Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about Ponza. Ever since Mike Long first endorsed the modernized Ponza deck last season, consisting of such (beat) sticks as Avarax, the deck has shown up in numbers in every major Standard tournament. Although the deck didn’t put up very good numbers in Paris, the deck is still swarming the Magic Online metagame with approximately two copies in every Premier Event Top 8. However, there is another build of Mono Red that hasn’t been discussed thoroughly. I’m not really sure what to call it, but it certainly isn’t Ponza nor is it what I’d like to describe as Sligh. Perhaps, Standard Big Red would be appropriate, or even better, Medium Red.
4 Hearth Kami
4 Slith Firewalker
3 Vulshok Sorcerer
3 Zo-Zu, the Punisher
4 Sword of Fire and Ice
2 Magma Jet
4 Seething Song
4 Chrome Mox
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
The Pros and Cons of Land Destruction
The problem I seem to have with the land destruction spells, are that they are mediocre to poor in the matchups in which Ponza would really like help. To start, let’s discuss the mirror match.
In the Ponza matchup there are three things that can randomly decide the outcome of each game, removing nearly all player interaction. The player on the play can get a turn 1 Slith Firewalker, not have it Shocked, and remove opposing attackers until it becomes completely out of control. Either player can Seething Song an Arc-Slogger into play on turn 2, or more commonly, turn 3. And, of course, either player can keep a land-light hand, and get Stone Rained (or Molten Rain) out.
I would estimate that the third on the list occurs in one of every six to eight games. So let’s say, for instance, you are on the receiving end of a turn 1 Slith without Shock in hand, or a turn 3 Slogger. That grip full of Rain doesn’t look so hot anymore, does it? How about the one-half of the games where unfair stuff doesn’t happen? Again, Molten Rain or Stone Rain would look somewhat hotter if they could significantly help develop board position.
Many Green decks also don’t have a rough time dealing with the land destruction element of Ponza. Tooth and Nail, obviously, is not one of the Green decks I’m referring to, but rather Black/Green (a deck which is fairly popular at smaller tournaments), Beacon Green, Beacon Blue/Green or Raphael Ait Slimane’s Red/Green Beatdown list from Paris. All of these decks play four Sakura-Tribe Elder and usually four Kodama’s Reach. Sure, you can get a lucky draw, with turn 1 Chrome Mox and Slith Firewalker, turn 2 Stone Rain, but the other 82% of the time (Yes, I did the math.) Stone Rain is going to be an awfully silly response to turn 2 Elder, turn 3 Reach.
White Weenie and Mono Blue Control wrap up the majority of major standard archetypes, and land destruction is quite poor against one, while only fairly good when played in the early game against the other. The way I normally think about Stone Rain against a Blue deck is the same way I think of the punisher mechanic from Judgment (Lava Blister and Browbeat for reference.) If you Stone Rain on turn 3, they’ll Mana Leak, Condescend or Hinder. If you Stone Rain on turn 8, they’ll laugh at you and place one of their seven lands in the graveyard. Most White Weenie builds, on the other hand, simply do not care. Blowing up lands is not an effective strategy against a deck playing as many as sixteen one-drops, and sometimes even Aether Vial.
Of course, there is that one matchup where the land destruction really shines: Tooth and Nail. That’s what Sowing Salt is for!
Here is the sideboard I’ve been running:
3 Jinxed Choker
4 Sowing Salt
3 Fractured Loyalty
At first glance, the board looks a bit janky, but I’ve been happy with each card in at least one matchup.
This card was originally added to the board to deal with Circle of Protection: Red. Turns out, nobody plays CoP: Red, but the card has been doing quite a number on B/G Control, Mono Blue Control, and most rogue control strategies. Sure your opponent can spend a ton of mana to keep Choker under control, but that is mana not being used to deal with every other threat in your deck. Generally, you will be able to deal around fifteen damage by other means, while Choker sits around and build up counters, but in some instances I’ve had the card do over fifteen damage. The best comparison I can make with this card is to Sulfuric Vortex.
Your most weakened matchup just got that much better. Sure, not having all the land destruction between the main and board makes the Tooth matchup quite a bit harder, but if Salt resolves before Tooth takes their fifth turn, it is difficult to lose. Just make sure you don’t target a Tron piece if there is another of the same name already in play.
