Dissension: Rakdos Bloodsport Review (Part 1 of 2)
Following the decline in the game that many felt Kamigawa had represented, with its insular mechanics and over-emphasis on flavour- 2005’s Ravnica brought Magic back into a new renaissance. Set in a compelling world of ten competing guilds in a massive cityscape (one for each possible two-colour combination), it struck a near-perfect blend of flavour and mechanics. A great many of the cards in the set were watermarked with a guild symbol for added depth of narrative, and each of the ten guilds were assigned their own unique mechanic. While most have faded to obscurity, even today you’ll still hear some Red/White decks describing themselves as “Boros” just as three-colour decks take their names from the Shards of Alara (Jund and Naya most commonly).
In the initial set, Ravnica, the first four guilds were revealed, with three more following in each ot he two expansions. For the second expansion, Dissension, these were Azorius, Simic, and Rakdos. The Cult of Rakdos, which we’ll be reviewing today, blended the very synergistic Black and Red colours to very aggressive effect. According to the Guildpact- that magic document which codifies the laws of society and roles of each of the guilds- the Rakdos populate the city’s mines and as slavers. They also foment chaos, act as blades-for-hire and assassins, and are generally regarded as attracting the most blood-thirsy and sado-masochistic members of society under its banner. It is represented by the mechanic Hellbent:
To optimise this mechanic, Rakdos Bloodsport needs to be hyper-aggressive, with a number of ways to ensure you can switch the ability on when needed. By the same token, the Hellbent cards need to be of a quality that their added power offsets what you lose by having an empty hand: namely, the inability to react immediately to what your opponent is doing, and the loss of the uncertainty factor and any ability to bluff. Facing an opponent with an empty hand is often one of the most reassuring things in the game of Magic (unless, of course, the game is already all but decided). With them playing consistently off the topdeck, it becomes harder for them to plot and plan for a long-term play, and instead leaves them far more at the mercy of fortune.
Will Rakdos Bloodsport compensate you well for this loss? Let’s take a look.
A Scream While They Last
The first thing that’s obvious upon reviewing the mana curve is that the deck is well-positioned to make Hellbent available to you fairly quickly:
With nearly 86% of its creatures three-drops or less, here’s a deck that wants you to play to your fullest production every turn, dumping out a swarm of early and cheap beaters, then gaining added value later in the game through Hellbent or other mechanics to make them punch above their weight.
At the one-drop slot, we have a few unexpectedly defensive options in the pair of Slithering Shades and Torpid Molochs, but they’re not as useless as that sounds. While both (particularly the Molochs) give you the ability to ride out some early aggression from your opponent, both also have the ability to switch into attackers under certain circumstances. For the Shades, it’s a Hellbent trigger. The Molochs, however, require a somewhat steeper price- the sacrifice of three lands each turn. That may seem outrageous (and it is), but by the same token it’s an efficient way to turn surplus resources in the late-game into finishing damage against your opponent.
Rounding out the dirty half-dozen is a pair of Scorched Rusalkas. The Rusalka cycle is an intriguing one, providing a minor benefit for a somewhat heavy cost. Here, you’ll want to use her ability to either finish off a wounded opponent, or to get a little added value from a creature that was going to die anyway. It’s an added bit of reach across the table that can some in handy.
At the twos you have the obligatory Rakdos Guildmage, a pair of Drekavacs, and a trio of Gobhobbler Rats. The Drekavac on first blush doesn’t seem like a huge bargain- a 3/3 for two mana that requires you to pitch a card- but when you remember that this deck wants you to clear your hand, their role comes into focus. Stuck on mana with a Nihilistic Glee in hand preventing you from going Hellbent? The Drekavac gives you a very useful release valve.
The Rats are solidly efficient in their own right (a 2/2 for two), a consequence of the dual-colour mana cost, but become downright nasty when Hellbent kicks on. Including three of them is a great move by the designers. Lastly, the Guildmage gives you some vital flexibility, both in killing critters (while dumping cards from hand) or in token critter generation for added damage.
Moving into what is essentially the consistent top-of-curve for the deck (there are only three cards more expensive), there are a few more options here, but they tend to be more of the utility variety. Sure you’re given a pair of Sadistic Augermages, whose balanced leaves-the-battlefield ability becomes a real darling when you’ve no cards in hand, but other than that the drops here aren’t meant to see the inside of the red zone all that much.
A Rakdos Ickspitter is an amped-up pinger that is active no matter how many cards you have in hand, while the pair of Ragamuffyns start turning your superfluous permanents into resources to generate card draw. Finally we have the versatile Lyzolda, the Blood Witch, who likewise turns creatures who have outlived their usefulness into either damage or card-draw fodder (depending on their colour).
Next up are a pair of Demon’s Jesters, somewhat more expensive than most of the deck but evasive and quite nasty with Hellbent up. And then there’s the Slaughterhouse Bouncer, a quite ordinary 3/3 for five mana (rather typical for Black) that has an added bit of removal thrown in on Hellbent.
All Ends in Obliteration
Supporting this rather nicely-focused mix are fifteen noncreature spells. The first thing that jumps out at you here is the very impressive quantity of removal- over half of the fifteen are designed to kill your opponent’s critters or damage your opponent directly. It should be noted that the sweet spot of the deck is 2-toughness targets, favoured by the three Seals of Fire, a Douse in Gloom, and a Twinstrike. Of course, the Seals can be pointed at your opponent, and the Twinstrike can outright destroy rather than merely damage if you have Hellbent up, so there’s room for versatility.
Topping that off are a pair of Cackling Flames (a Lightning Bolt that gets bigger if you’re Hellbent), and a Wrecking Ball. All told, this gives you a surprising amount of room to manoeuver- if you draw a good amount of critters you can burn down their blockers and go for the fast kill, or alternately if there’s a stall you’re still able to manage their larger beaters, albeit to a lesser degree. Like Hellbent suggests, you’ll want to be as blisteringly fast with this deck as you can.
As for the rest, it’s a fairly respectable lineup of different effects, two of each save for a rare enchantment, Nihilistic Glee. The Hellbent version of Necropotence, this allows you to trade life for cards if Hellbent is up, and pitch cards from hand (for a mini-Syphon Soul effect) if it’s not. There’s a somewhat mediocre creature aura (Taste for Mayhem), a “Hellbent combat trick” in Ignorant Bliss (superb here), and some rather questionable ramp in the Rakdos Signet. The Signets aren’t terrible here, as there are a few things at the top-end of the curve, but with a deck as focused on the early- and mid-game as this it’s a rather unwelcome draw at any later point in the game. Ramp becomes less efficient when your deck doesn’t have a lot of expensive cards in it. Still, it synergises well in the deck, either acting as backup mana if you go aggro with your Torpid Molochs, or something to throw from hand with one of the discard abilities (ie Rakdos Guildmage).
We’d be remiss if we passed the article through without making mention of the singleton Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace. Although it gives up a little in not being able to provide coloured mana, its ability to symetrically cause discard can be invaluable. Although throwing cards away can hurt, there are plenty of incentives for doing so and unlike you, your opponent is unlikely to benefit from an empty hand!
Here’s the overall curve for examination:
As you can see, this is a fairly aggressive and well-focused deck. The heavy burn/removal suite gives you most anything you’d expect in a Red/Black deck, and is a welcome treat (most precons tend to skimp in the removal department, especially modern ones). Hellbent as a mechanic is flavourful and looks fun. We’ll run the deck through its paces, and report back in two days time. See you then!