Wisconsin State Championship *Top 8*
This last Sunday I attended the Wisconsin State Provincial Championship and was fortunately able to break through into the top 8 with Mono Red Aggro. I did a lot of testing in the week leading up to it, and I want to cover some of my thoughts on the deck as well as hopefully helpful guidance to others on the recent success I’ve been seeing.
The Decklist and Tournament
Mono Red by John Galli
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Ash Zealot
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Firefist Striker
1 Goblin Shortcutter
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Fanatic of Mogis
4 Magma Jet
4 Lightning Strike
4 Firedrinker Satyr
3 Madcap Skills
2 Mizzium Mortars
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
1 Hammer of Purphoros
Going into the tournament I expected to see a slight rise in Midrange archetypes, specifically GW, and BR/x Midrange. Since Control and Mono Red had been the big decks of the first Theros Standard weekend, it was natural that archetypes which have some flexibility against both would try and strike a comeback. As many authors over the course of the week had pointed out, Voice of Resurgence is a good card against just about everything, as is Loxodon Smiter, Obzedat, etc, etc. On Saturday I was playtesting and watching some of the SCG stream and saw both GW and Mono Green making big moves, so I knew that some of this would carry over to the local States meta, although people still love their favorite standbys so I wasn’t going to dismiss Control and Mono Red. It also usually takes some time for the local meta to adjust, so I imagined it would only be a slight uptick in the Midrange numbers.
I had been testing the most with Philip Bertorelli’s winning list from the SCG. The few areas where I wanted to see change were the 1-of Gore-House Chainwalker and the Sideboard. Gore-House just seemed out of place, and he really wasn’t a great late game topdeck. Most of my testing involved slotting in a Mutavault for him, because I was also worried about running 21 lands. After plowing along through a number of games, I kept finding that Mutavault was actually underwhelming in this particular build, mostly because there’s so much that requires double red mana and also because you want to try and cast two threats a turn whenever you have the opportunity. This testing process went on for a long time, and then the night before the tournament I remembered Goblin Shortcutter from Owen’s list and realized that it accomplished most of what I wanted in that slot. While it’s not a great creature, it essentially is the fifth Firefist Striker, and with an uptick in Midrange that’s the ability I want to see the majority of the time. I really don’t need the three power, I just need to clear a path and burn doesn’t always do that with some of the bigger creatures in this format. The land also seemed to be working mostly fine with 21 lands, even post board, so I resolved that not having a 22nd wasn’t going to kill me even though it would mean smoother curve outs.
In the sideboard, I wasn’t a big fan of Frostburn Weird as I outlined in my last article, although I may have changed my tune after this tournament. The mirror match as it turns out is pretty stupid, and the areas where I thought I could gain incremental advantage like was the case with previous Red mirrors don’t play out quite the same because of the extreme level of damage that Fanatic of Mogis deals. I cut the Weirds and basically ran the Firedrinker Satyr’s in their slot to give me a faster clock against control and also be able to pump into blockers (like Sylvan Carytid). He worked out exceptionally well, and was easily a big win-con for me in testing and in the tournament. He was so good, infact, that I think I’d be willing to put him in the maindeck at the cost of some marginal percentage against the mirror. There are so many slow decks in this format right now that are really punished when you get the aggressive draw. I’m not advocating to go as suicidal as Owen’s build, but having 7-8 one drops is probably better than 4 at the moment (at least until people adjust).
Against the Midrange decks, I wanted two different options. Madcap Skills was the great late breakthrough in the 9th hour, after I scoured some of the interwebs and remembered how good this card was last Standard season. While it’s not something I’d bring in against the BR/x Midrange decks, it’s pretty much exactly what you want against GW, and it’s reasonable against Naya if you play carefully. In this format, everyone’s answer thus far to Mono Red is “Well let’s put down a wall or a 1/3 in front of them and we’ll be fine until we get our late game online.” With that in mind, there’s one solution; get around that guy. Madcap presents such a large amount of damage that even if you get boned by a sweeper on turns 3/4/or 5, you still got your value worth from it. And in the games where they stumble even the slightest against this card, the game is over immediately. I was very happy with the choice and will continue to advocate it going forward.
