Building Blocks: Red-Black

Zvi Mowshowitz

After Red-Green, the second most popular deck on day two was Red-Black. The most successful of them was played by David Williams, the only player to make Top 8 with the strategy.

His decklist was:

David Williams

Main Deck
Sideboard
3 Darigaaz's Caldera
6 Mountain
3 Shivan Oasis
11 Swamp
1 Urborg Volcano	
	
4 Blazing Specter
3 Crypt Angel
3 Flametongue Kavu
4 Nightscape Familiar
4 Ravenous Rats
3 Skizzik
4 Thunderscape Battlemage
	
3 Bog Down
3 Ghitu Fire
3 Terminate
2 Void
	
3 Addle
2 Agonizing Demise
4 Slay
1 Tranquility
2 Void
3 Yawgmoth's Agenda

	

Looking at that decklist, the first reaction is 'that build can't be right.' Running three of that many different cards is very strange for a top deck, since it wasn't done in fear of Meddling Mage or Lobotomy. The decklist did not include Urza's Rage as most of these decks did, and it was one of the few to include Crypt Angel. Williams is very high on Crypt Angel, viewing it as a key card in the deck. But much bigger than those issues was the decision not to use Pyre Zombie, with the deck instead sideboarding Yawgmoth's Agenda. Others used this decklist, including Bob Maher, but did not do well. Is it an improvement in technology or an aberration? Looking over the other Black-Red decks that did well, it looks like this one is very strange indeed. The others all used Pyre Zombie and Urza's Rage. Two of the next three were virtually all fours, although Tomohide Sasakawa also had a decklist full of threes. None of the others used Bog Down or Thunderscape Battlemage either, which is how they fit in the cards Williams passed up. Bog Down was a popular choice for the deck, but apparently was not in the top versions aside from Williams's, which is definitely out of place next to the others. The green in his deck he knows was a mistake, based on a fear of Domain decks that did not show up and which he is in deep trouble against anyway. Rather than make it easier to dismiss Williams' deck, it actually makes it harder, since he made the Top 8 with an unnecessarily crippled land base.

It comes down to a difference in deck philosophy. Should the deck concentrate on discard, or just use Ravenous Rats and Blazing Specter and concentrate on creature control and attacking? The key is that these decks had to compete in a sea of Red-Green. Against Red-Green, their hand size is not important and quick creature removal is of the essence. The more the Black-Red decks concentrated on stalling the game, the better they probably did in that matchup, since they could rely on Pyre Zombie to win the game later on. That doesn't mean the discard strategy is bad either in the matchup or overall, but it definitely has a harder job since it has to deal with Red-Green's hand and then turn around to deal with its threats and topdecks. In fact, topdecking is often what the matchup is about, since Black-Red forces Red-Green to live off the top of its deck and both decks take turns trading creatures and removal. At that point, Black-Red has the edge if everything else is equal, but its discard could come back to haunt it if Red-Green's hand is always empty. Now, a closer look at the other decklists to make it to 9-4-1 or better:

Tomohide Sasakawa

Main Deck
Sideboard
1 Keldon Necropolis
9 Mountain
10 Swamp
4 Urborg Volcano
	
4 Blazing Specter
3 Flametongue Kavu
4 Nightscape Familiar
3 Pyre Zombie
4 Ravenous Rats
4 Shivan Zombie
3 Skizzik
	
3 Ghitu Fire
3 Terminate
3 Urza's Rage
2 Void
	
4 Addle
1 Obliterate
2 Plague Spitter
2 Scorching Lava
1 Terminate
2 Tsabo's Assassin
2 Void
1 Yawgmoth's Agenda
	

Josh Fleisch

Main Deck
Sideboard
1 Keldon Necropolis
10 Mountain
10 Swamp
4 Urborg Volcano
	
4 Blazing Specter
4 Flametongue Kavu
4 Nightscape Familiar
3 Pyre Zombie
4 Shivan Zombie
4 Skizzik
	
4 Ghitu Fire
4 Urza's Rage
4 Void
	
1 Keldon Necropolis
4 Plague Spitter
1 Pyre Zombie
4 Scorching Lava
4 Terminate
1 Yawgmoth's Agenda
	

Trevor Blackwell

Main Deck
Sideboard
11 Mountain
10 Swamp
4 Urborg Volcano
	
4 Blazing Specter
4 Flametongue Kavu
4 Nightscape Familiar
3 Pyre Zombie
1 Shivan Zombie
4 Skizzik
	
3 Addle
4 Ghitu Fire
4 Urza's Rage
4 Void
	
1 Addle
2 Plague Spitter
1 Pyre Zombie
1 Reckless Assault
3 Shivan Zombie
4 Slay
2 Terminate
1 Yawgmoth's Agenda
	

Unlike Williams's build, these decks are all direct - they don't mess around. All of them sideboard to make their decks even faster as much as playing hateful cards, although Slay is an excellent board card. Cards like Shivan Zombie and Scorching Lava (and Terminate) are about trading cards for two mana, and Slay is about trading with advantage for three. The other card that appears is Plague Spitter, which kills off the enemies' 2/1s and can be used much better now that the deck is faster and can absorb the damage. This is an expensive way to use sideboard space, but this deck has those slots to spend. That's not because the deck doesn't need them; it's because it lacks better quality cards to sideboard. Still, it's very suprising to see decklists that didn't include Slay.

Playing against discard versions is very different from playing against non-discard ones.

