Revisiting The Philosophy Of Fire In Standard

Adrian Sullivan revisits his Philosophy of Fire while looking at two red-based decks in the current Standard format that have been getting some buzz: Big Boros and R/W/B Burn.

I’m a big advocate of reading practically everything that you can when it comes to Magic. If you have time, tapping into the Collective Intelligence in Magic is a huge edge in an already competitive game. One of the keys when it comes to consuming so much Magic media is being able to see everything that is coming in but also knowing how to judge the value of the information.

This second critical bit, that element of judgment, was wonderfully on display in one moment in the awesome Team SCG Pro Tour Theros Limited Conversation. At one moment these paragons of the game were discussing some information that had come out on the Mothership on the statistics of cards in Theros Limited decks and their correlation with winning. Interestingly, many of them rejected some of the statistics, largely because they viewed the expected performance of certain cards to be different in the hands of Pro Tour competitors than the vast masses of all Magic Online players. There is certainly something to be said for this opinion; I’ve long held that when it comes to Burn decks or aggressive red decks, most people’s playtesting is fundamentally flawed because of how radically poorly people tend to play those decks.

Let’s take an example deck, like this one piloted by Wisconsin’s Greg Ogreenc to a Top 8 finish in Grand Prix Kansas City 2013:

One of the things that has been remarkably true for me when I watch people play this deck is that overwhelmingly people play it so poorly that I have to wonder what prompted them to pick the deck up. I’ve often heard people, even incredibly experienced people, scoff and say, “Well, I can count to twenty! It’s not that hard!” Whether it is watching this deck in person the last half year or watching people attempt to play similar decks in person for SCGLive or otherwise, I feel like I can say with confidence that unless they were named Patrick Sullivan when I watched someone play this style of deck they averaged a major mistake every turn (assuming they weren’t mana screwed).

This is a bit harsh. But it is also a reason that I’m drawn to the strategy of Burn decks. One of the things I can usually expect is that almost all of the playtesting that my opponent has put in is likely faulty. Armed with a good deck, you can leverage this kind of misinformation incredibly well against many opponents.

Burn is an incredible tool for any deck. One of the reasons that I see a lot of value in Shaheen Soorani attempts to make a U/W/R Control deck a major player in Standard, for example, is that it leverages one of the best tools in Magic. About five years ago, I described a burn spell’s versatility, thusly:

Burn . . . feels like a wildcard. Burn can go in a control deck. It can go in an aggro-control deck. It can go in a midrange deck whether it is controlling or aggressive. It can go into an aggro deck. The reason for this versatility is the nature of burn itself. With very few exceptions, a burn spell can be pointed at anything. It’s up to you whether you want to point it at a player or reserve it for a creature.

This is also one of the reasons that burn spells can be misleading for both a player and importantly a deckbuilder. Zvi Mowshowitz once said that there is a big difference between Big Red and Burn, and I certainly agree with him. He said another thing that was quite correct as well: every burn spell you point at the player in a Burn deck makes every other burn spell all the more valuable. This is an incredibly important thing to achieve when you realize that in addition every burn spell you point at your opponent in a Burn deck is also a zero-for-one. Giving your opponent a “free” card is not that exciting a prospect, so you need to make sure you’re getting the most of it.

It’s probably not surprising that I have a lot of strong opinions and love for both burn and Burn; long-time readers and Magic theorists might already know that I came up with The Philosophy of Fire (though, like Junk, it was named by Mike Flores). If you’re not familiar with this concept, in a nutshell it is a way of thinking about the “health” (the most common is life total, but also remaining library, poison, etc.) of a player as a limited resource. Decks like Burn or Mill aggressively attempt to reduce this resource directly. As Patrick Chapin says in Next Level Magic, understanding how to interact on this axis is a way that lets you understand how to reduce the other player’s options. At a certain point as your health drops towards zero, only a very few things actually continue to matter.

Burn as a strategy takes advantage of this by directing so many of its resources towards the explicit direct reduction of life totals that the only options to answer it become:

a) Gaining Life
b) Stopping the Life Loss
c) Racing

So very few decks even have access to Gaining Life. Stopping the Life Loss usually involves countermagic, and at a certain point it can very easily mean that every single spell from a Burn deck requires a direct answer.

Racing is one of the most common strategies, and it is the one that is usually the most successful, particularly when paired with Gaining Life. Imagine the Tarmogoyf followed up by a Kitchen Finks or the Desecration Demon who suddenly is joined by a Whip of Erebos or Gray Merchant of Asphodel. The power of Racing is at its best because every time the Burn deck chooses to turn one of its burn spells towards a creature it is slowly shifting towards a control role and making its other burn spells less effective at ending the game.

