From The Lab: Setting People On Fire For Pleasure And Profit

Read Craig Jones every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
Craig “The Professor” Jones likes a burn spell. After all, one particular Lightning Helix earned him $16,000 and made him famous. So when he won the recent Great British National Championship, it came as no surprise that he was packing heat. Today’s From The Lab takes us through some of the intricacies of piloting a burn-heavy deck, and tells us how to turn the mirror match from a coin-flip into a three-point win.

Okay. Get ready. After me:


Not quite. Needs to be a little deeper.


Nearly there. You’ve got to feel it right at the bottom of the throat. The veins have to pop as well. That’s important.

Now try again, and really go for it. Imagine you’re Robb Flynn in front of an audience of thousands (and not singing anything off the “Supercharger” album).


Now that’s exactly what we want.

Okay, so in terms of strategy this probably doesn’t help too much, but never underestimate the power of psyching yourself up.

Although I should probably add that this should be done somewhere away from the general public eye. Bellowing “Burn!” at your opponent’s face might be regarded as a tad on the unsporting side.

*Prof shuffles sideways and stares at his feet*

It was directed at the ceiling, and I have a quiet voice anyway.

I’ll let you into a little secret.

The Chars can hear you.

You’ll have to excuse me. I’m about to fly out to a possible new job at the weekend, and I have consumed vast quantities of caffeinated beverage in an attempt to keep me alert through the ridonkulous (lovely mangling of a word — where’s it from?) amounts of work I need to get done before then. Currently I feel a little like a tamer Spider Jerusalem.

First off, I’d like to thank all the people who sent in congratulations. I even nearly removed you all from the list (the one that includes every living thing apart from me and a small white kitten).

In the rush to get the report out last Monday night (literally… Craig got it at midnight) I don’t think I got across the feeling of how cool it is to win your National Championship. I’ve come third twice, and as I’m (belatedly!) entering that point in my life when serious job stuff starts to rear its ugly head I have to start thinking in terms of last chances and all that. Last year the sky fell in, and my performances since have been barely worth writing home about, so it’s nice to have a tournament where things go right again, even if it’s probably my one allotted “good” tournament of the year. I’m really looking forward to wielding the Union Jack in New York (plus roflcoptor equals decapitation, hyuk hyuk). Sure, I was going anyway, but actually representing your country gives the tournament an extra edge. We’ve got a good team, and providing we can survive the Two-Headed Giant section without Stuart Wright murdering any of us (I’m less certain about this) I think we’ve got a decent chance.

But that’s months off, and I’m getting away from the important point of the article… namely, setting your opponent on fire.

I imagine you’re sick of seeing the decklist. Good. Fetch the Karsten bucket, because here it is again:

As Adrian Sullivan pointed out last week, there is a prodigious amount of burn in this deck. 56 points exactly. That’s 56 points worth of damage straight to your face without any of that fiddly business of creatures and red zones. This is considerably more than the measly 20 life you get to start with.

Oh, and the Australian Rakdos deck has even more…

I don’t think there’s been this much quality burn around since the days of Lightning Bolts and Fireblast. Dan, stop drooling!

What this means in terms of strategy is you really can’t afford to be hanging around against these kind of decks. They will topdeck and kill you.

This also means you have to approach the mirror in a very specific way.

You remember the old days? The really ancient prehistoric days? Did you ever secretly pump the fist when your opponent opened with “Mountain, Bolt you” (or Shock, for the less prehistoric amongst you)?

You remember that feeling?

I get it every time someone lays a Stomping Ground untapped and makes a Mogg Fanatic or Seal of Fire against me.

It has been said repeatedly that your life total is a resource. In the aggro mirror, you want to be treating it as a priceless commodity. Those two points at the start of the game could, and will, be the difference between winning the game and getting burnt out the turn before your Tarmogoyf/Troll/Gargadon is about to crash through for lethal.

With so many quality burn spells around, you have to be ultra-conservative with your life total.

But before we go into the specifics, let’s randomly throw in a bit of strategy history to chew on. It’s deep in the past (around Jackal Pup era), and you’re playing the Red Deck mirror. So what does the savvy player do?

First off, you board out the Jackal Pups. Your creatures are going to die anyway, so giving them a creature that deals you damage when they kill it is not the value. Instead, you board in something that’s going to take more than one card to kill: a thresholded Fledgling Dragon ended up being the weapon of choice in the pre-Gargadon era.

