Discussing Solar Flare

Solar Flare, the worst kept secret in Magic, continues to show strong at the top tables of high-level events. This child of Magic Online held a unique position in the metagame… and sadly, it appears that Solar Flare’s day in the sun may soon be coming to an end. Will the deck surpass its shelf-life, or will it remain a mere flash in the pan?

Not long ago, I was conversing with Kenji Tsumara on Magic Online. As usual (this was before Nationals, so borderline long-ago) he was winning – his rating kept going up. I asked him what he was playing and he told me “Solar Flare.” Being a denizen of the Standard queues at that time, I had a basic understanding of the deck; I had encountered it perhaps once or twice. I asked him if it was good, and he said it was “so-so deck.” I asked him why; he said it mulliganed too much but still won anyway. He wasn’t trying to sell me on the deck, but I wish I had listened.

A few days passed and I had actually played against Tim He in the queue, who obnoxiously slow-rolled a Wrath of God to Yosei-lock me while holding eight cards at two life yada yada… I lost. I talked to Kenji, who’s rating had increased even more, and he said he was on quite a little tear. At one point in all of this he was up to a 24-3 record with the deck, and the 1899 rating that comes with it. Now it was “very good deck.” Sugoi, Yabai, and all of that… no, those aren’t English.

I decided to try it out. I played it for about three days. In those three days I basically broke even, as I have said previously, and that was fine. I wasn’t impressed with the deck, but no one could say it wasn’t powerful. It did mulligan a lot, and it did win a lot anyway. However, a problem arose. After about three days of playing this, gaining momentum thanks to Premiere Events and (I suppose) constant queue success, there was a sea of mirror matches to be found and not much else. This wasn’t exactly fun, and I quickly switched to other decks to continue testing.

Before anyone innovated anything at all for the mirror, it was almost entirely based around Persecutes and Cranial Extractions, which is pretty awkward to say the least. Sometimes you don’t even get double Black for Persecute, losing the game to your opponent’s Persecute. It’s all about the first one on Black in the mirror… Frustrating isn’t the word, but it’s close.

While I was simultaneously examining the metagame for my own purposes (never actually playing the deck I intended to play online, for secrecy) and testing decks to see how they tick, I observed nothing unusual. The standard mix of decks were represented, with an upswing towards Solar Flare – which, at that point, had not been written about. Not once. I was comforted in the fact that Solar Flare was just a badly kept secret online, and not publicly endorsed by anyone. I felt that anyone who played the mirror match enough would figure out a way to beat Persecute – which they did – and so their main concern would be the throngs of expected Tron decks – which didn’t show up. Going into the final week before the event itself, news of the deck broke. A deck I hoped would be under represented turned out to be the deck of the tournament.

There are many reasons for this; the best way to describe them would be to talk about the deck itself. It is rather alluring to anyone who might look to pick it up, if they don’t already have something better… and if they aren’t scared of the Tron decks that might (or should) show up at the tournament.

Just so you don’t have to click anywhere else while you’re reading, here is Paul Cheon winning deck from the Top 8 of U.S. Nationals:

First, I used Paul’s deck as it was the most successful. I know Paul, and he actually told me that he switched to this deck during the 11th hour and didn’t have the cards he needed, and couldn’t get them or didn’t want to… so the missing Kokusho should be ignored, the extra Zombify was probably really good for him, and I’m sure if he had more options his sideboard might have looked different.

You see, I wanted to make a blanket statement about having approximately seven 5/5 flying creatures… but of course, I can’t. Irrelevant, because, well, six is still a lot – however, like I’ve been saying, this deck has a lot going for it.

A strategy based around six- and seven-mana flying bombs might not actually be that good on its own, but when you factor in a “Zombify draw” (Compulsive Research plus Zombify plus Dragon or Angel) it’s almost degenerate. The fact that it sets up your later game makes the draw play like casting Wrath of God on turn 4, only much, much better.

For a creature deck to try to beat you it would want do as much damage as early as possible, hopefully following with burn. First off, this is why decks like Black/White creatures have absolutely no shot against a deck like this… Paul Cheon was originally going to play Black/White aggro, but eleventh hour testing convinced him to switch. That leaves the Red aggro decks split between trying to not get devastated by Wrath of God and trying not to outright lose a long game where they have no shot of beating your superior cards. Court Hussar and Mortify play speed-bump while you ramp up, all the while gaining momentum and eventually banishing your opponent into oblivion. As usual, Miren, the Moaning Well is the best card in the deck.

