Frontier: The Definitive Reference for Atarka Red Strategies

Thomas brings us the definitive guide to "Sligh" strategies in Frontier with breakdowns of Atarka Red, Ramunamp, and even a "Dark" Atarka variant.

At a certain point you just realize a deck is at the top of a format. But looking back it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when it arrived there. However, once it’s there – you just know. When did Caw-Go truly assert its dominance? Was it with the printing of Mirrodin Besieged? Had it always been that good? What about more recent decks like Black Devotion (Theros Standard) or Rally the Ancestors (Battle for Zendikar Standard)? At a certain point you just have to say, this is and has been the best deck. Why wasn’t I playing this all along?

In the hands of John Blinov, Atarka Red just took down another tournament. Daniel Fournier also made the top eight of this last weekend’s 1K Showdown – his run cut short in the semifinals against the mirror match piloted by Blinov. Red decks also showed up in force at the ninth Hareruya God Challenge with two copies of Atarka Red, and one copy of Ramunap Red in the top eight.

Yuuki Mitsuyasu might have won the whole thing, if he didn’t run into Yukio Matsuda’s anti-Sligh build of UB Control in the finals. Earlier, in the North American Champs, Atarka Red made the top eight in the hands of Phil Bickle, while Matt Mealing took a “Dark Atarka” list to a third place finish. On and on. How many more tournaments does it have to dominate?

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. While Atarka Red is the standard build, there are three distinct, viable Sligh strategies:

  • The most popular is RG, Gruul, or Atarka, and is the deck that can best leverage Atarka’s Command;
  • The second is Matt Mealing’s innovative take on the archetype – Dark Atarka, which splashes black for Driven // Despair;
  • The third eschews all splashes and is a mono colored Ramunap Red deck, similar to what you might see in Standard.

We’ll start by looking at the origins of this deck, then explore each of these archetypes before coming back to the question: is this the best deck in Frontier?

Origins

Atarka Red has existed since the printing of Atarka’s Command. The Frontier deck originated from Martin Dang’s Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir winning list. Without going too far back into history with figures like Paul Sligh, Jay Schneider and Mark Gordon (admirably done in this article by Alex Shvartsman), we can say that this is historically one of the tried and true strategies of Magic.

As far as Frontier, the first notable finish for the archetype was Mitsuyasu Yuuki’s top 16 finish in October of last year. His list was quite the departure from Dangs, though, as it ran cards like Voltaic Brawler and even Scythe Leopard. The builds that came to define Frontier, though, would come later, and out of Toronto.

First, in the hands of Sam Wong at the November 1K, then at the January 1K where four pilots made the top eight playing Atarka Red. While they were upended by Abzan and Mono-White Aggro, there was little doubt that this was the event Sligh asserted itself. Nightingale and Swaluk’s builds were particularly of note as they each featured three Blossoming Defense, three Temur Battle Rage and three Become Immense.

This was reminiscent to the then in-vogue combo finishes of early Modern Death’s Shadow decks. For months the strategy oscillated between a pure go-wide deck, to one incorporation the Temur Battle Rage combo package. Then, with the printing of Fatal Push, things changed. It was now too easy to hold up interaction for a single threat and the combo-esque finish disappeared.

This caused the archetype to splinter into the three different strategies that we know today: a more go-wide version of Atarka Red, Ramunap Red and Dark Atarka.

Atarka Red

Atarka Red by Phillip Bickle

Land (20)
Wooded Foothills
Bloodstained Mire
Windswept Heath
Cinder Glade
Mountain
Forest
Ramunap Ruins

Creatures (14)
Monastery Swiftspear
Soul-Scar Mage
Zurgo Bellstriker
Abbot of Keral Keep
Reckless Bushwhacker

Instants (15)
Wild Slash
Atarka's Command
Lightning Strike
Stoke the Flames
Become Immense
Artifacts (4)
Smuggler's Copter

Sorceries (7)
Dragon Fodder
Hordeling Outburst

Sideboard: (15)
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Plummet
Blazing Volley
Goblin Heelcutter
Ramunap Ruins
Outpost Siege
Kari Zev's Expertise
Smash to Smithereens
Natural State
Exquisite Firecraft

This previously unreleased list from the Frontier North American Champs was piloted by Phillip Bickle to the semifinals. It adds two Ramunap Ruins as an extra utility land, but is largely similar to past builds in other respects. His only other deviation was the return to three Abbot of Keral Keep, presumably for the mirror which ends up being quite grindy. To facilitate that, he entirely cut Foundry Street Denizens.

