Ponza: The Breakdown

Dave once again makes a valiant try at making land destruction work in Type 2!

Why is it that whenever I have an idea for an article, suddenly everyone jumps on the bandwagon? I was going to break down the Extended metagame (just call me”Thedave Meddish”), but Jay Schneider beat me to that one (and did a pretty good job of it, too).

Therefore, I thought I’d revisit post-Odyssey Ponza, but all of a sudden everyone’s doing land destruction articles. Nature is conspiring against me! And, of course, there hasn’t been much free time in my life. Yeah, you get a girlfriend, suddenly all your computer time dwindles to nothing.*

But back to the question at hand: Can Ponza (or any other land destruction archetype) succeed in the current Standard environment, or was Ponza just a one-trick pony that benefited from being a great metagame choice back in the days when Urza’s and Mercadian blocks were Standard-legal? Does the loss of key cards like Tectonic Break, Rishadan Port, and Dust Bowl make the archetype completely unviable?

Let’s start with mono-red and see what we can dig up. Starting with the land destruction spells – and, lo, their numbers are legion in Standard these days.

Stone Rain and Pillage: You can’t make an omelet without eggs, and you can’t make a land destruction without these two cards. They’ve formed the backbone of every red land destruction deck since Alliances came out.

Demolish: Now you get Pillage in Odyssey, more expensive but splashable. Worth noting that, unlike Pillage, its targets can regenerate. Right now, that only matters against Patchwork Gnomes – hardly a card you’ll see played in Standard – but back when Masticores ruled the red zone, Pillage was one of the few ways to get rid of the mad beast. Given all the other land destruction in Standard, Demolish is probably just overkill that could be best spent on other spells.

Lava Blister: I’m torn on this card. On the plus side, it’s targeted land kill for only 1R or a guaranteed six to the dome. Six! Against mono-red-chock-full-o’-burn, not many people are going to be willing to take six to the head on turn two. On the down side, some decks, notably counter-heavy blue decks, may be willing to take six to keep their Adarkar Wastes in play and just counter all the other stuff. My head says play it, my gut says put it in the sideboard.

Earth Rift: Now we’re cooking. Reusable land destruction. Nicely costed at only 3R with a flashback of 5RR, it’s definitely the main contender for the third land destruction spell to join Stone Rain and Pillage in the Triumvirate of Doom.

Tremble: It’s a bad Raze, or maybe a bad mini-Tectonic Break. This card has the potential to be playable, perhaps in a deck centered around threshold effects.

Wildfire and Obliterate: Wildfire is generally not considered part of the Ponza archetype, but it’s worth considering as a”replacement” for Tectonic Break, and it doubles as an effective board sweeper. Wildfire really belongs in its own archetype, such as the artifact-heavy”Burning Bridges.” Obliterate is probably a good sideboard card for Ponza but not something you’d want to have main deck.

Implode and Dwarven Landslide: Compared to Earth Rift, Dwarven Landslide is overcosted and unplayable. Implode, at 4R, is too expensive even for a cantrip. It would have been playable at 2RR or even 1RRR. Not at 4R. The only place I’ve seen these cards have any measure of success is in a few IBC Dark Domain variants that were heavy on land destruction.

Epicenter: Another card I’m torn on. Without threshold, it’s rather bad, and it’s not even targeted removal. Get to threshold, however, and you have red Armageddon. With a land destruction deck, getting to threshold shouldn’t be that difficult (especially if you’re playing with cards like Tremble)… But that casting cost of 4R is a bit prohibitive. And if you’ve played your cards right, you shouldn’t really need a ‘Geddon effect. Tectonic Break, at least, left you with a few lands in play. There might be an Odyssey Block Constructed deck that can be built around this card, but probably not in the current Standard.

Pardic Miner: I’ve seen a few attempts to make this guy work, and it worked in a game once – play on turn two, sacrifice, play Stone Rain on turn three, opponent is set back two turns. That’s a cumbersome combo to get off. If R&D had only remembered to put”Draw a card” in the text box, he might be borderline playable. I mean, come on, at least Turf Wound draws you a card. Resist the urge to play this card, I urge you, resist!

Mine Layer: Cool card in Odyssey Limited. Probably too fragile for Constructed play. But you never know. Since some early Ponza decks tried – with some success – to run one or two Seismic Mages, the Mine Layer might fit the same dubious slot.

That, good readers, is a lot of land destruction. And, of course, to fill out our main course we have a fine array of burn to help it go down easy.

Firebolt and Shock: If a reusable Stone Rain is good, a reusable Shock is also good. If only it was an instant…But this is a card you should always run four of. It’s one of the best cards in Odyssey, hands-down. The one drawback is that it’s a sorcery, not an instant. This can be a minor drawback when you want to fry your opponent’s turn one Elf or Bird at the end of their turn, freeing up mana that would be used on turn two for a Fire Diamond. But aside from that minor quibble, Firebolt is clearly the superior choice.

