I am excited for this week! Not because it's finals week - frankly, I'd rather be playing Magic - but because it's Rakdos week! I started this "series" off with a moral lesson of detachment, altruism and lawfulness befitting of the Selesnya Conclave, and now it's time to have a look at the other side of the medal. The Rakdos are chaotic, passionate and often aggressively egoistic. And while these traits (and the colors of the Cult) might be a little easier to think of as belonging in the "evil" camp, that would be too much of a simplification. In this article, we'll be looking at the positive lessons we can take away from the Rakdos Cult - "Trusting your Gut" and "Not Looking Back" - as well as how they play (mostly in Limited). To take another angle on this last subject, I will also be piloting a new idea for looking at a Limited format constructively that I've grown interested in - something I'll call SCS: Single Card Study.
Without further ado, let's jump right into the fray!
How does Rakdos play?
Rakdos seems to one of the most popular guilds both in constructed and limited at this time, and I think there's a good reason for that. The Black-Red color combination leans towards some of the simple things that a lot of players enjoy doing in Magic: Attacking with creatures, killing the opponent's creatures, and sending burn spells to their face to finish off the job. It helps a lot that the color combination legitimately is very powerful both in RTR limited and in standard. In limited (which we will get to shortly), the key ability of the red-black guild is obviously Unleash, the Rakdos mechanic. But in standard, I blame a big part of Black-Red's power on a keyword that I've heard described by at least one pro as "the most powerful evergreen keyword".
As someone trying to play a value mid-range brew with cards like Lingering Souls, Olivia Voldaren, Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and Bloodline Keeper as a substantial part of my threat arsenal and a removal suite which, while having excellent power in Dreadbore, (Sever the Bloodline) and Pillar of Flame, seriously lacks instant-speed answers, I can attest to the power of the cards above. Haste is a very powerful ability, especially on creatures as efficient as these. Falkenrath Aristocrat can take out a newly-played Sorin (or (Liliana of the Veil), or Garruk, Primal Hunter, for that matter) out of nowhere, Thundermaw laughs at Lingering Souls tokens, and all of these creatures put a lot of pressure on the opponent to draw an answer or scoop up their cards. Playing Black-Red in standard has become a bit more of an exercise in patience with the realization of the power of these cards; sure, you are still running one-drops like (Stromkirk Noble) or Gravecrawler and other aggressive creatures backed up by burn, but stalling out for a turn or two after the initial rush with the opponent at 8 is perfectly acceptable, since an end-of-turn (Searing Spear) followed by a lucky topdeck and an all-out attack can often lock the game away before the opponent has had the time to go on the offensive and wipe you out.
In RTR limited, the same kind of game-plan is actually often a viable choice in Rakdos. It feels slightly Izzet-ish, but if you spend your early picks picking up a lot of removal/reach cards like Stab Wound, Annihilating Fire, (Launch Party) and Explosive Impact (though Traitorous Instinct deserves a mention, too), you will often want to prioritize super-aggressive creatures for your deck to push through that early damage which makes so many of your cards so dangerous in the later game. In this way, you're seriously impairing your opponent's options for getting back into the game. A key card to be aware off if you are trying to pull this off, though, is Hussar Patrol. Hopefully, even when playing against Azorius, you are able to get in some damage before the turn where your opponent passes with 4 mana up and a smirk on his face, and perhaps even close out instead by putting a Stab Wound on the Patrol and just never attack again.
The other Rakdos strategy in RTR limited, and the one which leans a little more towards the Golgari side of the color combination, is the "Threat that keeps growing". This is the strategy where Unleash really shines. Starting with Rakdos Cackler on one into Gore-House Chainwalker or Thrill-Kill Assassin on two, this deck does not need as much removal as its cousin, preferring instead to keep the curve rolling into larger and even more dangerous creatures like Hellhole Flailer, (Bloodfray Giant), Spawn of Rix Maadi and perhaps even a Chaos Imps or Carnival Hellsteed. The support crew of the deck is most likely creatures like Sewer Shambler and Lobber Crew which can block profitably and/or help sneak in a few extra points of damage. While this deck does of course still appreciate an Explosive Impact at the top or a couple of Annihilating Fires stuck in there somewhere, it is oriented far more towards the creature base. This is the deck where Traitorous Instinct really shines and can often close out a game on turn five if the opponent has been stumbling even a little.
