Atarka Red has been around since long before the release of Battle for Zendikar and the birth of our new Standard format. We know what it looks like, and we know that it’s a strong deck. What we don’t necessarily all know, however, is how to beat it.
The problem is that today’s Atarka Red decks come from a new breed. In the old days, red decks were dedicated creature swarm strategies that could be shut down by a well-placed board sweeper. With the release of Magic Origins, they became burn-centric, and focused only on attacking the opponent’s life total. Today, Atarka Red decks are resilient and multidimensional, and beating them consistently is not an easy task.
Not only did Atarka Red take the title at Grand Prix Kobe earlier in the month, but it has also put a handful of players into Top 8s in independent tournament series like the SCG Open Series and the TCGPlayer $50k Championship. It’s going to remain a force in Standard, and is this weekend’s deck to beat.
Tom Ross, 8th Place at SCG Standard Open
In order to understand Atarka Red, and what it takes to beat it, let’s create a list of the most common ways it wins games.
- Raw Speed. Atarka Red is the fastest deck in the format, by far. In a world where people are gearing up for midrange card-advantage wars, most players are completely unprepared to handle the red deck’s onslaught, especially in game 1.
- The Combo. This is one of the “new dimensions” that the Atarka Red deck has gained since the release of Battle for Zendikar. Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage were both legal in the old Standard format, but it’s only since the advent of the fetchland-plus-battleland mana bases that it’s become widely popular.
- Reach. If there’s one thing that has made red decks deadly for the last two decades, it’s reach in the form of burn and haste creatures. Even when you can succeed in surviving the early onslaught, you still have to worry about getting burned out from a low life total. (And now sometimes getting burned out from a not-so-low life total).
- Going Wide. Cards like Ultimate Price and Surge of Righteousness are excellent against Atarka Red. Unfortunately, Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst are excellent against Ultimate Price and Surge of Righteousness! Players who lean too heavily on their spot removal are going to have a rude awakening when they look across the battlefield to find a legion of Goblin tokens.
- Sideboard Cards. Some red players have found room in their sideboards for single cards which are capable of dominating games all on their own. Tom “the Boss” Ross has included Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh in his deck list. Other players might use Outpost Siege, Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker, or any of several other surprise haymakers.
As you can see, effectively defending yourself from all of these angles at once is no mean task.
What to Do
- Be sleek and efficient. This is the only piece of advice that will help you out on all fronts at once. If you can avoid falling behind against Atarka Red, then your life total will remain high, and you’ll give them as little breathing room as possible to enact their other game plans. This means having a high concentration of cards that cost 1 and 2 mana. It means not using Utter End to do Ultimate Price’s job, and it means not using Ugin, the Spirit Dragon to win the game when Dragonlord Ojutai can do it at a cheaper rate.
- Clock them. I’ve lost far too many long games against Atarka Red. You might count yourself safe with 7 cards in your hand, 16 life, and an Arashin Cleric to block. However, as soon as you tap out for that Ugin, you leave yourself open to a haste creature backed up by 2 pump spells and Temur Battle Rage. If possible, just kill them.
- Sideboard a lot. I know that it may not be realistic for every deck to pack 4 Arashin Clerics and 4 Surge of Righteousnesses. What you should do is look for versatile sideboard cards that can be marginal improvements against Atarka Red. A small number of Dispels and Duresses are good examples. An extra removal spell or two goes a long way. To put it simply, you should do whatever it takes to cut your dead weight after sideboarding, and make sure your clunky cards are out of your deck.
What Not to Do
- Don’t be all spot removal. This is a great way to lose to Atarka Red’s “going wide” game plan, or their “reach” game plan. You need to either put them on a fast clock or elsehave a well-balanced toolkit complete with board sweepers, blockers, and life gain.
- Don’t be all board sweepers. The opposite is also a bad idea. Languish and Planar Outburst are expensive cards, and they force you to tap out at a point in the game where the red player can be looking for even the smallest window to kill you.
- Don’t try to block, unless you’re okay with your creature dying. Arashin Cleric is an example of a good blocker against Atarka Red. You can put your Cleric in front of a Monastery Swiftspear, your opponent will spend their third turn casting a pump spell, the Cleric will die, and it will have done its job! What you ought not to do is expect your “big” creatures like Anafenza, the Foremost or Tasigur, the Golden Fang to survive a combat step against Atarka Red. I’m not saying that you should decline to block once you find yourself on the back foot, I’m simply saying that it shouldn’t be your Plan A.
It would be easy to look at Atarka Red as some mindless deck which serious players need not concern themselves with. However, that’s never been further from the truth than it is right now. Atarka Red is a powerful, flexible, and terrifying deck. If you show up with even a single weakness in your defenses, Atarka Red players are going to capitalize on it.