Welcome back to the Part 4 of our Best Budget Commanders series. This week, we’re seeing red! Goblins, elementals, and dragons are just some of the more well-known creatures that call this slice of the pie home. I’ll be showing you the best mono-red commanders, how to handle the color’s impulsive nature, and how to do all of this on a budget.
Zada, Hedron Grinder – Aggro/Goblins
Goblin Tribal is an archetype that’s most commonly associated with the likes of Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker or Muxus, Goblin Grandee. But these decks operate in ways that are often far too tame for the true goblin lifestyle; gaining incremental advantage and building up a stable board just doesn’t reflect their attitude. That’s why I believe the true Goblin Tribal commander to be none other than Zada, Hedron Grinder. Her philosophy of “win by miles, or die in a blaze of glory” really fits the aesthetic to me.
As a goblin herself, she’ll feel most at home among her kin. You can use cards like Dragon Fodder to build up a small army of little green friends, and Krenko, Mob Boss will help you to really bulk out the board. Young Pyromancer isn’t a goblin himself, nor does he make goblin tokens, but his affinity for fire will earn him an honorary spot among the ranks.
Next, you’ll need some mana generation. Battle Hymn is among the best options you can run, often netting you upwards of ten mana if you’re allowed to develop for a turn or two. Birgi, God of Storytelling is more than happy to tell tales to your little friends, virtually erasing the potential of getting bottlenecked by mana on the big turns. Skirk Prospector will give you another reliable way to open up your options, converting your goblins into desperately needed mana.
Once you have a few tokens and Zada, Hedron Grinder on board, the deck will start to show its true potential. Whenever you target Zada with a spell like Expedite, you get a copy of it for each creature you control. As these cards all draw a card on resolution, they can easily become a double Ancestral Recall for a single red mana. Most of these are run for the ability to draw cards in this fashion, but there are exceptions to this. You don’t care much about making your creatures unable to block with Renegade Tactics, for example, but giving creatures haste with Crimson Wisps might make all the difference in you winning this turn or next.
Once you’ve “stormed off” and are ready to close the game, you can look for some of your more effective combat tricks. Temur Battle Rage can give your entire team double strike if you target Zada, and they’ll gain trample if they’ve been beefed up in some way. One great way to make your team even bigger is with Fists of Flame; you’ll often be drawing dozens of cards on good turns, so it might even be overkill. Finally, if you can’t win through combat, you can bring out Pashalik Mons to help burn out the final few points of life. Between the amount of creatures you can accrue and sacrifice outlets like Skirk Prospector, your goblins can often destroy opponents in a very similar way to Aetherflux Reservoir.
Zada is not a commander for the faint of heart, but the same can be said about many of the best red commanders. If you want Birgi to tell of the times you faced unfathomable odds and somehow came out on top, then this rag-tag team of goblins is the choice for you.
Torbran, Thane of Red Fell – Burn
Burn is an extremely popular strategy in formats like Modern, but it plays out very differently in multiplayer games. Not only do you have multiple opponents to take down, but they start at a whopping forty life. That’s a staggering 120 points of damage between you and the finish line! Lava Spikes and Goblin Guides just won’t cut it here; we’ll need to bring out the big guns, and Torbran, Thane of Red Fell is just about the biggest you’ll find in Magic.
The first thing you want to address is life gain. Some decks can gain infinite life, and no amount of damage you do will be able to contend with that. The answer? Just don’t let anyone gain life! Sulfuric Vortex is the best card you can play for this effect, since it provides a constant clock at the same time. The same can be said for Roiling Vortex, which also punishes your opponents for playing free spells. Rampaging Ferocidon may have been kicked out of Standard back in the day, but the little dino will have a forever home in your deck. Not only do these pieces prevent life gain, but they essentially put a time limit on the game with their constant pressure.
Next up, you’ll need more ways to pepper your opponents, and punishing effects are some of your best weapons. Burning Earth and Manabarbs might not seem like much at first, but the added life cost to casting spells can really add up. Harsh Mentor is much more impactful than you might think, too: they Shock your opponents for using fetchlands, equipment, sacrifice outlets, pump effects like Mirror Entity… the list goes on! The best way for you to use these is with the safety off, however; once Torbran is on the field, Manabarbs becomes a Lightning Bolt for each land tapped, and Harsh Mentor’s damage is doubled!
Now that you’ve seen some of the best ways you can shoot holes in your opponents’ life totals, it’s time to show you the superior firepower. Jaya, Venerated Firemage is a great way to upgrade your repeatable effects, and she also provides a little bit of removal herself. Angrath’s Marauders doubles your damage output and therefore halves your clock, and Fire Servant turns any of your one-off spells like Banefire into lethal bursts of damage. Your opponents won’t be long for this world with any of these on board!
