Sullivan Library – Ponza in the Post-Shadowmoor Standard

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Thursday, April 10th – Land Destruction… insidious resource denial that’s alienated players since the initial printing of Stone Rain. Today’s Sullivan Library looks at the classic Ponza-style LD route, and brings it up to date with an all-new sheen and polish! Including some of the funkier Shadowmoor cards, does LD finally have a chance to shine again?

Building speculative decks can be a tricky business. We still don’t have “verified” spoiler lists for Shadowmoor. This can be a huge deal. I can’t remember the details of the last card that I tried to build around that didn’t really exist or work like I had wanted it to, but I do remember many instances of “back to the drawing board” moments once the spoiler did come out. Playing it somewhat safe can be a useful way, then, to speculatively build. We know that most of the old archetypes will continue to exist, even if they get updated. The nullification of the validity of deck archetypes will usually take at least a little while. Even if Pro Tour: Hollywood will reveal new decks and new ideas, it won’t reveal them on the very day that Shadowmoor is legal, and it can be enjoyable to be able to actually start playing interesting decks with the new cards ASAP.

So, I turn to an oldie-but-goodie archetype, Ponza, to explore now. As the spoiler continues to get fleshed out, what one might want to put in a Ponza deck might change, but the basic outline will likely remain the same. We just have to make sure that when we build an archetype we stick to it. Truly new archetypes often don’t work, and while revamps of old archetypes also often don’t work, they often work a little more.

The Nature of Ponza

When people think Ponza, a lot of people think dedicated land destruction. This is wrong. You don’t want to be a dedicated land destruction deck. As the wise Elihu Feustel once said, the problem with LD is that once your opponent lays that land that gets them out of it, it’s like you never even cast any LD spells. When Brian Kowal first pioneered this archetype back in Tempest Block, working off of the base of Wakefield-style Red, I think that he took Elihu’s words to heart.

The idea of land destruction in Ponza is that you want it to keep your opponent off balance while you do something else. The key ingredients are referred to as the Meat, the Cheese, the Crust, and the Sauce. The Meat is your collection of hard-hitting creatures. The Cheese is the potent burn. The Crust is a large manabase that is flexible when you flood (man-lands, and other uses). The Sauce is that bit of mana denial that gives the deck its zing.

This little convention isn’t just a cute way to talk about the archetype. It’s actually a useful guidepost to keeping you on track with an archetype which can easily get you sidetracked otherwise. Near relatives to Ponza will behave differently. Early Red Deck Wins (during Rishadan Port/Wasteland times) behaved much like Ponza decks with only tiny bits of Meat and a thin Crust. In the time since that deck has evolved, it has gone crustless. These little things mean it’s a poor fit into the Ponza mold, and make it something else. I know Kowal called Johnny Walker Red a Ponza variant (without the Sauce), and I could see that argument. The thing is, when building an “off”-Ponza deck like Eminent Domain, trying to tie yourself to what a Ponza deck wants will just hamstring you.

A Ponza deck tends to be a more controlling mid-range deck. Versus control decks, it will be positioned as the beatdown, but versus most other decks it is positioned as the control deck, even most other mid-range decks. A Ponza deck will generally win, then, either by sneaking in damage as it controls the game, and then ending it in a hail of fire, or by completely devastating your table, and killing you while it has something around do finish the job.

Over time, I’ve learned that the key is in the careful application of Sauce.

Preparing the Sauce

As I stated earlier, making your sauce uber-spicy with, say, twenty land destruction spells, is just a recipe for disaster. What you do need is a solid three-drop land destruction spell. As you might have noticed, there really wasn’t anything around to make that happen… until just recently, when the MagictheGathering.com confirmed the existence of Fulminator Mage.

For those of you not aware of what it is, I’ll repeat the spoiled card:

Fulminator Mage 1{BR}{BR}
Creature — Elemental Shaman
Sacrifice Fulminator Mage: Destroy target nonbasic land.

This is not a Pillage or a Molten Rain. In some ways it is better, and in some ways it is worse. It is, in this environment, better than Stone Rain. Or at least that’s what my gut says to me. The late-game Elihu Feustel situation of “dead LD” will never happen. Even if you’re only getting a Grey Ogre, it’s still a body that can attack. Given the mana situation that seems to be happening in today’s environment, when they do deal with it, it is still likely to be able to take out a land.

Still, though, it does feel like perhaps there should be an extra bit of oomph in the Sauce department. The options are pretty limited. The only ones that really seem reasonable are Avalanche Riders, Magus of the Moon, and Icefall. Each of these has their ups and down. For right now, though, I’m thinking that it is worth exploring Avalanche Riders as a kind of Molten Rain. Remember the advice of Kurtis “Fat Man” Hahn: echo is for chumps. Only pay that echo cost if you don’t foresee having something better to do. (All of this debate aside, a part of me keeps wondering if maybe Shivan Wumpus is the way to go… but that card is usually “bad”…)

This gives us:

4 Fulminator Mage
4 Avalanche Riders

Choosing the Cheese

Choosing good Cheese is important because it is a large part of your incentives to play a deck like this. Cheese is a part of your way to hold down the table. The right amount of Cheese will also enable you to defeat control decks, largely because, properly chosen, you can sneak it in, bit by bit, and just kill them with it.

