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Your Future Red Deck Sideboard Guide

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Yesterday's Banned and Restricted Announcement is sure to make waves in Modern.

I mean, it kind of has to; doesn't it?

In the unlikely event that you're reading this but somehow missed the aforementioned format-shaking asteroid strike:

Modern:

It goes without saying that the first two bans are more than justified. Hogaak-based decks have made up around half and more of August's Modern Grand Prix Top 8s. 5/8 (with the win) in Minneapolis; "only" 3/8 the next win in Birmingham (with Simon Nielsen's build in second place); and finally Neilen picking up the actual win, leading 5/8 just yesterday in Las Vegas.

Faithless Looting may have been even worse! Not only a four-of in one take of Mono-Red Aggro...


... Faithless Looting was a cross-archetype pillar of format Staples like traditional Dredge and Izzet Phoenix; both of which have had their boosters for Modern's "best deck in the format" title.

I'm super glad both cards have gone. Not the least of which is because with Dredge effectively neutered, the Red Deck is poised for an unprecedented tear. Why? Leveled Thinking.

The concept of leveled thinking was first written about by David Sklansky in his book No Limit Hold 'Em: Theory and Practice. His definitions of each level are summarized below, and have been massively influential to not only poker, but Magic: The Gathering theorists. I last wrote about Slansky's levels in 2012 (which also happens to be one of my favorite articles) here.

  1. Level 0: No thinking.
  2. Level 1: What do I have?
  3. Level 2: What do they have?
  4. Level 3: What do they think I have?
  5. Level 4: What do they think I think they have?
  6. Level 5: What do they think I think they think I have?

Level 0 Magic strategists are unlikely to take the new Banned and Restricted announcements into account when choosing their next Modern Weapons of Choice; except, presumably, to make sure their decks are still legal.

Level 1 mages, though, are quite interesting to consider. How about that third bullet?

Stoneforge Mystic is unbanned.

That's a heck of a thing to suddenly have, isn't it? This will make for Stoneforge Mystic's debut in Modern, and I for one can't wait. Mostly, because I've been playing against Stoneforge Mystic in Legacy for years and love the Burn side.

Back in March I elected not to play at all in a big Modern event that I was planning to go to, because Dredge was on the rise. My two-year or so attitude toward Dredge was mostly to ignore it. It was popular some weeks; and absent others. If I didn't hit Dredge I usually did great, and there was little I could do sideboard-wise to beat it. This was a case of the highest EV move being not to play at all (which sucked, I'll be honest). But it was better than the alternative.

On the other hand, I think Phoenix will still have its adherents. The card Arclight Phoenix has been successful in other formats without Faithless Looting, and the Modern format still has awesome one mana plays like Thought Scour; even if you don't want to venture into the - still largely very effective - stuff like Chart a Course or Tormenting Voice. Some folks do run Izzet Charm as a bad Careful Study (though, admittedly, it's also a bad Spell Pierce and a bad Shock, as well).

These are all great signals for the Red Deck.

Focus on Level 1: Stoneforge Mystic

Remember a few months ago when these two cards were unbanned?

Bloodbraid Elf
Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Bloodbraid Elf has been everywhere from one-of to four-of to not-played-at-all in its presumed color combinations; and while Jace has been a player primarily in Azorius Control decks, it's been second- or even third fiddle to Teferi and other Teferi since.

In what might be a renaissance of "fair" decks, I think that the simultaneous jettisoning of the graveyard cards and the return of Stoneforge Mystic will result in massive popularity swings for Golgari-adjacent and Azorius decks. With Stoneforge Mystic in tow, I would anticipate, at least early on, a marriage of the two once-banned cards, into possibly a Modern reimagining of the greatest Standard deck of all time, Caw-Blade.

Golgari guys are often Golgari guys either way. They love grinding, and even at their worst, they have tools like Scavenging Ooze, Tarmogoyf, and Liliana of the Veil that are all capable of overperforming... Especially when set up by Thoughtseize and card advantage.

In a world where the decks are narrow (or narrow-ish, at least for Modern), the best Red Deck might be Boros.

