Pro Tour Ixalan was really a two-deck Pro Tour. Energy variants made up about 50% of the entire field and Mono-Red Aggro another 20%. A metagame this focused is usually exploitable. With only one week between the Pro Tour and Grand Prix Atlanta, it was time to get to work. I’d had a lot of success in Standard Grand Prix over the past few years, finishing 2nd in Memphis, Paris, and Atlanta, in the Top 8 in Warsaw, and Top 4 in New Jersey.
I rarely play stock lists, but I also rarely play something radically different, though Desert Red was more unorthodox than usual. The reason I rarely play anything crazy is that some of the cards in Standard are better than others, and it has a limited card pool, so you need to be playing with some of these better cards. The reason I hardly ever play a stock list is more complicated.
For Pro Tour Ixalan I primarily tested 4-Color Energy, Sultai Energy, and Esper Approach. In fact, my final Esper Approach list was almost identical to Alex Lloyd’s, with which he beat me in the finals and won the Grand Prix. So, wonderful job to Alex for building a deck that could have enough game against Mono-Red and control while being a big favorite against Energy. The reason my team and I dismissed this deck for the Pro Tour was because we expected too much Ramunap Red. I think our choice was correct for the Pro Tour, but for GP Atlanta, Alex made an excellent choice.
After the Pro Tour, I decided to see if Red could be improved against Temur, and I would dismiss it if it couldn’t. I noticed quickly that Earthshaker Khenra and Ahn-Crop Crasher were horrible against Energy. Most of the rest of the deck was fine, though. Rampaging Ferocidon proved a nice threat, and Bomat Courier is an excellent Magic card. The burn spells are all effective. Most of the close games I lost seemed to be directly due to the under performance of those two haste creatures. Once you start cutting those, though, the deck naturally becomes way less aggressive. That led me in the direction of wanting to play more lands and good cards, since Red had good options at 4 and 5 mana.
Chandra is an amazing Standard planeswalker that was held down by one of the most powerful Standard formats ever pre-bans/rotation. Glorybringer and Hazoret are both obviously strong cards, though Hazoret becomes less effective the more lands and expensive cards you play in your deck.
Additionally, adding a few lands to the deck felt great because you could add these useful Deserts, Dunes of the Dead. People tried Dunes before Pro Tour Hour of Devastation and correctly dismissed it. But that was generally a 23-land red deck with more creatures and less removal. In my 25-land version, which looks to prolong games more and end them less quickly, Dunes really shines as a creatureland. First casting your expensive spells and then turning into a 2/2 body.
The final piece of the puzzle wasn’t innovated by me, but by one of my teammates in our online forum. By the middle of the week I was starting to feel good about this red deck and leaning toward playing it, and so I posted a list in our team forum. Ben Weitz saw the extra Deserts and suggested Sand Strangler. This was what really put this deck over the top. Before the Stranglers I was planning to play 3 Chandra, 3 Hazoret, and 3-4 Glorybringers. The Hazorets felt good but not great. They were getting worse against Energy, as people were realizing they wanted to Confiscation Coup them.
Sand Strangler, however, is just amazing against Energy. It kills both of their 3-drops and they are never that far ahead on tempo since you are a deck full of cheap removal. This positive tempo swing often makes you a big favorite in the game and forces them to cast as much as they can and then allows you to lock the game with a Glorybringer.
Of course, while pulling Hazorets for Sand Stranglers made the deck much better against Energy, it also made it much worse against control/Approach, but hey, that’s not going to end matter… right? Oh, and lastly, before I move on to talking about sideboarding, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the one card in the deck that stood out the most.
Treasure Map isn’t broken in this deck or anything. I often board it out when I’m on the play against Energy, when I have a bunch of creatures and I’m trying to stay aggressive. But I like it a lot when I’m on the draw with more removal and fewer creatures, trying to kill their creatures and win with power cards. While I would never put Treasure Map in any aggressive red deck, this is definitely a card that nonblue control decks should consider as a source of card advantage. It’s cheap to cast and use, and flips quickly. It is not especially powerful, though, so you must think of it more like a Glimmer of Genius than a Search for Azcanta.
I’ve been asked whether this deck was just good for one weekend because it caught people by surprise, and whether I would recommend it moving forward. This is a complicated question. If Energy is going to be the dominant deck in the metagame, I think Desert Red will always be a reasonable choice. But a lot of the value of playing the deck does come from being different than the Mono-Red list everyone has played and practiced against.
The biggest mistake a lot of Magic players make is in only searching for the deck that is 1-2% better in a vacuum. Magic is a hard game to play well when you must think and adjust on the fly. It’s a pretty easy game to play well when your opponent is doing exactly what you have practiced against. It’s almost always correct to play something new and different if it’s a good deck and even if it’s, let’s say, 2% worse than the Standard good decks that everyone is familiar with.
Doing this has given me a pretty substantial edge in Standard Grand Prix and has played a significant role in my success in them over the past few years. While the calculations are nebulous, the key here is that it’s a good deck and only a couple percent worse than the best Standard decks, and you get more than that from the additional mistakes your opponents make. If your deck is a dumpster fire, you won’t win with it, just because your opponents play worse against you.
Desert (Medium) Red
That’s the deck list I took to 2nd place in GP Atlanta. The only change to the main deck I would make moving forward is to cut the 1 Hazoret for the 4th Sand Strangler and to cut the 3rd Sunscorched Desert for the 4th Dunes of the Dead.
Temur Energy On the Play
Temur Energy On the Draw
If your opponent is on 4-Color Energy you need to judge the number of Glorybringers you think you will face. If you don’t expect them, don’t have Chandra’s Defeats in your deck. Other than the Defeats, the sideboarding is pretty much the same against 4c and Sultai.
Ramunap Red On the Play
Ramunap Red On the Draw
Thanks for reading this. I genuinely believe that people would do much better if they showed up with lists that attack a little differently than what their opponents are prepared for, and that people think it’s way more important than it is to just “play the best deck.” Hopefully this article can help inspire a little more brewing and creativity in deck lists, instead of just feeling like you must cast turn 1 Attune.