This is the most consistent and stock of the Sligh archetypes. That doesn’t mean it’s boring though, as the list consistently kills by turn four or five — even through disruption. It’s likely the most powerful flavor of Atarka Red, as the tweaks Dark Atarka and Ramunap Red make are often to fight strategies looking to hate out red decks, or to gain an advantage in the mirror.

Notable Cards

Monastery Swiftspear is our best one drop and it’s not particularly close. Every point of damage counts in this strategy, so our best play is always turn one Swiftspear. This is how the turn four kills start. Thanks to haste, it’s almost always a relevant top deck too, unlike Soul-Scar Mage, or cards like Foundry Street Denizen. For a similar reason, Zurgo Bellstriker sees play in this strategy, but it’s a much weaker card as: a) two mana is a lot to dash him out and b) he doesn’t have the upside of prowess.

Hordeling Outburst‘s ability to make three tokens with one card is perfect for our main strategy. Earlier decks played Goblin Rabblemaster which has a higher upside, but all too often trades unfavorably. In a deck as aggressive as ours, we basically can never afford to trade down on mana. Also, in some games you are able to play Outburst into Reckless Bushwhacker on the same turn. You don’t typically lose those games.

Atarka’s Command is quite simply the best card in the deck. It’s a brutally efficient burn spell capable of negating life gain, or just dealing seven damage out of nowhere. Not much more needs to be said than that: if you have access to this card, play it.

Matchup & Sideboard Discussion

4 Color Copycat

This matchup is one of the major pulls to playing Atarka Red. It’s incredibly favored since our best draws kill faster than they can combo, and we can easily hold up a Wild Slash to disrupt them if they go for it. The versions which run Fumigate are, in theory, more difficult, but we can usually just hold up an Atarka’s Command to prevent the life gain. From there, we have to kill them with a Smuggler’s Copter, haste creatures, or scrape together enough burn.

I wouldn’t sideboard much, or at all here. We don’t need to. Some players bring in Smash to Smithereens on the draw, which stops the combo, but I think that’s too cute.

Abzan

This is not our best matchup. Game one, they have enough spot removal to slow us down to the point where Anafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino are relevant. If you can hold up Atarka’s Command for the life gain off Siege Rhino, that’s a start, but our best plan is really to just be as aggressive as possible and not let it get to the late stages of the game.

In game two, cards like Goblin Heelcutter and Kari Zev’s Expertise help. The Expertise in particular is a great way to turn their efficient creatures against them, and is your most powerful sideboard card. I could see an argument for running more here – you get a lot of mileage out of this card.

Remember to be aware of Dromoka’s Command. The card may seem unassuming, but is really problematic for our deck in games we play into it, as it can force us to trade unfavorably in mana and cards.

In:1x Goblin Heelcutter, 2x Kari Zev’s Expertise
Out: 1x Zurgo Bellstriker, 2x Wild Slash

The Mirror

The mirror is interesting, as your draws will dictate the action to some extent. It’s important to understand your role, and be willing to adjust quickly when it changes. Atarka’s Command is the key card in the mirror. The easiest way to lose in the mirror is not play around Atarka’s Command. Wondering if your opponent has it? They have it.

Post-sideboard games, you want to go bigger than your opponent. To do this we bring in a land, and engines like Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Outpost Siege. Our best card isn’t anything fancy, just some good old fashioned hatred with Blazing Volley. Just be sure to save it for a situation where they can’t answer with an Atarka’s Command.

