I have a confession to make. I have an unhealthy obsession with Ral Zarek. I’ve heard it all:
“He’s just bad.”
“He doesn’t give you card advantage.”
Look, I get it. Ral Zarek requires some help and his +1 ability is a bit underpowered. Using two loyalty to get a Lightning Bolt is about on par nowadays, considering how much Lightning Strike costs. Therefore, you are paying four mana for six damage. Even though we don’t really judge a planeswalker by its ultimate, Ral’s can definitely lead to one having a bad taste in his mouth (I ultimated Ral on an empty board against a Junk Midrange opponent. Good news: I hit the 1:32 odds. Bad news: It was the wrong way. I took zero extra turns with a Stormbreath Dragon in hand).
So why play Ral Zarek, especially after such a glowing recommendation? Because he reminds me of two other planeswalkers that were underrated during their time in Standard: Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas and Venser, the Sojourner. Both of these Planeswalkers had some odd abilities that required you to build around them. Venser couldn’t protect himself and both Ral and Tezzeret only marginally protected themselves. But, just like Tezzeret and Venser, Ral is extremely powerful in the correct shell. So the question becomes, what shell do we use?
History, as it tends to do, will lead us in the correct direction. Ryan Hipp played an Izzet Devotion list at the Star City Games Open in Cincinnati. The deck tech can be found here.
R/u Devotion by Ryan Hipp
As you can see, this deck has some nice things going for it, and by that, I mean it has Ral Zarek. Ryan finshed 7-2-1 for a 22nd-place finish. I talked to him about his deck around round five, and he claimed that he really wanted to add a fourth Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, but I think he needed to add another Mountain in order to cast his [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/cards]s on time. Obviously, this is a good shell but there are some problems:
- The deck is a bit too slow. If you’re trying to overload against Junk Midrange or B/G Devotion, you need to start early. Your aggression should start on turn 1 if you’re trying to attack for the win. You are not the R/W Burn deck, so their removal is actually quite good against you. Make them pay for their Thoughtseizes.
- Ash Zealot is just not good enough anymore. It doesn’t usually get in for more than one attack nowadays, especially with Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix everywhere. You usually want to get at least four damage out of it, and it sometimes does not even get in for two.
- Strombreath Dragon is an amazing card, no doubt about it. But, against a deck like Junk Midrange or B/G Devotion, sometimes they just handle it. If you have it in your hand, waiting to cast it (especially since you are only running 23 lands), it is not going to do much against these decks. And by the time you do get a chance to cast it, it will be too late.
- Frostburn Weird suffers the same problems that Ash Zealot suffers from and more. Pumping mana into your Frostburn Weird on turn 3 is a surefire way to get blown out. While I grant that it is an okay card against U/W/x Control decks, we need to find a better card in that slot that is better than being “mediocre at best.”
Luckily for us, most of our work has already been done for us.
Return of the King
As some of you may know, Gerry Thompson is no longer chained to the rocks at Wizards of the Coast. When it comes to deck building and deck tweaking, I tend to defer to Gerry’s ideas and decisions because he builds decks in a similar manner to myself (i.e. theory-based crafting), but has been doing it longer and more successfully than I have (for now…). With that in mind, here’s the list that we will be working off of in order to make our Ral Zarek dreams come true.
R/b Devotion by Gerry Thompson
As you can see, Gerry has made the proper adjustments to his deck.
- By adding Firedrinker Satyr and moving Stormbreath Dragon to the sideboard, we have gotten much more aggressive.
- Eidolon of the Great Revel is a significant upgrade over Ash Zealot. At worst, it trades for a removal spell and 2 damage, which is a higher lower-boundary than Ash Zealot had (since they could kill your Ash Zealot before it attacked). Furthermore, it has the opportunity of getting in about four to six damage before your opponent can deal with it.
However, I still have problems with this deck as well:
- Gerry claimed that this is his “aggressive” version of his deck, but there are zero copies of Chandra’s Phoenix. Obviously, this is because he has zero burn spells to get them back from the graveyard and only two copies of Chandra, Pyromaster. Luckily, we’re going to fix that.
- Frostburn Weird still feels miserable. Especially so if we are trying to be aggressive.
- Burning-Tree Emissary is still awkward. With only two copies of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, it seems like its ability to help with devotion isn’t being fully optimized. Furthermore, we aren’t casting much with the trigger either.
- If we’re an aggressive deck, do we really need removal that will kill our tempo? I get that cards like Polukranos, World Eater, Desecration Demon, and Courser of Kruphix exist, but there have to be an easier way to deal with them than taking a turn off. Plus, given all of the answers to planeswalkers in the format, there seems to be a downward trend in playing them (trust me, if anyone hates not playing all the planeswalkers, it is me). Therefore, Dreadbore doesn’t seem as good as it could be.
With all this in mind, let’s see where this leaves us:
R/u Devotion by Ken Crocker
Mogis’s Warhound is the answer we’re looking for. It plays well with Burning-Tree Emissary, allows us to punch through Caraytids, Coursers, and what not, helps against removal, and replaces the mediocre Frostburn Weird. Also, we don’t need removal if we have Turn // Burn, as it answers everything we could want it to and helps get back our Chandra’s Phoenix.
The Dragons are in the sideboard because of the reasons I mentioned before. But we may need to add land if we’re going to bring them and the Hammer in versus control decks. Overall, I believe this is the best possible version of Red Devotion due to the versatility the planeswalkers give you, the pressure it places on your opponents, and the new angles of attack splashing blue can add to this deck. Play it and let me know what you think!
Bonus Content – New Divine Aristocrats List
I haven’t given up on my Divine Aristocrat list. Here’s some updates to it (sans sideboard):
The Divine Aristocrats by Ken Crocker
As you can see, we cut the cute stuff, like Dark Prophecy and Scourge of Skola Vale. Sometimes you just go to deep, right? Polkuranos, World Eater has been replaced by Reaper of the Wild because of its scry ability, ability to fight through ground creatures, and being easier to cast. The mana probably still needs some work. In all honesty, this deck is a strong FNM candidate and if there were a one-drop that gave us value when it died, then I could see this deck being tournament viable. Unfortunately, until the release of M15, all we have are Festering Newt and Slitherhead, which do not inspire power and confidence. But I would keep this deck in mind when spoiler season starts, as it seems to be one of the better Ajani, Mentor of Heroes decks I have seen in Standard.
Latest posts by Ken Crocker (see all)
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