By Carlos

So, in my ongoing foray into mono-colored theme-decks, I’m looking at Red this week. Partly because the podcast about pressure decks went up recently, and partly because I want nothing to do with building a blue deck just yet. I’ve still got absolutely nothing worth building in that color as of yet; everything that I try to build does stupid, unfun, broken things.

But red is a lot of fun to play. You get to burn EVERYTHING, and go all in on a certain gameplan, even a certain play. I’ve found that when building red decks, it’s often best to pick a game plan, and to pursue that particular game plan as efficiently and consistently as possible. Unless you’re trying for mono-red control, forget all your value engines, forget your utility. Obviously, you’ve got to run SOME answers, but you want them to serve the additional purpose of getting your opponent dead, Steel Hellkite being one of the best examples of this.

That’s sort of how I approach building a red deck. You pick a theme, and pursue it almost single-mindedly until you run out of cards that fit the theme (It’ll happen, trust me). Then you start looking for another theme, the powerful cards that fit that theme, and then some cards that sort of bridge the two. You’re basically trying to find two plans that mesh reasonably well, since there frequently just aren’t enough cards to do ONE thing and one thing only.

With that reasonably brief explanation of my approach on red decks, let’s take a quick look at what generals are available, both the over- and under-played:

Akroma, Angel of Fury – Mono Red Control
Ashling, the Pilgrim – Mono Red Control
Godo, Bandit Warlord – Voltron
Heartless Hidestugu – Combo
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker – Combo/Control
Norin, the Wary – Chaos!

So, from this we can see that even in the most aggro color in the game, people are trying to play the two-for-one game. Play all the Starstorms and Earthquakes you want, your answers are still more expensive and less efficient than most of the other colors, even white. There aren’t even good ways to draw cards in this color. I’ll be honest; I just don’t understand the attempts at making this a control color. There is almost NOTHING this color offers to control decks that other colors don’t do better.

Kiki-Jiki and Akroma are the two exceptions, as far as I’m concerned, because the one is a card advantage engine that also allows for combo finish, which is even tutorable if you’re running a goblin theme. Rakroma is just a really resilient win condition that is easy to cheat into play when floating mana for post-obliterate shenanigans. Godo is probably the most interesting of these, but also has the potential to be the most linear. Norin, while hilarious, has a tendency to devolve into potentially fun-wrecking chaos rather than a cohesive deck.

Here are some guys that haven’t been getting much love that could be fun to build around:

Adamaro, First to Desire
Zo-Zu, the Punisher
Zirilan of the Claw
Squee, Goblin Nabob
Rakka Mar
Kumano, Master Yamabushi

To start this off, I’ve built an Adamaro slight deck. I ran all the howling mines, all the mana denial, all the Ebony Owl Netsukes, and anything even remotely resembling acceleration and efficient burn. The deck was probably 10-15 cards off of being “good,” and got retired after I played my entire hand on turn 1 and killed the table by turn 6. Still, if there are blue players who like Reliquary Towers and drawing infinite cards, this is a reasonable way to punish them. Cast Adamaro on turn 2 as frequently as possible and try to kill as many players as possible before you get blown out by REAL cards.

Zo-Zu, the Punisher has been something I’ve been thinking about for awhile as a more resilient version of the Adamaro deck. You can focus on small-scale mana denial as opposed to Obliterates, force people to play more lands into your Zo-Zu. If they don’t have enough lands or resources, they can’t really kill him, and the damage adds up pretty quickly. It’s also a reasonable way to punish ramp decks, though I’m pretty sure they’re more than happy to pay 4 life to cast their Skyshroud Claim.

Zirilan…would be awesome if you could play dragons in other colors. As it stands, he’s just a bad Scion of the Ur-Dragon. Still, he’s a tutor and a beater, sets up recursion engines, and became infinitely better with Steel Hellkite being a thing. Be sure to run your Reito Lantern to recycle all the good dragons!

