Boros For Grand Prix Detroit

Patrick Sullivan writes about why he’ll be playing R/W Aggro at Grand Prix Detroit this weekend and provides a thorough breakdown of his list.

At the Modern Grand Prix in San Diego earlier this year, I played R/B Burn with maindeck Dark Confidant and Molten Rain and was gunned down in a hail of Lightning Helixes and Burning-Tree Emissarys. Following that tournament, I played Ken Yukuhiro’s Domain Zoo at Grand Prix Portland to a Top 16 finish, and I played a similar list at Grand Prix Kansas City, failing to make day 2.

These three tournaments represent the depth of my Modern tournament experience, and even though a Top 16 finish is solid, I didn’t have that much long-term faith in playing Domain Zoo. In Portland, I didn’t run into a single Ghost Quarter or Blood Moon, which has to be considered a small miracle in a fifteen-round Modern tournament. In Kansas City, I played against much greater resistance and couldn’t overcome it. After my tournament was over, I knew that I wanted to work on Burn again, but I also knew my list from San Diego wasn’t close to something viable.

Fortunately, Greg Ogreenc did some of my work for me, making Top 8 of Kansas City with the following list.

For me, the big breakthrough in this list is Boros Charm. I’m traditionally conservative with my mana, possibly to a fault, so the idea of moving into a third color wasn’t really something that crossed my mind. However, the mana appears free on the surface, and Boros Charm and sideboard cards provide a strong incentive to dip your toes in the water. A little while after the Grand Prix, I got the cards on Magic Online and started playing a bunch of games.

There are individual cards I don’t like in Greg’s deck, either because I think they’re generally poor (one Pillar of Flame main) or because the metagame has shifted (I think Vexing Devil is a non-starter in a world where Deathrite Shaman / Tarmogoyf / Scavenging Ooze is the core of some of the best decks), but that’s neither here nor there. The big problems I have with the deck are things I perceive to be structural flaws that can’t be fixed by changing cards around.

1) The deck can’t fight against resistance.

This deck can only do one thing, so anyone ready to fight that one thing has you covered. Spellskite and Leyline of Sanctity felt really hard to beat, and even minor offenders like Lightning Helix, Spell Snare, and Scavenging Ooze were a struggle to slog through. Also, because the deck is all about building up a saturation of spells, Inquisition of Kozilek or even Raven’s Crime were real issues, and mulligans were disastrous. The deck’s power comes from an assumption that it’s going to get to do its thing untouched; when that’s not the case, Burn really struggles.

2) Opposing creatures can’t be killed.

Not because you literally can’t kill them, but once you’re all about Lava Spike and Bump in the Night, your Lightning Bolts kind of have to become the same thing because you’ll fall short of lethal if you’re using your resources to kill creatures. Searing Blaze gives you a little bit of flexibility here, but besides that you have to let your opponent keep their stuff. Since many creatures in Modern gain life (Scavenging Ooze, Deathrite Shaman, Vault Skirge, Soul Warden and friends, Kitchen Finks, etc.) or kill you quickly, this isn’t a tenable position to take.

3) Sideboard games almost always get worse.

This is tied to the first two problems. First, some of your opponents will have cards that are really hard to beat. Second, because your deck is about having a saturation of burn, you can’t sideboard out too many of your cards regardless of their efficiency or how many sideboard slots you would like to devote to a given matchup, and it’s really hard to rationalize playing cards that don’t do damage as part of their effect. In short, in post-board games, you are going to be doing roughly the same thing you were doing game 1 with slightly less efficiency, and some of your opponents will be doing something far better than what they were doing in the first game.

4) The mana isn’t as good as it appears.

You are rarely explicitly "color screwed," but because your cards aren’t objectively powerful, it’s very important to have all your colors quickly and that isn’t always the case. Furthermore, you often take a lot of damage from your lands assembling R/B/W, which harms your matchup against Affinity and other attacking decks.

