As many of you know, one of the first things I like to do when considering a new Standard environment is decide what kind of mono-red deck I can build. Recently, red aggression hasn’t been a very strong option in Standard, but the return of one of my favorite cards to Standard play in Magic 2014 Core Set may be about to change that: Chandra's Phoenix.
Chandra's Phoenix provides Red Deck Wins with some very powerful things that aren’t always available to red but that make red aggression significantly more viable:
- Cheap evasion. While red is the color of expensive Dragons and big Phoenixes, it usually doesn’t have any high-quality, cheap flyers. A 2/2 haste flyer for 3 mana would be good in any color, even if it didn’t have any other abilities, but it gives red aggression another powerful dimension.
- Persistent offense. Most cheap red creatures are easily killed and forgotten about. Having a decent, cheap threat that you can easily return to play makes the deck’s offense much more stable.
- A better late game. One of the problem’s with red aggression is that you want a really low mana curve to put your threats into play early and often. The problem with this is usually that your late game is completely nonexistent. Having your high-end threat being one you can recur really helps address this problem.
- Making burn better. Against decks with small creatures, cards like Shock and Pillar of Flame are incredibly efficient removable that have the flexibility to be pointed at your opponent’s dome. Against decks without a lot of small creatures, however, they become dead weight, merely representing 2 points of damage to your opponent and nothing else, cluttering up eight slots in the deck. Thanks to Chandra's Phoenix, they can now represent a red, 1-mana Raise Dead for any and all Phoenixes in your graveyard that also burns your opponent in the face for 2 damage.
The only real problem with Chandra's Phoenix is that it puts the squeeze on the 3-mana spot of the red curve, which is normally reserved for Boros Reckoner. For the reasons mentioned above, I prefer the Chandra’s pet, so I set about designing decks built around the Phoenix. My first effort ended up looking like this:
"Red Deck Wins"
Like many aggressive red decks I design, my focus was on making a deck with a really strong early game that still has decent game when I mana-flood.
Stromkirk Noble – This is one of the best 1-drops in the format. Unless your opponent has good removal ready to go, a turn-one Noble is very hard to deal with. This deck has enough cheap removal that it can remove all potential blockers until the Noble is so big that potential blockers become merely potential chump-blockers.
Rakdos Cackler – A 2/2 for 1 mana is the most efficient source of damage available to red. In the early game, your burn will help clear the way, and in the late game, after the opponent has dealt with the Cackler, your burn can be used to finish what the Cackler started.
Ash Zealot – A 2/2 first striker with haste is about as good as it gets for a 2-drop. Every card in the deck besides lands and 1-drops is capable of doing damage the turn you draw it, thanks in large part to haste. The first strike also combos nicely with instant burn. While clearly a noncombo with the flashback of Devil's Play, they’re both too good not to use in this deck, and you can hope your life total won’t be the issue in most matchups.
Archwing Dragon – If you think of this as a card that allows you to pay 4 mana for 4 damage every turn, you start to form a better understanding of why it’s so powerful. The fact that you get to/have to cast it again every turn is a privilege and not a drawback. Combined with the recursion of Chandra's Phoenix, it makes your deck much less vulnerable to cards like Day of Judgment. This card is among the main ways the deck can shrug off mana-flood.
Searing Spear – While not quite as efficient for killing early creatures as Shock or Pillar of Flame, it’s obviously better for directly reducing your opponent’s life total to 0. In addition, it can be a game-saver on those occasions when your opponent has an early 3-toughness creature.
Devil's Play – This card best exemplifies the useful-in-the-early-game-and-useful-when-you-mana-flood ethos of this deck. You can kill a small creature with only 2 mana. Yet, when you mana-flood, you can kill two big creatures or burn your opponent twice for large chunks of damage. In the process, you can even retrieve your Phoenixes. There will be quite few situations in which you have a Zealot in play and want to cast a Devil's Play from your graveyard, but when it does come up, usually taking 3 damage shouldn’t be an issue.
Hellion Crucible – Every time I make a mono-red deck, people ask, “Why wouldn’t you play at least one Hellion Crucible?” The answer to that question is that I like playing cards like Ash Zealot and Stonewright, but I’ve finally decided that one Crucible will probably do more good than harm. Then again, there’s nothing like totally jinxing myself . . .
As I tried different red aggressive builds, I came up with another one I liked:
Young Pyromancer – Like the Phoenix, Young Pyromancer rewards you for playing with a lot of burn spells. Your potential swarm of little tokens receives a boost from Stonewright and Brimstone Volley as well. At 2/1 for 2 mana, this is a reasonable 2-drop, and it gives you something red doesn’t always have much of: card advantage.
Stonewright – Stonewright seemed like a good add to this version for three reasons. First, it helps make your Pyromancer’s tokens more threatening. Second, if you need a friend for it, you can fetch a Phoenix from your ’yard. Last, it gives you something to pump extra mana into since you don’t have Dragons to help with that.
Brimstone Volley – The big thing with adding Volleys to the deck is that it increases the number of cards that go with Young Pyromancer and Chandra's Phoenix from 20 to 24. It can also punish your opponent for blocking and killing the tokens that you’ve generated with Young Pyromancer. Let’s face it: 5 to the face hurts.
Ever since cards like Lightning Bolt, Goblin Guide, and Burst Lighting left the Standard format, Red Deck Wins has been, well . . . losing. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that Wizards has chosen to include Chandra's Phoenix in M14. Perhaps the return of the Phoenix will help Red Deck Win rise from the ashes like a—well—like a Phoenix. Certainly Chandra's Phoenix is happy to slam the door shut on Thragtusk’s way out. Red Deck Wins might still not be ready to completely dominate Standard, but at least now you shouldn’t receive quite as many looks of incredulity when people see that your board is covered in Mountains.