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Recurring Nightmares – A History of Red

It’s turn four. Your lovingly-crafted Esper control deck is firing on all cylinders, and you’ve assumed complete control of the game. You’re at a paltry 8 life, but you have four mana and a [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]. No problem, right? As long as you can survive the turn, you’re good—you can then leverage your counterspells and removal, and use your superior card quality to overcome the opponent.

That selfsame opponent throws a [card]Searing Spear[/card] your way at the end of your turn. Uh oh. A land drop, a [card]Hellrider[/card], and a [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] later, and you’re dead. Your hand stares back at you. An [card]Azorius Charm[/card], a [card]Restoration Angel[/card], a [card]Dissipate[/card], and a [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card]—none of which you ever had an opportunity to cast.

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It’s turn four. Your lovingly crafted Keeper deck is firing on all cylinders, and you’ve assumed complete control of the game. You’re at a healthy 15 life, and you have four mana and a [card]Wrath of God[/card]. No problem, right? As long as you can survive the turn, you’re good—you can then leverage your counterspells and removal, and use your superior card quality to overcome the opponent.

That selfsame opponent throws a [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] your way at the end of your turn. Uh oh. A land drop, a [card]Ball Lightning[/card], and a [card]Berserk[/card] later, and you’re dead. Your hand stares back at you. A [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card], a [card]Blinking Spirit[/card], a [card]Counterspell[/card], and a [card]Jayemdae Tome[/card]—none of which you ever had an opportunity to cast.

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Red decks. They’ve been around forever, and they’ve been doing the same thing to us forever. Throw some dorks on the board. Throw some dorks in the “red zone.” Throw fire at the opponent’s head until they die. Rinse, repeat. We’ve all played against a thousand iterations of the deck, and aren’t surprised at all to see them continue to succeed in each iteration of every metagame ever, at least on occasion.

Variations on the theme exist—sometimes we see Boros, sometimes we see RG beats. Sometimes it’s Naya, and occasionally there’s a black splash. In each of these scenarios, the theme remains the same—attack, attack, attack, burn you ’till you die. It goes back to nearly the beginning of time:

Erhnam & Burn ‘Em – John Mortimer (1996)

[deck]Main Deck
4 Kird Ape
4 Juggernaut
4 Ball Lightning
3 Erhnam Djinn
1 Regrowth
1 Channel
1 Wheel of Fortune
4 Fireball
4 Chain Lightning
2 Shatter
4 Berserk
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Fork
1 Jalum Tome
4 Taiga
3 Forest
12 Mountain
1 Maze of Ith
1 Hammerheim
1 Strip Mine
Sideboard
4 Blood Moon
3 Shatterstorm
2 Flashfires
4 Red Elemental Blast
2 Tranquility[/deck]

Well before the days of Sligh, Erhnam & Burn ‘Em was one of the quintessential pillars of “Type 2.” The game plan is, as we said above, quite familiar. Establish a threat early on with power greater than its mana cost. [card]Kird Ape[/card], along with Taigas, has always been a key component to this paradigm. Attack until the opponent is within range and then blast them into the next century.

Cards like [card]Ball Lightning[/card] are generally considered bad by players not willing to trade a card for 6 damage—but combined with [card]Berserk[/card], it can remove 3/5 of the opponent’s life in one fell swoop. This deck also featured the [card]Channel[/card]/[card]Fireball[/card] combo, though it had to wait until turn 3 at the earliest to utilize it. Regardless, the deck set the stage for things to come.

Ahead a few years of development, both in terms of card availability and in Magic theory, and we arrive at decks that seem a little more familiar, and a little more streamlined when compared to the stone-age era of the first few years of Magic. By the time cards like [card]Cursed Scroll[/card] were printed, red mages began to see some of the inherit weaknesses in the archetype, and found ways to work around or through them in order to be successful.

Sped Red – Jamie Parke (1999)

[deck]Main Deck
4 Cursed Scroll
2 Arc Lightning
4 Avalanche Riders
3 Fireslinger
3 Hammer of Bogardan
4 Jackal Pup
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Pillage
4 Shock
4 Stone Rain
2 Ancient Tomb
3 Ghitu Encampment
4 Wasteland
15 Mountain
Sideboard
2 Masticore
4 Thran Foundry
1 Arc Lightning
2 Flowstone Flood
4 Scald
2 Shattering Pulse[/deck]

It’s all well and good to run out a [card]Jackal Pup[/card] on turn one (and was considered to be one of the best plays one could make at the time), but what if your opponent is brick-walling your damage with a 3/3?

