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War of the Spark Red Review

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A new set is a new chance to approach the world of Magic. While architects build with available materials, be they straw, sticks, bricks, or much more, in Magic, we build with whatever cards are available, and so a new set represents new possibilities.

With the release of War of the Spark, it seems that the possibilities are wildly impressive indeed.

In this review, I examine what War of the Spark means for building in base-Red decks in Standard.

The Philosophy

What does that mean?

Well, base-Red decks are the kind of decks that are definitely able to play Goblin Chainwhirler, whether they do it or not. They aren't just playing Red, and in fact, it might mean that they are a deck that would struggle to splash another color comfortably.

Take the Rakdos deck that Jody Keith used to win Grand Prix Memphis earlier this year - this deck was, in my eyes, barely Rakdos. This looked to me to be, basically, Big Red - the Big Red deck that I've been thinking about for a while now. When I played it, it played like Big Red to me, too. In fact, the main deck had so few non-Red mana symbols in it, if you replaced all of your lands with Mountains, most games, the deck would still function, and function well.


In contrast, Izzet Drakes plays a lot of Red cards, but is clearly a true ur deck. This review is about Red cards.

With that in mind, while there are plenty of cards out there that are Red, they will not be reviewed from other perspectives. During my last review, one person commented how I had "missed" Gates Ablaze, which was clearly a good Red card. Gates Ablaze is obviously a great card that costs Red mana to cast. But it is not a good Red card.

With all of that philosophy aside, let's begin the War of the Spark Red Review!

The Cards to Watch

Ugin, the Ineffable

Perhaps it is unsurprising that in a Planeswalker focused set, I would call out a Planeswalker. What makes this card so important is how much it changes the game.

One of the biggest issues with Red right now can actually be tied to experiences friends of mine have had playing the Big Red (Rakdos) deck I was just talking about.

The deck is absolutely great.

And then you can lose to a problem permanent.

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Niv-Mizzet, Parun. These two were the biggest offenders, but there were others. Importantly, the result was pretty simple: this horrible card would come out and things would just fall apart.

Ugin, the Ineffable changes that. It is very much like a Vraska, Relic Seeker that a Red deck could play.

Not only can Ugin come out and solve very nearly any problem, but also it might come out and actually power up another spell immediately. Treasure Map already feels right at home in a Big Red style deck, but there are other options that Ugin sweetens. Further, at six mana, it is actually quite reasonable to cast Ugin off of an earlier Treasure Map, a Pirate's Pillage, or as a final punch after that Siege-Gang Commander or other 5-drop.

The +1 ability is also potent in its own right, creating an army of creatures like the aforementioned Vraska, Relic Seeker, but with the upside that should anything happen to the 2/2 creatures, all of those casualties are immediately added to your resources - each spirit is a two-for-one in waiting!

Big Red was big before. This card is a potent tool it can add to its toolbox, and it might just take the deck to another level.

The Excellent

Heartfire

This is very simple: four damage is a lot. Sure, you're sacrificing a creature (or potentially a Planeswalker), but with it being an instant, the ability to respond to removal makes this very different from many of the sacrifice effects we've had for a very long time. The sheer amount of direct damage in Standard definitely makes me think this card will be a player, be it in a deck using Viashino Pyromancer or in a swarming deck that will have creatures aplenty to toss aside.

Ilharg, the Raze-Boar

This is an incredibly large creature for five mana, especially when you think about the various ways it can be abused that are already potent creatures in Red: Siege-Gang Commander, Goblin Chainwhirler, Viashino Pyromancer, Dire Fleet Daredevil, Rix Maadi Reveler - these are just a few creatures that I came up with that produce value off of the top of my head, and that isn't even doing things like stretching by thinking more outside the box, like Etali, Primal Storm or other more exotic choices. There are a great many choices at five mana, but this is definitely a card to consider.

Jaya, Venerated Firemage

While it may be surprising that one of the uncommon Planeswalkers rates as "excellent", this is one. Effects like Furnace of Rath have been around forever, and oftentimes they've been meaningful, even when both players get the effect. Jaya, Venerated Firemage comes joined by not just one Shock but two. This could place it very well in a deck like Burn, but also in a more midrange deck that has access to either a ton of repeatable damage, or even in a deck like a potential Goblins deck which might go wide.

Neheb, Dreadhorde Champion

Neheb, Dreadhorde Champion has to fight with Rekindling Phoenix in terms of real estate in most decks, but in that fight, it can at least be in the ring. Trample isn't flying, but it is an important part of finishing games and functions as a kind of quasi-evasion. Importantly, the triggered ability isn't just a card-filtering ability, but a mana ability that could routinely place a player at nine mana on turn five. In addition, whereas most Legends can choke on multiples, Neheb will not, so a deck that can make use of his ability can easily play four copies. I won't be surprised at all to see this as a part of the fuel in a Big Red deck or as a card that can help enable more unusual decks, like Guttersnipe/Electrostatic Field-fueled quasi-combo Burn decks.

