November 7, 2014

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Competitive on a Budget: A Guide to Red Deck Wins in Every Format


Anyone who is friends with me and plays Magic knows that that I consider myself an aggro specialist and a red deck expert. There has to be a very good reason for me to not be playing red in any given format. My most recent non-red deck was the result of trying to force Pain Seer in Mono Black Aggro during Born of the Gods standard. Alas, the card was not the functional reprint of Dark Confidant that some people thought it was. It didn't take me long to drop that for Boros Burn, a deck that will remain close to my heart for years to come.

Before we get to decklists and the like, I'd like to look at the colour wheel for a moment. I promise the relevance of this part will become apparent. When we discuss the colour wheel as it relates to Magic, we know that blue gets Counterspells, red gets direct damage, black gets discard etc. One of the things we don't often do is break the fourth wall and discuss the colour wheel outside game terms. What I mean is that, the different colours of Magic have functions that go beyond just flavour and mechanics. Blue tends to be the best colour, and therefore the one spikes are draw to, mostly because of busted effects (*cough* Treasure Cruise *cough*). Green tends to be easy to play, because you just out-muscle your opponents, and younger players are drawn to it, hence the monicker “little kid green”. And red, well in addition to people who like to be proactive and set the pace of the game, red appeals to people on a budget.

Red perpetually offers a competitive budget option for people with financial constraints. This is mainly because red's most powerful effects are typically available at common and uncommon. I think that Wizards of the Coast does this intentionally, so that there is always a low barrier to entry, yet competitive option. When red decks occasionally need a rare or mythic here or there, they tend to be more affordable than say, blue or white Rares and Mythics. Part of this is that players lump red “budget decks” in with green “little kid” decks and other archetypes that they feel they are too good to play. At times like this, we should remember that Hall of Famers like Brian Kibler have made a career on the back of “little kid” green decks.

Back to red decks. Do you have a family and or kids? Are you a working student? Are you a younger player who doesn't have a job? Are you new to the game and don't want to spend a lot until you know if it's for you or not? If you answered yes to any of this, maybe red decks are for you. Just don't get hooked like me to the point where you don't want to play anything else (just kidding).

One of the major misconceptions about red decks in general is that they are easy to play. I would argue that they're easy to play satisfactorily, but very difficult to play expertly. As I mentioned above, blue tends to get the strongest cards, and black, green and white tend to come out ahead of red as well. If you're playing a red deck, your deck is almost always going to be underpowered. Red doesn't get Snapcaster Mage, Stoneforge Mystic, Tarmogoyf, or Dark Confidant; it get's Lightning Bolt. The way to make up for this discrepancy in power level, is with speed, tempo and player skill. To quote my good friend James Fazzolari, “Red is the thinking man's colour”. You don't have to watch Patrick Sullivan play too many games before you realize this is true. Google SCGLA Legacy Top 8 Patrick Sullivan vs Ross Merriam if you don't believe me.

How does this apply to standard? This standard is one of the slowest, most midrange meta-games I can remember. Aggro, midrange and control generally work like Rock, Scissors, Paper; aggro beats control, control beats midrange, midrange beats aggro. So in an all midrange meta, you'd have to be crazy to play aggro, right? Crazy like a fox! With all the midrange decks tuned to go over the top of the other midrange decks, it's entirely possible to go under them. Enter the third / fourth turn kill Red Deck Wins

Now, the total cost of this deck is approximately $120 CAD, $60 of which is in the sideboard and could be substituted for especially budget conscious players (-1 Goblin Rabblemaster, -4 Eidolon of the Great Revel, +1 Trumpet Blast, +4 Valley Dasher). Once you've accumulated some store credit (and you will) you can buy the Eidolons and Rabblemaster, the latter of which seems very optional. Eidolon seems to be there mostly for the Jeskai Ascendancy match up, one that I think is fairly even anyway.

I'd like to tell you a little story. My best friend, who actually taught me how to play magic many moons ago, recently came to me with a request. He wanted to tag along with me to FNM and wanted to borrow a deck. Little did he know that at the exact moment he contacted me, I was at my LGS assembling the deck above to give him as a birthday present. I gave him the deck, sleeved and ready to go, and wrote “Happy Birthday!” on the deck box. My friend hasn't played much recently, but he is one of the best technical players I've ever met. He could pilot Eggs with his eyes closed before the banning of Second Sunrise; the sequencing of RDW was child's play to him. Wouldn't you know, we'd both end up 4-0 and played each other in the finals? Unfortunately for me, he drew the nuts and beat my demons, dragons and goblins (I'll write an article about that deck soon) in three games.

I was momentarily salty, until I remembered, that's just what this deck does. It doesn't have super powerful cards, but it punishes the clumsy and unprepared. It goes wide enough to ignore Hexproof Plants. It nut draws turn three kills. The decklist is well tuned, and in my opinion, close to perfect. There was another RDW in the Top 8 of GP: LA, but it had a higher curve and I don't think it is the better of the two lists.

So that more or less covers Red Deck Wins in Standard. What about Modern? Well, Red Deck Wins is a thing in there too. Here's a list by Nicholas Heal from GP: Minneapolis, where he finished 98th :


I actually played this list at the World's Collide Duel for Duals over the summer. The deck was a lot of fun to play and was very well tuned. Unfortunately I didn't prepare enough and was unfamiliar with the format. I also received a game loss, which resulted in a match loss in the 3-0 bracket because I forgot to write my basic lands on my deck registration (don't do this) and tilted pretty hard. None of that was the deck's fault though, and I think on a better day, I could have top 8'd (burn actually won the event). This deck is very cheap as Modern decks go, weighing in at approximately $600. I admit that's a lot, but there are way to trim the list down. I suggest this as a budget alternative:

You don't sacrifice too much power, but you save a whole lot of money. This list come in at just $250 CAD a pretty cost effective way to get into Modern. I'm also curious about replacing the Mogg Fanatics in Heal's (non-budget) list with Monastery Swiftspear, but I haven't tested it, so I can't endorse it. If you have the money for Scalding Tarns and Steam Vents, I also hear that Treasure Cruise is the most degenerate card in Modern. Then again, at that point you might as well play Izzet Delver. Alas, I digress.

Finally, we have Legacy, the biggest, baddest, most expensive format that sees reasonable amounts of competitive play. We've got a list for that too. Bryan Cambridge finished first at the Las Vegas Open with the following 75:

This one is a little more expensive, at $550 CAD but this is Legacy after all. One way we can make it cheaper immediately is to trade the Arid Mesa, the Scalding Tarn and 1 Wooded Foothills for three more Bloodstained Mires, which saves us about $50. If that's still too expensive, we can update the list in a similar fashion to our Modern budget list, by making the following changes:

Those changes bring the deck down to about $360 CAD, which is one of the least expensive, competitive Legacy decks you can build. I would not be embarrassed to take this list to a Legacy Open. You might even do well, as burn is better positioned than it has been in years, mainly due to Eidolon of the Great Revel.

That's all for now. I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any ideas for the lists I posted, or any requests for articles you'd like to read in the future, please let me know in the comments.

Until next time, beat your friends without breaking the bank. Play red.