Decisions in Red and Black
Rakdos has been a mainstay color pairing in Pioneer since the very beginning of the format. Starting with Rakdos Arcanist (or Young Pyromancer), evolving into Rakdos Midrange, and lately, Rakdos Blood. Each variety of Rakdos has one thing in common: you play some number of Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger, and your objective is to get your opponent Hellbent as quickly as possible while you develop your own boardstate. Filling the battlefield with various must-answer threats all while picking your opponent’s hand apart of their own answers thanks to cards like Thoughtseize, Duress, Go Blank, and of course, Kroxa himself. At the time of writing this article, the variant that is most played is Rakdos Blood. With Midrange not far behind and Arcanist seemingly falling completely out of favor, it’s important to take a look at each decks strengths and weaknesses. So which variant is the best currently? And which variant best suits your play style?
The Rakdos variant with the most longevity of the trio, Rakdos Arcanist looks to take full advantage of your namesake card, Dreadhorde Arcanist, a two-mana 1/3 Wizard Zombie that allows you to cast any instant or sorcery card from your graveyard with Mana Value less than or equal to Arcanist’s Power without paying its mana cost. This feeds directly into the game plan of Rakdos in which you constantly seek to rip apart your opponent’s hand. So a typical line pilots know and love would be to turn-one Thoughtseize, turn-two Arcanist, and turn-three Thoughtseize again off of Arcanist. With a supporting cast of Stitcher's Supplier to fill your graveyard with more spells that Arcanist can cast or cards to help allow Kroxa to easily escape, a plethora of cheap spells to attack both your opponent’s hand and creatures, and oftentimes Young Pyromancer (the reason for the alternate name of the deck being Rakdos Pyromancer) to generate added value on all of your cheap spells.
Being able to have the ability to go wide with Pyromancer in addition to going tall with Kroxa gives decent flexibility to the deck. With the deck playing nothing but two mana or less permanents, it naturally is a Lurrus of the Dream Den companion deck. Throw in other reanimation spells like Claim // Fame and now you have ways to not only recur your threats, but even give cards like Arcanist and Kroxa haste with the Fame side for immediate value (and possibly death for your opponent).
With the main gameplan of the deck being graveyard-centric, that is where the deck has fallen out of favor. Izzet Phoenix is currently the most played deck in Pioneer, so most decks in the format are more than prepared with some form of graveyard hate somewhere in the 75. Because of this, Arcanist has fallen victim to collateral damage of Phoenix. There isn’t much leeway into other plans for the deck that don’t involve the graveyard based on the way the deck is constructed. Whereas the next variant of Rakdos aimed to solve that problem.
As the emergence of Izzet Phoenix became more and more prevalent, so did the descent of Rakdos Arcanist. Graveyard hate became a mainstay in sideboards, so decks with graveyard gameplans but the lack of a solid plan B (like Phoenix has with Thing In The Ice and Crackling Drake) suffered as a result. This is where Rakdos Midrange rose up from the ashes to be a direct combatant against Phoenix. Ditching Lurrus as a companion in favor of playing 3+ mana value threats such as Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Sorin The Mirthless and Graveyard Trespasser. Graveyard Trespasser in particular has broken out as an absolute all-star threat. Being a 3/3 for three mana is solid on rate, and having built-in graveyard hate is phenomenal. Where the card really shines is forcing your opponent to two-for-one themselves in order to remove it, thanks to its ward cost of “discard a card”. Also being a werewolf that can transform into a 4/4 and exile two cards at once per attack (rather than just one on its human side). In a traditional Lurrus shell, you would never be able to run powerful cards of this caliber.
The removal of Lurrus also allows the deck to run Bonecrusher Giant as flexible removal as well as a threat and an entire slew of removal cards. In the past there have been attempts at running Goblin Dark Dwellers in a midrange-style Rakdos deck, but problems arose when drawing your five-drop too early and having it rot away in your hand when you would rather have more flexible threats.
