While Gadiel Szleifer and Kenji Tsumura played an array of legendary fatties on their path to the Top 8 and ultimately the finals of Pro Tour: Philadelphia, I was slugging it out in the $2000 Standard amateur tournament.
I played R/G beats with a splash of Black for Cranial Extraction in the main and Terror in the board. With Viridian Shaman and Hearth Kami, I was ready to own Vedalken Shackles and the various Equipment-heavy decks. Between Extraction in the main and Sowing Salt in the sideboard, I felt good about the Tooth and Nail matchup too.
Round One – Ponza
Game one, I win the die roll and play first, keeping a mana-heavy hand. I get the God draw: turn 2 Troll Ascetic (topdeck!), courtesy of Birds of Paradise, followed by Karstoderm, and then Arc-Slogger. The turn after Big Slogs appears, my opponent scoops.
That’s it, the one good game I have in three rounds. I lose the next two games thanks to three mulligans and land-light draws. I almost pull out game two, but my opponent dominates me with two Vulshok Sorcerers.
Round Two – Bye
I seem to always get lucky with these.
Round Three – Seething Ponza piloted by Mike Angerer
With a name like Angerer, I should have guessed that Mike was playing Ponza. His build is rather unique, playing three copies of Kumano, two Sloggers, and three Pyrotechnics so that he gets the most out of Seething Song. That’s right, I typed Pyrotechnics, the ultimate creature-sweeping five-mana burn spell. It is a thorough beating.
I go to Paris once in game one and lose to Kumano, Master of wrecking Eternal Witness recursion, while I’m struggling to make land drops for an Arc-Slogger.
Game two I keep a shaky two-Mountain hand, counting on Magma Jet to dig up a Forest. It works and I manage to win because my Arc-Slogger trumps an opposing Kumano. While having Kumano is kind of like having an extra Slogger, Big Slogs makes mincemeat out of that little legend.
Game three I take two trips to Paris. For those keeping count, that’s six mulligans in two matches. This time I actually manage to find enough land to operate. The problem, though, is that those lands include two (out of three) City of Brass. After dealing eight points of damage to myself, this burn-heavy opponent finishes me off with ease.
When you get crushed like that, with a bye as your only win, it’s tempting to just blame everything on bad luck. Luck did play a role. Ponza was not one of my better matchups. In addition I had to mulligan six times as often as my opponents (just one for them). The particular builds were also problematic, thanks to the presence of Vulshok Sorcerer (round one) and Seething Song and Pyrotechnics (round three).
Looking beyond luck, though, there were other factors within my control that created the blowout. Though I spent lots of time thinking about my deck, I hardly tested it at all before the tournament. Ponza was off my metagame radar and I was unaware of my weakness against it, assuming that Sakura-Tribe Elder, Magma Jet, Eternal Witness, Karstoderm, and Arc-Slogger would carry the day. When I built my sideboard, I didn’t give Ponza any consideration. I should have included additional copies of fat men, like Karstoderm.
I played well, making the best of unfavorable circumstances, but bad luck and poor preparation overrode whatever play skill advantage I eked out against my opponents.
Possible Metagame Shift
With Ponza and Stone Rain in the format, the deck never really seems to disappear, but perhaps the Last Chance Qualifier Results encouraged even more people to play Ponza. Here’s the breakdown of the qualifiers and the runners-up:
Mono Green Tooth
Four-Color Green Goodstuff
Mono Black Control
Mono Green Tooth
B/G Death Cloud
Mono Green Tooth
The big success story is Tooth, Ponza’s favorite victim. Plus, there’s even a Ponza list that qualified, piloted by Chris McDaniel (a.k.a. StrWrzKid). Where was Mono Blue Control (MUC)?
So, where am I going with all this talk about Ponza? Well, I’ve been tuning a build for several months. Moreover, McDaniel’s success and my loss in round two have inspired me to take the deck in a new (for me, at least) and promising direction. Let’s start with the basic build.
- 2 Zo-Zu the Punisher
- 4 Frostling
- 1 Kumano, Master Yamabushi
- 4 Slith Firewalker
- 4 Hearth Kami
- 4 Arc-Slogger
I’ll break down the deck into conceptual pieces, so that the card choices will make more sense.
