Dropping The Hammer

Two-time SCG Open winner AJ Sacher talks about what he thinks is one of the most quietly powerful cards in Theros. See if you should play Hammer of Purphoros at #SCGRDU or #SCGMKE!

I’m here today to talk about what I believe is one of the most quietly powerful cards in Theros.

"It might just be Hammer time."

It’s certainly an interesting card, as are all of the legendary weapons. From a deckbuilding standpoint, Hammer of Purphoros is most intriguing as a tool for aggressive decks against control strategies. That initial assessment appears to hold true. But it is an oversimplification, the nitty-gritty of which likely contains valuable deckbuilding lessons in addition to helping us understand when and how to use a card.

It’s also a might curious flavor-wise. Now, when I think of an awesome mythological hammer, all that comes to mind is Thor. I know Thor is from Norse mythology and Theros is based on Greek mythology, but my tiny brain doesn’t know any better. I’m sure someone more educated than yours truly will enlighten me—and perhaps there are others who share my ignorance—on the flavor of this particular legendary enchantment artifact. Who or what or where is Purphoros, and why does their Hammer make monsters faster? I can grasp the idea of a tool that is magical (excuse me, I mean "enchanted") creating living things, but the haste clause still eludes me . . .

Anyway, what most makes Hammer of Purphoros so attractive to me as a deckbuilder besides its potential direct applications, which we’ll discuss momentarily, is how well it balances itself. It extends its own purpose, as well as that of your excess lands (which is extra important for aggressive strategies). It fits itself into any type of draw that you could have; if you have creatures, it makes them better, and if you are flooding out, then it puts those extra lands to use.

The reason Hammer may seem underwhelming to some is because you are investing a card and are not exactly getting a card equivalent of value in terms of immediate or easily quantitative returns. It doesn’t impact the board immediately and directly, its first ability isn’t an effect that is generally considered to be worth a full card, and its second ability costs another card (the sacrificed land) for one card’s worth of value (the 3/3 enchantment artifact interrupt mana source creature token).

My response to these extremely reasonable hesitations is as follows. First of all, I believe those assessments are likely to be underestimating the tactical value of the card in specific matchups and/or game states. Secondly, I genuinely feel that you can build a deck in such a way that the Fervor ability is worth closer to a full card’s worth of value than one would think. And lastly, the land being sacrificed to the second ability is overwhelmingly often going to be worth well less than a full card’s worth of value at that point in the game, allowing the Hammering player to "catch up" in terms of their material investment.

In terms of pure card advantage, Hammer of Purphoros is not a good Magic card. However, there is [quite a bit] more to Magic than card advantage.

Besides its powerful abilities, Hammer of Purphoros also has a strong effect on the way that the game is being played once it becomes involved. It is similar to a planeswalker in this way—except instead of sort of forcing the opponent to attack it with their creatures, it entices them to hold creatures back for fear of being swarmed by a surprise army. The fear of the unknown combined with the threat of potential will induce a lot of mistakes and overly conservative play. This change in dynamic can often give the Hammer player a substantial advantage.*

*This is a concept known as a "subgame," or a game within a game (gameception), and is a subject that has been written about a bit in the past by myself and others and may be worth revisiting. Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see me publish something on this in the near future.

Speaking of planeswalkers, this is one of the best-designed cards for combatting opposing planeswalkers dynamically.

Quick aside on "destroy target planeswalker" cards:

If you’re at all familiar with the flavor of what a planeswalker is and what a planeswalker card and its loyalty actually represent, you’ll recognize how unflavorful this type of effect really is. Without going into it too much here, trust me when I say it makes no sense by any stretch of the imagination. While once may be an interesting and unique exploration of design space, twice—especially within a year—is just lazy design. It’s not like there aren’t enough answers to the card type, what with attacking it, discard, burn, countermagic, Pithing Needle and variants, Oblivion Ring and variants, Vindicate and variants, Vampire Hexmage and variants, outright killing the controller, playing in such a way as to minimize its impact, and legend-ruling it with your own copy all being options available to players [and designers].

But I digress. End aside.

Besides planeswalkers, there are a lot of other cards that Hammer matches up favorably against, which is a lot of what the new era of Magic is about (that whole "subgame" thing again). The main card to effectively counter using the Hammer would have to be Supreme Verdict.

It should be somewhat obvious why Hammer is good against sweepers, but I’ll still discuss it, as it is likely the best use for the card overall. Creatures having haste allows them to get in for at least one hit before being swept away (or killed by any sorcery-speed removal). Haste is also good post-sweeper because the control player is usually tapped out or close to it and will have trouble defending themself right away.

Besides making sure all of your creatures have haste for the above advantages in the timeless Aggressive Creatures vs. Controlling Sweepers matchup, Hammer of Purphoros also gives you a near-endless stream of creatures (all of which will of course have haste), making it just about impossible for the controlling player to completely run you out of threats. These threats are also uncounterable, and their source isn’t easily killed by traditional means. This can put them into a "Detention Sphere or bust" situation, which is usually a good place to be.

One more note on playing against sweepers—and this is a subtle thing—is how being able to play something like Hammer lets you use your mana without either overextending another creature into a mass removal spell or burning a burn spell (ahem) for mana-efficiency purposes, both limiting your own options and giving your opponent more information going forward from that point.

Besides Supreme Verdict, another card that Hammer is effective against is Azorius Charm. Now, it’s not as good against Charm as it is against sweepers and is a much more complex pairing to boot. Generally, Azorius Charm is extremely effective at generating a huge tempo advantage by putting an attacking [or blocking (but who blocks?)] creature on top of its owner’s library. Look at the struggle of trying to connect with a normal creature through a Charm in terms of the number of turns it takes:

1. Cast the creature.

2. Attack with the creature. It gets Charmed.

3. Draw and cast the creature again

4. Finally attacking through the Charm.

Now look at that same exchange but the creature has haste (or is being granted it):

1. Cast the creature and attack with it. It gets Charmed.

2. Draw, cast, and attack with the creature through the Charm.

You don’t realize quite how significant of a difference it makes without laying it out like that. It may have felt bad to have to Azorius Charm a Thundermaw Hellkite or Hellrider in the past, but hopefully the above illustrated just how significant of a value difference it makes (not to mention the triggers, but that’s beside the point).

So on the surface, Hammer is effective against Charm. But let’s go to level two:

It’s likely that the control player is going to have to Detention Sphere your Hammer of Purphoros in order to not lose to it straight up as the game progresses. If they don’t have an answer to Hammer, you’re going to be significantly ahead anyway. In such situations, it’s often correct to operate under the assumption that they do have what they need because if they don’t you only gave up a little value and are still tremendously ahead. Now the exchange looks like this:

1. Cast the creature and attack with it. It gets Charmed and the player kills Hammer.

2. Draw and cast the creature.

3. Attack with the creature through Charm.

While not as disastrous as it never having had haste, you’re still being slowed down significantly. And what is important to note when analyzing this exchange is that without a more punishing follow-up play than a summoning sick creature, the control player is given the "turn off" they need in order to spend the three mana on Detention Sphere. They can then simply untap and deal with your play however they choose. It will be a much stronger sequence if the follow-up play is better than recasting the random Charmed creature. Something like another Hammer and a dork or a creature that naturally has haste or is otherwise troublesome.

Finally, the last thing to note in regard to Azorius Charm is that it is a cheap and effective answer to the Golem tokens from Hammer’s second ability. While an Azorius Charm will almost always be more valuable to them then a sacrificed land is to you, tapping three mana on your own turn is likely much harder on your development than a control deck tapping two mana on the opponent’s turn once you’ve already tapped out/low. They’re going to have more lands than you in general, meaning the difference is even greater than just "3 > 2." Plus, they will be free to tap that two mana for Charm carefree since they will no longer have to hold up countermagic that turn.

All of that being taken into consideration, I’m fairly certain that Hammer of Purphoros is one of the stronger tools an aggro player can have against control in Standard today.

Pro Tour heartthrob Owen Turtenwald made Top 8 of the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Worcester with what Magic history buffs would probably refer to as "Sligh":

You can see the two copies of Hammer of Purphoros in Owen’s sideboard for control decks, eschewing Burning Earth altogether. He played on camera against control a couple of times. The first match was in round 4, and in game 2 Owen drew, played, and won with Hammer. But honestly, the game wasn’t very good since his opponent played quite poorly. Feel free to hunt it down in the SCGLive archive on twitch.tv if you are so inclined, as it does illustrate the Hammer versus sweeper dynamic discussed earlier.

I have another game for you to watch where he put the Hammer to work against control, this time against eventual runner-up Max Tietze. You can find the game here. Spoiler alert, Owen ends up losing the game. That’s not important, though, as the game is still a good showcase of the power of an unanswered Hammer of Purphoros against control. By the time he cast it, Owen was already incredibly behind. Max was on the play and had a very good start, while Owen’s opening was mediocre at best.

You can see how the Hammer makes it so that every draw in Owen’s deck is good and how its presence kept Max on the back foot all game despite Owen not really having that much pressure all things considered. If that’s what it can do in a game that by most measures should have been completely lost, imagine what it can do in an even position, let alone an advantageous one!

The next step is to figure out how exactly to go about building with the card you’re considering. You want to start with simple assumptions and work towards the more complex extrapolations. For us, the simple breakdown of Hammer is that it is a red card that is more at home in aggressive strategies and plays well with creatures. That gives us some framework in which to operate. Now we can step out a bit further from that and make a more hefty observation and then adjust our approach appropriately. And so on until a shell begins to reveal itself to us.

The Hammer itself is not only legendary but doesn’t stack well at all, so redundant copies are likely going to be dead cards. This usually pulls you toward playing fewer than the full four copies.

You’re going to want a higher creature count to take advantage of the Hammer, especially anything that greatly benefits from being granted haste. Four-drops are going to be the most appealing since you can curve right into them.

What might be the most advanced concept we’re going to try to work with has to do with the mana. We’re going to want a lot of mana sources in order to take advantage of the Hammer, both through being able to cast bigger guys and to have extra lands to turn into Golems. But since we’re only going to end up with a couple of copies of Hammer, we’re going to want ways to use all of the extra mana that we may end up with. But! We don’t want things that require a lot of mana. That’s because expensive spells in Magic are generally bad and because they will clash and overlap unfavorably too often with our Hammers.

Things that can use a lot of mana but don’t need a lot of mana. And a lot of mana.

Working with mana on this level is not an easy thing to do and often requires striking a very fine balance. Zvi Mowshowitz is the master of this, creating big-mana decks with outlets and ways to extend the purpose of all of the pieces involved. It’s not surprising that after discussing such a subject, we’re going to start with a shell made by him. The card that came to my mind when I first saw Hammer of Purphoros was Fires of Yavimaya.

You can see what I mean when talking about big-mana decks, as this is a 25-land aggro deck with eight mana creatures. We don’t have the luxury of Birds of Paradise nowadays, which is unfortunate as our Fires equivalent costs 1RR. While we do have Elvish Mystic, a turn 2 Hammer requires exactly a Stomping Ground and another untapped red source in addition to the Elf and artifact. Not impossible, but not going to happen every game, so we can’t rely on it.

We’re then probably going to have to end up using a two-cost mana creature since Arbor Elf (!!) and Avacyn’s Pilgrim are gone. It’s no wonder our mana creatures are worse, as look at what they were accelerating into back then. It is absolutely comical to look at how today’s threats match up against the four- and five-drops of yore. We have those on lock. Stormbreath Dragon would embarrass Two-Headed Dragon even if it did rely on Hammer for haste, which it conveniently doesn’t.

Speaking of which, Hammer pulls double duty a bit here, covering a lot of the roles of Fires of Yavimaya and of Chimeric Idol. Assault was almost always used as Shock anyway, and not having access to Battery is no big loss.

Interestingly enough, Shivan Oasis was available, but Zvi didn’t play it. I think that we are going to end up having to play Temple of Abandon anyway. For starters, we have less to do on turn 1. Also, our colored requirements are harder. Lastly, scrying is a true delight.

We even have Encroaching Wastes as a really bad Rishadan Port / Dust Bowl stand-in. The only real effect that can’t be mimicked today is Saproling Burst, but there are enough giant monsters and planeswalkers to fill those slots.

However, directly porting a deck is usually not [even close to] the best way to build a deck. Better is to take the principles on which those historically powerful decks operated, learning lessons from it and incorporating those strategies into your own creation. Besides a couple of nitpicky card choice discrepancies, my take on modern-day Fires would look something like this 28th place decklist from Worcester:

Besides Fires, I think the other best shells for Hammer would have to be Sligh and Red Deck Wins. I’ve already talked about Owen Turtenwald Sligh-esque build using Hammer out of the board. Here is the deck that won the whole shebang in Worcester, which I would certainly categorize as RDW:

Now, Philip only had one Hammer in his 75, and it was in the fifteen portion. But I believe that this is a deck that could very reasonably maindeck at least one and sideboard all the way up to three. You see, I think that the deck has very few ways to use any extra lands, leaning heavily on the [oft inefficient] Magma Jet and luck to not flood out. This also explains his aggressive shaving of lands in his build.

However, he has a lot of expensive cards for a deck with only 21 lands, what with four four-drops and a whopping eight three-drops. And that’s not even looking at the six four-drops in the sideboard! What I’d really like to see is a Hammer of Purphoros or two and going up to 23 lands. I’m not even sure that Firedrinker Satyr wasn’t already better than some of the cards in Philip’s deck (the random Gore-House Chainwalker for one), but with the higher land count it definitely will be.

The mana and consistency issues are the biggest concern for me so I discussed them first, but I’m sure a lot of you have already noted the favorable interactions that Hammer would have in this build. Fanatic of Mogis is the absolute perfect card to curve Hammer into, giving your four-powered creature haste as well as representing two devotion. Firefist Striker (with another creature even) is another good follow-up. And I’ve never seen a Boros Reckoner that couldn’t use a speed boost.

Well, that’s all I have time for for now! I have loads of stuff in the works for you guys, some of which was teased a bit today. I’m also soon to be settled into my new place, which will mark the return of AJTV as well as my stream, so be on the lookout for that in a of couple weeks. Another project I’m working on is a series that will delve into the psychological side of Magic. Let me know if any of these pieces of potential content sound interesting to you so I can best prioritize my time working on them. It is greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading!

AJ Sacher


P.S. Glare of Heresy is the real deal. If you have access to white mana, you better be boarding at least two copies. Probably three. Maybe even four. You’ll thank me later!