone with a good curve and Hazorets. Basically, I thought Red was the best deck against “the unknown,” and “the unknown” could be upwards of 80% of the tournament if people were feeling creative or had found something we hadn’t.
Unfortunately for us, “the unknown” was exactly zero percent of the field. Every person played either Red (which we were slightly better than 50/50 against, as we dedicated more sideboard slots for the matchup, but still not a huge favorite), a version of Temur (which I believe we were dogs against, though we clearly could win), or a version of U/B (which I believe we were slight favorites against). As such, I believe our deck was slightly below average for the event, which is a pretty bad place to be when you cannot gain an advantage through simply playing better, though I can see many different metagames where our deck would end up being great and a deck like U/B or Temur would end up being disastrous. In sum, we chose the option that minimized the worst-case scenario, and when the worst case scenario didn’t happen for anyone, we paid for our choice.
The main deck is very standard, except it has 2 copies of Harsh Mentor (most players played the fourth Abrade and 1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance instead). Harsh Mentor is an unassuming card, but it can deal a surprising amount of damage. You only realize how many activated abilities your deck is playing when you’re faced with a Harsh Mentor. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of cards it punishes:
The best thing is that the majority of those are recurring abilities—every time you want to use either part of Aethersphere Harvester, for example—you have to pay 2, and every time you want to use Longtusk Cub or Whirler Virtuoso you also have to pay. I managed to beat Martin Juza’s 2 Aethersphere Harvesters in part because I had Harsh Mentor to make sure he gained no life.
Against decks with nothing to hit, you’re not even that upset to have a 2/2 body to go with all of your removal spells.
The deck plays out similarly to its previous incarnation, except you’re not nearly as fast. Before, you had twelve 1-drops, eight of which could attack for 2. Now you have only eight 1-drops, and they usually attack for just 1. This means that you’re less likely to swarm the board and overwhelm them before they can establish their game plan, which makes you more vulnerable to a curve of removal into removal into big threat. It’s partially for this reason that U/R was a bye and U/B was actually a close matchup. Not only do they have better threats themselves (The Scarab God) and better answers for Hazoret, but you also don’t have as many cheap creatures.
The saving grace, and the reason this deck remains competitive at all, is that Hazoret is even better than it was before. With Grasp of Darkness in the format, it could be dealt with at a profit. Now people have to play Vraska’s Contempt, which they often can’t do the turn you play Hazoret if they played anything else. It’s not that big a difference from U/B decks since those mostly play untapped, but it’s a major upside against decks like B/G or Sultai Energy that actually want to use the mana.
The sideboard is a little different than normal, and it’s built upon the premise that, against any deck that is not the mirror or dedicated control, you have almost nothing to take out. You don’t need this many cards for the mirror, and your win percentage doesn’t go up that much by having them, but you simply don’t want to sideboard a lot against anything else, so you can afford to have them. Here’s a rough sideboard guide for the three main decks:
Red without Harvester
On the Play
On the Draw
On the play, Harsh Mentor is okay, even if they don’t have Harvester. It’s a threat that deals some damage against Ruins and Hazoret (and sometimes Pia or Bomat). If you’re on the draw, however, then I like the reliability of just killing their 1- or 2-drop rather than playing a blocker that might be rendered inert.
Red with Harvester
(Or if you don’t know. If you don’t know if they have Harvester, assume they do.)
The biggest unconventional thing that you might see here is that I don’t like Glorybringer in the mirror. I think it matches up poorly versus Harvester and Chandra’s Defiance, and it’s simply too expensive when your main plan should be to attack with Hazoret. You often lose the game because you draw Glorybringer instead of virtually anything else and that’s not acceptable to me, even if sometimes you win games because of it.
(If you know they don’t have Harvester.)
(If they have Harvester or if you don’t know.)
The sideboard here leaves a bit to be desired, but they don’t board that much either most of the time, and there’s nothing you’d truly want. Chandra and Glorybringer are both cards I’ve seen sided in this matchup, but I think they’re a bit too vulnerable if you’re on the back foot or if they have multiple copies of Chandra’s Defeat. If you want to board one of the two, then I prefer Chandra.
Ferocidon isn’t for this matchup—it’s meant for white decks, in particular tokens and Approach—but it’s still an OK card here as it’s hard to block and deals some damage. It’s especially good against Whirler Virtuoso. If you pair it with Harsh Mentor, they take 3 damage per token!
You make your deck much slower after board, but the cards you’re boarding out are pretty bad. They just have too much removal for you to burn them out, especially when they have life gain as well, so your goal is to just play threat after threat and hope that they die. Soul-Scar Mage remains in your deck and is pretty bad, but you just want to get on the board early.
Some people play Gifted Aetherborn, so you might want to leave more Lightning Strikes in, but I think that between Ferocidon, Chandra, Glorybringer, and all your can’t block effects, you can start assuming they don’t have it, and then if they play it you can adapt.
If you ask me if I recommend Red moving forward, I’m going to have to say I don’t. I think that right now, Red isn’t in a great spot. The most popular decks are either the mirror or a matchup that is slightly unfavorable (Temur), and you aren’t good enough against other decks that are played or might emerge (U/B, Sultai Energy, Token decks) to justify playing it.
Another problem is the sideboard. For Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, Red actually had an amazing sideboard, which was quite a novelty. Normally everyone gets better vs. Red, but when Red is changing its game plan and bringing in Chandras and Glorybringers, you can actually out-sideboard people. Nowadays, other decks have more aggressive components, so Chandra isn’t that good, and there’s a 1-mana answer to Glorybringer. Instead of trumping your opponent’s Kalitas with Chandra, they can now trump your Chandra with The Scarab God, or with a Torrential Gearhulk that’s flashing back a Vraska’s Contempt.
I think that for the parameters of the World Championship (or what we expected from it), Red was a fine choice. It checked the most important box of, “I’m not going to lose to random or unknown things,” even if in practice it ended up not being good for the tournament. Now that the format is more established, that’s no longer needed, and Red is lacking a little bit in power. It’s still a viable deck, certainly, and still tier 1, but I think it’s simply too average right now, and if I’m going to play an average deck, it’s going to have more play to it than this Red deck does.
If you do want to play Red, though, then you could try something akin to Martin Juza’s version, with 4 Rigging Runners. This should give you the more “aggressive” approach again, which is better versus decks like U/B, though there’s always the risk of them Magma Spraying your first creature and then you being left with a 1/1 first striker.