The important things to recognize from a deck like Sped Red are twofold. First, alongside the early damage through creatures like Pup and Fanatic, this deck had the capability to play a long game through [card]Cursed Scroll[/card] and [card]Hammer of Bogardan[/card]. While considered incredibly inefficient by today’s standards, getting “AutoHammer”—which meant reaching 8 mana to be able to return and play the Hammer each turn—was considered a devastating threat from the red deck.

Because this allowed for an actual late game beyond dying flat out to a combination of a board sweeper and a bit of incidental life gain, it was a radical development in the archetype, and changed the dynamic of the matchups against the field. Repeatable damage sources—even inefficient ones—were excellent at allowing the deck to have a late game that was less embarrassing than a turn 8 [card]Jackal Pup[/card].

[draft]cursed scroll[/draft]

[card]Cursed Scroll[/card] was the same principle, with the added bonus of circumventing [card]Circle of Protection: Red[/card], one of the best tools against the deck at the time. The color hosers were so strong in the early days of Magic—particularly against red decks—that you had to have a plan for the card, since it was omnipresent in sideboards. The E&B deck above ran [card]Flashfire[/card]s and [card]Tranquility[/card], for example, in an effort to stifle the impact of these cards.

[draft]stone rain[/draft]

The second point of import lies with the addition of [card]Stone Rain[/card], [card]Avalanche Riders[/card], [card]Pillage[/card], and [card]Wasteland[/card]. The land disruption subtheme allows the red deck to keep pace with the opponent, disabling their ability to play high-cost spells that interfere with the strategy of the “smaller” red player. Despite the fact that these spells don’t directly damage the opponent, keeping them from playing a turn four Wrath when you have a pair of Pups in play can be damage by proxy.

Each of these themes would continue to influence the archetype’s development.

Skipping forward a few years, we see the same themes at work at Worlds, as Shuhei Nakamura takes second, losing to Affinity in the finals of the event.

Shuhei’s list is something of an amalgamation of the principles of Sped Red applied to a deck that seeks to close the game out in rapid succession, much like the E&B decks of old.

Red Deck Wins – Shuhei Nakamura (2004)

[deck]Main Deck
4 Blistering Firecat
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Jackal Pup
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Cursed Scroll
4 Seal of Fire
4 Magma Jet
4 Firebolt
4 Pillage
8 Mountain
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Rishadan Port
4 Wasteland
4 Wooded Foothills
Sideboard
4 Ensnaring Bridge
3 Flametongue Kavu
3 Fledgling Dragon
4 Blood Oath
1 Gamble[/deck]

It’s this deck that really solidifies all the principles we see in modern red decks today. The presence of [card]Blistering Firecat[/card] in the deck is reminiscent of E&B decks, and provides a significant boost in the reach of the deck early on. It brings the opponent to a life total within arm’s length at a single shot, and can allow you to use the less efficient spells like [card]Seal of Fire[/card], [card]Firebolt[/card], and [card]Magma Jet[/card] to mop up. It has the long game plan of [card]Cursed Scroll[/card], along with [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] to share the burden, allowing you to effectively use resources three times (once in hand, once on the stack, once in the graveyard) before they expire. It has [card]Pillage[/card], [card]Rishadan Port[/card], and [card]Wasteland[/card] to shut down the opponent’s mana usage while largely ignoring these inhibitions itself. When a deck’s average mana cost is 1.0, you’re not particularly worried about being mana boned by lands that act like spells.

It’s unlikely in a particular Standard format that there will be a critical mass of efficient burn spells available to make a deck like Legacy Burn viable. You simply don’t have the number of 3+ damage-for-1 mana spells to make a 7- or 8-card hand lethal, nor do you have the ability to draw a couple spells and still kill them by turn 3 or 4 on the average. Here we find that this isn’t necessarily a requirement for a top-tier red deck to exist, because even in formats where the average damage per spell is closer to two, you can find a combination of spells that combine to win.

Red Deck Wins – Matt Sperling (2010)

[deck]Main Deck
1 Ball Lightning
4 Figure of Destiny
4 Goblin Guide
4 Hell’s Thunder
4 Hellspark Elemental
2 Plated Geopede
3 Burst Lightning
4 Flame Javelin
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Searing Blaze
3 Arc Trail
1 Koth of the Hammer
11 Mountain
4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Teetering Peaks
Sideboard
4 Fulminator Mage
4 Leyline of Punishment
1 Searing Blaze
3 Volcanic Fallout
2 Koth of the Hammer
1 Arc Trail[/deck]

Matt’s deck is amazing. This deck has two of the best red 1-drops ever printed, alongside a reprint of Actual [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], and 9 [card]Ball Lightning[/card] effects. Beyond even that, you have one of the first 4-damage-for-3-mana spells in years, and the first showing of the planeswalker card type in a mono-red deck list. I could go on about this list for ages. So I will.

