Tournament Report *26th*: Chicago TCG Player Diamond 5K

Ash Zealot

Tournament Report *26th*:  Chicago TCG Player Diamond 5K

It’s 4:00pm Friday afternoon.

My car is full, 4 of us large gentlemen are eager to start our journey down south for a shot at Magic success.  We’ve got two 24 packs of bottled water, soda, family-size twizzler bags, cheese-its, snack bars, Canadian Club, Kettle One, Gordon’s Gin, Captain Morgan, every Standard deck under the sun, and two other cars full of teamates leaving a few hours after us.

After $12 worth of tolls, we finally arrive at a Days Inn that one of our teamates, Stefan, had setup for us.  As we’re driving up to it, things are looking pretty promising.  There’s a Lou Malnati’s Pizza Restaurant (ridiculously good Chi-Town deep dish), a Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Restaurant, a White Castle, a Strip Club, a Liquor store, and a McDonalds.  Wow, talk about hitting the jackpot.  We walk inside and go up to the concierge to check into our rooms.

Only this wasn’t our hotel.  Apparently this town has two Days Inn, and we’re setup at the other one.  I make a call.

John:  Hey Stefan, which hotel did you book.

Stefan:  The Days Inn in Shaumburg.

John:  Crap, we’re at the one near O’hare.  They have (all the things mentioned above).

Stefan:  Yeah we should have booked that one.

John:  Yep.  I picked this one out, guess I should have looked around first.

At the end it all worked out, our other Days Inn still had some good amenities nearby and was only a fifteen minute drive away.  Our GPS did try to continually have us make U-Turns over a two-block stretch, and I did almost get run over by a highway road paver, but we made it there.  Once we got settled in we left for dinner since we were the earliest car to get there, and proceeded to Engulfing Slagwurm two gigantic deep dish pizzas, garlic bread, and several pints of beer.  It was the kind of restaurant experience where people around you are probably giving some looks, and you’ve ate so much you can barely get up from the table.  This was Man’s Food.

Once we got back to the hotel our other friends had arrived, so we filled our cups and started some intense playtesting to try and figure out what was working.  I posted my list here on Friday before I left, but I still wasn’t sure I liked it.  Adrian was the designer behind a lot of the modifications, and I trust his opinion, but it seemed lackluster in some matchups.  No access to Bonfire of the Damned put you at a significant disadvantage to tokens, hexproof, and aggro, while Chandra maindeck was a nice card to give you some fuel but she wasn’t always something you wanted on turn 4 or later.  The deck played a very slow game, yet unlike a good control deck or a midrange deck packed with threats, you just durdled around a bit before getting a chance to kill them or have them kill you.

I played ten games against Jund, five pre-board and five post-board.  I went 3-2 pre-board and 1-4 post board.  The deck didn’t feel right.  The post-board losses weren’t even so much due to sideboard cards that were getting me like Golgari Charm, it was moreso that my teamate had somewhat figured out the matchup and that his cards were just better most of the time.  One thing we figured out was the two best cards against me from Jund; Rakdos Return and Olivia.  Anytime he was able to Rakdos Return me, the game was a very uphill battle.  This deck doesn’t have a lot of early plays, so they typically get most of your hand.  Stonewright and Cackler felt underwhelming, but I didn’t want to give up on having the deck be a bit faster than turn three.  Olivia usually killed me because she typically was the last threat he played, and the best one, so it was a must answer card.  Four Searing Spear just wasn’t enough to go around, as it usually would have to be turned towards a Scavenging Ooze that got bigger than Pillar of Flame could handle, or something else threatening.  I played a bunch of other matches against the rest of our team, we had two guys playing Aristocrats with Thatcher’s Revolt, one guy on Naya Blitz, one guy on Esper Control, one guy on Junk Tokens, another guy on my 75 cards, and a guy playing Craig Wescoe’s R/W Aggro deck from Worlds.  It was a good representation of the type of stuff we’d see at the tournament.  I talked with Zach, the guy playing my 75, and he mentioned a few things that echoed what I was seeing.  He said that he wanted the deck to stay fast, but he mentioned he was getting overrun by the aggro decks and that the sideboard seemed off.

We talked with our teamates about it, but eventually it was getting late.  Around midnight most of us went to bed, I stayed up till about 1:30 am looking at the deck and talking with the last few stragglers who wanted to get in a couple more games.  Finally I gave up, but I felt very unsatisfied with how the tournament was looking for the next day.

