by Daniel Beach
My favorite thing about Magic: the Gathering is the strategic depth, and the Commander format permits strategies that are not viable anywhere else to have their five minutes of fame. Mono-red, however, has a reputation of being linear and simple; this just isn’t so. Despite not having certain valued abilities ready at their disposal, mono-red decks are still capable of operating in varied and complex ways. This is a point Mike has alluded to a couple times in talking about his Big Red Standard deck, and here I will show it by comparing his mono-red Commander deck to mine.
A couple years ago I built a mono-red Commander deck. The general was Rakka Mar. I built it badly and it failed miserably. But when Mike built Fumiko, I was curious to see if he could get it to work. After The Dorks took a crack at fixing it and Mike put the deck up for listeners’ suggestions, I decided I would take a second crack at a mono-red Commander deck.
Urabrask the Hidden
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
Artisan of Kozilek
It That Betrays
Gauntlet of Power
Sensei’s Divining Top
Tower of Fortunes
Heart of Ramos
Spine of Ish Sah
I went with Urabrask the Hidden in order to capitalize on any big dudes or utility tappers I put in the deck. The goal of the deck is to clear the way for my attackers. It aims to do this by means of spot removal, fliers, Urabrask’s second ability, and by making blocking as unprofitable as possible. At the same time it tries to keep ahead of its opponents through artifact acceleration/consistently hitting land drops and artifact based card draw.
On Fumiko, Mike has said:
“The point of having Fumiko the Lowblood as a commander, first and foremost, is to mess with people. Supported by other cards, she forces other players to interact and send their creatures around to throw elbows, especially when they don’t want to. While those creatures are busy with all that, I have plenty of big scary guys for them to run into, and then the way is clear for said scary guys to attack. To keep me in the game and to let me be able to actually play the big stuff, I pack a fair amount of removal and artifact mana, as well as a higher-than-average land count.”
Looking at Mike’s list we see similar strategic goals and routes to achieve them: repeated swings in the red zone (as opposed, for example, to my Oath of Druids deck which swings once with Blightsteel Colossus), a need to clear blockers, making combat uncomfortable for your opponents, and a reliance on artifact acceleration.
Yet his list and mine share only 31 cards (16 of which are lands).
What do these cards share, and why are they the only cards shared between two mono-red decks with similar strategic goals?
Mono-red decks are naturally going to have a higher density of mountains and Valakut is good even in red two-color Commander decks. The artifacts are efficient mana accelerants/fixers (I have run pieces of Ramos in three color decks). Stranglehold is a hate card that red needs to keep the game on an even keel against blue and black as well as decks with greedy mana bases reliant on fetch lands. The creatures show the strategic overlap between these decks, but conceal the accompanying strategies. That is, these creatures tell you virtually nothing about the rest of the deck.
Despite having very similar strategic goals, the only thing these decks share are “staple” mono-red cards. So what are these decks doing differently? What makes them unique? What makes them a Daniel Deck(TM) and a Mike Deck(TM) and not The Mono-Red Deck? Let’s look at the different takes on the primary roles of a deck: aggro, control, and combo and how these decks differ in these respects.
Mike’s deck runs a number of Battle Cry effects (such as Instigator Gang, Contested War Zone, Orcish Oriflamme, and Hero of Oxid Ridge) in order to gain incremental combat advantage. Combined with a higher density and lower curve for his creatures, Mike is able to assemble meaningful defenses while still swinging with relevant creatures.
My deck is less aggro. With a relatively low creature count and a higher cost curve for them, my deck relies on ramping for a longer period of time, but having heavier-thud creatures. Combined with Urabrask, I can recoup comparative early game losses with a higher impact mid-/late-game. Savage Beating, Warstorm Surge, Rage Reflection, and Gratuitous Violence further allow me to significantly increase my late-game damage output.
The removal available to Mike is largely combat-based (and therefore creature-based) backed up with several burn and creature destruction spells. Since often the way to use non-creature spells effectively relies on having strong defensive creatures, Fumiko, Avatar of Slaughter, Grand Melee, and his removal suite can force his opponents to expend their meaningful defenses and eliminate key utility creatures thereby reducing (though not eliminating) the need to worry about non-creatures. Mike is also running a fair amount of land destruction effects to deal with, if nothing else, opposing Mazes of Ith.
