The last few weeks in tournament Magic have been responsible for some pretty mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’ve put up some strong results and found a Standard deck I’m in love with. On the other hand the good results – a PPTQ Top 8 plus finals in the last English PTQ in Sheffield – haven’t translated into anything more tangible (like a win, for instance).
Suffering a beating in a PTQ finals for the first time was definitely tough to swallow. Since my first – disappointing – appearance on the tour, I’ve wanted almost nothing as much as to get back on the gravy train. To come within a hair’s breadth of another invite without making it stings pretty hard.
I shouldn’t grumble too much. The winner, Karim Al Takrouri, is a friend and one of the best Constructed players in the country right now. He both wanted and deserved the invite at least as much as I did. Besides, he’d lent me about a dozen cards for my deck following a panicked last-minute audible, and it would have been downright rude to crush him with his own Goblin Rabblemasters. I’m gutted to have lost but genuinely happy for him that he’s getting another shot at the big show – congratulations buddy.
The panicked last-minute audible came about after a 2am hotel room testing session which finally made me realize the dubious Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck I’d become hellbent on playing was awful. A few beatings and a couple of beers was all it took to send me sprinting around the venue desperately trying to find cards for a tight-looking Ross Merriam list I’d spotted the day before (but never played), and I found the last copy of Chandra, Pyromaster I needed about two minutes before decksheets were due in (thanks Tom Law!).
7-1 in the Swiss and two wins in the Top 8 was enough, if not to send me to Brussels, then at least to make me fall for Red-White Aggro. I’m a Control player by inclination, but I have a soft spot for aggressive decks that feel efficient and synergistic. The look of helplessness on the face of an opponent who just can’t stick a blocker for the Rabblemaster is almost as satisfying as the look of helplessness on the face of an opponent who’s watching you chain your third Sphinx’s Revelation.
Anyway, enough wallowing in self-pity – on to the deck. If you’re unsure what to sleeve up right now, I can’t recommend Red-White Aggro enough. Since picking it up I’m running at comfortably over a 75% win rate and have made the Top 8 of every tournament, small and large, I’ve run it in. It not only plays beautifully but has fantastic match-ups against the bulk of the field, with only Jeskai Tokens and Whip of Erebos decks proving truly tricky matches to navigate. Good for me and for RW deck itself, both those archetypes experience a gradual decline since Ugin, the Spirit Dragon turned up and started bossing the format about.
I consider Red-White Aggro to be both the best Stormbreath Dragon deck in the format and the best Goblin Rabblemaster deck in the format as well, and that’s a nice sweet spot to occupy. Readers of my previous articles with long and unforgiving memories may recall that I’ve been pretty down on Rabblemaster in the past. This time I’ve finally found a shell where he forms a part of a well-graded curve: he has enough cheap removal to keep forcing him through blockers without risking losing tempo or board advantage once he gets killed. Here he gets to push through all that damage he promises more often than in any other shell I’ve seen him in.
The deck as a whole reminds me of the Kibler Gruul deck that defined the post-M14 metagame in terms of the deck’s fast pace backed up by a very strong top end. The main difference is the much larger removal suite and the ability to play a longer game slightly more reliably, but there are definite similarities in terms of the wonderfully fluent mana curve and the ability to play threats with an excellent cost-to-damage-output ratio (a measurement of aggressive efficiency I’ve just made up).
Let’s take a look at my current list:
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Arc Lightning
1 Ashcloud Phoenix
1 Banishing Light
2 Glare of Heresy
2 Hushwing Gryff
1 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
2 Valorous Stance
1 Wingmate Roc
Most of the card choices are fairly stock for the deck, and are largely non-negotiable if you want to pick this up yourself and play it at its best. There are however a few more flexible slots that are much trickier to fill, and it’s worth providing my reasoning behind the headscratchers in the maindeck.
[draft]1 Stormbreath Dragon
1 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker[/draft]
3 STORMBREATH DRAGON, 1 SARKHAN
I’m the only person I’ve seen playing this deck not packing the full four Stormbreaths, and I believe I’m in the right on this one. Against any non-white deck Sarkhan is simply a better card, his -3 coming up far more often than the monstrous ability on Stormbreath.
It’s true that he can potentially be attacked on the ground the turn after you play him, but immunity to Stoke the Flames and Murderous Cut has proven to be a big deal so far. It’s especially crucial in the increasingly common mirror match, as he triggers prowess on Seeker of the Way (and, potentially, Monastery Mentor – more on that later). It’s a close call, but I like the split I have, with the 1 Sarkhan averting any risk of drawing awkward multiples (that is, of course, not a major issue, hence my being content to play an additional copy in the board as an extra threat against Control decks).
It’s entirely possible that I should be playing 5 copies of these spells in the maindeck, whatever the split, and that’s something worth considering going forward. These two cards represent some of the best top-end aggressive threats available in Standard, and form a large part of the deck’s appeal.
[draft]1 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
1 Monastery Mentor[/draft]
2 BRIMAZ, KING OF ORESKOS, 0 MONASTERY MENTOR
The back-up 3-drop slot is a bit of a bone of contention at the moment, with no clear consensus between Brimaz, King of Oreskos, Hushwing Gryff and Monastery Mentor. The curve demands that goblins aren’t the only threats played at that point in the curve, but each of the obvious options has downsides.
