Mind Bend - Mono-Red Proliferate

(Volt Charge | Art By Jana Schirmer & Johannes Voss)

The Red One Is Three Times Faster

The Onakke were masters of dark arts and artifice. Their creations continue to spread foul magic, paving the way for their return.

Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient flavor text

There is nothing like long-term growth, such as watching a tree go from a sapling to a mighty protector of birds and squirrels. Or like (hopefully) your retirement plan when you reach 65. Plant the seeds now, and reap your investments in the future. Well, that is NOT what the color red in Magic is about. Red loves riding on the edge. Tomorrow is just an illusion; go for broke and live in the moment. This time on Mind Bend, the article series that breaks down the conventional notions of the color pie to forge new ground outside the confines of the already established, we're going make red squirrel some of its stash away for the future.

What says small, consistent development best in Magic? We just need to look at the non-red Commander 2016 deck to find that answer:

That's right: Proliferate - the mechanic best known in every other color but red, and here we have its world-famous representative: Atraxa, Praetors' Voice. This Angel Horror, crafted without the help of Urabrask the Hidden, is everything that red isn't. Lifelink and vigilance? Those are all the way on the other side of the color pie. But what we care about most is that last bit of rules text.

That Atraxa Deck

The sheer versatility of Proliferate is why Atraxa, Praetors' Voice sits solidly at number two on EDHREC's most popular commanders of the last two years. All you need is cards with counters... and you're set. No, not like Counterspell counters; think planeswalker loyalty counters, or all those +1/+1 counters Kalonian Hydra can amass. Atraxa is ready to give all of those cards just a little more as a bonus, no questions asked.

In fact, Atraxa, Praetors' Voice has a whopping four-thousand decks on EDHREC at the moment, so you can expect that she enables a multitude of different themes. However, the bulk is concentrated on the top three as follows: Planeswalkers (aka Superfriends), +1/+1 Counters, and Infect. Let's look at the makeup of each of these themes via EDHREC's average decklists:

  • Sitting at over 1,600 decks, Atraxa's planeswalkers average list contains roughly 20 of the namesake permanents, with just about 11 other ways to add counters to your planeswalkers, be it directly, like Pir, Imaginative Rascal, or indirectly via extra planeswalker activations from Oath of Teferi.
  • Coming in at a respectable 1,100+ decks, the +1/+1 counters average list boasts 30 creatures that care about said counters, and an astounding 20 or so ways to pile on additional counters.
  • Though less represented, the Infect theme for Atraxa still claims over 500 decks on EDHREC, which beats out all but the top four Boros commanders. And that's for total number of decks, not just a subtheme. Infect's average decklist contains around 20 creatures with Infect, and right around 13 Proliferate options, many of which are spell-based, like Grim Affliction.

Judging from these three popular themes, we can surmise a certain recipe for most Atraxa decks, and it goes as follows: if you have X number of cards that care about counters, you should have Y number of facilitators for getting more counters, where X is equal to Y plus 10. For example, if you play 25 "counters matter" cards, your deck should contain at least 15 ways to get more counters on those 25.

Spreading Phyrexia's Glorious Message

With this recipe in mind, building in mono-red should be easy, right? First, let's look at how many Proliferate effects we have outside of Atraxa, Praetors' Voice influence.

Probably the most well-known Proliferators can be found in baby Contagion Clasp and daddy Contagion Engine. Both show up in over 60% of Atraxa decks, and for good reason; they are repeatable. Unlike cards like Steady Progress, you get their effect every turn, as long as you have the mana. Contagion Engine is particularly a monster at the table, single-handedly putting planeswalkers at ultimate or getting those last two poison counters on your opponents.

Just as repeatable, albeit at a steeper cost, Throne of Geth will at the very least give you one Proliferate effect for just two mana, should you choose to sacrifice itself. But that beefy Hangarback Walker with its plethora of +1/+1 counters on it looks like a juicy meal for the Throne, and all its little Thopter buddies that come busting out can have their turn at the Throne, too.

Next, we have Volt Charge, the only red card with Proliferate in existence. What do we get for three total mana? A Lightning Bolt and a single Throne of Geth activation. That's not too bad, to be honest: it can kill over 50% of the Top 100 creatures on EDHREC, not to mention it can blast away a planeswalker with low loyalty or keep a counter-full 'walker from reaching ultimate. As far as Lightning Bolt variants go, you can do much worse.