[card]Hell’s Thunder[/card] represents two distinct and important facets of the game plan. In terms of [card]Ball Lightning[/card]s, it’s not the greatest ever—having only 4 power to BL’s 6 or to [card]Blistering Firecat[/card]’s 7. In fact, in the format where this deck existed, Matt could have run [card]Elemental Appeal[/card], which is 3 additional power for only one more mana.

The difference is that [card]Hell’s Thunder[/card] has flying. It’s really that simple. The evasive [card]Ball Lightning[/card] is much, much better than even the original, specifically because it can attack in situations where the other BL effects will simply be stymied, due to a lack of evasion and weak back end. Consider just a simple mirror match, where the opponent has access to a [card]Plated Geopede[/card]. Even without a fetchland, the first strike on the Geopede halts the [card]Ball Lightning[/card] and [card]Hellspark Elemental[/card]s in their tracks. [card]Hell’s Thunder[/card] cruises in for 4 over the top. The second benefit of Thunder over a card like Appeal is the repeatability of the effect. You can spend your turn 3 getting in, and then have another 4 damage (uncounterable even) in reserve for when that makes the difference in a race or hits for lethal. This is the same reason that [card]Hellspark Elemental[/card] saw a ton of play, and [card]Spark Elemental[/card] saw much, much less.

[draft]lightning bolt[/draft]

[card]Lightning Bolt[/card]. Oh, [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]. When the card was spoiled to return in M10, the entire world recognized the impact it would have on Standard. Everything now needed to pass the “Bolt test,” and decks that normally wouldn’t have considered playing a burn spell were splashing red for it. Beyond that, the reach it provides to aggressive decks is nearly unparalleled, and the flexibility is second to none. The mere presence of the card in the format completely warped the shape of Standard for the entirety of its legality, and this deck, along with many others, was formed almost specifically because of the card’s presence. Granted, Matt’s deck is an Extended build, but the principle applies nonetheless.

“I’m still in this unless the last card in his hand is [card]Flame Javelin[/card]” – Famous Last Words.

[draft]figure of destiny[/draft]

I don’t think any explanation needs to be given on the power of [card]Figure of Destiny[/card], beyond mentioning that the principles I outlined above (quick damage paired with a late game presence) are exemplified in one card. Because of the scalability of Figure, it’s good at every point in the game. It is the second best one-drop in this deck, and also the best card you can draw when you want a 4/4 that sticks around, and have mana to spare.

Like the Flashfires, Tranquilities, and Cursed Scrolls of old, Matt’s deck includes a playset of the new technology against the life gain spell, [card]Leyline of Punishment[/card]. Because the deck can’t afford for an opponent to press advantage with, for example, a [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card], Leyline keeps the opponent “honest,” and is an uncounterable presence that makes sure that 20 is 20.

The real interesting facet of this deck that I’d like to cover is the addition of [card]Koth of the Hammer[/card]. When planeswalkers were introduced, it took a while for Wizards to find the right balance in between overpowered and unplayable. Interestingly enough, the first cycle they printed were about where they should be, though that’s likely due to the first set being tested thoroughly. Koth is neither overpowered nor underpowered, but the point isn’t that the card is good as much as the change in dynamic it represents.

Basically, the addition of planeswalkers to an aggressive deck—and specifically ones that are going to contribute to the plan of attack + burn—creates another plane of interaction. Moreover, this new plane requires an entirely different approach against a hyper aggressive deck—the opponent now has to attack. In general, a deck like RDW forces the opponent into the defensive mode (the control role) because he has to exchange cards for life. That means they’re more likely to be blocking with creatures than attacking with them. Adding planeswalkers—especially ones like Koth, which give inevitability—into the recipe, and you’re going to have an opponent who is conflicted between staying on defense in order to protect themselves, and going on offense to handle the planeswalker that is going to win the game a few turns down the road.

This is the first time since the advent of the “long game” strategy in red decks—all the way back in the late 90s—that the paradigm of the red matchup changed. Suddenly, a deck like UW control can’t afford to sit on defense and go for the much longer game, gaining a few life here and there and protecting itself until it can go over the top. Now, landing a Koth on turn 4 when the opponent is tapped out after a Wrath means not only does the opponent take 4 damage immediately, but also that they need to become the aggressor in order to deal with the Koth. It forces them to be proactive in a way that some decks don’t want to be, and others aren’t even capable of.