I’ve settled on Brimaz – for now – because he represents the most reliable damage output of any of the options we have as well as playing strong defence. Having 4 toughness means he avoids dying to most of the popular cheap removal spells (Valorous Stance being the exception). When we trade for him, we tend to so evenly or better, which is something that can’t always be said of the otherwise more powerful Goblin Rabblemaster. The downside is that double-white is a bit awkward on a manabase that wants to max out on Mountains to make the most of Chained to the Rocks.
In the Sheffield PTQ I was running Monastery Mentor in that slot, and wasn’t blown away. That card needs to be in a deck planning to routinely cast multiple spells per turn to reach its potential, which just isn’t what’s happening here. It has a massive theoretical damage output, but in practice it only managed to shine in one game the whole day, and it simply isn’t a card designed for a fair deck like this. It needs to be abused, not just used. Mentor is incredibly powerful, but this isn’t the right shell for him.
One option I’m planning to test out is playing a single Brimaz and an extra five-drop threat to see how that plays with the curve. This may also allow us to swap out two Plains for a Mountain and a white scry-land. I’m not yet certain if that’s an improvement but it bears testing.
[draft]1 Magma Jet
1 Valorous Stance[/draft]
1 MAGMA JET, 0 VALOROUS STANCE
Most Red-White Aggro lists use up one of the flexible slots on Fate Reforged’s wonderfully flexible removal/protection spell, but I’ve decided to cut it from the main in favour of a slightly blunter instrument in Magma Jet.
A part of the reason is that I wanted to be able to cast my two-drops on turn 2, something which effectively only comes up on the draw against Courser of Kruphix when you opt to play Valorous Stance. Whilst Stance’s flexibility is nice, we’re not short of ways to clear out blockers in this build, and we seldom have the time or spare mana to wait and play Rabblemaster whilst holding Stance up. It’s also decidedly awkward with our more expensive threats.
Magma Jet’s utility varies but even when it has few targets on the board (and again, we get the edge in the mirror with Magma Jet over Valorous Stance, and it’s excellent against another rising archetype, Mono-Green Devotion), I’ve not felt bad about throwing it at my opponent’s face on turn 2 and setting up my curve for the following turns.
[draft]1 Chandra, Pyromaster
1 Outpost Siege[/draft]
3 CHANDRA, 0 OUTPOST SIEGE
A lot of recent lists have started cutting Chandra and replacing her with Outpost Siege. Now, Outpost Siege is a very strong card, and having a more-or-less unkillable card drawing engine is definitely appealing, but I personally feel very passionately that Chandra, Pyromaster is not only a significant upgrade on Siege, but the best single card in the deck.
Any game in which I resolve a Chandra, I feel vastly more likely to win. Aside from being able to draw through our deck on an even board, her +1 is simply huge in this deck. Being able to curve a Brimaz or Rabblemaster into Chandra usually causes a big chunk of damage, and in a format chock full of 4/5s coming in to play around turn 4, ticking straight up to 5 loyalty is a big deal.
I’ve won a lot of games now by simply +1’ing my opponent’s blockers out of the way (and when you hit her ultimate, you’re usually odds on to hit Stoke the Flames and be able to smack your opponent for 12 most of the time). Yes, she dies to Hero’s Downfall. But so does practically every other good threat in the format. Chandra is a card draw engine that forces tons of damage through, and she makes all of the other cards in the deck better. In my eyes, at least, her inclusion isn’t negotiable.
[draft]1 Soulfire Grand Master[/draft]
0 SOULFIRE GRAND MASTER
Occasionally brutal in mirror matches and their ilk, and largely useless everywhere else, Soulfire Grand Master was in my Sheffield list as a one-of and isn’t coming back any time soon. A 2/2 body is very poor in the current format, the lifelink on your burn spells varies from exceptional to worthless, and in the PTQ I activated its third ability a sum total of zero times.
A lot of lists have one, taking the role of the “fifth Seeker of the Way” but I just don’t consider it worth it. The body is too tame to augment the aggressive curve properly and the rest of the text just isn’t good enough often enough. Not all that Grand at all in my opinion. Or maybe, he is just waiting for more dragons…
Red-White Aggro is well-positioned, powerful and, frankly, both a blast and a doddle to play. The game plan is about as route one as it gets – play a cheap, efficient threat or two, clear the path with removal, and mop up the game with big threats and burn. As long as you can play around your opponents’ removal well and ensure you get the maximum amount of damage out of each spell, you can really rack up the wins with this deck.
There’s definitely room for tweaking and I doubt that I’ve arrived at the perfect 75 just yet. There are more than enough options to keep me testing and tuning until Dragons of Tarkir comes out in just a few short weeks. I’m also planning to write a separate article regarding sideboarding and specific match-up strategy with this deck soon. The choices of how you can deal with any given match-up are surprisingly varied and complex and need a full article to do them justice.
With such a short window until the next expansion hits stores, this Standard format has a mayfly lifespan and I doubt that the meta as a whole will shift too drastically over the next three or four weeks, not least due to people being unwilling to risk investing in a new deck that may well end up being invalidated only a blink of an eye after being built. As a consequence, I’d expect Red-White Aggro to remain a great choice for the next few weeks of PPTQs, and for the Cardiff PTQ this weekend – which I hope I’ll be attending. Now, if anyone happens to be able to give me a lift…
Community Question: What is your favourite burn spell in Standard and why?
Thank you for reading, and good luck at your next PPTQ,