Urza’s Rage: When you absolutely, positively, have to kill Finkel dead. This also doubles as a kill card, as the deck has little problem ramping up to twelve mana. Run as many as you got (within legal limits)

Volcanic Hammer and Fire/Ice: I maintain that Fire/Ice is superior to the Hammer, mostly due to the fact that Fire is an instant and can be forked between targets. Volcanic Hammer cannot, although it does kill Infiltrators and Elephant tokens. But that’s what Rage is for, silly rabbit!

Ghitu Fire: Can be a finisher-type card and solid creature removal, also good against control decks and their usual end-of-turn tricks. But it just doesn’t seem to fit in the deck, considering all of its other spells make it pretty mana hungry.

Earthquake and Pyroclasm: The big ‘Quake doubles as board sweeper and finisher. Pyroclasm is probably a better sideboard choice, unless you fear decks packing both Elves and Birds, since those weak mana birds scoff at an Earthquake, flying high up in the sky… Why I oughta…Just wait until I get my Hurricane, then we’ll see who’s laughing! Me, I fear no Birds, not with my burn, so I prefer Earthquake to Pyroclasm.

And, of course, we have a few artifacts that seem to fit the Ponza archetype quite nicely:

Fire Diamond and Star Compass: These mana accelerators are pretty much staples of the Ponza deck. They speed up the deck a turn and survive global land destruction spells, enabling a faster recovery. Unless you’re running a lot of basics, there’s no reason to run Star Compass over Fire Diamond, since Star Compass, like Fellwar Stone, is worthless without a basic land in play.

Mirari: Merciful God in Heaven above, is there an archetype that demands you put Mirari in it like Ponza? Forking burn is good. Forking land destruction spells is madness. Forking a kicked Urza’s Rage is insane. Stop the insanity!

With Ponza, you get Mirari in play and get to use it, you win. That simple.

Gotta have creatures, ya know. Critters are good for finishing off an opponent, I’ve been led to believe.

Magnivore: Ponza runs over twenty sorceries. Magnivore not only has haste, but gets the dreaded +X/+X for each sorcery in the graveyard. You do the math. It almost always starts out life as a 5/5 at the very least and keeps getting larger from there. Pretty much an automatic for the deck. I’m also playing with a variant that is sort of a mono-red ErhnamGeddon deck that uses Epicenter… But would you call it”MagniCenter” or”EpiVore?”

Shivan Dragon: I championed this creature as the penultimate finisher for Ponza. Well, I was wrong. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but the six mana is better spent on other things.

Skizzik: The only downside to this beastie is his three toughness, meaning he can be Raged out. But what else would you suggest go in the deck for a creature component? The only thing wrong with Skizzik is that, other than being a 5/3 trampler with haste, it doesn’t”do” anything, a la Masticore.

Flametongue Kavu: You’d think this would be a perfect fit for the deck. He does have a downside, however – there needs to be other creatures in play. Hopefully, you’ll have burned out all the other creatures and destroyed all the land by the time you needed to drop a Flametongue. But that doesn’t always happen, and a two-for-one creature is always welcome. And at four power he can end the came fairly quickly, so I have to find some room for him somewhere.

Wall of Fire: I include this only as a lark, as it is a fine defensive creature. But Ponza is about offense, and this is really only a good defensive creature. Well, duh – it’s a wall, for cryin’ out loud… But if you’re worried about weenie swarms, this guy can stop ’em cold.

The deck really misses the all-purpose Masticore. Flowstone Overseer kind of worked as a replacement when Mercadian Block was Standard-legal. Right now, there are no viable replacements for the nasty ‘Core. So we make do with what we have.

My prototype mono-red Ponza deck currently looks like this:

4 Stone Rain

4 Pillage

4 Earth Rift

4 Fire Diamond

2 Mirari

3 Magnivore

3 Flametongue Kavu

4 Firebolt

4 Urza’s Rage

2 Fire/Ice

2 Earthquake

21 Mountain

3 Barbarian Ring

The deck, as you may have noticed, really isn’t that great. The trouble with mono-red Ponza is that there are certain cards that a) it can do absolutely nothing about and b) absolutely shut down the deck. Divert, obviously, is a brutal beating, even more so than Misdirection, because with Misdirection you were at least breaking even in terms of straight-up card advantage, two to two. Divert is one-for-two, and in the early game – the critical time for Ponza to establish superiority over control decks – Divert gives control such a leg-up that it’s nearly impossible to overcome.

It also misses non-basics like Rishadan Port and Dust Bowl tremendously. Land destruction that control decks could not stop (save for the seldom-seen Teferi’s Response) was a critical component of the deck.

However, by adding another color to the deck, we may be able to overcome these problems. A while back, I coined the term”Dark Ponza” for B/R land destruction decks, and I’ve been trying like the dickens to make the concept work. Perhaps Odyssey will finally make it happen.

Duress: A first- or second-turn Duress solves a lot of problems Ponza has with countermagic, especially cards like Divert and Sacred Ground – which otherwise, as previously mentioned, hose the deck. Also good in the mid to late game to fish out a counterspell before playing something else bomb-like. Other discard, like Addle and Persecute, are good sideboard additions.

