In Case You Didn't Know …
Hello! My name is CML. I got sixth at SCG Standard Open: Seattle with Dirty Red, and I'm terrible at Magic.
I love reading the work of the world-class—Ochoa, LSV, Kibler, et al.—and there's so much to be learned from these guys. But since most consumers of Magic media are around my skill level, writing from my perspective is also practical and valuable. You don't have to be world-class to show up to a PTQ, an SCG Open Series, or even a GP and excel.
A couple weekends ago, my traveling buddy and I set sail to Victoria for a Sealed PTQ. I brought an early version of Travis Woo's Dirty Red, and I'm grateful to Jon for convincing me to give it a spin at the local FNM. Over the course of my 3-2 evening, I discovered that Splatter Thug, Searing Spear, and Pillar of Flame were horrible, and my own addition of Faithless Looting was even worse. The next morning, I misbuilt my pool and went 0-2 drop, but I couldn't feel too bad about it because Canada is a nice country. Plus, if you're going to get two losses, you might as well do so right away. Did I mention that I'm bad at Magic?
After that Sealed fiasco, a big Standard event close to home was a nice change of pace. The great thing about the SCG Open Series is that it tends to attract a "casual-competitive" crowd. These people tend to be pleasant, scrupulous, and skilled. The metagames aren't hard to predict. Because Seattle is a wealthy city, people like to use their Standard cards while they're still expensive; because Seattle is the birthplace of Magic, there will always be those expressing their love for blue. At the last SCG Standard Open in Seattle (AVR Standard), I went 7-2 with G/U Infect, racking up wins against green mages who couldn't interact and splitting the two matchups with Delver when I should have lost both.
This time, Mono-Red Aggro seemed just as well positioned. I expected to see a lot of U/W Flash, which is Delver that can't cantrip and attack for three, and little of the Trostani deck with which my testing group repeatedly reamed me.
Unleash! Chain! Walker!
As a lover of the NFL, I'm a fan of Tim Tebow. Yeah, he's an evangelical, but judging him for that would be as unfair as remembering Walt Disney as a paleoconservative or Charles Lindbergh as an isolationist. A little over a year ago, I founded the Facebook group "Atheists for Tebow." I know his worldview belongs in Iran, Alabama, or the 16th century, but it's such a blast to watch him play. His wins against superior opposition are something for casual-competitive Magic player to emulate. By NFL standards, Tebow sucks, but he pulls off the feat of sucking with style. His opponents just don't give him the respect he deserves—and, like me, he doesn't deserve that much!
I was certain I'd play Mono-Red at the Open, but preparing was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. A variant on the old Woody Allen joke might go: "The cards in Standard sucked. And there aren't enough of them!"
I'm grateful to Travis for working hard to improve it. I was following his changes, and I saw he agreed that a build running minimal burn was ideal. Here's why. In a typical red deck, burn is either removal or reach, but the spells in Standard are so inefficient right now that it's better to use creatures for those purposes. Pyreheart Wolf is the removal; Hellrider is the reach; Thundermaw Hellkite is both. "Hell yeah, Searing Spear," said nobody ever.
The chief function of the burn is to play defense. It gives us an edge in aggro mirrors, where we could otherwise be outraced. With a creature-heavy build, Travis was owning everything. Nobody expected it! And though my final build was far from optimal, the deck was very strong and deserved at least a little respect.
He's a Gamer; He's a Baller…
The morning of the tournament, I awoke at a painfully early 9 AM and embarked for barbaric Lynnwood. I registered the following 75:
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 3 Gore-House Chainwalker
- 4 Hellrider
- 4 Lightning Mauler
- 4 Pyreheart Wolf
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
- 3 Thundermaw Hellkite
"%@*!, my sideboard is terrible," I finally noticed.
Round 1 vs. Madison (BUG Self-Mill)
Madison was a little girl who reminded me of Arya Stark. I won the round with 35 minutes to spare. This left me plenty of time to try to make Madison feel welcomed and comfortable. This was important to me as at my own first experience with "convention center Magic" at around the same age, I'd felt everything but welcomed, and this had been a big factor in quitting the game for a decade.
"How long have you been playing?" I asked.
"Ten months," she said.
"This is a much better deck than I had ten months after I started," I said.
She smiled. "My brother built it for me."
"Older brothers are the best, aren't they? I started playing with my Dad, and he never built a deck this good."
She smiled again, and after another pleasantry or two, I wished her luck and set off for a hot cuppa. Everyone knows you don't trash-talk kids, but not making an effort at kindness can feel like the same thing to them.
