Dissension: Rakdos Bloodsport Review (Part 2 of 2)
When last we left Ravnica, we were exploring the Red/Black aggro guild of the Rakdos, with their Hellbent ability. Hellbent, both thematically and mechanically, seemed a perfect fit for the guild, a sort of “all-in’s all in.” But as one so often finds in this game, what seems amazing on paper doesn’t always translate well to actually playing. Not only is this a lesson the brave unfortunates of the Great Designer Search 2 have been learning the hard way, it’s also an important one for us to keep in mind.
And so, to find out for ourselves just how well Hellbent- and the Rakdos- played out, we sat down to throw the customary three games. Sam was my opponent of choice, and she opted to go to battle under the banner of the Blue/Green guild, the Simic Combine.
Here are the match notes.
Sam’s on the play, and leads off with an Island. I counter with a Mountain and the game’s first critter, a Scorched Rusalka. The Rusalka make up an interesting cycle, with seemingly very minor repeatable abilities, but the Scorched may be one of the better. She, at least, can throw a little burn at your opponent.
Passing back to Sam, she introduces a second Island alongside her first, but again, no play. I swing in for 1 with the Rusalka, drop a Mountain and pass. Next turn Sam lands her first body, a Simic Initiate. I swing in again with the Rusalka (Sam declines the trade), and place a Seal of Fire on the table after laying down Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace.
Turn 4, and Sam now produces a Vigean Graftmage. She swings with the Initiate, and I take the 1. My turn, sadly, is a blank- not even a land drop. Sam swings in with the Graftmage the turn following, taking me to 17 life. Once again, I blank.
The Graftmage comes in again on turn 6, and still not a Swamp to my name. At the end of Sam’s turn I blow an Ignorant Bliss just for the free card. I’d kept a Black-heavy opening grip even though it was land-light, but I’d confused Rix Maadi for a Rakdos Carnarium and thought I was fine for both colours. Kicking myself again, I pass the turn after discarding a Sadistic Augermage.
Sam’s Graftmage has me at 13 life on turn 7, then to my horror she lays down a Protean Hulk. The thing is nasty. I can think of plenty of critters I hate to see enter the battlefield against me, but far fewer are the ones I hate to see die. The Hulk easily is counted amongst their number. For my part, I finally draw a Swamp, play it and a Demon’s Jester besides. Next turn, Sam meets it with a flyer of her own, a Surveilling Sprite. She Grafts a +1/+1 counter onto her flyer from the Graftmage, then swings in with the Hulk. I chump the Rusalka.
Figuring my only chance now is the aerial game, I place a Taste for Mayhem on my Jester, then sac the Seal of Fire to kill her Sprite. Although this nets Sam a card, it does let me swing in for 4, taking her to 14. I follow up with a Slithering Shade, and pass.
Sam swings in with the Hulk again on turn 9 (I’m now at 7), then she smashes the Taste for Mayhem with a heartbreaking Indrik Stomphowler. She in turn trails with a Coiling Oracle. Once again, a total blank of a turn for me. On the upside, I have a few chump blockers in my hand, and can string the game out a bit while I wait to mise a solution.
On turn 10, Sam goes for the throat again with the Hulk and Stomphowler. I have a Wrecking Ball in hand, but which to use it on? I figure I’m going to have to chump one or the other for awhile, and while the Indrik is the smaller of the two, it doesn’t go fetching a bunch of critters out of her library either. So the Stomphowler it is, and my Shade takes one for the team and steps in front of the Hulk. Sam ends with a new Surveilling Sprite, with a Grafted +1/+1 counter courtesy of the Simic Initiate.
Dropping a Swamp, I deploy Gobhobbler Rats and a Rakdos Ickspitter. If I can only dump my hand, I can hold off the Hulk for quite awhile with the Rats, but they need Hellbent active to enable Regeneration.
It’s now turn 11, and the game is going long. Sam keeps attacking with the Hulk, and bringing in a few new critters for Graft shenanigans. I keep a stream of chump blockers going, including the Ickspitter (which snipes the Coiling Oracle on the way out), a Ragamuffyn, and even a Slaughterhouse Bouncer. At last, on turn 15 I am finally able to to drop my last two cards (a Scorched Rusalka and Rakdos Signet), and Hellbent kicks in.
