Playing With Fire – Playing Control in RDW

It’s a strange time in competitive Magic. The spoiler season has started and the current format is well explored. There’s not much I can definitively say about the format now that will be relevant in a week or two. As such, I want to honor a reader-submitted request for some words on my approach to red deck mirrors. When the new format begins, you can expect to see an uptick in the amount of red decks you will face, and the lessons herein will apply far beyond the current Standard.

Mirror matches revolve around finding small advantages to exploit, yet I have not seen anything written on red mirrors before. I have a reputation for rarely losing a red mirror, so I thought I would give up some of my advantage and put my ideas into words. While mostly applicable to red mirrors, the ideas in this article are broadly applicable to a red deck versus any other small aggro deck matchup post-board (for example, White Weenie).

What’s my secret? I like to build a red deck that will always be on the draw in the mirror.

There are two primary ways to gain an advantage in a red mirror: you can be faster, or you can be bigger and focus on card advantage. Depending on the cards in any given format, both strategies may not be available, or one option may just be much better than the other.

Last season, red mirrors ultimately became battles of who could suit up a creature with [ccProd]Volcanic Strength[/ccProd]. This was the optimal strategy as it placed your creature beyond damage-based removal and made it unblockable—turn 1 [ccProd]Stromkirk Noble[/ccProd] into turn 2 [ccProd]Volcanic Strength[/ccProd] was the order of the day. Earlier in the season, however, a more controlling sideboard strategy was possible. For example, the Sledgehammer Red that I developed featured a sideboard strategy similar to what I will be discussing today—removing all the little creatures for removal, intending to win through one-for-one trades and then resolving a winning threat (in that deck, [ccProd]Thundermaw Hellkite[/ccProd]). The current card pool allows for the same approach to produce excellent results.

The first thing to make clear is that when building your 75-card red deck, you need to know whether you want to play your red mirrors by always wanting to attack, or always wanting to draw. This is incredibly important and will fundamentally affect the composition of your deck post-sideboard (this article will almost exclusively focus on side-boarded games as you’ll play up to twice as many of them in an event). Almost always, I will play a red deck that wants to draw, and the deck will be constructed to expand that advantage. I like to be the “control player” in red mirrors, and, hopefully, by the end of this article, you will too.

Having a red deck that plays as a control deck post-board gives you the option to adopt this strategy against any other aggressive deck that would be too difficult to race. Right now, the creatures in white or green-based aggressive decks simply outclass red creatures at every point in the curve, so trying to race them is very ambitious. In any match you need to understand your role and remember the lessons of “Who’s the Beatdown?” Red decks simply cannot be the beatdown in these matchups, so it is to your advantage to sidestep that issue and play as control. [ccProd]Unflinching Courage[/ccProd] is much less scary when you’re not trying to race.

Not every red variant can be configured to play as the control deck in the mirror. Sometimes the card pool or the specific card choices to that variant don’t support a control strategy. Last season, red/black aggro didn’t play control well in red mirrors because [ccProd]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Knight of Infamy[/ccProd] were very poor defenders compared to mono-red’s attackers. The deck had a less consistent mana-base (colored with shocklands and fewer if any manlands), and it overpaid for its removal (black [ccProd]Terror[/ccProd]s cost two mana whereas the mono-red options are just more efficient). Red/black aggro was a powerful attacking deck but poorly positioned to play control in a strict Red Deck Wins mirror. It could play the role very well against White-Weenie or GW Little Kid because Knight of Infamy and Dreadbore were excellent in those matchups, but they were abysmal versus mono-red. As always, the playable cards will dictate a range of possible strategies.

So Why Draw?

Good question. These are the three most compelling answers:

• You get an extra card.
• You get to play the same role every game, so you can build a deck to effectively execute that strategy (you’ll also have an experience advantage).
• You get to use your life as a resource (and you do it better than a real control deck because you’re designed to interact with the board faster).

If I win the die roll, I can choose to draw, whereas if my opponent wins the die-roll, they will almost always choose to put me on the draw. This means that I get to do exactly the same thing every game, so I can focus on always being the best “control” player possible. When your red deck is designed to attack in mirrors, you need to accept the reality that you’ll likely spend your games making a compromised defense (as most any opponent will choose to go first if they win the die roll).