A Single Card Study
Looking at these two different Rakdos decks, I realized that one card in particular emphasizes the difference between the two decks. It's a card that initially struck me (and several others, including the guys on the Limited Resources podcast) as really powerful, but which many players have quickly grown to hate to the point of not playing it. Until this weekend, I myself was not aware of how crucial the distinction being made here is, and how the underappreciation for the card's power (for it is powerful - enough so to see constructed play) had grown perhaps out of hand. In between two of the later rounds at a Sealed PTQ in Costa Mesa, I met two fellow Scandinavians playing their decks against each other for fun. The way the Rakdos player crafted his game-plan with superb use of this card is what made me realize its role in the format, a role it has sort of been looking for for a while now.
The card is Rakdos Shred-Freak
This card is decidedly unimpressive in the latter kind of Rakdos deck, often being "under the curve" even as a 2-power creature for 2, it gets outclassed very quickly, and is very easy to block profitably later. Its power is low enough that you would rather have something else to force through when you are finally casting that Traitorous Instinct.
On the other hand, in the former, more Izzet-ish deck, this card really can shine. It is still fragile, sure, and gets outclassed, but it gets in for 2 on turn two, and if your removal is doing its job (or, God forbid, your opponent stumbles), it keeps doing this until it's time to shut down the aggression on the ground and get the last piece of work done with some burn spells to the face or rapidly draining the last of the opponent's life with a couple of well-aimed Stab Wounds. This is where the Shred-Freak stops attacking for two and does something that few other Rakdos creatures do at all: It blocks.
I know that sounds simple, but as much as I prefer hitting my opponent in the face with a Gore-House Chainwalker compared to a Shred-Freak, if he puts down an Armory Guard or a Hussar Patrol and I decide that now is the time to change it up, spin on a dime and "turtle up" completely, relying on the burn I draw to close the game out, I am going to really appreciate the fact that I can actually put something in front of the Knightly Valored up Rubbleback Rhino or the steadily growing army of Azorius Arresters and Selesnya Sentryes that my opponent keeps putting down, even if it just fending off death for one more turn. That one turn might be all I need to draw the Explosive Impact which settles it. If you can't keep up the creature pressure that the "big Rakdos" deck requires you to (and even if you can, Detain sometimes locks it down), it helps enormously not to be literally unable to block anything. I have played against a pretty competent player navigating Rakdos early in the format who did not realize this. He kept unleashing his creatures and looking at my life total, while I played out a few detaining creatures and got in there each turn with an (Azorius Arrester) or two. Upon hitting sixth mana, he triumphantly cast Carnival Hellsteed and sent his team in there. I assigned blocks, went to 3 life, and killed him on the backswing. He had forgotten that his own life total was dwindling too, and he had no way of stemming that bleeding.
When you are drafting Rakdos, it is worth to keep in mind if you are picking enough removal and burn to take advantage of Rakdos Shred-Freak like this, because most other players dislike the card and will be passing it late. Getting the most out of your late picks is a crucial skill in besting a maturing draft format, and this is one way of doing so.
What can we learn from the Rakdos?
Rakdos is a guild ruled my impulse and indulgence. These are things that we are generally taught are "bad" or "wrong" or at least something you need to keep under control. Yet it is important to realize just where they come from, why they are, after all, part of our being.
Impulse decisions can easily go wrong. There are certainly times when it helps to sit down and think over a problem carefully, weigh reasons for and against, and make a decision based on that process, and move ahead with that decision. But - and you will forgive me the circus metaphor for the sake of this week, I am sure - there is a limit to how many balls even an expert juggler can have in the air at once. When you are dealing with a limited amount of information, your brain is usually able to process it thoroughly and arrive at a conclusion or a plan of action. But as the amount of information you are trying to process increases, it becomes progressively harder to process (most people can learn to juggle three balls - juggling four takes lots of practice. Even experts are seldom able to juggle more than seven or eight. And so on). Trying to rationally overview and put in order this much information takes a serious toll on your mental energy and might even make your mind just "shut down". This is where the gut instinct comes in. Subconsciously, we absorb information that we are presented and store it. If we are told the power level of five cards, using reason to determine the card to pick seems easy. But throw curve and signal considerations, mana-intensity and creature-count and all the other things into the mix, and it becomes a lot harder to choose even just between two or three cards. Throw in a time limit of about half a minute and you might not have the time to "do the math". This is where you have to go with your gut instinct.