Loyalty is my answer to the mirror match. Need to beat a turn 3 Slogger or Kumano? This is your best chance. With twenty ways to target between the maindeck and sideboard, you will undoubtedly win the Loyalty war against a standard Ponza opponent, whom will likely have only twelve ways to target. Additionally, Loyalty is a very good against any aggressive deck with Kokusho, Iwamori or any other large, targetable beater. With that in mind, you do not want loyalty against slower decks, such as Tooth and Nail and Mono-Blue, since the card normally doesn’t do anything until the opponent has control of the game.
Shatter is a definitely a solid board card, and it serves a purpose in many different matchups. Mono-Blue has Vedalken Shackles and Chrome Mox, and many decks, such as White Weenie, have Sword of Fire and Ice or the dreaded Damping Matrix. You generally do not want to bring in Shatter against decks that can’t devastate your game plan with artifacts, or Tooth and Nail, which tends to play artifacts with activation mana ready.
Against Mono-Blue, Shatter is likely the number one bait spell for the following card.
A four-mana instant which almost certainly wins you the game if it resolves. I almost always wait for my opponent to tap under two mana before playing this spell to avoid Spectral Shift. Some Mono-Blue players have told me they never tap below two mana, but with this deck, if your opponent doesn’t have to tap out to deal with your threats, then you likely kept a hand which was too light on threats.
Versus Mono Blue Control
On the play you have very good odds, as you have many threats that can slip in under their permission, and Slith Firewalker will generally go all the way if they don’t draw a Boomerang. Sword of Fire and Ice can be a true pain for a Mono Blue opponent as well, since their only way to remove it is also Boomerang and countering it on the way back down. That said, Vedalken Shackles can be a nightmare for you, but in many games Hearth Kami or Zo-Zu can get in the way of that plan.
On the draw, things are much more difficult, but you can still slip Slith Firewalker in under Mana Leak mana with a Chrome Mox. Still, drawing first you are far less explosive and Shackles comes online a turn earlier, which again can cause problems. Play or draw, Shackles is truly their only good answer to your deck, and without it, you are a heavy favorite. With it, however, Blue is the favorite.
After sideboard, however, things get better for you since many players will try their best to play around Boil, and you have a copy of Shatter to help combat their Shackles. Jinxed Choker makes a huge impact in this matchup, since the Blue deck has very few ways to keep it under control. They can try to keep counters off of it or Boomerang it. Neither is an exciting strategy for the Blue player, especially since such stress can open them up for an easy Boil resolution. Make sure to watch out for Spectral Shift and Threads of Disloyalty out of their boards, as the last thing you want is to be beat by your own Boil or Slith.
+3 Jinxed Choker
-2 Sword of Fire and Ice
-1 Vulshok Sorcerer
Game one is about 55-45 in your favor, while the sideboarded games are 65-35 in your favor.
Versus Tooth and Nail
Play or draw, you need a quick hand to beat Tooth and Nail. Slith Firewalker is most definitely your best weapon in this matchup, and with the support of your removal, will deal ten or fifteen damage in many games. A Seething Song, Arc-Slogger draw can also end the game in a hurry, since you have an almost guaranteed eight damage. Don’t overlook Zo-Zu either, as he can easily deal six to eight points of damage when played on turn 3. Without a quick draw, however, Medium Red will likely lose to Oblivion Stones, Mindslavers and Tooth and Nail itself. My biggest advice is to mulligan like a madman. If your hand doesn’t have Slith or Seething Song (or perhaps two-drop + Chrome Mox + Sword) it is probably not worth keeping.
+4 Sowing Salt
-1 Vulshok Sorcerer
-1 Sword of Fire and Ice
After sideboarding, the number of hands that are keepers increases dramatically, as any hand with three lands and a Sowing Salt gets added to the mix. Because of Sowing Salt, you don’t necessarily need to win by turn 5 or 6, as Tooth and Nail won’t be resolving until around turn 8, 9 or 10. This can be more difficult if Tooth boards into Heartbeat of Spring, but that is pretty rare and still allows you to get a quick win Arc-Slogger or Slith.
Tooth and Nail is a slight favorite for game one, taking a little under 60 percent of the games, while the sideboarded games are around 60 percent in your favor, putting the matchup just slightly in your favor.