At about 4:45 am, I woke up.  Our room was really hot, the A/C had not been working well and all of us were sweating profusely.  I was on the floor on a sleeping bag, and comfort was just about the last thing that was going to happen.  I grabbed my smartphone, pulled up google docs, and started thinking about what could be done.

And then it hit me.

It wasn’t just one card, it was what was wrong with the deck.  We’ve got a bunch of cards that don’t seem to do much, they’re just there for a narrow purpose or to give the deck some kind of value in certain areas.  We have a sideboard that is trying to fill too many cards against one or two matchups, and we’re trying to make plays that happen too situationally.  For instance, Reverberate out of the board was mostly to function as a counterspell or Revelation copy against UWR and to copy an opponent’s Rakdos Return or Bonfire of the Damned from Jund.  The problem is, these situations only come up in a few games, and especially against Jund you’d just never know when Rakdos Return was coming.  They just keep putting threats on the board, and if you don’t play along with them and instead keep mana up for Reverberate, you’re going to lose to the rest of the deck before you even get hit by a Return.  If they draw a Return, you just have to deal with it is what I finally settled on.  This deck has a lot of good topdecks, just like they do.  And with regards to that, Zach and I had both noticed that Boros Reckoner was awful slow in this list, just like the stock version, Adrian’s list was trying to do so much at three when all you really wanted was to play a Phoenix or kill a guy.  Reckoner was nice at blocking a Thragtusk, but it also led to less aggression in that situation and giving them time to put down multiple hard to deal with cards.  I thought, “Why not just have every creature in the deck have haste, and only use the best ones.  Lets have the rest be burn spells and Burning Earth.  Red wins when it’s consistent, not when it’s playing a bunch of singletons or midrange cards like a control deck.”

You just don’t have the draw power to play like Control.  I knew this format was too suicidal for most aggro decks (Aside from maybe Blitz, our teammate did well with an all-60 creature build that consistently killed on turn 3), so I didn’t want to have this deck lose its top end.  You also need to be able to answer the aggro decks.  While they might not be in the top 8, you’re not going to make it there if you can’t beat them, especially in game 1 where they often try to “steal” a game.  We needed more removal.  I like Brimstone Volley as a card, but in the original stock list it was extremely clunky alongside of Reckoner and Phoenix.  Since both Zach and I hadn’t liked Reckoner (more on that later), I decided to just do a straight cut – Ash Zealot goes in, Reckoner comes out.  The Stonewrights, the Cacklers, and the Chandras who were underperforming got cut too, as most of the time you just want to pillar something on turn one or play a Mutavault.  I replaced these with the four Bonfire of the Damned and four Brimstone Volley.  I looked at the list on my smartphone staring back at me in the harsh light of our dark hotel room.  THIS WAS THE LIST.

Big Red by John Galli

4 Ash Zealot
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Hellrider
4 Thundermaw Hellkite

3 Burning Earth

4 Pillar of Flame
4 Searing Spear
4 Brimstone Volley
4 Bonfire of the Damned

19 Mountain
4 Mutavault
2 Cavern of Souls

3 Mizzium Mortars
3 Electrickery
3 Ratchet Bomb
2 Rolling Temblor
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
2 Zealous Conscripts

If I were to change anything and play tomorrow, I would cut 1 Electrickery, 2 Rolling Temblor, and 1 Chandra, Pyromaster.  In their place, I would put 3 Boros Reckoner and 1 Ratchet Bomb.  I really wanted something more resilient against Jund, and Reckoner just seems like he’s that card.  But maindeck I wanted to be fast, even against Jund, and I wanted to make sure the deck could turn on the jets against the rest of the field, especially aggro.  We had way too many board cards against aggro, so I think cutting the numbers where I’ve suggested would keep it good enough that you’ll be able to handle them most of the time.  You have so much burn, that it’s rare they get ahead of you unless they have the nut draw with Burning-Tree or Gather the Townsfolk.  Control didn’t seem like a very tough matchup between the Caverns, the hasty threats, the burn, and Chandra’s Phoenix, so having access to just a single Chandra out of the board is fine I think.  Zealous Conscripts comes in too, as it can steal planeswalkers or the one or two creatures they play and it’s another haste creature.

The Tournament

I won’t go into full detail about the matches, I’m just going to try and highlight important parts and situations.

Round 1 vs Jund Aggro (Win; 2-0)

This matchup, the plan is much like it is with other aggro decks.  Sit back, kill every creature they play with burn, and then play your big cards that they can’t race.  If they stumble and you can play Ash Zealot or get in a few cracks with Mutavault, do it.  The plan worked great, although the first game was pretty scary because we just both kept dropping threat or burn every single turn until I finally played double Hellrider and killed him.