Which is what brings me to this deck:

The first time I saw this particular archetype was in an article from [author name="Patrick Chapin"]Patrick Chapin[/author] last week. He shared a version of the list by Code Murphy, with Patrick saying, “This isn’t the fastest Lava Spike deck I have ever seen, but if the format is full of shock lands and Thoughtseizes, it does have purpose.” I agreed with that sentiment, buuuuuuuut I had my reservations. Code Murphy for his part said he’d seen the deck in a recent Daily Event and had worked on it from there. Here was his list mentioned in Patrick’s article:

A big part of my concern is that both Code’s deck and Joe’s deck are working in a schizophrenic way. Sometimes a deck works at cross-purposes with itself, but it does so for some kind of strategic reason. Take the simplest example of a deck that runs a fair number of creatures also running Day of Judgment; it doesn’t mean that the choice is wrong, but this kind of “nombo” does have a cost in the efficacy of the deck. In recent decks, the inclusion of a strong top end in a deck with a strong low end of a curve can be a bit schizophrenic; including, say, a Stormbreath Dragon in a deck with a ton of one- and two-drops just means that you are less likely to be able to consistently get the kind of explosive draw that Owen Turtenwald Mono-Red Aggro deck from SCG Standard Open: Worcester was able to reliably accomplish.

In a similar way, a deck that includes a lot of more controlling elements like Chained to the Rocks and Anger of the Gods is not supporting its game plan when it also runs cards like Boros Charm and Skullcrack. The difference between this kind of schizophrenia and the schizophrenia I talk about above is that at least the top end of the curve plays can support the early plays, whereas the control plays and the burn plays are actually at cross-purposes: one seeks to stop the opponent’s threats and the other seeks to end the game.

Remember again Zvi’s correct claim that Big Red and Burn are different decks.

While Joe Demestrio certainly has some major mana problems against his opponent Matt Sperling in the following match, you can see a little bit of how this plays out here:

Notice that Demestrio’s plays that draw out the game give Sperling more opportunities to take advantage of the superior card quality and late game of Mono Black Devotion. Every draw is yet another opportunity for a Whip or a Gray Merchant. In addition, every draw is another opportunity to draw a card that practically demands that Demestrio turn his burn spells at the creatures in play, thus nullifying the deck’s ability to truly be a Burn deck and instead forcing the deck into being a somewhat anemic Big Red deck.

Still, some will say that must be wrong. After all, Joe Demestrio placed eleventh at the Grand Prix, and this vindicates the deck.

I definitely think there is a kernel of greatness in the deck, but that doesn’t mean that I think the deck is “correct” in its approach. Ask anyone who has been a successful deckbuilder for a length of time whether or not many Pro Tour-winning decks were “correct” and they will likely be able to point out to you many that were good certainly but made a number of mistakes that people didn’t realize until after the event. The concept of the deck helped propel it to success even if the specific execution was flawed.

With the 76 cards that Joe has access to, I think that the deck can present itself as a very reasonable Big Red deck or a somewhat reasonable Burn deck. In either case, there are some opponents who would struggle to be able to handle that particular angle. For some decks, a relentless assault on the life total would just be impossible to deal with, particularly with so few creatures to interact with. For others, such an onslaught of controlling cards might be impossible to handle. Trying to do them both at the same time though weakens the possibilities of the deck to succeed at either plan.

This is very different than the Stormbreath Dragon at the end of a small curve, which gives up consistency for resiliency, because both parts of this plan work towards the same goal. Being a controlling deck and being a Burn deck focused on the life total of the opponent are antithetical in addition to being schizophrenic.

And now for a moment of controversy: in the Burn deck, I don’t think that running four Shocks is likely to be correct, and certainly I think running Magma Jet is wrong. Magma Jet is simply too inefficient to be an effective supporting burn spell in a Burn deck, which cannot count on creatures to help finish the deal. Magma Jet simply deals too little damage for the mana. Even decks that run a lot of creatures sometimes eschew it. See Owen’s list for a great example:

It isn’t that Magma Jet is bad. It’s just that it is inefficient at killing a player. In a Burn deck, efficiency is one of the most important considerations. This is why Modern Burn runs Lava Spike even though that card is absolutely terrible. It is efficient, and with enough efficient damage, you can end a game.

Owen runs Shock in his deck, but Shock is far different in a deck that is planning on dealing damage primarily with creatures. At that same event, Philip Bertorelli only ran two Shocks to win the event. He could get away with this because Shock isn’t really used as a “to the face” card for its primary use. Instead, it is primarily a red version of this:

Yes, it can go directly to the player, but this isn’t what it is usually trying to do.

