Through the Looking Glass: Mono-Red Painter with Robert Russo

Robert Russo

Special Guest

A few words from Rob:

(YouTube: Light_Walker)

Hey everyone, I’m Rob, otherwise known as Light_Walker on YouTube. I’ve been playing Magic for about eight years now, but I realized pretty quickly that Legacy was where I wanted to be. I love the cards, and I love the community. I enjoy draft and have played other formats but generally stick to Legacy. I have played many decks but have found a home in Painter, which I enjoy most – my most recent published list (which got me 12th place in the last Legacy Showcase Challenge!) is below.

Rob’s Showcase Challenge List – Mono-Red Painter

Main Deck

  • 3 [[Goblin Welder]]
  • 3 [[Goblin Engineer]]
  • 4 [[Painter’s Servant]]
  • 1 [[Phyrexian Dragon Engine]]
  • 3 [[Simian Spirit Guide]]
  • 3 [[Karn, the Great Creator]]
  • 4 [[Lightning Bolt]]
  • 4 [[Pyroblast]]
  • 2 [[Red Elemental Blast]]
  • 2 [[Lotus Petal]]
  • 1 [[Mox Opal]]
  • 3 [[Grindstone]]
  • 1 [[Soul-Guide Lantern]]
  • 1 [[Ensnaring Bridge]]
  • 1 [[Trinisphere]]
  • 4 [[Fable of the Mirror-Breaker]]
  • 4 [[Ancient Tomb]]
  • 2 [[City of Traitors]]
  • 1 [[Great Furnace]]
  • 9 [[Mountain]]
  • 4 [[Urza’s Saga]]


  • 1 [[Tormod’s Crypt]]
  • 1 [[Grindstone]]
  • 1 [[Pithing Needle]]
  • 1 [[Red Elemental Blast]]
  • 3 [[Surgical Extraction]]
  • 1 [[Liquimetal Coating]]
  • 1 [[Ensnaring Bridge]]
  • 3 [[Magus of the Moon]]
  • 1 [[Twinshot Sniper]]
  • 2 [[Fury]]
Let’s kick off with some archetype heuristics: I’ve seen someone attempt to make just about every conceivable combination of colors work in a [[Painter’s Servant]] + [[Grindstone]] shell. Tell me about what makes your list tick – are you all-in on the combo, or are you built to play a longer, fairer game?

I’ve always gravitated towards mono-red. I prefer the more resilient manabase and the opportunity to utilize [[Magus of the Moon]]-style effects (occasionally main-deck, historically, and now in the sideboard). As I built it for the Showcase, the deck is combo-focused with a third copy of [[Grindstone]] main, seven extra ”copies” via our three copies of [[Karn, the Great Creator]] and our four [[Urza’s Saga]], and plenty of fast mana in three copies of [[Simian Spirit Guide]].

That said, [[Urza’s Saga]] is the card that catapulted Painter to its current meta position, and it’s a card that has a great beatdown plan. [[Fable of the Mirror-Breaker]] is another card we’re playing at four that serves the same role. It can empower our combo plan, but it also supports a midrange win-condition. We’ve also started playing cards like [[Fury]] and [[Lightning Bolt]] to solidify this beatdown plan and improve matchups like Selesnya Depths.

It’s interesting that a combo-heavier build might trim on two of the cards many people think of as critical to the combo win – [[Goblin Welder]] and [[Goblin Engineer]]. What was your rationale for trimming one of each here?

I’ve historically been a fan of 4 [[Goblin Welder]] and 4 [[Goblin Engineer]]. This exact list was something I wanted to try out for this Showcase, and in hindsight I actually would have cut the [[Trinisphere]] for the fourth [[Goblin Engineer]] – I just didn’t have enough ways to reliably get it online.

Got it. Speaking of Painter builds, how have you felt about recent Red Painter lists that have splashed black for [[Orcish Bowmasters]] or [[Chaos Defiler]]? Do you think these lists have a place of their own in the meta, or are they just inferior to the mono-R shell?

Different color-splashes let you play good topdecks in cards like [[Chaos Defiler]] or [[Orcish Bowmasters]] in the Rakdos version, or extra copies of combo pieces in [[Enlightened Tutor]] in the “Shortcake” (Boros) version, but I’m an advocate for playing the deck and the shell for what it is – you should be able to win with what we have. I have a lot of great friends who have pioneered two-color versions of the deck, but it does fundamentally change the deck’s style. At the end of the day, I want to play [[Painter’s Servant]], be savvy, be cagey, and win that way.

That begs the question – What does playing Painter look like against The EPIC Storm? What is your pre-board gameplan for us? Are you trying to combo as quickly as possible, or are you going for a lock piece like [[Karn, the Great Creator]] or [[Trinisphere]]?

These [[Beseech the Mirror]] decks have been tough for Painter. Many (including The EPIC Storm) aren’t as reliant on blue, if they even run it at all, making our [[Pyroblast]]s and [[Red Elemental Blast]]s much worse. My strategy has been conservative. Don’t tap out for a Goblin too early, focus on countering cantrips if possible, and go for a [[Painter’s Servant]] with a counterspell active as quickly as possible. Let’s be honest, though, Storm is a turn-two or turn-three deck, so you’re not always going to have much time. Pre-board, I want [[Karn, the Great Creator]], supported by the fast mana to get him (or my own combo) down early.

That’s definitely the dream in this matchup. I’m curious how often we should be expecting that game one. Pre-board, is there a “standard” kind of hand that R Painter tends to keep or look for (i.e., at least one combo piece, a goldfish kill before turn thre, [[Karn, the Great Creator]] + fast mana etc.), or will you generally keep hands with a reasonable midrange plan, whether or not it has the pieces to combo?

We’re looking for a solid midrange plan in our opening seven. A lot of the time, the fast combo just doesn’t work out for one reason or another. On a version of the deck like Shortcake, that’s built to be as fast as possible, you can sometimes catch your opponent off-guard with the explosiveness of its density of tutors and mana rocks, but on Mono-Red I like seeing lands, particularly [[Urza’s Saga]], with some [[Goblin Engineer]]s or [[Goblin Welder]]s mixed in. In fair matchups, those goblins can eat removal that would otherwise hit [[Painter’s Servant]], and cards like [[Karn, the Great Creator]] and [[Fable of the Mirror-Breaker]] are great bait spells for [[Force of Will]]s that might otherwise hit a combo piece. We’re capable of playing a pretty strong control game ourselves with all of our [[Pyroblast]] effects, with the ability to eventually combo off, deploy threats, or deploy lock pieces like [[Trinisphere]] or [[Ensnaring Bridge]].

From my side of the table, Mono-Red Painter feels like a matchup where every passing turn lessens my chance of closing out the game. A turn-one kill on the play (especially one that doesn’t require deploying a blue card) feels basically unbeatable, but you have the resources to attempt a combo kill, deploy a lock piece, or deploy a [[Painter’s Servant]] on blue to turn your blast effects online within the first turn or two of the game. Is this a fair assessment of the matchup? Once the TES pilot gets the Mono-Red Painter read, should they be prioritizing as fast of a kill as possible?

Most of what you really have to watch out for from us, especially on turn one, is probably in the sideboard – cards like [[Mindbreak Trap]] or [[Thorn of Amethyst]], cards I’m typically a fan of (but didn’t include in this list). As much as it pains me to say it, I would agree that you should be pushing for as fast of a kill as possible. Game one we can struggle to interact on that first turn unless you’re cantripping, making [[Brainstorm]]-heavier hands (even on higher mulligans) far more susceptible to being interacted with than all-in hands that go for a fast kill.

To quote Sonic, the Hedgehog: “Gotta go fast.” Speaking of which, while your mana-rock and Sol land counts appear to be generally stock, I’ve noticed that you’re not on [[Lion’s Eye Diamond]]. Is this a card that TES pilots should ever be expeting as an [[Urza’s Saga]] target to activate [[Grindstone]] more quickly?

The only time you’ll see LED is in Shortcake – it’s not really run in Mono-Red for the most part. [[Plateau]] or other white sources are a good tipoff that your Painter opponent is on this build, which tends to play the fastest of all of the Red Painter builds – it runs [[Lion’s Eye Diamond]] and [[Enlightened Tutor]] main. Mono-Red tends to play a bit slower and rely on its [[Pyroblast]] effects more.

Let’s shift gears a bit to post-board heuristics. What is your sideboard plan against The EPIC Storm? Does this change on the play vs. on the draw?

As I mentioned, I have always personally been a fan of [[Mindbreak Trap]] or [[Thorn of Amethyst]] in the sideboard, even though they’re not in this list. If I’ve got them I’m bringing them in for sure. Other inclusions will depend on the exact build I’m expecting. Some number of [[Magus of the Moon]] can be good, as well as graveyard interaction ([[Surgical Extraction]] in this list, [[Leyline of the Void]] in others) or the extra [[Red Elemental Blast]]. I’d even consider bringing in [[Grindstone]] number four. You’re not on it now, but [[Pithing Needle]] can also do a lot of work as an [[Urza’s Saga]] target if I’m expecting [[Wishclaw Talisman]]. Of course, the three main-deck copies of [[Karn, the Great Creator]] do a ton of work here post-board, too. I don’t think I’d change much on the play vs. on the draw.

I’d generally trim on [[Fable of the Mirror-Breaker]] in this matchup. I’m trying to race, not play a midrange plan – as well as on some number of [[Lightning Bolt]], although I do like having a few for a little extra reach. I don’t always love playing that way, but it’s a way to win.

In this context, let’s revisit the hand evaluation decision. Post-board against The EPIC Storm, what does your ideal opening hand look like – combo-forward, or focused on deploying a lock piece? How hard are you willing to mulligan to find this kind of hand?

