Just How Good is Volcanic Hammer?

The deck in question is Red Deck Wins. The question in question is “Jet or Hammer?” Last week we talked about these cards in the RDW mirror match, and I came out saying that I like Magma Jet more. Since then, two outstanding Red mages have stepped forward supporting Volcanic Hammer. Now, I agree with them that Hammer is better in the mirror, but what about the other matchups?

The deck in question is Red Deck Wins. The question in question is “Jet or Hammer?” Last week we talked about these cards in the RDW mirror match, and I came out saying that I like Magma Jet more. In the mirror, it is much better because of its ability to hit a Blistering Firecat (or Slith Firewalker); in the midgame, it helps set up Cursed Scroll by either drawing into Cursed Scroll, or smoothing out mana for the “Cursed Scroll lock” once that mighty artifact is down and active. Volcanic Hammer shines most against Jackal Pup, but I can see it being a better card sideboarded because of Fledgling Dragon; while Magma Jet does only two points of damage (and will therefore likely need help from two additional damage sources in order to bring down the Dragon), Volcanic Hammer’s extra point means that only one additional Firebolt, Seal of Fire, Lava Dart, or special one-drop activation will be needed to get out of the opponent’s best threat.

But what about other matchups?

In my forum from last week, Patrick Sullivan, single-minded Red Deck Wins mage and model citizen said:

Volcanic Hammer vs. Magma Jet-Honestly, I haven’t gotten a chance to test Jet in replacement of Hammer yet, but my intuition tells me Ill be sticking with Hammer. Jet puts you at a big disadvantage in the mirror post board (Fledgling Dragon now requires three separate spells to kill, compared to Hammer plus any other removal spell), is far worse against U/G (doesn’t kill Aquamoeba, fights against Mongrel poorly), and screws with some of the common math that comes up with the deck (most importantly, Firecat with hammer is 10, removing hammer for jet means you need another spell to kill your opponent in this situation). I can see the advantages of jet, insofar as if you use it to kill a creature, it’s strictly better. This is something that will require some testing, but right now I lean towards Hammer.”

And just yesterday, Dan Paskins, even more single minded Red Deck Wins player said “I think Volcanic Hammer is better than Magma Jet except in matchups where you are desperately searching for a particular card like Ensnaring Bridge or Cursed Scroll[.]”

I feel a little foolish for running a Red Deck Wins article essentially one day removed from Dan, whose work in this field I have followed since triumphant 1999. For the most part, you should defer to Dan, but I’ve tested quite a few games over the past week and a half preparing for this article, so I figured I’d finish the deal.

[Dan Paskins admitted to me that he felt silly running a RDW article after Mike, but he’d already done so much work on it that he felt he needed to finish. Apparently Dan and Mike are good at making each other feel silly, though both of their articles are quite swell. – Knut, who hates RDW, but likes these articles]

In any case, that’s two votes for the Hammer from two thinkers I respect. But I decided to go after some of the most important matchups from the Top 8 of PT: Columbus to find out for myself.

Now last week, I made the foolish statement “‘modern’ Red Deck Wins begins with Dan Cato at last year’s Extended Pro Tour” which is just blatantly wrong. I should lose my privileges to compete in Deck Game after that guffaw. Not only is it not true, but a superb Red Deck Wins build was played by Craig Stevenson a full year prior to Cato to a PT money finish, and moreover, the exact same main deck won GP Miser for Alex Mack in the following PTQ season. Apologies, apologies. [For the record, Stevenson also writes for this here site here. – Knut]

I actually like being wrong (just not in print, particularly) because I think that it best exposes areas of growth. For example, I used to just make decks and tell PJ and Josh to test them. Now I make decks, test them in the small hours of the night against myself on Apprentice, and confirm against independent testing done by Sadin, Clair, BDM, etc. I therefore added the Stevenson/Mack list from 2002 (hereafter “Mack” for purposes of economy) to the anti-Top 8 testing.

Here is the deck Mack used to win GP Miser (as I said, Stevenson’s main was identical, and I only tested main decks for the purpose of this article).