An interesting question I ask myself is just how good is Greater Gargadon? For instance, would I use it as my mirror weapon of choice in the old Red Deck Wins deck?

The most crucial decision is that you choose to go second. The reasoning behind this is that the mirror match becomes an attrition war where having the last guy standing (i.e. the extra card from going second) is far more important than being fast.

Now let’s move back to the present, and the Red mirror. I’ve just lost game 1 of the Red Deck mirror, and now I have the choice to play or draw.

So do I choose to draw to get the extra card?

Uh, well, no.

I’m trying to think exactly why this is the case, and I suspect it’s a combination of many factors, from being the first to suspend Gargadon, to the creatures being a little on the tough side to actually burn (whether it’s 5 or 6 toughness Tarmogoyfs or Mr 3-in-1 Mogg War Marshal), or because there’s so much damn burn that you really want to hit turn 5 first so you can unload that game-winning Char in their face before they do the same to you.

Except you board out Chars. Well, mostly anyway. As creature control it’s expensive and does you damage, which leaves it as a straight burn spell that’s good if you’re ahead and not so good if you’re behind. Red decks live on a razor’s edge most of the time. This doesn’t really leave room for cards that may or may not be good depending on the game state. (It should be clarified that Char is only bad in these sort of matchups, and is considerably better in those other matchups where people do foolish things like tapping lands to put counters on other lands at end of turn).

Sideboarding… man, I’m so out of sequence.

Okay, so let’s get back to the generalities.

Number 1: In the mirror your life total is a resource you cannot afford to play with.

Let’s get back to that turn 1 Stomping Ground play. What exactly do you accomplish by making that Mogg Fanatic or Seal of Fire on turn 1? Against control there is a reason. When they kill you it’s going to be comprehensive. They’re probably going to be hitting you with something enormous, so the initial two points is unlikely to matter. What is more important is that you take every opportunity you can to deny them the draw step that might turn the game around, or that final attack step that could spell your doom.

Against another aggro deck and the same rules apply, except you’re facing another deck that is equally dedicated to reducing you to zero in the most efficient way possible. Any damage you take means fewer cards they need to kill you, so we’re not making Seals of Fire or Mogg Fanatics off Stomping Ground on turn 1. Why give them a free Shock to the dome?

However, as with all things, there are some exceptions. I’ll get to those in a minute.

One, however, I’ll talk about right now. If they make Llanowar Elves on the play, then you probably want to take two to kill those right off. Otherwise they might do mean things like make 3/3 Elephants – or even worse, a Troll Ascetic – on turn 2. Generally you want to balance the damage you’re doing to yourself against the damage you’re going to take from them. Sometimes it’s an easy call, other times not so…

A tough call is when you’ve just tapped out for Troll Ascetic and Rakdos goes and drops a Giant Solifuge on you. While it might seem tempting to let the Solifuge through and wait until you have mana open to regenerate the Troll, I think you actually have to throw the Troll in the way right there. It’s pretty bad, as the Solifuge gets to trade for the (largely) unkillable Troll and Shocks you on the way out, but unless you’re ahead in the race or have an exceptional hand you really can’t afford to risk taking two hits (or more!) from a Solifuge against a deck with as much direct burn as Rakdos.

The same thing applies to mulliganing decisions. If you know you’re playing the mirror and your opening hand is two Karplusan Forest, then you need to ship those cards back as the damage from the lands will kill you. The same applies to Rakdos and starting hands of one Swamp and one Sulfurous Springs. Yes, you can probably play all the cards in hand, but doing so will probably be a free Char for your opponent.

The main reason for being so ultra-conservative with life totals is the creature base. Tarmogoyf, Troll Ascetic, and Greater Gargadon are a squad built for brawling. The Troll regenerates, and both Tarmogoyf and Gargadon are bigger than just about anything else. If you’re playing against another aggro deck that doesn’t have this creature selection, then you will beat them in the long game because their guys just won’t be as good at brawling.