Still, I’m too far behind. I’m able to snipe a couple cards from her hand with Rix Maadi, but after I pull a Stasis Cell it’s nothing but land from then on. Sam plays like she’s got Hellbent too. Bit by bit Sam’s able to scratch me down, and the Nihilistic Glee I play with 3 life remaining is a cruel joke. My last few stalwart defenders fall, and at last I scoop.
Our second meetup begins with more of a whimper than a bang, and I find myself with very nearly the opposite problem as before- all Swamps, no Mountains. I’m less bitter about it this time ’round, though, as my turn 2 Slithering Shade makes each one a delight. My next play, though, would not come until turn 6’s Seal of Fire. Meanwhile, Sam’s deployed a Starved Rusalka, Vigean Hydropon, Vigean Graftmage (himself Grafted by the Hydropon) and a Surveilling Sprite (likewise). Still, until the Sprite hits the scene all is quiet on the Slithering front, as it has plenty of Black mana at its disposal.
My turn 7 is a near-total blank, but I do get a second Mountain in as many turns onto the battlefield. Then Sam sticks a Helium Squirter, and that’s a real problem. Her Basilisk and Graftmage are given flying, and she sends them in along with the Sprite. I Wrecking Ball the Basilisk, but take 5 all the same.
Now eager to start clearing out some of the clutter in my hand so that I’m ready when something solid is drawn, I place a Taste for Mayhem on the Shade before passing. And then it happens… that damnable Protean Hulk makes a second appearance. Trouble.
Sam swings in hard with her Graftmage, Squirter, and Sprite. With Hellbent options in hand, it’s imperative I dump as fast as possible now, and thankfully I’ve got some removal. The Graftmage is felled with a Cackling Flames, while the Seal of Fire is invoked to finish off her Sprite. There’s nothing I can do for the Squirter- at least not yet- and I’m now at 9 life, bloodied but unbowed.
Now turn 9, I play a Rakdos Signet, then drop a second Taste for Mayhem on the Shade. A horrible inefficiency, but these are desperate times. Passing to Sam, she swings in with both the Squirter and Hulk, and I play the last card in my hand: Twinstrike.
This would probably be far more of a demoralising play were it not for the fact that Sam now gets to go shopping in her deck. She digs, browses, gets all the way through and decides on Experiment Kraj. Curses.
She passes to me, I play a Swamp and pass back, and Sam gives Kraj the welcome present of a Shielding Plax. My next turn is a blank, and back to Sam she gets out a couple more dorks- the Coiling Oracle and a Silkwing Scout. The Oracle nets her a Flash Foliage, and it’s back to me for turn 12.
A pitiful Ragamuffyn is about the best I can do, but now it’s Sam’s turn for the blank. Once it’s back to me, I draw Lyzolda, the Blood Witch. Not the most welcome card at the moment, but certainly better than nothing. The games starts moving into end-of-turn mode, with me using the Ragamuffyn to chew through my lands for extra cards, and Sam using Kraj for counters (when she happens to remember, which is less often than not).
I shudder on turn 14 when Sam plays a second Vigean Graftmage, but she doesn’t quite seem to put the combo together that’s before her, and I pray she won’t.
She hardly needs to. I finally feel confident in my defensive position to start using my massive Shade aggressively on turn 16 (an 8/1 before I spend a single Black mana thanks to the double-Tastes on it), and Sam chumps with her Oracle. Joy turns to sorrow, though, as she lays a Stasis Cell on it the first chance she gets. We’re back to a state of detente when a small candle splutters to life over Sam’s head- she finally figured it out.
Vigean Graftmage + Experiment Kraj = A torrent of +1/+1 counters
My death, when it comes, is a mercy. I discovered this evening that the only thing worse than getting thoroughly owned, is getting thoroughly owned by someone who doesn’t happen to be playing all that well.