4 Cursed Scroll

4 Blistering Firecat

4 Firebolt

4 Goblin Cadets

4 Grim Lavamancer

4 Jackal Pup

4 Mogg Fanatic

4 Seal of Fire

4 Volcanic Hammer

4 Bloodstained Mire

8 Mountain

4 Rishadan Port

4 Wasteland

4 Wooded Foothils


4 Thran Foundry

2 Fledgling Dragon

3 Mogg Salvage

2 Savage Firecat

4 Stone Rain

For the others, refer to last week’s article.

Now I think that the best measure of a deck can be made by its worst matchups. Like anyone can beat on Reanimator with a Snap combo deck, but where should the serious Red Deck Wins investigator go? Straight to Life.

4 Eladamri’s Call

1 Sterling Grove

1 Eternal Witness

4 Living Wish

1 Academy Rector

1 Animal Boneyard

3 Daru Spiritualist

3 Enlightened Tutor

3 Nomads en-Kor

1 Parallax Wave

1 Rule of Law

1 Seal of Cleansing

4 Shaman en-Kor

4 Task Force

1 Test of Endurance

4 Worthy Cause

4 City of Brass

2 Forest

6 Plains

4 Brushland

3 Starlit Sanctum

4 Windswept Heath


1 Ensnaring Bridge

1 Isochron Scepter

1 Engineered Plague

1 Energy Flux

1 Eternal Witness

1 Genesis

1 Academy Rector

1 Daru Spiritualist

1 Nomads en-Kor

4 Orim’s Chant

1 Seal of Cleansing

1 Starlit Sanctum

The above is Ryuchi Arita’s deck from the Top 8 of PT: Columbus. The Arita deck is an extremely redundant combination build that revolves around the three card synergy of Nomads en-Kor (or Shaman en-Kor) + Task Force (or Daru Spiritualist) + Worthy Cause (or Starlit Sanctum or Animal Boneyard). Via this combination, the first unit (en-Kor) targets the second unit an arbitrarily large number of times with its damage prevention ability, yeilding a 1/1,000,000 Task Force or thereabouts; at that point, the third unit sacrifices the creature, giving Arita that much life. While this isn’t a “kill”, most opponents simply concede once the combination has been performed, as they will be unable to do 1,000,000 damage. Should the opponent fail to concede, Arita can use Test of Endurance to win the game immediately.

It is extremely easy to build the combination because there are essentially double pieces to most of the combo, and, in addition, the deck plays Eladamri’s Call, which can retrieve any necessary creature component, and Living Wish, which can produce literally any of the three points of the combination. Moreover, the deck has a ton of enchantment manipulation, including Sterling Grove, Enlightened Tutor, and Academy Rector. Where Elidamri’s Call can produce one of the first two-thirds of the combination, the enchantment manipulation can yield Animal Boneyard should Worthy Cause or Starlit Sanctum fail to show.

Arita Life is the natural foil to Red Deck Wins for many reasons. First, and most obviously, Red Deck Wins is a deck designed to do 20 damage consistently and efficiently; it really can’t win if the opponent is on 1,000,000. Second, and more importantly, the components of the Arita deck are naturally quite good against Red Deck Wins. Task Force can contain every threat but Blistering Firecat without any possibility of removal. Even without the third component, an en-Kor and a Task Force or Daru Spiritualist can create “infinite ass”, holding in two threats, and probably killing them, should they choose to attack; even Blistering Firecat can’t get through these blockers. Worst of all, Arita is possibly the fastest consistent combination deck in the format. Turn 2 Daru Spiritualist is unlikely to go anywhere and Red Deck Wins can’t finish in three; that means that unless Team Paskins has some mana control, an en-Kor and Worthy Cause might just end it on turn 3.

Here are my results:

Arita 7 over Nakamura 3

I tested a lot of Red Deck Wins with Magma Jet against Life, even before this article preparation, just because I like playing Magic. This matchup is really bad for Nakamura for all the reasons I listed above. Initially I thought Pillage would be relevant (it can stop Animal Boneyard or Starlit Sanctum with a Rishadan Port and the right opening), but it wasn’t really better than a random burn spell or something.

Sequentially, Arita’s first creature is usually Daru Spiritualist. There is no card in Nakamura’s deck that can reliably eliminate it (unless it blocks).