For reference, this is the list I played the last time I played Boros (PPTQ Top 8 last year):

By contrast, this is the list Lucas Rodriguez used to make a Grand Prix Top 8 earlier this month:


Both decks play 20 lands. I played 2 Grim Lavamancers and Lucas played [only] two Lightning Helixes. The variation is primarily because he had 4 copies of Skewer the Critics that were unavailable to me. I obviously was pointing Lavamancers at beating Humans decks that weren't present in his metagame, but it's mostly the Spectacle stuff.

Our sideboards are really, really different.

Mine:

His:

These sideboards are just built for different metagames. rw is notorious for having narrow answers that are very powerful. He has really powerful cards like Rest in Peace and Deflecting Palm that are very narrow in application.

I'd argue that if the format normalizes to where I think it will, my sideboard from last year will be the more applicable, but still not the best. Let's assume we start with the more updated main deck. What might be a good sideboard going forward?

How about...

Imagine this is our sideboard for a second. This sideboard is really, really good at killing creatures. One of the great strengths of Boros is the ability to switch from a proactive aggro deck into basically a "slaughter everything" deck.

At a baseline, against, say, Humans, you might want to do this:

In this configuration, we're basically taking out mostly burn that doesn't kill creatures and pivoting around Grim Lavamancer. Grim Lavamancer is what the entire world revolves around. We both draw one card per turn; on average, our card kills one of their cards; if we ever draw Grim Lavamancer, we now have a process where we can kill two cards while they're only drawing one card. Playing Goblin Guide and not attacking with it is a big part of our early game plan, believe it or not! Eidolon of the Great Revel is going to do more to us than them; and we don't want that anywhere near our sideboarded sixty.

The strategy is elongated if we move to a deck like Affinity:

This is just a better "kill everything" mode than against Humans. You get more Searing-like effects in Smash to Smithereens, which are also instant speed for their creature lands.

We talked about a potential Level 1 move towards Golgari and Azorius. How might those look?

Broadly, I think of all the Golgari decks - Abzan, Jund, and true Golgari - about the same. You have a massive edge in Game 1. I've toyed around with a lot of different sideboarding (including just trying to hold the Game 1 edge around mostly cheap cards) but concluded you want to play the two-for-one burn plan there. The problem is that when everything is going great you destroy them and they are helpless but if they get an unchecked Scavenging Ooze and land a Bloodbraid Elf, all of a sudden they're like at 15 and you have all of a Lava Spike in your hand. Lavamancers are kind of medium (and would be Wrenn and Six bait), but Searing Blood is surprisingly good while doing the same amount of damage. There is just always a Tireless Tracker, Bloodbraid Elf, or even Kalitas token to aim at.

Sideboarding here is pretty similar. Take out the non-creature burn in favor of the burn-plus and reliable Tarmogoyf answers like Path to Exile. The difference is that Eidolon is great against midrange Green decks, despite their more varied casting costs.

I've never made up my mind about Skullcrack. Do you want any? You probably don't want all of them if you have more. It can be surprising in the face of some of the Green answers, but isn't going to dig you out of the dangerous Green threats.

Which leaves Azorius.

Remember when we said rw was good in a really specific way? Well Azorius decks aren't that specific. If you're up against Stoneforge Mystic, sideboarding is pretty straightforward:

You basically want to keep Stoneforge Mystic off the battlefield, and have Smash to Smithereens to clean up whatever she gets. This plan is respectful of Batterskull and other life gain stuff, from Timely Reinforcements to Lyra Dawnbringer. I largely think you have a good set of cards here, but you can clearly - clearly - be out-powered by their card advantage.

What if they're not so conveniently a Stoneforge Mystic deck? There are so many variables! Like, I think that a uw deck with two Timely Reinforcements main is a nightmare, but one without any is pretty easy to beat. They usually have something so I'd generally still side in Path to Exile; but if that something is a big Teferi, you're kold.

How do you even side against Control?

One plan might be:

This plan can win... But it's so uninspired. Like, sometimes it's great to Searing Blaze their Snapcaster Mage! And sometimes everything goes sideways. Like they're Opt / Negate / Teferi / Cryptic Command / other Teferi...

What did your cards even do?

It gets worse if you're up against a non-creature combo deck. Like Scapeshift. -2 Searing Blaze / +2 Skullcrack? Now you see why I had the one Zo-Zu, the Punisher!

Before we leave Level 1, Tron:

I used to mess around with Chained to the Rocks, but there are too many liabilities; anyway that card doesn't do any damage.