If you give in to the idea of the Burn deck*, you end up moving far closer to what Code Murphy ended up playing. I believe though that you need to go a little bit further into creatures despite the fact that it opens you up to the anti-creature spells of an opponent. You don’t have to go all the way into this path, but if you are planning on cutting, say, Shock and Chained to the Rocks from the deck, you need to have something to do on that part of the curve other than lay a Temple. The best solution is just to have more powerful one-drops. As you cut out some of the other cards that are inefficient at dealing damage, haste creatures are a great bet, and you end up with Ash Zealot.

Here is the deck I’d have in mind to increase the Burn side of the equation:

Fully double the number of creatures played by either Code or Joe, it still is actually a fairly small number of creatures and a ton of cards that can be pointed directly to the face. It runs a few less spells in order to fit in three more Mutavaults, but one of the worst things that a deck like this can do is to mana stall. You’d think you’d like to be able to only draw spells, but this leads you into situations where you can lose the Racing game I mentioned above. Mutavault is one of the best ways to increase your mana while still decreasing the threat of the dreaded flood.

The sideboard is full of ways to answer any number of problems, with only Assemble the Legion really presenting itself as an additional threat. Boros Reckoner surely can attack, but its primary purpose is to suppress an attack. With a sideboard like this, you can bring in the answers if you need them, but you start out as a unified deck. If you do bring in those answers, it is important to reduce the purely Burn deck-based strategy cards, so cutting the Skullcrack cards (and their friends like Toil // Trouble and Boros Charm) is one common plan.

Of course, maybe you prefer to be more controlling to start. In that case, this might be more to your liking:

Perhaps understandably, I’m less excited about how this deck looks than I am the first deck. I love Big Red decks, but the more you understand how these decks play, the less comfortable you end up feeling playing a ton of the most powerful cards in the 75 in the maindeck. A card like Boros Charm, for example, is an incredible card, but it simply isn’t well supported in the first version of the list.

Toil // Trouble is able to sneak into the list as a kind of alternative Read the Bones that can also have an upside. Remember, this is a controlling deck, so the red half of the card is likely to be the secondary way that the card is played unless you have an unusual hand or the game is getting to that point where the opponent is on the ropes.

Of course, one could simply rearrange the cards in Joe Demestrio’s 76 and arrive at something quite similar to this, but I actually think that there are a few issues with even the 76. I love Stormbreath Dragon, but I don’t really care for it in a deck that isn’t putting a lot of other creatures into play. Simply put, with very few creatures a Stormbreath Dragon is all the more likely to be torn down from the sky by an opponent’s removal. At the same time, on the defense Stormbreath Dragon is just incredibly slow. In a deck like this, I greatly prefer Assemble the Legion even if it can’t finish the game as rapidly; in a controlling deck, you don’t so much care as long as you get it done in the end.

The sideboard’s heavily switcheroo nature is the equal and opposite of the previous deck. The one major difference though is that I think that switching strategies is far more powerful in a deck that truly has the option to stay in its natural 60 form and just mise a win. An aggressive deck can accomplish that; a controlling deck, if it might want to play switcheroo, almost never can.

I was pretty excited when I first saw this archetype in Chapin’s article last week, but quite quickly I was disenchanted by the deck. Seeing it play since, I’m struck by the sheer power of the archetype, but it is marred by the significant ways in which the deck works at cross-purposes to itself. Applying the lessons of the Philosophy of Fire to the design of the deck is a way that will increase the fundamental power of the deck.

To that end, I definitely prefer the first of the two decks I presented above even if it does present more standard ways of interacting with it than either of the original decks (by Demestrio and Murphy) or my more controlling deck. Remember, the Modern Burn lists are typically running thirteen or more creatures, so sixteen really isn’t that much. I think that there is more than enough potent damage dealing in the remaining twenty cards to help get the job done.

Understanding the Philosophy of Fire isn’t about just counting down the opponent’s life. It’s about recognizing that the more that you put pressure on the life total, the more value you get out of putting yet more pressure on. This is why it is incredibly common for Burn decks to shift into being Red Aggro or Zoo because creatures are usually the best way to apply that pressure. In the right environment, though, the direct attack of life by spells can be more effective than yet another creature because the reduced angles of interaction pressure the opponent into making plays that are desperate. If this is one of those moments, I don’t want to be watering down the approach by playing cards that take the pressure off of my opponent.

If you’re going to try to play Burn, play Burn, but always be cautious that you don’t shift into another archetype and in so doing hinder your ability to beat an opponent who is wise enough to not put their head in the noose for you.

Until next week,

Adrian L. Sullivan

@AdrianLSullivan on Twitter

*I kept thinking of this line in The Dark Knight the whole time I was writing this article: