Wednesday, 5 October 2016
Red, the actual "best" colour in cube?
A while back I did an article about why blue is the best colour in cube. Since then I have noticed blue doing below average in events and thinking about it that has probably always been the case. Blue is the most powerful colour with the highest number of really over powered cards. Blue has the most options and benefits most from pairings with other colours. There are a lot of things blue is best at but in cube winning isn't one of them. I maintain blue is the most powerful colour but feel that I have to revisit my claims of it being the best colour and instead give that accolade to red. Best probably equates to most able to win and that does seem to be the thing red is good at!
Red arguably has the lowest power level of cards and fewest bomb card. Red is rather narrow but therefore redundant. On average the red decks seem to have the best records. Just having red spells in your deck increases your chance of winning any given event in my cube. There are several reasons for this, some intrinsic and some more down to people's bias.
Red isn't that popular, especially compared to blue and green. You will rarely find people treading on each others toes in red. When you have multiple red drafters they tend to be using the colour in different ways. It even supports several aggressive archetypes pretty comfortably. Despite being good the fact it is a little more linear than going other options makes it that little less appealing sometimes. By being slightly under drafted the card quality massively improves. It is rare to get a Bird of Paradise or Snapcaster Mage beyond 3rd pick but you can often see top red cards as your 7th pick.
Red is a pretty good natural counter to several different things. Red beats blue decks pretty hard. It also beats decks relying on small creatures pretty effectively too. Red punishes any deck that falters yet copes with screws and floods itself pretty well, the former especially so. Red really punishes decks that want to use their life total as a resource. All of these things are popular in cube giving red some real power.
The big thing I would say that it all comes down to is direct damage or burn. By far and away burn is the best form of removal. Early game when it is important it kills most stuff very efficiently, often more so than some of the premium creature removal cards. Burn also does a good job on planeswalkers making your removal spells all a bit Dreadbore plus. Lastly burn doubles up as reach so you are just able to represent a quicker clock or do stuff when you have no targets. Decks running specific removal just have dead cards in hand when removal isn't what is needed. Burn allows you to suddenly become highly uninteractive. If they create a board you can never hope to get through you just aim everything at face and hope to get there. It might not be the best option but it is a long way better than no option.
Red even has cards like Arc Trail and Forked Bolt which is essentially why red hard counters decks trying to win with lots of small dorks. If you have ever opened with something like Joraga Treespeaker into Lotus Cobra or Soldier of the Pantheon into Precinct Captain or some other comparably good seeming one drop two drop opener and come up against Arc Trail you will know quite how unrecoverable that is. When these cards hit they are not only the cheapest two for ones possible in the cube but also the biggest tempo shifts you can get that early.
There is a very strong argument for Lightning Bolt being the best card in an unpowered cube and an equally good one for it being the best card in modern. It might not be the most powerful card but being so cheap, versatile and effective it has a great track record. It is one of few card good enough to be played in any old archetype that can cast it. Lighting Bolt is good but it isn't even always the best burn spell. There are plenty that are playable all the way down to Shock and an even wider range as you go up the curve. Lightning Bolt might be the best all round burn spell but it isn't that much better than the rest. Certainly compared to something like Brainstorm which is so significantly better than any other card quality effect the Bolt is just a little better than other burn. All this is to say that there is lots of good burn (as in stuff you could play in a cube). More than blue has card quality and disruption combined, certainly more than green has ramp or black has discard. Red has burn to match white weenies and more!
So, having burn as a source of removal is great. It means you can play more removal than other colours because it isn't a dead card when there is nothing to remove. Burn is cheap and as such you can fairly well rely on getting a tempo lead in the early game. It also gives you a lot of control over the direction of the game. Having this early board control in a fast paced format like cube is a big deal. Cheap burn for early board control is a big part of why red can limp along on a couple of lands and still steal a game. Red can get there with small early creatures far more effectively than any other colour. Typically the other colours need to dominate the board with the biggest things before they can get much done with aggressive attacking.
Red counters blue fairly well for several reasons. Redundancy is the big one. Typically a blue deck will rely on dealing with a key card so as to swing a matchup in its favour. Against red the cards all do pretty much the same so a well timed counterspell doesn't really do all that much against them. Red also has a significant tempo advantage over blue. It can kill most of what blue can put into play while blue struggles to touch anything the red player makes. Blue having no life gain tools itself also makes red a very hard matchup for it.
Red has always been good for its burn. It got better when planeswalkers came along but it is still improving at a good rate. More recently it is down to card quality and advantage effects that help it to carry on fighting much longer than before. Back in the day you felt pretty assured of victory against the red deck if you managed to cast your Revenous Baloth, these days a red deck can plow through multiple Kitchen Finks and other high powered incidental lifegain. Abbot of Keral Keep and Faithless Looting are the big names in giving red late game tools but there are tones and tones of other things that can afford red value, not to mention utility as well.
Red can be a lovely splash for a UW control deck or a green ramp deck. Equally red can take the lead and be the main (or only) colour in a fairly wide array of archetypes. The flavour of the colour may not seem all that diverse but it certainly winds up featuring in more archetypes than the other colours.
Returning to the bias elements surrounding peoples impressions of the colour. Red doesn't take long to win. Often when it wins it only just gets there. Compare that to blue, a colour that utterly dominates a lot of the time that it wins and frequently has a stranglehold over a game for a long time before it can actually win. If red and blue had even win percentages you would still spend multiple times longer winning with blue than you do with red and that just makes it feel like red is less powerful and blue is more powerful than they actually are. Despite the fact that the red deck and the blue deck could have even win percentages the fact that you spend ten minutes losing with blue and and hour of winning makes it feel like it wins more and the reverse for the red player.
All in all I think we kid ourselves into thinking red is less good than it is. I would be fascinated to see some proper statistics on the matter from something like the MTGO cubes. My guess is that green may well compete with red for highest win percentages there as ramp and fixing are so much more important and the curve of cards is a much more midrange affair. I'm pretty sure red is the best performing colour in my cube, if only by a couple of percent.
I find slinging red spells to be a lot of fun. I enjoy most of the play styles magic has to offer including going face. I do appreciate that the red play style is not for everyone. In particular, magic players who fancy themselves to be good at the game often have an aversion to red and an affinity to blue. They want long games so that they can out play people and force mistakes. This is reasonable. I think it is more important to enjoy the game than it is to win in cube and so I have no issue with people playing blue all the time if that is what they enjoy most.
If your main objective when playing a cube is to win then I do advise red as a strong option whatever your skill level. The wonderful thing about red is that you can play it fairly effectively at low skill, certainly compared to how you would pilot a combo, control or midrange deck at the same skill level. Often this ability to perform well at low skill leads to another bias or misconception about red decks. Red is thought of as an easy colour to play. This is nonsense, red is one of the hardest to master. A lot of the choices are so subtle you aren't even aware you made a misplay. Other choices are so significant such as when to start going face that you will basically just lose whenever you get it wrong. Red is relatively forgiving to the poor player but it does still greatly reward the skilled player. If you think red is a weak colour or you think it is just for weak players then you have some strong bias affecting you. I'm not saying you need to go and start playing more red. Obviously play what you want. The point is to be aware of what bias you have. Being able to see through your bias will help with all your descision making process, both magic and in the real world! Red is a colour to be feared and respected.