Setting The World On Fire

After a weekend of commentating at #SCGINVI, Adrian Sullivan talks about a couple Burning Earth decks that caught his eye. See if you should play it at #SCGKNOX or #SCGMINN!

The most recent StarCityGames.com Invitational has come and gone. We’ve crowned a new champion, Erik Smith, and witnessed the beginning stages of a new Standard format. Jund Midrange was crowned king in the Standard Open in one of the largest Standard events played this year, and Erik Smith also used it in the Top 8 of the Invitational to take the victory in the main event.

So things are basically the same as they were before, right? Jund Midrange was the de facto best deck, and it still is the best deck, isn’t it?

Well, it wasn’t loudly proclaimed, but I think we are going to see something that is slowly going to change the battleground:

Over last weekend, I had a chance to see the effect of this card up close and personal. I saw it in play again and again, both on camera as I was doing coverage of the event with Cedric Phillips and Matthias Hunt and also when I walked around the event site watching people’s games. I saw the card dropped into play again and again, generally to great effect. That wasn’t, of course, how things always played out.

In the finals, this Naya Midrange deck managed to find the card several times after sideboarding but didn’t really get much use out of it in the games on camera:

Now, Andrew Tenjum was running the same list as Alexander Binkek (yesteryear’s representative for the USA at the WMC) in the event. After the event was over, there was a conversation among the coverage staff over just how bad Burning Earth had been for Tenjum in his finals match against Jund and if it wasn’t good there where was it good. I knew that I definitely disagreed, but I felt a little too tired to really say the reasons why I felt so, when Gerry Thompson voiced it for me:

"He would have lost with anything there for the most part. But Burning Earth could be dropped into play and just completely lock out a game against a deck, even Jund."

"Doesn’t that just make it a ‘win more’?" someone asked.

"No, because a lot of those games a deck like Jund might be able to escape if it were a creature or a planeswalker. Jund doesn’t have many good ways to kill an enchantment. Yet."

Gerry didn’t actually say "yet," but in my head I heard an imaginary voice say it.

Anatomy of a Burning Earth

Now, Burning Earth is no Manabarbs. Sure, there are a ton of situations where it is just a very much better Manabarbs, but there are also certainly some real situations where it is a weaker card. To quote Matthias Hunt from last weekend, "Burning Earth isn’t as good at what it does as Manabarbs, and Manabarbs was never even that good."

I absolutely disagree with Matthias about Manabarbs not being that good in the past, but I do agree with him that Burning Earth is not as good at what it does as Manabarbs.

Manabarbs is unforgiving. It doesn’t care what kind of deck you are. If you want to cast a spell, it is going to hurt you for it unless you are using nonlands to cast it. Several super old-school red mages from the Midwest were talking about this a while back, and I think recent PTQ winner (and old school PTer) Ronny Serio put it exactly right. It doesn’t matter if you take less damage with a card like Manabarbs / Burning Earth; what matters is that your opponent doesn’t have a chance to take less damage. If an opponent has out one basic land, let alone more, that little bit less damage that a Burning Earth produces can be a huge problem.

Take the deck that Tenjum played above. It has two basic lands in it. Generally speaking, the plan for Tenjum (and Binek, among others) was not to hope that they were taking less damage from Burning Earth than an opponent was. The plan was that it wouldn’t matter that they were taking damage under Burning Earth because the opponent would already be facing the threat of so much damage that a Burning Earth would completely lock out the game.

Manabarbs can fully have that effect. Burning Earth can do it against the right opponents, but it does sometimes afford them the ability to mitigate that damage enough that the Burning Earth doesn’t feel like it is nearly as devastating. This is the reason that Ronny and I (among others) actually look at Burning Earth as a worse Manabarbs. At four mana, though, you have to make sure that you’re getting enough damage from it to make it worth your while.

That being said, the card still has the potential to be bonkers even if a deck like Jund might have a small number of basics to be able to better handle the card. Here are some quick guidelines for when and how to cast the spell.

1. Aggression

Are you in a more aggressive position than your opponent? This is generally a good time to cast Burning Earth. With some exceptions, you don’t want to drop the card onto the table and then realize that you are locking yourself out of the game. Remember, life-gain effects, especially repeatable ones like from lifelink or an Obzedat trigger, can actually change the math on whether you are the aggressor or the defender in a situation. You have to look not just at the now but at the expectations you have for the few remaining turns. If you aren’t able to produce your own stream of damage in the next few turns but they are, this might not be the time for Burning Earth unless it basically does nothing to you (say, you are a mono-red deck) and you have nothing else worthwhile to do.

2. Relative Damage

Given the potential for other cards to be able to create damage is Burning Earth going to cause relatively the same amount of damage as another spell? This can be an interesting question to evaluate, as you have to look at the current board state and predict what kinds of spells might be played in the next turns.

