It’s Raining (ele)Men(tals)

Glenn tells you why his mind might be changing about Young Pyromancer’s viability in Modern. Take a look at his Young Storm list and comment with your thoughts!

Last week I spent a little time talking about why Young Pyromancer is destined to flourish in Legacy but likely not tough enough to make it in Modern. To summarize, in Legacy the creatures and creature-control elements are so powerful that you throw everything against the wall and win when something sticks; in Modern, the payoff for playing with threats that invalidate Lightning Bolt (and to a lesser extent Path to Exile) is so high that you gain a lot of percentage points by doing so. This means that Young Pyromancer is a weak card to lean on in the maindeck but might be a very viable tool in a transformational sideboard.

Before anyone argues that Path to Exile is basically close enough to Swords to Plowshares to invalidate this point of view, I present Exhibit A:

Case closed.

The decks that gain the most from their immunity to creature removal are clearly the unfair decks. I’m loathe to call them all “combo” decks, as Tron isn’t really a combo deck but certainly has no interest in fair-minded Magic: The Gathering. Pod is a debatable exception, although I think the deck is very resilient to Bolt and that the mixture of Snapcaster Mages, Electrolyzes, etc. is what overload its resources. But decks like Scapeshift, Goryo’s Vengeance, Splinter Twin, Living End, and Storm are all very resilient to anyone holding Lightning Bolts, and that’s one of their primary strengths.

This week we’re going to talk about some potential incentives for changing that formula by including Young Pyromancer in Storm. Let’s take a look at Storm as we’ve come to know it ever since Jon Finkel made the Top 16 of Grand Prix Portland.

This deck proved to the world that the banning of Seething Song didn’t mean Storm was dead. Since then it has continued to perform on Magic Online in the Daily and Premier Events, and a number of players have also championed it in live tournaments. I personally considered playing it in Grand Prix Kansas City and wound up deciding not to.

I had a few cool ideas I wanted to try out but didn’t have the time to do so. I’d experimented with adding a Hallowed Fountain to the maindeck to let me board Silence over Dispel, as Silence is much better in the mirror and against soft counters. Talking with Huey and Owen, I recall one of them mentioning this would also enable Stony Silence against Relic of Progenitus from G/R Tron! That sounded sweet.

Plus, I would gain access to the awesome deck name of “Silent Storm.” Priorities!

Storm has exactly one thing worth Lightning Bolting—not counting the pilot’s face—and that’s Goblin Electromancer. Of course, it’s not really much of a target. The Electromancer often functions as a ritual in its own right. Against an expected Lightning Bolt, you can just cast Electromancer with two mana up, play one of your many rituals, and respond to the Lightning Bolt that follows with several more ritual effects before it resolves. This is not to say Lightning Bolt should be boarded out against Storm—its ability to stall the combo kill by threatening Electromancer while simultaneously improving the player’s own racing ability is worthwhile. It’s just the wrong side of an unfavorable interaction.

So creature removal is bad against Storm. Why might we be interested in adding the lightning rod that is Young Pyromancer?

To be honest, I wasn’t. Sure, I specifically mentioned that Young Pyromancer might show promise as a sideboard strategy in Modern. He could be exceptional in this role for a variety of U/W/R decks that already offer no targets for Lightning Bolt in the maindeck, as in most mirror matches the opponent will cut their Bolts and Verdicts and rely heavily on Electrolyze to make land drops and wrangle Snapcaster Mages. Obviously Electrolyze is pretty good against Young Pyromancer in the early game, but if Pyromancer gets going, then Electrolyze just might not be enough.

I had also considered the merits of using him as a way you play to the middle of the game in Storm out of the sideboard, but when people aren’t sideboarding out Lightning Bolt against you, there’s really not much incentive to do that. I chalked it up as an idea that might be good, sounded bad, and probably wasn’t worth exploring.

So you can imagine my confusion when Storm variations that run Young Pyromancer in the maindeck started popping up in Daily Events! I made a mental note to check it out. Once I’d seen three or four different variations in Daily Events, I knew it was time to write this article. For reference, here’s one of the early lists I spotted, by beard enthusiast and rogue deckbuilder Caleb Durward.

Caleb’s wasn’t the first list I saw, so it’s not my intention to credit him with “innovating” the deck I’ve dubbed (in my own head and nowhere that matters) “Young Storm.” However, I liked his list the most and intended to steal some of its ideas anyway, so it only seems fitting I post this original.

Empty the Warrens has been a necessary sideboard option in traditional Storm for some time, as it lets you pull off wins without managing the full combo. Against decks that can’t handle a large number of tokens, that makes it much better than Grapeshot because you need significantly fewer cards to create a game-winning storm trigger. For example, most midrangey decks lack ways to deal with just ten Goblins but have enough hand and graveyard disruption to keep kills that require a high number of spells, Past in Flames, or Pyromancer Ascension at bay.

By shifting the Empty kill to the maindeck, you pick up percentage points against those decks for sure. However, it’s at a huge cost. In order to simulate the instant kill of Grapeshot—which is highly necessary against some decks like Tron and U/W/R, which can sweep out Goblins—you have to run Goblin Bushwhacker to “finish the job” by giving all your creatures haste. There are other haste enablers, but because Bushwhacker also doubles the power of all your Goblins, it’s the obvious choice. Again, the benefit is “needing fewer spells to kill the opponent.”

