Ken Yukuhiro is known for Pro Tour success with decks that allow you to play a very different game of Magic than the ones everyone else is playing. His decks are also very powerful. Based on what I've seen and from the extensive testing I've done leading up to the tournament this weekend, Flame of Keld Red looks like the clear best "non-Magic" deck of the format. In other words, it's the closest thing to a tier one combo deck we have in Standard. Did I mention it is also (currently) a budget deck that only costs about $100? I say currently because if the deck spikes the Pro Tour this weekend, Flame of Keld might skyrocket in price.
Today I'm going to explain how the deck works and share a list that Steve Mann and Reed Alexander have been working on, based on a list that went 5-0 in a Magic Online league by Akerlund.
The deck is a hyper-aggressive red deck that looks to kill the opponent as fast as possible. It goes underneath every single deck in the format, including Scrapheap Scrounger decks and other mono-red decks. I'm sure Tom Ross had a hand in designing some of these cards.
These are the changes Steve and Reed made to the deck, which I would recommend for this weekend:
+2 Hungry Flames
+4 Earthshaker Khenra
-2 Built to Smash
-2 Warlord's Fury
+2 Kari Zev's Expertise
+1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
-4 Magma Spray
The deck starts out of the gate quickly with 12 one-drops. Bomat Courier is generally the one you want to lead with since it has haste on turn one, though Soul-Scar Mage is a close second. Ghitu Lavarunner can wait because it requires some setup to give it haste. Bomat is excellent against control but often gets boarded out in other matchups. It also works great with Flame of Keld by replenishing your hand after having discarded it all to Flame of Keld.
Akerlund didn't play any two-drops, but we found that Earthshaker Khenra did a lot of work in the deck and desires a spot. It clears out blockers and gets in a few points of immediate damage. Even if it only connects once, it did its job. Then later in the game you can eternalize it as a big finisher if you start to flood out. This is an important backup plan as flood is the deck's biggest weakness. Unlike some of the midrange decks of the format, we can't really utilize excess lands very effectively outside of eternalizing the Khenra.
Goblin Chainwhirler is great. It kills opposing creatures, damages the opponent and belongs in every heavy red deck. If it comes down on the chapter three turn, it becomes a Spike attached to a 3/3 first striker attached to a one-sided Sweltering Suns. And if you have a Soul-Scar Mage out, it permanently puts three -1/-1 counters on each of the opponent's creatures. Even not on a chapter three turn it still permanently nerfs the opposing team by one if you have the Soul-Scar Mage out.
Shock and Lightning Strike are the obvious inclusions as far as burn spells. Sometimes you clear out blockers, sometimes you target the opponent to empty your hand for Flame of Keld, and other times you essentially double the damage after the last chapter of The Flame of Keld goes off. They are the most obvious inclusions in the deck. They also power up the Wizards, so don't board them out the way you would in more traditional mono8red decks. Instead, board out Goblin Chainwhirler against the slower decks.
Wizard's Lightning is good enough in the deck because of Soul-Scar Mage and Ghitu Lavarunner. It will often be straight-up Lightning Bolt. If you don't draw a Wizard, don't be afraid to leave it stranded in hand from The Flame of Keld. It's usually correct to just run out the saga rather than waiting and spending the whole turn casting Wizard's Lightning for three mana.
Abrade is good against vehicles, but not great in most other matchups. We are way too fast for God-Pharaoh's Gift, and we generally want to ignore opposing creatures and just race them rather than killing them. So shaving those and moving two to the sideboard is what I would recommend. Heart of Kiran is basically a joke against us, as is Toolcraft Exemplar, so we have no need to protect ourselves from those threats. Unlike the slower decks of the format that see Heart of Kiran as an aggressive threat, we see it as a blank that sometimes can block.
Built to Smash and Warlord's Fury are the least impressive cards in the deck. There are too many instant-speed removal spells in the metagame, which makes Built to Smash a bit of a liability, and it only grants trample to Bomat Courier. So we cut those for a 21st land and two Hungry Flames, a card that really plays into the theme of the deck.
Play The Flame of Keld aggressively. Even if it means discarding a spell or two, the deck can recover from it quickly, especially if you can cash in Bomat Courier the following turn to set up a big chapter three turn.
Sometimes the deck only deals 15 damage before sputtering out. That's unfortunately the fail case of this deck. Every deck in Standard has a fail case. For control decks, they draw seven cards and fail to find a crucial sweeper and die. For this deck the fail case often involves drawing a few extra lands or coming up just short on the chapter three turn. But we have good topdecks because we are a burn deck, so sometimes we will pull out the win at the last moment.
Earthshaker Khenras are a big addition and I'd be surprised if no one showed up with this deck for the PT. My guess is that most pro teams are intentionally not writing about the deck because they want to keep it secret in case they play it. It has probably gone 4-0 drop several times. My guess is also that Earthshaker Khenra is in most of those 4-0 drop lists and will be in the top-performing version of the deck this weekend. It's not only a great turn two play, but also a way to utilize flood by eternalizing it.
Sometimes you want to sandbag Earthshaker Khenra against Goblin Chainwhirler to mitigate the damage it does to your board. Keep this in mind if you have Bomat Couriers or another Khenra already on board. Don't needlessly get yourself three-for-oned by the Goblin.
Hungry Flames is another big addition. It's a little expensive to cast, but worth it since it clears out a blocker while doming an opponent. It can do a lot of work on the chapter three turn as well. Don't clunk the deck up with too many expensive sideboard cards. When you bring in Chandra and/or Hazoret, make sure to board out some of the more expensive main deck spells such as Hungry Flames and Goblin Chainwhirler. And don't sideboard out too many spells – you want your Ghitu Lavarunners to always be Goblin Guides. Stay mindful of that and replace instant and sorceries with instant and sorceries when possible.
We found that Magma Spray was not necessary since we are ahead in most races and can therefore ignore opposing creatures often. Instead of casting Magma Spray we would rather cast Kari Zev's Expertise and beat them down with their own creature.
Hazoret is too much mana for the main. I may eat my words here, but that has been our experience. Post-board games slow down a bit with opponents boarding in extra removal spells, but main deck Hazoret is too slow and not necessary unless you expect an inordinately high amount of cheap removal spells main deck or tons of life gain.
The deck is great vs Scrapheap Scrounger decks and White-Blue Control. Given that we expect those to be two of the most-played decks this weekend, I expect this deck to have its coming out party at Pro Tour Dominaria.
It's 50-50 against a lot of other decks. It has a higher fail rate than normal mono-red, but also higher upside. It feels a lot like Hollow One in Modern even though on the surface it looks more like the Modern Burn deck. Sometimes it beats itself, but more often than not it poses near-unbeatable draws. It's the type of high-variance deck that has just enough average power that it belongs among the competitive ranks, even at the pro level. I guess we'll see by Sunday if my prediction and assessment of the deck proves true.