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The Red Review: Ravnica Allegiance Edition

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Once again, it's that time of year where I dig my teeth into a set and look for the Red cards in it. No, not just cards that have Red mana symbols, but the cards that are, in their embers, Red at heart. Red, as a color, may be the simultaneously the most beloved and hated color (fighting for that honor with Blue), but beyond that, it also feels like it is the most pure.

I haven't put on the mantle of full-on Red mage in a while, but I still love the color.

The Philosophy

As always, this is not a mere review of the Red cards in the set, but it is a review from the standpoint of a Standard base-Red Red deck. What's the difference between a base-Red Red deck and another deck playing Red? One simple answer is that a base-Red deck will only barely be splashing another color.


This deck is clearly a base-White deck. On the other hand, the popular Izzet Drakes decks of the last many months are clearly dedicated in significant degree to both Blue and Red. You can look to this review as being dedicated to a base-Red philosophy that might be a touch more splashable that Elenbogen's Pro Tour-winning deck splashes, but not by much, even as that is complicated by the power of the Gold cards in Ravnica Allegiance; this will not be a review that considers Sunder Shaman or Rakdos Firewheeler any more than it did Crackling Drake.

During my last Red review, I called out Legion Warboss, Risk Factor, and Runaway Steam-Kin as stand-out cards, missed by calling Goblin Cratermaker such a card (though, it still has time!), and thought of Experimental Frenzy as a sideboard card - which it has been, though it clearly exceeds that mark. Deafening Clarion has proven itself outside of Red, but without any strong Red decks splashing White, has not pushed itself to the foreground for Red itself; that being said, as with Goblin Cratermaker, there is still time…

Now, without further ado, let's begin this set's Red Review!

The Card to Watch

Skewer the Critics

This card is so good that it was entirely the reason I was inspired to write the "Burn, Baby, Burn" article last week. For many people this card will seem innocuous, and for others, it will seem obvious. But, the truth of this card is a bit more complicated than that.

Redundancy on powerful Burn is so important. The more redundancy you have, the more frightening each and every single burn spell in a Burn deck (or other aggressive deck) gets. Once you get to a threshold, you can start having that moment where there is so much direct damage that you can actually achieve a critical mass where an opponent's life total is under direct threat, as it is in a Modern Burn deck. This card takes us to our fourth clearly reasonable, efficient true burn spell, along with Lightning Strike, Wizard's Lightning, and Shock. That doesn't even count pseudo-burn cards like Viashino Pyromancer.

In addition, though, outside of a critical mass of burn spells for a Burn deck, there is the question of efficient damage. The current Red-based aggressive decks aren't running twelve burn spells because they are hoping to be a Burn deck; they are just looking for efficient cards to end the game. Shock has the added upside of being able to kill a Llanowar Elves, but other than that factor, most people are underwhelmed by Shock. Skewer the Critics can come in and take over the role of Shock as an extra bit of reach, and relegate cards like Fanatical Firebrand to Llanowar Elves-killing duty.

Finally, with that element of efficiency, we are living in a world where Experimental Frenzy is in the mix. The pure likelihood of having Spectacle triggered giving such a discount for so much damage makes an already powerful card that much more powerful.

Skewer the Critics is the card to watch.

The Excellent

Rix Maadi Reveler

Another seeming innocuous card, this card is absolutely completely reasonable just as a two-drop 2/2. With an ability to filter your draw, this is huge, whether it is managing an Experimental Frenzy - a concept that is just a reality in current Standard - or simply mitigating mana issues.

This would be enough, but if you add in the ability to turn into a sort of Bedlam Reveler, things get out of hand. Late game, drawing three new cards is a huge ability, and it doesn't actually require much in the way of Black mana to accomplish, let alone hurt too terribly much if you haven't happened to have drawn your few Black-producing lands.

If only this were a Wizard, but we're getting a lot out of this card as is.

