Sullivan Library – Finding a New Ponza Deck

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Friday, October 10th – When new cards hit the Standard metagame, people scramble to showcase new ideas. Another school of thought sees deckbuilders fire up their old strategy favorites, checking what the new set brings to the established strategy buffet. Adrian revisits his well-loved Ponza theories today… can Shards add a little spice to the mix?

I always love it when people e-mail me on this site to bring up thoughts or questions that they are grappling with in their own quest to win at Magic. I know that I can’t always get back to everyone that writes, but I always read the mails and, when I can, I write back. Sometimes, though, someone brings up a very intriguing concept that inspires me to write something longer.

This time, it was Italian Vintage player Filippo Medri. He wrote me to bring up something that I found very intriguing — an old Italian list that I can best describe as a Gorilla Shaman/Crucible of Worlds quasi-midrange/quasi-aggro control Red deck that splashed into Blue. I shared it with a few Vintage players I know to get their sense of it, and one of them suggested that it probably was good in a narrow metagame where it got to prey on Workshop. Filippo’s only claim along this line was, in fact, that it was good against the TriniStax decks of the time. But what was more intriguing to me was his parallel between the concepts of Ponza and how this old deck played out. Since that one shining moment for this deck for Filippo, it has never again had the metagame that made its essential essence work like it did at that time. How, he wondered, does one take the mana denial he found so potent in that time of Crucible/Wasteland/Mox Monkey, and give it a new home?

How indeed?

I pondered the basic concepts of the deck, but it struck me that this was not akin to when I took a crack at Vintage a few years ago with The Sullivan Solution. At that moment in time, it struck me that there was a hole that a particular combination of cards could sneak into. Tommy Kolowith, Team ICBM in general, and others would take The Sullivan Solution into numerous tourneys with some real success for a short window that soon closed. Tommy would eventually revamp the deck into something new for a smidge more success, but the big difference between why SS succeeded and where it seemed like Filippo’s deck did well was that SS was exploiting a hole in the metagame, whereas Filippo’s deck was largely an anti-Workshop deck. As Filippo concedes in his e-mail, heavily controlling Mana Drain decks, fast Tinker, and even Chalice of the Void were all problematic, largely because the deck itself wasn’t well-equipped to handle them. The moment where things slipped, they slipped because the deck itself couldn’t handle a wide range of opponents and wasn’t potent enough to merely overpower them. Sometimes, then, there is no solution to such a problem, as much as we might want there to be. We simply have to wait for times to change again.

At times, we may want to build our deck in a certain way, but necessity forces us in a different direction. Sometimes this means that you’ll end up in a place that is really exciting; Eminent Domain came out of a desire to make a Ponza deck but not finding the tools to do so. Other times, you end up somewhere entirely different. You work and work and work on a deck, and just end up playing the deck you were playtesting against it, because it is so clearly powerful.

I discussed Filippo’s attempt to squash some of Ponza’s ideals back into a deck with ICBM head-man [email protected] DeGraff and he impressed upon me just how unlikely it would be to get it to go anywhere. Yes, mana-suppression and board control are great, but in a world of Moxen and Ancestrals, it can all just go to hell very, very quickly, and soon your Lightning Bolts will begin to look like Squires. Not so hot…

Still, though, it got me to thinking, what about Standard?

Standard Ponza musings

The last time I wrote about Ponza, I got into some of the classic concepts for why the deck can work. They are:

(1) Have enough mana disruption to keep your opponent off balance.
(2) Have enough burn to control a table or threaten to kill an opponent.
(3) Have mechanisms to convert excess land into threats.
(4) Have sufficient threats to end games where you have an edge.

These come with some parenthetical comments.

(A) Destroying every land is not necessary.
(B) “Terror”-like effects (FTK) don’t count, though they might be sufficient as threats.
(C) The key with land is that it should be backing up (1), above. If you have a stable manabase, you can further make the minor disruption be effective.
(D) It is rare that you can get away with no meat in your Ponza. If someone is on the ropes, you can’t mess around. You have to take them out.

Now, Ponza is traditionally defined as a mono-Red mana-controlling midrange burn deck (either more beatdown or more controlling, depending on the build). Much of that traditional definition as “mono-Red” is partly because of (3) and (C), above. Single color lands allowed you the luxury of playing all manner of non-color land that could convert land into threat, and single color lands allowed you to dodge various non-basic hate that might otherwise destabilize you. These days, there are very few ways to destabilize someone’s mana, so that is much less of a concern. Burn, though, is still very important. Much like converting land into threats is a big deal, converting creature kill into player-kill is also a big deal; that’s why descriptions like “mono-Black Ponza” simply don’t make any sense with the current card pool. Maybe some day, they might. But not now.

