Any experienced Legacy player can pick up a deck and pilot it to some degree of success, but there’s a reason why you see so many grinders and high-caliber players sticking to the same deck or same style of deck. It takes time to learn the math and mental shortcuts associated with playing a new deck. There’s a difference between understanding how an interaction works and having those interactions internalized to the point where they are second nature. One of the goals I set for myself last year was to gain high-level proficiency with another deck and then write a few articles on that deck. I chose Red Prison for this task, primarily because it is great at stealing all of the fun from my opponent…uhhh, I mean, it is well-positioned in the current metagame. Yeah, that’s it. I won’t claim to have true proficiency with the deck, I’m still making misplays in my leagues, but I’m on the path to proficiency. In no particular order, here are some of the things that I’ve learned.
The first thing you have to accept when playing Red Prison is that you are playing this deck to win. The good news is that many of your wins are really easy and quick. A vast percentage of your wins come from resolving a hate card of some nature on turn one. You have to be prepared to just jam your hand and hope that it is good enough. In most cases, you cannot afford to be afraid and play around cards like Daze or Force of Will. You will lose some games by going all-in and losing to some blue card. You’ll win a far greater number of games by just going for it. If you cannot accept this, you need to play a different deck. This is not debatable. That is how this deck functions.
As far as mulligans go, you need to have a gameplan in your opening hand. You have less selection than most other Legacy decks, so your opener has to have good potential. Most seven card hands that cannot make a turn 1 or 2 play should be thrown back. There are some exceptions (e.g. you have a Chrome Mox and one land, meaning that drawing a land, Simian Spirit Guide, or red card would allow you to make a play), but if you’re not in a position to do something early, your six card hand will likely be better. I accept most functional six card hands in game 1 scenarios, even if they are slow.
On a conceptually similar note, you don’t need a win condition in your opening hand. If you lock your opponent out of the game on turn one or two, you can literally take 30 turns to kill your opponent. You have plenty of time to draw towards a kill. If your opponent cannot cast any spells, a ten turn clock from a 2/2 Simian Spirit Guide is good enough.
How Do I Lose?
Red Prison is a deck that stops your opponent’s avenues of attack. A single hate card often *nearly* locks out your opponents. That leaves you asking the question, “How can I lose from here?” If you eliminate your opponent’s remaining outs, it does not matter how long it takes to win. Let’s look at a few examples of what I mean:
You have resolved a Blood Moon against Grixis Delver on the play. How can you lose? The answer is obviously to a Young Pyromancer. Accordingly, if you put a Chalice of the Void on two, the game is over…well, unless they are playing the Bob Huang tech of Island in the sideboard.
You have resolved a Blood Moon against Turbo Depths. How can you lose? The easiest way to lose from here is for your opponent to play a Dark Depths, which will enter with no counters, and then follow up with a Krosan Grip to destroy your Moon. Accordingly, you should start looking for an Ensnaring Bridge to keep Marit Lage from attacking, or a second Blood Moon effect to prevent a single Krosan Grip from hosing you.
Goblin Rabblemaster Math
An unchecked Goblin Rabblemaster is a four turn clock on its own. It (and its goblin buddies) attack for 1, then 6, then 8, and finally 10. The biggest damage bump is on the first turn when the Rabblemaster itself gets to attack, then the damage progression is a linear two damage per turn. Of note, on the third turn you’ll have dealt 15 damage with the Rabblemaster, so a Fiery Confluence becomes lethal. Also of note, if you play a second Rabblemaster on the following turn, the clock is shortened to a three turn clock; the damage progression there is 1, then 8, then 21. Be careful though, as the Rabblemasters will force each other to attack.
On that note, it is sometimes correct to not play this card, as the downside of Rabblemaster’s “must attack each turn” clause can be very real if your opponent has something like a Batterskull or a Griselbrand. Remember, playing Rabblemaster post-combat so that you do not make a token is an option as well. Rabblemaster pairs very well with Ensnaring Bridge. You draw a card each turn, allowing your Goblin tokens to attack, if you so desire. If attacking isn’t good, you can also play out your card for turn before combat, keeping your goblins from attacking. By doing this over the course of a few turns, you can often build up a strong enough force to swing through the opposing team in one go, even if they do have a lifelink creature.