Mugging was the other card brought in late towards Midrange, and this was mostly a concession to cards like Desecration Demon, Blood Baron, Ember Swallower, and any other cards that Red had limited removal against. Sure, Baron can be killed with Mortars, but many of these others cannot, and sacrificing creatures every turn to Demon adds up. Usually if Mugging just buys you that one turn against Midrange to swing freely so you can put them in lethal range and that’s all I was looking for. It also doubles as a card to bring in against the mirror and other aggro decks, as I wanted to have some supplementary one-mana burn spells post-board against those archetypes. The one very large drawback is that it doesn’t have the ability to go to the face, and that’s fairly relevant, so I’m not sure if I’d run two in the future but I don’t have a problem with it as a 1-of. There’s also the otherside of the spectrum, which is maxing out at 4-of and just guaranteeing that the card comes up at the right time. Goblin Shortcutter might be better, he’s another possibility for this slot.
Philip Bertorelli mentioned in his article last week that he wanted to cut Mizzium Mortars, but I still think it’s critical to some matchups. While you have Firefist Striker and the changes I made above, you still just want to KILL a Loxodon Smiter a lot of the time. Blood Baron is also straight-nasty, and not having any kind of answer other than combinations of spells is really not where I wanted to be. I’d still like to run four of them, but sadly there just isn’t room in my opinion. Every sideboard card I ran on Sunday was desirable, and there were more that I wanted to fit but just didn’t see cuts for them.
Skullcrack was a last minute switch with the fourth Madcap Skills, as the card is great as a Miser against UW and Esper and at keeping people honest. If they know you have it, they will certainly fear it and tread more cautiously which gives me time to do other things or bluff them for a few turns. I’m inclined to run more of them, because it’s really good against these matchups, but it provides no permanency. Hammer of Purphoros, Chandra, Pyromaster, and Pithing Needle all go a long way in helping you keep pace in a game that stretches on longer than you would have hoped. Chandra can have impacts in the mirror match as well, if they are running a build similar to Owen’s you can pick off a lot of guys and just out draw them with it. Having a combination of Hammer and Chandra means that you won’t just be subbing in more expensive cards for what you take out, and Hammer will provide haste to your Fanatic of Mogis’s which turns him into a virtual Hellrider.
Round 1 vs Eric with UW Control
This match was very close, from what I remember I basically just raced until he verdict’d in both games and then followed it up each time with Chandra’s Phoenix and burn to close the deal. I sided in x4 Firedrinker, x2 Chandra, x1 Hammer, x1 Skullcrack, and took out x4 Boros Reckoner, x2 Shock, and x2 Lightning Strike. I’m not wild about taking out Lightning Strike, but Skullcrack makes up for it and the rest of the stuff you’re bringing in is super solid. Feel free to shave the Goblin Shortcutter or some other “dude” instead if you prefer. His version of UW was a little different because he had some devotion element to it with Master of Waves and Thassa (which did me in in the second game), but the strategy was largely the same. I think I actually kept in the playset of Strikes in game 3 after seeing the differences that he had.
While Boros Reckoner is a great card in every matchup and a key component to a quality Fanatic draw, he’s just slowing down your curve in this match. You’re much better off streamlining the deck and going for the reach angle. Supreme Verdict can already screw up your Fanatics, and even if he does land on time with guys on the board, the rest of your critters and Chandra’s Phoenix still make him potent enough to be a real threat. Fanatic won me a significant number of games on the day so I can’t stress enough how good he is in this build.
One thing that is your best friend here, and in just about every other matchup, is Magma Jet. Everytime I get the random thought that I want to cut the card or reduce its number, it reminds me of just how much better it has made red by being reprinted. It might as well be draw 2, because the scry factor pulled me out of land screw on so many occasions, or organized my draws into making sure my opponent was dead. There were several games where I was able to put a lethal Lightning Strike on top or pitch away two lands to prevent me from flooding out and losing. I really love this card in red, and no matter what build you’re playing I think it might be a crime to not be running it.
Round 2 vs Griff with Mono Red Mirror
Game 1 I had the play here and out-tempo’d him with guys and burn, including two Boros Reckoners. Game 2 he got way ahead of me with two Reckoners of his own and a Fanatic of Mogis. Game 3 I had three Reckoners. What can I say, the mirror match is super dumb. My initial plan was to bring in Mugging, Mortars, and Chandra, replacing Firefist Strikers since you’ll rarely get to activate battalion with all the burn spells flying around and he then becomes just a 2/1 do-nothing. The cut plan was solid, but what I was bringing in really didn’t do much since all the guys in this build are either resilient or don’t care about being removed once they are on the table. Cackler is another cuttable option, but I wanted him in for the off chance that I get a speedy draw and to eat removal if the opponent falls for it.