Unlike the bad guys in cheesy action movies, you can’t just fire non-stop; eventually, you’ll need to reload. Light Up the Stage is ruthlessly efficient, netting you a few cards for just a single mana. Commune with Lava scales well with the game, and can either fill a gap in your curve or set you up for one huge turn. Syr Carah, the Bold really feels like she stole the keys to the armory for you. Adding an impulsive draw whenever either she or a burn spell connects with an opponent is the kind of repeatable card advantage that can make short work of any game.
If you believe that games of Commander shouldn’t have to take two hours, then Torbran might just be the firing buddy for you!
Daretti, Scrap Savant – Artifact Reanimator
It’s more important than ever to be environmentally conscious, and one of the best things we can do is recycle whenever we can. Daretti, Scrap Savant is very passionate about this subject, and will be more than happy to show you how to get the most out of reusing and recycling your trinkets. The focus of this strategy is to use Daretti’s ability to return artifacts to the battlefield and grind through even the most resilient opponents.
Some artifacts are fantastic, but can be a little expensive. The best thing you can do is put them into the bin for Daretti to reuse. Sandstone Oracle can refill your hand when you’re running low, and it’s particularly great to recur when you’re sitting down with a blue player! Combustible Gearhulk can help you out in a number of ways, depending on your situation: they can draw you cards, provide you with more reanimation targets, and even deal some hefty damage against an opponent if they don’t give you the card draw. Myr Battlesphere is a classic Commander artifact, giving you some immediate value and providing you with a fast clock. It also gives you a number of other artifacts to help you recycle even more!
You shouldn’t be expected to do all of this great environmental work by yourself, and that’s why Goblin Engineer is willing to lend a hand. They’ll help you put these trinkets into the bin, and even bring back some of the smaller pieces themselves. Scrapyard Recombiner can assist by finding you another construct to help out, all while taking out the trash. Trading Post is a great Swiss army knife, giving you multiple ways to exchange artifacts and creatures for other benefits.
So you’ve seen the big pieces to recycle and how we recycle them, but there are plenty of smaller pieces that just love being sacrificed for value, too. Ichor Wellspring provides repeatable card draw that rewards you for both playing and sacrificing it, and Mycosynth Wellspring performs a similar job by ensuring you hit your land drops. Spine of Ish Sah is a bit pricey, but not only does it deal with any problematic permanent you like, but it recycles itself! Once this is online, it’ll be difficult for your opponents to keep anything dangerous on board.
Scrap Trawler is another fantastic assistant that can help you to accrue value from every sacrificed artifact, which will help you to keep up in the games that turn into a grind. Nevinyrral’s Disk is a brilliant board wipe for this deck — so many of your permanents either want to be in the graveyard for Daretti or give you some value for being destroyed, so this is rarely a symmetrical effect. Finally, as you’re running a high number of artifacts, Ugin, the Ineffable will reduce almost your entire mana curve by a whole two mana. Ugin’s +1 ability plays well with Nevinyrral’s Disk, and the -3 ability is a great source of reusable removal.
Daretti is the king of the scrapyard, and he really shines as an artifact reanimator. Whether that shine is metaphorical or it comes from the trinkets he’s returned, we may never know. One thing’s for certain, though: you will have a blast with them as your commander!
Valduk, Keeper of the Flame – Voltron
Voltron decks are typically seen as “go-tall” strategies, where you suit up one large threat and rely on them to eliminate players quickly. Valduk strays from this with his ability to generate large, temporary armies, which you can use to pressure your opponents equally. You can also take advantage of the transience of his elementals to further improve your position, and really make a statement. So grab your suit and Swiftfoot Boots, and let’s paint the town red with Valduk!
If you’re playing a Voltron strategy, you’ll need to make sure you have access to protection and card advantage. Cards like Mirror Shield will ensure Valduk doesn’t eat a removal spell before he gets to dance, which can often set you back a turn or two. You can use Mask of Memory for repeatable card draw, and Valduk is no stranger to masquerade balls. Equipment with low equip costs are also perfect here, as you’re more concerned with quantity than quality. Valduk particularly loves to make jazz hands with Shuko, as you need nothing to reequip it to him if he dies.
Once Valduk hits the dancefloor, the battlefield quickly turns into a disco inferno. His fiery entourage appears out of thin air, and before you know it, they’re in the red zone. They don’t stay for more than one song, though, and will leave just as quickly as they arrived. The best way to make the most of this is to sacrifice them for more permanent friends in your second main phase. Tooth and Claw will convert two elementals into one Carnivore, which will stick around long after the party dies down. Spawning Pit performs a similar task, building up charge counters for when you need a burst of new creatures. Thermopod can help to keep the party going by getting rid of the rowdy partygoers and making mana for more spells.