In: 2x Chandra, Torch of Defiance, 2x Blazing Volley, 1x Ramunap Ruins, 1x Outpost Siege
Out: 2x Stoke the Flames, 1x Become Immense, 1x Zurgo Bellstriker, 2x Reckless Bushwacker

Ramunap Red

Ramunap Red by Mihoko Tsuchiya

Lands (21)
13 Mountain
Ramunap Ruins
Sunscorched Desert

Creatures (15)
Monastery Swiftspear
Soul-Scar Mage
Zurgo Bellstriker
Reckless Bushwhacker
Hazoret the Fervent

Instants (10)
Wild Slash
Abrade
Lightning Strike
Stoke the Flames
Artifacts (4)
Smuggler's Copter

Sorceries (9)
Dragon Fodder
Hordeling Outburst
Collective Defiance

Planeswalkers (2)
Chandra, Torch of Defiance

Sideboard (15)
Scavenger Grounds
Abrade
Warping Wail
By Force
Roast
Sweltering Suns
Outpost Siege
Crook of Condemnation

Mihoko’s mono red list resembles the lists seen at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, which was taken down by one of the most powerful wizards of all time, PVDDR. Playing Hazoret and Ramunap Ruins means that flooding is less of an issue than for typical aggro deck. As any red mage knows, even the best sequencing of spells can’t win the game if you draw too many lands early.

In that sense, these two cards (Hazoret & Ramunap) are paradigm shifting. The ability to play more than 20 lands smooths out some variance: it essentially eliminates a large portion of your worst draws, while increasing the probability of your best. How? More lands gives you a healthier ratio of gas:not-gas, and Ramunap Ruins and Hazoret are there for the games when we’ve naturally exhausted our early resources.

There’s an argument to have even more than twenty-two lands in our seventy-five. Mihoko plays twenty-one in the main and one in the sideboard, but I imagine we could the numbers seen in recent Standard lists. Andrew Cuneo, for example, took 25th place at GPDC with 24 lands which is the same number Paulo ran in his PT-winning list. While Frontier is a different beast, when the greatest players in the Magic can reach a consensus on something like this, it’s worth noting.

This is probably the best Hazoret the Fervent deck in the format. While Haz risks eating a Grasp of Darkness in Standard, Grasp has seen less play in Frontier. Even if control decks begin to play Vraska’s Contempt, it won’t be in large enough numbers to dissuade me from playing her. The power level is just there: a 5/4 indestructible haste creature that can punch through damage. It’s there.

The extra lands also give this deck more play post-sideboard as we have the ability to go wide game one, and then answer hate cards game two. We either sideboard into a larger game plan, or utilize the colorless splash for Warping Wail. Being able to actually answer cards like Languish and Fumigate is a powerful tool for every red mage. This is what I would recommend.

Ramunap Red by Thomas Snodgrass

Lands (23)
15 Mountain
Ramunap Ruins
Sunscorched Desert

Creatures (16)
Monastery Swiftspear
Soul-Scar Mage
Zurgo Bellstriker
Reckless Bushwhacker
Hazoret the Fervent

Instants (11)
Wild Slash
Lightning Strike
Stoke the Flames
Artifacts (4)
Smuggler's Copter

Sorceries (7)
Dragon Fodder
Hordeling Outburst

Sideboard (15)
Scavenger Grounds
Arc Lightning
Warping Wail
By Force
Roast
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Outpost Siege
Tormod’s Crypt

Running the full playset of Wild Slash is the way to go, and with this many token producers I also wanted play more Stoke the Flames.I didn’t like Collective Defiance and Chandra, Torch of Defiance in the main, and Abrade because it couldn’t go to the face. Arc Lightning in the side helps me to cleanly answer cards like Hordeling Outburst.

Notable Cards

Ramunap Ruins turns your lands into burn spells in the late stages of the game. This is very powerful and allows us to close out games we previously had no business closing winning. At the cost of only one land slot, this is a compelling reason to play the deck.