Thankfully, with the release of Midnight Hunt came a flexible version of GDD in Bloodthirsty Adversary, a two-mana 2/2 with haste that can pay three mana as it enters the battlefield to cast an instant or sorcery card with mana value three or less from your graveyard for free. Just like GDD, but with the added bonus of just being a two- mana haste 2/2 for the early game.
Another new addition to the deck is Bloodtithe Harvester, a two-mana 3/2 that creates a Blood Token on entry, and can tap to sacrifice itself and give a target creature -X/-X where X is double the amount of Blood Tokens you control. As much as I love Graveyard Trespasser, I’ve come to think that Bloodtithe Harvester is the most important card in the deck. The flexibility of the card is outstanding as it can be an above rate of 3/2 for two that can beatdown your opponent early game, while also clearing the way for your other threats later on. However, Rakdos Midrange isn’t where this card shines the most.
So if you’re like me, you played tons of games on Rakdos Midrange and absolutely fell in love with this blood-obsessed Vampire friend. Thus, you decided to transition into a deck more suited to taking full advantage of his ceiling.
Welcome to Rakdos Blood, the deck that arguably is the most synergistic of the trio. Running Voldaren Epicure in the one-drop slot for extra blood generation (the burn is pretty relevant as well), Fiery Temper to make use of discarding cards due to saccing Blood Tokens, and Claim//Fame (and Lurrus) to recur our Bloodtithe Harvesters after using them as removal. This deck is peak Rakdos, being the most pure build of it we’ve ever seen in the Pioneer format. Back to running the full four Kroxa (where the midrange deck opted to drop down to two) still running a slew of removal spells like the Arcanist deck, but arguably possessing a better two-drop threat in the current meta than Dreadhorde Arcanist, Rakdos Blood is without a doubt the best of the trio. I know Arcanist is incredibly powerful, but it requires a deck built around it and a little bit of luck in how your draws/opening hand goes. Currently, Harvester is a better two-drop due to it being flexible and a great threat on it’s own. Where rather than rely on other cards within your deck to bring it up to its full potential, the other cards in the Blood deck simply take it to another level entirely. Unlike the Arcanist deck, where Lurrus is there as a companion simply because you can and only bought when you have nothing better to do with your mana, Lurrus is an active part of your gameplan from the very start.
Now it’s true that since Rakdos Blood is back to running graveyard-centric cards such as Stitchers Supplier, Lurrus, Claim//Fame, and Kroxa; we may be soft to graveyard hate again just as Arcanist is. So why would we want to run this deck over Rakdos Midrange if that’s the whole reason Arcanist is underrepresented now? The answer is simple: Deadly Dispute. This is a deck that is low to the ground and aggressive yet grindy, that has access to the best draw spell in recent years. Deadly Dispute is never dead thanks to our Blood Tokens and reliable creature fodder in Stitchers Supplier, Voldaren Epicure, and an unescaped Kroxa. This allows us to churn through our deck in order to find answers to graveyard hate our opponents will bring in such as Rest In Peace, Grafdiggers Cage, and Leyline of the Void. All the while, the threats of Bloodtithe and Bloodthirsty beatdown just works thanks to all the removal pieces Rakdos has access to.