Round 2 vs. Nick (U/W Flash)
After trekking across highway and parking lot to retrieve coffee, I was beginning to feel like a human being again. This was bad news for Nick, who mulled game 1, flooded game 2, whiffed with Augur both games, and didn't damage me in either. The first person to explain how to reliably hit with Augur in a decent deck gets a signed copy of Summoning Trap.
Round 3 vs. James (U/W Flash)
I quickly won game 1 off his mull to five and lost game two off my own mulligan and bad sideboarding. "I should have made a board plan prior to showing up here," I joked. My opponent said nothing.
Then, in game 3, this happened. James was sitting with four mana open. I swung with my 1/1 Pyreheart Wolf and 1/1 Stromkirk Noble, and a few seconds later, he flashed in the absolutely predictable Angel. "You know it can't block," I smiled.
"You didn't announce the trigger," he said.
I chuckled; it was a good joke. "Yep, and you didn't announce your Angel."
"We can call a judge if you want," came the emotionless reply.
"Consider the trigger duly announced then."
"We can call a judge if you want," he droned.
Now this was odd. His idea wasn't serious, but he was. "Uh, I…"
A robotic arm was raised. "Judge."
Over came the judge. "What can I help you with?"
"So he didn't announce his Pyreheart trigger…" The tattletale sycophant spun his yarn of woe.
"Is this true?" asked the judge.
"Yep," I said, because lying is lame.
"Ok," said the judge, "I'm going to rule that the trigger lapsed, so he can block…"
"Can I appeal?" I said.
Anyone who's ever been in trouble at school can guess how that went. Now, I don't blame the judges for doing what they had to do, but this kind of sleazy rules lawyering is exactly the reason more casual-competitive players don't go to these kinds of events. Oh, and let me preempt anyone who argues "James was well within his rights" or "You could have been angle-shooting" or "I would have done the same thing" by saying that I don't care at all and that I hate you too.
Anyway, I was far enough ahead that it didn't matter. The Angel ate my Vampire, and I finished it off with a Spear I'd forgotten to side out and passed the turn. Soon my deck was the one with gas, beating down for two a turn, and the U/W pilot was in topdeck mode. Make sure you're not just stalling out while you spam Unsummons, kids!
At last James affixed an engorged, tumescent Pike to a Snapcaster (compensating for something?) and passed the turn. Now, this was far from "stabilizing"—he was at five life, and I'd win the game in a turn or two if not right away—but I had a Zealous Conscripts in my hand with four lands in play, and the thought of topdecking a land and crashing in for an overkill 20 made me bloodthirsty. Sure enough, I ripped a Mountain, and before I'd even murmured, "Comes-into-play trigger," James said, "Yeah, you got it." With the same blank expression on his face, he signed the match slip and began to pack up before I could ram the massive Pike through his eye socket.
I shoved my cards into my box, grabbed the match slip (a record of my objective superiority), and ran away. If I hadn't, I would have yelled, "Justice, baby!" or done something like this, and I didn't want to do that because I'm a gentleman.
Well, kind of. When I told my friends what had happened, I lamented that I'd missed out on an opportunity for a glorious slow roll:
"I'd draw for turn, look dejectedly at the board, flick my two cards in hand time after time, ask him how many cards he had in hand, put my cards down, and bury my face in my hands. Then, right after he'd called the judge over for slow play, just before the judge arrived, I'd slam the land and the Conscripts and say, in my most pedantic voice, "I'm going to tap five mana, including one red, to cast Zealous Conscripts. Do you need to read the card? Is it resolving? Oh, right, you have no cards in hand, so I guess it's probably resolving. Zealous Conscripts is coming into play, and I'll get this trigger, and I'll target your Snapcaster Mage. Judge, do you agree? Good; how the tables have turned, my friend."
"So, does the trigger resolve? Oh, right, you have no cards in hand; you just told me that. Nothing much you can do, such a shame. Nice Tiago; you won't be needing him. Go to combat. Swing for—wait, how many instants and sorceries do you have in your graveyard?—ah, eight. So I'll swing for (here I'd count on my fingers) 'one-two-three-four-twenty.' Any blocks? No? Go to damage? I've got you at minus fifteen. I think that's lethal? Good game. Nice try. A moral victory. Better luck next time. Here's your Snapcaster back. That's an interesting deck you've got there; from whom did you plagiarize it? Hmm, on pace for 172nd place, I see, just need your John Hancock right here..."
