The history of the Big Red archetype is an interesting one. Think back to Mirrodin – you know, the set with all the broken artifacts that caused a wave of bans not seen until Kaladesh block hit. You'd think it was all Affinity all the time, but Pro Tour Kobe in 2004 was actually won by something entirely different – Big Red.
Comprised of red removal and a top end, it was essentially a mono-red control deck. Pretty cool, right? The same type of deck made a new appearance back in Scars of Mirrodin, looking something like this and topping out on Wurmcoil Engine to stabilize the board. Certainly one of the more unique archetypes in Magic, but a fun one.
There's a lot to break down here, so let me start at how I arrived at this deck. Ever since I saw Wily Goblin and Sunbird's Invocation spoiled, I was able to connect the dots in my head – Wily Goblin into Chandra, Torch of Defiance into Sunbird's Invocation. The deck was never really a thing in the world of Temur Energy, though Adam Bialkowski did play something similar to a Top 16 finish at U.S. Nationals, though he used Approach of the Second Sun to close things out. But with Temur Energy and Ramunap Red ruling the roost, decks trying to leverage Sunbird's Invocation were doomed to struggle.
But it's a brave new Standard world now. And Big Red now has the tools it needs to compete.
I started off with a mono-red list. It felt strong, but had a major problem of dying even after resolving Sunbird's Invocation. The finishing power just wasn't there after you took a beating in the early turns – I needed my Wurmcoil Engine. I thought about moving to white, and while that is likely an avenue absolutely worth exploring, it also felt clogged at the four-drop spot between Rekindling Phoenix – another huge reason why the deck is now viable – Chandra, Cast Out and/or Ixalan's Binding. At the same time, I felt that the early removal was extremely hit or miss.
Some Standard sleuthing led me to rediscover Noxious Gearhulk. A removal spell attached to a win condition that also gained me life? Wurmcoil Engine never looked this good. That also opened up Cut // Ribbons, which serves as high-powered early-game removal that unlike Lightning Strike can hit Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. And, even more importantly, having access to black mana meant that the sideboard could finally attempt to address the deck's biggest issue – fighting Search for Azcanta decks. With access to Duress and Doomfall, games against Approach of the Second Sun and The Scarab God actually felt winnable, if still an uphill battle.
The tradeoff to a bad Azcanta matchup is that the aggressive creature decks have an extremely hard time fighting through what this deck brings to battle. Wily Goblin can ramp you into a third-turn Chandra, which can immediately remove a creature while sticking around thanks to the Goblin blocking anything else. With a fourth land and Chandra, you can play a fourth turn Sunbird's Invocation. From there, you will drown the opponent in card advantage much fast than a Search for Azcanta deck can. That is the optimal start, but there is also some built-in redundancy. Captain Lannery Storm makes a treasure token on turn three while also providing some pressure, and Pirate's Pillage also ramps you from four to six. Even if you don't have Sunbird's Invocation for the payoff, ramping into Glorybringer or Noxious Gearhulk or Etali, Primal Storm is plenty of advantage all by itself.
The synergy doesn't stop there. All that extra treasure floating around also works perfectly with Treasure Map, which sets up your draws early and turns into yet another card advantage engine in the late game. The treasure also helps fix the mana for Gearhulk or the back half of Cut // Ribbons, which is an ever-present threat to end things in one big turn.
Of course, you have to survive long enough to pay off all that advantage. Fortunately, that is what red does best. Magma Spray eats early creatures and permanently deals with Scrapheap Scrounger, Abrade takes care of God-Pharaoh's Gift or whatever creature troubles you, Cut // Ribbons can take out a pumped-up creature before turning into a win condition later, and Sweltering Suns cleans up any creature swarms that threaten to get out of control – and it also is one of seven cards in the deck that can cycle in the late game to provide a fresh card.
The sideboard, like the rest of the deck, is obviously a work in progress this early in the season, but Duress, Doomfall and Dire Fleet Daredevil help in the control matchups, where your plan is to decimate their hand (sometimes with their own Duress thanks to Daredevil, who can also provide pressure) before turning the corner with Chandra or Rekindling Phoenix. Hour of Devastation and the other Sweltering Suns beef up your matchups where you need board wipes, while Magma Spray comes in for Scrapheap Scrounger decks (and the fourth should probably find a spot).
Gleaming Barrier stands out, but it actually serves a pretty key purpose – blocking Adanto Vanguard. That is one of the scariest threats in the format, and against our deck they're going to be able to pay four life as much as they want. Barrier blocks Vanguard, and other aggressive creatures like Scrounger, like a champ, while also providing you a key piece of ramp if it does bite the dust. Given that your deck in sideboarded games should have no problem handling creature swarms, having an answer to the problematic threats that also survives Sweltering Suns is exactly what you need to weather the storm into the late game.
What you have to be aware of with this deck is that there are a ton of expensive spells, with 10 spells that cost five or more mana. It's very important to keep hands that can make mana, and I'd much rather have a hand with mana acceleration but in need of a payoff card than the reverse. You also need to keep in mind that against Search for Azcanta decks, you are the beatdown. Field of Ruin can answer Azcanta, but their late game is likely to have better win conditions than you do – Approach of the Second Sun is a nightmare, the cycling decks will grind you out, and The Scarab God is, well, The Scarab God. None of these are unbeatable, but they're challenging matchups where you need to work to stick your key threats in Chandra and Sunbird's Invocation. The tradeoff is your aggro matchups are orders of magnitude better than Search decks, so make sure to know the metagame you're taking this deck to.
That said, Big Red is a blast to play – I've now lived the dream of untapping with all four Sunbird's Invocations in play – and it absolutely has the chops to compete in the early days of this brand-new Standard format.
Enjoy, and thanks for reading,