Sarkhan the Masterless

At five mana, Sarkhan the Masterless has a lot to compete with. For a base Red deck, there aren't a great many Planeswalkers to turn into Dragons right away, and creating a single Dragon at the cost of being nearly dead-and-gone is rough. Still, making a Dragon and still sticking around, if not protecting itself (and you) is powerful in its own right - a touch more, and it would be scary enough that it might be format-rocking instead of "merely" excellent.

God-Pharaoh's Statue

Another tool for the Big Red decks, this is the first card we've seen in a long time that actually looks like true land destruction. Sneakily, this card is repressive enough that if you're doing enough to successfully stay alive, this card will be a true pain for an opponent to deal with - all while killing them. Don't be surprised the first time this card gets cast in a Big Red deck - it is going to happen.

Blast Zone
Mobilized District

Here we get into the biggest reason why we might see Big Red emerge abandoning Rix Maadi Reveler: it might need to stick to mono-color to embrace the power of colorless lands in the style of old-school Ponza. Blast Zone supplies an impressive answer for a weenie army the moment it hits play, but importantly, it also will have use against more controlling decks as well, often able to take out a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria before it goes nuclear and without much that can be done to fight back, save Field of Ruin.

Mobilized District will similarly be a threat waiting to come marching across, likely not often activated, but posing a powerful threat in those times that it is needed. It is worth remembering, Brian Kowal's original Ponza list ran four Stalking Stones.

The Good

Burning Prophet

Burning Prophet gains a lot for powering up Wizard's Lightning. Beyond that, it doesn't power up so impressively that you would want it without Scry. Scry makes it worthwhile, though, in a deck that is stringing together multiple spells for effect. Look for this card in those Guttersnipe/Electrostatic Field decks that kill from out of nowhere with cantrips.

Dreadhorde Arcanist

While this card seems likely to make a splash in Modern Burn, in Standard, this card is still quite potent. While Red isn't currently big on playing with creature pump affects, there are still a great many cards that it will be powerful to reuse for free. Shock is obvious, but the many cantrips out there, like Crash Through and Warlord's Fury, also are worthwhile options already. As a Wizard, enabling Wizard's Lightning is a big deal. Beyond that, though, with even a gentle bit of creature pump, pretty much all of your spells are likely to be on the table.

Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin

While not as quick at producing damage as a Legion Warboss, this cranks out tokens at a phenomenal rate. In a dedicated Goblin deck or in a deck that has a reason for tokens as fodder, this is a very powerful card.

Mizzium Tank

Mizzium Tank is good simply because with a single burn spell, you've got yourself a resilient 4/3 trampler which can easily grow much larger yet. Removal for vehicles is notoriously more difficult, so the ability to dodge cruel cards like Kaya's Wrath will be a huge reason this card has a reason to exist.

Angrath, Captain of Chaos

Menace isn't the same thing as unblockable, but it isn't far off. Putting Angrath, Captain of Chaos into play will generally create a turn which includes a great potential for much more damage than the opponent was expecting, and then it will be joined shortly by a reasonably sized army. The ability to both buff a team of creatures and supply new creatures together puts this card just over the edge in terms of value for a creature-based Red deck.

Nahiri, Storm of Stone

While Nahiri, Storm of Stone isn't very likely to help out with equipping in a Red deck, like Angrath, Captain of Chaos, this Nahiri can create a deeply difficult turn for a defending player. There is just enough Loyalty on Nahiri that it can either help whittle away at a large attacking force or completely take out a real problem like Baneslayer Angel.

Saheeli, Sublime Artificer

This card is likely to create a great deal of Servos in either a Burn deck or a more combo-facing deck, even without trying to activate its copying ability. It's actually quite capable of suddenly ending a game by copying a Dragon or Phoenix and going to the air with a previously unscary 1/1.

The Sideboard Cards

Bolt Bend

These kinds of cards have long-tended to be very powerful if they are cheap enough; should you be playing Big Red, this card can be a devastating sideboard card. Unlike most Deflection-like cards, you can change the target of an ability, which can mean that this card can not only fight countermagic from a Blue opponent, but can redirect a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria into tucking the wrong card.

Chandra, Fire Artisan

As a card draw spell, this has a big card to compete with: Karn, Scion of Urza. This card will be at its most effective in a grind, especially against other Planeswalkers. Sadly, its inflexibility when immediately played and its narrowness are going to relegate it to sideboards.

Chandra's Pyrohelix

In a world where hitting small creatures matters, this is a solid card.

Tibalt, Rakish Instigator

This card will more often be used for its static ability, but the -2 ability is also very decent against opposing small creatures as well.

The Role Players

Grim Initiate

If you're looking for solid cannon fodder, this is a good one; while not a big punch, the resilience could be useful if you're looking for two bodies for cheap.