One important sideboarding note is that you can cut the early threats (like Zealot) and the Burning Earths.  These cards are better replaced by the sweepers and spot removal in the sideboard, as then your deck truly plays like Big Red Control allowing your strategy to work to its fullest potential.


Round 2 vs Aristocrats with Thatcher’s Revolt (Win; 2-0)

Since my team had two guys playing this deck, I was very familiar with what they could do.  It turns out he was playing 57 of the same 60 cards that my teamates had, so the games went as I expected.  I knew which guys of his to kill, with Champion, Blood Artist, Cartel, and Falkenrath being the biggest problems.  Game 1 I had the play and raced him with Zealot into Phoenix into Hellrider into Thundermaw.  He had a strong opener with Champion, Thatcher’s Revolt, and Falkenrath, but all my cards were faster in this case and trumped his.  Thundermaw actually killed his Falkenrath, and the burn in my hand gave me the reach needed to win.  Electrickery is an all-star in this matchup as well.


Round 3 vs Junk Tokens (Win; 2-0)

My teammate playing Esper had played this guy in the first round and lost to him, so I was a bit worried.  Fortunately I knew he was playing Junk Tokens, so that helped give me some information.  The start of the game began with me controlling his board state with burn, followed up by some aggression in Hellrider and Ash Zealot.  What I didn’t know is that he had Thragtusk, and that came down to slow up the parade.  He was still at 13 life and eventually after I killed his Thragtusk he had the remaining Beast Token which was a 4/4 Vigilance due to Intangible Virtue.  I had a mountain in my hand, but I could tell that he was a bit worried about it.  He didn’t have much either, he had been sandbagging a card for a while but I just kept getting the vibe that he didn’t have anything relevant as he would have played it by now.  I swung in with both Hellrider and Ash Zealot.  Certainly creature suicide, and I don’t have anything in my hand to try and back it up, but he doesn’t know that.  It turned out to be an incredibly good play, as he didn’t block for fear of me playing a combat trick.  He takes 7, goes down to 6, and then next turn I draw a Searing Spear to be able to swing and burn him.


Round 4 vs Grixis Control (Win; 2-0)

My opponent was a complete dick this round, and he seemed very overconfident in his deck.  Fortunately for me I had gotten in a lot of playtesting against my teammate who was on Esper, so I knew that the control matchup was very winnable.  Burn, Burning Earth, and Cavern of Souls make their life quite difficult.  And where Esper has access to Sphinx’s Revelation to gain life, Grixis doesn’t have any help.  He was playing Divination, which I think is a nice card, but it definitely time walked him.  Ash Zealot proved it’s worth again in this game, taking large chunks of damage out of his life total.  I curved out well and Brimstone’d him for five to finish the job.

The nice thing for the control matchups is that you basically can just take out the Pillars (depending on their build) and board in Chandra and Zealous Conscripts.  Then you’re playing all high-volume threats and eventually they are just going to run out of ways to stop you unless you blunder or they have infinite removal.


Round 5 vs Jund Midrange (Win; 2-1)

My first matchup against Jund.  My aggression game 1 gets me there, as he can’t setup any kind of blockade in time to deal with my assault.  Pillar was really important to kill Ooze and Huntmaster, and even though he lands a Thragtusk I’m able to run a guy into it to trigger morbid on Brimstone.  Like many other matches (and a huge advantage of this build), my opponent thought I was playing Red Aggro.  This happened all day, and likewise he boarded in anti-aggro cards.  This lets me bring even more big cards that blank his early removal, like Zealous Conscripts, and you can just go toe-to-toe with them.

Game 2 I unfortunately got stuck on four lands.  I did cast THREE Burning Earths, two of which were Golgari Charm’d, but I never got past four mana and he ended up getting a Liliana to her ultimate to finish me off.  It was a really sad way to lose a game, especially since I had multiple Conscripts and Thundermaw in hand the whole time.

Game 3 things played out much like the first.


Round 6 vs Kibler Big R/G, currently sitting at 1st Place in the standings.  (Loss; 0-2)

This was a matchup I was not looking forward to playing, as they are just a smidge faster than you with the elves they play and their deck has basically the same gameplan.  The hope here is to kill their early mana producers and Scavenging Ooze, and then try to kill them before they get Hellkite or Hydra (if they have it) online.

I mulled to five in the first game and had to keep a one lander.  In game 2 I got into a situation where I could deal him ten damage, but he had 12 life and lethal on the board for me.