Tension and Awkwardness in the Deck
Red Prison is full of objectively powerful and problematic cards, but there is some tension in the decklist that you need to be aware of. Sometimes you’ll trip over your own cards. Your Trinisphere makes your inexpensive cards like Chrome Mox considerably harder to cast; this in turn makes it harder to empty your hand for Ensnaring Bridge purposes. On a similar note, you can use your sol lands to power out Moon effects, but then they just become Mountains. Make sure that you account for this when sequencing your turns and figuring out how much mana you have. In practice, this isn’t that big of a deal since your opponent is usually much more hindered by the hate cards than you are.
Karn, Scion of Urza is an amazing card in this shell, but a very awkward one as well. His plus ability pairs poorly with Ensnaring Bridge, so in some situations it is correct to do nothing with your Karn. There’s a huge risk associated with something like drawing a land for turn, activating Karn, and getting stuck with a second land you cannot play. Remember, if you have your opponent locked out, it doesn’t matter how quickly you win. Accordingly, it’s not that sacrilegious to not activate your planeswalker. Honestly, his ability to make a token also plays pretty poorly with Bridge. You often have to decided pretty early on if you are on the “Karn Aggro” or “Karn Card Advantage” plan and map your turns accordingly. Karn is easier to cast than Chandra, so sometimes you’ll find yourself playing a pair of sol lands and just slamming Karn on turn two. Turns out that is pretty good against most decks. If you end up changing your mind part way through the game and you have to hide behind an Ensnaring Bridge, keep in mind that you can blow up you own Bridge with Fiery Confluence or Abrade to get that last lethal attack in.
When I first started playing Karn, I think I vastly underestimated the power of the tokens. At the time you make the first token, it’s pretty unimpressive. Let’s say that you control two artifacts prior to casting your Karn. You minus to create a 3/3. Meh. You then minus again the following turn; you now have a pair of 4/4 dudes. Okay, this is sounding better. If you use your mana to produce another artifact that turn, you’re swinging in with a Gurmag Angler and have a backup one ready to go the next turn…oh, that’s neat! If you are going heavy on Karn (3-4 copies), it’s probably correct to play a set of Great Furnace. The exposure to Wasteland and artifact destruction is probably worth it, as Karn can close games very quickly on artifact heavy starts. On that note, if you have a Karn and are getting aggressive, it’s often correct to play a Chrome Mox just to give your tokens a buff.
Kozilek’s Return also is a bit of an oddity here. It’s Devoid, meaning that it can kill things without that pesky Mother of Runes getting in the way. However that also means that it cannot be paired with Chrome Mox to produce mana. This comes up more often than you might think. Kozilek’s Return also sweeps away your Magus or Rabblemaster, so keep that in mind when considering your resource management and play progression.
One last awkward thing: if you cast Fiery Confluence using the destroy target artifact mode and it has no legal targets upon resolution, it will be countered. If you cast Fiery Confluence and your opponent sacrifices or otherwise removes your targets (e.g. with Flickerwisp or Arcbound Ravager), the remaining portion of your spell isn’t going to resolve. I recently played a match against ANT where I targeted a Lotus Petal with Fiery Confluence and then dealt four to my opponent. It resolved. If my opponent would have sacrificed the Petal in response, they could have saved themselves four life. This is why I love Magic: knowledge about rules and technical play can really give you an edge.
This is my first of three articles on Red Prison. As I have it mentally mapped out right now, my second article is going to look at various Red Prison decklists and talk about the conceptual strengths and weaknesses of each. My third article is then going to discuss matchups and generic sideboarding tips. I hope you’ve enjoyed this digression from my regular D&T content, and you can expect to see another Red Prison article in a week or so!