War of the Spark gave us Karn's Bastion, which has the same cost to activate as Contagion Clasp, but on a land. Unlike the four-color Atraxa, we can slot this colorless land in without worry about having to fix our mana. Even if your meta packs a decent number of Strip Mines, I'd imagine there'll be far more overtly powerful lands asking to be sniped.

Later in 2019, Modern Horizons introduced Sword of Truth and Justice, which requires a little extra work to get your Proliferate, but the protection it provides is nothing to sneeze at. Protection from white means the Equipped creature can dodge Swords to Plowshares. Of course, blue is very well represented at Commander tables. For two mana, any old creature you have lying around can pick up the Sword and go to work for you.

All total, we have six Proliferate effects we can use in mono-red. But that's not enough. If we're going to build a deck all about the accumulation of counters, we need to find alternate ways of getting those counters on the right cards. Before we can do that, however, we need to figure out what kinds of counters mono-red has access to and play to those strengths.

Guilty As Charged

I looked at all counter-based cards in mono-red, ordered by EDHREC rank, and found that there are two types of counters that stand above the rest: +1/+1 counters and charge counters. Digging a bit further, I found that the +1/+1 counter theme for mono-red was a bit lacking. Sure, there were a handful of creatures that could get big, but the payoffs weren't unique. Casting beefy Dragons would get you the same end result. Sorry, Runaway Steam-Kin, I tried.

Charge counters, however, had just enough unique effects to make a deck built around them, especially if we add a few more Proliferate-like cards to the mix to get that previous total higher.

The first and foremost is Coretapper. What a beast for a charge counter deck! In one turn, you can drop three more charge counters on a target via tapping it and sacrificing it, or add an extra one counter each turn. It might not get all of your artifacts at once, but it's well worth it.

On the slower and steadier side, Energy Chamber halves the time to your payoffs just by existing, whereas Power Conduit takes unneeded counters from one place and puts them where they need to go. Note that the Conduit can take any counter from a permanent and turn it into a charge counter. Have extra loyalty you don't need? Convert it!

Commander 2020's Ikoria tie-ins unleashed Nesting Grounds, which is just as good at moving charge counters around as it is flying counters.

Onakke Ancient, Proliferate Rookie

We sure do have a lot of artifacts with activated abilities already, don't we? What better commander to take that plan to the next level than Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient? For one extra red mana, that Contagion Clasp becomes a Contagion Engine and that Contagion Engine becomes, well two Contagion Engines. Coretapper adds two charge counters for a tap and a red, or four charge counters for its sacrifice and one Fireball. Pretty good.

How about we add another Kurkesh to the build? Rings of Brighthearth does a fine impression of our Ogre friend, though we'll have to pay two generic instead of one red. You can't win 'em all. Mirage Mirror can fill just about any role you need, becoming a Proliferator when called upon.

There's not much that needs to be said about Unwinding Clock; this four-mana powerhouse can aid in using Contagion Engine every turn, not just ours, not to mention its sheer absurdity with any and every mana rock. Mind Bend stalwarts Manifold Key and Voltaic Key of course have homes here, providing all-around general value. Did I mention they get spicy with Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient?

Taking Charge

With all this talk about charge counters, what payoffs are we playing? After digging through the nearly sixty artifacts that get or want charge counters, I narrowed down the list to a slim but powerful group. Here are a few of the highlights:

Transmogrifying Wand is a sniper rifle for pesky creatures, but it can run out of ammo quickly. Proliferating keeps its stash full, plus our untap and copy effects can turn this into a machine gun.

But sometimes you don't need a rifle; you need a cannon. A Lux Cannon to be specific. Lux Cannon looks more like a glass cannon on paper, taking tons of turns to charge up its lazer. But when you can untap it, copy its effects, or charge it up faster with Proliferate, you've got a Death Star on your hands.

Orochi Hatchery, Riptide Replicator, and Golem Foundry are factories for producing your army. You can start out with a low mana investment into both Hatchery and Replicator, then build up those counters until you're releasing tons of Snakes from Orochi Hatchery or giant Whatevers (might I suggest Brushwaggs?) from Riptide Replicator. Golem Foundry charges itself up, since most cards you cast will be artifacts, and you can get a steady supply of 3/3s.