Round 7 vs Jund Midrange (Win; 2-0)

Very similar to the way round five played out.  You are just so fast coming out of the game and have so much burn, that unless they draw multiple Thragtusks or some card you can’t answer, you will get there.  He played two Olivias in one of the games and I had removal ready both times for it.  Playtesting helps sometimes.


Round 8 vs Jund Midrange (Loss; 0-2)

Game 1 I curved out perfectly, but he had 3 removal spells, two Thragtusks, and three Bonfires.  I actually hung on for a very long time, as I had three Bonfires of my own and almost continual threats.  Eventually we ended the game with him at 2 life.  Both of us felt like we were having a heart attack that game, as every turn was critical.  There was one point where I thought I had it after miracling a Bonfire for three with an Ash Zealot in play, but he top-decked a Thragtusk to stop me from getting there.  Game 2 presented another situation like round 6 where I had a lot of damage I could deal but not enough for the kill.  I had Thundermaw Hellkite in hand with a Chandra’s Phoenix and Burning Earth in play to his Wolf token, Thragtusk, and Kessig Wolf Run.  He was at 7, AND it felt like he had a Putrefy in hand which would let him kill my Thundermaw and have just enough life to use Wolf Run to kill me.  Sure enough, as I play Thundermaw I see his hand quiver over his lands and I know he has it.  No choice though but to attack, so I play it and attack and he kills it and then kills me.  Sitting back to block would have not worked either as I was just too low in life (and it turns out he had a Liliana in hand too).


Round 9 vs Junk Reanimator (Loss; 1-2)

Game 1 I have an insane hand of Zealot, Phoenix, double Hellrider, and double Searing Spear.  I go full assault on him as he sets up a turn 5 unburial rites with double angel of serenity in the yard.  Not enough though, as I burn him down.

Game 2 he gets out an Obzedat off of Unburial Rites on turn four and I just can’t race him.

Game 3 I mull to a five card hand and can’t play anything.  On turn four he plays Rites again to get Obzedat and I scoop shortly after.  Turned out he was the 2nd place finisher at the last Diamond event in my hometown, so at least my last loss of the tournament was to someone good playing a good deck.

6-3; 26th Place, $50.  Six of my nine teammates finished in the top 64, with the most notable finish being the Esper Control player at 7-2; 19th place.

I think going forward this deck is still very good.  Looking around and talking with people, the top 16 had at least two players playing Big Red, two or three playing Kibler Big R/G, and a few Jund players.  This deck really gives Jund a hard time, and adding some additional board cards can help the matchup.  I lost more games to mana problems than anything else, and when this deck doesn’t have those problems it’s a well-oiled killing machine.  There are a few decks you don’t want to see, but if this tournament was evidence of anything it’s that those decks aren’t as popular in the metagame as they might have used to be or they’re too fringe to worry too much about.

– Red Deck Winning

5 thoughts on “Tournament Report *26th*: Chicago TCG Player Diamond 5K

  1. Great write-up. Congrats on a great finish. I’m going to give this mix a go. Did a private tourney this weekend and tried to run my own version of big red to try and get my mind around a basically different Red Deck. 🙂 I basically set it up as Creature Heavy low burn to run aggro against midrange and control and boarded in a 10 burn When facing aggro and 2 burning earth, and 3 Rubblebelt Raiders (only ran 2 Helkites, need to pick up 2, sold them a while ago when they were $35 a pop when i was running Traditional RDW) . I remember when TWoo did something similar and ran Hounds of Gristlebrand to “get bigger”. I really liked how the Raiders played. They can get delt with when you put them out, but can get big fast.

    Great Job.

    P.S. just sold a few things on eBay to have enough to buy my RDW Modern deck. Would love to hear your thoughts on that.

  2. Hey Shawn,

    Thanks again for the comments. I like the deck a lot, definitely would recommend it. There are a few tough decks right now that are popular like the R/G Big build and the B/G Rock build, but you can still battle them fairly good.

    If you’re running my list, here’s what I would probably do at the moment-

    4 Ash Zealot
    4 Chandra’s Phoenix
    4 Hellrider
    4 Thundermaw Hellkite

    3 Burning Earth

    4 Pillar of Flame
    4 Searing Spear
    4 Brimstone Volley
    4 Bonfire of the Damned

    19 Mountain
    4 Mutavault
    2 Cavern of Souls

    4 Ratchet Bomb
    3 Mizzium Mortars
    3 Boros Reckoner
    2 Electrickery
    2 Zealous Conscripts
    1 Traitorous Blood

    You may want more traitorous bloods depending on how popular certain decks are. Reckoner so far in post-tournament testing has been very good in the sideboard to come in against Jund and UWR.