Due to the slower operation of my deck, I have to spend more time worrying about non-creature threats. For that reason I run multi-purpose removal like Karn Liberated, Spine of Ish Sah, Lux Cannon, and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre. Backing up those cards is a land disruption package including Blood Moon, Sundering Titan, and War’s Toll. As a meta-game choice I run Grafdigger’s Cage to stop reanimation strategies and late game Yawgmoth’s Will. The primary goal of my control suite is to force my opponents to “play fair” because the threats I can put out can match or beat theirs when on an even keel.
By pushing the aggro and control aspects of his deck space, Mike’s deck leaves less room for combination plays. However, Kiki-Jiki, Battle Rampart, and Zirilan of the Claw allow for some serious value combinations. The use of fetch lands to trigger Valakut at instant speed also gains incremental advantage and can stave off utility creatures or finish off a big creature post-combat.
Combination plays are a specialty of mine, but mono-red requires a closer eye on cards that are only in the deck to combo. My general rule in Commander is to keep a combo-card (a card that does nothing but work with other cards) only if there are at least 10 cards that work with it but do not require the combo-card to be good. I tend to pack as many minor combination plays in a Commander deck as possible so as to randomly generate an effect larger than the individually good cards could provide on their own thereby gaining virtual card advantage. Some of the interactions in this deck are:
Kiki-Jiki+dudes, Voltaic Key+tapping artifacts, Goblin Welder+Ichor and Mycosynth Wellsping, Erratic Portal+enter the battlefield abilities. I count Blood Moon+Sundering Titan as a combination play, but both cards are definitely worth playing without the other. The pipe dream combination play is Voltaic Key+Erratic Portal+Kiki-Jiki+Gratuitous Violence+Warstorm Surge+Bogardan Hellkite on the board with 13 Mana (6 of it red) available. (Notice that these cards are not dead outside of this ridiculous combo; there are several two card combinations in that sequence that provide great value and interact with the rest of the deck.)
There are two more aspects that deserve comparison: mana acceleration and the choice of finishers. These comparisons highlight the trade off between speed (the rate at which a deck gets to its end game) and survivability (its ability to live that long). Here’s a table for easy comparison of mana acceleration:
Despite what I may have said earlier on the subject of mana rocks, when push came to shove I included a total of 18 accelerants and land searchers, which is twice the amount Mike has included in Fumiko. Regardless of what tappedout.net says about the average converted mana costs of these decks, the cost of cards that actually impact the board in Urabrask are higher than in Fumiko and the amount of mana acceleration reflects this.
For finishers, Mike has gone for… DRAGONS. Only eight of them, which is two short of my rubric for a combination card (Zirilan of the Claw), but they’re dragons. Akroma, Angel of Fury and Avatar of Slaughter top off the curve at eight mana. Combined with any number of Battle Cry effects and their own fire breathing, these finishers can pump out considerable damage. With the ramp available to him, I would expect these to come down a turn ahead of schedule without losing tempo.
I on the other hand have sacrificed tempo and defenses for bigger dudes and combination plays. Between the Eldrazi titans, Inferno Titan/Bogardan Hellkite, and Urabrask’s second ability I can potentially set my opponents back enough to not get completely overrun. Exemplifying the early/late game trade off is the fact that, while I can expect a card like Kozilek to come down two turns earlier, spending a couple more turns ramping than other decks may mean Urabrask or other relevant early game threats come down a turn or two later; a drawback which, if exploited correctly, can cost me considerable tempo.
Mike has built a sturdier mono-red deck than me. More of his value is found in individual cards than in their combination. He regains lost value by playing more cards. My deck is more fragile. Removing a piece of a combination play may mean that one or more of the other cards are useless for several turns, and it may be some time before I draw something to reactivate them.
How much are you willing to give up to win? How will you protect yourself? How will you hinder your opponents? These are the questions that every deck has to answer, and the answers are different for different people and different decks. Here we have two very different takes on mono-red in Commander. Each deck pushes on certain aspects, and pulls back on others. Each deck shows the value judgments of their makers in different ways and shows what strategies they consider “worth it” and “not worth it”. And there is still so much deck design space in mono-red. Won’t you give it a shot?
I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing how these decks compare to each other. Please feel free to leave any feedback in the comments, send me an email at email@example.com, or follow me on Twitter @beach7125.
Daniel Beach is a level 1 judge from Minneapolis. He has played Magic since Time Spiral block. He most often plays multiplayer Commander with occasional ventures into Vintage. His favorite zone is The Stack.