Often, that instinct will turn out to be right. It should (subconsciously) be informed by what you know about the format and the cards and your situation and be a product of these considerations. Of course, it is extremely helpful afterwards, once the time pressure is off, to walk through your draft and analyze each pick (just as replaying a game analyzing each play is, where some of the decisions should be almost "automatic" during the game itself). This helps inform your gut instinct in the future, though you have to be careful, of course, not to overemphasize a single occurrence and warp your play around it (playing around Hussar Patrol is reasonable - Mizzium Mortars, less so, unless you have a really solid read of your opponent). And even if you do end up making a wrong move in a game, and realize it immediately afterwards, you must keep playing optimally. Don't make the plays that would be right if you had made the other play correctly. Don't start distrusting your gut feeling if it fails you once - rather play around that Hussar Patrol once in vain than run into it five games in a row. Don't look back and get tilted or have second thoughts about the line of play you have already chosen to play out. Don't look back at all until after the game. That is when the analysis should really start.
Signing off: Another Single Card Study
A card that I have found to be subtly really important in my Sealed PTQ adventures this season (I've played in three, making top 8 once with a 7-1 record and going 5-3 and 6-2 in the other two for 28th and 18th respectively) is Syncopate. In sealed deck, most decks will have a relatively polished curve, be playing their bombs, and be crafted around a game-plan which may rely on crucial spells (some of these obviously being the bombs). Syncopate allows you a way to upset your opponents' applecart in all of this, it can almost always act as a hard counterspell in the late-game if you have nothing else to spend your mana on, and it's a dagger against especially Golgari decks that rely on scavenge creatures.
I have been lucky enough to have this flexible little counterspell in my pool in both of the PTQs where I was playing Blue (including the one I top-eighted), and it put in a ton of work in those sixteen rounds. It is great for not falling behind if your deck is a little slow and you happen to not have another early play (Counterting a turn three (Seller of Songbirds) may not be impressive, but it can save you a lot of hassle - especially if you are holding a Lyev Skyknight that you are planning to do substantial damage with), but it is also a great answer to any of the haymakers your opponent might draw later in the game if you are facing a stall or slowly grinding them down in the air. There is a very fine balance between what you need to counter and what you can afford to resolve, something that requires that you know your deck's plan well and which requires solid analytic skills to correctly assess a situation. Syncopate for 1 on a turn three Dreg Mangler is easy game, but what about a turn four Korozda Monitor? Or a turn six (Courser's Accord)? Are those 3/3s so dangerous that you are willing to throw in your "unconditional answer" to stop them? Sometimes, perhaps, but only if you really cannot afford to let these spells resolve. If you have out a couple of Doorkeepers, you should probably be spending your mana other where that turn.
In my sealed PTQ adventures with Syncopate, I have countered everything from the aforementioned Seller of Songbirds to the insidious and much-hated Pack Rat, stooped low enough to blow the counter on a Concordia Pegasus but also faithfully held it for six or seven turns in anticipation of the Cyclonic Rift which cost me the previous game. And I know few things that feel better in sealed than to be enacting your game plan while keeping that most flexible of counterspells in my hand, threatening to break into a smirk and knowing that almost no matter what my opponent throws out there, I can answer it if I need to.
I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it, and would sincerely appreciate any feedback you might have, either in the comments section here or at @Lobster667 on Twitter.
With that, may you all understand how to enjoy yourself in this time of festivities. I'll return - at the latest - once the Gatecrash theme weeks come up, but you can always keep up to date with my writings on my blog at Lobster667.tumblr.com (I might do a few more Single Card Studies over there).