Life totals are just another resource at your disposal. The only point of damage that matters is the one that kills you. You can afford to take quite a bit of damage to run your opponent out of resources if that leaves you up on cards and with a winning board position. Yes, they can absolutely burn you out, but most red decks are only running eight to ten burn spells, and most of those are going to be Shock variants that they’ll use on your creatures. This means that you have some leeway to run a slightly higher curve than they do, giving up a little life early to have a winning endgame based on superior card quality.

Control strategies want more options throughout the game. Your entire game plan is based upon running them out of resources, generating card advantage to get ahead, and finally resolving a game-ending threat. To make all of that happen, and to have the lands to cast it all, you need more cards. So, starting off with an extra card is a good head start. Consider your threat density carefully. If you’re both playing 22-land decks, but one of you has 22 Mountains and the other has 18 Mountains and four [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd]s, then the player with the manlands has four extra creatures that can relevantly block. On average, that player will draw more spells throughout the course of the game, which plays to the control strategy.

Some rules to keep in mind:

Rule #1: Only Play Spells that Relevantly Affect the Board

I see red mages trying to play control do this wrong all the time, so it requires some explaining.

• Do not play spells that do not relevantly impact the board!

• Discard doesn’t do anything for you when you’re being beaten to death ([ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd], anyone?).

• Spells that only damage the opponent don’t do anything; your burn needs to kill creatures.

• Threatens aren’t all that threatening when you’re not trying to race.

• Creatures that do not trade efficiently when blocking don’t do anything.

It really is that simple. They’re trying to attack you until you are dead, and their strategy is supplemented by burn. Everything you do must interact with their plan in a meaningful way. To that end you want cheap removal ([ccProd]Shock[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Magma Jet[/ccProd] are easily the best two; other options are OK but not exciting since you’re often paying extra to overkill your target), ways to generate virtual card advantage (Hello [ccProd]Boros Reckoner[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Flames of the Firebrand[/ccProd]!), creatures that block well ([ccProd]Burning-Tree Emissary[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Boros Reckoner[/ccProd]), and enough threats to eventually win the game.

Rule #2: Only Play Creatures that Block Well on Curve

At its most basic, red mirrors are battles of [ccProd]Grizzly Bear[/ccProd]s and [ccProd]Gray Ogre[/ccProd]s. Sure, many of the cards have other relevant text, but if you look at the core cards of all the red variants, they’re all more or less identical. They’re all 2-power, and they all die to the aforementioned removal. Sure, there are some subtle differences (e.g., [ccProd]Rakdos Cackler[/ccProd] cannot block; [ccProd]Firefist Striker[/ccProd] makes your board weak to [ccProd]Flames of the Firebrand[/ccProd]), but largely the cards are completely fungible, and as the control player, you don’t really care about the difference: you just need to trade down.

Understand that your opponent’s strategy is to play a 2-power creature on turn one, then another on turn two, then either something bigger after that or maybe use some burn. They’re running a lot more threats than you can can remove with spells (typically they have 26 to 28 creatures, possibly supplemented by [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd], and you’re never going to have that much removal), so you’ll need creatures that can trade. This is why your creatures must at least be good enough to block on curve because if they cannot, your opponent can continue attacking and your cards may as well be blank.

Since you’re the control deck, your opponent’s life total is irrelevant; when you’re at a winning board state, you can quickly kill them regardless of life total. [ccProd]Rakdos Cackler[/ccProd] is not a good blocker, so it comes out. [ccProd]Burning-Tree Emissary[/ccProd] is a great blocker as it trades with nearly every creature in the mirror and accelerates your mana, allowing you to have more interaction sooner. If a creature cannot block well in the mirror, its effectively a blank card—you don’t want blank cards in your deck.

Finally, it is better to block and trade than to just infinitely block. They’re an attacking deck, so they’re going to take advantage of being allowed to keep their creatures in play indefinitely: battalion, threatens, and combat tricks all need bodies in play, and by not trading you’re making these cards better than they should be against you. [ccProd]Frostburn Weird[/ccProd] is a 1/4, but it is as a 2/3 that it really shines, because that blocks well above curve.