That’s not to say I lost every match I played. I won my fair share. But nearly every match I won felt like "I won because my opponent wasn’t prepared for this matchup" and not "I won because I was doing something objectively powerful," which is not a feeling I like. A lot of the issues with the deck came from being all in on Lava Spiking someone; this caused the deck to fail against resistance and be inflexible in post-board games. Ben Lundquist suggested normalizing the deck, moving away from Lava Spikes and towards more creatures, and that’s when I began working on Boros.

I’ve been playing and winning a lot online. Within one or two cards, this is what I’ll be playing at Grand Prix Detroit this weekend:

The Creatures

Modern is a fast format, so it’s incumbent on you to get on the ground fast, ideally with multiple cheap creatures. The deck is also about mana efficiency, so there’s extra pressure to find threats that need no additional investment beyond the one mana. That’s why you see Rakdos Cackler and Dryad Militant alongside Steppe Lynx and Goblin Guide. Even though Militant is a little loose with Grim Lavamancer at times, it does valuable work suppressing Tarmogoyf and Snapcaster Mage while also randomly blowing out Storm. Grim Lavamancer is a little slow, but it’s among your best cards in creature matchups like Birthing Pod and Affinity and gives you a little staying power in matchups where the board is prone to getting locked up. One Isamaru is a freebie.

At one time in the deck’s development, I had a full playset of Figure of Destiny, which was clearly too many. Since you’re spending all of your mana early on developing your board and killing creatures, it’s a challenge to find spots to pump a Figure. It’s the worst creature to have in your opening seven. That said, it’s powerful if the game goes long, it can get out of the range of Lightning Bolt, and I’ve gone ultimate a fair number of times. There’s a good chance there’s supposed to be a second one in the deck, but for the time being I’m happy with the single copy.

The Spells

Bolt, Helix, and Boros Charm are all insane and require no explanation. Searing Blaze is dead in some matchups, but in a creature-heavy deck killing a creature (thereby removing a blocker) and dealing damage is so powerful that it’s worth the cost. It also gives you a little muscle in dealing with attrition-oriented creatures that are powerful against you, most notably Kitchen Finks and Voice of Resurgence. The deck was a little short on closing out games at times, so I added a few Flame Javelins. They’re a little slow, but alongside Boros Charm they give the deck a lot of reach and four damage is a critical number in dealing with certain powerful threats (Spellskite, Restoration Angel, and Deceiver Exarch primarily).

The Paths are the least congruous card in the deck, but clearing out blockers efficiently is at a premium in a deck with a bunch of 2/2s. It’s the most critical card for beating Twin and Tron, but it’s also very easy to draw too many of them once the number goes beyond two. I’ve debated removing them at various points, but ultimately they’re too critical as a catchall to cut from the maindeck.

The one card I get asked about the most is Rift Bolt. Rift Bolt is very powerful, but again, in a deck full of creatures, removing blockers is at a premium, so the turn delay on Rift Bolt is a deal-breaker. There’s also a slight incentive to not add any sorceries to the deck because of opposing Tarmogoyfs.

The Lands

Twelve fetch lands for Lavamancer and Lynx and a full set of duals because you’re sensitive to having both colors of mana starting on turn 1. One thing that may stand out is the lack of a Plains. The case for having a Plains is:

  • You have the option of getting an untapped land off of Marsh Flats without taking three.
  • If people are aware that you don’t have a Plains, you can potentially be Tectonic Edged / Ghost Quartered off of white mana, and Blood Moon becomes a thing as well.

The case against the Plains is simple—the deck contains Searing Blaze and Flame Javelin and is often chaining together multiple red spells on the second and third turn, so naturally drawing a Plains as one of your lands is the same as drawing a Darksteel Citadel. If I could make a deal where I would never draw it in my opening hand, I would play a Plains because it’s a powerful option to search for, but as it stands I will likely not play one at the Grand Prix.

The Sideboard

This is easily my favorite part of playing Boros in comparison to other attacking decks—you get a real sideboard. Since you aren’t especially linear and have a healthy amount of repeatable damage, you can afford to side some reactive card without diluting your pressure excessively.

