Last weekend was a big victory for me at SCG Indy with Atarka Red. In the first week of the format, I got paid off pretty hard for sticking to an aggressive, linear strategy with good mana.
Prior to the tournament, I put in hours playtesting at my local game store, RIW Hobbies. I had been on the same train of "abuse the free mana bases" as everyone else, and was currently on a hybrid Bant-Abzan midrange deck. Overall, I was happy with it and felt like it had a lot of positive match-ups.
For two weeks running, one of the RIW guys, Devon Paynter, had been telling me he broke the format with an Atarka Red build featuring the combo finish of pump spells and Temur Battle Rage. I believed his deck was good but it wasn't until I actually squared off against him that I understood his deck was the truth.
I got convincingly beat in a ten-game pre- and post-sideboard set. I think I went something like 8-2. The last game, when he killed me on turn three, was the nail in the coffin. I knew this was a deck I could get behind.
Tuning the List
He shipped me his list and over the next day and a half I goldfished roughly 100 games. The biggest change I made was cutting a Windswept Heath and adding three basic Mountains to the maindeck, which brought the land count up to 21. This not only improved my consistency, but also gave me more wiggle room in the sideboard.
The other innovation was to add Thunderbreak Regents to the board, with the intention of bringing them in in every single match-up. I told the RIW guys about my changes before the tournament, but they opted to stay on the low mana count that didn't utilize Thunderbreaks.
It seemed like every close game three in the tournament came down to a Thunderbreak Regent closing the door. If I had to name a best card in my 75 I would have to go with the dragon. I cannot understate how excellently it performed.
Part of Thunderbreak's strength came from my opponents' lack of ways to kill it post-sideboard. People were boarding out their Abzan Charms and Valorous Stances in favor of Arashin Cleric, and Thunderbreak Regent really punishes people who can't kill a fatty.
Here's what I registered:
Diverse Lines of Attack
Atarka Red is not your typical mindless red deck. It provides tons of play and opportunities to outmaneuver the opponent. The cool thing is how the aggressive creature package forces your opponent to tap out, which then gives you the perfect opportunity to combo off with a flurry of pump spells.
The "combo" is basically a pump spell on a prowess creature plus Temur Battle Rage. The mini version of Titan's Strength, Swiftspear and Battle Rage is good enough for 12 damage, whereas the full-on combo of Battle Rage, prowess guy and Become Immense deals a whopping 18! On top of this "break through" combo the deck has an effective "go wide" combo in Dragon Fodder plus Atarka's Command.
For instance, assume you're on the play and they elect not to block. Turn 1 Swiftspear, turn two Dragon Fodder, and turn three Atarka's Command is already 13 damage. A blocker on that turn can only soak up three of the damage.
If each of the deck's attack plans is capable of generating a quick kill, together they provide for flexibility and resilience. If the opponent leaves mana up representing removal, you can just take your free damage and pass the turn. Eventually they will have to act to stay above water.
My approach to playing Atarka Red was similar to piloting Vintage TPS against a bunch of slow control decks. Every turn, no matter what my opponent did, I could progress my agenda somehow--by casting another threat, winning in combat with a trick, or casting a removal spell. Whenever my opponent put his or her shields down I made my big move to end the game.
The sideboard was amazing, and I brought in every card multiple times. The key to sideboarding with a deck like this is to understand that your opponent's sideboard plans will be very static. They will board out their top end for life gain, cheap removal and efficient blockers, depending on the deck. It's pretty predictable, and allows you to adapt your plan of attack in response.
Against Radiant Flames and extra spot removal I can bring in Hangarback Walkers and simply outgrind them. Against decks that overload on cheap creatures I can bring in tons of red burn to clear away blockers.
The Arc Lightnings are partly a hedge against Arashin Clerics. I can attack my team into a blocking board and then spread around Arc Lightning damage to finish off all the high-toughness creatures. It's also a nice way to mop up Hangarback Walker tokens generated during blocking.
