Red's overall strategy plays as the ideological opposite of blue. Blue plays for a long game, focusing on slowing things down, neutralizing an opponent's threats, and winning through incremental card advantage and superior board position. On the other hand, red's arsenal of aggressively costed creatures, burn spells, land destruction, haste, and cards that convert resources into sources of damage promote a short-term game strategy focused on winning as soon as possible and at any cost.
In order for red to perform well it's important to play to red's strengths. Let's discuss exactly what they are.
Mike Flores mused that people in the know considered Jackal Pup to be better than Savannah Lions even when considering the hound's drawback! The logic is that Jackal Pup's function as an aggressive 2-power 1-drop works better than Savannah Lions because of the excellent aggressive support that red gives it from other aggressively costed, efficient and cheap creatures.
Despite red's affinity for a short-term game plan it has a surprising number of ways of gaining card advantage through more traditional two-for-ones or mass-removal.
Red is also a very good source of disruption, providing artifact and land destruction tools. Since many provide additional benefits, such as extra damage through creature bodies or direct damage, they are also very useful for providing reach in closing the game.
Much of red's arsenal of burn can easily destroy creatures with three or less toughness because the color packs more 'Bolts than a hardware store. Red can also deal with creatures with four toughness because of cards like Flame Javelin, Char and creatures like Flametongue Kavu and Crater Hellion. Unfortunately, one of red's weaknesses lie with its relative difficulty in destroying creatures with five or more toughness. Cards like the "X" spells (Banefire, Demonfire) can help cover this weakness but they are not as useful in aggressive decks due to their relative inefficiency at converting mana to damage.
Another weakness is that red's "punisher" cards like Browbeat ultimately put the opponent in the driver's seat for being able to choose the outcome that is best for them. While Torment tried to push the mechanic through cards like Browbeat and Skullscorch, cards like Keldon Marauders, Hellspark Elemental and Ball Lightning represent this mechanic as well, albeit in a more subtle way. "Do I want to take 3 from that Hellspark Elemental or should I block it with my Solemn Simulacrum and just take 1 damage?" The lack of true evasion still leaves the decisions to the defending player.
Let's now discuss how red manifests itself in its 2-color archetypes.
Opportunities and Threats - Archetypes:
The most obvious strength that red provides aggressive archetypes is in its direct damage. Boros seeks to deal as much damage to the opponent as quickly as possible. The direct damage isn't as necessary to the archetype as it is to others, since white already has a suite of powerful removal effects like Swords to Plowshares that can remove potential blockers, yet cards like Lightning Bolt provide for a cheap way to win the game when the opponent is already at a low life total.
Red's 1 and 2-drop creatures provide excellent redundancy to white's 1 and 2-drop creatures since both perform similar roles in dealing as much damage as possible to the opponent. However, since white tends to be pretty weak at the 3-mana slot, red's strong 3-mana spells such as Staggershock and Molten Rain are excellent for Boros aggro decks because they clear blockers, deal damage, and disrupt the opponent.
As mentioned before, red has a surprisingly high amount of card advantage in the color which helps to support Boros desks since white's aggressive tools provide surprisingly little card advantage since much of the card advantage in white is through either its planeswalkers or its mass removal, both of which can only comprise a few slots in a Boros aggro deck.
Red also provides some additional disruption for Boros decks. Cards like Armageddon are excellent in the archetype because they are able to easily win the game once resolved. Red's arsenal of pinpoint land destruction in cards like Molten Rain won't win the game once resolved like Armageddon, but these cards do serve as a temporary tempo boost and often come with a creature attached: Avalanche Riders, Goblin Ruinblaster and Ravenous Baboons all essentially cost 4 mana, an already crowded mana cost for white.
Archetypes like Gruul are classical archetypes that have been around since the early days of magic because of the redundancy that is provided by both colors. Much like Boros, Gruul decks seek to win the game as soon as possible through aggressive creature hordes, disruption, and a flurry of burn or other reach elements to win the game.
Much like with Boros, Gruul gets redundancy through red's 1- and 2-drop creatures, since many of green's aggressive creatures, like Wild Dogs, play similarly to red's, like Jackal Pup. Even its artifact-destruction-on-a-body creatures are mostly the same with Manic Vandal being nearly identical to Viridian Shaman. However, in terms of raw creature power, green's aggressive creatures out-muscle red's. So what does red bring?
Direct damage is definitely the most important component of the archetype. This is because of green's inability to directly deal with creatures outside of combat, red's ability to clear blockers out of the way is often just as important than its ability to finish off a wounded opponent. And while green decks historically have had problems with dealing the last few points of damage to win the game, cards like Sulfuric Vortex are able to do that quite easily.