    Rough Sideboarding Guide:

    Jund / BG Rock:
    -4 Bonfire, -4 Pillar of Flame, -1 Brimstone Volley
    +3 Boros Reckoner, +2 Zealous Conscripts, +3 Mizzium Mortars, +1 Blood

    -4 Pillar of Flame
    +3 Boros Reckoner, +1 Zealous Conscripts

    -4 Ash Zealot, -3 Burning Earth
    +4 Ratchet Bomb, +3 Mizzium Mortars
    (NOTE: If they are Blitz or Tokens, cut a few brimstones or thundermaws for electrickery and/or boros reckoner. I usually play this by ear. Thundermaw is still really good against tokens, so I usually don’t cut him there. Just try to avoid overboarding.)

    Kibler Big R/G:
    -4 Bonfire, -3 Burning Earth
    +3 Reckoner, +1 Blood, +2 Conscripts, +1 Mortars

    Rubbelbelt Raiders is a pretty fun card, I think he works better in aggro-based red, and he’s not as good as Hellrider, but otherwise he might be a suitable replacement or addition in some lists. I’ve certainly seen him get out of hand really quickly.

    @Modern – I played a bunch last season, but I ran Jund. I think that the Red Burn deck that splashes Black and White is where you want to be if you’re running it. Modern is way too combo heavy for my tastes right now, and I think Burn is a turn too slow most of the time, but it’s still very competitive and most opponents don’t include the requisite hate for it. If I were going to play that deck, I’d run something very similar to fellow Wisconsin native Greg Ogreenc-

    – Red Deck Winning

  3. I really like your site. I am learning a great deal about Mono-Red.

    Do you have any guidance for dealing with Bant Hexproof that has Fiendslayer Paladin and/or Geist of Saint Traft suited up with Unflinching Courage, Spectral Flight, and/or Ethereal Armor? Unflinching Courage just wastes me every time. All of the lifelink stuff is a pain and I can never seem to recover.

    I would love to become a dedicated Mono-Red MTG player, but I have a bad feeling that post-rotation in October, Red is going to be very weak. There are so many good burn spells and red creatures leaving Standard, and it is doubtful that WotC will be printing enough new ones in Theros to keep it afloat.

  4. Hey FRN,

    Thanks! Always glad to have new readers and glad you’re liking the archetype.

    @Bant Hexproof – In the maindeck you have bonfire of the damned, and occasionally you can race them with burn, and out of the board you can bring in Ratchet Bomb, Rolling Temblor, and Electrickery. If you need more hate against them, Skullcrack and Magmaquake are good options.

    If they’ve suited a creature up, it’s usually a tough game, but your sideboard and maindeck should be able to prevent that from happening most games. Ratchet Bomb can tick up to two or three and kill most of their deck (enchantments included), overloaded Electrickery kills Invisible Stalker and all their one mana guys, and Rolling Temblor kills all of their creatures except ones that already have an enchantment on them. Skullcrack can be played to prevent a timely lifegain opportunity with Unflinching Courage, which should most of the time buy you enough room to get there.

    It’s certainly one of the tougher matchups for the deck, especially game 1, so if you’re worried about it or it’s heavy in your local metagame, I’d suggest including some of the cards I suggested in your sideboard or maindecking a few of them. In the big tournaments at the moment, Hexproof has fallen off a bit. It’s not a match I want to ignore, but at least at the higher levels you can dodge it most of the time (or play it once and have faith in your sideboard). I’ve playtested against it a lot, and I’d say to practice with someone if you can as it helps to know how to play out the match properly.

    @Theros and Hate Cards – I wouldn’t be too worried about Mono Red going away. I’ve played Magic since Revised came out (19 years ago), and Mono Red has ALWAYS been a playable deck. There are times when it was tough to play it because of a lot of hate going it’s way, but people find a way to make it viable. You should check out some of the articles on this site if you haven’t already, there’s one about Patrick Sullivan top 8’ing the SCG Edison Open which is a great read about how to play Mono Red when everything is against it. That was when cards were legal like Timely Reinforcements and Kor Firewalker. Theros will bring some new hate, but it will also bring some staples for Mono Red. Wizards never completely ignores red, and this new set is focused on mono colors (unlike Return to Ravnica). I’ll also be sure to give my set review on it once the full spoiler is released.

  5. RDW challenge #1.

    You are playing in a Modern Tourney. You want to play Red Deck wins and run Mono Red because screw everyone who says you have to play 3 colors to compete (even if it is true). A few stipulations, can’t use fetch lands, budget is around $200. What is the best brew to compete?

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