1 Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Chrome Mox
I’ve seen lots of Ponza listings that play 23 or even 22 mana sources. I don’t get it. Curving up to five mana is so important, and there are plenty of ways to put extra mana to good use, like turning on a Nexus, Slogging once more, or keeping Genju of the Spires swinging.
You could run four copies of Nexus, but I’m a little paranoid about always having RR for Firewalker and Molten Rain.
[Note that I wrote the following three paragraphs before the Last Chance Qualifier and the Standard debacle at PT: Philadelphia].
Where is Seething Song, you might wonder? Sometimes the Song does incredible things, like allowing you to play Arc-Slogger on turn 2 or 3. It’s also a very sexy card in the mirror, where he who resolves Arc-Slogger first usually wins.
What do you cut to run Seething Song? If you drop lands, then you’re trading consistency for explosiveness. The only other option is to drop business spells. Ponza already has a problem with the late game. Once your opponent stabilizes after your initial bombardment of land destruction, all you want to do is crank out those final points of damage. Topdecking land destruction at this point can be really disappointing. With Seething Song added to the mix, you have an even more useless draw to worry about.
Ponza isn’t tricky, and it doesn’t like narrow cards like Song that rely on other cards to make it worthwhile.
3 Genju of the Spires
4 Slith Firewalker
2 Zo-Zu the Punisher
1 Kumano, Master Yamabushi
The Genju solves a number of problems for Ponza. It gives you something to do on a Mox-free turn one. You also have a really aggressive play for turn four, another place where the mana curve is lacking.
A big problem for Ponza is when your opponent survives the early game and starts throwing down a whole bunch of creatures. This is especially bad if you’re facing fatties. Genju of the Spires converts a resource that you can have too much of (land) into a resource that you almost always desire (damage), and 6/1 means that it can tangle with the big guys. Even when you’re out of threats and in top-deck mode, a single Genju can whittle down an opponent’s entire army. The Genju is ideal in a deck that can’t run tons of threats because it needs room for land destruction.
The Genju is also great for punishing Blue mages. Granted, this is easier against Echoing Truth, but the Genju is even solid against Boomerang. Boomerang destroys the Genju and resets Firewalker. There are only so many Boomerangs, though. You need the Firewalker and the Genju to overload them.
Slith Firewalker needs little introduction, but there have been myriad debates about whether it can stand up to the likes of Sakura-Tribe Elder, Eternal Witness, and White Weenie. Frostling makes it much easier to deal with these problems-more on that later. The other side of the coin is that without the Firewalker you don’t have a chance against MUC, and Tooth and Nail becomes a much harder matchup.
It took me a while to appreciate Zo-Zu, the Punisher. For a while I thought that it only dealt damage when you played a land. Once I looked closer and realized that its ability triggers whenever a land comes into play-take that, Sakura Tribe-Elder and Wayfarer’s Bauble-it became a whole lot better. Red never seems to have any efficient three-mana beaters, so Zo-Zu really is exceptional. Obviously, Zo-Zu fits perfectly with Ponza’s strategy. Once this Goblin Warrior is in play, opponents are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: to hold back land is to giving your opponent a free Stone Rain, but playing land makes the job of Slith Firewalker and Arc-Slogger that much easier.
Zo-Zu is especially nasty against the two most powerful (and mana intensive) decks in the format, MUC and Tooth and Nail. The annoying Goblin still does his job under the effect of Vedalken Shackles, make’s Meloku’s ability a liability, and ensures that it won’t matter when the Tooth player “recovers” from mana disruption.
Arc-Slogger is another one of those duh cards. Big Slogs is a beast, literally. Beat down, control, and burn all wrapped into one efficient package. It’s so good that you need to play an extra-albeit inferior-copy in the form of Kumano.
4 Stone Rain
4 Molten Rain
Ah, the heart of the Ponza archetype, spells that blow up lands as quickly as possible. Along with the Firewalkers and Sloggers, these are staples. Just remember that the goal isn’t to blow up all your opponent’s lands. This is just enough land destruction to knock an opponent off balance so that your creatures can get the job done.