What this means for the now is that it is possible to begin exploring the archetype in a non-mono-Red way, but it remains that if you’re going to go down this path, you can’t play with multiple colors the way that many decks do. If it becomes possible to color-screw yourself, you’re definitely going in the wrong direction. Stability is a key to the archetype.

The Baseline

So, what are the baseline cards to go to? A quick hunting for cards to work with for mana control shows a pretty sparse list if we stay Red-heavy:

Fulminator Mage
Poison the Well
Icy Manipulator
Incendiary Command
Deus of Calamity
Warp World

YIKES. That ain’t so good. If we stretch into other reachable colors, we can also include a few other cards… I’m not going to lie, I’m not excited about many of them. Ajani Vengeant might be of some use. While it’s possible that Realm Razer and Violent Ultimatum could also have something valuable to add, they will add yet more strain to your mana, potentially be stranded there, and look very unexciting when potentially facing down a Cryptic Command.

As for these other mana-control cards, I think we can whittle that down pretty quickly. Cryoclasm seems like it is probably too narrow, by far, to be worth playing. The poor man’s Pillage, Demolish, seems deeply underpowered. Warp World really demands that you build a deck around it. That leaves us with a few cards that are worth considering.

Fulminator Mage. He still is often a bad Stone Rain. Interestingly, though, he is only rarely unable to activate his ability. This means that you can get the Stone Rain effect that you are somewhat looking for, but also, against opponents where a Stone Rain might be less meaningful, you are also able to get either a reverse Sakura-Tribe Elder effect, or at least, simply a man. This is likely to definitely make the cut.

Poison the Well. Conversely, this card, while less flexible than Demolish, at least can kill an opponent. That said, it’s still deeply, deeply limited. It will almost certainly not make the cut, but it is closer than most of them.

Icy Manipulator. The question of Icy is always a sticky one. Once amazing, then bad, then good, and now back in bad land, Icy’s effect can be incredibly debilitating for an opponent in some situations, and deeply underwhelming in others. Icy, like its weaker cousin Trip Noose, can take care of a problematic critter for a good long while, and importantly, can also double as a means to deny mana very aggressive, especially if we touch into White for Ajani Vengeant. This is a real contender.

Incendiary Command. This card is no Cryptic Command. That said, it is still pretty compelling. Like Poison the Well, you can kill your opponent with it, but unlike that card, you can actually do some significant damage. Pyroclasm, as an effect, is still very reasonable, and you can definitely find yourself using it to knock out land. It’s certainly possible that this card might make the cut, though unlikely.

Deus of Calamity. This card can totally take control of a game, supplying both meat and disruption, but it does find itself competing against some worthy opponents. Is it possible to justify Deus when Demigod is out there? When Siege-Gang Commander is playable? I see this as a possibility, but probably a card that will hang out on the sidelines…

Other elements of the baseline have to involve the clear auto-includes. These are the cards that we’ll probably call “no-brainers”. As I can see it, there aren’t that many that simply demand that they see play. Figure of Destiny, Flame Javelin, and Incinerate are about it (and even Incinerate may not be ‘good enough’). If we add that to our Fulminator Mages, we have the following:

4 Figure of Destiny
4 Fulminator Mage
4 Incinerate
4 Flame Javelin

24+ land
20- spells

That is a lot of space to fill up. The next step may be seeing if we can find any crust that is worthy. Shards give us maybe some Panorama. Meh. There is a little more out of Lorwyn Block: potentially multiple color mana (as a big maybe), Mutavault, and Spinerock Knoll. All of those cards will have to work to justify themselves. Even Mutavault can be difficult in a deck with Flame Javelin and Figure of Destiny, not to mention the possibility of Deus or Demigod. Tenth Edition adds in Ghitu Encampment, which is not at all unreasonable. However far you may stray from mono-Red, it is important to remember that you need to have your deck built such that you are deeply unlikely to be screwed by your mana ever. Nearly every mana that you include has to fulfill this space. The cost can simply be too great, turning Demigods of Revenge into effectively six- or seven-mana spells is simply unacceptable, as is failing to kill an opponent because your lands come into play tapped too often, or you don’t have the Red necessary to pump your Figure and throw down a Javelin. Tread lightly, the farther you stray from mono…

Where do we go from here, though? With the barest amount of effort, we can simply make a mono-Red, fairly traditional Demigod of Revenge deck. What are our incentives for not doing that? While we may or may not be a Demigod deck in the end, what is more important is to ask “why Fulminator Mage?” Where can we go to make that choice useful, and not merely a liability?