Rule #3: Go Big or Go Home

Drawing first requires you to have enough early interaction (removal and blockers) to relevantly affect the board and conserve your life total beyond ordinary burn range. So you’ll need a lot of cheap cards to draw early, but at some point you need to be drawing into cards that are higher impact than theirs to generate a real resource advantage. While [ccProd]Rakdos Cackler[/ccProd] is a fantastic card on turn one from your opponent, it is pretty anaemic on turn 12. You’ll want to have cards that are consistently as powerful as possible from early on and throughout the rest of the game.

Typically, you want your endgame to involve cards that they either cannot remove (e.g., Stormbreath Dragon requires a very specific answer) or cannot interact favorably with (Boros Reckoner or Chandra, Pyromaster). While they can remove the latter two with a much larger range of answers, you’re usually generating a 2-for-1 for them to do so, further depleting their resources. At the end of the day, there is no difference between a win via planeswalker ultimate or Mutavault beats. Just be sure to have a way to put those extra cards to work.

Mulligans, and When the Extra Card Isn’t Everything

The final point to understand is that when sideboarding out your creatures that are bad at blocking for other, more relevant and interactive cards, you’re going to be raising the curve of your deck. Often, you’ll be cutting as many as eight 1-drop creatures and replacing them with a bunch of 2- and 3-drop creatures and spells. This decreases the range of keepable hands your deck has since you must be interacting from turn two.

This is as close as I will get to making a hard, inviolable rule—you cannot keep a hand without at least a single two-cost creature or removal spell. Waiting until turn three to relevantly impact the board is just too slow in a red deck mirror. It is OK if the rest of your opening cards cost three or more and you have the lands to cast it, but not doing anything until turn three results in you taking too much damage. So when this happens, mulligan.

Sure, that means giving back the card that we wanted so badly, and it means playing the card without easy card advantage. However, you still have a strategic advantage, insofar as your deck is only playing relevant cards and will still have a winning endgame. So while not having the extra card makes it harder to implement our strategy, the strategy still works, and you still have a small advantage. You need to be honest with yourself—you’re going to win more games with a good six-card hand than you will with a terrible seven-card hand; and by choosing to draw, you’re almost getting a free mulligan anyway!

Putting it All Together

Perhaps the best way to understand how this all works is to see an illustration. Take the following Mono-Red Pyromaster list:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Firedrinker Satyr
4 Firefist Striker
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Young Pyromancer
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
1 Mizzium Mortars
4 Lightning Strike
4 Magma Jet
3 Shock
18 Mountain
4 Mutavault
3 Act of Treason
1 Burning Earth
3 Flames of the Firebrand
1 Hammer of Purphorous
3 Mizzium Mortars
1 Shock
3 Skullcrack[/deck]

The list aggressively attacks devotion and control decks, and it has the ability to become a control deck against other aggressive decks after sideboard. Michael Jacob told me that the key to sideboarding is to, “look at how your cards line up against theirs.” Simply put, [ccProd]Firedrinker Satyr[/ccProd] (the damage clause) and [ccProd]Rakdos Cackler[/ccProd] (cannot block) are not good against other aggressive decks. They’re embarrassing to play against creatures such as [ccProd]Boros Reckoner[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Loxodon Smiter[/ccProd]. For this mono-red list, becoming a “control” deck is as simple as removing the eight bad 1-drops and replacing them with 3 [ccProd]Flames of the Firebrand[/ccProd], 3 [ccProd]Mizzium Mortars[/ccProd], 1 [ccProd]Hammer of Purphoros[/ccProd], and 1 [ccProd]Shock[/ccProd]. These switches achieve the following:

• All of the creatures that do not block well on curve are removed.
• There is substantially more interactivity, with 18 removal spells post-board (making [ccProd]Young Pyromancer[/ccProd] even more devastating).
• The win conditions are all difficult to interact with (Chandra is very resilient and will be well protected, Hammer of Purporos gives inevitability going long).

The deck will now play and feel radically different with many ways to generate card advantage. You can confidently choose to draw and play a controlling strategy with so much interaction.

I want to give a mention to James Kerr who played a Boros Pyromaster list we had worked on to the Top 4 of SCG Orlando. Well done! My next article will be a review of red cards from Born of the Gods and some ideas for playing red in a new format. I hope you’re all enjoying the spoiler season.

– Zemanjaski


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