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Oh, the Places You'll Burn: A Red Mage's Guide to Dragons of Tarkir


Without question, one of the best ways to approach a new standard format is with an aggressive beatdown deck. Time has shown again and again that this strategy does well based on the fact that it's much easier to be proactive than reactive in an unknown metagame. With Dragons of Tarkir now fully released, aggressively-minded mages have a lot of options to choose from. I'm going to be looking at a few of the options Dragons of Tarkir offers and discussing why a deck builder would want to play each of them depending on the metagame.

Making the Case for Mono Red

One of the most consistent performers of the last standard format was Mono Red. While it didn't yield as much excitement as Ben Stark's RW Aggro list or the tried and true Abzan Aggro archetype, Mono Red has gotten a bunch of exciting new tools in Dragons of Tarkir that are likely to solidify it as a tier 1 deck this season. The typical weakness of mono red aggro strategies is that its game plan is so predictable and its card options are usually sparse. This allows the deck to be metagamed out of the format as other decks adjust to playing against it. Sometimes red strategies can be so strong that it pushes people towards playing silver bullet trumps like Kor Firewalker or Circle of Protection: Red. In most standard formats this means that mono red can be great one week and terrible the next. What's different about this season's mono red is that there are so many options to choose from when designing a deck that the archetype as a whole can function in very different ways depending on the particular build. This means that it's very unlikely that mono red can be shut down even if people prepare for it.

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While red decks of the past have had no choice but to run mediocre cards like Gore-House Chainwalker or Mogg Flunkies due to having few threat options, the sheer diversity of threats available to red mages in DTK standard relieves deckbuilders of that burden. With Dragons of Tarkir's release, the number of standard-playable red cards has reached a critical mass allowing for drastically different styles of mono red to coexist. When building a red deck this season, you'll often find yourself asking "how many of these one drops do I want to play?" or "Can I really afford to devote four slots to Goblin Rabblemaster?" Because of the number of viable threat choices, red players will be needing to ask themselves similar questions every week to make sure they're optimizing their deck design.

Exploring the New Options

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We'll start off with the two cheapest additions to our mage's arsenal: Zurgo Bellstriker and Lightning Berserker are both great options as efficient creatures that can battle early, but aren't totally irrelevant in the late game. Those who have experienced Mardu Scout and Goblin Heelcutter know just how flexible Dash is. Both of these Fate Reforged Dash cards saw play in spite of their hardcast value being so high. The new cards, on the other hand, are fine when hardcast which makes their Dash flexibility a huge upside.

Zurgo Bellstriker is going to serve well in decks that just want to have a critical number of 2-power one-drops. Between Firedrinker Satyr, Monastery Swiftspear, and Foundry Street Denizen, Zurgo is the most consistent in a vacuum. He contributes a fast enough clock without requiring as much work as Monastery Swiftspear or Foundry Street Denizen, and is not a mise of a topdeck late in the game like Firedrinker Satyr or Foundry Street Denizen. With the additional Dash flexibility, he'll be able to help you play around sweepers which is something none of the other options can say.

Lightning Berserker is the real deal. This card does a lot of interesting things for mono red that we haven't seen in a while. While it is a reasonable first turn play, it gets better with each additional Mountain you have on the battlefield. The mana sink capability is something that really allows for flexibility when designing a deck. It's not crazy to have upwards of 22 Mountains in a deck that can consistently leverage mana into damage. This card definitely helps in that department, but the question remains about whether or not there are enough other tools that are looking for the same style of deck. While Lightning Berserker is an excellent early threat, it requires a steady stream of mana in order to do its thing. For lower land count decks in the 18 to 19 range, you should be cautious of playing more than two or three of these. Similar to Zurgo, this card's Dash ability dodges sorcery-speed removal and sweepers.

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Our next stop on the pain train brings us to one of the very few RR casting cost mythic rares. In short, Dragon Whisperer is a powerful 2-drop that has evasion and a very relevant mana sink. Prior to DTK, Red Aggro's two-drop slot included Eidolon of the Great Revel, Mardu Scout, burn spells, or activating Firedrinker Satyr. None of those were very powerful actions on their own. Two of those four even get brick walled by Satyr Wayfinder or a single token. Dragon Whisperer is one of the few respectable creatures to play at 2-mana since Ash Zealot.​ Evasion is not something Red gets on a standard-playable two-drop, and ground stalls induced by Courser of Kruphix, Polukranos, World Eater, or Siege Rhino were very common prior to Dragons of Tarkir. This card gets around all of those with negligible cost. Not only is this card evasive, but it has a mana sink that can utilize the evasion, forcing your opponent to kill it if they can. Much like Goblin Rabblemaster, this card can win a game on its own if unchecked (albeit less likely than the Goblin Warrior). This card does serve enough of a role as a game-ending threat against control decks that it lets you avoid overcomitting to the board, but it has little impact on the game if killed right away. Dragon Whisperer also shares the need for an ample supply of mana in order to have maximized effectiveness; it will prove to be a bit on the slow side if your mana base doesn't reliably support the flying or firebreathing abilities. The card is best when your opponent is hoping to block in combat, but will likely be too slow if players forego Sylvan Caryatids in order to play more copies of Ultimate Price.