Skarrgan Hellkite

Whichever side of Riot we end up making use of for this card, it fulfills a classically proven winning strategy: giving a Red deck a large, hasty flyer. Most often, this card is going to simply be a 4/4, but in those games where you have the need to either go large or to start using a machine gun, this card is there for you.

This is especially relevant in games where you have a ton of mana. This can simply be because a game has gone wrong for a more traditional aggressive deck, or it can be because you are running a Big Red strategy. Imagine this from Big Red: after a long game, Skarrgan Hellkite comes down with a +1/+1 counter, and then, the next turn, can start shooting the world up for 6 damage a turn.

It's rare to find a card that can help push over an already-on-the-ropes opponent in an aggro draw and can come to pull back a game that felt lost because of mana flood.

Thank you, Skarrgan Hellkite!

The Good

Goblin Gathering

Goblin Gathering dwells in that realm of cards that is a pleasure to play because of the interaction of the card with our building excitement. Accumulated Knowledge wouldn't be cool if it just drew three cards for a reasonable amount of mana - it is cool because of the building up of the card in multiples. Now, it doesn't have the excitement of checking all graveyards, but that doesn't diminish the general coolness of the card.

From the standpoint of efficiency, we'd want to think about this card from the most realistic perspectives: is it good enough when we cast it the first time, and is it good enough when we cast it the second; imagining it when we're casting it a third and fourth time are not a great way to evaluate cards like this.

By this measure, Goblin Gathering averages out to a card we've seen before: Hordeling Outburst. The first Goblin Gathering is vaguely underwhelming, but that second one is quite impressive! Add onto this the very real factor of cards that care about Goblins, especially Skirk Prospector and Goblin Warchief. More than ever, an Experimental Frenzy Goblins list seems like it is real.

Light Up the Stage

This is an absolutely solid card for a minor burst of card advantage that can work in conjunction with Experimental Frenzy, as opposed to a card like Risk Factor, which can often feel like an utter waste of time when you have the Frenzy out. While less outright powerful than Risk Factor, it provides a reliable burst of cards, which can be important for those decks who are looking to refuel without risk.

Bedeck // Bedazzle

Bedeck, all by itself, is a great card. While it can be used to help pump up a fair number of creatures, being able to take down an indestructible creature matters too. Oftentimes this might be Adanto Vanguard, but more often it is relevant in killing a Dauntless Bodyguard-protected Benalish Marshall.

This is even more important for slower Red decks, like the Big Red-style, which might not have enough damage to actually finish off an opponent protecting the Adanto Vanguard with their life. For the typical Red Aggro deck, this isn't usually a problem, but it does come up at times, though it is far more relevant for the slower deck.

Bedazzle isn't super incredible, but if you happen to have the Black mana, it is a fine add-on.

The Sideboard Cards

Clamor Shaman

This verges on the possibility of being a main deck card, but seems to me to mostly be a decent weapon in aggressive creature decks that are facing down bigger creatures. There is a long history of cards like Goblin Heelcutter being powerful options, and this card might be a more reliable main deck card were it not for the small beginning power.

Deface

This doesn't currently look like it is a necessary sideboard card, but at one mana, this could be a reasonable weapon if it suddenly emerges that Icy Manipulator is the best card in Standard (though it would be fighting against Goblin Cratermaker for relevance in that alternate reality).

Scorchmark

There aren't many Standard cards you absolutely want to exile, but anything that gets rid of an Arclight Phoenix for good becomes a card worth thinking about. The smattering of other creatures that it can affect meaningfully make this a potential, if unlikely sideboard card.

Smelt-Ward Ignus

If games are coming down to very fast exchanges that could easily be swayed by a card like Threaten, Smelt-Ward Ignus, has the added value of being a creature that can simply attack and block when you aren't in the market for a Threaten effect. The lack of surprise hinders it, but that versatility can matter in games of inches.