Hazoret the Fervent is our best payoff for playing extra lands, as the card is very difficult for most lists to answer. Grasp of Darkness is the cleanest and most problematic answer, but we can mitigate this in a number of ways.

Chandra, Torch of Defiance is the other reward for playing more lands. She is able to answer cards like Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet while leaving behind recurring card advantage. It also can be used to ramp you into a surprise Hazoret the Fervent or Reckless Bushwhacker kill.

Matchup & Sideboard Discussion

Atarka Red

In the actual mirror I prefer to trade off tokens and go larger. I board the same way against Atarka Red, but I know there’s a higher risk of getting blown out by Atarka’s Command. One of the real appeals to playing the Ramunap version is that the higher land count lets you actually be the larger red deck. I’ve found that if you can play around their Atarka’s Command, it’s close to favorable. I often adjust my plans game to game, leaving in some number of Reckless Bushwhacker on the play and considering more removal on the draw. If they have relevant targets, even a Roast isn’t unreasonable.

In: +1 Scavenger Grounds, +2 Arc Lightning, +3 Chandra, Torch of Defiance, +2 Outpost Siege
Out: -2 Zurgo Bellstriker, -3 Reckless Bushwhacker, -3 Stoke the Flames

4 Color Saheeli

We’re already favored in this matchup since we’re much faster. It’s hard for them to go for the combo when we have so much instant speed interaction. Warping Wail is a nice addition too, as it allows us to counter their boardwipes, or is an additional piece of interaction for the combo.

In: +2 Warping Wail
Out: -2 Zurgo Bellstriker

Abzan Aggro

Outpost Siege is a consideration here, depending on the build. Assuming they’re the most aggressive version, I like bringing in Roast and hoping to get there with our Bushwhacker draws. Generally this is a worse matchup than we’d have as Atarka Red. Hazoret is powerful here, but often eats an Abzan Charm game one, and it’s hard for us to go bigger than Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Ramunap Ruins can help, but when they turn the corner, Siege Rhino and Gideon hit so hard that it oftentimes just does not matter.

In: +3 Roast
Out: -2 Zurgo Bellstriker, -1 Stoke the Flames

Ramunap Vs. Atarka Red

With proper testing and tuning, this archetype should be able to maintain a slight advantage in the “mirror match”. While the raw power of Atarka’s Command makes it closer than you might think, the extra lands let you go bigger and you have the additional edge of dealing damage with your lands, while they take damage from their fetches.

You’ll still be a dog to Wx Aggro, but have more opportunities to sideboard against the traditional downfall of Atarka Red, and should have a slightly better control matchup. On the hand, you’re losing speed which will make your combo matchups worse, in addition to Abzan. You’re also less punishing to rogue strategies. Whether it’s worth losing your best card for a more balanced late game is for each pilot to decide, but this is a viable option.

Dark Atarka

Dark Atarka by Matt Mealing

Land (21)
Bloodstained Mire
Wooded Foothills
Windswept Heath
Mountain
Forest
Cinder Glade
Smoldering Marsh

Creatures (18)
Monastery Swiftspear
Zurgo Bellstriker
Foundry Street Denizen
Lightning Berserker
Soul-Scar Mage
Abbot of Keral Keep

Instants (9)
Wild Slash
Shock
Atarka's Command
Artifacts (4)
Smuggler's Copter

Sorcery (8)
Dragon Fodder
Driven // Despair

Sideboard (15)
Rending Volley
Kari Zev’s Expertise
Magmatic Chasm
Harsh Mentor
Abrade
Natural State

Driven // Despair gives a different angle of attack. Rather than trying to beat the hate cards by going larger and relying on Ramunap Ruins to finish the opponent off, Mealing takes a page out of Frontier Elves, realizing that the ability to Mind Twist an opponent as early as turn four is advantageous.

Where Elves primarily has to fall back on other combo angles of attack, Dark Atarka falls back on the most aggressive plan in the format. With 14 one drops, five shock effects and Atarka’s Command, this deck is still an Atarka Red at heart. For his part, Matt Murday has called it the best version of aggro on the Magic, the Final Frontier podcast, and he might be right. While the mana is slightly worse, this list is very explosive.

