In case you haven’t been paying much attention, it would seem that Goblin Chainwhirler is rather good.
To say that red variants dominated the Standard rounds of this past Pro Tour would be to do a disservice to good, honest journalism. The Sunday stage sported only one single outlier, while fourteen out of the nineteen 8-2 and 9-1 players had the erstwhile Goblin Knife-User in their decks. Even Aetherworks Marvel wasn’t this dominant, and yet there’s been a running consensus that the red deck is merely great, rather than actually busted. Anecdotal evidence this may be, but in the matches of Magic Online I’ve played since the Pro Tour decklists have been released, I’ve sat across from many more Steel Leaf Champions than Goblin Chainwhirlers. Regardless of whatever weird data point about poor deck selection that might lead to, I’d like to focus on some more practical questions this week: what is it that makes these red decks so good, and how do we deal with them for Nationals and the Unified Standard RPTQ?
This red shell, defined more or less by the printing of Hazoret, has more or less always had legs in Standard. Even when the format was dominated by Temur Energy around the time of Pro Tour Ixalan, red was a popular and effective choice, thanks largely to the power level of cards like Rampaging Ferocidon and Bomat Courier. When Temur was banned, Ferocidon and Ramunap Ruins also got the axe, and the deck, neutered, continued to put up reasonable results online.
The problem with red decks during this era is that go-wide decks like Vampires or various Sram’s Expertise strategies were gaining steam as a reaction to U/B midrange, and without the menacing dinosaur, red was struggling to break through the walls of nonsense creatures. Enter Goblin Chainwhirler, Dominaria’s standout game design mistake. Suddenly one-toughness creatures are no longer playable in Standard, and going wide in any way is punished by the card’s synergy with Soul-Scar Mage. Sure, a set of strategies are invalidated by this card, but the impact of this card on Standard goes even deeper. The trigger is a huge nerf to cards like Champion of Wits and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, dealing irreparable damage to the decks trying to play midrange games against control — newly revitalized by Teferi. Those cards, essential against control, could be relied on in the past to at least block a Bomat Courier, but no longer. Gift decks are also hurt, as the roadblocks of Champion of Wits, Walking Ballista, and Angel of Invention are suddenly rendered useless. We’re left then with only control, red, and big green decks as archetypes that aren’t ruined by this omnipresent trigger — and we wonder why the metagame at the Pro Tour was so stratified.
Luckily for the gameplay experience, there are still many variants of these decks, using the same cards in different roles. Kazuyuki Takimura’s R/B deck, for instance, is very different from Owen Turtenwald’s, despite being very similar on paper. Much like Juza did at Grand Prix Birmingham, Takimura cut the one-drops for Magma Sprays, giving him an advantage in the pseudo-mirrors at a significant cost to his control matchup. There are a lot of questionable numbers in this list, but I always have faith that Japanese deckbuilders are actually brain-geniuses and that every single card is there for an extremely good reason.
R/B Midrange – Kazuyuki Takimura – 5th place, Pro Tour Dominaria
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Wyatt Darby’s streamlined aggressive mono-red build, deadly focused on consistently playing creatures and turning them sideways. This version won the tournament, and therefore it’s better. Thanks for reading.
Mono-Red Aggro – Wyatt Darby – 1st place, Pro Tour Dominaria
Jokes aside, this deck is obviously extremely good. One of the biggest flaws of these decks is that they have to jump through massive hoops to beat Hazoret — or Rhonas for that matter, more on that later. The mono-red build maximizes her power by playing low to the ground and on-curve, at the cost of exposing itself to Chainwhirler triggers through Earthshaker Khenra. Something I like a lot about Wyatt’s build is the three maindeck Phoenixes. Not only does it set up a huge midrange transition out of the sideboard, but Phoenix is another card that’s outrageously powerful in the mirror matches. Chainwhirler, already an all-star, is one of the only ways to beat Phoenix without going down a card or playing specific answers.
Unsurprisingly, I think Owen has the best version of this deck. It lands firmly in between these two other lists, featuring some of Takimura’s resilience and some of Darby’s aggression. Why do I like it? It’s the only one of these decks that has a truly favoured control matchup. Takimura’s deck doesn’t have enough early creatures to mount a real aggressive start, while Darby’s deck is unable to disrupt and is at the mercy of the quality of its draws. Owen has recursive threats and card advantage aplenty while still having mana sinks in Pia Nalaar and Hazoret, to a lesser degree. This is where I’d start, were I to be playing Standard this weekend, making some minor changes to adapt to an increased metagame share of mirror matches. Some more Abrades over Lightning Strikes, maybe a third Chandra’s Defeat, maybe an Hour of Glory or two. The deck is very good and probably doesn’t need much help.