Scrabbling Claws

This is simple, reasonable graveyard removal for any color. At such a cheap cost and with the ability to trade-in for a card, this is a decent tool for a Red deck which would otherwise notoriously be weak at attacking the graveyard. Negative points for its lack of handling a Crackling Drake, but still better than most cards we've seen in Standard on this count, for some time.

The Role Players

Amplifire

How important is consistency? If it isn't important, than this card might be the card for you, especially if you are throwing your own trample into the mix. There are a number of very reasonable-to-play Red cards that have a fairly high base power, which can make this a potential 8/8 or larger for only four mana. In a deck with almost no creatures, this deck would likely fluctuate between 2/2 (other Amplifires) and, say, 12/12 (Etali, Primal Storm). In games with many more creatures, it feels most likely to fly between 4/4 and 8/8, but that is still a reasonable rate if you don't care about blocking.

Electrodominance

In Modern, this card seems awesome. In Standard, this card seems fine in a Red deck. Wildly inefficient for the initial effect, the real power you're getting is from getting a sort of 'Quicken' out of the card. What sorcery-speed cards are you getting your pay off from? That will be how this card plays its role for you.

Rubble Reading

Is land destruction worthwhile? This is about as good a rate and a card as you'll get these days. If it is a thing you want to even do…

Spear Spewer

There are plenty of one-drop Goblins you might want to run. If you're looking for a reliable way to gain a Spectacle discount or you're not expecting to be able to do well in a combat phase, this is a card you could use.

Tin Street Dodger

Speaking of 1-drop Goblins, this card is fine, with the added benefit of being able to very likely have text that reads "unblockable". Less good at enabling useful Spectacle, it is better at creating damage than Spear Spewer, especially if you are actually a true Goblin deck.

Gruul Locket
Rakdos Locket

Like Boros Locket and Izzet Locket before them, this card has a lot of competition, both for more powerful card advantage or more power ramp. If you're looking for both a splash enabler and a Hedron Archive-like card boost, these are big maybes.

Junktroller

One of the few cards that can actually mess with Crackling Drake's power, Junktroller has a substantially large toughness and is decent at affecting a dedicated graveyard deck, though slower than other options. If you need a blocker and want an upside, this could be a card to choose.

The Marginal

Cavalcade of Calamity

Most likely joining a group of Goblin tokens, this card could act as a kind of extra Lord, presuming you're supplying enough weenies.

Dagger Caster

If you really, really need Goblin Chainwhirler number five through eight, and you don't mind the downgrades that come with Dagger Caster in every other measure.

Flames of the Raze-Boar

If you have large creatures and you're dying to swarms, this could be your card.

Immolation Shaman

This is a card trying to answer some very specific cards. At five mana, getting a 4/6 is certainly a way to spend excess mana, but it isn't exciting. Perhaps with a lot of help, or a certain environment, this card will be worth using, but the specific reason in Standard hasn't really become clear to me.

Mirror March

When you have comes-into-play or attacking trigger abilities in abundance, this card might give you a potential payoff, but at six mana, it seems like usually it will come to the party too late.

Rumbling Ruin

Are you struggling against a clogged board, but have a ton of creatures that have been built up by counters? If so, then Rumbling Ruin could save your day. (Strange "if".)

The Splashes

Stomping Ground
Blood Crypt

It goes without saying that this card is indispensable for a deck hoping to splash Green. Guildgates don't do what an actual Mountain can do, especially with the helping of their "buddies", Rootbound Crag and Dragonskull Summit. Here are base-Red cards that could be reasonable splashes:

Domri, Chaos Bringer

Building up to six mana can be a huge deal for Big Red style decks. For smaller Red Aggro decks, it could easily help put Ghitu Lavarunner or Fanatical Firebrand into play with a little bonus. The threat of the ultimate could be game-breaking in either deck, while the -3 ability could help you survive a grind.

Gruul Spellbreaker

Just by providing Settle the Wreckage protection this card is a reasonable splash. In base-Red, this is a true three-drop, as opposed to a potential turn two play in Green, but even so, the sheer size of the card is noteworthy.