Rakdos decks in cube perform extremely well as streamlined, efficient, and disruptive aggressive decks. Rakdos decks combine red's pinpoint land destruction and black's discard to leave a disrupted opponent with fewer tools to fend off the assault. Some of red's cards, like Jackal Pup and Sulfuric Vortex, almost feel like black cards since they seek to trade a life loss liability for immediate gain. Much like with monoblack, the archetype must take into account how many self-damaging effects are in the deck, but for the most part this is less of a factor here. However, even without a single self-damaging card, the archetype works similarly to Gruul in that the archetype is powered through redundancy.
While it may be argued that red's 1-drop creatures are weaker than black's, as of right now red's 1-drop creatures vastly outnumber black's, yielding the added redundancy and increase in power level along the curve.
Like for others, red brings its artifact destruction to the archetype. Much of it provides redundant to the archetype's goals since it damages the opponent either via direct damage or a body attached to the effect, as well as cover black's weakness to artifacts. Unfortunately, black and red share a weakness in their inability to destroy enchantments but is still able to win despite this handicap. Creature destruction isn't as important for red to bring because black already has a lot of ways to kill creatures, but direct damage is still useful against pesky ones with protection from black or to provide addition game-ending reach..
Red brings some extremely valuable tools to the Izzet control archetype. While blue is able to deal with nearly everything when it's on the stack it has a much harder time with creatures that slip through the "counter wall." I have mentioned that direct damage is very important for nearly every red deck because it answers many creatures, which explains its universally playable nature. Blue is able to deal with some creatures through theft effects and bounce effects, but red brings more consistent tools, namely cheap direct damage, in cards like Burst Lightning, and mass removal, through cards like Starstorm.
While it may be argued that red's mass removal effects are weaker than ones in white because of their inability to destroy everything, this weakness can be turned into a strength when using creatures that can survive the damage. Remember when I said that one of red's weaknesses was its inability to destroy 5+ toughness creatures? Decks can also be created to exploit this by combining Dragons, Wurmcoil Engine, or Sphinxes with cards like Starstorm and Wildfire to have game-ending creatures that will survive the spell.
Red's card advantage tools are also useful for the Izzet decks since cards like Arc Trail and Staggershock can deal with multiple creatures that slip through the counter wall all burn, providing additional incremental advantage. Because of blue's ability to deal with larger creatures, expensive one-shot removal like Flame Javelin isn't as important for Izzet as it is for other red-based color pairs since they will likely use these spells to win.
Additionally, red's artifact destruction helps to deal with troublesome artifacts, especially mana accelerants and equipment since both of these cards can increase the pace of the game for the Izzet opponent.
Monored decks tend to be extremely streamlined in function: grab as much burn as possible, pair it with the most efficient creatures and other sources of damage, and win as quickly as possible. Cards like Molten-Tail Masticore and Cursed Scroll are very useful in monocolor decks, but they serve as redundancy in monored since they can destroy creatures with protection from red and burn an opponent out.
Due to the fact that the color almost overwhelmingly supports aggressive archetypes (three aggressive archetypes to one control) it is imperative to support aggressive strategies in red.
I've written an article on this very topic for cube as a whole (and may revisit the topic in the future) but how should this be done in red?
1) Curtailing red control and midrange cards: There's a big temptation to use as many X-spells in a cube because they're generally powerful in Limited. However, this rule doesn't apply in cube because aggressive decks seek more efficient cards, like Lightning Bolt and Chain Lightning, rather than ones like Demonfire.
In The Third Power's podcast review of Mirrodin Besieged, I noted that while Slagstorm is a quality card, there may not be the room for it since there is only room for so many "control" (and midrange) cards due to the color's aggressive nature. This is because if red is represented with half of its cards being "control" cards, the color overall will suffer since a majority of red decks are aggressive in nature. While it is important to have these tools to assist control and midrange decks, you must bee disciplined to make sure that these cards don't make up a significant portion of your red section.
2) MTGSalvation forum user wtwlf123 came up with the idea to have half of your red cards be able to deal damage to a player without attacking and I agree with this. An aggressive red deck can typically get an opponent down to single-digit life totals and kill the opponent with a flurry of burn effects. Having insufficient burn makes it so that this strategy is hampered, since red-based decks won't be able to capitalize on one of their major avenues of victory. Having too much burn makes it difficult to deal enough damage at the start.
I hope you've enjoyed this SWOT analysis of one of the more misunderstood colors in cube. I typically see substandard red sections in cube because designers do not build the color to take advantage of red's strengths and this article aims to help designers avoid that same mistake. I hope you'll take a second look at yours.
Thanks for reading!