4 Pillar of Flame: I tried to skate by with fewer of these, but they’re too critical to fighting Pod, Affinity, and various green creature decks. I tried numerous plans against Birthing Pod, many of which involved fighting against the card Birthing Pod itself: Phyrexian Revoker, Grafdigger’s Cage, Shatters, and so forth. The problem is that they can win the game "manual style" by grinding you down with Voice of Resurgence and Kitchen Finks. I have lost matches where I’m almost positive my opponent removed Birthing Pod altogether.

In my opinion, the best plan against them is to get on top of them fast and attack their mana creatures and other sources of utility. Trying to go longer than them is a fool’s errand because they can win the game without doing anything fancy if you give them sufficient time. That’s why I think a full playset of Pillars is the best way to address the matchup.

As a rule, you should be removing Boros Charm any time you’re bringing in Pillar of Flame. The more the game becomes about fighting on the ground, the less you can afford to have a card in your deck that doesn’t kill creatures, especially since there’s additional pressure on your creatures to be connecting in grindier games.

3 Refraction Trap: Besides being bananas against Burn and similar decks, I think this is the best tool for fighting U/W/R. The games against them are determined in the first few turns—if you get out in front of them, your burn will finish them off before they can do anything meaningful. If you fail to do this, they’ll eventually win the game with Snapcaster Mage + Lightning Helix, Gideon Jura, Sphinx’s Revelation, Batterskull, or just about anything else. If you successfully Refraction Trap an early Bolt or Electrolyze, your odds of winning go through the roof. Yes, sometimes the card sits dead, but those circumstances are rare and you need to cut Path and Searing Blaze against them anyway, so your opportunity cost is low overall.

This is also worth bringing in against Tron for similar reasons—they only defend themselves with Pyroclasm, which is game over if it gets Trapped. Again, there is a risk of it rotting, but your odds of winning are so high when they don’t have Pyroclasm anyway that it’s worth the risk.

2 Path to Exile: Additional catchall removal against Affinity, Twin, Pod, Tron, and Tarmogoyf decks. Unlike Pillar of Flame, this card doesn’t always come in at the expense of Boros Charm since some of the matchups you want this card for are fast and not grindy.

2 Wear // Tear: Another flexible slot that comes in against Affinity, Auras, Twin, and U/W/R (who will have some mixture of Batterskulls, Spellskites, Threads of Disloyalty, and so forth post board).

1 Grim Lavamancer: A third copy for creature matchups. As a rule, when this is comes in, Dryad Militant should come out since you’re leaning heavily on Lavamancer, boarding in additional spells, and Militant is rarely good against the decks where you want a third Lavamancer (the only exception is various Rock/Jund decks with Tarmogoyf).

1 Jotun Grunt: Powerful against graveyard-oriented decks and decks leaning on Bolts for removal. Given how much you use your own graveyard as a resource and how Militant is often good against the same decks where you want Grunt, I don’t think the sideboard can handle a second one.

1 Combust: Twin and some random creature decks like Delver and Loxodon Smiter / Wilt-Leaf Liege action.

1 Stony Silence: Affinity and Tron. It can be too slow on the draw and the second one does nothing, so I don’t like having more than the first one, but one is a good use of sideboard space.

The sideboard has remained pretty stable, with the only real changes over the last few weeks being the addition of more Pillars and Traps for fewer Stony Silences and Combusts. A lot of this is anticipated metagame; your local mileage may vary, and it’s easy for me to imagine wanting a second Combust especially. The one card I did cut was a single Torpor Orb; I lost a game to Birthing Pod when I had a turn 2 Torpor Orb, which is a deal-breaker for me given how narrow and (again, relatively) expensive the card is to cast.

This deck rarely has the "free win" factor that one associates with Burn, but if you’re in the market for a robust attacking deck with reach and a real sideboard, Boros gets it done. As I said before, I’ll be playing this list within two cards at Detroit, and I think this build (or something very close to it) has real game in a ton of matchups, which isn’t the easiest thing in a format as diverse as Modern.

See you in Detroit.

Patrick Sullivan