11th Hour Regionals Tech: The Red Zone
I went into Pro Tour-Chicago last year with a very specific agenda in the forefront of my mind. I would beat Fires, I would beat Rebels, and I would beat control. Armed with the power of the internet to assess my foes, I built what has become known as The Red Zone, a base-green aggressive deck designed to exploit some of the most powerful cards in the format and to do so in a way that preyed upon the vulnerabilities of those decks I expected to face. When Mike Bregoli asked me a week before the Pro Tour how my deck's matchups were against Fires, Rebels, U-B, and U-W, my reply was "Win, Win, Win, and Win."
My results in Chicago, it seem, bear this claim out, with the exception of my losses at the hands of Kai Budde and his Rebel deck. Most relevant to those preparing for Regionals, however, is likely to be how The Red Zone performed against those decks poised to make up their local metagame. Here there is nothing but good news - in played matches, I went undefeated against all of the Fires and Counterrebel decks I faced - 4-0 vs. Fires and 3-0 vs. Counterrebel. Whether these results are relevant to the format as it stands remains to be seen, however. Chicago era decks, while generally solid, were with few exceptions far from the pinnacle of design. Additionally, the introduction of Planeshift into the environment promises to cause more than a few upheavals in deck design, a number of which are particularly relevant to the construction of The Red Zone.
Because of the extent to which I have examined the original Red Zone design in print, this article, unlike its predecessors in this series, will not be so much a card-by-card analysis of the deck, but more an explanation of the particular changes to the original Chicago-era design. I must preface this analysis with a similar disclaimer to that which I included with Thundercats and Blazing Saddles, however, as I have not had sufficient opportunity to test the particular numbers of this deck to be sure they are precisely accurate, nor have I put all of my sideboarding theories to the test. I have, however, played various incarnations of this design hundreds of times, and I'm certain that the knowledge I have gleaned from those games will be helpful in understanding the reasons why The Red Zone wins. Thus, without further ado, the deck list:
The Red Zone
4 Karplusan Forest
4 Rishadan Port
3 City of Brass
2 Rith's Grove
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Llanowar Elves
4 River Boa
4 Thornscape Familiar
2 Flametongue Kavu
4 Ancient Hydra
2 Shivan Wurm
1 Rith, the Awakener
3 Armadillo Cloak
3 Lashknife Barrier
2 Flametongue Kavu
2 Shivan Wurm
2 Tahngarth, Talruum Hero
Summary of maindeck changes to Chicago-Era Red Zone:
OUT - 3 Jade Leech, 1 Rith the Awakener, 4 Chimeric Idol, 1 City of Brass, 1 Forest
IN - 2 Shivan Wurm, 2 Flametongue Kavu, 4 Thornscape Familiar, 2 Rith's Grove
One of the advantages The Red Zone had over most Fires decks prior to Planeshift was the greater number of large, difficult to stop creatures it played. Whereas many Fires decks had only Blastoderm, Jade Leech, and sometimes Two-Headed Dragon as fat, Red Zone played a full complement of thirteen creatures with power five or greater, with Blastoderms, Jade Leechs, Ancient Hydras, and Rith, the Awakener all competing for dominance of the attack phase. This complement of animals generally served to outmatch the opposition, who struggled to maintain some semblance of an offense, until ultimately Armageddon along with some large creature sealed their fate. Unfortunately for the traditional Red Zone design, Planeshift brought with it the indomitable Shivan Wurm, a 7/7 monster who not only proves more than a match for even Rith, but also tramples, making the deck's second line of creature defense - the regenerating River Boa - little more than a one point damage prevention shield with an upkeep of one green mana. Even all the counters on an Ancient Hydra - Red Zone's catch-all solution - fall short of shooting down a rampaging Shivan Wurm, leaving the Red Zone player scrambling for solutions.
In the face a threat of this magnitude, common wisdom holds true. If you can't beat 'em - Join 'em. Jade Leech is simply no longer big enough, and Rith, while situationally devastating, no longer dominates the board as completely as he once did. While the Shivan Wurms in Red Zone aren't as powerful as the Fires of Yavimaya-supported Wurms in opposing decks, they are marginally faster, due to Thornscape Familiars, and the window of opportunity this gives the Red Zone player can often be sufficient to seal the game with Armageddon.
This raises the issue of Thornscape Familiar, which has excited me since I saw it. Thornscape Familiar seems almost tailor made for deck like The Red Zone, which is structured carefully around mana management with Armageddon. I received many questions early on from players asking what I would take out of the deck to fit Familiars, and I explained that such a question could only be answered in the context of the environment at the time, and I feel like I've become familiar enough with the environment at this point to finally give them a straight answer: Chimeric Idol.
