This past weekend, Hugh, Brendan, I, and friends of the site, James, Charles, and Derek joined together for a triple Innistrad draft. As I received my third pick of pack one, I had an epiphany: I despise red in Theros almost as much as I hated it in Innistrad.

Incite

In both formats, many red decks want to play a fast, aggressive game but lack the quality creatures (particularly two drops) necessary to consistently execute on that game plan. Sure, Ashmouth Hound, Kessig Wolf, and Crossway Vampire are decent creatures (albeit not particularly powerful), but there aren’t quality red low drops to support them. Bloodcrazed Neonate will kill itself or trade with an irrelevant creature far more often than it will become a 4/3. Feral Ridgewolf (aka Fireball wolf) requires a massive mana investment to be relevant—something which red aggro has only if it’s losing. Riot Devils (aka Hurloon Minotaur) is not an aggro card. Village Ironsmith is a two mana 1/1 (it gets better with setup, but again, if red is taking time, then it’s not being aggressive and is falling behind).

Innistrad lacks powerful common red creatures that don’t require setup, like Splatter Thug or Plated Geopede. These beasts have high power and keep ’emselves alive. Without such cards, red aggro has to play weak cards that require setup and hope that its draws are good while the opponent lacks interaction.

Spell Snare

In Theros, red has it worse—Akroan Crusader can do filthy things, but requires setup and in the absence of support cards, is outclassed by almost every other creature. Ill-Tempered Cyclops is decent, but slow. Minotaur Skullcleaver and Borderland Minotaur are fine, but unexciting (though they do improve dramatically with a minotaur lord). Minotaur Skullcleaver would be a better card if it were bringing the opponent down to 12 or 14 life, rather than the 16 it so often does (it often seems to be the first creature to get in).

What’s the problem? Red has very little to do on turn two. Satyr Rambler and Bronze Sable are weak cards—they’ll trade with most blockers despite Ordeal of Purphoros and Titan’s Strength). Deathbellow Raider‘s good stats are mitigated by its suicidal nature (even if you have regeneration mana, it’s still reminiscent of Feral Ridgewolf). That’s all red has at common. Absent good two-drops, red aggro can’t quickly dump its hand and apply pressure.

Let’s imagine an easy curve:

Now, let’s imagine we’re on the play with the same curve and our opponent plays Nessian Courser on turn three.

Sure, you can take time off from attacking to monstrous your cyclops, but that gives your opponent time to stabilize. You could also have a Coordinated Assault on T5, but your opponent could have a Savage Surge, Divine Verdict, or Voyage’s End to blow you out. There’s a lot of risk involved in a red heavy aggro deck and I don’t think that it’s worth taking.

Balance of Power

“But Zach,” you might say, “you’re not being fair to red. You’re assuming a monored deck.” Up to this point, I have done just that. However, I believe that my point still stands. If red is a weak color, its decks will improve when combined with another color. However, I believe that any nonred deck will worsen when combined with red (due to its poor common creatures and tricks and the fact that Lightning Strike is splashable). Red may benefit from being underdrafted, just as it was in Innistrad, but getting a pile of red’s top common creatures remains unexciting, whereas a deck with three Nimbus Naiad, Wingsteed Rider, Nessian Asp, or Gray Merchant of Asphodel would be absurd.

Forced Adaptation

 

Despite my misgivings about red and my general boredom, I believe that Theros is an excellent format (just one that I’ve played too much of too quickly). The purpose of this article isn’t to hurt red’s feelings or the feelings of red players; I believe that red is the weakest color in Theros, but nowhere near unplayable (unlike black in Avacyn Restored or white in M14, which were incredibly awkward). It tends to be underdrafted, has one of the strongest commons in Lightning Strike, and has powerful higher rarity cards that go late because fewer players are in red.

No, the purpose of this article is to pick apart red and see what we could do to give it a bit of a bump. Unsurprisingly, I think that if we gave red a better two drop, say by replacing Satyr Rambler with Arena Athlete (which might be too strong, though I think it’s a weaker card than Firestriker Striker and more deserving of a common slot for reasons that I won’t elongate this article with), then heavy red aggro might be a real contender and red would be a better and more drafted color. Perhaps a higher than average power creature with downside, like Mogg Flunkies, Jackal Familiar, Akki Avalanchers, or Mogg Conscripts would be more than enough to reward the red aggro drafter.

Perhaps I’m wrong and red is better than I’m giving it credit for. Perhaps red was originally stronger in Theros development and the format was worse for it. I can only engage in Quiet Speculation. That said, I invite you all to join me. Does red need a boost? If so, how would you give it one? Do you think the format would be better if Nessian Asp cost six, Gray Merchant of Asphodel were uncommon, or something else lowered the power level of the stronger colors? I’d love to hear your thoughts. And as ever, thanks for reading!

—Zachary Barash

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Magic Online username: Zennith

Zachary Barash has been playing Magic on and off since 1994. He loves Limited and drafts every available format (including several that aren’t entirely meant to be drafted). He’s a proud Cube owner and performer, improvising entire musicals every week with his team, Petting Zoo. Zach has an obsession with Indian food that borders on being unhealthy.

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