In the future, I think Frostburn Weird is the right call. He’s basically another Boros Reckoner. Your opponent could “next level” you like I did on Tuesday and Sunday by bringing in Mortars, but they have to draw it in that instance and your removal only goes so far in the Mirror. You certainly DO want more removal, but it doesn’t guarantee you a victory. Another potential card is Hammer of Purphoros, like my Tuesday mirror match opponent brought in. It gives you infinite gas and haste, but it’s a scary card to play in this matchup because your opponent can really take advantage of it if he draws the right combination of burn spells and creatures. You also really don’t want another three drop if you can avoid it since you already run eight of them.
Round 3 vs ??? with Mono Black Control
This is a straight up horrible matchup for Mono Red. I have been working on an MBC list since Theros first started spoiling and it was easily the best deck in my testing phase. I almost switched over to playing it exclusively, but I didn’t feel like shelling out for Thoughtseizes and I hadn’t figured out the Control match to 100% of my satisfaction. My opponent’s list was very similar to the one I had been testing, except instead of Nightveil Specter he was running Nighthowler, which if you haven’t seen in action you better check him out quickly (note, it says “ALL” graveyards). He was running a full playset of Whips, which in my opinion is way overkill but I do understand that he wanted to make sure he drew it. There were a few other choices too, and a little bit different of a removal package, but otherwise the deck was almost a clone. I knew my one chance was to just go as hard and fast as possible and maybe try to bring in the Muggings post-board to get around his Demon.
We went to three games, and in the last game he played a turn 4 whip after a removal spell or two and then followed it with a Gray Merchant. He may also have had a Desecration Demon but I can’t remember. I was pretty toast at this point, things were not looking in any way winnable except that I had a Chandra’s Phoenix in play alongside some chumpers and another Phoenix in hand. And then, I got one of those miracles that you need to get in your quest for top 8; he misplayed. He cast another Demon, passed the turn, I tapped it down with a sacrifice and swung for lethal with both Phoenixes. He revealed another Gray Merchant in his hand and said he thought he had time to gain the life later but realized as soon as he made the play how unrealistic it was. I felt bad, but you gotta have some luck go your way to slog through these things so I wished him some luck of his own and went on to the next match.
Round 4 vs Will with Naya Midrange
Will is a nice player from Rockford who actually just top 8’d the last Pro Tour Qualifier that I was in where I also top 8’d. We knew we were in for a good match and it didn’t fail to disappoint. Him and I went to three games, all of which were very close including the last game where I had lethal in hand with a second Fanatic of Mogis when he cast his second Anger of the Gods off the top to finish me up. The sideboard plan here was to bring in Firedrinkers (yes they can get burned but you need the speed) for the Reckoners again (yes they are good against his creature suite but just too slow. This is debatable though and worthy of further testing), and Madcap Skills and Muggings for some of your burn spells. You can shave singletons here and there for what you bring in, I didn’t have a hard and fast sideboard approach to this match. The basic gist is you want cards that clear the blockers. They usually only run Mortars + 1-2 other burn spells for their removal, and occasionally bring in Anger of the Gods like he did. You really have to play it based on what you see, and Madcap may or may not be right but like I mentioned before you can sometimes nut draw them with it which is a lot of upside to consider. You can also just bait out Anger and then drop a Burning-Tree into Madcap to accomplish the same task. Ultimately, even though I didn’t get there I was satisfied with the games and was basically a Lightning Strike away from it turning the other direction. Trostani was also a difference maker in both of the sideboarded games, this was a really strong card choice on his part.
Round 5 vs Jake with Esper Control
Game 1 I kept an incredibly terrible keep. I don’t know what I was thinking, me and a few of the other guys were socializing and talking about the upcoming top 8 and I took a brief glance at my hand with Rakdos Cackler, some two drops, two Fanatics, and a land and I just figured I’d draw into some lands. I had the play, so keeping was even dumber since I already had that advantage. But, sometimes you have a brain fart and you deal with it. I drew 4 straight non-land cards and scooped em up.