This affected my planning in my eleventh round match against Graeme McIntyre running a more conventional build of Gruul. In game 2 he was able to lead off with an Elf (which I couldn’t kill) and ramp up to Burning Tree Shaman. The Shaman was a bit of an unpleasant surprise, as I’d boarded out Chars. Graeme followed with Call of the Herd for two elephant tokens, and things looked very grim as I was a long way behind on the board. The Burning-Tree Shaman was especially annoying, as it stopped me from bringing in my Gargadon quickly without taking a ton of damage.

So I chose not to. I wasn’t sure whether or not he’d boarded out Char, and so had to play round it. This meant gumming up the ground with Mogg War Marshal and then holding off his creatures with Troll Ascetic and Tarmogoyf. Eventually I was able to kill the Shaman with two burn spells, at which point the Gargadon came in and my quality creatures swung the game.

I’m able to make these choices because of the deck’s creature base. Mogg War Marshal is the MVP versus other creature decks. He buys you time to either get the big guys online or to forget about the board state completely if you draw a burn heavy hand. Troll Ascetic is both formidable on offence and defence.

Against traditional versions of Gruul and Rakdos, the game plan is to survive and win out with your quality creatures. The Troll is very hard to handle unless they have Martyr of Ashes, and will always win providing you don’t get burnt out first.

The exception is if they suspend the Gargadon and you don’t. Big Gargs will nail you if the game goes long, so you need to nail your opponent first.

Again, the finer point of the aggro mirror is establishing who is the beatdown.

Dark Confidant provides some interesting play decisions, and how to handle him will depend on your hand. Usually I’ll kill Bob at the first possible opportunity. Leaving him alive can backfire badly. They might reveal only lands, or the extra cards might prove critical. In the semi-finals I switched strategies in the first game because I drew a second Char. With two Chars and an Incinerate in hand, I felt the odds were very much in my favor that I would end the game with direct damage before the card advantage from Dark Confidant would begin to bite. This was indeed what happened, as Marco took four damage overall from Dark Confidant and I drew a Rift Bolt to complete the damage.

There were a number of questions asked in the forums that I’ll try and answer during the course of this article (although in no particular order).

One of them was whether I thought the deck could be really greedy and splash both Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf. The simple answer is yes, but not in a field of Gruul and Rakdos, as both Dark Confidant and having to play even more shocklands will mean you aren’t winning the mirror, ever.

A heavy burn field is also why Elves are fairly bad. Elves are sort of like a land that can be played in addition to your normal land for the turn, a land that can also attack for one if need be. The problem in heavy burn fields is that the Elves are (usually) always killed before they get to tap for mana. This can screw you if you were relying on being able to use that mana, and if you weren’t then you never needed them in the first place and therefore should be playing better cards instead. If you expect fewer mirrors and more Islands, then being able to make a Troll before they have Remand or Rune Snag mana becomes more important.

I’ll continue with the questions, as Bazaar of Baghdad was kind enough to provide a truckload. This one concerns when to play Tarmogoyf in the mirror. For me, this has gone from “it depends” to “only when it will take two spells to kill it.” If I can make the Tarmogoyf on turn 2 or suspend a Rift Bolt, then I’ll suspend the Rift Bolt. Unless you’re really desperate for any kind of play, run the ‘goyf out only when he’s at least 3/4.

Which leads onto the next question of when should you lead with a suspended Rift Bolt if you have no other turn 1 play. I think probably always, unless it’s a matchup where you want to save it to kill their later plays.

In summary, against other aggro decks you want to:

1) Conserve your life total far more than you would normally.
2) Play the best quality creatures.

Point 1 means making Stomping Ground tapped in all cases apart from emergencies, and blocking every creature wherever possible.

Point 2 is satisfied as the deck runs the nigh unkillable Troll, and giant-sized Tarmogoyfs and Greater Gargadons.

The surprising aspect of point 2 is it doesn’t currently include Call of the Herd. 3/3 elephants don’t beat 4/5s and 9/7s, and Troll Ascetic beats them up all day long. Sad times indeed for the pachyderm fans out there.

Moving away from the aggro matchup, and we have the age-old conundrum of how to play around Wrath of God (and Damnation). “Don’t overextend” is the short answer, but it’s a little more complicated and involves getting a good read on your opponent. In the absence of any additional information, I don’t like to lay out more than enough to kill my opponent. The happy news is that a single Troll or single Tarmogoyf is often enough to draw Wrath of God. That means there usually isn’t call to make another unless you sense weakness (beware the tricksy players that feign this) and feel going for the jugular is correct.