During my time playing the Pioneer format, I have played Rakdos variants more than any other archetype available (yes, even Kethis). Early on in the format, Arcanist was an outstanding powerhouse thanks to the one-two punch of Thoughtseize/Arcanist. When the deck was performing at its highest level, it felt unstoppable. But when the deck would miss its mills with Stitcher Supplier, or your Arcanist would be Fatal Pushed on site, or you didn’t open with Thoughtseize, the deck felt abysmal. It was straight up night and day, feeling similar to a Mono-Green Ramp or Aggro deck that relies on those turn one Elves surviving. Combine that with Izzet Phoenix creating an extremely hostile environment for the deck with no real plan B to its graveyard gameplan, you have a recipe for disaster. The way I would go about trying to bring this deck back to the forefront as long as Phoenix is around is find a way to incorporate a solid plan B beyond our graveyard shenanigans. Kroxa and Arcanist are great, but when they are shut down we end up relying on Pyromancer, and that feels pretty bad in most matchups when the other components of the deck are absent. Other top decks in the format either have a plan A so powerful and a sideboard plan so effective in protecting that plan A, (Four-Color Ascendency) or a Plan B to consistently fall back on to either buy time for plan A, or be an efficient win con itself (Izzet Phoenix and Wintoa). Arcanist needs to find a role in one of these answers, and I think due to the nature of the deck, it isn’t the former option. We need a plan B that isn’t a two-drop that dies to quite literally everything in the format.
The first Rakdos deck I tried playing in Pioneer was a Rakdos Midrange deck featuring Goblin Dark-Dwellers. The idea was similar to what we see in midrange now: play great threats, have the option to recur, kill spells for value, and control the board from there. The problem with GDD was that the card would sit in your hand wasting value when you could be doing better things with your mana. Or honestly anything with your mana. Then Kroxa came out with Theros: Beyond Death, flipping the entire archetype on its head. The idea of GDD was poor because not only was it a five-drop, but actively conflicted with the game plan Kroxa wanted to achieve by filling the yard and exiling recurrable spells in order to escape. So midrange was scrapped in favor of the faster, more consistent Kroxa deck of Arcanist.
With all the aforementioned cards gracing the Pioneer format such as Graveyard Trespasser, Sorin, and Bloodthirsty Adversary, the Midrange version is viable again. I will say that of the three versions, this deck is the most difficult to pilot. It plays into midrange very well, while also skewing into a Rakdos Control deck often enough. Decisions of minute differences make or break the game far more than other decks. Especially when your planeswalkers hover around Four Mana Value. Sorin and Chandra allow you to churn through your deck at will, but often, your board state is either empty on both sides as you and your opponent are hellbent, trading materials one-for-one over and over; or both sides are filled to the brim with threats, trying to carefully maneuver their way through the maze of planeswalkers and creatures. Ah, the true epitome of Midrange. Some versions play Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet as an additional threat but I’ve come to dislike him in this deck. He’s fragile and is an absolute must kill on site for most decks, and boy does he die a lot. Creature removal is just everywhere in Pioneer and Kalitas has no real benefit besides eating up one of those spells. Your other threats at least provide some hindrance to your opponent – two-for-oneing your opponent with Graveyard Trespasser’s ward cost, or shocking your opponent for targeting Bonecrusher Giant. At the very least those threats do something on their way out, where Kalitas simply doesn’t do that. So, I’ve come to try some alternatives in threats, featuring Liliana, Death’s Majesty as a great way to buy back threats and create additional bodies in 2/2 zombie tokens. Angrath, The Flame-Chained is a great five-drop to pick apart those last pieces of your opponent’s hand and chip away at their life. There’s also a card I’ve been perplexed by but genuinely impressed with: Concealing Curtains. Running them as a two-of has felt about the right number. A nice blocker to come down on turn one vs aggro decks, while also slotting into that turn three play of your other threats to pseudo Thought-Knot Seer your opponent. Plus, the 3/4 menace body has proven to be pretty effective. This deck has plenty of room to explore, with cards like Waste Not to lean into the discard element of the deck, Chandra Acolyte of Flame to further recur spells, and Liliana, The Last Hope as an additional 3 mana planeswalker threat that slots nicely into your gameplan.
