Spotlight: Burning Earth

Ari explains why you should be playing Burning Earth in the current Standard metagame and brainstorms ways to utilize it. Get some ideas for #SCGKNOX and #SCGMINN!

4, 10, 0, 3, 3, 1, 0, 18

3, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 13, 0

These are the numbers of basic lands in the Top 8 decklists from this past weekend’s StarCityGames.com Open and Invitational in New Jersey.

If you just look at the higher-end midrange decks (no Aristocrats, Hexproof, Elves, Naya, or red aggro), you get the following spread.

3, 2, 1, 0, 13, 3, 4, 0, 3

Well, Jeff Hoogland has our number, but how do these other decks plan on casting spells with a Burning Earth in play? That is half of the Top 8 metagame, and as of writing this five out of six of the undefeated decks at Grand Prix Calgary are Jund Midrange.

I want to punish my opponents for trying to make a "normal" mana base for the format. I want them to feel bad looking at a hand of five-drops they can’t cast despite having the lands in play to do so. I want to play the most powerful sideboard card in the format. 

Level 0: Just Red Them

Starting from the most prominent public list featuring Burning Earth.

Drew Levin opted to play this deck at the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Richmond. It looks awesome on paper and performs very well against a goldfish, but it has a couple inherent issues.

First, it has too many spells. Traditional red decks that are offshoots of the old 20/20/20 Sligh just don’t work in this format. The cards aren’t strong enough to kill your opponent before their life gain guys come into play, and as a result you are trying to add up to 25 to 30 damage dealt for a win. While a Searing Spear is usually one-seventh of a starting life total of twenty, in this format it’s closer to one-ninth or nearly just a Shock. The burn spells aren’t even good at killing creatures because the format is all tokens and two-for-ones.

Instead, you have to play like a traditional white aggro deck with Falters. Establish a growing board presence and deal incremental chunks of damage. It just happens that red is currently better than white at doing this. Burning-Tree Emissary is the best way to develop a board, and haste is the best wrath protection for a board.

Thinking about this, we can see why Dynacharge is secretly a burn spell. It doesn’t actually advance your ability to win in combat and maintain a board. Weapon Surge, on the other hand, fits into this plan much better, allowing you to jam into a Huntmaster of the Fells or Thragtusk and end the combat step down no board presence and up damage.

We can also see why Young Pyromancer is unfortunately not good. The cards you are playing to make it good aren’t worth drawing on their own, and the "combo" isn’t a game breaker if you assemble it.

Looking at red decks before M14, the big question was whether you wanted to splash Flinthoof Boar and Ghor-Clan Rampager. The answer was previously a resounding yes, but the addition of Mutavault makes it a question again. Often splashing green meant you were playing Temple Gardens to support Boros Reckoner, but can you afford to play so many "colorless" lands? Does ten nonbasics make Burning Earth significantly worse? Can you even afford to play Mutavault alongside Boros Reckoner? Chandra’s Phoenix, the other important red card from M14, comes up here as well as a reasonable three-drop that doesn’t cost triple red. Phoenix isn’t as great as it has been in the past since the burn spells to recur it are bad, but a 2/2 haste flying creature isn’t a slouch.

The other consideration is how you plan on beating the W/B Humans deck. While other Aristocrats decks are not terrible matchups, the newest build has a much smoother early game and gets on board fast enough to make life miserable for a red player. My immediate thought is we can borrow the Block Constructed Tokens answer of Legion Loyalist. The first strike also helps make blocks with Doomed Traveler bad, which is another of their main tools to slow your aggression. I make no promises about it being good enough, but it’s worth a shot.

Some quick suggested lists based upon the above thoughts and playing some cards I just like.

I’ve played Boros Reckoner with nineteen Mountains before. You might even be able to play another Mutavault and get away with eighteen, but at that point I become more concerned about having two Mountains on turn 2 for Burning-Tree Emissary and Ash Zealot.