The first thing to consider is the value that can be gained from moving into midrange. By being more controlling of the opponents mana, you can perhaps keep Reveillark from simply overwhelming you. In a lot of ways, this points to the possibility of playing both Icy and Incendiary. That’s a lot to consider for your virtual five-slot. Icy becomes all the more exciting in multiples, so going down this path all but demands four copies. Somewhat problematic in both cases, though, is the susceptibility to the omnipresent Cryptic Command.

The only answer that seems possible to me is either sneaking in under Cryptic Command with mana acceleration (Mind Stone?) or pushing through it with Vexing Shusher. Shusher seems to be the more potent of the two options, but it does make Incendiary Command more questionable. Conundrums, conundrums. Further, we really do want to get some more threats in there, underneath that window of Command, or overcoming Command. After some brainstorming, let’s look at what’s there, so far:

4 Figure of Destiny
1 Ashling the Pilgrim — (weak) Figure #5
4 Vexing Shusher
4 Fulminator Mage
4 Demigod of Revenge
4 Incinerate
4 Flame Javelin
4 Incendiary Command
4 Ghitu Encampment
22 other Red mana

This leaves five slots open to do something with. For me, I’ve always been a fan of damage. What might we cast that could have some use in that regard:

Resounding Thunder
Flameblast Dragon
Beacon of Destruction
Siege-Gang Commander
Flame Jab
Titan’s Revenge
Puncture Blast
Rekindled Flame
Chandra Nalaar
Ajani Vengeant
Brion Stoutarm

Hmm… It almost seems as though the way one could go might be some kind of strange Ajani/Brion combo. Certainly the mana is there to support it, if you wanted to. I think that I might instead, though, go in a little more conservative way, fitting in yet more burn:

4 Figure of Destiny
1 Ashling the Pilgrim
4 Vexing Shusher
4 Fulminator Mage
4 Demigod of Revenge
4 Incinerate
4 Puncture Blast
4 Flame Javelin
4 Incendiary Command
3 Ghitu Encampment
3 Spinerock Knoll
21 Mountain

The last inclusion of the Puncture Blast lead me into the Knolls as a means to acquire a free card, but also as a way to potentially extend reach. As far as Ponza decks go, I’d almost have to describe this as a Ground Hamburger Ponza – this deck is leaning a little more towards the meat (critters) and less on the sauce and cheese (mana control and burn). The name is also apt in the sense that the deck really doesn’t seem to have that much taste to it, as well. I may be, though, the direction that the deck needs to go. With testing, it might be possible that the deck will simply look like a more typical Red deck, sans mana control, or it may be that it will find that touching into White for Ajani Vengeant to join Icy Manipulator might actually have huge benefits.

As it stands, I feel as though the deck is fair. It needs something though to give it that little bit of spice. Truly good Ponzas should feel like they have something nummy going on that draws you into wanting to have it. Maybe there is some ingredient I’m missing that might make it just right… What do you think? What might that be?

Half a million words later: An afterward

Almost eleven years ago, I qualified for the Pro Tour with the Baron Harkonnen, the original Blue/Green Control deck that Eric “Dinosaur” Taylor then advocated was the first new deck archetype to appear in a long time. It was the beginning of a glorious time in a lot of ways. In the aftermath of that deck, a lot happened. I formed Cabal Rogue as a think tank of like-minded outside-the-box thinkers as a means to collect together some of the more creative people in the game. Around this time, many of us were individually gathering the notice of that old classic of Magic thinking and journalism, The Dojo (or, as it was known originally, The Magic Dojo), and I began some of my first high-profile writing about the game. My first piece was called “Crediting the Deck Designers,” yoinked by founder Frank Kusumoto from the internet at large as a feature article for “The Best of the Net.” Eventually, this would lead into actively written articles and columns that have been in nearly every English-language Magic publication that has ever been. (Thanks, Frank!)

The other day, one reader let me know that this column would mark my crossing over a big threshold: 500,000 words in my many articles. This revelation largely floored me. I don’t have the exact figures, but once I included my writing in various print magazines over the years along with work online, it does seem to be pretty likely. I just wanted to take this moment to share with you my pride in that accomplishment, and to thank all of you who have read my work since its early humble beginnings, those of you who are just discovering it now, and everyone in between.

After half a million words, I think I’m going to take a short rest. I’ll be back in a few weeks, but for now, I’m going to reward myself with some time, and enjoy it. I’ll see some of you this weekend, as I try to make a run on another PTQ and make it back to the Big Show again.

Thanks everybody!