Trench Wurm: I was really, really high on this card when it first came out. A hard-to-kill Dwarven Miner, this will make Dark Ponza shine. Well, I was wrong. Trench Wurm, you’re no Avalanche Riders. On turn four, the Riders were guaranteed to at least get a land – basic or otherwise – provide at the very worst a warm body for a turn. The Dwarven Miner could be dropped on turn two and used on turn three. The Wurm’s three toughness isn’t that impressive when Rages are abundant, and his lack of celerity in terms of being able to use his ability is a hindrance as well. Still, there might be room for a couple in a Dark Ponza build.

Braids, Cabal Minion: Hey, if there’s a deck that’s going to be able to abuse Braids, Ponza is as good as any. Get ahead on permanents, drop Ms. Abyss, and let the good times roll. Of course, early game the card isn’t as good, but it shines once you’ve destroyed three or four lands via the Stone Rain route

Void: Mono-red Ponza can’t get rid of anything pro-red (like the current environment is swarming with them). Well, surprise, surprise; here’s the card that can. But as much as I love the card, it often seems to be too expensive, and in a deck filled with high casting-cost spells, the five mana might be a bit prohibitive. Still, I think there should be room for one or two in the deck.

Yawgmoth’s Agenda: There is a possible mid- to late-game combo using Braids and the Agenda – get eight or so land out, drop Braids, sacrifice a few lands, then play the Agenda and start playing all those lands right back out. Given that Dark Ponza is not built for an early kill but rather wants to establish superiority in permanents, then beat down with creatures and burn, this combo, while a tad unwieldy, might be viable.

For now, this is what I’ve come up with for my current Dark Ponza build:

4 Urborg Volcano

4 Sulfurous Springs

2 Shadowblood Ridge

7 Mountain

6 Swamp

4 Stone Rain

4 Pillage

4 Earth Rift

3 Duress

4 Braids, Cabal Minion

2 Flametongue Kavu

1 Trench Wurm

4 Firebolt

4 Urza’s Rage

2 Volcanic Hammer

1 Yawgmoth’s Agenda

2 Void

The potential is there. Just gotta keep workin’ at it until it works.

There’s another Ponza variant I was working on – a G/R version I called”Salsa,” which didn’t work back when I came up with it in the days of Urza’s Block, although the popular”Son of Hermit” deck which did quite well at Worlds ’00 was extremely similar to it.

Adding green gives land destruction access to one-drop mana creatures, enabling it to play Pillage and Stone Rain on turn two instead of turn three. That’s the big difference. Other fun green cards I need to touch on are:

Creeping Mold: It destroys lands, it destroys artifacts, it destroys enchantments. But wait! There’s more! Order within the next ten minutes and we’ll throw in the Pocket Fisherman for free! If you are going to run G/R land destruction, there’s no reason not to include this spell for the sheer versatility it provides.

Rith’s Charm: Okay, it’s three color, but I gotta mention it here. Hey, it can make Saprolings, too! Dust Bowl it ain’t, though, and we put it in the same pile as Implode and Dwarven Landslide.

Better creatures: Kavu Titan, Jade Leech, Raging Kavu, Flametongue Kavu, Yavimaya Barbarian – all superior creatures the deck has access to in terms of casting cost to power. Sadly, there’s no Masticore in the bunch, but they’re not too shabby.

Decimate: The word”decimate” comes from the Latin, meaning to”reduce by a tenth,” but has come to mean”total annihilation.” I mention that because it’s the only use I can come up for the card is educational purposes. It’s bad, so very bad.

Using G/R, this is my best land destruction deck:

2 Shivan Oasis

4 Karplusan Forest

2 Mossfire Valley

8 Forest

7 Mountain

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Llanowar Elves

4 Kavu Titan

3 Call of the Herd

4 Stone Rain

4 Pillage

2 Earth Rift

3 Creeping Mold

4 Firebolt

3 Urza’s Rage

2 Flametongue Kavu

Yeah, it seems more like Rocket Shoes than a Ponza variant. But the potential is there. If only it had access to Plow Under, like Son of Hermit did.

“The potential is there.” I seem to be saying that about all my land destruction decks. Sadly, the more I play with Ponza, the more it appears it was a one-trick pony; a metagame marvel that was only good when it had a synergy of certain cards available to it, Masticore, Tectonic Break and Rishadan Port. Not mono-red Ponza, not”Dark Ponza,” not”Salsa”: None of these decks seem to have what it takes to break through to Tier I status.

But here’s a question: What if you combine green and black with primarily red Ponza to have access to all the aforementioned green and black goodies and the ultimate board sweeper in Standard these days, Pernicious Deed.

Well, you’d have quite a mess of a deck. If you follow the Ponza archetype. But in a deck chock full of mana fixers like Harrow and Lay of the Land… Perhaps five colors…

But all of a sudden, Dark Domain in Standard doesn’t look that bad…Replace the Implodes and Dwarven Landslides with Earth Rift and Stone Rain.

Hey, we might be on to something.

Dave Meddish

[email protected]

* – Yes, Dave has a woman. I suggest you all gather ’round your loved ones and get your affairs in order, for the end of the world cannot be far off.