I am 100 percent mulliganing more aggressively for my combo or for interaction post-board, rather than just “lands and spells”. Another rule of thumb once I know my opponent’s on Storm – don’t ever tap out for a [[Goblin Engineer]] or [[Goblin Welder]] when I can hold up a [[Pyroblast]], even though [[Beseech the Mirror]] builds have tended to be lighter on blue.

On this build in particular, with no [[Mindbreak Trap]] or [[Thorn of Amethyst]] (and as it turns out, fewer ways than I would have hoped to get the single copy of [[Trinisphere]] online), I definitely am inclined to race as much as I can, or at least try to get [[Painter’s Servant]] online as quickly as possible to turn my blast effects into universal counterspells/removal spells.

Should we have a similar mentality for our post-board mulligans? On the play, should we be aggressively looking for a hand that wins as quickly as possible? On the draw, do we always need to keep a hand with a spell like [[Chain of Vapor]] to deal with a problematic permanent, or is winning quickly still good enough?

How fast did I keep? How many cards am I on? What are my tells? Given the matchup, either I need to win fast or stop you. I wouldn’t over-index on trying to interact with me, but you should know that I’m not keeping a hand that doesn’t have a card that locks you out or a very fast combo kill.

Let’s get granular for a second: I’ve got a seven on the draw that kills turn one but has absolutely zero interaction for you. Keep or ship?

Obviously you’d love to have [[Thoughtseize]] here to see what I’m doing, but at the end of the day – are you really going to throw back a turn one kill, even if I could have a turn one [[Painter’s Servant]] with [[Pyroblast]] backup? It can certainly happen, but I’m not always going to have it all, especially on turn one. That said, if my line really is turn one [[Painter’s Servant]], pass, I’m almost certainly representing a blast and hoping to combo faster than you or interact.

A few card-specific questions: Would you keep [[Veil of Summer]] in the deck post-board as an out to your [[Pyroblast]] effects? Would you ever put [[Painter’s Servant]] on any color besides blue?

If I don’t already have a [[Pyroblast]] in my hand, I’d consider [[Painter’s Servant]] on white. Being able to blank [[Veil of Summer]] in response to a [[Grindstone]] activation has absolutely come up. I think it depends on the Painter pilot. A less experienced player might play around [[Veil of Summer]] less effectively, if at all. I’m also more likely to name blue, even if I don’t have a blast effect in hand, if you’re lower on cards. There’s more equity in me top-decking a counterspell if you’re not at critical mass yet.

What about [[Galvanic Relay]]? Is a “pass-the-turn” payoff too risky given the velocity conversation we just had, even if it comes down on turn one?

I actually don’t hate going for an early [[Galvanic Relay]] against a deck like Painter – there’s a lot of great cards you can hit to set yourself up for a turn two kill. I agree that your chances get slimmer and slimmer as the turns go, so it’s probably not a great later-game play.

Painter itself is generally a turn-three combo – turn-two is theoretically possible but requires [[Painter’s Servant]], [[Grindstone]], and two Sol lands in hand. I will generally keep a turn-three kill with no interaction and hope it’s good enough, which is why [[Mindbreak Trap]] is so powerful in a shell like this if you’re running it – it really does let you ”take your guard down”. A good Storm player, I think, is like a good Painter player – you have to know what your opponent is on as much as what you’re on. You can absolutely high roll into a kill – how likely is it that we’re going to kill you in response? What do you think the chance is that we have it all?

How do you think Mono-Red Painter’s matchup against The EPIC Storm compares to its matchup against other combo decks like Oops! All Spells, Sneak and Show, [[Doomsday]], Cephalid Breakfast, etc.?

I legitimately feel like the [[Beseech the Mirror]] Storm decks are my hardest matchup right now. [[Grindstone]] is a must-answer card by itself against [[Doomsday]], and we get plenty of reach with our [[Lightning Bolt]]s. Our graveyard hate package gives us plenty of game against all-in graveyard decks like Reanimator and Oops. I’ve said it a lot, but this is the kind of matchup where I’ve really missed [[Mindbreak Trap]].

Any final thoughts or comments? Any plugs or shoutouts?

I want to start out by giving a shout out to Jack Kitchen (MTGO: Utley26) and to Callum Smith (MTGO: CloutgoatRanger). They’re both pioneers of the archetype, and guys I communicate with about the deck on a continual basis. Jack and Callum have an old-school approach to Magic, just like me. We aren’t as interested in splashing powerful cards for the sake of playing them. We’d rather focus on on the strategy and heuristics of the deck itself.

Not to say that these new shells aren’t Painter decks but from where I sit, I came to play Painter, and that’s what I want to play. There are a lot of people out there who know this deck well and who can play it in a way that utilizes the shell to its full potential, rather than just relying on bombs or topdecks.

More than anything else, though: I just have fun painting people.

I want to give a big shout out to Rob Russo for joining us here at Through the Looking Glass. As archetypes go, Painter is as diverse as it gets – just ask the guy at my LGS who invented Mono-White Painter. It’s always a treat to hear from someone who knows their build as Rob knows his.

Bang bang Tendrils gang. See you next month.