Notable Cards

Lightning Berserker helps us try to reach a critical mass of one-drops so we can leverage Driven // Despair as effectively as possible. Berserker can also do incredible amounts of damage out of nowhere, and is a nice mana sink later on.

Wild Slash always starts in my Frontier red decks as a four-of, so I appreciate the move to four Wild Slash and one Shock. The card is just incredibly mana efficient and combines so well with our prowess creatures. The damage prevention clause is rare, but can come up against cards like Dromoka’s Command.

Driven / Despair is the new broken thing this deck does. It can force our opponent to discard their hand, while giving us a new grip of cards. It almost always nets us multiple cards, which is a very nice payoff for going wide.

Matchup & Sideboard Discussion

Atarka Red

Lightning Berserker is fine, but is often risky to sink too much mana into it, as there’s so much removal floating around for games two and three. Zurgo Bellstriker is usually my first cut in any matchup, but I actually like the 2/2 body here. In the dark I leave in the shock effects, but against a pure token strategy it’s fine to cut some number. Abbot of Keral Keep is one of your best cards in this game as you end up trading off a lot of resources in this matchup.

I was cutting Driven // Despair in testing because they usually go wide as quickly as you do, and you don’t want to be flooded on this effect. I often brought in the playset of Magmatic Chasm on the play. The dream is to Magmatic Chasm on a stalled board, or in conjunction with part of Driven // Despair when you can’t lose on the crackback.

In: +1 Abrade, +1 Natural State, +2 Magmatic Chasm
Out: -1 Driven // Despair, -3 Lightning Berserker

4 Color Saheeli

As with Ramunap Red and traditional Atarka Red, this matchup is quite favorable, and one of the draws to playing the deck. If anything Driven // Despair only improves the matchup. I wouldn’t do anything fancy here: Rending Volley gives you uncounterable interaction for their combo, and Harsh Mentor punishes four color mana bases. Abbot isn’t bad, but we don’t want to be flooded on two drops and he’s typically only a two power creature (with Prowess) when our plan is to kill as quickly as possible.

In: +2 Rending Volley, +3 Harsh Mentor
Out: -1 Zurgo Bellstriker, -4 Abbot of Keral Keep

Abzan Aggro

As an Atarka’s Command deck with access to Driven // Despair this isn’t the worst matchup game one.  We’re still a slight dog, but they will lose to our best draws. Sideboarding is never simple against Abzan, but Kari Zev’s Expertise is an easy four-of here.  It’s just one of the best sideboard cards against Abzan as their plan is to stabilize on the backs of early 4/4s and 4/5s. Following up on that I tend to bring in Chasm over Driven // Despair. It’s an odd decision on its face as Driven // Despair helps our game one matchup, but Kari Zev’s Expertise brings our curve up high enough that we can’t afford both. Still, there is a case for leaving in some number of Driven // Despair on the play. Again, while I tend to go all in on Chasm and Expertise games two and three, it’s fine to mix this up.

In: +4 Magmatic Chasm, +4 Kari Zev’s Expertise
Out: -4 Driven // Despair, -1 Shock, -1 Wild Slash, -1 Zurgo Bellstriker, -1 Abbot of Keral Keep

Dark Atarka Vs. Atarka Red

What you lose in consistency from a worse mana base and higher risk of flooding on your top end (Driven // Despair), you gain back in power level.  Driven // Despair is at its best against combo decks, as you take away all hope they have for racing you, but is also good against midrange decks where the discard and evasion is particularly valuable. It seems pretty clear that your evaluation of Dark Atarka will go hand in hand with your evaluation of Driven // Despair. If you think the card is great going into a particular tournament, there is a good chance this is the Atarka Red deck to be on. (Full disclosure: Thomas loves Driven // Despair.)