Some of the best spells you can cast with a fully-suited Valduk are ones that grant you another combat phase. These will trigger Valduk all over again, getting you another set of elementals to tango with. Relentless Assault is a classic extra combat spell, and Breath of Fury can really get out of hand if you can set it up. Godo, Bandit Warlord not only gives you additional combat phases, but he’ll fetch you any piece of equipment you’re missing. We all have that one friend that brings a spare tie to parties, in case someone’s Mirror Shield falls into the soup: Godo is that friend.
You’ll have little problem closing out the game, but there will be times when you either can’t attack or just need that extra bit of reach. Impact Tremors helps you get around effects like Ghostly Prison, and Berserkers’ Onslaught turns your dancing elementals into a mosh pit, letting you thrash your way through even the thickest defenses. Finally, if your Valduk is dressed to the nines, you can have him take a seat on the Dragon Throne of Tarkir, where he’ll watch his elementals grow out of control. Just a single combat step with this can end the game in the right situation.
We may be living in a time where attending bars and nightclubs feels like a thing of the past, but Valduk keeps the fire alive, bringing you a showstopping performance whenever you dance with him.
Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded – Sneak Attack
Red certainly isn’t known for subtlety or longevity. While blue may think the pen is mightier than the sword, red’s rebuttal is that a huge dragon trumps all. Sneak Attack is one of the most quintessentially red cards, and it leans heavily into everything that makes the color so loud. So what better way to celebrate the loudest color than by using Sneak Attack as your commander?
Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded is the antithesis to subtlety; his presence is as loud as an earthquake, and just as dangerous. His ability to catapult enormous threats onto the battlefield is unmatched, and his immense pressure can force opponents into several “do or die” situations over the course of a game.
Drakuseth, Maw of Flames can come crashing in and cause wanton destruction, dealing damage to enough targets to cause a tectonic shift in the game’s balance. Bogardan Hellkite performs similarly, but it allows you to be more precise with damage distribution. Sometimes you need a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel, though, and Ryusei, the Falling Star is one of the most impressive ways to crush entire battlefields.
Most of your threats will be temporary thanks to Purphoros’ ability, so you need to make sure you don’t run out of fuel for the fire. Cavalier of Flame ditches any useless cards in exchange for more card draw, and its “fire-breathing” ability can be used to help close out games. Dragon Mage is your Wheel of Fortune effect; it’s arguably better than the Reserved List all-star here, as it can also turn sideways. Hoarding Dragon can tutor up one of your large artifact cards to suit the situation; from Myr Battlesphere to Meteor Golem, there are plenty of unnatural disasters for you to choose from.
These enormous, hugely impactful cards are limited only by their transience, as they don’t survive past the end step if you play them with Purphoros. Rather than try to keep them around, you can instead put resources into making their impact even larger. Flameshadow Conjuring lets you get a copy of any creature you play for just one red mana, allowing you to cause twice as many problems! Mirror March is similar, but with higher variance. You could end up with no extra copies, but you could also end up in the middle of the perfect storm, where there’s technically no limit to the number of copies you can make. Lathliss, Dragon Queen works beautifully with the large number of dragons that are available to you in red, building you a more permanent board presence.
It’s not difficult to wash your opponents away with wave after wave of dragons and monsters, but sometimes, you need just a little bit more power to close the gap. Spawn of Thraxes can easily take a player out later in the game, demolishing even the healthiest life totals. Moraug, Fury of Akoum can give you a second or even third combat phase, helping you to make the most of your perilous attackers. Avatar of Slaughter is a true disaster for your opponents, giving them no time to escape from your lethal combatants.
Nature is a terrifying force, and it’s made even more menacing when a hundred-foot-tall god makes the most vicious parts of it lunge for you. If you’d like to be as subtle as a brick, but with the force of a hurricane, then this is the commander for you. Purphoros doesn’t beat around the bush, but he will throw it at your enemies.
I hope this has shown you the depth of red as both a color and concept, and that there’s much more under its typically angry exterior. Passion, emotion, and impulse can take many forms in Commander, but they almost always involve the most outspoken color in the pie.
What do you think of these commanders? What’s your favorite mono-red deck? Let me know over on Twitter! If you want to read the first three installments of Best Budget Commanders, you can find my articles on white here, blue here, and black here.
Scott is an Irish content creator and the Head of Budget Magic for the Izzet League. He focuses on affordable decks in Pioneer, Modern, and Pauper, particularly ones that stray from the mainstream. When he’s not writing about his favorite decks, he can be found talking incessantly about them on Twitter and on The Budget Magic Cast.