With U-W decks based around Blinding Angel decreasing in popularity due to the surge of interest in Rebel based U-W designs, the power of Chimeric Idol diminishes drastically. While Chicago-Era U-W decks generally had only Disenchant or Dismantling Blow to deal with Idols without an attacking Blinding Angel, Counterrebel decks can produce a nearly endless stream of blockers to minimalize the Idol's impact on their life total, or at least stall it long enough to allow them to draw into an artifact destruction spell. Add to this Idol's general ineffectiveness against Fires decks, and the fact that it is the only target for Disenchant effects in the entire deck, and you have a candidate for early retirement. This is not to say that Idol is by any stretch of the imagination a bad card. However, given the impact Thornscape Familiar stands to make by comparison, and it's unfortunately time for the Idol to hit the bench.
The most immediate problem one is confronted with upon the addition of Thornscape Familiar, however, is the increased vulnerability to Simoon that its inclusion brings. Simoon wasn't a concern of Chicago-Era Red Zone, as it wasn't revealed as "tech" prior to the tournament, and, to my knowledge, only myself and Mike Pustilnik included it in our sideboards. Modern Fires decks generally do (or, at least, ought to) include copies of Simoon in their sideboards, so it is unfortunately now a legitimate concern. For all tech, though, there is counter-tech, and one answer The Red Zone can employ for opposing Simoons is Lashknife Barrier. Lashknife Barrier not only nullifies the effects of all of the opponent's future Simoons the moment it enters play, but it makes every one of your identical creatures win in a fight with theirs. This is extremely relevant in the battles of Blastoderms that often take place in the Red Zone-Fires matchup, as well as in the brawls of the even more monstrous Shivan Wurms. While it can occasionally be too slow to save your first few mana creatures from being swept away, Lashknife Barrier still has a significant impact on the game - and on top of it all, it's a cantrip!
The rest of the changes to the main deck are almost aesthetic in nature, as the addition of two Flametongue Kavus do little more than shore up the role played by the generally far superior (for this deck's purposes) Ancient Hydras. Particularly with the acceleration provided by the deck's eight mana creatures and Thornscape Familiars, the tempo gained by Flametongue Kavu can be tremendous in some matchups, but in others its ability is either suboptimal or even occasionally a drawback, as it MUST target a creature when it comes into play, so it is almost a dead card against creatureless or creature light decks much of the time. The addition of two Rith's Groves for pain free colored mana come at the cost of a basic Forest and a City of Brass, the former of which is actually missed more than the latter, which is no longer necessary with the removal of the black cards from the sideboard.
The absence of those three black cards is perhaps the most conspicuous change to the entire deck list, as Tsabo's Decree was a staple Rebel-killer throughout the tournament in Chicago. Decree, however, has its share of limitations, most of which revolve around the fact that it is a six-casting cost black spell. While its instant speed can be devastating against Counterrebel players who tap out during your end step to search, the fact that Decree is no longer unexpected from The Red Zone drastically reduces the chances of that happening. This can actually be to your advantage, in fact, even if your sideboard does NOT include Decree, as your opponents will be wary of tapping out any time you have six mana available. Flametongue Kavu and Tahngarth, everyone's favorite Talruum Hero, step up to fill Tsabo's enormous shoes, and from all impressions seem like they should be able to do so more than adequately. The removal package of 4 Flametongue Kavu, 4 Ancient Hydra, and 2 Tahngarth stands to be devastating not only to Counterrebel decks, but to Skies decks as well, against which previous versions of Red Zone often floundered without an efficient way to remove the aptly named Troublesome Spirit.
All of this is just fine and dandy theorizing, I'm sure you're thinking, but what does it mean for me? Well, from the limited testing I have done with this particular version of The Red Zone, it stacks up more than favorably against the popular deck types one might expect to see at their Regional championships. Fires decks have an abysmal time dealing with a full package of Shivan Wurms after sideboarding, particularly when they're wearing a stylish Armadillo Cloak. My testing against Counterrebels has been limited at best, but previous experience tells me that the combination of efficient threats with Armageddon - particularly threats that double as removal, such as Ancient Hydra, and the evasive River Boa - is enough to overcome the relatively light counter base these decks usually support. The Kavu/Hydra/Minotaur/Simoon quartet seem like they ought to maul Skies, though I must admit that I haven't recently tested the matchup. Nether-Go - presideboarded at least - has shown to be a quite advantageous matchup, again based on the combination of efficient threats and Armageddon.
Sensing a theme? "Win, Win, Win, Win, Win." And not only is The Red Zone powerful against the expected metagame, it is a solid deck on its own merits, and more than capable of defeating most rogue strategies that might crop up at Regionals. NetherHaups, an unorthodox design that has gotten a lot of press on various internet sites, curls up and dies when YOU'RE the one blowing up THEIR land with Armageddon. Machine Head builds, as well, have little answer to the sorcery besides hoping to Void or Addle it out of your hand. All in all, Red Zone seems like it has more than what it takes for the new year - at least until Armageddon rotates out with Seventh coming in. Then, once again, it's be back to the drawing board. Feel free to email me at Majesk@aol.com with any questions, comments, or suggestions. I make a point of reading and responding to every email, but can't guarantee a prompt reply, as I'm very busy with school and other pursuits. Until then, at least, good luck blowing up the world while you still can.