By: Dom Harvey
Three years ago, frustrated with red’s lack of depth in Cube and in general, I wrote an article for Riptide Lab exploring off-the-wall themes that could give our red sections a few more options than burn and beatdown (with the occasional Wildfire). My solution – turn red into a pure combo colour – was an admission of defeat. Storm Entity and Blazing Shoal didn’t stay in my Cube for long.
Thankfully, the last few years have been kind to red. We now have the tools to make red aggro more fun and engaging, help red offer more to control, and give it some new and interesting material that integrates well with not just the rest of red but also the other colours and strategies in the Cube. These ideas aren’t suitable for every Cube, but hopefully there’s food for thought here no matter what your design philosophy is.
Red aggro in Cube is defined by its brutal, ruthless, single-minded efficiency. It’s very easy for it to be the best deck in a Cube by accident, and it gleefully performs its role as the fun police. I get the sense that it’s a Cube staple not because everyone enjoys it but because red needs to have something and this is the easiest way to fill in the gaps. There are enough directions to take red now that you could drop red aggro entirely; there’s a good case for trying that. What if we tried ‘fixing’ it instead?
Prowess has gone from newcomer to evergreen mechanic in only a year, and it’s sure to become more appealing as time goes by. Combat is often a boring affair in Cube: most combat tricks aren’t good enough to justify including, and instant-speed removal tends to be used pre-combat to stop its target from blocking. You usually know what the outcome, or narrow range of outcomes, will be for any combat step. Prowess lets you change that without explicitly trying to: all you have to do is play spells, which your low-curve aggro deck wants to do anyway. Red is an especially good colour for this as there’s no shortage of instant-speed burn and, as one of the designated ‘spells matter’ colours, red gets a lot of support here. Prowess also forces you to think carefully about sequencing: you can’t just dump your hand on the table and throw burn at them unless your draw is perfect, as you have to manage your resources well.
Previously this theme had to go hard on instants and sorceries because that’s where the payoffs were – Kiln Fiend, Young Pyromancer, Guttersnipe – and you needed a lot of them to make it work. With prowess, the equipment or planeswalkers that are often the more powerful cards in your deck can also work towards this goal.
Key cards: Monastery Swiftspear, Abbot of Keral Keep, Kiln Fiend, Young Pyromancer, Guttersnipe, Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh, Shrine of Burning Rage (perhaps the best one of all); in other colours, you have Seeker of the Way and Stormchaser Mage/Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest
Intersection: part of Prowess’ appeal is how neatly it ties into other strategies, namely the following:
What if, instead of playing a few dopey creatures and hoping they get there, you build a large creature and force it through? This strategy has been around since the Berserk–Blood Lust days but recently gained prominence again in Constructed with Brave Naya, Heroic, and Landfall/Atarka Red in successive Standard formats. Your goal is to apply early pressure and force your opponent to commit to a defensive measure so that you can safely move in for the kill. As with prowess, I think this presents both players with more interesting decisions than the typical ‘Zurgo up to Hellrider‘ deck: you constantly have to weigh up whether you can afford to go for it and how to bait your opponent into taking their shields down (or, from the other side, into moving in at the wrong time). The deck does have nut draws that end the game very quickly but I find it more satisfying to lose to a flurry of combo pieces coming together than the usual perfect curve from a red deck.
This approach flips some of red’s most common matchups: green decks can no longer stave off your aggression with a big dumb animal as easily, while removal-heavy black decks can relax in the knowledge that they don’t face as much implied pressure from burn.
There are enough good creature enhancements now that you don’t have to be embarrassed about playing them: Madcap Skills, Hammerhand, and Call of the Full Moon are some of the best, but you can pick whichever fills in a gap. Auras always were and will be risky against cheap removal, but connecting once with any of them is equivalent in damage output to a good burn spell and if it sticks around for longer it’s more than paid for itself.
Berserkers often branches into green, which has a lot to offer in all areas: large creatures, pump, and the OG Berserk.
Key cards: Reckless Charge (much scarier than it looks on paper), prowess creatures, Prophetic Flamespeaker, Flamewake Phoenix (a resilient, evasive threat that can combine with pump to win out of nowhere), Temur Battle Rage
Intersection: Prowess, as mentioned
Prowess also works well with:
While Berserkers is about going tall, Tokens is about going wide. If your opponent is trying to blunt your offense with cheap blockers and removal, a token-heavy start lets you push through damage and maintain a board presence anyway. Token spam can lead to stalled boards and repetitive gameplay but, when all goes well, tokens become another in-game resource that a skilled player can manage and exploit.