We see the impact of this development today, with aggressive decks running cards like [card]Garruk, Primal Hunter[/card], [card]Garruk Relentless[/card], and [card]Domri Rade[/card]. While not all of them have ultimate abilities that are going to create game-winning scenarios (I mean, they all do, but that’s not the goal), they all create a sense of inevitability as the game goes deeper, and provide an additional angle of attack that is difficult for a control deck to handle. Coincidentally, two of the three create a form of raw card advantage that’s difficult for a deck like RDW, Gruul, or Naya to achieve through other means—and the third creates a virtual card draw engine, as long as every card you draw is a Wolf.

Red Deck Wins – Dave Caplan (2011)

[deck]Main Deck
1 Spikeshot Elder
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
3 Grim Lavamancer
4 Stormblood Berserker
4 Goblin Fireslinger
4 Stromkirk Noble
3 Galvanic Blast
4 Gut Shot
4 Volt Charge
2 Incinerate
2 Arc Trail
4 Shrine of Burning Rage
21 Mountain
Sideboard
2 Koth of the Hammer
2 Arc Trail
4 Dismember
4 Vulshok Refugee
1 Manic Vandal
2 Traitorous Blood[/deck]

What Dave’s deck lacks in brute force attackers, it more than makes up for in pure, unadulterated power.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that no card has been as devastating from a red deck before or since [card]Shrine of Burning Rage[/card]. And so aptly named, as the burning rage one feels when watching the artifact’s counters tick up and up is so serene that one could easily call it holy. We’ve been talking about the importance of a long game in red, and nothing is quite so long as a colorless burn spell that scales by each and every turn that passes, and each and every spell that’s cast.

A card like [card]Chandra’s Phoenix[/card], while innocuous on the surface, has an impact reminiscent of water torture. You may be able to deal with it for a period of time, but at some point you are going to run out of constitution, and the small peck of a bird will feel like a jackhammer pounding its way past your every defense. As such, it incorporates well into the style of this deck, which is much more in the vein of Sligh (using burn as removal to allow your creatures through) than the dedicated burn deck or Ponza (burn plus land destruction) style. Of course, any of the removal spells double as reach, so the situation is free to dictate the terms.

From the sideboard, we see both the Koth strategy we’ve discussed before, as well as the advent of the [card]Threaten[/card] plan (in this case via [card]Traitorous Blood[/card]), which can turn an opposing threat into a burn spell, or remove a critical blocker at the appropriate time. This concept has persisted to deal with cards like [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] and [card]Thragtusk[/card] today.

R/G Aggro – Adam Johnson (2013)

[deck]Main Deck
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Flinthoof Boar
4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
4 Hellrider
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Stromkirk Noble
4 Madcap Skills
4 Searing Spear
4 Pillar of Flame
10 Mountain
4 Rootbound Crag
4 Stomping Ground
2 Temple Garden
Sideboard
2 Gruul War Chant
3 Volcanic Strength
2 Electrickery
4 Skullcrack
3 Mizzium Mortars
1 Forest[/deck]

And so, we arrive at this year’s incarnation of the red deck. Despite the inclusion of a number of cards that are green, don’t fool yourself into thinking the deck is anything less than a mono-red deck in disguise. [card]Flinthoof Boar[/card] and [card]Ghor-Clan Rampager[/card] are merely wolves in sheep’s skin, and are as much red as green.

In this deck, we see a vast majority of the principles we’ve outlined throughout this journey. What we add to the mix here is speed. Blazing fast speed.

Like the Sperling deck, we have 8 powerful 1-drops that are bargains for their cost. While [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card] will never be any more than a 2/2 for 1, that’s quite enough in and of itself. Noble is a potentially evasive threat, and scales by the turn—much like Shrine of Burning Rage. If left unchecked, the Nobles will kill an opponent in no time.

The two-drop slot is where the deck really shines. Though somewhat overlooked at first, no one is now surprised that [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card] is the glue that holds this crazy train together. Dumping anywhere between 4 and 11 power on the board on turn two, Emissary is a free spell that fixes your mana, doubles your threats on board, and punishes any slow starts from an opponent. It allows you to play cards like [card]Flinthoof Boar[/card] consistently, despite only playing 8-10 green mana producers in the main deck. It accelerates your critical turn by at least one full turn, and is generally good for at least 6-8 damage over the course of a game. We’ve all played against the style of deck, and know how difficult it is to deal with a double-Emissary into Boar draw.