Blood has by far been the most successful of the three decks for my play testing. It’s been this wonderful marriage of what Arcanist and Midrange want to accomplish, without either the overreliance of a graveyard/build around card like Arcanist, or the inconsistencies that just naturally come with playing a Midrange strategy. The Blood Token mechanic just feels so natural for Rakdos. The ability to churn through your deck at a whim while also filling your graveyard, or making use of madness spells in Fiery Temper and still managing to play to the board quite efficiently. The option to recur Bloodtithe Harvester as a removal spell thanks to Lurrus and Claim//Fame is just bonkers. It’s such a simple interaction yet it is a genuine powerhouse for the deck. As mentioned before, Deadly Dispute is such a natural fit in the deck and further adds to the synergistic style of the Blood Tokens and to the board style of the deck. There are some things I would look at trying with the deck as I have played all of my games with the “stock” list floating around. First thing is that while I love Dreadbore as a card, I would try to find room in the main for Angrath’s Rampage as the prevalence of Sylvan Caryatid creates difficulty for some matchups. As well as simply being a main piece of the Four-Color Ascendency deck that you would really like to remove as quickly as possible. I would like to bring some consistency with certain cards rather than play these seemingly random one-ofs, though. I know that the deck is quite good at drawing cards and looking through your deck at will, so the likelihood of finding these one-ofs in any given match is higher than most decks; though I still feel it isn’t the most efficient deck building. I’d start by looking at Archfiend's Vesseland Duress. Either cut one for a second copy of the other, or cut both for more relevant spells that answer things in the meta, like Angrath’s Rampage. Maybe it could be worth trying a two-of Dreadhorde Arcanist in this deck. We run plenty of spells that we’re likely to get some value off of him, though I’d be wary of it. I’m always skeptical of trying out cards that are typically “build around” cards as a one or two-of in a deck, because having your deck built around a certain card will have its pros and cons – the same way jamming two great cards from separate decks together to see how they operate. Will you have success? Absolutely. But the understanding of whether or not you will have more success if you build your deck optimally will separate the solid brews from the fine tuned decks that win tournaments. But hey, that’s why we’re here!
Of course, all three of these decks have pros and cons to them.
Arcanist is an incredibly powerful deck that can quickly get your opponent empty-handed as you threaten them with a Kroxa, yet folds hard to graveyard hate and has a bit too much of a “luck” factor. This creates a high ceiling but an incredibly low floor for the deck.
Rakdos Midrange has an exceptional Phoenix matchup both pre and post-board thanks to wonderful threats such as Graveyard Trespasser and our planeswalker packages. The deck is incredibly flexible and can alter itself to be well positioned versus any deck in the meta; however, outside of Phoenix there are no outstanding matchups in your favor. The main issue with the deck is that similarly to Arcanist, you fall into these games where both you and your opponent are hellbent. Cards like Chandra and Sorin do wonders to help churn through your deck, but ultimately help fall victim to the Midrange trap of playing one threat at a time. With that being said, this is my favorite of the three choices, as it really rewards great piloting skills and decision making.
Rakdos Blood however is my pick for the most powerful deck of the three, and is the best thing you can be doing in Rakdos. It’s a perfect marriage of the pros of both Arcanist and Midrange in that it has a high ceiling and a fairly high floor, while not running into the hellbent problem both the aforementioned decks possess. Blood Tokens and Deadly Dispute allow you to almost freely draw through your deck ensuring you find your answers, while your graveyard portion of your gameplan adds onto the power of the deck rather than forces reliance on it. Your games will likely be on the closer side more often with this deck, but you will be amazed at how often you are able to win by the skin of your teeth while piloting this deck at ease. It’s strange to say that this deck is easy to pilot, but the power level of the cards provided allow for a more streamlined gameplan, while still having access to three to five different lines of play to choose from on any given turn. I recently piloted both Midrange and Blood to a Mythic finish on the Historic ladder in Magic: Arena and have been playing them in MTGO leagues for Pioneer as well. If I can keep up with the likes of Izzet Phoenix, Humans, and Control in Historic, then I was incredibly confident in the performance these decks would have in Pioneer. And it turns out I was right.