The place that it seems most reasonable to start right now is with four Sulfurous Blast. Both Elf decks and Faerie decks largely have the ability to drop out a huge amount of creatures that you’ll need to deal with. Sulfurous Blast will usually act as a Wrath of God that can potentially be case at an Instant speed. It often has the ability to finish of a Garruk as well. Even in the non-creature matchups, adding another three damage to the dome can be a great thing as well.

Mogg Fanatic and Incinerate also serve as great burn spells here. Mogg Fanatic is your walking Seal of Ping. Just having another way to kill that early Llanowar Elf, the ability to set up yet another potential two-for-one trade from your critters (along with Darwin and Fulminator Mage), and even a teeny-tiny clock is a valuable thing. Incinerate is just the baseline burn spell for the moment, incredibly efficient and powerful.

The deck could still probably use a little more, though. We have to think about this environmentally. What are we going to want to have when a Mistbind Clique hits the table? Good lord, he’s a big monster. There are two real options: the death of all Faeries in play, or burn (in singular or combination) capable of killing the Clique before the Faerie deck untaps. This is actually a really big problem. A Scion will require killing before the Clique. A counter of some kind can really make a two-burn attempt go to crap. Even sweeping the table clear might not work if they have a certain Faerie Enchantment out on the table.

Some small number of Beacon of Destruction might do the job, able to kill of a Clique and being a significant threat to someone’s dome. It is still a kind of expensive spell. Smaller burn spells seem like a poor option, though. We’d really love a Violent Eruption, but despite how often I check the Standard-legal list, the closest card I get to that is Fiery Temper.

The card that I’ve decided might be the one I’m looking for is Sudden Shock. Yes, this means that I’ll be agreeing to a two-for-one from the Clique. But it has other advantages. It actually can help set up the situation where the Clique just wipes itself out. As a Split Second spell, it can also take out a key creature that that player was counting on. In addition, it has a lot of use in fighting against Elves. When taking on a Clique directly, you can point the initial damage at the Clique, and if it isn’t stopped, then the Sudden Shock will definitely finish it off, barring Willbender or some other incredibly unlikely spell. Finally, versus a control player, access to Split Second can just wrap up the end of a game. I’m not sure about three or four, but somewhere in there seems right. To help out this burn package, I’m also considering potentially two Beacon of Destruction.

A lot of people are probably wondering about Shard Volley. This is definitely a no-no for a Ponza deck. Ponza decks want to be doing something with their mana. Sacrificing it is generally a bad call, just to get another Incinerate effect. Back in the day, Ponza didn’t run Fireblast… You often just had something more important to do with your mana.

This gives us:

4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Incinerate
4 Sulfurous Blast
3-4 Sudden Shock
0/2 Beacon of Destruction

Now, time to try to find some meat.

The Meat

We definitely want something that is going to be able to hit, and hit hard. I still keep thinking about that potential Shivan Wumpus, but in the end, it just runs into the LD problem. A late-game Shivan Wumpus is just a bad Stone Rain every turn. Boo. So what cards might make reasonable meat?

Here’s my short list:

Ashling the Pilgrim
Countryside Crusher
Volcano Hellion
Demigod of Revenge
Siege-Gang Commander
Magus of the Arena
Shivan Dragon
Bogardan Hellkite
Akroma, Angel of Fury
Greater Gargadon

Let’s go into them…

Ashling the Pilgrim — Now playing the Pilgrim is actually a really interesting proposition. It can be dropped on the table incredibly early, can be used as another sweep spell. This is actually pretty exciting to me, though I’m unsure how many should be run. Probably 0/3/4?

Countryside Crusher — This card can potentially rival Tarmogoyf in size very quickly, even without any real help. It’s cheap cost is another potential benefit. It does, however, make the idea of running the more expensive spells a semi-risky proposition… 0/4.

Volcano Hellion — I like this guy a lot. Like the Pilgrim, he can provide yet more removal. 6/5 is nothing to slouch at. The problem is that he could be largely dead in some matchups. My guess is that he’s either a small inclusion to a deck, or won’t make it. 0/2.

Demigod of Revenge — I love this card. I really do. But, I don’t think it accomplishes anything for the deck. In order to get any real use out of it, you’d probably want to be running a full set of four, and then you’ll still need to get RRRRR. This does make Mutavault a potential liability, and I expect that you’ll definitely want 4 Vault. 0.

Siege-Gang Commander — Wow. Now here’s a guy that I can get behind. While not a huge meaty meatball, he is a huge helping of bacon spread all over the place. Like the Pilgrim and the Hellion, he can be used to mop up the table. While expensive and thus vulnerable to counters, the little army that he raises up can be incredibly problematic. I expect that this card will probably make the cut, though maybe not. 0/3/4.

Hostility — I really like this guy as well. A hasty (and castable) monster, he can turn your burn spells into an army. He is, however, very expensive. Without evasion, he can easily turn into “edict guy”. This guy might be worth it, but I find myself doubting it. 0-2.