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This common is going to be surprisingly powerful so long as Stoke the Flames and Hordeling Outburst are legal. Dragon Fodder provides aggressive decks with an additional option to go wide. The weakness of the card is that it's only two points of power. Two points of power is small enough that your opponent can ignore it if they choose. They can also wait for a Drown in Sorrow to regain tempo. However, spewing out a bunch of tokens can be excellent depending on the removal spell of choice for the format. If opposing decks favor Ultimate Price, Wild Slash, or Hero's Downfall, I like what Dragon Fodder can do; however, playing the Bile Blight lottery sounds very risky. Whether it's sweepers or removal, there are a bunch of specific answers your opponent can have for this card. So in that regard, I don't think Dragon Fodder is going to be great during times when people expect to play against mono red. On the other hand, Dragon Fodder is a fairly potent card in the mirror. There aren't many ways a red mage can protect his team of X/1's against a board full of goblin tokens, so if you expect to play against mono red yourself, you might consider playing Dragon Fodder anyway. One of the most potent synergies involving this card is with Atarka's Command, which can supply upwards of seven damage between the two cards. This interaction was enough to push players towards a hard green splash in some of the decks that finished well in the first StarCityGames tournaments for Dragons of Tarkir.

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Thunderbreak Regent is where the discussion gets interesting. First off, it is undeniable that this card is very efficient. A 4/4 flying creature is absurdly above the curve for red, especially without a drawback. The closest a creature came to this before was Archwing Dragon, which essentially requires an upkeep cost of 2RR. The only real drawback for including this particular 4/4 flier in an aggressive deck is the ability to cast it reliably. Hitting four mana on turn four will prove to be a difficult task for more aggressive decks which want to maintain a high threat density. There were successful red decks that utilized Outpost Siege as a curve topper during last season, so we know that the tools are available to design an aggro deck with the intention of hitting four mana. The real difference when deciding between a heavy or light land count depends on which strategy you think will be better: staying low to the ground with Foundry Street Denizen and Dragon Fodder or going over the top with Thunderbreak Regent and Stormbreath Dragon. The dominant strategy for mono red so far has been to keep the land count low and the threat density high.

On the subject of the Regent himself, I wasn't sold on its value in an aggressive shell at first. A 4/4 for four mana is great and all, but it doesn't end the game in the same way threats like Hellrider or Hero of Oxid Ridge could. I thought the threat density trade-off was too steep, but I had overlooked two important details. What became apparent is that the 4/4 body does wonders against other red-based aggresive decks which are very popular right now. When that's the case, being able to turtle-up can be valuable. I talked about Courser of Kruphix and Polukranos, World Eater being difficult for red to deal with, but Thunderbreak Regent competes with both of them in the brick wall department. For any opposing red player, Stoke the Flames or multiple burn spells are the only two ways to kill it. Also worth pointing out is that Thunderbreak Regent helps you hedge against sweepers in non-aggressive matchups. The two most common sweepers (Drown in Sorrow, and Crux of Fate) are unlikely to interact well with this card. Between these two things, Thunderbreak Regent is pretty valuable in most matchups and definitely deserves consideration as a curve-topper. Like Dragon Whisperer, the 4/4 is weak to efficient spot removal, but dodges some important spells and punishes your opponent if it is removed.

Examining Week One Results

Last week, SaffronOlive wrote an excellent article that broke down what we can take away from the first weekend's Star City Games events. The Invitational and the Standard Open featured some of the archetypes we can expect to see throughout the rest of the standard season. One of the most successful archetypes of the weekend was actually mono red aggro with a couple of decklists resulting in 7-1 or better records during the Invitational and several cracking top 64 in the Open. Of those lists, the one that received the most coverage was Michael Braverman's list which helped him make top 8 of the Invitational. Here is the decklist:

Several things are very interesting about the success of this build. First of all, Braverman chose to bypass the full four copies of Goblin Rabblemaster in favor of three Goblin Hellcutter. This makes sense given how fast Braverman's list is. Since this build is focused on pushing through damage on the ground, Goblin Heelcutter serves the purpose of eliminating blockers while adding to the clock. The other surprise was the lack of [Dragon Whisperer. Braverman opted to play Eidolon of the Great Revel and Dragon Fodder instead. As mentioned above, Dragon Whisperer is not great if you expect your opponent to be able to answer it right away. In comparison, Dragon Fodder requires a Bile Blight or a sweeper, and Eidolon of the Great Revel is going to be pushing through damage whether it's answered or not. Braverman correctly read the field as being focused on efficient one-for-one removal and opted to minimize his risk of spending two-mana for a creature that has no lasting impact on the board. This strategy continued to perform well with several low to the ground mono red lists cracking the top 32 of the recent SCG Open and one making a run into the semifinals. This specific strategy is just an example of the many flavors available to deck builders in a post-DTK world.

During the first couple weeks, Thunderbreak Regent has shown up in huge numbers, but not as a curve-topper in mono red. An explanation could be that most red decks right now are trying to go underneath the defenses of Abzan and Green-based Devotion, as opposed to relying on an evasive game-ender. That being said, I fully expect both Dragon Whisperer and Thunderbreak Regent to make an impression on the standard format during the weeks to come and possibly even at the Pro Tour. It's only a matter of time.

 

That's all for this article. Hopefully it will prove useful to those who want to burn outside the box during the weeks to come. Feel free to find me on Twitter @Rad_Blast.


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