Samut, Tyrant Smasher

This card gets to the party a little late for anything other than a very specific deck which needs to have late-arrivers come into play with a boom - if such a deck exists...

Karn, the Great Creator

Mastermind's Acquisition for artifacts requires a very specific Red Artifact deck; if you're that deck, then this card will be great, with the ability to briefly animate creatures just a solid bonus.

Finale of Promise

Creating the kind of mana that will trigger the most powerful version of this card will be rare. Rather, if you're looking to run a spell-heavy deck, like the Mono-Red Arclight Phoenix deck, or the combo-Burn Guttersnipe deck, this card will be very effective.

Karn's Bastion

A deck with this is likely powering up Planeswalkers, Blast Zone, or Runaway Steam-Kin, if not all of them. With enough payoffs, this card is solid.

Firemind Vessel

Whether it makes a second color that is relevant or not, this card is a great enabler for big plays from a Big Red deck looking to jump from four to six or seven.

The Marginal

Chandra's Triumph

If you're playing a Chandra, this is a good Magic card. The limited utility of the in-print Standard Chandras make this card quite marginal, however.

Cyclops Electromancer

At five mana, you need to be very spell-heavy for this card to be worth it, and need to be answering otherwise difficult to answer cards.

Devouring Hellion

For the token deck that needs to go big, this could be an option.

Honor the God-Pharaoh

If four Tormenting Voice is not good enough and Pirate's Pillage isn't what your deck is doing, this card could be for you.

Jaya's Greeting

If you expect to need to control creatures, and you are setting up for big plays, this card could be up your alley.

Samut's Sprint

With enough incentives to give haste to, this card could be useful.

Sarkhan's Catharsis

This card isn't Beacon of Destruction, but it is a lot of damage in a single spell; for a Burn deck, this could be a card to consider, though only barely.

Spellgorger Weird

If you are looking for more payoffs for those incredible Runaway Steam-Kin powered turns, this could be for you.

Interplanar Beacon

For a Planeswalker-heavy deck, this card could be among the colorless lands you'd run, as such a more controlling deck might benefit from a little life gain.

The Splashes

While there are plenty of great cards including Red mana in War of the Spark, these are well positioned to be included in a base-Red deck.

Angrath's Rampage
Dreadhorde Butcher
Mayhem Devil
Widespread Brutality

Angrath's Rampage isn't Dreadbore, but typically it will be able to take out a card that might be more difficult for Red to normally take out on its own, and it adds back to the vocabulary something lost since Abrade: removal that can also take out a problem artifact.

Dreadhorde Butcher is an incredibly powerful creature that is best served by pushing the mana into letting this card hit on turn two. Even later, though, it is still effective.

Mayhem Devil seems incredibly in conjunction with the many Red sacrifice effects, especially when you consider that you don't need to drop this on turn three to be powerful; a later game Mayhem Devil can still pile on a ton of damage when powered up by Treasure or other fodder.

Widespread Brutality is at its best when supplemented by other Amass cards, but without too much work can function as a near one-way Wrath of God, even if you are running creatures of your own.

Domri, Anarch of Bolas
Living Twister

Domri, Anarch of Bolas is a solid splash simply because the +1 ability can be so potent against a control deck and the -2 ability can be so solid against a creature deck.

Living Twister feels like an amazing potential late game card where that horribly flood is suddenly turned into an utter storm of damage.

Invade the City
Ral, Storm Conduit
Ral's Outburst

All three of Blue's potential splashes with Red feel like they each could be in a Burn build of Red, though wouldn't necessarily all need to be played. For a Red deck, each card is a potential tool to make a spell-heavy deck finish the game.

Solar Blaze

The Red control decks, be they Big Red or something else, just received a near Wrath of God effect here. While a few creatures escape this card, this will kill most.

The Unimportant

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

The Conclusion

When I look at the cards that were printed, I see a lot of tools for three potential decks: Big Red (a la the Rakdos Midrange we've seen recently), Burn, and Spells-Red (a la Guttersnipe/Electrostatic Field). I think Ugin, the Ineffable is likely to be a real player in the future of Standard, and the new lands lead me to believe it will likely be a mono-colored build that will be the most powerful approach.

It also feels like the ability for Red decks to push damage has been pumped up. Expect short-games with Red to be even more potent, so the straight-forward Red we've been seeing already might be even more powerful even if it doesn't fully shift over into a pure Burn archetype.

Overall, I'm wildly pleased with the look of this set for Red. While I won't be in London playing on the Grand Stage at the Mythic Championship, you will likely see me at my favorite local game store, Misty Mountain Games in Madison, Wisconsin, duking it out at their Prerelease. If you're in the area, I hope I see you there!

Red is looking forward to a great future! Have a blast, blasting everyone apart, fellow Red mages!

- Adrian Sullivan

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