Mono-red legendary creatures may have the most open designs in Commander. While red may appear to be linear, it has a ton of potential. There are classic aggressive decks that most players think about, but red also has control, combo, voltron, token, tribal, gimmicks, and even chaos decks. Honestly, red is definitely lacking in some departments – such as scaling creature removal (see the Lightning Bolt Problem) and drawing extra cards. But with artifact support, red has all the bases covered. Even better, red has a lot of natural synergy with artifacts for control, voltron, and combo potential.
But there is one type of deck that red has some of the best potential for that other colors are simply lacking in – the “pressure” deck. The pressure deck isn’t always aimed to win; it tries, of course, but the primary goal is to pressure the table, work towards a critical redundancy of pressure, and then make a move.
Mostly, this plan involves speeding up the clock; many Commander games settle into a slow rhythm while everyone builds up. In StarCraft, for example, a game against the computer often involves turtling up and reaching the max food count, and then moving out and eliminating enemies. Commander is often played in the same way…but it doesn’t have to be this way! You can make early moves and the games can be about half an hour – with everyone still enjoying the game.
There are a few different ways to make a pressure deck; I’m going to talk about two of them.
Grenzo, Havoc Raiser
This deck seeks to use Grenzo, Havoc Raiser to force the table to fight. When I was building Grenzo, I wanted to make use of combat damage triggers because the deck was staying really low to the ground. The curve pretty much ends with five drops, so I needed some stuff like Stigma Lasher and Stromkirk Noble to make the creatures count.
The real pressure hits the table in the mid game. You can try to steal stuff from opponents, but without a lot of mana, those stolen cards are really difficult to cast. However, the Goad mechanic is useful in forcing your opponents to act. Since a Goad creature must attack someone other than you, you can put all the little value creatures into the red zone. Once creatures attack, they’re (usually) tapped and can’t play defense; goading something often allows you to continue to attack for small bits of damage and keep the creatures attacking without fear of retribution. Also, goad restricts your opponents’ strategic decisions – always a good thing.
The key cards in the deck are the early aggressive creatures, extra combat phases, and ways to break through defenses. Since the deck was focused on combat damage triggers, those creatures are vital as well. (I used to joke that the longest part of the turn was assigning combat damage triggers.) Some of the cards were as simple as Erdwal Ripper or Lavacore Elemental which just hit hard or build up damage. I ran several Innistrad 1.0 and 2.0 vampires to build counters after combat; some of the triggers are more utility focused like Skirk Commando and Stigma Lasher. The Commando can be forced through to remove some potential blockers, and the Lasher shuts down lifegain for an entire game. The biggest combat damage trigger creature is Baleful Dragon to try to wipe someone’s board.
After combat damage triggers, I still needed ways to force the creatures through defenses. Cards like Goblin Tunnelers and Break Through the Line support the game plan to hit opponents with some early creatures and steal stuff. Break Through the Line was my favorite card to find if I was mana flooded. Everything important (Grenzo at a minimum) was getting past blockers. I dabbled with some horsemanship cards too; Lu Bu, Master at Arms is a hasty unblockable badass, but the other horsemanship creatures also provide more unblockable creatures so that Grenzo can trigger. Further supporting this are cards like Pyreheart Wolf, who gives the whole team Menace.
Finally, there are the double-strike and extra combat damage cards – and haste. Connecting is important, so haste is important. The double-strike cards enable Grenzo to trigger twice per creature connecting; you can Goad and steal stuff or try to mill a player out (admittedly highly unlikely) or Goad their entire board and watch the fireworks. The extra combat phases serve the same purpose; the deck needs triggers to feed Grenzo’s havoc.
But creature based damage isn’t the only way to make a pressure deck.
Zo-Zu the Punisher
I built a different deck to pressure tables to action, helmed by Zo-Zu the Punisher. Zo-Zu is really fun to say (Liz says it like a cheer and usually while booping you for damage) and is essentially a global landfall trigger. He comes down early and starts dealing everyone two damage for each land that enters the battlefield under their control. (Note: this is a global effect; he doesn’t care who has lands…he just doesn’t like them.)