Goblin Shortcutter might be me being cute, but I just want Falters for days. Correction: it’s definitely way too cute. Madcap Skills is a card I opted not to include but is probably better in this slot. See Christoffer Larsen’s Grand Prix Miami Top 8 deck.

If Huntmaster of the Fells and Lingering Souls might be issues for attacking, Weapon Surge wins combat against both.

Again, nineteen red sources is the bare minimum. Three Mutavaults might be greedy, but if I’m playing 23 lands, I want to be rewarded for doing so. See also: Thundermaw Hellkite.

There are fewer noncreature spells in this deck, but there are more cards that are effectively noncreatures due to the four Ghor-Clan Rampagers. I would not maindeck more removal to prevent spell flooding.

Domri Rade is likely unnecessary with Burning Earth knocking out the Esper Control decks you wanted it against.

Notice zero Searing Spears in either list. What are we actually targeting with that card? There aren’t enough mirrors to make Searing Spear relevant because of Hellrider, meaning you either want Mizzium Mortars to kill a Loxodon Smiter, Pillar of Flame to kill a Voice of Resurgence, or Electrickery to kill Lingering Souls.

Level 1: Bulking Up

In Drew Levin on camera match against Jund Midrange at #SCGRICH, he reached a point game 2 where he resolved Burning Earth with creatures in play. His opponent just played a Huntmaster and easily won against Drew’s mana flood. While Drew was definitely unlucky, this brings up a good point. Burning Earth is not necessarily a lethal threat, and you still need other damage sources to take it home. Those damage sources have to be good enough to beat a Huntmaster of the Fells or Thragtusk when you are "down" a card to Manabarbs.

My first thought was going back to a deck my team tested before Pro Tour Gatecrash. It was a G/R Aggro deck but bulkier than the near mono-red Saito-style deck and smaller than the Thundermaw Hellkite lists.

My second thought was why am I not just playing Thundermaw Hellkite. At that point, I realized that any deck I want to play in this format starts off with four Thundermaw Hellkites, three Bonfire of the Damneds, and four Scavenging Oozes and sideboards at least three Burning Earths.

With the red-heavy decks, I mentioned a bunch of awkward work arounds to the W/B Humans matchup, but just being a big G/R Aggro deck seems much better. Thundermaw Hellkite does not care about clogged boards. Bonfire serves a similar purpose. As for Ooze . . . that card is just too good.

Some preliminary lists:

Mizzium Mortars is one of the good ways to kill a mid-game Olivia Voldaren in these colors. Once they hit eight mana, all bets are off, but just don’t let them do that. Plummet is another.

I’m likely short one turn 1 green source in this list. I don’t want to cut a value land, but if I were playing this tomorrow, I probably would. I’m unsure if Mutavault or Kessig Wolf Run is better alongside your mana dorks, but you definitely don’t want more than two of the latter.

I feel like I’m forgetting something that is better than Naturalize, but you need something against Hexproof. You may want a second but definitely not a third. Drawing too many answers and not enough threats in that matchup is an easy way to die to Geist of Saint Traft. Acidic Slime can carry some of the weight here while also being reasonable against midrange and as a blocker for Geist.

Yes, I did say four Scavenging Oozes and three Bonfire of the Damned. I lied. The cut Scavenging Ooze is due to the extra two-drop space taken up by Burning-Tree Emissary. As for Bonfire, this deck is a bit too aggressive to play a bunch of that card. Without Elvish Mystic, Arbor Elf, or Avacyn’s Pilgrim to ramp, playing that card might even be incorrect, but I made a premise and am sticking to it.

In this case, the lack of mana guys that want late-game upgrading makes Mutavault much better than Kessig Wolf Run.

Being able to board "up" to Huntmaster of the Fells for aggressive mirrors is a big perk. That is the single best card against the aggro decks in this format. I’m almost wondering if it isn’t better to just maindeck it since the card is quite good against everything, but I think Hellrider fits this deck’s game plan just slightly better.

Level 2: Breaking Symmetry Is Overrated

Still, there are a few issues with these decks. The main one is that even with Mizzium Mortars, Olivia Voldaren is difficult to answer. There really aren’t flexible answers in just G/R to that card.