Rhythm of the Wild

Like Gruul Spellbreaker, this is a better Green card, but this is still a strong splash card for Red, which has plenty of cards worthy of following up with on turn four or five, be it Rekindling Phoenix or Demanding Dragon.

Collision // Colossus

The "Colossus" side of Collision // Colossus is actively scary; having the upside of potentially taking out some of the huge threats for a Red deck like Lyra Dawnbringer or Whisperer is a huge deal. Even just the potential to kill Niv-Mizzet, Parun in a single card is wildly noteworthy.

Thrash // Threat

Red has plenty of removal, so Thrash isn't really a huge payoff by itself; however, the weakness of having too many answers can be a real burden, and any reasonable body can matter, so Threat helps turn Thrash into a card that could be worth splashing.

Cindervines

While this card would almost certainly be a splashed sideboard card, in the realm where that kind of card could be useful, this Seal of Ouch is noteable. A combo-like deck might absolutely need to get rid of this card before it can hope to win, so this card is worth taking seriously.

Fireblade Artist

Creatures becoming outclassed is a real problem for aggressive decks. Turning them into kamikaze agents is a lot better than having them sit, useless. The Black-splashing deck that plays this would be happy to cast this on turn two, but also get a real use out of it on turn six.

Judith, the Scourge Diva

Building up your team while buying an insurance policy is pretty huge, especially if you are going to already be taxing their life total with burn spells and aggressive creatures.

Rakdos, the Showstopper

In a Big Red style deck, especially running a sizeable amount of creatures immune to Rakdos's triggered ability, this card is a powerful end game play, even despite its unreliability.

Theater of Horrors

While slower than Experimental Frenzy, if you're oftentimes finding yourself with cards in hand but you want a source of grinding card advantage, this is a great alternative that would be worthy of a splash.

Carnival // Carnage

I featured this card in last week's article about Standard Burn; Carnival is great at fulfilling the role of Shock in removing a Llanowar Elves, but also can end up being Blightning. Blightning is just a powerful effect, and traditionally been worth splashing for.

The Unimportant

These are cards I don't expect will impact Standard at all, as they are simply outclassed by other cards.

The Conclusion

Ravnica Allegiance is not going to be about the small number of cards that are big for Red, but about just how good the best cards are. Skewer the Critics is a game-changer, and it will be near ubiquitous in Red decks, excepting the most controlling ones. Skarrgan Hellkite is an awesome Glorybringer replacement, albeit more slow to get paid off by.

Most important, though, is that Stomping Ground and Blood Crypt are actually far better lands for Red than Sacred Foundry and Steam Vents. There are a large number of great cards in both of these colors that would be wildly worthy splashes that can now be played, especially in Black. Look to see br Burn actually be a real deck now.

Goblins might have finally reached the threshold it needs to become a mainstay, though I suspect it is still slightly short. Big Red, always one of my perennial favorites, might have the tools, finally, to return to the stage after a long departure thanks to Skarrgan Hellkite and Bedeck.

Overall, I expect to see the format full of plenty of Skewering.

The Dénouement

If you're wondering where I'm going to be getting my Red Magic-playing on this weekend, it will be at the Ravnica Allegiance Pre-Release at Misty Mountain in Madison, Wisconsin. They actually begin promptly, tonight, at one minute after midnight! These days, I'm not really much of a "midnight event" gamer, but you'll certainly see me there the rest of the weekend! Be sure to come on by!

In addition, after the occasional technical stumble, I've begun streaming fairly regularly! I did my first give-away the other night - a gift certificate for the very site you're reading now - and I'm looking forward to growing the stream with all of you. I'm still so new to this side of it, so do stop in and help me make it as good as it can get!

Now that Ravnica Allegiance is out, six sets of Red is going to make for a lot of heat. Whether it is online or at a Pre-Release, let's start blazing!

- Adrian Sullivan

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