I’m actually shocked that I haven’t seen someone build the Squee deck yet. It seems like something that would be really, really fun to play, since there’s all kinds of cool tricks you could do with him. Skullclamp for one. Knollspine Invocation for another. Or just play Squee Voltron because you can. Hilarious? I think so.

Rakka Mar is another solid card that I’m shocked hasn’t seen more play. This card has been good enough for Cube at one point or another, and has the potential to get out of hand very quickly. Have people forgotten that there are ways to untap Red generals too, not just the blue ones? Thornbite Staff + removal is a good one. Still, making 3/1’s every turn is nothing to scoff at, especially when you can tutor up a Skullclamp to make up for your abysmal card drawing capabilities.

Kumano, Master Yamabushi is another guy that I’m surprised hasn’t seen more play. He seems like a great place to start off a red control deck. He’s a masticore that Exiles the creatures it kills, ending all recursion tricks right then and there, AND it can go to the face! Ignoring the fact that this was part of my favorite block combo deck, the guy is really powerful. Just give him Deathtouch and go to town!

My favorite of these is Zo-Zu, because it’s such a different approach to the game. The rest might do something interesting, but they’re still approaching the game the same way that other colors do, trying to tutor up your best cards and grind out an advantage over the course of a moderately long game. Zo-Zu wants to make it as hard as possible for people to get into the mid to late game alive, which is a totally different approach to the format, and is sure to be more interesting than yet-another-midrange deck.

My approach to Zo-Zu is to make it as painful as possible for people to play lands, then find as many ways as possible to keep people off of their mana, and THEN find as many ways to punish people for failing to play spells anyway. This means I’m playing as many permanent-based burn effects as possible, things like Mana Barbs and Ankh of Mishra, that will sit on the table and deal multiple points of damage to players over several turns. Let’s see how this turns out:

Acceleration
Desperate Ritual
Rite of Flame
Pyretic Ritual
Simian Spirit Guide

Mox Opal
Chrome Mox
Mox Diamond
Lotus petal
Coldsteel heart
Everflowing Chalice
Fire Diamond
Sol Ring
Mind Stone
Grim Monolith
Mana Vault
Mana Crypt

So, to be honest, I’ve never built a physical copy of a deck that started with Sol Ring/Mana Crypt, because I’m pretty opposed to that kind of acceleration. It tends to make games pretty one-sided. However, this deck is guaranteed to be playing a 3v1 game, so you NEED the acceleration to get out permanent-based burn to start whittling away at life totals. You have to get as much damage as possible in as quickly as possible if you’re going to deal 120 damage or so to every player before they get to blow you out.

Some of the artifact mana is there to synergize with your land destruction. All the land destruction that hits multiple players is also going to hit you, so your artifact mana is a concession to the fact that your own lands aren’t going to be around very long, so you’re going to want multiple pieces of artifact mana in play as frequently as possible so you can keep the pressure on.

Burn!
Sulfuric Vortex
Ankh of Mishra
Sculpting Steel
Dingus Egg
Manabarbs
Citadel of Pain
Power Surge
Antagonism
Impatience
Furnace of Wrath
Gratuitous Violence
Repurcussion

Flame Rift
Slagstorm
Earthquake
Price of Progress

Hostility
Koth of the Hammer
Hidestugu’s Second Rite
Quest for Pure Flame
Greater Gargadon

Wild Ricochet
Reverberate

The first set of cards here is your permanent-based burn. This stuff will sit on the table dealing 8+ points of damage to each player over the course of a few turns. Sulfuric Vortex is absolutely stellar, since it sits on the board pinging people, but also stops them from gaining large amounts of life to get out of burn range. Ankh of Mishra is just another copy of Zo-Zu, and Dingus Egg is an awesome complement to your land destruction plan. Sculpting Steel wants to copy either Egg or Ankh, but is also happy to copy one of your artifact mana sources or disruption artifacts. Furnace of Rath and Repercussion are interesting ways to scale up your burn, and give you a much better chance of actually dealing enough damage to be relevant.