4 Hearth Kami
4 Magma Jet
Frostling is the most underrated Ponza card in the format. Most other people prefer Shock. From a Philosophy of Fire perspective, Shock is a fine spell, but Ponza plays a different game. It’s about early creatures, followed by land destruction and removal to achieve a dominant board position.
Usually, you use Shock to clear the way for a Firewalker or Genju, but what targets are you usually hitting? Birds of Paradise, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Eternal Witness, Lantern Kami, Suntail Hawk, Tundra Wolves, Hearth Kami, and Slith Firewalker come to mind. There are very few two-toughness creatures that make that extra point of damage from Shock relevant.
Granted, Frostling can’t go to the head to finish off opponents. You don’t want to Shock your opponent on turn one, though. Frostling, on the other hand, fills the one-drop slot-rare for Red these days-and often hits for an early point of damage or two.
Unlike Shock, Frostling can go two-for-one against creatures. While you don’t end up that lucky very often, having your opponent let little Frostling ping away at his or her life total is a perfectly acceptable alternative. Another nice thing about Frostling is that you can attach Equipment to it.
One of the most subtle and important aspects of Frostling, though, is that it acts as a miniature Seal of Fire. I know it Seems like a ridiculous comparison, but hear me out. Against Green decks, getting Slith Firewalker through for that first hit, so that it doesn’t get stuck trading with Sakura-Tribe Elder or Eternal Witness, is really important. If Ponza is on the draw and opens up with Frostling, followed by Firewalker, that Firewalker is getting through even if Sakura-Tribe Elder appears across the table. The tempo advantage from Seal of Frost may be subtle, but it can make a huge difference. Once a Slith gets that initial hit, it’s hard for the mono Green deck to stop it without paying a heavy cost in chump blockers.
Hearth Kami has the same power/toughness as Akki Raider, a card that looks decent at first glance. The Kami’s ability, however, is much more important. Though the deck-that-shall-not-be-named has met its demise, artifacts remain an important part of the environment. Think of all the brown-or grey-cards that a Red deck doesn’t want to see: Chrome Mox, Aether Vial, Talismans, Umezawa’s Jitte, Vedalken Shackles, and Sword of Fire and Ice.
Not only does Hearth Kami act as a maindeck answer to troublesome artifacts, it also fits the mana curve perfectly, ensuring that you’ll consistently have a turn-two threat before you opponent’s first land explodes.
Magma Jet is another Ponza staple. The combination of direct damage and making your draws more consistent-something that breaks the rules for Red-is amazing. This card was good enough for Extended!
Finally, we get to Demolish. It is clearly the most underpowered card in the entire deck and it spends most second and third games in the sideboard. Demolish is a necessary evil. With Equipment and Vedalken Shackles at large, it’s important to have a little more artifact removal than just Hearth Kami.
Though Demolish is an expensive Stone Rain, having a little more land destruction is not a problem for Ponza, especially against a deck like Tooth and Nail, which can recover with Sakura-Tribe Elder and Eternal Witness after the initial salvo of land destruction.
Strengths and Weaknesses
With an excellent mana curve, a solid mana base, and ten land destruction spells this is a very consistent build of Ponza. The combination of Frostling, Genju of the Spires, Demolish, and Zo-Zu also provides this build with lots of flexibility and quite a few outs in various situations.
On the other hand, there are a number of match-ups that are very difficult. Beacon Green, especially the version that runs Wood Elves, is a brutal match-up. Sideboarding in Pyroclasm helps, but even then it’s very difficult.
White Weenie can also be a rough matchup, since the White creatures are so efficient and they come out so quickly. Land destruction doesn’t help when you’re getting bombarded from the air and even a turn four Arc-Slogger will struggle to keep up.
I covered most of the cards above, but let’s take a look at the key differences.
I made a big mistake when I used to evaluate this card. I always got stuck on how it let you play Big Slogs or Kumano two turns earlier, but that’s just five cards. What if you don’t have Seething Song plus one of those fatties in hand? From there I got hung up on how Seething Song could be a dead draw later in the game.
