My ongoing consistent exposure to high-level play in addition to the ready access Team Coverage has to the best minds in the game, has revealed to me a shocking truth I can exclusively reveal to you here, right now: Goblin Chainwhirler is a really, really good card. No, really. I know it's won a Pro Tour and dominated every Standard GP we've had since it was printing, but don't let that deceive you – the card is insanely good, and you have to have a pretty good reason not to play it.
Which made it all the more surprising to see some red decks emerge during last weekend's GP Copenhagen that opted against playing the scourge of Standard, one of which made it all the way to the Top 8! While the format is overwhelmingly dominated by Goblin Chainwhirler (Frank Karsten's report indicated that 42.6% of day two lists had a playset), there were a few pilots that did away with the Chainwhirlers – and for quite different reasons, as we'll discover.
Let's kick things off with a deck that appeared in the Top 8 in Copenhagen – Joakim Stahle-Nilsson was rocking The Flame of Keld, and in doing so represented a new sub-archetype of the red decks currently terrorizing Standard. I wrote about this deck in the lead-up to the Pro Tour, however Stahle-Nilsson improved the rough draft outlined in that article enormously and was rewarded for it.
The idea is to stay as low to the ground as possible, getting your hand as close to empty as you can before playing The Flame of Keld. From there, assembling as many individual sources of damage in anticipation of the Saga's third chapter seeks to enable a massive push of damage – one that will hopefully win the game on the spot.
In following these aims, it's necessary to really bring the curve of the deck down to the barest minimum. This deck plays an astonishing sixteen one-drop creatures, and its curve ends at three with Ahn-Crop Crasher (and hard-cast Wizard's Lightning). This is a marked departure from the red lists we see crushing Standard these days, wherein the four-drop slot tends to be the most critical. Between Hazoret, Chandra, and Rekindling Phoenix, there is an embarrassment of riches costing four, but this deck does away with all of them in game one and seeks to just get 'em with The Flame of Keld.
This adds a rather glass cannon-like dimension to the deck. Without The Flame of Keld, a lot of the cards in this list are quite embarrassing – but when juiced up to do two extra damage, they're ridiculous. It's Feast or Famine, really – Kari Zev is either dealing a regulation three, or getting pumped up to swing for seven.
The other key difference here is the composition of this list's burn spells. Unlike Abrade or Magma Spray, Lightning Strike and Shock can be pointed at the dome and that's the reason we see them played here; it's no good having your Magma Spray deal four damage if you can't use it to finish off an unsuspecting foe.
Stahle-Nilsson also pointed out something very interesting – almost all the commonly-played removal in Standard costs two or more mana. Playing 16 one-drops, therefore, means you'll often be trading up on mana (when your x/1s aren't dying to Chainwhirler, that is). This puts a lot of pressure on the cheap interaction in opposing decks and makes cards like Vraska's Contempt and Cast Out look pretty bloody silly.
White-Blue Control is the darling of Standard control mages, and for a good reason – Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is a busted card and has found a good home, principally supported by two-mana counters and the secret MVP of these decks, Seal Away. Untapping two lands means a control player will often be able to defend the Teferi the turn it comes down, which is critical in pulling further ahead in later turns.
Stuart Jackson, however, had a different approach. It's all very well to rely on Seal Away and Syncopate after deploying a Teferi - what about some good, old fashioned, no-questions-asked red removal spells? With both Magma Spray and Abrade being superbly well-positioned in Standard right now, Jackon decided the time was right to add red to the archetype.
If you were to imagine a three-color control deck in Standard, you'd almost certainly assume it to be Esper rather than Jeskai. Playing red rather than black, however, opens up new and quite unorthodox avenues of interaction against some key cards in Standard. Abrade shines against Heart of Kiran and various Gearhulks, while Magma Spray is just about the best answer there is to Scrapheap Scrounger.
You may have already noticed another on-point innovation Jackson made this weekend – including Hour of Revelation rather than the usually-cheaper Fumigate as the sweeper of choice. Hour of Revelation is completely unplayable in traditional white-blue decks given their reliance on Seal Away and Cast Out, but it's absolutely terrific in this list. Hour deals with creatures, planeswalkers, vehicles – everything! Given just how diverse the threats in Standard are (Mono-Red alone has massive creature and non-creature threats), Hour of Revelation is a very tidy answer and with red removal replacing white enchantments, it's a great pick as a mass removal spell.
Main deck Negate is a great call against the current field – you bring it in from the board against almost everything. Jackson prioritized flexibility above price with Supreme Will and demonstrated their commitment to a slower Game Plan with the playset of Divination. This is where my concerns about the deck arise – it is slow. This list will have a lot of draws that do stone-cold nothing in the opening turns, and slow cards like Supreme Will and Divination are awkward in these situations. Still, it's an innovative list that has a lot going for it, and Jackson more than made up for the deck's slow pace with their pace of play on camera. You can get across Jackson's feature match from round twelve of Copenhagen and see just what kind of speed is required when piloting this deck!
Just as Jackson chose not to play Goblin Chainwhirler in their slow, lumbering red control deck, so too did Thoralf "Toffel" Severin. Severin's list, however, was an insane, off-the-wall masterpiece that caught more than one opponent off-guard throughout the weekend – no one expects to play against The Eldest Reborn! In fact, Jackson and Severin faced off against one another in the aforementioned feature match, so you can see how two non-Chainwhirler red decks fared when paired against one another.
Again, an early draft of this list was published in one of my previous articles, and since then the list has undergone further development to reach the point you see today. It's a weird one, no doubt about it, but there's something very powerful at work here. In fact, my coverage colleague Simon Goertzen described it as "reminding him of one of his better draft decks," which is high praise indeed.
One of the issues I highlighted in my previous write-up of this list was its absolute need to hit its land drops in order to have any kind of chance. Severin took the bull by its horns and sought to solve that problem and did so very elegantly with the inclusion of both Tormenting Voice and Cathartic Reunion.
At its core, however, the deck remains the same. It's a control deck, albeit a very odd one; in lieu of the classic blue card draw spells, this list gains its card advantage with graveyard recursion effects (The Eldest Reborn, Memorial to Folly) and value creatures with powerful enter-the-battlefield effects (Noxious Gearhulk, Gonti, Lord of Luxury). A huge amount of powerful removal, flexible cards like Doomfall, and the unexpected value engine that is The Eldest Reborn all push towards an obscenely powerful lategame.
Severin's impressive performance this weekend very much put the deck on the map, and this particular cat is now well and truly out of the bag. I wouldn't be surprised to see further innovation and refinement of this list, as it has a powerful, robust and very flexible approach to winning games in today's Standard. As an added bonus, Goblin Chainwhirler is essentially a hard-to-cast Centaur Courser against it, too!
There's no denying the overwhelming presence of Goblin Chainwhirler in the red decks of today's Standard format. Whether or not we have another red three-mana 3/3 get hit by the banhammer remains to be seen, however. In the meantime, decks like the ones we've discussed today show that red isn't 100% about Goblin Chainwhirler, and that there's a little room to move on both ends of the spectrum with both insane aggro and hard control decks running Mountains with Whirlers!
- Riley Knight