Underwhelmed by Rakdos Bloodsport, I’m hopeful that the third time’s the charm. And it begins to appear so: Sam’s locked out of Blue until turn 8, and despite having no shortage of Forests she’s compelled to discard a Simic Ragworm on turn 4. Still, lady luck seems to mock me: Torpid Moloch, Rakdos Signet, and Nihilistic Glee are all I’m able to get out in my first four turns.
Knowing my advantage slips away a little more with every passing turn, I decide to take my luck into my own hands on turn 5. I cast Ignorant Bliss, then blow 6 life and tap out to draw three cards (each activation in response to the one prior). At the end of my turn my hand returns, and I draw an extra card from the Bliss. Now that’s making your own luck!
Sam’s turn 5 is a blank, and once it’s back to me I trot out a Scorched Rusalka and a Rakdos Guildmage, then tap out to use the Guildmage and summon a 2/1 hasty Goblin token, taking Sam to 18. For her part, Sam manages a Simic Initiate and passes back.
Turn 7, and now I add a new wrinkle to the strategy: I send in another Goblin token, then after it’s done its dirty work I sac it to the Rusalka for 1 more point. I play a Slithering Shade, and end my turn.
Sam discards a Silkwing Scout.
Turn 8, and now I’ve resources enough to make two Goblins if I tap out for it. An inglorious strategy, but so far it’s working. Sam stops one in its tracks with a Flash Foliage, but the other gets in for 2. Finally Sam gets an Island, and I smirk looking down at my Wrecking Ball I’ve been saving for just the occasion. I’m a bit thwarted, though, when Sam uses it to play the Coiling Oracle, who nets her a second Island right into play. So much for locking her out of a colour. She uses the second one to play a Vigean Hydropon, and is done.
My escalation continues on turn 9, now sending in two Goblins and having the mana to sac one of them to the Rusalka. Sam’s now at 8 life, and her demise is in hand- but first I have to get rid of a few cards. She plays an Indrik Stomphowler, smashing my Signet. I send in one Goblin alone this time, and she blocks with the Indrik. I spring the trap, following up with a Douse in Gloom, but Sam has a surprise of her own: Plaxmanta. Still, it got the card out of my hand, and that’s something.
Sam manages a Silkwing Scout (grafted by both the Hydropon and her Initiate) on her turn, but chooses instead to chump with the Plaxmanta when my next Goblin token comes a’callin’. I blow the Wrecking Ball on the Indrik when Sam sends it across, then the next turn my revenge has arrived. With two cards in hand, I play a Cackling Flames and target her. My last card? Another Cackling Flames, this time for 5.
Thoughts & Analysis
Hellbent has to be one of the more fun mechanics I’ve played with- seldom do you find something so perfectly evocative as this. Suicide Black and RDW are some of my favourite archetypes, so Rakdos Bloodsport was almost a perfect slam-dunk!
Only, it really wasn’t. Even with my land problems, there just seemd to be far too much smoke and not enough fire. I struggled to find creatures that mattered, and in a deck this aggressive having anything say “defender” on it is painful (see: Slithering Shade). There were nifty tricks and little interactions, but even while I had some fortune drawing into burn and removal, I never had any creature that was particularly threatening. Even in my best game- game three- I got there on the back of 2/1 Goblin tokens. Credit a deck for having a few back-footed ways to win, but all the same it was a pretty disappointing showing- an aggro deck should chew up an opponent with a stumbling start. Instead, I barely got there before the red zone clogged up in Sam’s favour.
The deck’s Hellbent options are hit or miss, just like the creatures (mostly miss). It’s not a proud day when I can say the beastie I most liked getting into play was the Gobhobbler Rats. And while the deck is filled with some nice touches (namely, capitalising on Hellbent by making symmetrical drawbacks asymmetrical- witness Rix Maadi and the Sadistic Augermage), it just doesn’t have a whole lot of strength to it. Somehow, I don’t think Lyzolda would approve.
Then again, Rakdos is the guild for the masochistic.
Hits: Hellbent is an incredibly flavourful mechanic that captures the essense of Rakdos; very solid burn/removal package; reasonable mana curve
Misses: Most of the creatures are underwhelming; deck wants to be hyper-aggressive but plays creatures such as the Slithering Shade and Torpid Moloch that run counter to this
FINAL GRADE: 3.5/5.0