In this 10 game set, Nakamura won only games where Arita was either manascrewed or was heavily worked over with mana denial. Arita won all “fair games.”

Arita 6 over Cato 4

I figured that Cato’s deck might do the best of the four Red Deck Wins decks that I tested. The reason is that it is the most heavily disruptive (with Tangle Wire). It was during this testing that I found Volcanic Hammer could take out Daru Spiritualist. I had sort of fallen into playing Spiritualist automatically from the Arita side, and lost a lot of Clerics that way. I think it’s probably still right, especially because in a PTQ, you don’t necessarily know which burn your opponent will play, and because, even if he does play Volcanic Hammer, he might not have it in hand.

Cato lost a couple of games with Arita on one, which exposes the deck’s inherent lack of Mogg Fanatic (as we said last week, the best creature in the mirror).

The Cato deck is unique among these Red Deck Wins because it can reasonably keep a no one-drop hand in testing. I will keep Seal of Fire, Slith Firewalker, Tangle Wire all day, but testing game ones, I will mulligan any 7-card hand from any of the other three decks that doesn’t have a one-drop. In one memorable game, Cato drew a Tangle Wire into seven land that included three Rishadan Ports and a Wasteland. Arita never had a relevant play, and got a City of Brass and Animal Boneyard tapped the entire game while Slith Firewalker grew and grew.

Arita 6 over Mack 4

Mack’s deck performed very smoothly. I found the redundancy of Goblin Cadets to be quite effective with Jackal Pup and Volcanic Hammer. In one game, Mack drew triple 2/1 and a Volcanic Hammer for the Daru Spiritualist; though Arita was able to eventually draw into a combination kill, the high number of pain lands drawn (Brushland, City of Brass, and Windswept Heath) meant that it couldn’t actually win the game from one life point without dying first. Stupid Sixth Edition rules!

Arita 8 over Sullivan 2

I actually thought that Sullivan would do as well or better than Mack. The only difference is Lava Dart over Firebolt. There is no creature in this matchup where Firebolt performs strictly better than Lava Dart (unless you are burning Academy Rector, and even then, a Dart can take it out with a Mountain), but there are several times where two points of instant speed burn to the head can be relevant. I was therefore quite surprised at Patrick’s deck doing the worst of the lot. This is probably just due to the small n, with Mack getting all the draws where Arita was manascrewed and Sullivan getting the draws were the Red Deck was manascrewed or something.

Overall, I don’t know what a difference in two games means when none of the Red Deck Wins decks made 50%. But again, Life is widely considered to be Red Deck Wins’s worst matchup, and the numbers were really close. Two of the four builds were one game out of an even set in their worst matchup, and a lot of the losses were close within one turn or even one life point. What does that mean? If your PTQ opponent isn’t careful, or doesn’t know the cards as well as you, he might suffer. If he doesn’t know that it’s sometimes better to miss a land drop than to play a City of Brass into a Rishadan Port, you might just take a one-point game that he should have won. Overall? For a worst matchup, Life didn’t seem that bad.

Now Patrick said that “[RDW] isn’t a great deck against combo, so you should play something else in that sort of metagame,” and Life seemed to beat up on the lists that I tested. So I decided to see just how bad it was, going to the next combination on my list: Masashi Oiso Mind’s Desire deck:

4 Chrome Mox

4 Sapphire Medallion

2 Nightscape Familiar

1 Tendrils of Agony

2 Vampiric Tutor

4 Cloud of Faeries

4 Accumulated Knowledge

4 Brainstorm

3 Cunning Wish

2 Deep Analysis

3 Intuition

2 Merchant Scroll

4 Mind’s Desire

3 Snap

1 Turnabout

1 Flooded Strand

7 Island

4 Polluted Delta

1 Swamp

4 Underground River


1 Coffin Purge

1 Brain Freeze

1 Condescend

2 Echoing Truth

1 Energy Flux

1 Envelop

1 Intuition

1 Mana Leak

1 Rebuild

1 Snap

1 Stroke of Genius

1 Turnabout

2 Psychatog

From my days of crushing Deadguy Red with High Tide, I could tell Mind’s Desire looked like a bad matchup for RDW. I shuffled up Nakamura and set into it.