"Be kind," my dad later texted me, "the kid's got issues."
Round 4 vs. Bryan (Jund Zombies)
Bryan was a nice guy, so when he told me that it was unlikely the round would last all that long, I obviously interpreted it as a level, kept a bad seven, and died very quickly to a Diregraf Ghoul. I guess the last round had made me paranoid. I boarded in the burn and had an easy time winning game 2—dog's creatures couldn't block!—but after he mulled to start game 3, I kept a hand with insufficient removal. Quickly, I fell to three and untapped with Hellrider and Chainwalker in play. I dropped a fifth land and cast Hellrider number two, but he'd still have two life—only Pillar off the top would have won on the spot.
As it was, I had to attack with Chainwalker and hope he didn't have the Volley and would forget to scavenge onto his Troll. It's possible I shouldn't have unleashed the Chainwalker and tried to trade with something earlier, but who knows. For being Mono-Red, this deck is tough to play, especially in aggro mirrors where it can be unclear who's the beatdown, edges are marginal, and the wrong unleash decision can cost you the match.
"How are you doing, C?" asked Travis.
"Just lost a really close one to Zombies," I said.
"So you're 3-1?"
"I'm 1-3. I dropped. Can I see your deck?"
"If you must."
He riffled through it.
"I like your maindeck because it's basically the same as mine, but your sideboard blows."
"No kidding," I responded. "Lol donkaments."
Turn Him Loose!
Round 5 vs. Saul (U/W/R Control)
The guy at the next table could best be described as "Slime Molding for seven," so I crawled under to the opposite side, which put Saul in a bit of a squeeze. Both games he drew terribly; in neither game did I take damage. At least one of us was able to "shatter the mold."
There was an announcement on the loudspeaker. "Magic players, may I have your attention, please. Up here I have a box, and that box is filled with Pyreheart Wolves. They're dead because you failed to announce the attack trigger. This is a lapsed and beneficial trigger. Under the new rules …"
I found Travis. "Did you win?" he said.
"That Pyreheart Wolf thing was about me. That happened a couple rounds ago."
"Oh yeah? It happened to Corbett last round."
"Oops," I said, "I guess I'm used to thinking that everything's about me."
"Get it done," said Travis.
"They're in that box because they also forgot the undying triggers, anyway…"
My testing group was doing terribly. Remember, this was a week before LSV declared, "There is no midrange." I am happy with my own finish, but I regret that I was not a better testing partner.
All He Does Is Win
Round 6 vs. Tom (G/W Humans)
In poker when we talk about "live reads," we are often talking about "how the guy looks"—not "nervous" or "confident" so much as "old" or "Slavonic" or "wearing a hoodie." Yeah, it's stereotyping, but the fact is that stereotyping makes money. In this case, my read was off. Tom looked like a control player, so I kept a slow-ish hand lacking removal on the play. I exulted as he mulliganed, watched as he built up a board, and then took sixteen from a very angry Precinct Captain. In came the burn. Game 2 I kept a delightful six of Cackler, Spear, and four Mountains and got there by ripping a couple copies of Arc Lightning. Game 3 my pressure and removal secured me the initiative and the match.
Run, Pass, Option—I Think That's My Game
Round 7 vs. Dylan (Esper Superfriends)
Dylan won the roll and led off with some expensive lands. I had some weenies to start chipping away. He miracled a Terminus, and I remember thinking how nice it would be to draw a Hellrider. When a turn 4 Sorin appeared, I was able to deal with it, but I was in poor shape when he followed up with a Jace. Soon there came another Jace and a Tamiyo. Meanwhile, he'd made eight Spirits and had a Vault of the Archangel, but a canny bluff (holding a land!) convinced him to not draw eight off the Moon Sage. He was out of cards when he passed the turn. "I guess this is it," I said. "Need a land?" he replied. "No, I've got it—I need the Dragon," I answered. The top of my deck did not deliver.
I remember thinking: "Well, if this is how the next game goes, I'm totally screwed." But that game had been the aberration; I'd drawn little fat. (A few comments on "keeping" with this deck. Slow hands without a one- or two-drop are auto-mulligans and the nature of this deck means you'll be mulling more often than typical Mono-Red, but your mulls will also tend to be less crippling. The hands with only weenies, though almost always keeps, are not nearly as strong as a nice curve out.) "A nice curve out" is what happened in games 2 and 3, and Dylan's slow starts couldn't keep up with my nuttiest of nut draws.