On the other hand, against Control decks… well, you need a good draw in game 1. Multiple Remands or an uncontested Persecute will lead to your victory, but typically decks containing Eye of Nowhere or Urza’s Lands aren’t what you are hoping to see on the other side of the table. Not to mention Early Harvests, but I digress. I’m not going to pretend to have answers to those matchups for you, nor am I even suggesting you play this deck. Actually, I am just reporting it as it is. The truth is, Standard has drastically shifted and blown this deck completely out of the water. The best choice is probably Wafo-Tapo-Something (White or Red.)

With plus signs in all the aggressive matchups though, this deck is still exciting. The mirror match is a bit unwieldy, as I said. The best creature in the deck is a tie between Meloku and Ink-Eyes (which Kenji didn’t have in his original list). Ink-Eyes is your ace in this matchup, and it makes sideboarding a lot harder for your opponent (they might want to leave in Wrath of God, for example…). To counter Ink-Eyes, I saw things like Keiga being played at the event itself, and Keiga could be situationally good… but I can’t get behind the idea. I saw Mimeofacture, which actually seems insane to me; it simultaneously lives through Persecute and is probably one of the best eight-mana plays you can make in the mirror. At four mana it’s quite good against Angel of Despair, too.

Or, just plain-old Castigate, which has the honor of being one of the most versatile cards (certainly you can’t say that about Mimeofacture.) You’ll bring in Castigate in all the ailing matchups, but against the mirror you can really punish them for Zombify and you can punish them for playing so few threats, all for two mana and a card. The bonus heads up on cards like Condemn is worth mentioning, too. It sucks to top deck, but it isn’t really worse than say, a redundant Persecute at that point, unless you are quite far behind. Again, on average, Castigate is better. I’d play four in my sideboard and no less.

So what’s left to talk about? I guess the future, as it pertains to this deck.

In the far future this deck may be responsible for spawning some similar decks. It’s a control-reanimator strategy that I’m sure many have toyed with, and I can’t recall any successful decks employing a similar strategy. It may be a case of wrong time and wrong place, or more accurately right time and right place, but this deck is unique in that sense, at least for now. As long as Compulsive Research and Zombify are legal in the same Standard format, there will probably be some sort of viable reanimator strategy, thanks largely in part to this deck. When Champions of Kamigawa rotates out, the things that change will be the lands (see-ya, Miren) and the creatures. The creatures are likely to be replaceable, though somehow a Simic Sky Swallower doesn’t seem quite as imposing as Kokusho or Yosei.

This Standard format has a relatively short shelf-life. After the remaining Nationals – of which there are many – there are no big events with this Standard format. That means that if you want to play this deck at a big event, I hope you live in one of those countries. It will play largely into the metagame (just as it has already) and should be factored largely into your deck choice, be it Anti-Solar Flare or Solar Flare itself. At this point it should probably not be Black/White aggro or some nonsense red aggro deck.

Canadian Nationals is a prime example of what I’m talking about. The newly crowned champion actually ground in with Heartbeat and won the tournament. Now this requires a precise understanding of the deck. Whereas Solar Flare requires no preparation or understanding, and has very few options from game to game, Heartbeat is the polar opposite. Heartbeat might very well be the very best deck in the format at any given time, but it might not find success in just anyone’s hands for that very reason – it’s difficult to play.

It does, however beat Solar Flare. Probably even “soundly” in game 1, and after boarding it could get worse. Magivnore is another deck that I feel is… not so hot, let’s say. Stuart Wright played the deck for 4 years leading up to English Nationals and as usual, I expected him to fall flat on his face (no offense Stuart… not this time). I feel he got pretty lucky in that he didn’t face much Zoo, and the fact that Solar Flare came out when it did probably lead to part of his decent Standard record at English Nationals. Now, however, Magnivore is a real contender. I like maindecking Boomerang in addition to Eye of Nowhere, as I think it makes the deck more consistent and versatile. I really like Boomerang.

Then, of course, there are the ever-present (but never-played) Tron decks. Depending on whom you talk to or what you play, the matchup against Solar Flare ranges from good in game 1 to even-to-bad over a five game series. If you talk to Osyp, he’ll tell you that all you need is maindeck Giant Solifuge and the matchup becomes a walk in the park, even if your opponent doesn’t double Stone Rain himself. However, I feel now more than ever that Tron might not get the play it should, largely because of the fresh crop of Anti-Solar Flare decks that are popping up. Heartbeat and Magnivore aren’t exactly your dream matchups if you’re playing Tron – at least, they aren’t mine.

Overall, I think the deck is super-powerful, and it’s deserving of your respect as both a worthy opponent and competitor. I feel more than confident in saying that it will be a presence at, at the very least, Japanese Nationals, and likely many other Nationals as well. I am sure it will take many people into the Top 8, onto Worlds, and then… who knows?

Until next week,

Josh Ravitz