Some of the best token-makers and payoff cards are noncreatures, which ties in nicely to prowess: in Theros/Khans Standard, the Atarka Red decks used Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst to curve out effectively while having enough spells to trigger Monastery Swiftspear (and later Abbot of Keral Keep).
There is more than enough token support in red, but other colours like to join the fun: tokens help the sacrifice theme common in Rakdos and are a core part of Selesnya’s identity.
Intersection: Prowess, equipment (can turn a disposable body into a real threat)
Here’s a sample deck from my Cube that shows some of these ideas working together:
On the midrange and control side of things, we have:
Previously, red’s contribution to slower decks was very limited: it would burn things, burn some more things, and sometimes provide a finisher. Card draw and selection was left to whatever the other colour was, and – with the exception of white – all of them did it better than red.
That can change. You have to work for it – red’s filtering/rummaging spells aren’t universally playable the way something like Compulsive Research or Night’s Whisper is – but the rewards are worth it. Red no longer has to be one-dimensional and can become the backbone of grindy non-decks, which opens up a lot of design space.
The first step is to minimize the downside of these effects. To make ‘discard X + draw X’ better, you want discarding cards to be acceptable or, if possible, actively useful. The madness burn spells – Fiery Temper, Violent Eruption, and underrated all-star Blast from the Past – are a good place to look, and I’d consider Squee, Goblin Nabob, Drownyard Temple/Crucible of Worlds, and red’s various Phoenixes. On a macro-level, you want to encourage strategies that make full use of the graveyard: for instance, Reanimator is often thought of as a UB-centric deck but you can substitute blue’s Looting effects with red replacements. If you go deep on the artifact ‘Welding’ theme described below, you can even have a mono-red Reanimator deck! Feldon of the Third Path and Mizzix’s Mastery/Goblin Dark-Dwellers let you push that angle for creatures and spells too. Maybe you pair Faithless Looting and Magmatic Insight with Land Tax or Life from the Loam, or use blue card draw to fuel a massive Firestorm.
There’s too much to summarize it all here, but this thread goes into these ideas in more detail.
Key cards/Support/Intersection: These all depend on what you want to do and how far you want to take it, but there are some examples above.
Plenty of good artifacts have been printed throughout the years (and with Kaladesh coming soon, Pia and Kiran are sure to find lots of new trinkets to play with), and red is one of the best colours at exploiting them. The Welder deck headlined by Goblin Welder and Daretti (along with Trash for Treasure and Scrap Mastery if you want to fully commit) promises to give red more character and add to the variety of midrange and control decks on offer.
A major selling point of this theme is that artifacts are, by nature, more broadly playable, so you can afford to include more ‘narrow’ artifacts in your Cube knowing they will find their way into decks somehow. This does mean that you can’t rely on them making it to you in the draft, as anyone who doesn’t find something nice in their colours will gladly snap up your Palladium Myr or Masticore, but with a high enough density of playable artifacts this shouldn’t be a problem.
You can take a more optimistic view of this: any build-around artifacts you decide to include will be more readily available. The Welder effects mean that you have faster and more consistent access to these in-game: for instance, you can Weld out a Thopter token to bring in Conjurer’s Closet and start blinking Pia and Kiran, bring in Alhammarret’s Archive to super-charge the Faithless Looting you played earlier, or go nuts with Pyromancer’s Goggles. If you just want to make a Myr Battlesphere and bash them to bits, you can do that too.
Blue has the most ‘artifacts matter’ cards but other colours have random things to offer. White has some incidental contributions in cards like Thraben Inspector and Blade Splicer and many of the better artifact creatures want to be flickered, while green recently gained Tireless Tracker and can use Ancient Stirrings or the ‘Impulse for creatures’ cards to increase consistency.
Support: Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Solemn Simulacrum, Epochrasite, Perilous Myr, Hangarback Walker, mana rocks (which suggest a crossover with the Wildfire strategy that has hovered on the fringes of Cube design for a while now)
This only scratches the surface – there are viable themes that aren’t explored here, and plenty of stand-alone cards that add fun new elements to red – but I’ve been impressed by the strategies laid out above and would advise giving some or all of them a try in some capacity.