For example, if you expect your opponent won’t cast Thragtusk on the next turn, a Hellrider might be a better play against a tapped out opponent than dropping a Burning Earth. You know you’ll be getting in four damage immediately, and even if something drops into play to gum up the works later, you’ll already have the damage potential on the board and can follow up with the Burning Earth, making removal itself cause the opponent pain. But if your opponent is very removal heavy and untapped, a Burning Earth can be a better play into the opponent than even an incredible card like Thundermaw Hellkite, which might just make your opponent spend two mana and draw out a Doom Blade or other potent removal spell.

3. Current Untapped Mana

If you are playing against a deck that has Golgari Charm or access to countermagic and is also susceptible to Burning Earth, you generally want to wait for a moment to make the card stick unless you’re trying to push into their mana resources to cut them off from options. Against an opponent who doesn’t want to see Burning Earth, making sure to punish them for their nonbasics is important. As a non-gold enchantment, a lot of decks have a very difficult time getting rid of a Burning Earth when it hits play, so if you think they have ways to stop it or get rid of it, you really want their attempts to keep it from happening to really punish them.

Untapped mana can mean any number of things can go wrong. Perhaps they can put mana in their pool before the spell resolves and make a huge Sphinx’s Revelation and suddenly your race against a Bant Control’s Thragtusk in play looks like it cannot be won. Perhaps they will drop a Restoration Angel or an Advent of the Wurm and the math will similarly go wrong. Or perhaps they will just counter your spell or destroy the enchantment with floated mana once it hits play. If Burning Earth is a relevant spell against your opponent, you want it to have an effect even if it is only as an expensive Duress by forcing your opponent to get rid of it while you build up to another problem for them.

4. Know the Rules

I’ve seen people with Manabarbs in play, a burn spell in their hand, and an opponent at low life and seen them fail to win a game they should have. Remember, with Burning Earth and Manabarbs, the effect for the enchantment goes on the stack, and it can be responded to. If you have an instant burn spell, you can tap your mana and put the effect from Burning Earth on the stack for each land you’re tapping, and as long you cast an instant, you can respond to those effects with your spells. Also, for that matter, realize that an opponent can do the same thing, so make sure to be aware of the danger that a U/W/R deck can present by having WR2 open and don’t let a Warleader’s Helix suddenly rip a game away from you.

More Burning Earth Thoughts

I think a card like Burning Earth gets a bad rap a lot of the time because people simply don’t know how to use it. To call it "bad" because it didn’t do well in a specific situation is to oversimplify the effect of Manabarbs style cards. These cards are really good against mana-hungry opponents even if those opponents are typically able to be the aggressive deck. During the heyday of Jund, the Putrid Leech / Bloodbraid Elf days, Jund was usually all about presenting threats and killing an opponent. Despite that Manabarbs was an incredibly good effect against them simply because if you could back it up with any damage the opponent would crumble.

Check out this GP-winning deck from that era:

Ding Yuan Long’s deck was a straightforward aggressive deck that used Manabarbs the way you should use Burning Earth: to lock out a game from an entirely different angle so that you can potentially dodge their answers. With a few exceptions (Oblivion Ring for example), few cards can take out a Burning Earth and take out another threat. This means that an opponent who needs to produce an answer can be stuck in the classic Threat Theory/Answer Theory problem. If you draw the answer and your opponent doesn’t have the threat, your draw is all the worse, but if your opponent draws the threat and you don’t have the answer, that is just terrible.

To put it into perspective, imagine the following matrix, with the payouts in terms of value for the Burning Earth player.


If both players draw a threat/answer, they are both down their card to do what they do and the mana to do it. If neither draw it, they are down nothing. If the Burning Earth player doesn’t draw their Burning Earth, they aren’t down any resources, but the opponent is holding a dead card in the meantime. On the other hand, if the one player draws the Burning Earth and the other player doesn’t have an answer, the "X" represents that value of having that card in play. So long as Burning Earth is truly a credible threat against an opponent, just having access to the card is a winning proposition against decks that are vulnerable to it.

Burning Their Earth

A lot of this is working under the assumption that the Burning Earth player is making the card close to the Manabarbs effect—that is to say that both players will be hurt equally by it, at least in terms of access to nonbasics.

But what if you are really pushing the non-symmetry by running practically no basics?

There were more than a few decks doing this at the Invitational, but one stood out:

I’ve been incredibly pleased with Shrout’s recent successes. He is definitely one of those players who is more than willing to think outside of the box, but he is also very willing to temper that with a reliance on results. Shrout tends to like the aggressive side of the equation, and there have been more than a few moments in the recent and distant past where we’ve talked to each other about deck choices, beginning I think when we randomly played each other in a Magic Online tournament and compared results with our respective Elf Aggro decks. I don’t know if Shrout worked with another competitor, Adam Laforest, on this deck, but while Shrout had a great Standard run (6-2) at the Invitational, Laforest made Top 8 of GP Calgary with this:

The main on these decks is exactly the same. This deck is a very interesting take on red and sure to evolve over the coming weeks. Unlike its smaller cousins, this deck doesn’t really start on the curve until three (two if you want to stretch and count dropping a Mutavault on turn 1 and attacking on two). As "Big Red" goes, having zero one-drops is a strong indication that you’re planning on being on the top parts of the curve.

