Innistrad: Crimson Vow Set Review: Red

Greetings Gladiators! Today I’m going to share with you the best red cards for Gladiator from the new set. Many of these will be format staples, so make sure to be “well-red” on the effects of these powerful cards.

Cemetery Gatekeeper

Is this Vampire keeping the Zombies in, or the people out? Either way, this card is a powerful two drop for red Aggro and Midrange decks. Having first strike makes this card more threatening in combat than its power and toughness suggest. This is only the fourth playable first striker at mana value two in red, and the original three (Dire Fleet Daredevil, Dragonkin Berserker, and Kari Zev, Skyship Raider) are all format staples. 

The more interesting part of this card is the combination of its ETB effect and triggered ability. Graveyard hate is very strong on its own, and the ability to convert it to damage pushes this card beyond simple playability.

Exiling a creature means that Aggro and Midrange decks take two damage for half the cards they play, punishing them for deploying much needed blockers. Against Control decks, each counter and removal spell will cost them dearly unless they target this card first. Even that is a benefit, as this means the Gatekeeper serves as a Flagbearer to protect your larger threats.

What I find most interesting though is the ability to exile lands. Although we don’t have fetch lands in the format, we still have Fabled Passage and many self mill effects, so a single land in your or an opponent’s graveyard isn’t unlikely. Nearly every deck wants to play a land every turn, so dealing them two damage each time is fantastic. One thing to be careful of is that the damage effect is symmetrical: both you and your opponent are punished for playing cards that share a type with the exiled card. I expect this card to be a staple in Mono-Red Aggro and a strong consideration for any aggressive Red Midrange deck.

Chandra, Dressed to Kill

Wow she’s burning so bright she’s escaping the card frame! As a three mana planeswalker, Chandra can be deployed before your opponent has countermagic or attackers ready to answer her. Additionally, her first +1 allows you to follow up with a burn spell or blocker alongside her, making it even harder to kill her early in the game. Her second +1 grants you card advantage, though this is limited to red spells, meaning you can’t play lands or use her outside of Mono-Red decks. Her ultimate is powerful, but very difficult to reach, so suffice to say that you win the game if you activate it. There are two decks that would consider running Chandra: Mono-Red Aggro and Big Red. The first deck takes advantage of her first +1 ability best as it has the most one mana spells to double spell with her and appreciates the one damage she deals per turn.

Chandra, Dressed to Kill also has a high spell density and low curve, meaning her second ability hits more often and can be used to double spell frequently. Big Red could consider Chandra because she ramps the deck into threats one turn early, and it needs any form of card advantage it can get. I’m not sure that Chandra is better than the current three drops in Gladiator, but I expect her to be experimented with for a while.

Flame-Blessed Bolt

This card is no Lightning Bolt. I don’t just mean in power level, but literally it is a crossbow bolt not an arc of energy. Strictly better Magma Spray will improve the lives of Izzet and Jeskai Control players. Now their tech to beat low-to-the ground Aggro decks can also be used against opposing planeswalkers. Whether it increases the density of low mana value removal or just upgrades what already exists, I expect this card to see play in red Control decks whenever the meta is Aggro-heavy. 

Manaform Hellkite

Unlike other Young Pyromancer effects in the format, the tokens created by this Dragon have many upsides. They have two keywords, flying and haste, so they present a fast clock even on clogged board states. Additionally they scale in size with the mana value of your spells, so instead of multiple cantrips pairing well with the Dragon like a traditional Pyromancer effect, instead one large spell works almost as well. One other advantage this Dragon has over other Pyromancers is that its body is above rate with its flying ability. So is this the best Pyromancer in the format? No, and that is because of the major downside of these tokens: they are exiled at the beginning of your end step.

Our current Pyromancers are so good because they can create tokens that are good for attacking, blocking, and being sacrificed, which can be done at your leisure. The Dragon tokens aren’t as good at this, as more precise timing is required. However, if you want to turn your spells into face damage, this Dragon reads similarly to “whenever you cast a noncreature spell, deal X damage to your opponent, where is that spell’s mana value.” I am excited about the applications of this card, as draw spells become large flash blockers and planeswalkers deal tons of damage. 

Reckless Impulse

This card is the halfway point between the regular and Spectacle cost of Light Up the Stage. While its predecessor saw play primarily in Aggro decks, I expect this card to also see play in Red Midrange and Storm decks. Those decks didn’t run Light Up the Stage because Spectacle was hard to enable, but this card consistently costs two to gain access to two new cards, a great rate. The fact that you get two turns to play the exiled cards means that decks with low curves can easily make use of both of them, and even if you hit two lands you can still play both. This is a powerful card advantage spell, though it is usually worse than blue options so I expect to see it mainly in Mono Red and Boros or decks that enjoy copying it after making a lot of mana like Storm.

Rending Flame

I’m not sure how flames can tear you in two, but apparently these ones can. Three mana for five damage already exists in our format in Soul Sear, and it has a more relevant upside. Hardly any Spirits see play, so don’t expect your opponent to take two damage often. Overall I expect this card to see little play outside of Big Red or Izzet Control when Mono-Green decks are popular.

Stensia Uprising

I love how this card continues the theme of using the number 13 on Innistrad. If you ever trigger the deal seven damage to any target, please send me a screenshot! However, the more relevant effect of this card is the ability to make a 1/1 token at your end step. This is a good source of fodder for Aristocrats strategies even if the bodies are unimpressive. This card is similar to Outlaws’ Merriment in that it makes a token every turn, with its two upsides being that it makes the token on end step rather than upkeep and that the card has a less restrictive casting cost. However, the tokens it makes are much worse, and since Outlaws’ Merriment sees little play I don’t expect Stensia Uprising to either.

Volatile Arsonist

Yet another five mana 4/4 red (mythic) rare with haste and some upside. How does this compare to the others? Menace is a worse evasive keyword than flying, and its attack trigger is much worse at killing things than Glorybringer’s. However, it does effectively attack for five because it can ping your opponent. More importantly, it scales well once it transforms, able to hit for seven and kill slightly larger creatures. Overall, I don’t think this card is as good as the best Dragons we have access to, Glorybringer and Goldspan Dragon, though it certainly outclasses their alternatives. Although this Werewolf is powerful, due to the competitiveness at the five mana slot it will not see play outside of Werewolf Tribal or decks that need a third five drop with haste. 

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