ROLL UP! ROLL UP, RAVNICANS!
Roll like a magistrate’s head down to the Rakdos Carnarium, where we have prepared an evening of almost unendurable excitement! There’s knife throwers. Flame jugglers. Black-hearted demons from the cruellest chambers of the hells! Why. it’s the most hair-raising thing you’ll ever see as long as you live! It might even be the last….
Ready to build red-black yet? I can’t honestly say I’ve ever gone into a Ravnica set with Rakdos being the guild I’m most excited about. With a noted exception in their monstrous leader (the idea of “unrepentent chaos demon as a pillar of the community” tickles me) the cult were part of the wallpaper in Dissension and RTR. Hellbent was a largely unplayable mechanic which generated limp card designs, while my most significant memory of Unleash cards is cleaning up with them at the prerelease before they faded into an extremely powerful constructed environment.
By contrast, Ravnica Allegiance seems like the big coming out party for Rakdos, with arguably the block’s most interesting mechanic in Spectacle and a stronger flavour identity built around the “BDSM theatre troupe” aspect of the guild. The guild is alive in draft and even stronger in constructed, looking to prop up archetypes from mono-red burn, to mardu midrange, and even less obvious choices like demon midrange with Liliana’s Contract.
Buuuuuut if you’ve been reading the previous articles in this Guild Build adventure (and if you like Orzhov or Simic, you should!) you can guess that I’m looking for a deeper cut. The set is alive now, both in paper and on Arena, and better Magic minds than mine are already out there tuning lists and writing primers for whatever kinky stuff you’re interested in doing with Judith.
Instead, I’ve used my time with RNA to build around the rare which turned out to be my most underrated card of the set.
Take the title however you wish; a reference to the deck’s ping-heavy gameplan, or nod to the recent “mono blue sh*tters” naming convention. This controlling list is here to buy time with the versatile board control of Pestilent Spirit + red burn, and eventually leverage a winning advantage out of key permanents – mostly planeswalkers.
Sarkhan and Jaya offer utility while threatening to win if left unchecked, while Best Boy Angrath wears away opposing resources along with their life total. Our column has already featured one creatureless control list, and were it not for the Pesty Lad this would be another. This is because of what makes control decks good in Bo1 ladder, as was recently explained by Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa: not relying on creatures blanks removal in enemy control/midrange decks, while allowing you to go all-in on sweepers to crush aggro.
Now, the minions of Rakdos might not be everyone’s first choice when it comes to control, but this build leverages the implications of PVDDR’s wisdom better than most. Not only do we minimise targets for creature removal, but since our removal is burn spells, we have 0 dead cards even in the creatureless mirror. In fact, combined with consistent pings from our permanents and the occasional menacing attack from a stray spirit, those cards give us an extra angle of attack. Pestilent Spirit overcomes the weaknesses of this strategy – very large creatures – and brings the one-sided-wrath hype with recovered draft chaff Radiating Lightning.
We also benefit from the unusual surplus of cheap, permanent-based card engines in the Rakdos colour combo at the moment; at the moment we’re sleeving up Sarkhan, Jaya, and the new Theater of Horrors, but Arguel’s Blood Fast and Treasure Map (which starred in our Orzhov build) are equally viable. All of them help us pull ahead against blue-based control and its more expensive, less repeatable card draw.
Our other lethal weapon against traditional control is black’s signature, hand disruption. We’re lucky to have both Angrath and Carnival//Carnage as potent discard spells which can be played in alternate modes against aggro, and we’re sneakily maindecking a couple Duress to back those up. The Duresses are a costly choice since they’re filling slots meant for shiny new RNA toy Bedevil-
– however, I firmly believe that this is the more important effect for our list. Duress is our only hope of addressing red-black’s (and Bedevil’s) major weakness: enchantments. There’s tons of broken ones in current Standard, and lacking removal like Knight of Autumn and Mortify means we need to get them out of our opponent’s hand proactively. Targeted hand disruption also gives us our biggest edge against control; when both players have full hands, Duress is always going to trade up into countermagic, and casting a couple in a row to clear the way for a card like Captive Audience is a consistent game-winning tactic.
So, we maintain coherent and consistent gameplans against both aggro and control while dodging the “drew the wrong half of the deck” problem which plagues control in Bo1. Seems fantastic, but even though I’m a big fan of the list I can see a few obstacles to be overcome. First, the lack of lifegain – red decks are not going to stop being popular especially at lower tiers of the Arena ladder, and actual lifegain is the only answer against the more combo/burn heavy builds. Since we play red removal over Moment of Craving and have no good sac targets for Temple of Aclazotz, we’re forced to play the full 4 Vraska’s Contempt over some optimal split with Bedevil. Even that may not be enough – at times I’ve seriously considered starter pack rare Vengeant Vampire for inclusion. We’re crying out for a Battle at the Bridge-style card, but so far Wizards has not heard us.