Focus on Level 2: Red Deck Mirrors

So now we see that the Red Deck is well positioned to gain value with the changes in Modern.

At Level 2 we have to recognize that other folks are going to see that as well.

Rather thanrw , what if our metagaming-that-includes-ourselves sends us in a slightly different direction? What about Black instead of White?

Back in What Everybody Gets Wrong About Modern Burn, I played a Rakdos Red Deck when the Spectacles appeared. At 5-1, I narrowly missed my PTQ Top 8 in what was my - lifetime - only loss ever to Death's Shadow. This was due to an unfamiliarity with the new Spectacle cards; but you know, excuses, excuses.

Why might this be a Level 2 choice?

We talked, above, about how the rw deck I played almost a year ago is so structurally similar to the more recent rw decks, but for Skewer the Critics. That's now entirely true. Though staying steady at 20 lands, the Boros players of the present also got...

Sunbaked Canyon
Sunbaked Canyon
Sunbaked Canyon
Sunbaked Canyon

That's a huge upgrade that we don't get.

But!

Relative entirely to us, that's four more lands that damage themselves that they didn't used to have. br - at least in my experience - has the edge over rw. This is probably even more true now that rw is down to two Lightning Helixes main! How awesome is that?

Back in January I presented this sideboard:

I think we have to defer a little bit to Stoneforge Mystic. Every single card in this sideboard is awesome but I'd like to start with a pair of Smash to Smithereens for those nasty artifacts (and the odd Mycosynth Lattice, of course).

How about...

What I absolutely love about this setup is that it doesn't have any of the liabilities of the rw one. Thoughtseize and Collective Brutality are profound tools for combo decks like Scapeshift or Neoform; Ad Nauseum or even Enduring Ideal.

This sideboard is still good at killing small creatures, but Fatal Push is for sure weaker against cards like Lyra Dawnbringer than Path to Exile. Luckily... You have Thoughtseize for that!

Creature Decks (Humans, et al):

You can potentially add Thoughtseize for three copies of Bump; but Bump is actually pretty good for turning on your eight Spectacle cards. Not that you really want it against creatures, but it's the least-bad if that makes sense.

For Affinity you obviously add the duo of Smash to Smithereens; so down to one Bump. Bump in the Night into Smash to Smithereens is the definition of an upgrade!

Golgari decks get more play in Rakdos than they did with Boros. I think the only really vital thing you want to side in are the two copies of Fatal Push. You just don't want to lose to Tarmogoyf. I do generally think you should side in Searing Blood, to catch Tireless Tracker or Scavenging Ooze. I don't think you ever want to sideboard more than the eight Lava Spikes plus the two Grim Lavamancers, and you can certainly side far fewer (example: Grim Lavamancer aka Wrenn and Six bait for Fatal Push). Your strategy is hard to interact with and at some level if you're all Thoughtseize and removal you're just a bad version of their deck. The beauty is, if you need-need the flexible disruption, it's there for you.

This color combination shines in two areas primarily: Azorius / combo decks, and the mirror.

Azorius Control decks and combo decks are generally creature-poor. You can sacrifice your three Searing Bloods for three Collective Brutalities, and a combination of your next four weakest cards for the Thoughtseizes. Notably, you don't lose much flexibility in the Searing Blood-for-Collective Brutality swap; you can still take out a Sakura-Tribe Elder, for instance.

I'd go with:

The XXX-rated final two has a bit of play to it. If you want to cut a burn card, I'd suggest Skewer the Critics. Rift Bolt turns on the other two Skewer the Critics in this deck; though against a combo deck there is an argument to cut Light Up the Stage on basis of speed. I would not do that against Azorius Control, however.

And the much-discussed Stoneforge Mystic builds?

That's right, friend: ALL FIFTEEN.

You want the ability to steal Timely Reinforcements (or Jace, the Mind Sculptor) just as much as against the Control version... But you also want to murder Mystics and blow up their booty.

Tron:

If you want to add the Collective Brutalities for more action against All is Dust and the like, chunk out the Rift Bolts and 1-2 more copies of Skewer the Critics.

And the mirror:

This setup gives you answers even to Kor Firewalker!

I've only had the one day to think about where Modern will move. I hope this was useful to you!

LOVE

MIKE