Versus White Weenie
Game one against White Weenie is a game for you to truly dominate. They can steal a couple games when you are light on removal, and they are able to get Jitte or Sword to stick on a creature, but more often than not, your burn and Frostlings cause early disruption, allowing Arc-Slogger and Vulshok Sorcerer to clean up. An early Sword on any of your creatures is very good as well, since you’ll either remove their blockers or settle with a one-sided The Abyss.
+1 Jinxed Choker
-3 Zo-Zu the Punisher
After board things get more complicated, as your opponent may have Shining Shoal, Damping Matrix, Circle of Protection: Red, or more commonly Auriok Champion. The Champion is certainly not laughable, but since you can easily keep every other creature in their deck off the table, you’ll eventually overcome them with a bunch of guys, or simply a Sworded Nexus. Damping Matrix can pose a much greater problem for your deck, but hopefully you will have a Shatter before it puts a large enough dent in your game plan. If you expect CoP: Red, then Jinxed Choker will certainly do the trick, but the Circle doesn’t appear to be very common, and thus I wouldn’t preemptively board more than one or two copies.
Game one here is approximately between 70% and 65% in your favor, which really depends on their build, while the sideboarded games are closer to 60-40, which again, strongly depends on their list.
As discussed earlier, this matchup can be very random, with all the turn 1 Sliths, and turn 3 Arc-Sloggers. Playing first is probably the most important thing, next to drawing Seething Song (and three lands), as a turn 3 Slogger on the play, beats turn 3 Slogger on the draw. Likewise, a turn 1 Slith Firewalker is far more deadly on the play, since it will outrace an opposing Slith and can only be removed by Shock or a Frostling that doesn’t get burned out of the way. What puts you slightly ahead in this game, the turn 3 Sword equipped creature that can usually outrace Arc-Slogger, regardless of turn order. The only problem with the early Sword scenario is that you won’t always have a creature survive to be equipped, due to opposing Shocks, Magma Jets, Pyrite Spellbombs and/or Frostlings.
-3 Zo-Zu, the Punisher
+3 Fractured Loyalty
In the sideboarded games, you can easily trump a turn 3 Slogger with Fractured Loyalty. Besides that, you don’t really have many tricks. Try to play around Pyroclasm and Shatter when possible, but if you find yourself facing down a turn 3 Slogger or Kumano without a Fractured Loyalty or Seething Song explosion of your own, do whatever you must to stay in the game.
Against Ponza, your odds in game one are 55-45, while your game two and three are closer to 60-40.
Versus DC (Death Cloud) Black/Green
I haven’t seen consistent decklists for the Death Cloud, but generally they ramp ahead on mana very early, and can dominate with Kokusho, the Evening Star and Death Cloud backed by Terror or Echoing Decay. The Decay versions are generally much easier for you, since Decay doesn’t do anything about a 3/3 Slith Firewalker or Arc-Slogger. Zo-Zu is a huge pain for the Green deck when it comes online by turn 3, and Sword on nearly any of your creatures can force Kokusho into a trade.
After sideboarding, Fractured Loyalty really shines. If your opponent puts Kokusho or even Iwamori, of the Open Fist on the stack, you’ll have trouble keeping the smirk off your face. Jinxed Choker is also a solid weapon, as it makes Death Cloud far worse. Along with your early offensive, there is very little chance that the Cloud deck will be able to get far enough ahead to make Death Cloud worthwhile.
-2 Shock (on the play) or Magma Jet (on the draw)
-1 Sword of Fire and Ice
-2 Hearth Kami
+2 Jinxed Choker
+3 Fractured Loyalty
My game one prediction here is rough, since Cloud lists aren’t completely standardized, but things are slightly unfavorable for you, around 40-60. In games two and three, you are capable of shutting down every threat their deck has to offer, and thus are the favorite, 65-35.
After playing approximately 60-70 games including six rounds in a local cash tournament with Medium Red, I feel it is definitely a contender in the current metagame. I’d certainly recommend any player preparing for a Standard tournament to give it a try. My only complaint with the deck is that I’d like to run two more one or two creatures over Magma Jet (to maximize turn three equipped Sword), but the only viable options there are Iron Myr, Goblin Raider and Ember-Fist Zubera, or which the Zubera is likely the best. All that aside, in all honesty, if Regionals were tomorrow (or Friday Night Magic), running this deck would be an easy choice for me.
Until next time,
Keythree AT Gmail DOT com