Sullivan Library – Fires for Standard

The Star City $5,000 Standard Open comes to Charlotte, NC!
Morningtide is here, and the new cards are kicking up a stink in Constructed formats across the world. While everyone tries to shoehorn the latest chase rares into their Standard decks, there’s a little uncommon Artifact that can perhaps resurrect a long forgotten archetype. The card? Obsidian Battle-Axe. The archetype? Fires…

It’s crazy how long it has been since the Pro Tour: Chicago that I worked with “Cobra Kai,” a little team put together, largely, by Scott Johns. We put one player, Zvi Mowshowitz, into the Top 8, no mean feat. And, if I do say so myself, “My Fires” was the best Fires deck in the Top 8, with Kibler’s no-Fires Fires being the only deck I consider worthy of comparison. (Heck, I did say so…).

Working on that deck was a lot of fun. I ended up playing Chevy Blue, updating the deck I played at U.S. Nationals that year. I don’t remember much about the process of working on My Fires, other than lots of playtesting session with Seth Burn. The two big innovations of My Fires really set it apart. The most important one (put forth, I think by either Brian Selden or Jacob “Danger” Janoska) was to remove River Boa from the deck. That innovation made the mirror absolutely insanely good. The second innovation, put forth by Seth Burn during playtesting in a bar (a place he claimed was fantastic because they had free, terrible food) was the inclusion of Two-Headed Dragon.

The thing about minor changes to archetypes that are already under general exploration is that they can have profound effects. Fires decks had the same general behavior at first glance, but a closer examination would show how differently they performed. You couldn’t actually just eyeball it, though. You actually had to test it.

Some changes would make a deck all the more resilient against, say, a Wrath of God. Or another change might impact how it performed in the mirror. Or a change might impact how it would hold up against some particular commonly played sideboard card. Decks could and would resist you, and no matter how powerful yours might be, another approach might have been all the better.

Still, though, when we look at historical decks, they often have something to show us as the world rotates back into a space where they are again relevant. Take My Fires:

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Fires of Yavimaya
4 Chimeric Idol
3 Jade Leech
4 Blastoderm
4 Saproling Burst
3 Two-Headed Dragon
4 Assault/Battery
1 Earthquake

10 Forest
5 Mountain
4 Karplusan Forest
4 Rishadan Port
2 Dust Bowl

This deck has some lessons to show us when we think about porting this archetype into the now. And the card that makes that possible? Obsidian Battle-Axe.

The Axe is very nearly Fires of Yavimaya, in many ways. Its ability to give haste is clearly more limited, but you can always build your deck to best take advantage of its limitations. It’s not as though Warriors are all bad. Heck, the new chase card, Countryside Crusher, is a Warrior (and a Giant!). Sure, we can’t sacrifice the Axe to save a creature if we need to, but the bonus from the Axe hits right away. That’s definitely worth noting. If anything, the hardest thing about the Axe is that it doesn’t give us the ability to do a hasty Bird/Elf chain without losing mana. While a loss, it isn’t a devastating one.

And what are our notable Warriors? There are quite a few…

Bramblewood Paragon
Battlewand Oak
Countryside Crusher
Vengeful Firebrand
Allosaurus Rider
Civic Wayfinder
Dauntless Dourbark
Gathan Raiders
Gilt-Leaf Ambush
Imperious Perfect
Keldon Marauders
Mirri, Cat Warrior
Radha, Heir to Keld
Stonebrow, Krosan Hero
Timber Protector
Unstoppable Ash
Wren’s Run Packmaster
Wren’s Run Vanquisher

These creatures are all worth considering on their pure Warrior-ness. It’s interesting to note that there is clearly a strong “Elf”-line here, though one could also go elsewhere. A Treefolk theme might be worth exploring. Another way to go might be to explore the “weenie” side of things. I could also see the classic “Big Fires” archetype, represented by My Fires and the generally canonized Fires of the Pro Tour: Chicago era.