Magus of the Arena — What I like about this guy is that he can tear a chunk out of the best cards in your opponent’s world, every turn. Things can guy awry if they play pump or Nameless Inversion, though. In addition, the mana investment to get a use out of him strikes me as somewhat problematic. Probably not good enough. 0.

Shivan Dragon — An old classic. I’ve never really found this guy good enough to be included in a Ponza deck, myself, but I know that other people have loved him. The thing that makes me doubt him is Bitterblossom. Not only is he a slow man, but a single Bitterblossom makes him look silly. 0.

Bogardan Hellkite — This guy is expensive. I love that he can sweep the table or dome the opponent, but eight mana is nothing to sneeze at. If the deck runs Crusher, I think it is almost certainly not good enough. Even if it doesn’t, I have my doubts. My gut says 0.

Akroma, Angel of Fury — I love Akroma for a lot of reasons. One of them is trample. Trample matters a lot in a world of Bitterblossoms. Protection from Blue is also nice, given you an out against Sower of Temptation that another card like Hostility doesn’t have. Overall, even though this guy is expensive, you can still toss him down as a Morph (almost begging the question for other cards, like Zoetic Cavern). Definitely worth considering. 0-2.

Greater Gargadon — I do like this card a lot, but even in combination with Crusher, I don’t think that this card makes much sense. It will just take too long for it to be getting out there, and you need to be able to sack things to it to make it particularly useful. 0.

The place that I think I’d feel like starting with is Crusher-based. This fills in four slots. The Crusher is just a fast monster that can really get out of hand fast, especially if being helped out by burn to clear the path. A part of me can imagine that this might be better as a Siege-Gang Commander, but I think I’d start with Crusher.

A part of me is still interested in porting over the Shell-Game Red ideas from Block to make the Akroma even more scary. As a one-of, I don’t think that the Akroma will ever get in the way, especially since it can be dropped as a 2/2, but it can accomplish tasks that many cards simply cannot. That’s good enough for me.

The remaining slots I’m going to fill with Ashling. He really does demand an answer, or he’ll become an insane threat. An unblocked Ashling with six mana means a whole ton of damage. The only thing that is really important to remember is that you can’t keep growing the Ashling if you intend to ever blow up the world, lest you potentially kill yourself in the bomb-blast as well. Ashling, like Crusher, also serves as an important potential survivor to a Sulfurous Blast.

Selecting the Crust

Coming off Johnny Walker Red, I have some pretty good ideas of what the base of the mana should look like. To throw people off (for fear of Skred), I’d probably include Snow-Covered Mountains. Once it is peppered with other funky lands, you’d have this:

11 Snow-Covered Mountain
3 Ghitu Encampment
4 Mutavault
3 Zoetic Cavern
1 Pendelhaven
1 Kher Keep
2 Keldon Megalith
3 Mind Stone

This manabase is packed full of ways to hurt the opponent. While I’d prefer to have three more land, the existence of Sulfurous Blast and Countryside Crusher really do encourage the inclusion of Mind Stone, both to accelerate into a Blast, and to potentially feed you some mana when you need more and you have a Crusher out. In non-Akroma builds of the deck, I’d probably go down to two Zoetic Cavern, but your mileage may vary.

Looking at the whole package

4 Fulminator Mage
4 Avalanche Riders
4 Sulfurous Blast
4 Incinerate
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Sudden Shock
1 Akroma, Angel of Fury
3 Ashling the Pilgrim
4 Countryside Crusher
3 Mind Stone
11 Snow-Covered Mountain
3 Ghitu Encampment
4 Mutavault
3 Zoetic Cavern
1 Pendelhaven
1 Kher Keep
2 Keldon Megalith

It’s certainly possible that the inclusion of four Avalanche Riders (or any, for that matter) might be too much. Perhaps the deck might be happier with Magus of the Moon, but I hesitate to make a Magus deck with Sulfurous Blast. Each of the rest of the creatures at least has had a good chance to be useful during the raining down of sulfur. If that slot were to go away, one space I can imagine going is to also drop out the Crushers, and instead go to a mana-heavy (with Coalition Relic and such) deck that also ran the Siege-Gang Commander, a la Johnny Walker Red. Powering out a fast and active Siege-Gang is always good, and the extra mana can’t hurt the Pilgrim.

The sideboard would take some considering. If Vexing Shusher, the uncounterable and uncounterable-making Goblin, exists, it might warrant inclusion of some number into the main, and would probably be a reasonable card to have access to four. Molten Disaster serves as a great card against not-Faeries. Pithing Needle is a good catch-all. An extra Akroma or two can be great against the right deck. Furnace of Rath is worth thinking about in the face of more dedicated life-gain (or as a ballsy answer to Dragon’s Claw). And, who knows, perhaps Shadowmoor will see us with yet more options for the board.

I’m excited about Hollywood, and you can bet that I will definitely be looking at a deck like this, even if I’m also looking at a million other decks. I hope that you find this Ponza update as exciting as I do.

Until next week!

Adrian Sullivan