[card]Flinthoof Boar[/card] is the [card]Kird Ape[/card] that [card]Kird Ape[/card] wishes it was. Though the mana cost is slightly more restrictive, the additional mana is well worth it, and regardless of being played on turn two or three (plus haste), you’re crashing in for a ton.

Rather than punishing an opponent for being defensive by playing a card like [card]Domri Rade[/card] (which is completely reasonable in this deck), the combination of [card]Madcap Skills[/card] and [card]Ghor-Clan Rampager[/card] simply makes blocking any creatures in this deck a losing prospect. You’re forced to throw guys in front of theirs as you can, simply to stem the bleeding of the incredible speed the GR deck can achieve. In exchange, you’re often run over by a bloodrushed Rampager, or your plans are foiled by [card]Madcap Skills[/card], requiring you to make bad blocks.

If you do manage to stall the board, putting up an impenetrable force of brick walls to halt the forces of the enemy, well, there’s always [card]Hellrider[/card]. As the specific threat in the deck that compensates for an otherwise minimal focus on the late game, [card]Hellrider[/card] allows the opponent to simply find striking distance, sit back, and then punish you for leaving extra guys on the table. It trades favorably (damage-wise) with nearly every card in Standard, as it generally gets in 2-5 damage regardless of being killed in combat or not. If your opponent ever manages a pair of them in play together, the game usually ends on the spot.

If the game gets to the point where you’re drawing from the top of your deck and putting that card on the stack, your [card]Giant Growth[/card]/[card]Berserk[/card] doubles as a 4/4 trample for four. Not exactly a sorry card in topdeck mode, and it still goes toe-to-toe with the majority of creatures in the format, mostly living to tell the story.

Meanwhile, there’s still a playset of [card]Boros Reckoner[/card]s to contend with.

In the same vein as the Leylines of Punishment in Matt Sperling’s sideboard, Adam’s list gets to play [card]Skullcrack[/card]. Mostly used in response to either [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] or [card]Thragtusk[/card], [card]Skullcrack[/card] is the [card]Flame Javelin[/card] of the modern Burn list. You’re pretty sure you win if they don’t have it, and they always have it. Punishing the player for being so audacious as to think they can bail themselves out, [card]Skullcrack[/card] is a figurative bat upside the head, reminding them who’s really in charge here.

You would think, on the surface, that a deck like Reanimator, which features up to 8 creatures that gain life, a set of creatures that [card]Momentary Blink[/card] those first 8, acceleration in the form of mana creatures or [card]Farseek[/card], and a powerful late game engine that doubles as a four-turn clock would have an amazing matchup against the dumb-red-cards deck. That simply isn’t the case—and the deck itself isn’t your daddy’s dumb red deck anymore. Where once it would get rolled by the combination of life gain, bigger creatures, and powerful end-game spells, it now has the ability to either run the “bigger” deck over before the engine even comes online, or to punish the opponent for not being able to interact on their level before bringing them within burn or [card]Hellrider[/card] range. From the sideboard, the red deck can neutralize the primary strategy of “going deep” by either stifling the attempts at life recovery via [card]Skullcrack[/card], forcing bad blocks with Rampager, or just ignoring the blockers entirely with [card]Madcap Skills[/card] and [card]Gruul War Chant[/card].

The red deck, on its surface, has largely remained the same—but only on the surface. Below that shallow façade lies a constant evolution of strategy and incorporation of new ideas that push the deck to new heights, all the while maintaining the specific formulas that have worked for the deck over the course of nearly two decades. Attack, attack, attack, burn. If anything gets in your way, kill it with fire—or steal it and throw it at them. Or run past it. Or make them bring the fight to you. Where you want it, and they most definitely do not.

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It’s turn four. Your lovingly crafted red deck is firing on all cylinders, and you’ve assumed complete control of the game. You’re at an irrelevant life total, and you have three cards in hand with your opponent is at 8. No problem. Even if they [card]Supreme Verdict[/card], you’re good—you can then capitalize on them tapping out, and crush the opponent’s soul.

That selfsame opponent confidently taps four and casts the [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]. You smile inwardly as they end their turn. You look them in the eye, and see their armor crack as you [card]Searing Spear[/card] them at end of turn. A land drop, a [card]Hellrider[/card], and a [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] later, and they’re dead. They stare at their hand. A bunch of cards you don’t care about—none of which they ever had an opportunity to cast.

Adam
@AdamNightmare
twitch.tv/AdamNightmare

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