Frustratingly, I was unable to find one of the weenie Fires lists that I could use to step on. I was mostly thinking about Manchester Sy’s Fires of Yavimaya deck that he used to win Midwest Regionals and Mike Hron used to win Wisconsin States. This list emphasized itself as largely a Red/Green beatdown deck that included Fires of Yavimaya. Raging Kavu epitomizes the list: a deck that was insistent on getting in the damage, and had the Fires as an afterthought.

Still, though, the list of Warriors, above, needs buttressing. We mustn’t forget the Changelings. Some of these fit particularly well:

Chameleon Colossus
Changeling Berserker
Changeling Titan
Taurean Mauler

These four spring to mind because of their relative power. Berserker, like Vengeful Firebrand, comes equipped with its own haste. While this can be pretty impressive, it also reduces the relative power of the cards once the Battle-Axe is out. We pay our four mana to get that Haste. It’s costed with it in mind. When the haste comes of its own accord, it seems less potent. Though, this does still allow us to not rely on the Axe. Especially with the Berserker (with only one creature), this can mean that whether we view it as the Axe’s power being reduced, or the Berserkers. Either way, something is being reduced.

In every build however, I think that we need to look at the following starting place:

4 Llanowar Elves
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Obsidian Battle-Axe
22+ Land

Looking at old lists of Fires decks, these were nearly always these 34 slots. If we were running a “pure” four-of list, that would make us have eight slots to go with. The essential power of Fires of Yavimaya was enough that it would encourage this bases for every build. Battle-Axe seems similarly powerful. Let’s look at some potential “suites” of cards for the deck.

The “Weenie” Suite

4 Keldon Marauder
4 Countryside Crusher
4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
x Bramblewood Paragon
4 Taurean Mauler
4 Tarmogoyf
x Elim

Here, we’re looking pretty low on the curve. Despite the fact that it isn’t an Elf, including Tarmogoyf feels like a pretty “nu-duh” inclusion. We have to recognize Tarmogoyf’s sheer power, even if it doesn’t fit into our mold of “Warriors for Obsidian-Axe.” Tarmogoyf, however, doesn’t hold back the model of Warriors any more than an inclusion of Incinerate.

If we think about what this deck might be able to do, imagine the turn 2 Axe, followed by a Keldon Marauder. The Marauder does its one, swings for 5, untaps swings for 5, untaps, and blows up for 1. That’s a lot of damage.

Looking at “the Big Boys”, classic Fires suite:

2? Radha, Heir to Keld (for further acceleration)
4 Chameleon Colossus
x Wren’s Run Packmaster (which would require a little bit of help…)
3-4 Changeling Titan
0-3 Stonebrow, Krosan Hero
x Elim
x “filler” Warrior creatures

Going up to five on the curve is pretty high, but the Changeling Titan sure does become a lot saucier when it turns your Birds of Paradise into a 9/8, haste creature. Stonebrow, not typically a card that I would pay all that much attention to, begins to look a lot saucier when it becomes a 8/7, trampling haster.

Whereas the Weenie Suite attempts to play a lot of fast men, the Classic Fires style deck attempt to play creatures that are merely overwhelming. Turn 2, Obsidian Battle-Axe, followed by Turn 3 Chameleon Colossus is pretty scary. Against many opponents, that would be more than enough to go the distance. Chameleon Colossus is especially impressive because of its double resistance to a card like Eyeblight’s Ending, not to mention the general difficulty of burning it out (compounded by an Axe).

This version begins to touch into the Elf Suite:

4 Imperious Perfect
4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
4 Wren’s Run Packmaster

There is a lot of space left to fill in here. This version seems to beg the question of how far into Elves one would want to go. Elves encourages exploration of Black. Black fails to really provide any exciting Warriors, but it does provide both Eyeblight’s Ending and Nameless Inversion (both “Elves”, and the Inversion a “Warrior”) and makes Profane Command something truly worth considering. Never worth forgetting, as well, is Shriekmaw, which might not be able to pick up an Axe for free, but nonetheless can be pretty potent when carrying one.