Final Thoughts

Atarka Red is incredibly well positioned in Frontier.  While other decks have come and gone from tier one, Atarka Red has never moved from its spot as the premier aggressive deck in the format. It. Just. Wins. At a certain point, I think that we’ll stop calling it the best aggressive deck and just recognize it as the best deck, period. Its results are just so much better than other archetypes that may spike a tournament here or there, but don’t consistently win at anywhere near the level of Sligh strategies. That the archetype is beginning to shift into the three distinct strategies is just another testament to the power level of this deck.

For players new to the format, know that Atarka Red is easy to pick up and play at a reasonable level, but hard to master. There’s a lot more nuance to the archetype than “turn creature sideways, point burn at face”. Still, it’s powerful enough to win through suboptimal play or in the face of hostile metagames. In fact, I think that’s part of the appeal: even when people are gunning for you, the deck is still great. All the hate cards in the world doesn’t seem to matter when they’re on the draw game three and you just burn them out.

Thomas Snodgrass

Magic and Twitch enthusiast. Frontier grinder. Frequent caster of Torrential Gear Hulk into Dig Through Time (with counterspell backup.) @Nascarfath on Twitter.

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13 Responses to “Frontier: The Definitive Reference for Atarka Red Strategies”

  • Glasseschan

    What countermeasures I should take against Atarka Red, if I am playing control? I haven’t seen a lot of Atarka Red players in my local meta, but I am expecting to face some soon, so it would be helpful to know what I should do.

    Really good article Thomas btw, I am glad to see professional frontier content!

    • Thomas Snodgrass

      It depends on which deck you’re running. Arashin Cleric is actually a pretty big pain for RDW. Kalitas and Siege Rhino are great four drops if you have early interaction and any three CMC boardwipe is great (Radiant Flames and Flaying Tendrils are the most common here).

      • is languish too slow even though it kills hazoret?

        • Thomas Snodgrass

          Languish is a good choice. You’re right, it’s particularly powerful against Sligh strategies running Hazoret (like Fournier did in his sb last weekend, or Ramunap runs main.)

  • Holy damn that’s some high quality content, keep it up. Personally I dont very much like playing these kind of decks, but the black splash does really appeal to me.

    • Thomas Snodgrass

      Thanks, I really appreciate it. Driven // Despair is such a great card! Really gives this deck a new angle of attack.

  • It’s good to see more professional frontier content, what’s the plan against elves here?

  • What would you say are the main factors when deciding which of these 3 lists to bring for the current meta?

    I assume they all have a good enough match-up vs combo to ignore that.

    If you knew you would be playing a particular popular deck such as Bant Humans or Abzan Aggro which red list would you choose to play?

    I get the impression you would take your Ramunap Ruins list against UBx Control?

    • Thomas Snodgrass

      You’re right that the Ramunap list has a particularly good matchup against control. Ramunap Ruins tends to be your MVP there.

      I like Atarka Red best against Bant Humans, but the three are all pretty close there. Tsuchiya’s sideboard is actually nice there too if you wanted to try her Ramunap list.

      Ramunap Red has the worst Abzan matchup by quite a bit. It turns out Hazoret is a bad payoff against exile effects and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ramunap Ruins is just too slow.

      Dark Atarka is probably your best option in an Abzan heavy metagame. I actually have positive results against it in testing as Driven // Despair wins a lot of game ones and Kari-Zev’s Expertise is really not a fair card in that matchup. Mealing actually got a turn three win off of Expertise into Atarka’s Command during NA Champs!

  • Really like the Dark Atarka Build in particular. Is Drven // Despair really as good as it looks? I haven’t faced the Dark version as of yet.

  • […] best things to be doing in Frontier. Tier one was Emrakul decks on the one side, and predictably, Atarka Red on one the other. So, what […]

  • […] in Blue-Black and some of Simon Tubello’s Grixis lists is more of a B. It does a good job against Atarka Red just by being a four cmc wrath, but is often underwhelming in other matchups. Fumigate is too slow […]

  • […] Frontier, there are a few decks which have separated themselves from the field. Notably, Atarka Red, Saheeli Combo, and Abzan Aggro have all proven themselves as the formats top tier. My personal […]

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