Now, let's talk about winning the game with charge counters. There are two ways to do that as well. The more overt way is to take all the extra turns with Magistrate's Scepter. Our commander, Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient, gets you to three counters quickly, and then gives you twice the turns. With any way to Proliferate or add additional charge counters, your opponents will not see another turn.

The more flashy way to win is with Darksteel Reactor. Be advised that, when your opponents see Reactor, they might react, notably by trying to exile it. However, getting those twenty counters on it feels too darn good not to include. Trust me, you'll remember the games where you Proliferated the last counter for the win more so than you will regret the games it got removed.

Let's Rock

The list above doesn't even consider the charge-counter-based mana rocks we can run in this deck. Each of these rocks will produce more and more mana for us as we go. At the top of these are Everflowing Chalice and Astral Cornucopia, both of which can start out as lowly one-mana-producing rocks but turn into super-charged Thran Dynamos in the late game. Kyren Toy and Coalition Relic can store extra counters from one turn in preparation for an explosive next turn.

The charge counters don't end at artifacts, as a few lands slide right into the theme. Blast Zone can be ticked up to take care of a pesky set of threats, or you can even get that charge counter off it with Power Conduit or Nesting Grounds to cap a bunch of tokens. Mage-Ring Network is the land version of Kyren Toy, storing mana for another turn.

Beyond Rookie Numbers

Our set of charge counter cards still doesn't get us to the ratio that Atraxa, Praetors' Voice defined earlier in the article. We'll need to peruse the enormous catalog of cards that have or want counters to add a few more.

Two of the best mana sinks that artifacts can ask for just happen to love +1/+1 counters. Hangarback Walker is begging to get nice and big before becoming a massive army of Thopters, and Walking Ballista wants to turn those counters into missiles aimed at anything hoping to hurt you.

And thanks to Commander 2020, we now have a third {X}{X} creature that slides right into this deck: Cryptic Trilobite loves turning counters into mana we can use to Proliferate yet again.

Another fan of +1/+1 counters, Ashling the Pilgrim can grow big without being forced to explode, so we can blow her up as a board wipe on-demand or as a way to close out the game.

Getting to three on the following two artifacts is all we need. Grimoire of the Dead can act as a colorless Rise of the Dark Realms, one that we may only ever need to discard a single card to. Oracle's Vault can turn into a free spell one or more times every turn once you get to those three brick counters.

In the spirit of Atraxa's most popular theme, it'd be a shame to not run a few planeswalkers for our ole Proliferation fun and profit. They obviously have their value on their own, but cranking planeswalkers up again and again is always welcome.

Using Koth of the Hammer's -2 every turn can put you so far ahead on mana that your opponents can't catch up. Or, quickly get his emblem and have a simple way to deal with just about everything for the rest of the game.

Ugin, the Ineffable and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon are Ugins; repeating any of their effects is going to put you ahead. Another Mind Bend stalwart, Chandra, Torch of Defiance is already good, but when you can make multiple emblems, you'll be sending packets of five damage all over the place.

Count Red In

Mono-Red Proliferate

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Commander (1)
Creatures (7)
Instants (3)
Sorceries (8)
Artifacts (37)
Planeswalkers (8)
Lands (36)

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What's great about this deck's design is that it has multiple paths to victory, be it from planeswalker value and ultimates, to alternate win conditions and extra turns, to board control followed up by heavy-hitting creatures. You path will be determined by what you play against, so no game should ever feel the same as the next. Although you're solidly in red, remember that slow and steady is going to win you more games; build methodically into the ideal situation you want, and bask in the glow of victory.

Even red can become a slow-moving behemoth of inevitability. It just takes a little bit of planning, and a little cribbing on behalf of another build's playbook. What this ultimately shows, though, is that anything is possible in deckbuilding if you start with a goal in mind and work your way through to the end. That initial idea can be planted as a seed and reaped later as a full-blown, Mind-Bending deck.

Be here next time for more color-twisted shenanigans!

Jeremy is a data analyst in his hometown of Chicago. He is the commissioner of a Commander league at a local LGS, Near Mint Games. He is also a board member for AnimeChicago, an non-profit anime club for adults, and an avid craft beer fan.

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