The downside is a lot of those spells are bad, often effectively forced mulligans (not good in a Storm deck). Grapeshot is flexible—it can kill a threat or some forms of incidental hate, like Deathrite Shaman, to give you more time to assemble a kill. Goblin Bushwhacker and Empty the Warrens take more slots than Grapeshot and are much less versatile! Empty costs a lot of mana for a few chump blockers, and Bushwhacker is borderline unplayable without some serious help from the rest of the deck.

Enter Young Pyromancer.

Young Pyromancer gives the deck something to do while it’s building the perfect hand. It builds an offense against slow opponents while you’re casting cantrips and Desperate Ravings, forcing them to eventually expend some mana defending themselves. Once they do, you’re free to pounce with an actual combo kill.

For example, Mono-Blue Tron relies on using soft counters like Remand and Condescend to keep Storm at bay, with Repeal for Pyromancer Ascension to make those counters meaningful. If they can draw the game out long enough, they can begin to pull ahead with all of the mana their deck is capable of creating. An early Young Pyromancer completely changes that game plan! Now they’ve got an actual clock to contend with, and Remand is way less functional than it might have initially seemed . . . which was already mediocre. Eventually you’ll put them to the spot where they need an early Wurmcoil Engine or Oblivion Stone just to survive—at which point you overload the single soft counter they were able to keep up and just kill them.

You know, unless they play Platinum Angel. Remember how I said Grapeshot is more flexible? Picture a nice barbecued Angel right here. Wings, anyone?*

My point still stands. Traditional Storm decks create pressure with their lands and their hand, which makes them predictable for most opponents. They know they don’t really need to interact on the board, so they try to create a clock and then disrupt you long enough to get there. Young Pyromancer not only offers you a ton of defense for a small mana investment, but against opponents who lack pressure it gives you a serious clock that can easily kill them over the course of four turns or so.

With Goblin Bushwhacker, you can even “mini-combo” to finish opponents off after losing your first swarm of Elementals. Something as minor as Young Pyromancer #2, Desperate Ritual, Manamorphose, Serum Visions, Goblin Bushwhacker can deal eleven damage from four mana with nothing else on the board. Add in a Gitaxian Probe and a spare Ritual or two . . . and that’s often just lethal on its own.

Young Pyromancer is basically an Empty the Warrens that doubles as a Goblin Electromancer, as weird as that might seem. Like Electromancer, the opponent knows they can’t just let it sit in play or its ability will let you kill them outright; at the same time, you can sandbag it until an opportune moment just like Empty the Warrens. The tradeoff is that you have a more fragile kill but a much easier time against traditional hate cards and strategies.

You’ll note that Caleb’s list above cut Pyromancer Ascension to make room for the Young Pyromancer engine in what might be the most accurate metaphor for corporate age discrimination to ever occur in a trading card game. Each card has their pros and cons, with Ascension being by far the more powerful of the two. Young Pyromancer is an especially weaker weapon against most forms of blue-based control, but it’s better in a lot of the Abrupt Decay matchups. Against other combo decks, I think they mostly wind up washing out due to the variations.

It’s not as easy as saying one of these decks is just better than the other. Within the context of a metagame, I could easily see situations arising that earn one or the other the nod. In and of itself, that means Young Pyromancer could be more promising than I initially gave it credit for. Note that I don’t think that is actually the case, but I’m willing to cede that the world is a vast and changing place and that my ability to predict the future is limited both by my perception and mortal bias. It’s pretty humble of me really.

If you’d like to try this build out, I encourage you to practice it a few times—even if you’re already very familiar with Modern Storm. It took me a few games to get the hang of how to jam with this particular variation, as you’ve got to consider a lot more actions in miniature. Firing an Empty on turn 2 or 3 is not an especially unusual line against some opponents, while you have more reasons to hold on to cantrips and especially Gitaxian Probe due to the Young Pyromancers. Not only does Probe generate instant value with Pyromancer (at sorcery speed, hardy har har), but it’s a much more important card to maximize when considering non-lethal Empty the Warrens plays.

Probeing before you make eight Goblins grants a significant sense of security . . . or warns you away from a suicide play. That’s a big difference! Traditional Storm required good Probe timing as well but was much more forgiving when miscast.

Here’s the list I’ve been playing on Magic Online:

As you can see, I honored a number of the original choices but added the Ignorant Bliss, which has been good, and am trying out a mana base less dependent on Shivan Reefs like Caleb did. I think you need to add a land in order to support the curve to three with Pyromancer, but I didn’t want to run as many Bushwhackers and Empty the Warrens. Peer should be good for an Empty a lot of the time anyway, and I’ve always liked the Peer.

Some of the sequences that I’ve been able to set up have me thinking about different versions of the same basic theme. For example, the transformational sideboard plan that I discussed earlier might be very reasonable alongside a traditional Storm shell. It’s possible that a completely different deck exists—Gerry thinks Young Pyromancer and Infernal Plunge could be a match made in heaven. Perhaps even Battle Hymn could have a place in such a variation? I know that I’ve already considered jamming one into this deck to see if it plays better than the singleton Peer Through Depths.

I would love to be proven wrong about Young Pyromancer’s Modern viability. It’s a sweet card and represents a very different kind of threat for the Modern environment. It’s already changing Legacy, with an Open victory last weekend and a new control deck in Drew Levin latest article. Time will tell!

Glenn Jones
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*As my Facebook friends may already know, I had to wipe my computer this week. That means my Photoshop is gone, and it’s unfortunately not a program I have lying around ready to reinstall. That’s pretty stupid of me, but oh well. Once I get it back, I plan to continue making amusing little images—until then, I’m all words. 🙁