Before the event, Shrout and I talked about his list a few times, once online before the event began, comparing some notes, and later the morning of, with him showing me where he had gotten to. He was quickly shown on camera, facing off against the legendary Osyp Lebedowicz. At one point in this game, facing down seven power in creatures, Shrout dropped a Burning Earth in play and quickly dispatched Osyp a few turns later with Thundermaw Hellkite helped by a Chandra’s Phoenix on brief defense duty.

Over the weekend, Shrout started out 4-0 with the deck, though he eventually fell to 6-2. I asked Shrout about the maindeck Burning Earths in the deck, how they had been, and what Standard might look like in the near future. The one thing he said that he really impressed upon me was this; decks are going to have to change because of the existence of this card.

Now, there are a few things I don’t like about Shrout’s list. I don’t like the existence of zero cheap creatures in the deck; personally, I think you can steal a lot of games simply by the existence of a small number of low drops. I also don’t know if I believe that four Burning Earths is the way to go, even in a metagame in which nonbasics are so omnipresent. Four is a lot of a card that might not actually do anything. You can drop it into play on a live board, and your opponent might simply not cast spells for a while, relying on what they already have.

Also, I know this is heresy, but even with the appearance of Elves this weekend I don’t like Bonfire of the Damned in this deck. I do like Bonfire in some decks, but they all run Farseek, generally a little more acceleration on top of it, and aren’t strictly aggressive decks. You might know these decks by the name "Jund Midrange." In a more aggressive deck, I think that the undependable nature of a miracle is asking for trouble. On a similar note, I’m a little unexcited about Brimstone Volley, mostly because it is a lot of mana for what is often only three damage.

That said, clearly a 6-2 at the Invitational in New Jersey, 9-2 in the Standard Open (with nearly 1,000 players), and a 12-2 in GP Calgary is nothing to sneeze at.

I’d been working on a less ambitious version of the deck than Andrew Shrout, but inspired by him and listening to the wise words of Patrick Sullivan (who claimed, I think rightfully, in his interview with Reuben Bresler that Burning Earth isn’t a card to be wholly relied upon), I came to the following list:

As far as changes go, a part of it is simply lowering the curve. I really love Rakdos Cackler as a game 1 plan. Turn 1 Cackler, turn 2 Cackler can sometimes be enough to win games even if you get a crappy mulligan draw. Stonewright is a card that I’ve had a lot of success with in aggressive decks, especially if they have fliers. Ash Zealot is another card that’s a great way to begin a game, particularly if you’re following up a one-drop.

Chandra, Pyromaster is in the deck basically because it’s the mono-red Domri Rade. It isn’t able to do as much damage as Domri can to a creature, but the card advantage engine of Chandra is more reliable for a grind fest. While the ultimate of Chandra, Pyromaster isn’t as potent as Domri’s by far, it does have the incredible ability to just close out games with the plus ability and the zero ability. Still, I’m only running two, mostly because I think that you’re generally going to win by causing large bursts of damage.

The sideboard is a combination of cards that I’ve had success with in the past along with inspirations from my conversations with Andrew Shrout. The Ratchet Bombs are just amazing weapons against problematic permanents, but they’re especially good against cards that you can sometimes struggle with, like big creatures and swarms of tokens. The ton of critter removal (Temblor, Trickery, Act, Mortars) is there to deal with various decks that simply have more or better creatures than you that you just need to get them off of the table.

Even without a sacrifice outlet like Falkenrath Aristocrat, I love a few Zealous Conscripts as a way to change combat math, end a game that might swing out of control due to Thragtusk, or yoink away a problematic planeswalker. Finally, Reverberate and Chandra, Pyromaster make for great cards that present another angle against control; you can counter their counterspells with Reverberate or refill when they do by copying a Sphinx’s Revelation. Chandra, Pyromaster forces the opponent into needing to put forth an attacker unless they want to be overwhelmed.

I don’t have Burning Earth number four in the board, mostly because I don’t think it’s a card that I actually want to see in multiples very often. A single Burning Earth against opponents that are susceptible to it is enough to make everything go to hell for them. More is practically wasteful when you’re talking about a deck that really ought to be closing out games as rapidly as possible.

I’m still working out the specific numbers, so I know that the list I’ve provided isn’t to my mind 100% optimal, particularly in the sideboard, but I do know that the deck feels really powerful. I asked Shrout about his version of the deck at the end of the weekend, and I know he still feels pretty faithful to it and is confident in its chances in the coming weeks.

We have some time before Theros arrives and kicks a ton of cards to the curb. Until then, slash and burn the fields because I think we’re in for a lot of Burning Earth.

Until next week,

Adrian L. Sullivan

@AdrianLSullivan on Twitter