Freedom, Instinct, Emotion.
Red is the color of emotion. It lives in the moment and makes its choices based on the present without taking future repercussions into account. I love this color in a cube environment. With its ethos being crystal clear, and almost unchanged sine the birth of the game, it becomes easy to build a strong list that has great synergy and "full-flavor". Red is a great color for a cube designer's self-expression, in that there is a lot of room to customize a list with their favorite cards without sacrificing power level or playability. What cards did I choose for Red? Let's take a look!
Since planning is not Red's strong suit, one thing it does well is blindly attacking. This means "aggro" will be one of its key deck builds. Aggro decks focus on early combat with cheap creatures that have Haste as an ability, so expect most of Red's creatures to have a low casting cost. Zurgo Bellstriker is the epitome of this archetype. As a 2/2 for a single red mana, the Bellstriker doesn't even worry about the need to block. All he wants to do is kill something on the other side of the battlefield or die trying. In a similar vein, the Hellspark Elemental's entire purpose in life is to attack the enemies of the one that summons it. A brutal hit on turn two, it explodes onto the battlefield attacking and then fizzles into the AEther. Its Unearth cost gives the player a second round of attack, potentially delivering six points of damage for just four mana. A great card and a cube staple. In a small cube I try and give each color a token producer, but as the aggro color Red gets two great ones. Goblin Rabblemaster, (as well as Young Pyromancer), provides a constant production of tokens to complicate combat for their opponents. These tokens will provide the additional creatures that an aggro deck craves while leaving card slots open in you list for other archetypes. The Goblins even come with haste - making them a perfect fit. In the aggro mid-range, Prophetic Flamespeaker is a solid player, bringing double strike and evasion to the board with a pseudo card draw ability, while the Hellrider is a stout 3/3 with an ability to ping the opponent to death. Finally, I included Thundermaw Hellkite at the "top end" of Red's creature curve. At five mana he is really out of the "aggro" archetype, but his tap ability can be a great end game for a player, and it also gives you a dragon in your red list. As one of Red's iconic races, you should include at least one for flavor.
The second red archetype is "burn" Red is the king of direct damage and you should include a healthy dose, because players will expect it to be there when they draft. As a cube builder you should be cautious here. You really don't want someone drafting all direct damage and just cheesing someone out of a large game. It just doesn't make for a fun night or a great play experience as even the player with the burn deck will get bored by night's end. Think of burn instead as a tool for red decks to deal with an opponent's permanents or get around a board full of large creatures if their aggro strategy dies out or a game goes long. The point is, you really don't want folks drafting 45 burn spells. This should be a support archetype like "burn/white weenies" (red/white) or "counter/burn" (blue/red).
With this as a guide, I want to touch on four burn spells that I think no cube should live without. Since Limited Edition Alpha there has never been a better burn spell than Lightning Bolt. One mana, three damage. Run it. Almost as good, Burst Lightning has a higher top end with it's kicker cost to deliver four damage, making it a nice spell to deal with larger flyers. Mizzium Mortars is my choice for a red sweeper spell. It's targeted creature removal in a pinch, but its overload cost is where it shines, allowing a player to reset the board. Finally, Sulfuric Vortex is the quintessential burn spell. The only enchantment in Red's arsenal, paired with an aggro strategy it turns on a fast clock for the opponent. A cube staple and very affordable with its latest reprint in Eternal Masters. I have stayed away from loading up with "X" spells in this list to limit single turn burn damage, but if you want to shift te list in that direction, you can add one or two. I think Banefire would be your "go-to card" in this case.
With red a color so focused in what it wants to do, it is easy to round out the list while still hitting all the nostalgia notes. To strengthen our existing archetypes, lets look at a few cards. First, Kird Ape - a classic in red. Historically, this card was a staple of the first "Zoo" aggro decks, and was commonly paired with a Taiga on turn one. Since we are not running those dual lands for cost, Stomping Ground will have to do. Next, Purphoros, God of the Forge is a great include in both aggro and burn builds, speeding up the clock for your opponents with direct damage as well as pumping your creatures on the attack. Earthquake is a great spell that provides direct damage as well as creature control for burn decks. Continuing with a theme of red control, Pillage allows us to showcase Red's ability to destroy lands and artifacts while only using a single slot. The card is by no means "sexy" but it does good work. Finally, Wheel of Fortune has the flavor feel of Red's emotional reaction to problems, exchanging the known for an unknown - and a chance of success. Mechanically, it provides Red with some needed card draw for its fast decks.
For Red's planeswalker selection I have chosen Chandra, the Firebrand. At four mana she provides some burn support, while staying balanced enough for inclusion in a small cube. Her ultimate is strong, but far from game breaking, and Chandra's impulsive nature is a great flavor include.
That's red - an easy to unify color and one you can steer new cube players toward. By keeping casting costs low and loading up on spells with a single red mana requirement, its also quite possible you will see red cards drafted by experienced players to splash into their decks for burn or to use as creature control. In any case, sometimes its really fun to play the part of an impulsive red mage throwing lightning bolts at your opponent's face. Don't over think this one.
Join me next week as we become one with nature and grow into... Green.
This is a seven part, introductory series on cube. Here's how to catch up.
Travel Cubed (Introduction),
As always, if you want to skip ahead and start building, my entire list is up on Cube Tutor.