Zo-Zu shines in EDH because there is frequently a lack of targeted removal and his effect is small enough that he is not usually worth wasting a premium removal spell like Hero’s Downfall on. He also hurts players for abusing lands, something that many Commander players take for granted. I pushed this a little bit more with nine ways to get Zo-Zu out on turn two. With mulligans, this happens quite a lot.
Zo-Zu is supplemented with Ankh of Mishra to continue the damage, Manabarbs to hurt players for casting spells, and other cards to just throw off everyone’s game plan like Price of Glory and Stranglehold. This deck has yet to win, but it certainly forces players to take damage and make critical decisions in their game play – especially the decks that want to ramp hard until turn four.
The deck also has some classic burn approaches with ‘Barbs and Burning Earth along with Ruination to punish the greedy. I have a few more land destruction effects such as Keldon Firebombers bringing everyone back to three lands, and Wildefire forcing everyone to sacrifice four lands. These are here to pressure the table to keep playing lands so Zo-Zu can keep shocking everyone.
Sulfurous Vortex speeds up everyone’s clock and prevents lifegain. The rest of the deck is card drawing effects (janky ones included) so that the important cards can be found, and then other aggressive stuff. I have a fair amount of goblin token makers to both zerg rush an opponent and to chump block big angry creatures.
The only card I find suspect is Myojin of Infinite Rage – the deck needed something really difficult to stop, and the Myojin fits the bill. However, the ability to destroy all lands is something I’m hesitant about. So far it has only seen play once, and Liz was already winning the game so she just popped the divinity counter when the table agreed that it was the line to guarantee her win. After doing that, she took out one player and finished the rest of us the following turn. If you find it crosses the line for your group, there are plenty of alternatives. From the Ashes is a potential replacement, but I’m not a fan of giving my opponents resources back. Sure…I ruin the non-basics, but they can be replaced with basics. Zo-Zu may trigger, but forcing them to stumble is often more useful than simply dinging the table for 10 each.
Trials and Tribulations
Red has some drawbacks, but there are good sides to running a mono-red pressure deck. Red decks are fast; many of the effects are efficiently costed, enabling you to get in under your opponents. The speed of a red deck can simply overwhelm most opponents who expect the game to take a few turns to build up. Red decks also thrive with mana disruption, from various dwarves that hate nonbasic lands (Dwarven Blastminer) to Ruination to even a Manabarbs to ensure that casting spells is painful…red has mana disruption. Even better – red has excellent artifact hate as well. The easiest way to play around the mana disruption these decks bring is with ramp and mana rocks, and red can simply remove the mana rocks so that the pressure remains heavy on an opponent.
The biggest issue with a mono red pressure deck is the “handled” issue. Red decks in all formats can suffer from a tendency to run out of steam. With more opponents and more life in EDH, this issue is often made worse. For example, a Krenko, Mob Boss deck can hound the table until a Wrath of God comes along and ruins all that hard work; my Grenzo build definitely suffered from this. Your options are limited – you can build to play around wrath effects with a slower approach, or you can sandbag some cards to recover after the sweeper hits, but that’s about it.
Another challenge is that you impact the whole table. Some players will definitely come after you for that, while others will see that you’re a global clock and just simply something to work around. Be aware that there is no ‘bystander effect’ to protect you in a pressure deck; no random effect can mitigate an opponent’s desire to remove a threat to them. When you play a pressure deck, you need to know what you’re walking into. The goal isn’t winning…the goal is damage and turning a Monopoly-length Commander game into a much more manageable length of time.
Have you played a pressure-style deck before? How do you pressure the table for your games? Let me know what other things you look for in a pressure deck and how to improve the strategy. Sadly, my Grenzo deck was getting hated on a bit, so it’s been decommissioned to provide more support to Zo-Zu; if you go with Grenzo you may want to pump the brakes a bit and add some more mid and late game power.
Or you can double down and drop the curve more. Let me know how that works too.