In summary, Black-Red can be built in different ways, and there's a lot more flexibility than in Red-Green, but the format generally rewarded players who kept the deck's focus narrow. With a different metagame, discard would be better but in the general scheme of things, Williams was quite fortunate to make the Top 8 with that version of Red/Black. Some people will doubtless start their work from his version, but others will work from the versions that came up a match short. Anyone intending to play the deck is faced with a lot of choices to make, and will need to do extensive testing. Again, I will concentrate more on playing against the deck than playing with it.

The Black-Red deck's biggest early threat is to put out a third turn Blazing Specter by using a Nightscape Familiar. Those playing against the deck need to guard against that, since it can result in a lot of card advantage if it goes unchecked and Black-Red has a lot of removal to turn against the cards that got away. If that can be dealt with, the deck instead starts posing long-term problems. Its discard threatens to get into situations a few turns later where the opponent is out of cards to use while Black-Red is still going strong. That goes along with the other long-term threat, which is Pyre Zombie. If a game is allowed to drag out, the Zombie will win it. Finally there's Skizzik, which as in Red-Green, is just a really good creature.

The other problem is not knowing which version of Black-Red is being played. Playing against discard versions is very different from playing against non-discard ones. If the opponent has Thunderscape Battlemage and Bog Down in his deck, it's a constant struggle deciding how to protect the important cards. Sometimes lands or even spells need to be held so they can be discarded and others protected, sometimes the entire hand must be abandoned. Some decks can give up on having a hand better than others. Those that can do it well will try to overwhelm Black-Red early on with threats and live off the top of the deck later on if they have to. Those that can't have to try and protect their hands and fight a long-term card advantage war. This is the world Black-Red wants to live in, but there are decks with more powerful weapons than it can wield.

This is where Black-Red's discard goes up against cards like Probe and Fact or Fiction. If the opposing deck has counters for the discard and Fact or Fiction to draw extras, Black-Red no longer has the long-term edge on cards. Its game then turns to Pyre Zombie, which such decks often have trouble stopping. Before the tournament, many very funky suggestions were made on how to deal with this problem, up to and including Rewards of Diversity. In the end, the best answer was simply to sideboard into a deck with better threats that would be able to win once it took control. Pyre Zombie is hard to stop without a card dedicated specifically to stopping it, but it's also slow. If every turn another bomb comes out of the other deck, even a fully active Zombie won't be enough. With a good graveyard, Agenda is also enough to beat it.

Those are the basic threats that have to be dealt with to beat Black-Red: The early Blazing Specter, the card count pressure of the discard spells if they're in the deck, Skizzik and later on Pyre Zombie. Again, either they can be stopped, made irrelevant through speed as Red-Green tries to do or trumped by the opposition. That's what Domain again tries to do. Just as it tried to shut down Red-Green with Collective Restraint backed by other bombs, against Black-Red it will try to do the same thing. In this case the plan succeeds, especially since it is backed by Questing Phelddagrif, which is a true nightmare for a Black-Red deck to deal with aside from Void. It's also very expensive to fit enchantment removal into the deck. Dromar control decks try to stop the early threats with counters and other answers and then win with Dromar before Pyre Zombie becomes too big a factor - it defends against the early game and then outraces the late game. Black-Red-Blue does more or less the same thing with a different kill. Finally, White-Blue (the Solution) uses Protection from Red to stop the deck. Except for Void, most versions had no reason to use black removal or black creatures bigger than 1/1. Agonizing Demise was actually in Williams's sideboard for Crimson Acolyte because of last-minute testing, and others added it near the end to kill Draco but it was still rare.

Black-Red didn't do as well as Red-Green, but there was more room for error and more room still there for improvement. It can be tuned, and probably tuned to beat Red-Green rather well if that is the goal. To do so probably requires that it become less able to deal with other strategies, but that's a tradeoff that will have to be made. With so much free sideboard space, there should be room for dedicated answers to the deck's other problems.

One other variant needs to be mentioned, which is the hybrid between Black-Red and Red-Black-Blue played by Craig Jones and other English players. Craig started off a strong 9-1 before the deck gave up on him and he started getting horrible draws. Red-Black-Blue decks generally were pure control, but this one was a very strange cross between the two styles:

Craig Jones

Main Deck
Sideboard
2 Crosis's Catacombs
5 Island
5 Mountain
4 Salt Marsh
4 Swamp
2 Terminal Moraine
4 Urborg Volcano
	
4 Blazing Specter
1 Crosis, the Purger
1 Crypt Angel
2 Flametongue Kavu
4 Nightscape Familiar
3 Pyre Zombie
	
4 Addle
2 Ghitu Fire
1 Lobotomy
4 Probe
4 Recoil
3 Void
1 Yawgmoth's Agenda
	
3 Exclude
2 Flametongue Kavu
3 Gainsay
1 Lobotomy
4 Terminate
1 Void
1 Yawgmoth's Agenda
	

The deck seems to be based around Blazing Specter. The goal is to combine the third turn Specter, which is Black-Red's most dangerous weapon, normally shunned by versions with blue due to its vulnerability, and combine it with Recoil and other blue goodness. At heart, it's still a Black-Red deck, but it now has an answer to many of the deck's problems. In exchange, it gives up much of the deck's consistency, smoothness and aggression. It seems to combine all the vulnerability of creature decks and of having no counters with the lack of aggression of a control deck, but there was clearly something more to the build. The cards definitely combine to hit the opponent's hand hard and turn Recoil into a nightmare. They happened to give the deck a way around Crimson Acolyte, which made playing against it with The Solution harder than playing against either normal Red-Black-Blue or Red-Black. So did limiting the power of Crusading Knight. The deck is a noble attempt to use a lot of good cards that go well together, but ultimately it fell short. That leads into the true three-color control decks, which are up next.



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