I'm No John Elway
Round 8 vs. Dion (U/W Flash)
Again to the feature match area, where I'd lost two in a row (dating back to the last SCG Standard Open: Seattle). Dion was a debonair dude with great facial hair, and I was surprised to see him on U/W (another bad read). Game 1 I was fortunate to have the play; though I stuttered on lands and finishers, my little red dudes were enough to poke through lethal. Game 2 I had no initiative at all. After I made a number of misplays, the board state degenerated into a stall where I had no Pyreheart, and I succumbed to his flying armada. Though I disagree with Gerry Thompson that U/W is strong against this deck, I can understand why he said that.
Game 3 was the grindiest game I played all tournament. Dion mulliganed but had brought in several copies of Feeling of Dread, and between those and a timely Supreme Verdict, I was struggling to finish him off. I cracked a Crucible for the first time all tournament, and my token was dealt with for the low, low price of U. As he finally ran out of gas, I cracked the second Crucible and swung in for exactsies.
One More Game, One More Win
At this point, I had dreams of drawing in to the quarters, so I assembled a crew of smart and experienced people to help me out with tiebreak math. Standings were posted; I'd have to play.
No wonder I'd prevailed in the last round—it wasn't actually a win-and-in (or, per GerryT, "lose-and-out.") My record in these, you see, was an unblemished 0-5.
Round 9 vs. Alex (Naya Midrange)
I won the die roll and got off to a fast start, but I whiffed twice on my fourth Mountain. A big Angel wiped my board, and I finally found the Mountain for the Hellrider. I had another Red Devil in hand, representing the lethal four off triggers, but a Huntmaster and a Borderland Ranger put Alex to six and enabled a blocker of his to survive. This didn't seem like a big deal—at 15 life, I'd just win the next turn—but an attack for seven and a Devil's Play for eight put me to zero. Self-pity set in as I sideboarded; surely he'd have some tech for me, it was the worst matchup I'd faced all day, and I'd have to win game 3 on the draw.
Game 2, where I curved out against a mull to six and swung into a very irrelevant Thragtusk, was fairly encouraging. Game 3 he mulled, and I kept a shaky hand rich in lands and early beaters. He shuffled, stared at his six, and mulled again. The atmosphere had all the festive air of a public execution. The five-card hand started slowly and then picked up steam. To go with his dork, Andrew found a second land and then a third. If he ripped another land, he'd be able to cast Thragtusk with reasonable life and resources left, but a Pillar off the top left ganked the Pilgrim and left him in bad shape. A desperate Hammer Elephant was his last chance, but it was Zealously Conscripted. I was through to the Top 8.
Let Him Play! Let Him Play! Let Him Play (on Sunday)
Since making Top 8 was a new experience for me, I will do my best to describe it. I felt a little moved. This emotion isn't so different from the kind of pleasure you get from a great book or movie. There was also a bit of exhilaration and a skosh of adrenaline, but I'd been running on these all tournament and was now very tired. These events are long and grueling, much more so than Magic Online, and though I'm not an unhealthy person, I'm far from fit. The sensory deprivation of long rounds spent in a convention center with just enough downtime to get nervous but too little to adjourn for some real food and a beer was exhausting.
About my Top 8 profile, I have only one regret: I should have said the best Standard 'walker was Gore-House Chainwalker.
Quarterfinals vs. Jacob (Bant Control)
There was ceremony to this match as well. I quickly looked over the decklist I was provided. It had four Thragtusks but no way to recur them; there was a bit of removal and some countermagic. Barring two bad starts, I should have been able to win the match.
Jacob was a little more puzzled by my deck. "Can I ask one of you what a card does?" he said to a judge.
"Sure thing," said the judge. "Which one?"
Jacob indicated which one.
"Ah, that one, well, we were talking about it earlier today. When it attacks, each creature… Actually, let me just get you the oracle text."
On the play, I fanned out an opener of weenies with two lands. Noble, go. Land, go. Zealot, whack, go. He passed with two mana open. Whack; Azorius Charm. Jacob missed his third land-drop. Whack; Azorius Charm. He hit his land. I swung in again. He hit another land. I swung again. He was at one, cold to a topdecked M10 dual and a Thragtusk in hand. Of course he hit both, going to six. A swing got him down to three. He untapped, dropped the fourth consecutive topdecked land, and passed. At this point I was the one stuck on two, and I needed to topdeck a land for Mauler + Cackler or a Searing Spear to push lethal through the inevitable Sphinx's Revelation. I whiffed and dropped a beater. "Go to combat?" I said. He nodded.