Other questions concerned the floating Marauders. Yes, they can be other things. One suggestion was Quirion Dryad. I never really had time to try out the Dryad, but my gut feeling is it won’t grow fast enough.

Another option is to pre-board a couple of Tin Street Hooligan for Signet eating duties. This is bad, mainly because it implies a lot of Blink decks. If there are a lot of Blink decks in your expected metagame – especially of the Red, White, and Blue variety – then I’d advise picking a different deck. I like Red Deck Wins with added Troll and ‘goyf action, but it’s not invincible. Lightning Angels are not fun times. That’s when it becomes a good time to start packing something else… maybe Dredge.

Overall, Marauders are still probably the most versatile in this slot with Scab-Clan Mauler the only card I’d currently consider as an acceptable substitute.

The sideboard is a mess. Not going to argue there. I didn’t have as much time to test as I would like.

“Just how good is Ascetic + Warhammer”?

In theory, it sounds like an absolute beating. The honest truth is I never drew a Warhammer in any hand I didn’t mulligan all weekend. If you ever equip a Troll (or Gargadon!) then you aren’t dying to burn. The counter argument is that if you actually had time to first cast Troll, then cast Warhammer and then equip it, then their hand probably wasn’t going to burn you out in any case.

Against other aggro decks, my sideboard plan is to board out four Char and either a land on the draw or Marauders on the play, and replace them with the two additional Gargadon and three Warhammer.

Another possible plan would be to board out the Char and both Marauders, and bring in four Martyr of Ashes and two Gargadon. The Martyr is probably not as devastating as the Warhammer, but has the additional advantage of coming online faster to turn around bad board positions. The Martyr also has applications against both Dredge and the Perilous Storm deck, and potentially frees up sideboard space.

Additional testing is required to determine which option is better. I was fortunate enough at my Nationals in that my main deck creature selection effectively had me pre-sideboarded in the aggro mirror anyway.

A further option is Moldervine Cloak. This also has an impact faster than the Warhammer, but without trample or lifelink (or whatever the keyword is called). The lack of trample is probably the most relevant, as a Cloaked Troll is still going to take a while to batter through Mogg War Marshal and his many buddies.

At one point I did have Skarrg, the Rage Pits for giving my monsters trample. This got cut when the deck went down to 22 land and never came back. I’m not sure there is space for it. Coloured mana is fairly tight. It’s not as bad as the headaches Forest-hungry Kird Ape used to cause, but the weird non-Forest Green sources like Treetop Village, Horizon Canopy, and Pendelhaven throw it further into Green than the actual deck is happy to be. Adding a colorless land will probably increase the number of mulligans.

Magus of the Moon versus Cryoclasm

I’m not going to lie. My preferred choice would be 4 Cryoclasm and 4 Stone Rain, with Hooligans as well to basically hit their manabase like a wrecking ball. By “their,” I mean any three-color control deck.

You could potentially replace Stone Rain with Boom/Bust or Avalanche Riders. I think the Riders might be too slow and Boom too kamikaze.

The alternative is the higher-risk strategy of Magus of the Moon. The Magus utterly destroyed Stuart Wright in the final, but this was really a weird piece of splash damage. I ran the Magus because I didn’t think Cryoclasm would be enough for the three-color control and Blink decks. Some games he will just destroy people, and in others you’ll be cursing him for being a useless Gray Ogre. If you can accept that, then run him and roll the dice. If not, go with Cryoclasm.

The Pithing Needles were a sort of “not quite sure what’s out there, let’s run Needle just in case.” Actually, they were there for Seismic Assault, but I think this is probably too narrow.

I think that just about covers most questions. I haven’t really had a chance to play the burnless Rakdos deck from U.S. Nationals, so I can’t really comment on how it stacks up. My guess is they’re a much tougher matchup than the Australian version, as they have Gargadon and Mogg War Marshal as well as Threaten.

Going back to some form of summary, it can be easy for the naive to assume the aggro mirror is a coin-flip. But if you bring the right tools and use your life total sensibly, you’ll find that the coin will drop in your favor most of the time.

I’m almost certain I’ve probably missed something, but the sun is currently coming up and I’m very tired, so if anyone wants more tips drop a question in the forums, and hopefully I’ll be able to answer it from wherever I end up next week.

Until next time,