Between games I was also attentive to the number of cards my opponent boarded out. If I see them bring in 11 cards, I'm more likely to switch up my plan.
The key to the sideboard is to visualize their defense plan, and then alter your approach so as to make that plan awkward. Are they going to be weenie-heavy? Bring in efficient removal. Are they going to be removal-heavy? Bring in the high-quality creatures like Hangarback and Thunderbreak that two-for-one removal spells.
The different dimensions of attack generate an information deficit as well. Opponents who guess incorrectly which line you're on can get seriously punished. I saw this play out repeatedly over the course of the tournament.
Beating Atarka Red
The biggest strength of Atarka Red is its brutal efficiency. The combos of Dragon Fodder plus Atarka's Command, and Become Immense plus Temur Battle Rage, are the two cheapest ways to deal a bucket-load of damage in Standard. But the deck is not unbeatable.
Here is what is bad against Atarka Red: inefficient threats and answers that require tapping out in the mid-game. If you tap out, you die.
But if you can afford to leave mana open and still make plays, things get complicated for the red player fast. The key is to keep your curve tight and play lands that enter the battlefield untapped.
The other important element of playing against Atarka Red is that you have to kill them quickly. The longer games go, the more time you give them to assemble a combo finish. Don't forget that Atarka Red has many avenues to win the lategame.
Arashin Cleric is a fine card, but it needs to be used in a context where you can turn the corner and become aggressive. If you can't exploit the tempo swing of three life and a blocker to put the red deck on the back foot, the card is essentially a mulligan. An Arashin Cleric with no follow-up can't answer the double strike combo, or a double Hangarback Walker draw, or a Thunderbreak Regent, or a big Atarka's Command.
The best decks against me by far were the Jeskai decks. Mantis Rider puts you on a clock and creates situations where you have to make unprofitable attacks. Jeskai also has access to 1cc removal spells that make combat tricks extremely risky.
Here's what you need to keep in mind to combat Atarka Red effectively:
1. Turn the corner and go on the attack as soon as possible. The key is being able to develop your board while leaving up removal. Cheap removal is best for this. Radiant Flames, Ultimate Price, or one-mana burn spells all get the job done.
2. Don't tap out. Once the shields are down, the combo will kill from most board states and life totals. You need to be aware that at a certain point in the game, failing to at least represent removal will result in instant death. On the draw, it may be the case that Siege Rhino is a 6cc spell.
3. Mantis Rider. This is the epitome of a threat that lets you keep the shields up. It attacks and blocks and will always give the red player headaches if you can untap and protect it.
4. Deflecting Palm. In an aggressive deck this card is absolutely unbeatable for Atarka Red. Granted you only get to redirect half of a double-striker's damage, but it should still be enough to flip the script and end the game.
5. Good mana. Don't listen to the people who tell you the fourth and fifth colors are free. Nothing is ever free. The cleaner you can keep your curve, the better your odds of staying at parity in the early game.
6. Test and understand the match-up. It's difficult to play against this deck without actually putting the games in. I made a lot of good players look silly because they simply didn't know how to react to the ways I was pressuring them. Playing against combat tricks in Constructed is not intuitive. Get the games under your belt so you know what matters when it counts.
I'm not sure what else I can say about Atarka Red. It's easily one of the best decks I've ever played in a tournament. It was consistent and capable of busted things. I won a game on turn three on the play... That is Modern power level, not Standard.
The deck loses some of its appeal now that people know what it can do. Nonetheless, I haven't seen a deck that's objectively better than Atarka Red thus far. Keep in mind I was able to cut through the Top 8 against strong players who had a plan for beating red decks, who got to see my entire deck list and who were on the play every match...
Until somebody shows me a deck that can consistently go toe to toe with it, I think this is the deck to beat going into the PT. The other upside is you don't have to buy Jace!