The Perfect, even in a non-Elf build, is incredibly exciting. Turn 2 Perfect or Axe, followed by Turn 3, the other one — regardless of which way you go, you can be attacking with a 4/3 token Elf Warrior on Turn 3. That’s something that all by itself seems exciting.

Going down this path, one needs to be reminded that if you are going to be an Axe Elf deck, you really do want to be trying to maximize the numbers of Warriors you could have. Your creatures do not have to be only Elf Warriors, but you need to remember how the powers of your cards will build on each other if you lean this way more heavily.

It is the same way with Treefolk, albeit with more heavy hitters that seem almost obvious:

4 Battlewand Oak
4 Dauntless Dourbark
4 Chameleon Colossus

3-4 Timber Protector

Here, it seems worthwhile to push more into the Treefolk theme. Depending on your preferences, you might even want to go with a card like Yavimaya Dryad to make your ability find Murmuring Bosk all the greater. This, in turn, could lead to supporting a Doran, the Siege Tower.

The limitation that seems inherent to the Treefolk build is its huge reliance on Forest. A card like Dourbark can be incredibly huge, and all the more exciting when backed up by haste. That said, it feels wanting. You very nearly have to go into cards like Doran, which will probably take you away from the power of a Dourbark. My gut feels that this is not the way to go.

What is probably the way to go is to marry some of the powerful elements of each of the decks together. Add in the small element of Elves, to take advantage of the Perfect, and potentially the Black mana.

Here is one marriage of types:

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Llanowar Elves
3 Wren’s Run Packmaster
4 Imperious Perfect
4 Chameleon Colossus
4 Nameless Inversion
2 Changeling Titan
2 Profane Command
4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
4 Obsidian Battle-Axe
25 Land

This version merges the Elf Suite with a Classic Fires Suite. It has the ability to really pound in with a single big creature, or to swarm out with a bunch of weenies. While still a beta version of a decklist, there is a lot of room to work with the deck in ways that could hone this kind of version.

Compare that to a Weenie Rush Suite mixed with Elves:

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Llanowar Elves
1 Radha, Heir to Keld
4 Obsidian Battle-Axe
4 Keldon Marauder
4 Countryside Crusher
4 Taurean Mauler
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Spitebellows
2 Garruk Wildspeaker
2 Disintegrate
24 Land

This deck is more concerned with playing things fast, whether or not an Axe is out. The deck largely stays below the three mana mark to make use of an active Crusher, and can use Birds and Elves to get above that mana mark if need be. Here, Spitebellows can play the role of Flametongue Kavu and Assault/Battery, and though certainly not as good as FTK, it does seem like a potent answer to most creatures.

Overall, thinking about the Obsidian Battle-Axe, it is clear that it has limitations that constrain it in ways that Fires of Yavimaya did not have. In the one example, cutting Tarmogoyf was a decision that I made to try to make the Battle-Axe more powerful in the deck. This is pretty radical, and could even be incredibly wrong. But, the deck somewhat demanded that I have more Warriors, and I think it is worth cutting the creature simply because of Zac Hill famous critique: “When it comes right down to it, it is just a creature with power and toughness.” While he’s right, of course, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a card of such incredible power, it is worth considering it as potentially the best creature in Magic.

But remember our lesson from the past. River Boa, at the time of Pro Tour: Chicago, was easily one of the best creatures in the game. Its combination of abilities for its casting cost were remarkable, and far and away higher than most other creatures in the game at that moment.

And it was cut from “My Fires.” It just didn’t help the deck win.

Good luck this weekend, for anyone PTQing. I’ll be in Madison, trying to take home an invite. I just might be playing Tarmogoyf. But we’ll see…

Adrian Sullivan