The rest of your burn either punish people for playing spells, or punish them for NOT playing spells. I’ve heard Manabarbs called “the anti-Commander” card, and frequently get grief for it being against the spirit of the format, but it’s really good at doing what you want to do: punish people for playing slower, more expensive spells. Citadel of Pain and Power Surge are either awesome or terrible depending on what kinds of people you play with. If you play with people who like instant speed answers, or slow decks, then the cards are SO good, because they’re going to deal quite a bit of damage. The cards are terrible against decks that tap out on their own turn, especially with mana burn gone. Impatience and Antagonism are also there to punish people who like to play slower, typically blue-based decks that don’t necessarily want to cast spells on their turn or attack with creatures unless they’re already winning.

The second set of cards just contains a couple of efficient burn spells that can really get people. Flame Rift gets you 12ish damage to other players for just 2 mana. Slagstorm is hilarious with Repercussion, and is solid just as a burn spell. Earthquake is AWESOME reach that can kill multiple players from out of nowhere. It’s unfortunate that you’re never going to be able to cast it for as much as, say, an Ashling deck since you’re typically going to destroy a few lands multiple times per game. Price of Progress is another card who’s power is completely dependent on the metagame. This deck doesn’t play many non-basics, and doesn’t care much about its life total. The same can’t be said for many decks, and so the card can be incredibly powerful against budget five-color or three-color decks.

The next set of cards are just some bombs I used to round out the deck. Hostility gives you wins out of nowhere. With Hostility and Zo-Zu in play, if everyone plays a land and passes, you’ve got 6 3/1s with haste, which seems really powerful. It can also make people hold back lands or spells when you’ve got different sources of damage on the board. Hostility single-handedly changes your burn from annoying to game-winning. Koth is another card that’s fine to just run out and beat down with, but it also ramps you up to drop multiple pieces of burn/disruption, and is VERY rarely a win condition unto itself.

Hidestugu’s Second Rite is one of those hilarious cards that you’re obligated to play. I keep a tally on the card of how many people I’ve killed with it (five, at the moment). Quest for Pure Flame is something I’m currently testing. It seems like it could be AWESOME in some situations, combined with any burn spell, or just to get a couple extra points in on a crucial turn. It’ll be pretty hit or miss, but the hits will make it worth it. Greater Gargadon is something I haven’t actually had the chance to cast yet. I’ve suspended it, but the game is either over, or I’m dead by turn 10, so Gargadon never became relevant, but it seems really good backed by mana denial.

Wild Ricochet and Reverberate are good at copying land denial, or the big spells that people will find ways to cast. When you get to Reverberate a Harmonize, it’s exciting for you, since you have no “real” card draw of your own. These are effects that every red deck should pack a few copies of. Since other colors are capable of outclassing your sorceries, you might as well start copying/stealing theirs, right?

Mana Disruption
Blood Moon
Magus of the Moon

Crack the earth
Tremble
Wildfire
Destructive Force
Devastating Dreams
Thoughts of Ruin
Tectonic Break
Recoup
Keldon Firebombers

Burning Sands
Price of Glory
Stoneshaker Shaman
Smokestack
Storm Cauldron
Mine Layer

Here is the mana denial suite. The Blood Moon and Magus are awesome against multicolored mana bases. People are REALLY greedy with their mana bases, and this is really good at punishing them while you get your disruption set up. The second set of cards are a little more interesting. Crack the Earth and Tremble are absolutely awesome on turns 1-4 or so, and pretty awful after that unless you’ve got Dingus Egg up. The other disruption scales up over the course of the game though, because they can destroy multiple lands at any point in the game. The reason I picked these particular spells are because they’re more like disruption than something like Obliterate, which is seen as non-interactive. You’ve got multiple ways to disrupt people who are just trying to get to 5 or more mana to cast spells that are more powerful than yours.