I quit testing when Nakamura was up 3-0. Clearly I was playing Mind’s Desire wrong because I kept saying “go” after playing a bunch of spells (incidentally that’s exactly how Oiso ran it in the Top 8 of Columbus against a different sort of Red Deck). Clair says not to worry about it for PTQ level. Who am I to argue?

So instead, I moved on to a different Top 8 deck where I thought Volcanic Hammer would be relevant: Siron’s U/G Madness deck.

Here’s Siron’s version:

2 Chrome Mox

4 Aquamoeba

4 Careful Study

4 Circular Logic

3 Daze

3 Deep Analysis

2 Intuition

1 Merfolk Looter

1 Thought Courier

2 Wonder

4 Arrogant Wurm

4 Basking Rootwalla

2 Roar of the Wurm

4 Wild Mongrel

7 Forest

9 Island

4 Yavimaya Coast


2 Masticore

4 Chill

3 Submerge

2 Waterfront Bouncer

3 Oxidize

1 Ray of Revelation

If you don’t know what a U/G Madness deck is, I’m not going to tell you here. Here is some article I wrote 2 years ago on the subject for a different format (but the overall concept of the deck is identical).

Here are the results:

Sullivan 8 over Siron 2

Mack 8 over Siron 2

Cato 7 over Siron 3

Siron 6 over Nakamura 4

Nakamura did the worst of the Red Deck Wins in my testing, but that can be explained by both not having Volcanic Hammer and having Pillage. Pillage is quite poor in the U/G matchup. Once I tried to take out an Island and got Dazed. Volcanic Hammer is really useful against Aquamoeba, which is better on its own than Wild Mongrel a lot of the time. It is also much better at taxing the Mongrel itself, requiring two cards just to keep the Savage Bastard alive.

Here is where the testing diverges. Usually I talk to Clair a couple of times a week (or BDM or Sadin) and their testing at Neutral Ground is about on the same wavelength as mine. Like they might have some slightly different anecdotal details, like Pillage being good at killing an all-in Arcbound Ravager in the Canali matchup, but for the most part, our stats are very comparable. But this morning, Clair told me “I don’t know how you won those four games at all without Volcanic Hammer.” Their testing of U/G is heavily weighted towards the Wild Mongrel side of the table.

I’m not sure if it’s a difference of play style or just a difference in lists but I’ll probably have to test in real life with them to figure out who is drastically wrong about the matchup. One caveat, though, Siron’s deck only has two Chrome Moxes and Sadin was trying out more. That means that Clair had to face down turn 1 Aquamoeba or Wild Mongrel with much greater frequency; backed up by Daze, turn 1 Aquamoeba in particular can be a real problem. I actually don’t think first turn Wild Mongrel is that good, because against the wrong hand, it can be taxed on the opponent’s turn to the point where U/G can’t afford to keep it around. One tactic that Mike pointed out was second turn Wild Mongrel with Chrome Mox and Blue open. This is something that I never did in my testing, but can either give or bluff Circular Logic access, as well as imply a third turn Wurm of some kind (again with potential counter backup).

After all of this, I still can’t let go of my Magma Jets. I loved watching Nakamura in Columbus, and the deck he played was perhaps the most consistent finisher in the entire tournament. If Osyp is right and U/G becomes the most popular deck of the PTQ season, I’ll probably have to borrow BDM’s Chinese Portal Hammers, but right now, I still like the way Magma Jet sets up my Cursed Scrolls and pushes my clunky cards to the bottom of my deck. Hopefully I’ll get some time in at Neutral Ground to figure out the RDW v. U/G matchup, at which point I might be forced to make the switch (back).

A side note on U/G and testing in general:

Even though Siron made Top 8 with Chrome Mox, I don’t know if it is the right card to play in the PTQs. I am of the mind that Affinity is going to be one of the top decks, with a better than average “fair fight” matchup against U/G (Canali beat Siron in the Top 8 of Columbus on the way to his first place finish). In order to reliably beat Affinity, U/G probably needs Energy Flux, which turns a reasonably fair fight into a bloodbath; obviously Chrome Mox and Energy Flux are not synergistic.

Happy New Year, etc.