Games 2 and 3 I brought in the same package that I did against UW. Game 2 I saw that he wasn’t going to be able to Supreme Verdict on time and hit the gas pedal as hard as the deck would allow. Game 3, despite being on the draw, gave me the multiple Burning-Tree into Firefist hand and I was able to get ten power on the board quickly to overrun him. He cast a last desperation Sphinx’s Revelation to which I responded with my singleton Skullcrack. Not gonna lie, it felt pretty good to put the nail in that coffin.
Round 6 vs Keenan with Esper Control
Keenan was the top seed in the tournament and I was the third seed, so we drew to get into Top 8. Sadly there was no cake like there was in previous Wisconsin State Championships, so I went next door and got a DQ Blizzard. Gotta celebrate somehow.
Thanks to my previous opponent Griff’s win in the last round of the swiss (leaving him in 9th place, sorry bud!) it secured me a third place seed in the top 8, allowing me to be on the play against my first round opponent. I was paired against Rob who was playing a home-brewed Bant Ramp deck that him and his colleagues had all showed up to the tournament with. His friend Ryan who was there had won Illinois States with the deck the day prior, and all day I had seen both of them with some absolutely ridiculous board states. To put in perspective what they were doing, it’s only fair to do so with pictures from what I could remember:
Yeah. That all happened.
Needless to say I lost 0-2, although I did put up a fight. In game 1 I got off to an aggressive start only to have him play turn 4 Primeval Bounty into Turn 5 overloaded Cyclonic Rift. In game 2 I opened with Burning-Tree into Firefist Striker into double Madcap Skills and swung for ten, but on the following turn when I was going to finish him off he topdeck’d AEtherize to take me down. I had a few turns to draw burn, but sadly didn’t get it in time and he was able to gain life with Primeval Bounty to get out of range and then crush me with some creatures that had a zillion +1/+1 counters on them. The deck was quite scary, and it looks like once the list goes online for the masses that it will become a thing. If it doesn’t I might even consider playing it for fun, because it really felt like we were playing Commander and not Standard.
Thoughts, Observations, Musings
I’ve enjoyed a lot of success recently and I am really thankful for all the support and comments from the community and my readers. I’ve played magic now for over 19 years off and on; basically since I was a little kid. There’s been many times when I’ve been frustrated with the game, whether it be the cost of playing, lack of tournament success, time involvement, the quality of cards, and various other reasons. But overall, Magic is awesome, and it really has been such a great part of my life. I’m always blown away at how the R&D at Wizards is able to raise the level of play with each set and recreate the passion in players that they first had when they first saw the game. Theros was a perfect example; just when I thought there was nothing they could do to top a great block like Return to Ravnica, they come out with a set that is just amazing. The sealed is fun, there’s dozens and dozens of cards I like playing with in Constructed, and it makes me want to continue to try hard every day at making the Pro Tour. We truly are a lucky bunch who play this game.
The main message I want to send today is to have confidence. A lot of the struggle of this game is the hardship of putting in a ton of investment and then not breaking through. I can tell you firsthand that I’ve had so many top 32s, top 16s, long weekends with terrible social interactions, and a million other factors that have made me want to throw my hands up in the air and never come back. But the “practice makes perfect” phrase really rings true with Magic. Keep playing, and don’t think that if you don’t practice as much as the guys who are actually on the Pro Tour that you don’t have a shot. A lot of close friends of mine have said things like “we’re not as good and we can’t make it because we don’t practice as much as them”. Or they’ll get discouraged after a few rounds and then mentally give up. They’ll start making illogical observations, or jumping to conclusions instead of trusting their gut. And it’s not just friends, I’ve done it plenty too.
I started getting better when I started believing. It took a top 8 at a small tournament months ago to truly put the fire back in me for this game, but after that tournament it made me realize that I was always capable of better success and I know going forward that my higher goals can be achieved if I work hard at it. We all have jobs and real life obligations to deal with, but if you come to every tournament with one sole focus; winning it, and you do not waver from that focus, you will put yourself miles ahead of the other person who doesn’t believe. This might sound like pyscho-babble, but it seriously is the truth in my opinion. I know that I have made mistakes, coughed up games, and played poorly on account of my attitude or a mental lapse. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t lost games due to mana screw, mana flood, or variance, but when you eliminate some of that by really restructuring your thought process going into a tournament, your win percentage will eventually go up. Like anything in life, it’s an everyday struggle and you have to keep truckin’.
– Red Deck Winning