Ironically, the lack of Bedevil leaves us totally exposed to another big threat in The Immortal Sun. Most of the dangerous artifacts rotated from Standard with Kaladesh/Amonkhet, but this one didn’t and absolutely gets us thanks to our dependence on planeswalkers.
As a result, this is one build I’m almost more excited to take into Bo3. The announcement of this option for ranked play is one I welcome, and while I will continue to focus on Bo1 decks for the time being, I encourage readers to try and adapt these 60s into working 75s. For my part, a theoretical sideboard for this list contains almost all the anti-control cards (duress, Theater, Banefire, Azor’s Gateway) which leaves space in the mainboard to jam in all the lifegain we can find for our colours, plus some extra removal. This reflects the idea that our postboard game against control is consistently favoured; if there is to be a matchup we need to win game 2 and 3 in, I’d pick that one.
It’s also possible that a serious list forgoes the Pestilent Spirit package altogether – Radiating Lightning can look pretty bad in hand by itself and they do give opponents something to do with their removal. But the 3/2 has also gotten in plenty of cheeky damage for me, which lets us save our burn spells for their blockers, and helps to legitimise our chances of counting to 20 against control. I think the card deserves its trial here. Spook spook, my mooks!
One of the main reasons to feature Modern and Eternal builds in these articles is to show off cards from RNA which would otherwise be overlooked. Sure, Electrodominance is probably playable in a range of red-based lists, powering out enchantments or threats in opposing endsteps while doubling as removal. But there’s just no target for this card in Standard which compares to the busted possibilities of the Time Spiral “0 CMC” spells.
Several of these powerful cards already see play across Modern and Legacy, largely alongside Cascade spells and other effects which bypass the clunky Suspend process to cast them. Unfortunately, the Cascade “1 card combo” requires your 0 CMC wincon to be the only spell in your deck with CMC < 3, at least if you want it to be reliable. This has hobbled deck construction enough to keep Living End, Hypergenesis and Restore Balance out of top tier (Hypergenesis is also banned in Modern).
Despite these issues, Living End has continued to see representation in Modern. Recent innovations have included the unusual Blue End deck based around As Foretold and the subsequent Grixis lists which changed the kill condition post-Living End to Kiki-Jiki combo to make it more reliable.
Not using Cascade spells as the trigger mechanic has allowed these decks to be built more solidly, but means the Living End plan loses some redundancy, as you can only play 4 As Foretold. The Grixis/Kiki-Jiki version of the deck addresses this by squeezing in a second, similar combo of Goryo’s Vengeance + strong legends. Vengeance on Griselbrand draws your deck and applies magnum beats. Vengeance on Kiki threatens instant death with a flashed-in Exarch.
Electrodominance provides another exciting alternative – As Foretold may be able to cast multiple spells to pull you ahead when the immediate combo win isn’t an option, but the Kiki-Jiki builds are designed to win on the spot, and Electrodominance can cast Living End for 1 less mana at instant speed. So few instant speed spells are capable of interacting with Kiki-Jiki + Exarch that I would almost call Electrodominance better in this deck than As Foretold is. The only concern is how often the deck finds itself waiting to draw Living End – Electrodominance can also be used to cast Ancestral Visions, but using it to dig means you need another enabler to win with.
This deck is already so tight and specific in its card choices that it was difficult to justify including any more RNA cards. However, we did sneak in a new Rakdos to slightly diversify our reanimation package. The Showstopper’s ETB trigger is still one of the better of its kind despite being random, and in a “fail case” where Living End doesn’t immediately win us the game it’s nice to clear away some of the creatures it gave back to our opponent.
The effect is two-sided, but Griseldaddy is a demon itself and Kiki can make a billion Exarchs before coins are flipped. This might actually be the best reasoning to include Rakdos in this deck – I’m not 100% certain what the game thinks about abstracting or shortcutting an arbitrarily large number of coin flips, and whether this would end up as a coin-based version of the Four Horseman ruling – we can’t guarantee we wouldn’t flip N tails in a row and not win, so do we flip them all? I think that flipping ten trillion coins to decide how dead my opponent will be is well and truly living up to the name Showstopper!
NEXT TIME: THE COPS!
My next Into The Arena article will be focused on the new-look “police state” Azorius, looking into how we can take our cues from Grand Arbiter Dovin Baan and send the thin white-and-blue line on the aggressive. Make sure you check it out! (because the surveillance thopters will be watching to ensure your compliance).