Olivia isn’t even the worst card for this deck. What are your outs to Boros Reckoner?

There is the issue of the deck lacking a three-drop. Domri Rade is a power card, but it doesn’t apply pressure. Wolfir Avenger has been proven many times to not be enough. Witchstalker is just a bad Wolfir Avenger. Pyrewild Shaman is fine but not exciting. Predator Ooze and Boros Reckoner are fairly uncastable with these mana bases, and Ooze is very bad against a metagame saturated with Tragic Slip.

We could add a color to our deck. Specifically, white provides a plethora of answers to Olivia and two great three-drops in Loxodon Smiter and Boros Reckoner. But that would mean cutting basic lands and taking damage from our own Burning Earth.

Oh wait—Manabarbs was actually a fine card when it didn’t have the potential lack of drawback. In fact, I even remember people playing it in their Naya Midrange decks in past Standard formats.

Assemble the Legion might be better as an assured threat, but five is a big jump from four. I can’t imagine that the zero played in these lists is definitively correct.

As for card choices, I prefer Josh’s list as a baseline. Huntmaster of the Fells seems much better than Restoration Angel with no synergies, and I want to be playing more live cards and fewer mana creatures. Also, maindeck Bonfire, not close.

I’m not sold on Ghor-Clan Rampager, but I’ve historically been overly skeptical of that card. Three seems like a very . . . mature number to start with.

Still, Max’s list has a few things I like. Most notably, I want more Scavenging Oozes, and I want non-sweeper removal to handle Olivia. Blasphemous Act can kill it, but I’m not excited to wrath my board to kill their one creature. I’m unsure if Selesnya Charm, Oblivion Ring, or Mizzium Mortars is the best option. Charm is the most flexible since it can be a proactive spell, but it allows Olivia to do the most damage before it can answer it and doesn’t handle Boros Reckoner. Oblivion Ring does everything but dies to the zero-to-two Abrupt Decays Jund Midrange plays. Mizzium Mortars is likely the worst because paying the overload cost is difficult and doesn’t kill Olivia after a single untap step, but it’s worth mentioning.

After writing this section, I noticed the following.

That’s what I’m talking about. Zealous Conscripts is another card I had not considered, but it fits well with the general bash them with Thundermaw Hellkite plan. There just have to be good targets for it, something which I am not quite sure of yet. Also, sideboard Blasphemous Act seems much more reasonable than maindeck. I’m not sure if Boros Reckoner / Blasphemous Act is just dreaming big or an actual game plan.

Level 3: Zero Burning Earths

What would it take for me to not play Burning Earth in this format?

Well, it starts with Lifebane Zombie.

Jeff’s head is in the right place. I’m not a huge fan of maindeck Mutilates with all these guys or only two Mutavaults, but the premise of awesome B/G creatures with a better curve spread than Jund Midrange seems great. Zombie is the cheaper two-for-one body that’s required to make this strategy work. Four copies in the maindeck is no accident.

One last aside on Standard: Hexproof is a pretty good deck, but people keep ignoring their mana curve when they build it. Gladecover Scout is a card I was not impressed with at first, but it helps the deck do things before hitting three mana. It also makes the full four copies of Spectral Flight a requirement, though it’s not like Fiendslayer Paladin doesn’t also do the same. Basically, Gift of Orzhova and Ajani, Caller of the Pride are not where it’s at.

Let’s take this back to some numbers. Jund Midrange has taken three slots in each of the Open Top 8s since M14 became legal. In these Top 8s, it is 5-2 outside of mirrors. At the Invitational, Jund Midrange was three out of ten of the X-1 Standard decks. At Grand Prix Calgary, Jund Midrange was the most played deck on day 1 (~14%), massively increased this share on day 2 (~24%), was five out of six of the undefeated day 1 decks, and the two copies in the Top 8 was almost below expectations.

My question: why are you not playing the best sideboard card against it?