R/B Aggro – Owen Turtenwald – 3rd place, Pro Tour Dominaria
Without any further ado, let’s get to the important question we’ve all been waiting for: how do we beat this insurgent red menace? The unfortunate answer is that we probably can’t, or at least not easily. Red’s strength in this format, especially with its light black splash, is a robust adaptability. You can fill your deck with removal spells and lose because they’ve returned a Scrapheap Scrounger to play six times and you had to use your Vraska’s Contempts on the two Hazorets they drew. Fill your deck with Moment of Craving and die to a flurry of Chandras and Glorybringers out of the sideboard. Rely too hard on clunky but reliable answers like Ixalan’s Binding and get blown out of the water by Bomat Courier and Duress. The conclusion we can reach here is that, unlike in past formats, we can’t beat aggressive red decks by filling our sideboard with life-gain spells or whatever. We need to treat them like any other dominant deck and find holes in their strategy to exploit. They do struggle with large creatures that are hard to get off the board, like The Scarab God or Rhonas the Indomitable. Some decks that are effectively mono-black, full of removal, splashing The Scarab God to quickly turn the corner, have some amount of mileage against red strategies, but might lose points elsewhere. Ultimately, my recommendation at the moment for individual Standard tournaments is to join the revolution, crew the Heart of Kiran, and seize the means of production. I think that’s how the lore goes, at least.
Some of us, however, are lucky (unlucky?) enough to have to play Unified Standard in the coming weeks, and are given a different deckbuilding puzzle to solve. After all, only one person on each team can play with Goblin Chainwhirler. Past Unified formats have had some interesting decisions to make, but as far as I’m concerned, this one boils down to a couple questions, some more interesting than others. I’ll go over the ones I came up with, and then try to cover a couple interesting questions from what my mom calls “The Twitter”.
Q: What Teferi deck should we play?
A: The most successful control decks in Richmond were mostly Esper, that is U/B splashing Teferi and occasionally Forsake the Worldly. They’re back on Gearhulks as a quick way to close out games against red decks and pressure the many powerful planeswalkers present in the format.
Esper Control – Guillaume Matignon – 8-2, Pro Tour Dominaria
These decks, however, don’t fit into Unified all that well, as they demand the black removal suite as well as Duress out of the sideboard. Obviously, you could just play it without Duress, but at that point it might better to just play a straight U/W deck. I think it boils down to this: if you need Duress for another deck, it should probably go there.
Q: What Chainwhirler deck should we play?
A: This ties in with the Teferi question somewhat. As I said earlier, I think Owen’s deck is better against a prospective metagame where control decks are a guaranteed 33.3% of the field, but it depends on whether or not Duress and Aether Hub are needed elsewhere. Furthermore, many options for your third deck rely on Scrapheap Scrounger and Heart of Kiran to beat Teferi decks. As is, it might be that mono-red a la Darby is the better Unified deck, despite being the worse deck in a vacuum.
Q: Okay, but what do we play as a third deck?
A: This is probably the hardest one. I strongly believe that Steel Leaf Stompy is a terrible deck as well as a terrible deck name. That said, it beats up on U/W in a full match, and has a salvageable red match-up. Winding Constrictor decks are also probably bad in a vacuum, and I hate creature synergy decks in Standard formats full of removal, but as long as you still have Duress open, it might be better than the green deck. If you have no Duress, and your Chainwhirler deck is using Heart of Kiran and Scrapheap Scrounger, then you might want to look at the green-splash-blue deck. I’m convinced Heart of Kiran isn’t very strong in this deck, and can be replaced with more two-drops and perhaps an Aethersphere Harvester.
U/G Stompy – Dominik Prosek – 8-2, Pro Tour Dominaria
Q: I’m lazy, lack the human trait of self-determination, and need someone else to make my decisions for me. What three decks should I play?
A: Esper Control, Mono-Red, Green Stompy.
Q: Should I expect Nationals to be a mirror of the Pro Tour metagame or to be more reactionary?
A: It’s hard to say, so far out, and it definitely depends a lot on where you live. That said, I’d expect Canadian and American Nationals to follow the trends of the Pro Tour metagame, albeit likely with more control as a slight reactionary tinge, incorrect as it may be. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the inevitable resurgence of The Scarab God take place on that weekend.
Q: Will Lich’s Mastery fill out the third seat in Unified?
A: Hopefully, so long as that third seat is one of my opponents each round.
Q: Will Goblin Chainwhirler be banned?
A: Probably, but hopefully not. I think it’s extremely bad for the game when Standard cards are banned, and red is not very dominant at a local level, which is what ultimately matters for the competitive health of the game.
Q: Why did WotC make Team Unified to punish us?
A: We’ve been a very naughty community as of late, causing a lot of drama on social media, with the handshakes and the misogyny and all. This is exactly what we deserve.
Q: Tell people that there’s no way to metagame which seat each deck will be in.
A: There’s probably a way to do some extremely complicated metagaming and gain a minute edge through positioning your decks in very specific ways, but it’s definitely a colossal waste of time, and you’re best off spending every minute learning how to build and play your decks rather than wasting your life away on trivial minutia.
Fournier’s article got you fired up to battle in Standard, well don’t forget to plan your Canadian Nationals weekend. Face to Face Games will be hosting Nats from June 29 – July 1 over the long weekend. Come down early and make a weekend of it! We’ll also be hosting a slew of side events including a 5k Modern FacetoFaceGames.com Open+, a Legacy Eternal Weekend Trial and a Legacy Showdown on the Sunday. Get all the information here.