Burning Sands is one of the most powerful cards in your deck, creatures die all the time, and now it makes it harder for them to play more creatures. This buys you infinite time to keep burning them out. Price of Glory is yet another card that’s really good against blue-based decks. Stoneshaker Shaman is yet another way to punish decks that don’t use their mana efficiently. Smokestack and Storm Cauldron make it really difficult to get enough lands on the table to do anything relevant. I’m surprised that Mine Layer sees so little play, since it basically wins the game if it goes unanswered for a few turns. Worst case it guarantees that it’ll trade with a removal spell so you won’t have to deal with another one later. Best case, it shuts down the mana hungry decks all on its own. Seems fair.

Card Drawing and Tutors
Wheel of Fortune
Chandra Ablaze
Knollspine Dragon

Gamble

Godo, Bandit Warlord
Darksteel Plate
Sword of Feast and Famine
Sword of Fire and Ice

The role of these cards is to give you some power to win in the mid to late game. The first three are there exclusively to refill your hand and find spells that are still relevant at that point in the game. Chandra has the absurd upside of casting all your land destruction again sometimes. This has only ever happened once, but it was AWESOME.  Gamble is a kind of tutor. It’s never the best card in your deck, but it’s the best red can do. You’re sort of obligated to run it just to increase the consistency of your red deck.

The Godo package does a lot of work here, and is really, really powerful. Godo on his own is a really, really fast clock if it picks up a sword. It’s also one of very few tutors in Red, and gets one of the best kinds of permanents in the format. Darksteel Plate is there to make sure they can’t get rid of Zo-Zu or Steel Hellkite, which is really, really good. Sword of Fire and Ice is more damage and cards, which is nice when you’re trying to win as quickly as possible by expending your card aggressively. I don’t usually like Sword of Fire and Ice in most decks; I do think that it’s way over-valued in this format, but I really like it in this particular deck. Sword of Feast and Famine, on the other hand, is one of the best cards in Mirrodin Besieged for this format. Discard is fine, but in a big mana format, doubling up your lands is absurdly powerful, and especially here, where you want to run out as many sources of damage as quickly as possible.

Utility
Steel Hellkite
Crucible of Worlds

These cards are just really powerful ways to lock down a game or try to get back in it. Crucible plus Wasteland is always powerful when you’re trying to keep other players on the back foot, especially backed up by additional mana denial, and Steel Hellkite is one of the red deck’s few answers to non-artifact, non-land permanents. Burn isn’t the best answer to creatures, and red has no good way to deal with Enchantments or anything similar. These give you a little bit of utility and late game plan, which is always a good thing to have, even if you’re playing a more beat-down style of deck.

Lands
Ancient Tomb
City of Traitors

Strip Mine
Wasteland
Tectonic Edge
Dustbowl

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Barbarian Ring
Vesuva
Spinerock Knoll

1 Mishra’s Factory
1 Mutavault
1 Blinkmoth Nexus
1 Ghitu Encampment

18 Mountain

The lands, I feel, are pretty straightforward. Ramp, burn, beatdown. The more interesting part is the land COUNT. There are only 32 lands in this deck, which is really, really low. I typically advocate between 37 and 40 for most decks that focus on 3-6 drops. The thing is, this deck wants as many of its cards to DO things as possible, and it’s got tons of artifact mana to take the place of some of its lands, so I think the lower land count is justifiable. That said, I’ve gotten blown out by keeping 2 land hands and never seeing a third more often with this deck than with any other constructed deck I’ve ever played, so I could definitely see cutting some of the cards that are only good against slow, clunky control decks for a few more mountains, or maybe just some card selection like Sensei’s Divining Top and Crystal Ball or some such.

So, the gameplan of the deck is pretty straightforward, and can be broken down into four simple steps:

  1. Drop Zo-Zu or some other peramanent-based source of damage.
  2. Disrupt their mana
  3. Try to draw cards when you’re out of gas.
  4. Repeat until everyone is dead.

So that’s that deck. This is definitely one of my more competitive decks, and it only gets broken out when I’m feeling particularly vindictive about the greedy decks that some people are playing and getting away with. Some people like playing a game where they’re under pressure from the first turn or two, and some people want to play slower games with more dragons and swingy sorceries, and that’s something you’ve got to be aware of with this style of deck; it CAN ruin the game for some people because of how it approaches the game.

That said, I keep saying this deck is good at punishing “greedy” decks, and I’d like to take an opportunity to clarify that. Commander as a format encourages greedy play and deckbuilding. By greedy deckbuilding, I mean having low land counts, high mana curves, and tons of heavy color requirements. You’re assuming that no one’s going to punish you for doing that, when really sometimes it just takes is a strip mine to shut your entire deck down because it’s putting a lot of stress on its mana.

That’s all well and good when everyone rages that land destruction is so unfair, but really, it’s unfair BECAUSE people expect to be able to hardcast the Emrakuls and Progeneti of the format. If you run a few more lands, cut a few heavily colored spells, trim the top of your curve a little, then land destruction isn’t NEARLY as backbreaking, and it becomes a fair and necessary part of a healthy metagame. Moral of the story, red is weak because people want to run greedy mana bases and spells, and then don’t like it when you stop them from casting them.

Since this is quickly approaching 3,500 words, I want to throw in a bonus decklist. I’ve received a ton of requests over the last week to see a copy of the Ib Halfheart decklist I’ve been working on. Here’s the current iteration, still in progress, that I’ve run to hilarious effect in the last two Commander nights I’ve gone to:

Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician

Lands
35 Snow-Covered Mountains
Spinerock Knoll
Deserted Temple
Scrying Sheets
Vesuva

Forgotten Cave
Smoldering Crater
Blasted Landscape
Terramorphic Expanse
Evolving Wilds

Thawing Glaciers

Mana Acceleration
Crucible of Worlds
Rings of Brighthearth
Expedition Map
Explorer’s Scope
Gauntlet of Power
Gauntlet of Might

Card Selection, Draw, Tutors
Sensei’s Divining Top
Crystal Ball

Chandra Ablaze
Wheel of Fortune

Gamble
Godo, Bandit Warlord
Skullclamp
Moggcatcher

Utility
Wild Swing
Capricious Efreet
Recoup
Shivan Harvest

Haste and Anthems
Anger
Mass Hysteria
In the Web of War
Goblin Chieftain
Goblin Bushwhacker

Patron of the Akki
Shared Animosity
Quest for the Goblin Lord

Goblins!
Goblin Matron
Goblin Recruiter
Goblin Ringleader

Spikeshot Elder
Gempalm Incinerator
Goblin Sharpshooter

Goblin marshal
Siege-Gang Commander
Goblin Offensive
Goblin Warrens
Mogg Infestation
Empty the Warrens
Warbeak Trumpeter

Burn
Zo-Zu, the Punisher
Ankh of Mishra
Manabarbs

All In!
Skirk Prospector
Goblin Sledder
Voracious Dragon
Goblin Bombardment

Boggart Shenanigans
Furnace Celebration
Goblin War Strike
Viscious Shadows

Mana Echoes
Brightstone Ritual
Koth of the Hammer
Inner Fire

And that’s all there is to it. A rules note on Wild Swing effects. You target three permanents, and then choose from whichever are left upon resolution. So target two mountains and a permanent you want dead, then sacrifice the mountains to make goblins in response. The only permanent left is the one you want to destroy, so it gets “randomly” chosen.

Other than that, the deck just wants to play a lot of lands, slowly get a critical mass of goblins into play, and then “combo off” by making your goblins gigantic, making them bigger, or just burning people out with goblins and sacrifice tricks. The deck is a BLAST to play, but it’s such a glass cannon. Any kind of disruption and you are DEAD, so it’s a “fair” beatdown/combo deck, even for this format.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. Next week I’ll be unveiling the last mono-colored deck I want to build for awhile, and in the color I hate building in the most: blue. After that I’ve got a backlog of ideas I want to look at, as well as a few requests. If you’ve got any decks you want looked at, any ideas you’re interested in seeing, or just want to talk deckbuilding, shoot me an email at cag5383@gmail.com.

Carlos
Cag5383(at)gmail(dot)com