I should have considered all the other things that can happen when you have five mana on turn two, and what would happen if you tune the deck to take advantage of that mana boost. Let me count the ways:
- Wipe away your opponent’s team with Pyrotechnics
- Play and equip the Sword
- Rain a land and drop Slith Firewalker
- Rain a land and Magma Jet Birds of Paradise
- Clear the way with Frostling, Magma Jet, and cast a Slith
- Swarm the board with Slith, Kami, and Frostling
Alright, you get the point. That’s all on turn 3, of course, which assumes a perfect world. With Chrome Mox you can do it all a turn earlier. On the other hand, you might draw Seething Song later, after Big Slogs or Kumano is already in play. Even then, the mana boost should be useful, allowing extra activations and damage dealing.
Alone, Seething Song does nothing, but that risk is probably worth it considering all the different explosive things you can do early on with the mana acceleration.
Sword of Fire and Ice
This is a great card in almost any creature deck, but it’s even better when you have Seething Song and tons of board control spells. Losing Demolish may hurt against Vedalken Shackles, but Sword of Fire and Ice also has lots of game against MUC. The card advantage provided by the Sword also helps compensate for the card disadvantage of playing Seething Song.
The Sword also gives this build of Ponza a big punch in the mirror-match, which may become a bigger concern if Ponza is gaining steam as a reaction to a proliferation of Tooth and Nail.
Mike Angerer provided the inspiration for this one. I think it’s brilliant. When all goes wrong, falling back on the burn plan is always good and four points of damage is really significant. It clears a path for Slith Firewalker. Beacon of Creation is suddenly much less threatening. You have another very powerful companion for Seething Song.
You could play Volcanic Hammer or Fireball instead, and in certain situations they do have their advantages. While Pyrotechnics is always more expensive, it does offer the best of both worlds. You don’t get stuck wasting the Hammer on dorky creatures and Pyrotechnics offers greater flexibility than a five-mana Fireball.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The combination of Seething Song and Pyrotechnics makes a tremendous difference in the beatdown matchups where the more conventional version of Ponza struggles. The boost in speed is also appreciated against Tooth and Nail, so you rarely miss Demolish. Most significantly, Seething Song and Sword of Fire and Ice help you dominate the mirror match.
You do lose some game against MUC, though. Genju of the Spires and Zo-Zu the Punisher are really missed. Seething Song becomes a liability when one counterspell deals with both the Song and a big threat.
While this build of Ponza gives up a little in consistency, flexibility, and the MUC match-up, it’s basically better against all of the other popular decks in the format. That seems like a more than fair price to pay in order to improve almost all the other popular match-ups.
My sideboards are always changing, so I’m reluctant to provide a list, but here’s a place to start:
4 Umezawa’s Jitte
This is the transformation sideboard. Against everything that’s not MUC or Tooth, pretty much any creature-based strategy, you pull out 10 land destruction spells and a Zo-Zu for the board sweepers and Jittes. The Jitte is a great surprise since most opponents will board out artifact removal and it’s also great as a “counter” to opposing Jittes. All the board sweepers make Genju of the Spires good even when you’re facing hordes of dorks.
You know what Boil is for.
3 Oblivion Stone
Pyroclasm and Boil return. Shatter gives you an additional outs against Vedalken Shackles and Equipment. Oblivion Stone and Duplicant become much better thanks to Seething Song. The Stone is a nice catchall against the occasional Circle of Protection nonsense; it also wrecks White Weenie. Duplicant is the super-charged Flametongue Kavu that handles even the fattest of fatties; it usually sees action against Tooth and Nail or against opposing Arc-Sloggers.
Two Choices: One Great Archetype
I’ve tested the first build of Ponza extensively and can promise that it has game against everything in the format. While it’s aimed primarily at the big two, after sideboarding it even does well against heavy creature decks.
The second build is much newer. I’m sure it needs further tuning, but it looks like a good place to start and shows lots of promise.
May your Slith Firewalker always hit hard,
rick at rick rust dot com