It's now that I made two horrible mistakes. I often berate my friends for "playing around a card they can't beat," and though I probably couldn't beat a Revelation if I attacked, I could never beat it if I didn't. I also feared Restoration Angel, which wasn't in his 60. When you look at your opponent's Top 8 decklist, if you're like me, you'll never remember every card in the 75. For me, shortcuts such as "a couple maindeck counters" or "nothing at all out of the board" are vague but the best I can do. Though you can't explicitly write "no Restos" on your score sheet, there's nothing to stop you from making a mental note of a datum that could end up being critically important. Anyway, I passed without an attack, he resolved the inevitable Revelation, and my window slammed shut.
I brought in six cards; he brought in one or two at most. I still felt like I got this. But then I mulled from bad seven to a worse six and failed to "get there" in any sense of the word, and the second game was no game at all. Just like that, my tournament was over. "Seemed like a bad matchup for you," said Jacob. I nodded—why argue now?
He went on to win the tournament.
Let Him Go; It's Time
So, like Tim Tebow, I was good enough for Saturday but not Sunday. If football is a metaphor for the grand turning points in life, Magic is the same for its everyday triumphs and tragedies.
Here are some takeaways. First, Standard is for creatures, so play a lot of them. Second, this deck plays far more like Legacy Merfolk than traditional Mono-Red; yes, you'll often start beating early with Pyreheart of Atlantis and Coralhellrider Commander, but don't throw away your board in an attempt to push more damage through if you can just wait a turn and murder them with a critical mass of dudes. Third, you can always make Magic a rich experience; there's no shame in being "casual-competitive." Fourth, Mono-Red Aggro is only going to get better; I'm looking forward to Gatecrash so people can Shock themselves and durdle even more. Fifth, as I left the tournament and lamented my misfortune, Mike told me, "You can't second guess yourself."
"How else would I get better?" I asked. And this tension between being results-oriented and confident is only one of many that make this game so challenging, so rich, so endlessly compelling.
I'm going to suggest an improved decklist, but before that let me share a few thoughts on netdecking. Netdecks are valuable resources, but the casual-competitive crowd should think of them as starting points; cribbing a 75 wholesale is a poor choice. Not only is it boring, not only will you learn nothing about how the deck was built or how it plays, but you will also be hurting your chances of winning by playing a suboptimal list.
I recall throwing together a G/U Poison list and playing against my friend in Austin, Texas. Though that build had been performing decently on Magic Online, there was something wrong with it, not even subtly wrong, just dead wrong, if it couldn't beat an ancient, cheap budget list. This teaches us that edges in Magic are always paper-thin. So I fixed the deck, adding another Lash and a Pike, cutting the dreadful Glistener Elves, and I went from losing to a chill stoner to nearly making Top 8 of a tournament. A few simple changes inspired by testing made $60 Poison much, much better. In that spirit, here's a rough sketch of Mono-Red Aggro going forward:
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 2 Gore-House Chainwalker
- 4 Hellrider
- 2 Hound of Griselbrand
- 3 Lightning Mauler
- 4 Pyreheart Wolf
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
- 3 Thundermaw Hellkite
A few notes: I took out the Spears because you usually want Pillars and Arc Lightnings (and both spells are a far better fit with the curve). I like Travis's suggestion of Hound of Griselbrand, a strong threat that can block Humans and Zombies, fight Thragtusks, and laugh off Supreme Verdicts. Mizzium Mortars is a flexible spell out of the board. I wouldn't add the fourth Thundermaw main, as multiples are often dismal.
Sideboarding is simple. In this format, you're either playing against "aggro" or "control." Versus aggro, add the burn (with the possible exception of Mortars) and take out your worst creatures (likely Maulers, Chainwalkers, and/or Hellkites). Versus control, add the threats and take out all your burn. On the play or with a higher curve, board in the land.
Shout-outs to Mike Morris-Lent, my #1 fan and Magic-primer collaborator; Zach Murray, who also likes to exploit nits; Travis Woo, who wrote the rough draft and edited it with passion and dedication; Jon Strong, who dragged me to FNM in Victoria to get us closer to a final draft; Janss Woldseth and Brendan Goold, who took one for the team by letting me dodge them in the Swiss and from whom I borrowed a Thundermaw apiece; Robin Chambers, who cornered the market on Trostanis and Rhox Faithmenders; Zach Murray, who cornered the market on all the other good cards; Cedric Phillips, who always makes me look better than I am; and my third-round opponent for exactly the same reason.
Thank you for reading!
@CMLisawesome on Twitter