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Why Is (Skred) Red Good in Modern?

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Modern is a format full of fast, consistent linear strategies. Most successful decks try to do their thing and don't look left or right, they just want to win with a proactive strategy before the opponent gets a chance to do something about it. Affinity, Burn, Dredge, Infect, Tron, Merfolk, Valakut decks, Elves... these are all linear strategies with a very strong "plan A". Some of them also play cards meant to interact with their opponent, such as removal or discard, but that's mostly to make sure that if the opponent has a faster draw, we can slow them down for a turn or two and win before they can. Modern's biggest downside comes from this aspect: many matches are more like games of solitaire than games of Magic.

If you want to be reactive in Modern, there are basically two ways how to do that. First, you can try the broad "catch-all" attitude. That's what decks like Grixis or Jeskai Control do. The good news here is that removal is great in the format, because most of the fast linear decks rely on creatures to win their games. Sure, you then might bump into something like Tron or Ad Nauseam and suddenly, your Terminates are not worth much, but that's the risk of being reactive in the format. However, even decks that want to control the game need some reasonably quick win condition - because several archetypes in the format (Dredge, Tron) have a lot of "inevitability", there's really not any deck that would just want to go to the late game and win with total control of the board with whatever can be used. Even Grixis and Jeskai have threats like Tasigur and Geist of Saint Traft, since they can steal games where you manage to land the beatstick early and protect it and also fight the "inevitability" of certain decks pretty well.

The second approach how to fight other people's gameplans rather than have a proactive one of your own is with cards that hose certain strategies. The problem with this approach is that decks in Modern attack from so many different angles that it's hard to cover them all. However, the "silver bullets" are so powerful in this format that it's not impossible to completely shut down a certain strategy with just a single card. "Control" decks that fall into this second category try to have so many silver bullets that even though you might miss with one of them, another one is going to hit. Blood Moon, Chalice of the Void, Relic of Progenitus, Anger of the Gods, Ensnaring Bridge... many of these will often catch the opponent with close to zero ways how to win the game once they're cast. The surge of mono-red (or red-white) decks that we've seen recently proves that this is indeed a viable strategy. Let's first have a look at several examples of this approach.

Skred Red by Chance Brown

4th at SCG Open Knoxville

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Sun and Moon by Todd Stevens

1st at SCG Open Knoxville

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Free Win Red by SaffronOlive

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Eleven Blood Moons across the maindeck of these three lists probably make it clear what's going on and they even give name to the white-red version: Moon comes from Blood Moon and Sun from Elspeth, Sun's Champion in the sideboard. As a sidenote, I simply love this name. It doesn't tell you much about the deck itself, as long as you're not familiar with it, but neither does something like "Death and Taxes" or "Nic Fit" and still, these names stuck, because they're so flavorful. If you haven't heard the explanation: white weenie decks are called "Death and Taxes", because there are only three things certain in life: that we have to pay taxes, that we eventually die and that there will always be people playing White Weenie. As for the Legacy deck called "NicFit", I believe that it originates in the fact that because it's a very slow deck, you rarely get a break between the rounds, which can give smokers a nicotine fit. The flavor enthusiast in me certainly hopes that "Sun and Moon" will establish itself as a name that is going to be widely recognized and used. And if not, we can still call it "Red-white prison control", or something like that.

Anyway, all of the three above listed decks share the approach I mentioned earlier. The one that goes the furthest in this direction is certainly Saffron Olive's list. Not only does Saffron play the most silver bullets (15: Blood Moon, Magus of the Moon, Chalice of the Void, Ensnaring Bridge), but more importantly, he even goes for Desperate Rituals and Pyretic Rituals in addition to the playset of Simian Spirit Guides. The other two lists only run Blood Moons and Chalices / Relics in the maindeck and only have Simian Spirit Guide as a "ritual" type of effect or even no such cards at all, in case of Chance Brown's list. So, which approach is the right one?

Having rituals means two things. First, you're able to deploy your trump cards earlier, likely on turn two or even turn one. That can be really useful if you're worried that a turn 3 Blood Moon might already be too slow, which, especially on the draw, can often be the case against opponents who are aware of the fact that your plan is to lock them out and thus fetch for basics (if they have the possibility to do so). The Skred Red list hopes that a turn 3 Blood Moon is going to be enough thanks to removal that keeps you alive in the early turns - which sometimes might happen and sometimes not. On the other hand, having Rituals and Simian Spirit Guides instead of real spells also means that your deck has fewer "action cards" - if the silver bullet misses, gets destroyed or countered, then you'll often be left with just a bunch of cards that do nothing for the next turns. I know this feeling very well personally from the time when I was playing "All-in Red", which, back in 2009, was a very similar deck to the list by Saffron Olive, except for it had Rite of Flame and Chrome Moxes instead of the worse rituals and Empty the Warrens and Demigod of Revenge as finishers instead of planeswalkers. So before deciding whether to play with Rituals or more "real" cards, it's essential to figure out whether you need speed or consistency. To a big extent, this depends on the metagame, but I would probably choose a solution somewhere in between. Todd Stevens' list, for example, only runs four Simian Spirit Guides, but with a whopping nine planeswalkers his R/W deck includes, they will rarely be dead: every planeswalker activation should translate roughly as a card and in the early game, getting the Chandras and Nahiris online one turn earlier is an incredible advantage. Imagine a turn two or even turn one Chandra on the back of having multiple Spirit Guides in your opening hand and you'll see what I mean.

Decks that aim at other archetypes' weaknesses are inherently metagame calls and it's just like that with the type of deck that we're talking about. Because I'm not talking about one specific list in particular but rather about a whole group of similar decks, I'm not going to discuss every single matchup individually, but rather than that, I'd like to analyze the archetype's position in the current metagame more in general and then perhaps talk about some specifics.

Even though Modern is a diverse format, the most represented archetype in a lot of tournaments tends to be B/G/x midrange - quite possibly because this is not just a single deck, but it includes various versions of Abzan, Jund and other more obscure variants of Goyf decks (I haven't seen "B/G Obliterator" for a while now). Against Jund, some silver bullets are going to be completely useless, most notably artifacts like Chalice of the Void and Ensnaring Bridge, because Jund has redundant Kolaghan's Commands and even Abzan lists usually run Abrupt Decays and Maelstrom Pulses. If B/G decks are popular in your area, I would lean more towards the planeswalker-heavy versions. On the other hand, Relic of Progenitus can be surprisingly good against this bundle of archetypes, as it helps keep Goyfs and Grim Flayers in check and can stop some Lingering Souls or Kolaghan's Command's Raise Dead mode from time to time. As for Blood Moon, the number 1 silver bullet of our deck, its usefulness can vary greatly. A turn 2 Moon on the play can single-handedly win you the game, while on the draw, it might not do anything at all. Also, Magus of the Moon is incomparably worse, because it dies to Lightning Bolt and Anger of the Gods (which is becoming more and more of a maindeck card) and also to Terminate or Kolaghan's Command if they have a single black mana untapped. To me, this is another strike against playing the Magus, as he is simply too vulnerable. All in all, the matchup against B/G/x midrange is not the reason to play this deck, but it can be manageable, if you play the right version. Of the three above mentioned lists, I like the R/W version the most in this matchup - even though it can be a bit soft to a quick Liliana of the Veil ultimate, it does have the right threats in planeswalkers that don't die to Terminate and Kolaghan's Command like Stormbreath Dragon and Batterskull.

Stormbreath Dragon
Versions:
Theros (Foil)

Infect is usually the second most popular deck and here, planeswalkers tend to be a bit too slow while cheaper interaction is the key. A quick Blood Moon can lock them out, as long as they don't have a Noble Hierarch that lives and / or you're not dead on the swing back. The nice thing about Blood Moon is that it turns off Inkmoth Nexus, giving you value even if the opponent fetched correctly. Chalice of the Void is amazing, and even Ensnaring Bridge can be ok, if you have enough time to dump your hand on the battlefield the turn you play it (which should be manageable in the version with Rituals). On the other hand, the Infect deck can kill you even through a Bridge on 0, thanks to Noble Hierarch that attacks as a 0/1 and can then get boosted by multiple pump spells like Become Immense and Vines of Vastwood. This non-poison win is a bit of a stretch, but it can happen and it's good to know that even if they can't remove the Bridge, you still don't have the game in the bag completely once it's in play.

Anything that plays a lot of burn tends to be a bad matchup, though it depends both on your version and theirs. If they play the Naya kind, a quick Blood Moon can still hurt them, stranding their Boros Charms and Atarka's Commands in hand and shrinking Wild Nacatls. However, you absolutely need to kill every creature they play from turn 1 to 3 and even with a Blood Moon, their red burn spells will still be able to finish you off. Chalice of the Void is good here, but I still don't like Skred Red's chances in the matchup. Sun and Moon has a bit better chances, mostly because it has lifegain in Lightning Helix, Blessed Alliance and Ajani Vengeant. Nahiri, the Harbinger, provides a fast clock so that they don't have all the time in the world to find their burn spells and Chalice of the Void can lock out about half of their deck. One problem of the R/W version, though, is that because of Chalice, it doesn't play any 1-mana cards, which means that if you're on the draw and the opponent has a good start, all your cards look simply way too slow. All in all, Burn decks are again not the best matchup.

Control decks like Naya or Jeskai might look favored against the Skred Red type of decks, but the matchup is actually pretty fair, perhaps even favoring the red decks. Blood Moon is amazing and Relic of Progenitus is a decent trump card against stuff like Snapcaster Mage or Tasigur. The version with snow lands has a great unstoppable draw engine in Scrying Sheets while the R/W deck has planeswalkers, which tend to be at their best against control. In addition, playing very few creatures that die to removal means that a big part of the control's maindeck list is going to be dead cards.

Modern is a diverse format and playing Blood Moon and Relic is going to mean that you might just randomly kill someone by simply playing one card. Tron is going to lose to a resolved Blood Moon in game one most of the time, for example, while Dredge will scoop to Relic of Progenitus and Anger of the Gods. Random "swarm" strategies like Elves or Merfolk are also really soft to sweepers. To me, it seems that right now, the state of the metagame seems to be such that the silver bullets these decks play will hit more often than miss and the hit will often be lethal. The fact that they are slowly becoming a known quantity blunts their edges a little bit, mostly because the opponents will fetch for basics as soon as they see the first Snow-Covered Mountain or Temple of Triumph, but even that will often not be enough.

Even though Modern is a format with a big card pool, it does evolve (albeit slower than Standard, of course). Right now, these strategies seem to be favored, but that might not be true a couple of months from now. The key is to keep track of where the metagame is headed - as long as it remains similar to what it's like now, I think that Skred Red, Sun and Moon and Free Win Red are all more than reasonable choices.

That's it from me for today. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

Adam

Adam Koska
Adam Koska

About Adam Koska

Adam is an experienced player from the Czech Republic who has a number of high-profile finishes under his belt:

  • 14th at Pro Tour Portland 2014
  • 9th at Worlds 2009
  • 9th at Pro Tour Kyoto 2009
  • 64 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Three times Czech Nationals Top 8
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